We didn’t go to church today, which for us is rare. I remember another distant day when our van filled with our young children got hopelessly bogged between farm cottage and front gate. Forced to abandon our plans we had great fun at home that day, but there was a thwarted, sad feel to the day as well. I feel like that right now. Unless we are away, we go to church. It’s a life habit, among the best we have.
Church is the highest and the lowest point in my normal week. Without a doubt church is the week’s highlight: to meet friends, to join in the loud, vibrant worship, to pray and to listen; it’s very good indeed. Just as surely, though, it is the loneliest moment of the week. Nowhere else am I so confronted with the full gamut of loss that has occurred in the last few years. The songs I don’t sing, instruments I don’t play, the standing I don’t join in, the conversations I don’t have, and perhaps worst of all the roles I no longer fill. The excited buzz of week-end chat cocoons me in a silken cave of dark silence at times. It’s tough turning up for that. It would be so easy not to bother; and I understand why people who don’t fit the mould sometimes vanish from our midst.
We didn’t go to church today because I went yesterday – all day – and I am spent! The toll of our church’s Annual Conference (a key date, not to be missed) was physical, emotional and even spiritual. The day began uneasily at home with a reading for the day coming from the ancient history of Solomon’s Temple. “I have taken great pains”, Kind David wrote, “to provide for the temple of the Lord a hundred thousand talents of gold, a million talents of silver, quantities of bronze and iron too great to be weighed”. In very rough figuring the value of these metals would exceed 600 billion dollars today; a figure too enormous to be grasped, and so unlikely as to make me wonder (not for the first time) how such passages of scripture should be read. I am not afraid of these niggling problems with our Holy Book, although in the past I have been more circumspect in discussing them openly. It was not a comforting start to a day that would grow more literal, perhaps even fanatical, as the hours passed. In the first break an unknown man barreled up and asked me without introduction,
“Do you have faith to be healed?”
I dread this conversation, it never ends well. In the din of a room full of talk I could not make myself heard and tried instead to sign to this fellow that I had no voice; but in the way of such people he seemed somewhat slow on the uptake. He had an agenda that allowed little sensitivity. Finally he got the picture, and helpfully reissued his challenge:
“That doesn’t matter, just nod! It’s a simple question, Do you believe?”
It was clearly time for my computer to be come out.
‘You would have to sit where I sit’, I typed, ‘to know that it’s not that simple at all’.
But for him there was only one possible outcome for people in wheelchairs, and on he ploughed.
‘Friend’, I typed (odd how that word get’s used!), ‘I think we will leave it there’.
I closed the lid of my computer, a little emphatically, and thankfully he got the point and wandered off; presumably to torment some other victim with his thin brand of faith.
I do believe that God heals, and He provides, and He helps daily, and I’ve written about that once or twice*. But the longer I live, and the more I read, the less convinced I am that that’s all He does. As my good friend likes to say, ‘eventually we need a more nuanced faith’.
Much of the day’s teaching I enjoyed: “Whoever taught you that you can live without prayer?” asked one speaker. But some I found frustratingly narrow. The urgent problem of unanswered prayer was answered much too simply. A sharp line was drawn between injury – which is acceptable for a Christian – and disease – which is not. With enough of the right sort of prayer anything can go our way. For me it was all a little too cut and dried.
One of the presenters eventually prayed for me, at the urging of a friend I think. I liked the way he spoke onstage, and I liked the way he prayed as well. But….. I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a writer, a person with responsibilities, with opportunities and a full life of my own. And maybe I also have a wheelchair and a few medical issues. But they are at the bottom of my list, so why must they go at the top of his? This simplistic reduction irks me, but of course there was no chance to explain or engage in the conversation I would have liked.
I love our church, and I believe. I am less sure exactly what I believe than I once was, but I do believe.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
As I learn the language of silence (having spent so many years employed in speech) I find that I need fewer answers than I once did. My silence seems to be in some way an echo of God’s own quiet voice. The bible is an enormous book, and yet there is so much it leaves unsaid. So many mysteries, so much trust, so much faith.