27 June 2013
Words are not enough
A story is told of a late-night conversation between a dad and his three-year-old son. The lights have just gone out and the young lad calls out: "Dad, dad, I'm scared of the dark." Returning to the room, the father explains to his son there is no need to fear because he is not on his own, God is with him. Without hesitation the response comes back: "But dad, I want someone with skin on their face."
This story carries the profound truth which goes at least some way towards explaining the incarnation, and very practically explores the place of the Church in the world. God knows for most of us – both in finding faith and maintaining our faith – that words, even wonderfully true words, are not enough. We need people with skin on their faces.
In the upper room with his disciples, just hours before his arrest in the garden, Jesus provides an example of an entirely new kind of leadership as he washes his disciples' feet and instructs them to follow his example. He proceeds in the passage that follows to give his followers a new command: "Love one another as I have loved you – so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."
Sadly, as we reflect back on the history of the Church through the centuries, and perhaps our own experience of the Church, our conclusion must be that we have not always done too well with the new command. We have not "loved one another as we ought", certainly not with the passionate, sacrificial love that we see in the life of Jesus. Ann and I are deeply grateful to God for our church – a community of faith in which we are cared for and loved, a place we can be ourselves in the good times and the times of struggle and pain, a place where we are challenged to be true to our calling and faithful to the saviour to whom we have given our allegiance.
As I travel the country, I meet up with people whose experience of church has not been like this, people with deep wounds over things that have been said and done which sometimes go back decades. As we have chatted together, I have come to the conclusion that there is no quick fix to these situations; people have got things wrong, mistakes have been made, sin has been at work. However, I find myself encouraging people not to give up on Christ or his Church and find myself reflecting on the new command – to love each other despite the disappointments, frustration and pain.
In an age of mass communication and social media, it is so easy to find things to disagree and argue about. I am often amazed at how un-Christlike some disagreements become in the Twitter, Facebook and blogging world. It seems that because it is electronic the same rules don't apply – this is not love speaking, this is about winning an argument, putting someone in their place, even humiliating them. Sadly the same can be said at times about what happens at some church business meetings or through the unhelpful gossip which we are all tempted to engage in. It is interesting to note that the early Church was not without its own struggles. James writes: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:19-20).
For most of us, the temptation is to speak quickly, to listen badly and to relish our anger. In our churches and among our Christian friends, what does love look like? How can we model an entirely different way of relating, of caring, of disagreeing? As we give ourselves to loving the world around us, our neighbours, our work mates, those we are at school and college with, or through food banks, Street Pastors, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) centres, youth and children's work (I could go on) let's also ask the question: how does love express itself in my church? How can we celebrate the fact we are family – brothers and sisters in Christ? How can we reach beyond our congregation to our family down the road in another tradition of church? Maybe they don't do things like we do things, but they are still family. Perhaps there is a challenge in the 'new command'. If we want the world to acknowledge our saviour, there are people with 'skin on their faces' who need to be loving each other.