Church Going by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

You can listen to Philip Larkin read this poem here. You can read my article “I’ve Been Hurt by the Church, So Why Should I Go?” on the Christianity Today website.

Like Most of the Pastors I Know

I spent this past weekend in Montana with a bunch of pastors. I only got to see the mountains from a distance (except for the one we were on) but I saw the pastors close-up. I found them to be like most of the pastors I know. They are true shepherds with a deep affection for their flock. They are skilled in what they do but do not consider themselves to be remarkable. They are humble. They do not boast about their accomplishments. They are often a little disappointed with themselves–convinced that they could be doing better. They come hoping that I will be able to provide some insight that will help them to be more effective (which is why I am certain they must leave disappointed). They are perennial students of their craft.

 I am sure that there are bad pastors. Every so often I hear a horror story about one from some alienated church member. But none of the pastors I know falls into that category. Not the ones that I know personally. All the pastors I know are like these men: regular, reliable and yes–sometimes unremarkable (at least as far as their gifts are concerned). Faithful is the best word I can think of to describe them. Unfortunately, it is not a word that most pastors would be excited to hear used of them. Not in our day.

 God places great stock in faithfulness. We do not. We would prefer that pastors be described by other words. Dynamic. Transformational. Missional. Especially if the pastor being described is us. To the modern ear “faithful” sounds just a little too dull. It is like being labeled Most Congenial in your senior year when you would rather be crowned Homecoming King. It is like learning that you have been described to your blind date as someone who has “a nice personality.” Faithful is code for boring.

 Unless, of course, Jesus is the one who is doing the describing. Place the same word on the lips of Christ and there is no higher compliment. According to Jesus, “faithful” is exactly the right the word to characterize what the master wants from his servants (Matt. 25:23). It is the word that Scripture uses to describe Jesus’ own priestly ministry (Heb. 2:17; 3:6). Faithful is a word that contains the promise of great reward and is itself the reward.

 I can’t think of a better word to use to describe the pastors I spent time with this past weekend. I am deeply grateful that I know so many to whom the word applies.

 One of the questions I asked the pastors during my visit was this: “What kind of books would be of most help to you in your ministry?” If you are a pastor, I would like to know how you would answer this question. If you know a pastor, why not ask him for me and let me know what he says?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

Lord, I believe…

Prayer is the language
Image by Lel4nd via Flickr

 

 A news item in a recent issue of Christianity Today reported that the Albanian Minister of Culture recently signed an agreement giving legal recognition to 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance. I could not help but smile when I read the report.    

When I was a student in seminary, Albania was the particular focus of prayer in the Student Missions Fellowship. I had never heard of the country before. The president of SMF told us that its chief distinctive was that it was the world’s first officially atheist country. So that year we prayed for Albania.    

I wish I could tell you that I prayed with bold faith and conviction that one day Albania would be open to the gospel. But that would be a lie. I did pray for Albania. And I did ask God to open its doors to the gospel. But I prayed mostly out of a sense of duty. As I recall, my first prayer went something like this: “God, I know you can do anything. But it’s really hard for me to believe that you can do anything with this. Nevertheless, open Albania to the gospel.” In truth, I thought it was highly unlikely that anything would happen as a result of those prayers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.    

Several years after I graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastor in a church in central Illinois, I received a brochure in the mail from a mission organization. Two things about the brochure captured my attention. One was the fact that the mission was looking for farmers. The other was that it wanted to send them to Albania. “Albania?” I wondered. “Isn’t that the country we used to pray about in Student Missions Fellowship?” Our church was in the early stages of its missions program at the time and I passed the brochure on to Dave VanOrman, one of the farmers in the congregation.    

It was a long shot. Dave was a busy farmer. He didn’t seem a likely candidate for this kind of adventure. But to my great surprise, Dave went to Albania. When the trip was over, he immediately bought another plane ticket and went back, this time taking his wife Sarah with him. Then they went back again. And again. Before I knew it, Dave and Sarah had organized the Planter’s Seed Foundation and for years they have been helping Albanian farmers, working with women in the villages and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with young people. Recently the Planter’s Seed Foundation observed its first baptismal celebration. I would never have thought such a thing was possible. Certainly not back in 1985 when the Student Missions Fellowship was praying for Albania.    

So I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that the 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance were given legal recognition this past November. I immediately thought of Dave and Sarah. And of my days as a seminary student, when my prayers for Albania were more like those of the man in Mark 9 who prayed, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” than anything else. Those prayers were as much a confession of my doubt as they were an expression of my faith. The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). And sometimes the fruit of faith is the substance of things we wouldn’t believe, if we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.    

Falling Into the Culture Gap: The Allure of “Hipster” Christianity

Recently Gap Inc. reversed its plans to change the company’s familiar logo because of the widespread unpopularity of its new image. Visitors to the Gap’s website scorned the new logo, ridiculing it for its ugliness and complaining that it was something a child could have created using clip art.

 It seems reasonable to assume that Gap Inc. returned to its old logo because they were afraid that consumers’ dislike of its new symbol would adversely affect corporate sales. I am not criticizing the Gap for changing its mind in this matter. This seems like good business sense to me. Some have even speculated that the whole thing was merely a publicity stunt–perhaps an ingenious variation on the old “new” Coke strategy.

 But I do wonder what all this says about us as a culture.  Are we really so image conscious that we would refuse to purchase a product because we didn’t like the company’s logo? I suspect that for many the answer is yes and I fear that the church is not immune. We live in an age where image is everything and cool is king. Congregations care more about a preacher’s style than the content of his message. It is the age of what Brett McCracken calls, in a recent article in Christianity Today, “hipster Christianity.” This is a Christianity that is not so much a faith as it is a style and whose chief vulnerability is “its fundamentally disposable, moving-on-to-what’s-next transience.”

 Our fashion conscious culture lends itself to a style oriented church. I do not see this as a new problem. It is essentially the same mentality that prompted the Corinthians to so align themselves with their favorite teachers that one said, “I follow Paul” and another “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 3:4). Paul, despite having a following of his own, adamantly refused to adopt the trappings of Corinthian coolness, preferring to cling to the decidedly unhip message of the cross. He might have been more “effective” if he had paid more attention to Corinthian tastes. But for him the cost of being hip was just too high.

Read Brett McCracken’s interesting article on the Christianity Today website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/september/9.24.html?start=7

Out of My Mind: What Kind of Personality Does Jesus Have?

In the April issue of Christianity Today Scott McKnight writes of an exercise he does in his course on Jesus of Nazareth. On the opening day of class he gives students a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. On the first part the students describe Jesus’ personality. On the second they compare their own.

“The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus” McKnight explains. “Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.” According to McKnight, this is something we all do. “If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.”

 After reading McKnight’s article, I was reminded again of how little we know from Scripture about Jesus’ personality.  The Gospel writers emphasize the person of Christ but not his personality. I do not mean that they portray him as someone without a personality. They tell us that Jesus wept, was grieved and grew angry (Mark 3:5; 14:33; Luke 12:50; John 11:35).  They also give evidence of Jesus’ interest in the marginal people of his day–women, children, the poor, the despised and sinners (Matt. 9:20-22; 19:13-14; Luke 5:30; 21:2-3). But the picture we find of Jesus in the Gospels lacks the kind of chatty detail and color commentary that are a stock feature of modern biography and talk show confessions.

 What does this mean for us? Certainly, as Scott McKnight points out, this creates the possibility that we will try to conform Jesus to our own image. But it also provides God the opportunity to display the reality of Christ through a variety of personalities. Maybe this is what Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he wrote:

 I say more, the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Here is a link to Scott McKnight’s article: http://www.ctlibrary.com/ct/2010/april/15.22.html

Here is a link to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem entitled “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: http://www.bartleby.com/122/34.html