Monday, 27 August 2012

the [un]healthy cult of youth and the old church welcome chestnut

It's an expressed wish, a  catch-phrase, a mantra.
It's a cry of the heart, no more than lip-service, and everything in-between.
It's missional, a sticking-plaster, and perhaps oddly vampiric.
It's a gaping hole, the missing link, the holy grail.
It features on most parish profiles as a need, is ever-present at General Assembly, and if we don't have 'it', we are warned by the sayers of doom that will shuffle into oblivion.

'It' being all wrapped up in the ubiquitous
'we want more children and young people in church'.
Do we?
And what do we plan to 'do' with them?
Have we asked them?
Do we consult this longed for target group when we imagine and prepare fabulous programmes?  [to be fair, sometimes, yes]
Do we mutter darkly about them and their 'priorities' and 'lack of commitment' in our disappointment when they don't eagerly come rushing along to participate?
'They should come!'
'We like to have them in the church'
Are they trophies?
'We like to see them, them'
Hmmm, but not hear them, not be distracted if they are moving about 'more than is really quite acceptable'
Are we actually prepared to welcome them and accommodate ourselves to their needs, I wonder, even if that means the way liturgy is structured, or furniture and equipment might need to be changed?  
Given the prevalence of 'you're in my pew' horror stories when it comes to visitors who are adults, are we prepared to make any type of accommodation to those who are 'not actually us'?
How do we go about being even a little tiny bit more better at just welcoming folk into the kirk should they dare to venture across what can be a daunting threshold?

I do not deny that in various pockets of the wider church that it would appear that the church has a dearth of children and youth.  But I wonder why we are so fixated on this particular age group?
They are not the only generation missing.
Where are the 20 and 30-somethings?
Or folk in their 40's and even 50's?
We are missing several generations - children, and those of parent and grandparent age.

I am not saying we shouldn't want to have children and young people in church; I'm puzzled over why we are focusing upon just them almost to the exclusion of every other generation?
Occasionally, I wonder if it is about energy, and conversely, about tiredness.
Underneath the expressed wish, is there a desire to hand over the ever-increasing, ever-exhausting burden of looking after the fabric of a building which can become the all-consuming focus of a congregation?
Are we imprisoned by buildings which are called 'church', and yet, are merely stone and mortar? 

Perhaps a little missional balance and re-prioritising is in order.
I am not sure I know what the solution is; I do know, however, I never felt freer and more 'church' in the flesh and bone manner as when I was working within a congregation that wasn't shackled by the constraints of a building and which met in the local high school.

This is not a rant.  I am just trying to work some thoughts out in my small, tired brain concerning approaches to mission.  We do need to go beyond the plaintive 'we need children and young people' however and work out how to engage with that great diverse huge bunch of humanity beyond the kirk doors... oh, and while we're at it, might we also stop fixating about who falls in love with whom?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

swimming across the Tiber

View from the balcony, Apostolic Palace, the Vatican
Drookit student, balcony of Apostolic Palace, Vatican

And so I am back from a whirlwind trip to Rome.  It shall take some time to process, and the sheer number of sights and sounds have left me somewhat stunned into silence.

Some brief thoughts:
The sheer scale...
of buildings was dizzying - from the Colosseum, the Victor Emmanuel monument, St Paul's outside the walls, St John Lateran Basilica, and St Peter's - humans reduced to tiny ants scrabbling around their foundations.  Within the Vatican, the uncountable number of paintings and frescoes, statues and tapestries, gold, marble, and lapus lazuli, was almost impossible to comprehend.  Rooms filled with Raphaels and Michaelangelos, long corridors of maps drawn up in the 1580's.... The scale of history down through the ages as names popped out from long-forgotten - and currently opened on the desk - history books. 

The warmth... beyond the heat and humidity of the August sun beating down upon us, the warmth of hospitality of the folk at the Irish College where we stayed, and the delightful humour and wisdom of the rector, Father Ciaran. The cheerful enthusiasm of Monsignor Leo happily showing us around behind the scenes at the Vatican as we dripped on his marble floors on Monday evening, after being utterly drenched in a sudden storm.

Surreal and special moments...

Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel
standing quietly dripping from the rainfall, watching the play of late afternoon/ early evening light upon the frescoes in a hushed and empty Sistine Chapel, the Monsignor telling us the story of its creation...a complete privilege and a rare treat.

Catacomb communion
a wee while later, standing on the upper balcony of the Apostolic Palace, looking across to the roof-top statues of St Peter's Basilica, grinning with sheer joy in the midst of a sun-shower and wringing out my sodden shirt...

a couple of days on, walking along the via Appia Antica to the catacombs and then all of us having communion in the chapel in the catacomb of San Sebastian...

Still processing, but by golly, it was really rather marvellous... :)

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

going to grace-land, but not in Memphis, Tennessee..

What is it to live a grace-filled life?  Does demonstrating grace equate to being a doormat?  How do you balance gracious loving-kindness with the prophetic challenging voice crying out in the face of injustice? 

Perhaps it begins with language: as humans, we trade in words.  Language - the use, misuse, abuse, and care of - is important.  A few words poorly chosen can lead to war.  Words carefully selected can capture a moment and hold it up for eternity.  There are famous last words - 'they couldn't shoot an elephant at this dist...' - forgotten, unheard words, and words conveyed more by gesture than by sound.

Words are important: they build up, they break down.  Words warn of danger, ward off evil, include, exclude, hold the warmth of welcome.  Finely honed words in the poet-craftsman's hands can reach the heights and depths and breadths of the human heart, have the capacity to lift us out of our cares and woes and, perhaps ironically, leave us in speechless wonder.  Words woven together tell of lived experience, creating a story from our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Words underscore identity, belonging, where we have come from, where we are, where we hope to be, and who accompanies us on our way.  Words are amazing, terrible, beautiful.  They should come with a warning: 'danger! handle with care!'  

In light of the sheer power of words, how then do we handle them with care when engaged in discussions that evoke strong opinions, discussions that light the blue touch paper of passionate debate?  Where does grace come into our conversations?  Perhaps the topic of words is a well-worn theme of mine and yet, I continue to ponder the ever-increasing use of polemic in on-going debates in the kirk.  It is too easy to fashion words into pointing fingers of accusation; too easy to criticise and condemn; too easy to be embroiled in dehumanising, not re-humanising discourses; too easy to employ words that grate, not words of grace.

I've been pondering a pic a friend had 'liked' on facebook - I happily agreed with the sentiments expressed in the picture, but the tag-line [not placed by said friend] troubled me.  It was along the lines of let's stick it in the eye of 'homophobic bigots'.  While I agree that there are people who both face prejudice and are prejudiced, I find myself in an odd dilemma.  My problem is with the use of language to point and shoot, choosing language that dehumanises, language that harks back to the name-calling of the playground.  Using language in this way does nothing to progress dialogue, nor does it add anything useful, merely further polarises viewpoints.   The dilemma, is therefore objecting to folk utilising polemic who are, technically, standing on the same side of the fence as I happen to be, who are, in effect, attempting to try and express solidarity with me.  And even then, I dislike the language of 'fences' and 'sides', but there it is.

Let's not play a tit-for-tat game, rather, let's try for some civilised discourse, regardless of what language other people might choose to use.   Just because someone said 'xyz vitriol' does not mean it is fine and dandy to respond in like kind.  Here, I feel, is the problem of being so caught up in ideology that the person behind the 'issue' is lost to sight.  Reprehensible words that jar and shatter are flung about and the hurt and damage caused by this is too costly.  In this, I am as wary as liberal fundamentalism as I am of right-wing fundamentalism as ideologies - and no, 'liberal fundamentalism' is no longer an oxymoron. So, what is the way to words of grace?

I am not sure, and I can't speak for everyone - that would be impossible and also a tad arrogant!  So, then, how do I, in my small corner, attempt in action and in word, to work towards a lived grace?  One thing I do know is that when faced with being called 'an abomination', I am still called to love the one who calls me that. I don't have to accept the label, I don't have to remain silent. I can challenge, but to challenge does not mean wound, harm, destroy the one who tries to wound.  This should never be some war of attrition, nor should the language of 'winning' and 'losing' have any place in the discourse.  The choice then, is to find a way of engaging in a way that builds up and doesn't tear down, that doesn't return hate with hate. It does not mean becoming a doormat.

It is very difficult, this business of trying to live in grace, but when the rubber hits the road, I destroy and dehumanise myself if I respond in a way that dehumanises and destroys others.  Perhaps the attempt to live in grace, by action and in word, not only challenges myself to be the best that I can be, but it might, in and of itself, be a challenge to others.  Hmmm, 'physician, heal thyself' comes to mind, as does the very old song 'let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.'