Saturday, 20 June 2015

The art of battling giants

Sermon for Trinity 3.

1 Samuel 17:45
But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 

Do you ever feel, like me, that the church is somewhat the underdog today? What with falling numbers, rising bills and the slow onslaught of secularism, we can feel perhaps that the giants are just too many.

If that’s the case, the story of David and Goliath has much to teach us. We know the story from Sunday School and as a stand alone tale it tells us of victory for the little man – victory for the one who trusted in God, despite appearances suggesting his imminent defeat.

Most of us will not be called upon to battle a giant, at least not a literal one. So how can we take this is as God’s encouraging word for us today in our situation? We can take the template of the story and see what it can teach us, bit by bit, about 'the art of battling giants'. *

*The phrase is taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, a great read, which takes the theme of the original story to illustrate multiple ways in which underdogs and the disadvantaged in society have battled against the odds and won, not despite their difficulties but almost because of them.

Gladwell had been a writer many years before he published David and Goliath but it was this book he says brought him back to the faith of his childhood: 

I realised what I had missed. It wasn't an "I woke up one morning" kind of thing. It was a slow realisation something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.

Reading between the lines, what happened during the writing of the book was that so many of the amazing stories of courage against adversity were from Christians whose faith had stood up to the most terrible prejudice or suffering, that Gladwell was faced with something very real that he felt he wanted to regain, i.e. his Christian faith.

So it’s an important book from an influential sociologist, and if we know the power of the story of David and Goliath can bring forth such a personal confession of faith, we know there’s something (or someone) powerful behind the story.

There are three movements to the story, which I’d like to take as headings as we think about our own situation as part of a church in the 21st Century that sometimes feels like the underdog.

1. Know your giants
The writer of the story does not hide the real nature of the giant; he presents the case realistically. Goliath is enormous, he is powerful; he is well armed and dangerous. At the end of the section about Goliath, we read ‘When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid’.

What does this say to us? Be realistic. Know the culture you live in. Know the culture your children and grand children live in. Hang around with people and look, observe. What things are not being talked about? Where is God present and where does he appear to be absent? What things exercise people? What things are people worried about? Read the papers; be informed about the state of the church in the community here, and in the wider situation of the 21st West. It’ll break your heart sometimes; it’ll mean focussing on real tragedy such as the South Carolina shootings this week. It’ll mean not underestimating evil. Know your giants: neither live in the past with rose tinted spectacles, nor despair of the present. Because…

2. Giants aren’t always what they seem
So Goliath is a terrifying giant. Or so it seems. Here Gladwell is interesting because he suggests that the very strength and might of the giant Goliath may have in fact been his downfall. He relies on heavy armour; David is nimble and has speed on his side. Goliath was a seasoned fighter and thought that David would come to him in the usual one-to-one combat; he wasn’t expecting a stone to come winging its way through the air and strike him on the head. Gladwell writes of the advantage of the seemingly innocuous stone in a sling:

Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defence Force, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-sized stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35m would have hit Goliath's head with a velocity of 34m per second – more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him dead or unconscious.

What does this say to us? It perhaps suggests that the very things that tell us we’re struggling as a church might be the means for us to fix our hopes firmly on the surprise that God brings, in the form of unlikely victors.

Yes, secularism is a pervasive force. Yes we have a media that is suspicious of religion, certainly of Christianity. Yes, to all intents and purposes the people we live with and work with are getting along fine without God and many people one meets think they’re the masters of their own destiny.

But look deeper. There is still curiosity about spiritual experience. There is a hunger for mystery. There is loneliness; there is marital breakdown. There is illness and people we love die. We are mortal and none of us knows what’s around the corner. This is true of everyone you meet, even the very young. Teenage mental illness and depression is rising; fear of terrorism is high. There will always be a need for a people who know what/Whom they believe and who can hold out hope. In the Philip Larkin poem, Church Going, after painting a gloomy picture of an empty church, the poet admits wisely, that despite people abandoning traditional religion, ‘someone will for ever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious’.

And so we don’t lose heart. We pray for our neighbours. To pray for your neighbour, you need to get to know your neighbour. To know your neighbour is to love to your neighbour. If you pray for them, you will get to love them. If you love them, you will be expressing God’s love for them, and that way you can be a beacon to Christ. That’s what we’re here for. And finally…

3. ‘Giants’ are a matter of perspective
After describing Goliath, the writer of 1 Samuel turns to David. David’s perspective was entirely different to that of his contemporaries, and to that of King Saul. He could see that the real problem was not the giant, but the people’s perception of the giant. He says to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him’ (verse 32). God eventually chose David over Saul because ‘God looks at the heart’. David saw that this particular battle was a battle about faith. The people had lost faith in God to deliver them.

Have we lost faith in God to renew the church? To grow the church? To provide for the church?

What are your giants? We all face personal giants but as a church we don’t make things better by mourning our fall from a previously assumed superior place in the cultural imagination. Yes, things are ‘very different’ now, but people have always said that of their time. We can either be completely unaware of this fall from grace, which I think by now is unlikely; or over play it, and I do hear a lot of what might pass for overplaying the tragedy of this fall. I hear church people wringing their hands about secularisation, mourning the loss of this and that, instead of getting on and re-imagining what living the Christ-centred life actually looks like in the 21st Century. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We may as well come to terms with the fact that Christendom is dead or at least nearly dead, and let God take us by surprise with his own solutions, which rely on faith and remembering his power is made perfect in weakness. This is how David defeated Goliath. His perspective was God’s perspective, and his victory God’s. 

‘Why are you so afraid?’ asks Jesus. ‘Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Missing Sunday

Patterns of church going are changing. I find myself unrealistically yearning for something that seemed self evident during most of my churchgoing through the 70s 80s and 90s; that is, you went every week. It was a simple concept; the weekdays and Saturdays were for work, and play and shopping, and sport, and seeing friends, and Sundays we went to church. You expected to see the same people in church when you arrived, as were there the Sunday before, and would no doubt be there the Sunday after. It would never have occurred to us to go off anywhere else on a Sunday morning, especially not to visit grandparents, since they would be in church themselves. The whole warp and weft of life had a rhythm of sevens; these 'sevens' were embedded in the creation story and the subsequent life of Israel in Old Testament times - 6 days for work, one for rest in which you gathered to honour God, collectively.

It wasn't until I grew up, had my own family and went to live in a village that things began to get more complicated. The beauty and innate spirituality of a pretty village church tends to be negatively correlated with its functional use for young children, and so it was that we could only really cope with the village church experience once a month. But in those days (it was still the 90s) we would have considered once a month worshipping a very meagre diet, so the rest of the time we drove across town to a much larger church, whose non-aesthetically pleasing situation (beside a ring road and surrounded by a car park) was nevertheless positively correlated with splendid child care facilities. 

For some years we attended two churches. However, the time came when we felt we had to make a decision as to where our loyalties lay, church-wise. It was complicated, belonging to two fellowships. There was so much you had to keep driving to, while all the time our children were attending the village school and it seemed as though our local witness was compromised by being absent from the village while local Christians were gathering for worship. On one of our urban Sundays, with one child dropped off in the comfortable creche and the other two in the round the clock Sunday School, we entered the large church building and took our seats, pew sheet in hand. The theme was 'Belonging'. That word seemed to jump off the page and we felt that God was saying the time had come for us to fully 'belong' in the village. And so with very little notice, but with the blessing of that vicar, we threw our lot in with the pretty village church, the one with no child-care facilities/Sunday School/music written after about 1960. 

Even though it was hard going at first, we felt we were in the right place at the right time, and we felt loved. The children were still in that phase when we felt they should come with us whether they liked it or not, because we knew it was good for them, like the dentist, or a hot meal. As we stumbled out of the house on a Sunday morning, with three sometimes recalcitrant, grumpy or crying kids, carrying snacks, drinks, small metal cars and pieces of lego (and later, sheets of music and the odd guitar, because yes, we got roped in) I would sometimes ask myself wistfully why Sundays mornings, my 'day of rest', consistently seemed to be the most stressful time of the whole entire week.

All went well till around the middle of the primary school phase when we inevitably began to get swept into endless juggling of sporting commitments, birthday parties, picking up children from loud bowling alleys and general Sunday craziness. Our attendance began to be more sporadic, and sometimes one of us would arrive on time and leave before the end, or go somewhere else first and arrive late. It was stressful. Eventually it settled down and we became more able to sustain our regular gathering with the people of God. Because it matters to gather. 'Church' actually means gathering. No gathering, no church. If we don't gather, if at some point we arrive at a church-less future, it will be because not enough people could sustain the weekly gathering whilst all those who for whatever reason couldn't gather very often, or at all, were mostly doing other things on Sundays.

Of course nowadays, people gather in cafes, midweek, at Messy Church in the village hall and all manner of other Fresh Expressions/ways of being church. But I suppose it was inevitable that while I was a big fan of all this type of thing during my time as an active lay church-goer, as soon as I became a minster, I began to wonder, where will it all end, this dispersed way of being church, this never coinciding with the same people on the same Sunday, this 'haphazardness'...?

And sometimes I think we'll end up with at least a church buildings-less future, because the pace at which lives are lived, and the pressure not to let up (earning, working long hours, being busy, managing busy children) is getting worse. Cultural pressures are enormous: people are more mobile, busier and their lives more dispersed than ever. Working from home, one day feels like any other. In the summer especially, the number of things you could effectively fill up your Sunday with is eye wateringly overwhelming - driving, shopping, working, fetes, fayres, festivals, triathlons, cycle races, charity events, mini marathons, 10ks, 5ks, steam rallies, vintage car rallies, cricket, allotments, boot fairs. If a whole generation, then another, of people end up not really gathering for worship together, there will be no sustaining core, no finance and, eventually, no building.

So I feel old. I'm missing my rose tinted-spectacles-Sunday. But I guess everyone who's ever felt committed to church going has felt this about their perspective, and look: we're still here. Just. Life changes: deal with it. I do like the idea of being connected on social media but it's not the same. I know many people work on Sundays (hey, I work on Sundays); I know everyone's busy and 'family time' means sometimes not going to church because you're so pooped by the weekend that it's just one more thing. But I worry about the future. I imagine pretty (and more important, local) village churches closing. And I miss The Body, the fulness of all we could be, together. 

And Philip Larkin doesn't help.