Especially if you’re trying to avoid invisible beings
I had to write an article recently about what happens to people who leave God and God-stuff alone 1.
I wrote about my suspicion that God doesn’t leave them alone.
One culprit was music:
Perhaps this is a stretch for some of us. But theology teaches us that music is a shared feature of heaven and earth. Both realms ring with song, heaven more so than earth, and for a reason. Think of an orchestral or choral performance: unity, diversity, individual gifts, some performers with a great range and others just bashing triangles at appropriate moments, all blended into a completeness that is not static or boring, but fluid and dynamic; at its best, an ever-flowing perfection of fulfilled performers harmonizing together. Isn’t it, can’t it be, a heavy hint of what God and his people are destined finally to be? When you hear or perform music, are you distantly echoing what the divine is and does? Are your expressing a desire for something greater than what you have now? Are you reaching for transcendence? If I may say so, I think you may be. Even some of the most hard-boiled atheists I know seek transcendence in music.
It’s interesting to watch — from the safe vantage point of vast ignorance — cracks in the gleaming exterior of Western mental health care. To say the least, it’s not like flying a plane, where highly trained people, following international standards of safety and expertise, successfully take people to places they want to go. Psychiatry and psychology are not like that. They may want to look like that, but they are not like that. 1 Here are some of the cracks:
The standards aren’t, well, standard. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a thing called the DSM (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders), currently on its fifth edition, DSM-5. It’s widely referred and accepted and is the product of much scholarly endeavour. But it changes, and practice changes with it. After DSM-4 was published, ADHD diagnoses tripled, autism diagnoses increased 20-fold and bipolar diagnoses 40-fold. 2 This was not a sudden epidemic of mental illness, it was a consequence of widening the categories. So, beware, with the next edition of the book, your illness could become a variant of normalcy, or your normalcy be re-categorized as illness.
It’s subjective, not objective. Physical medicine is at least a mixture of both, blood tests and MRI scans complementing the doctor’s own judgement. Mental illness appears not to be independently testable. This subjectivity on the part of mental health professionals has consequences: I have seen people bounced between diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD, Bipolar, and schizophrenia in a process that seems a bit like different practitioners sticking random Post-It stickers on people’s heads. (Though it’s worth remembering that people who practice mental health care all are there to do something good for the broken and damaged people whom they meet every day and they want to help them thrive. They are not dabbling with words; getting it right matters. The bitterness of the debate is because everyone cares, not because no-one does.)
Commercial interests are involved. As one kept alive by various drugs, I am very fond of big pharma, but I do acknowledge that they have a commercial interest in selling drugs for mental health, and that must influence their own influence in this subjective area. Certainly different groups of all stripes campaign to change the DSM in their favour, which must mean each DSM is a product of power struggles as well as pure evidence.
It victimizes people. Telling my liver that it is abnormally swollen does not upset my liver too much; telling my head I have a personality disorder, and that, no, they haven’t really found a cure, affects my whole sense of who I am and what I am to do about it.
It oversimplifies, or at least wrongly frames, the problem. Have mental health problems rocketed, powered by social media, relationship breakdown, unwise romantic choices, and covid-19 exclusions? Or have otherwise normal people across our communities been battered by exceptional stresses? Are they, at root, diseased or injured? That matters a great deal for how, and if, you can get well again.
It’s not been great for children. Apparently (according to my source article again) as late as the 1990s it was ‘unusual to prescribe medication or give diagnostic labels to under-18s.’ That is no longer the case. It would be good to know what the evidence is for this change. I hope it’s solid. I can’t help thinking that diagnosing children -a subjective process and one that is inconsistent across practitioners- on the basis of the child’s own grasp of the problem, is a shaky place from which to start chemical intervention or medical labelling.
Can it mean that problems are treated here in the West as primarily medical, rather than, say, primarily to do with relationships, poverty, trauma, abuse, poor choices, or just the kind of ennui that doesn’t know what to aim for or what to aspire to be, or what the point of living is; that we are attempting to treat medically a kind of lostness?
Can it be that we are underplaying the social, the relational, the physical, and the spiritual and overemphasising the medical? This I find really intriguing because I think I have learnt that healing in any sphere is basically about shalom, peace and contentment; that’s the mark of the healed, even if those same healed ones limp around in broken bodies and perhaps with damaged minds. To thrive before God and people, in all circumstances, that’s healing.
Just read a fascinating article about Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s freshly elected Democratic Senator.1
Mr Warnock is still a pastor, of Martin Luther King’s old church in Atlanta. He has, it seems, a fresh take on the tired left/right, liberal/conservative tropes that like leaden wordclouds, rain down on our politics both in the UK and the US. There’s just a sniff of Advent hope about him. Here are a few quotes:
‘Democracy is the political enactment ofa spiritual idea, the sacred worth of all human beings.’
‘A vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire.’
Martin Luther King, he says, ‘Used his faith not as a weapon to crush other people, but as a bridge to bring us together.’ Now there’s an idea.
He is a kinder sort than is typical among democrats, seeing the Jan 6th sackers of the Capitol as people who had suffered the ‘violence’ of poverty, ‘a kind of violence that crushes all the humanity of poor people,’ but who retaliated badly and mistakenly. I’m not myself a massive fan of stretching the word ‘violence’ to mean ‘any bad stuff that happens to people’, but still, this reaching out in sympathy to the illiberal is notable if only because it doesn’t represent a default setting for Democrats in my observation. It’s something a little new, loving his enemies. He reiterates:
‘There’s a kind of violence of poverty, a failure to recognise that there is enough in God’s world for all God’s children. There’s no poverty of possibility. There is a poverty of moral imagination.’
The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.
Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.
Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.
Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.
I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.
A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…
Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.
Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?
What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?
Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?
I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.
What do you when when you were the young whippersnapper but are being replaced by still younger whippersnappers? I found this brilliant piece from Wired magazine by Megan O’Gyblin (March 2021) in my notebook. It made me want to read a lot more of her stuff. She was answering the question from a 30-year-old that began, ‘I’m only 30 but already I feel myself disengaging from youth trends.’ (This is an excerpt.)
‘The sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die.’ I have barely dipped my toes in this, even after the all decades my heart has been beating.
I don’t mean to depress you, only to slightly reframe the question. If perpetual relevance is a chimeric virtue, as futile as the quest for eternal life, the question then becomes: What will make your life more enriching and meaningful? On one hand, it might seem that acquiring more knowledge—staying up to date on music, slang, whatever—will lead to more meaning, at least in its most literal sense. To grow old, after all, is to watch the world become ever more crowded with empty signifiers. It is to become like one of those natural language processing models that understands syntax but not semantics, that can use words convincingly in a sentence while remaining ignorant of the real-world concepts they represent. It feels, in other words, as though you’re becoming less human.
But knowledge is not the only source of meaning. In fact, at a moment when information is ubiquitous, cheap, and appended with expiration dates, what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity—the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. For centuries, the fear of growing old was assuaged by the knowledge that the wisdom, skills, and experience one acquired would be passed down, a phenomenon the historian Christopher Lasch called “a vicarious immortality in posterity.” When major technological innovations arrived every few hundred years rather than every decade it was reasonable to assume your children and grandchildren would live a life much like your own. This sense of permanence made it possible to construct medieval cathedrals over the course of several centuries, with artisanal techniques bequeathed like family heirlooms.
This relationship to the future has become all but impossible in our accelerated digital age. What of our lives today will remain in 10 years, or 20, or into the next century? When the only guarantee is that the future will be radically unlike the past, it’s difficult to believe that the generations have anything to offer one another. How do you prepare someone for a future whose only certainty is that it will be unprecedented? What can you hope to learn from someone whose experience is already obsolete? To grow old in the 21st century is to become superfluous, which might explain why the notion of aging gracefully has become an alien concept. (As one Gen Z-er complained of millennials in Vice: “It all feels like they’re trying to prolong their youth.”) Meanwhile, the young become, for the old, not beneficiaries of wisdom and knowledge but aides in navigating the bewildering world of perpetual disruption—in other words, tech support.
Someone of your age, of course, has a foot in both worlds: still young enough to count yourself as part of the rising culture, yet mature enough to perceive that you are not exempt from the pull of gradual irrelevance. One difficulty of this phase of life is feeling like you don’t have a clear role; another is the constant anxiety over when you will finally tip into fustiness yourself. But to take a brighter outlook, you also inhabit a unique vantage with a clear-eyed view of both the past and the future, and if there’s one thing we could all benefit from right now, it’s a sense of perspective. Rather than merely serving as IT for your older friends and relatives, you might ask them about their lives, if only to remind them—and yourself—that there remain aspects of human nature that are not subject to the tireless engine of planned obsolescence.
As for those younger than you, I suspect your life would seem more meaningful if you focused less on keeping up with transient fads and considered instead whether you have acquired any lasting knowledge that might be useful to the next generation
I enjoyed this fascinating article that is doing the rounds where I work, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a criticism of Russian Orthodoxy’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, signed by representatives of other Orthodox groups.
It’s also a critique of Christian religious nationalism in general. Worth brewing a coffee and reading.
If nothing else, after you’ve read it, you might have a new phrase to accuse people of, ‘ethno-phyletism’. It might also send you scurrying, as it did me, to look up the Epistle to Diognetus.
Look at this from Private Eye‘s wonderful ‘MD’ (aka Dr Phil Hammond) (15-28 October 2021 p 8)
The model of general practice – trying to manage multiple complex risks and needs in very brief encounters – has long been unsafe and unsustainable. You have 10 minutes to help an 80-year-old woman who is arthritic, breathless, recently bereaved and on 12 tablets. It takes three of those minutes to walk her from waiting room to consulting room.She wants to talk about her late husband; you want to ensure her breathlessness was not a red flag for a life-threatening condition or a side effect of the pills you have prescribed.
It takes another three minutes to undress her and get her up on the couch to be examined. And yet her main reason for coming was loneliness.
A study of Norwegian health records, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that — compared with a one-year patient-GP relationship — those who had had the same doctor for between two and three years were about 13 percent less likely to need out-of-hours care, 12 percent less likely to be admitted to hospital, and 8 percent less likely to die that year. After 15 years, the figures were 30 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent.
Healthcare depends crucially on relationships, and staff knowing and understanding you.
Imagine a GP being resourced enough to combine a vocation as a doctor with the time and stability to develop relationships with patients. Vocation and relationships … just like in a book I recently wrote, which I may have occasionally mentioned in this blog. And which is still ‘forthcoming’…
The regular readers of this blog, both of you, will know I’ve been exerpting chapters from my new book over the past weeks. Well, it’s finally finished and I’m really pleased with it. Here is the cover art:
It is, I hope, a fun refresher on some of the big themes of discipleship. A refreshing refresher, perhaps.
Lots of us read books that we kind of have to, or ought to. I’ve written a few of these myself.
This is not that book. Nor are the others I’ve been writing in the past few years, More than Bananas, Bread and the comedy trilogy Paradise, The Wheels of the World and The Sump of Lost Dreams.
The way to read this book is in a comfy chair, perhaps with some chocolate nearby, with the squalls of the world shut out, and with your own worries laid aside.
Here are few sample chapters that I put in the blog:
It’s a competitive field, but in the end I picked King Saul as the biggest failure in the Bible. This is my final extract from my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘, about living sandwiched between God’s promises and the ambiguities, conflicts and disappointments of Planet Earth. Like the other chapters, as you may know by now, it started life as an article for a Singaporean magazine, and was written for the many new Christians in that growing Christian community.
To be the biggest failure in the Bible you have to have a shot at being one of its greatest successes. This rules out a lot of people, such as Trophimus the Ephesian. In just three verses, this unheralded character manages to (a) be the reason for the major riot in Jerusalem that put the apostle Paul in prison and (b) to fall sick in Miletus and not to be healed by that same great Apostle.
Trophimus, in other words, is forever getting in the way. But despite his high failure coefﬁcient he is only a minor player in the grand story of redemption, so we strike him off our list. We might rule out Judas Iscariot for similar reasons. No-one in the whole Bible got it more wrong. The frightful verdict on his life, courtesy of Jesus himself, is ‘it would be better for him if he had not been born’ (Mark 14:21). That’s certainly failure enough. May it never be said of us.
But Judas was only one of twelve apostles, and he was quickly replaced. The story went on without him. Let’s also give the Old Testament ﬁgure Samson the push. Samson was the prototype charismatic-leader-trafﬁc-accident-waiting-to-happen, impressive gifts, unimpressive integrity. His life came literally crashing down but, still, Samson was a single judge, one of many in Israel, in a time when many were mucking things up. A sad example of a malfunctioning leader, yet not the Bible’s greatest failure.
Instead let’s try someone who could have been one of the leading ﬁgures in the whole history of redemption, a major player, who yet fell almost as far as it is possible to go. Our vote goes to Saul, ﬁrst king of Israel.
The word ‘hapless’ could have been invented for Saul. The Oxford English Dictionary deﬁnes Hapless thus: ‘destitute of or lacking good fortune; unfortunate, unlucky. Hence also in later use: incompetent, clumsy.’ There is just something doomed about Saul. It’s made all the worse by his undoubted courage, good looks, and earnest efforts. Saul was a trier and had enough talent and potential to crash and burn while others had barely enough qualities to get off the runway.
Part of his haplessness was his capacity for public relations disasters. Saul strides onto the pages of the Bible not like David, ﬁghting Goliath, nor like the Apostle Paul, helping kill the ﬁrst Christian martyr (which at least demonstrated potential and commitment, albeit needing a little re-direction). No, Saul makes his entrance searching for donkeys, at which it is hard to look good. People who are looking for things are very irritating to people who are not looking for things, especially perhaps when those things are really big and furry and obviously not there.
Does Saul then redeem himself by demonstrating astonishing skills in tracking? He does not. Instead, it’s recorded that his dad started to worry about him, which since Saul was a tall and scary grown man, and only perhaps 20 miles from home, is again not a massive vote of conﬁdence.
It’s left to Saul’s servant to suggest they visit the prophet Samuel whose prophetic gifts may stretch to donkey-location services. Saul agrees, but, predictably, doesn’t have any money. Perhaps he left his credit cards at home, another winning trait in a would-be leader of men. The servant stumps up the cash, and, so far, looks a far better man for a crisis than Saul himself.
Saul the hero
Yet despite the inauspicious start, Saul becomes king and does well for a time, against very difﬁcult odds. Israel was overrun with the Philistines, who had a properly organized standing army, unlike Israel. The Philistines had the technological mastery, controlling all the iron manufacture. Coming from the smallest tribe, Saul lacked a power base. Worse, he also had to combat the prophet Samuel who was grumpy about the whole idea of Israel having a king. They had not had one before. Samuel, it seemed, was only allowing it because God had told him to, not because he personally thought it was a good idea.
You didn’t mess with Samuel, he could summon earthquakes with prayer, but like many leaders he had a bit of a blind spot when it came to his own family. At the time of Saul’s election, Samuel’s sons were running the country — badly. So there was a ticklish issue for a new king’s in-tray. The old leader’s sons aren’t up to the job, political reform is needed, but the decrepit old boy in charge can’t face the facts.
Yet Saul made a good ﬁst of being king. He rescued the threatened city of Jabesh Gilead by personally calling and leading an army. Aided by his son Jonathan, he inﬂicted spectacular damage on the Philistines against ﬁerce odds. He fought off other raiders, surrounded himself with good people, declined to be vindictive against his political enemies, and was personally modest in his kingly lifestyle.
Samuel went into retirement and no more was heard of his sons. Saul knew, if he obeyed God, his kingdom could last forever. We have to believe that it was at least conceivable that Saul could have been what David later became– the ﬁrst king in a glorious, eternal line.
Yet it all fell apart. The honest, modest king morphed into a depressed, paranoid monster. He resorted to using a medium — I think the only godly leader in the whole Bible who has sunk to consulting the spirits of the dead. And then he, his sons and his armourbearer all died in a decisive battle against the resurgent Philistines that set Israel’s cause back for a long time.
Saul got little credit for the good stuff but instead faced the full wrath of Samuel when he made two judgement calls in extremely pressed circumstances. It is, perhaps, another sign of the hapless: you get your appraisal done when you are having an extremely bad day. First, Samuel had told Saul to go to a mustering ground called Gilgal before a battle with the Philistines and wait seven days until Samuel arrived. Saul had done as asked, watching while the Philistine forces multiplied around them. Saul’s own army, just six hundred strong, was starting to desert. The seven days passed. The forthcoming battle looked terrible. Rather than wait any longer for Samuel, Saul himself made sacriﬁces to God — and then Samuel turned up and condemned him. Samuel didn’t apologize. Paraphrasing Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey, Samuel might have said, ‘Late? A prophet is never late!’
The second time, Samuel ordered Saul to kill and destroy every living thing among the Amalekites, men, women, children, cattle — a brutal, rare and difﬁcult ask for the king. Saul’s army did not seem overly troubled by hacking the heads off babies or slicing open pregnant women (this was a ruthless era, rather like our own), but they did object to seeing all that juicy beef going up in smoke uneaten. Steak won out over submission, and Saul didn’t stop his army’s ox-roast, and Samuel condemned him again, and removed his blessing.
You can say this is all a bit unfair. Saul was attempting to show leadership in terrible times. Things were going wrong all around him. Bloodshed was not far off. Who, in a war, gets all the decisions right? Desperate days require brave decisions. What would you do if your army was falling apart while you waited for a prophet to show up? How well would you fare when your hungry men wanted a well-earned barbecue and you were the only one blocking the way?
Anyway, didn’t other leaders in the Bible commit worse sins than Saul and not get deblessed, as Saul was? Abraham took things into his own hands when he fathered Ishmael rather than wait for Isaac. King David committed both murder and adultery. When in danger of their lives, the apostle Peter denied Jesus three times. Other apostles found they had urgent appointments elsewhere. Saul, by way of refreshing change, hardly ducked a ﬁght in his life.
So how did he end up as the Bible’s biggest failure? First we note that it’s in the times of deepest stress that we reveal who we really are. It honestly isn’t all that hard to seem to be living a godly life when the seas are calm and the skies are blue. Only stress shows our true colours. So we shouldn’t be surprised that it took difﬁcult days to expose Saul’s heart.
Second, God is God and he has the right to deal with disobedience in his servants differently. Abraham took matters into his own hands. So did Saul. Different circumstances and capacities were on show, but it was the same sin at its root. So perhaps in a sense the Bible is harsh on Saul, or at least gentle on Abraham. May God be gentle on us too!
Yet, third, Saul’s fatal error really was a fatal error, and it set him apart in my view from Abraham and David and the apostles. Running through his life was a tendency, which wasn’t a technical mishap, or a minor misjudgement; it was, ﬁnally, a misunderstanding of everything important about how God and people relate. Saul’s regular mistake was to think God wants us to sort things out for ourselves, cope as best we can. Saul was talented enough to make this work for a time. But that isn’t what God wants. God wants us to trust him with our lives.
At Gilgal, the sacriﬁces honestly didn’t matter; trusting God did. So your army’s deserting while Samuel shows every sign of being caught in the trafﬁc around Jericho? Trust God anyway. So your hungry army is mutinously eyeing up some fatted calves? Stand in their way. Trust and obey God. See if they’ll really kill a king, or, muttering darkly, obey God after all.
Flawed like Saul
Haplessness haunted Saul. Worse, he then let jealousy gnaw at him unchecked and as an older man became paranoid and vindictive. But the truth is we are all like that. That isn’t Saul’s unique problem. We are all ﬂawed like Saul, fatally ﬂawed, each in our own way. Saul’s real problem was not that he was fatally ﬂawed, but that he didn’t throw his fatally ﬂawed self on the mercies and adequacies of God.
His real failure was a failure simply to trust and obey: ‘Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.”‘ (1 Sam 13:13) and ‘Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not enquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.’ (1 Chron 10:13-14)
I feel for Saul. I think he was a put in a job too difﬁcult for him, and certainly at ﬁrst he tried his very best to make it work, earnest, brave, modest, sincere. The problem was, that isn’t how it works between people and God. We are all in roles too difﬁcult for us. We all have impossible jobs. ‘Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ says the ﬁrst letter of John (1 John 2:6) How possible is that? It isn’t.
The people who please God fall into the arms of the One who justiﬁes the ungodly and the hapless and the useless. Through faith people conquer kingdoms. Through faith they live and die bravely. Through nakedly trusting God they take on armies. Through simple, trusting obedience they cheerfully face down the impossible. Better to die trusting God, they argue, rightly, than live relying on ourselves.
What can we learn from the Bible’s biggest failure? Don’t have fatal character weaknesses? No–we all do. Trust God with all your heart. Follow his commands rather than your own wisdom. Trust him unto death. Quite a lesson.
This blog started life as a magazine article when I was on the staff of a Singaporean magazine intended for the Christian community. Like my other blogs over the past few weeks, I’ve included it in my forthcoming book, ‘The Sandwich.’ One of the joys of working for interdenominational organizations is the exposure to the many different silos within which Christian tribes shelter, each of us believing we’re uniquely blessed and special.
What we need is a new denomination.
I visited a Brethren church the other day, for the first time for about fifteen years. Things hadn’t changed much.
The church building still displayed the minimum possible aesthetic sense, designed (it wasn’t hard to guess) by deacons, all male. They hadn’t quite suppressed every splash of colour — it’s hard to completely stamp out human, and especially feminine, creativity — but they were certainly subsisting on the bare minimum. The hall was 1930s hospital style: dull dark wood and magnolia. The most recent addition was a 1970s chipboard hymnbook cabinet with a balsa wood veneer (artificial). Brethren don’t waste resources on Art.
We sang hymns, though, great eighteenth-century affairs loaded with fine doctrine like plum puddings. The singing was concerted, massive, and rousing — marred only by a few sopranos warbling out of control, like opera divas tumbling into the orchestra pit or stuka bombers that can’t pull out of a fatal dive.
When the people on the platform addressed the Almighty, you rather got the impression of the serf, cap in hand, going to the landowner. These were Brethren. A people who know their place in the scheme of things.
I felt at home at once. Here were my roots. Plain but godly. 1930s decor and 1790s doggerel, sin and magnolia. Nothing changes here. Hardly anything, indeed, had changed, since I’d left these pastures for charismatic ones a decade and a half ago.
Singing solid hymns that fed the brain and spirit was a nice change from my current church, where — as a contrast — spiritual ecstasy is expected fifteen minutes into each service, whether or not you feel like it first thing in the morning and whether or not you’ve got a headache.
In our church, we do not all sing together. We play tag with the worship leader. You know the game. You’re all ready for the second verse but he’s jumped back to the middle of the chorus. Just when you think you’re catching him again, he’s onto a second lap with the first verse. The musicians and the ‘waa waa’ girls are not far behind, but he dodges them astutely when they start getting near. Finally he helps us by repeating the line ‘He is worthy’ seven straight times, until less charitable members of congregation want to knock him on the head to get the music into a different groove. We hit the seventh ‘He is worthy’ with a great bashing of drums, like a Taoist funeral, and then blast off into singing in tongues or a ‘clap offering.’
In my church, we are not so much serfs addressing the Lord of the Manor as people frantically cranking a Van de Graaf generator, hoping the sparks will crackle. I sometimes look round at the upturned faces and hands and wonder, am I the only person in the church not enjoying this? Is anybody else — like me — faking it?
Hmm. And yet the charismatics and Pentecostals are the most successful missionary movement in history: from a standing start in 1900 to 400 million plus today. God’s at work among us. Sometimes — despite everything — the sparks do crackle.
Perhaps no denomination has it all. But I have the perfect way forward for the future: The Singapore Post-Denominational Church. We’ll pick-and-mix from what the current denominations offer to produce an unforgettable ecclesiastical experience.
Here’s my suggestions: We’ll look to the Brethren for the art and aesthetics. Flexibility and ecumenism? Call in the Bible-Presbyterians. Theological rigour? Charismatic choruses are just the job. A due sense of tradition and history? The new independent churches will supply all we need.
I’ll be the pastor, of course, and will lovingly fix my salary at an average of the top four pastoral renumerations in Singapore. Tithes will be high, but at least you’ll know I’m safe from being headhunted and will be able to devote myself wholeheartedly to the Post-Denominational cause.
Singapore Post-Denominational Church. Come along next Sunday. I guarantee, after the experience, you’ll love your own worship tradition all the more.