Autumn 2011 #1
Of more than a few petrifying moments in life to date, there would be few that match attending church on the last two Sunday mornings. “Petrify” is the perfect word: ‘to benumb or paralyse with horror; to convert into stone; to harden, to deaden, to make rigid.
At the age of about twelve I was a fully fledged member of “The Clifton Street Gang”. I was nowhere near as courageous as most of the troop of cousins and neighbours, but keen to belong I regularly lined up with the rest of the boys at the top of a harbour side cliff. A thick, coarse, hemp rope was the limit of our equipment to abseil the rock face. No harness, no karabiners, just the rope. The method was to stand beside the rope facing the cliff top, and then yank it up and over one shoulder as you pivoted round, one foot over the rope, back to the cliff, ready to begin the drop. With the rope thus running between your legs, up and over your shoulder and down to your hip, we were completely unsafe. The technique was to try and keep your head above your feet by holding onto the rope with one hand, which using the other to slow your descent by pulling the rope down across your body as hard as possible. Increasing the friction on the rope had the desired effect of slowing you down and the wholly undesired effect of also cutting you in half. Two small concessions to comfort were permitted for the girlier boys (like me): gardening gloves and war-surplus army jackets. Because I was a baby I also had my mum sew bits of foam rubber into the shoulders. It made me look tough, and slightly eased the pain of the rope slicing and burning from neck to crutch. Finesse was required to balance the twin agonies of descent: slide too slowly and the rope would leave you to spend your days as an emasculated Quasimodo; slide too quickly and the smack at the bottom might be your last!
If the twin agonies of abseiling were friction and imminent death, the twin agonies of church are silence and immobility.
And, much like standing in line with the boys on the cliff top, the battle is largely mind over matter. Embarrassment is like fear; it’s a state of mind. Bugger, my disabled, motorless, power chair, weighs 120kg on her own (struth! she’s a big girl); and manoeuvring she and I out of the van and over a bump at the church doorway this morning was a small circus. But while I felt like a clown, the people who I imagined were staring at me were an audience with only the kindest thoughts.
I’ve only missed a handful of Sundays in my whole life; our Church has been a mainstay of our family’s world. And for much of the time I have actually been running the show to greater or lesser degree. I won’t try and elucidate the discomfort I experience going from pastor to mute-awkward participant. Church is a place to talk. Talk to friends, talk to strangers, talk to God…. talk talk talk. On a Sunday three weeks ago, when B4 was still going strong, I retreated to a lonely exile in an office soon after the service wound up, overwhelmed by my inability to say anything at all over the background noise of chatter and music. I eventually emerged from the office to face the music again, and attempted a couple of exchanges with talented people who were able to carry both sides of the conversation, with a few prompts from my deck of laminated cards.
Two Sundays ago, when Bugger’s motors had died, I didn’t have the luxury of escape. Unable to run and hide after church I had to stay put, and I experienced a miracle instead. A young chap I hadn’t seen in a long time came and sat right beside me. All I could think to do was open up my natty little NetBook computer and type something for him to read. Well, this worked. It worked very well! What a joy! We chatted for twenty minutes, and for the first time I heard the veil of silence rend. I held numerous conversations at church this morning using the same system. I’m still silent, but I have discovered a way to be with people none the less.
The morals are many: The battle is always won or lost in the mind. In the world of relationship it’s all too easy to fall off the edge. Harden up. It’s good to slow down, even if it hurts like heck. Have a go: the alternative is far too lonely.