A sermon given by Sarah Watt.
Sunday 24 February 2008
I remember when I was growing up, some time at high school I think, I first heard someone say “Christianity isn’t a religion – it’s a relationship with God”. That phrase has stuck in my mind, but probably not until I was preparing this talk did it resonate with me properly. It opened up to me the most perfect analogy, which I shall use as the basis for my comments today.
When I put my hand up to give a sermon (or “informal chat” as I sold it to my friends) my immediate feeling was that I wanted to talk about what’s important to me in terms of church, God, religion, etc – and how I see its importance in the world today. We all know that church attendance across the Western world has been on the decline for decades, and we see evidence day after day of how religion- be it a state religion or people’s personal choices – is losing its grip on politics, our individual lives, and our world at large.
I’m not here to suggest that this trend be reversed – I haven’t yet formulated my opinion on church and state and where the two should meet or whether they should be kept completely separate.
I am far more interested in the personal – the relationship with a God that I believe in, and have believed in since I was brought up, no matter what the official state of my spiritual life (i.e. whether I was a committed Christian or pre-Christian). It strikes me that if people were able to look at the very essence of this relationship, paring back all the bells, whistles, stigmas and dogma that generally accompany religion and religious discussion, that we might be able to get back to what the real benefit is.
And I use the word “benefit” because as base or selfish as that may sound, if there were no tangible benefit to believing in God and trying to have a relationship with Him, why would we bother? You can’t guilt-trip people into church nowadays, threatening them they’ll go to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus – people consider themselves smarter than that, they have other choices, and they won’t respond to such base arguments. And frankly, I derive so much more from being a Christian and seeking God than just a Get Out of Jail Free card, should the world end in a fireball of damnation – although obviously if it does come to that I’ll be clutching that card real tight…
The truth is we believe that we are children of a creator, a Father, an omniscient and omnipresent (and ideally omnipotent) being, who, for me at least, brings great comfort in a huge world populated by billions of suffering people who are struggling along in their daily lives trying to make the best of things. And I don’t just mean people in the 3rd world – the poverty-stricken, strife-ridden places – I mean every human being on this planet, because we all have our lives to get through, and our difficulties to deal with. Putting aside the tricky questions thrown at us by non-believers or those on their path to faith – “why would God allow this suffering?” etc etc – I have to say that my very real experience is of a God who helps me along my way, and more often than not blesses me bountifully in the life I’m leading here on earth.
I’ve had the “you’re using him as a crutch” accusation levelled at me before, but I’ve recently decided there is no shame in that and I’m just not bothered if it’s seen that way – frankly I’d rather be using Him as a crutch (or rather, as a comfort, a guide, a companion, and something that gives my life a meaning that an atheist view would deprive it of) than struggling along unhappily on my own - and indeed, if we die and discover there was never anything supernatural out there and it’s all in my imagination, I shall still feel I have derived a great benefit from this delusion – so what on earth is there to lose, really?. I do feel I’m in a win-win situation!
So I think that above all things “religion” and faith should be about our interaction with this God. If you don’t believe in this God, you can’t have the relationship or the religion – so surely it’s a precursor for the rest.
And this is why it’s so disappointing to see people excluded by the church, or excluding themselves from the church, because despite their belief or perhaps just seeds of belief in God, they perceive they are not worthy or acceptable to have this relationship. They feel they can’t tick all the boxes - they maybe don’t believe all the prerequisites; there will be people who say they are the “wrong type” of believer - so they have to miss out altogether. I feel so strongly that the most important thing a church can offer is a place where a like-minded community of people who share a similar belief can come together, and which encourages everyone to partake in this community in encouragement of everyone’s spiritual journey towards a closeness with God. And you can’t tell me that this isn’t what God wants too, surely.
I come at this very much from a personal bent, stemming from an experience I had a couple of years ago. I was living in London for 8 years, during the latter years of which I lived with my then boyfriend, who wasn’t a Christian. I attended a little local Anglican church down the road, and tried to go nearly every Sunday morning. Obviously I’m well aware that it’s not a traditionally-accepted, nor necessarily a desirable, situation to be living with one’s partner as a practising Christian – but I was not prepared to give up my spiritual life just because my “real life”, if you will, wasn’t compliant. There were obviously issues within that relationship (with the boyfriend) because I eventually left him and London and returned to NZ, so the fact that there were already plenty of things to deal with made it a little more complex than just moving out of the house just so I could continue to go to church.
Anyway, I was invited to tea with the vicar one weekend (how very English!), and I have to say that our vicar was a lovely man, very gentle and non-judgemental, and he always knew I lived with my boyfriend up the road – and often invited us both to go for dinner at the vicarage with him and his wife, or for me to bring Matthew to church (needless to say neither invitation was taken up, but at least it was offered by the Vicar, conveyed by me, and refused graciously by my boyfriend). I wasn’t going to lie or pretend something that wasn’t true – that “I’m living with flatmates” – and indeed I spoke openly to my vicar about how I wished Matthew would see the light and just get on a propose, and we laughed about how foolish men can be. (that’s a hint to anyone out there who is dragging his feet! Leave it too long and we’ll move to the other side of the world! I’m just kidding, I’ve moved on, honestly…)
Anyway, while chatting, I brightly offered my services to do a reading in church some time, and that’s where the mood changed somewhat. The vicar looked a bit sheepish and said that he appreciated my offer, but that really, while I was tangibly living in a situation that wasn’t aligned with Christian teaching and principles, it wouldn’t really do for me to stand up the front and engage in a service to the congregation where I wasn’t actually exhibiting the right morals – he didn’t use that word, but basically what we were talking about is my being up the front as a representative for a view, and practising what we preach.
I have to say I was dreadfully upset – and while I put on a brave face at the time and said I understood and respected his view (which I did, to a large extent) it really cut me to the quick. I was upset for days after, and did in fact go home and tell Matthew about it – tho’ he didn’t take the hint and propose – so here we are. Anyway, when talking to a Catholic friend about it days later, she and I got indignant about the fact that my “sin” was open for all to see, yet there could have been people cheating on their tax returns, their wives, doing goodness knows what, but because it was kept secret no one would know and they could well be up the front of the church giving a reading or engaging in any manner of pastoral activities. Given that a church is really just a gathering of people like any other group, and we’re all human after all, it’s highly unlikely everyone but me had obtained a state of “perfection”.
ANYWAY – imagine my delight to be standing in front of you all today and “allowed” to give a talk – curate a service – play music – do a reading – and this brings me to what I rate so highly about Cityside and our attitude here. And you’ll be pleased to know this also brings me back to my point about what’s important.
We are all flawed, and we are all on a journey. A dear friend of mine spoke recently about wanting to “find himself” and get his head together - at age 22 - so that he’d be sorted for life. I had to laugh – jaded old 34 year old that I am – and think about how we’re never sorted and we never have it all figured out – and I believe our spiritual journey is exactly the same. We will constantly come up against things we question and aren’t happy with, then in a matter of months or years we may find we feel quite differently about issues we once thought for insurmountable. But it’s all a process. And the point is, we can’t put our religion, our faith, our engagement with God on hold until we get it all right. When I was a teenager and had faith but wasn’t a Christian, I went to parties and drank and tried to kiss boys – and I thought I couldn’t be a Christian until I’d given that up – so I effectively put that part of my life “on hold”. It wasn’t until in my early 20s that a series of events in my and my family’s life led me to committing my heart, and therefore my soul, to Christianity. But I committed in faith, first and foremost, and started on my proper journey of getting to know what it was like to have God in my life on a daily basis and to listen to Him and try to talk to Him, to inform my life choices for the better. Needless to say in some areas my behaviour still leaves a lot to be desired, I continue to make bad choices, and don’t always sit quietly long enough to hear what He is trying to tell me. And I’m still establishing what I believe and how I feel about certain tenets of Christianity, and I still struggle with how to deal with difficult people graciously, and I still swear (though I do manage to steer clear of blasphemy, which is some small consolation!). I can’t tick many of the boxes! and in some Christian company I may feel a little inadequate. But, selfishly or otherwise, I am not prepared to give up my faith just because I haven’t got it all right yet. I won’t get it completely right, ever. I hope to get it better – but reality and experience tells me I’ve got decades left to bumble along and just do my best.
SO – what’s my point?
God is just like a partner in a relationship, and this makes that original comment make sense. Better yet, God really understands that whole thing of “you can’t change people, you have to accept them as they are”. Yeah yeah, sure. I know you can’t change boys – blah blah blah. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to tweak them ever so slightly – but yes, pretty much you have to accept people as they are, I am old enough to know that that’s true now. But lucky for me God is prepared to have a relationship with me as I am – and yes, He’ll try to influence me to behave a little better, as you would a friend, relative or partner – could you please watch and enjoy “Room with a View” with me? It’d mean a lot to me; why don’t you wear that lovely blue shirt?; please don’t talk to my father about politics; but thank goodness He will take me as I am, now, and isn’t telling me to come back when I’ve changed completely.
AND the whole point is, we don’t come to this perfect because we can’t hope to reach perfection, or even see it in the distance, unless we are communing with God in the first place. So we should feel free to jump on the train and go for the journey, with all its bumps and wrong turns and slowing-down. It’s more important to get on the train than to stand at the station waiting until you feel completely ready to travel.
So I love Cityside. Not just because you’ll let me get up and speak, but because I was so touched from Day 1 to read that this is a community of “faithful doubters” – a perfect description for people on a journey, who want to be on this journey and to be supported on it, but be allowed to trip or fall, but know they’ll be picked up and welcomed back at any time. And to question things! That’s so important. Our real life outside of church is going to go on regardless – we’ll be up against difficulties all the time, sometimes we’ll act less than well, sometimes we’ll regret our words or thoughts. But at least if we have God as our boyfriend we know we’re loved and accepted and guided to a greater happiness by someone who really cares and really can help.