Lessons On The Way 10: On Confusing God’s People with God

Church can be bad for your spiritual health. It’s easy as an attendee to get all comfy and cosy, and to forget that there’s a whole other six and a half days a week for you to live out what you say and sing in those 90 minutes on a Sunday. It’s easy to get cossetted into a holy huddle of false sacred/secular divide, and keep the world firmly out there and us comfortably in here. These, and more, are the dangers of being part of the strange and beautiful bride that is the church.

What’s on my mind today is how easy it can be to allow the actions of Christians to harden my receptivity towards God. It seems to me that this a danger especially for those of paid to lead churches – not that it isn’t a danger for all of us, just that the space of ‘professional’ (much as we might hate what that word might be seen to imply) church leader is where I find myself, and I’m increasingly and acutely aware of the dangers of the job.

In this role I find myself in the centre of a number of odd dynamics. There’s the sense that despite being the one with training and experience and who is paid to do what I do, I have a roomful of ‘amateurs’ (in the best sense of that word – the root of it is ‘love’) who have no training and little experience in what I do but plenty of strong opinions. Like the fans of a flailing football team, there’s plenty of passion, some insight and some ignorance directed at the one full-time manager who’s around. Or there’s the way you become a focus for the projection of issues people have – with other church leaders from their past, father or mother issues, authority figure issues, God issues, other Christians issues and the like. Sometimes one finds that these can be challenged or called out; sometimes they can’t be because the person’s distress is too great or need too urgent. Then there’s the hours you work that aren’t seen, the prayers you pray that the one prayed for never hears about, the casual complaints and the tired jokes about working a day a week and your ‘one busy day a week’. I could go on.

All of that and more stacks up. I suit up my armour – on a good day, that God’s armour – and wade into the world ready for what it brings. However it’s easy for that armour to be a hard carapace that may protect me from hurt but also keeps God on the outside. If I’m not careful I’ve started to confuse God’s people with God; I know we say that I’m here to serve God’s people, but really I’m here to serve God. It’s a crucial distinction. You can’t serve two masters, and if you hang around church long enough (especially as a leader) it’s easy to confuse God with His people, my feelings towards them with my feelings towards Him.

I’d done that. It’s been a tough season in a tough job. I’d put a shell around my heart and soul. It gradually crumbled over the course of a week’s retreat and a good weekend at the church I lead until I attended another church on the Sunday evening (which we do often). I asked someone to pray with me, the shell shattered, exposing me to the loving, burning gaze of God in a way that used to happen regularly but hadn’t happened in years. God looked into me, I blinked back at Him, and the shell was no more. Well, maybe it’s still there a little – maybe it’s a symptom of our default sinful state that we always seek to hide in the garden just a bit; but I’m now graciously, freeingly exposed. Not healed, not sorted, not perfect. Just open.

How many masters do I serve? How many are in the audience? The answer should only and always be: one.

 

Also In This Series

  1. I don’t have to do it all
  2. How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath
  3. The dangers and offensiveness of grace
  4. Tables and chairs are spiritual
  5. I’m (a bit) like St Paul
  6. Nothing’s that important
  7. It’s probably me
  8. The hero trap – what if I’m Goliath?
  9. The beginning and ending of spiritual warfare
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Lessons On The Way 9: The Beginning and Ending of Spiritual Warfare

I just spent a few minutes praying. That’s what I’m paid to do, right? Isn’t at least part of the point of a church pastor that he prays? I mean, if the pastor doesn’t, then what hope for the rest of us?

If only it were so simple. One of the most important lessons you learn when you’re in ‘the ministry’, leading a church, is that work is never done. There’s always another person you could be calling or visiting to see how they’re doing; there’s always emails you could be answering or composing; there’s always administration that could be being done. Church work is done at the interaction between the eternal and the temporal, so it’s never, ever finished. (Which is why I like cooking. Because it always reaches an end point.)

Add to that the fact that people always have an opinion on what you should be doing. More of the admin that you’re trying to hand-off to others (note: the fact that you’ve handed off admin to others doesn’t mean you have less admin to do as pastor, it just means you have different admin to do as pastor); serving; visiting; preparing a talk; cleaning; listening to someone; talking to someone; solving a problem; educating yourself about something. So virulent is this that one clergy person I worked with once told me that taking time out to pray and retreat regularly was a lazy excuse for non-productivity.

There are so many voices insisting on air time, so many of them claiming, usually not unreasonably, that what they have to say is good and important. That clergy person to whom I just referred was  – and despite the fact that it’s years since I’ve spoken with him, still is  – a loud and haunting voice in my ear. I get so much – I’m paid more than some in the congregation, I get a house with the job; I get a sabbatical; and other things I could (should?) mention. I should show I’m worth it. I should be a servant. I should produce. I should have something to justify it all. One of the areas I’m really wrestling with this in regard to is my upcoming sabbatical. It’s my first one, and it’s a hard battle to push back at the tide of inward noise that shouts I must having something to show for it at its end. No matter that by this stage of ordained life I should be onto at least my second, or possibly third. I should show I’m worth it and that it’s worthwhile.

Some of that is true. Much of it isn’t. But allowing those voices to be mastered, controlled and where necessary muted, is one of the most important tasks of Christian leadership. As a great writer once said, ‘my people’s [I don’t like that phrase, but you get the point] greatest need is my personal holiness’.

The demons of productivity and worthiness and proving myself are insistent ones. They will only come out through their opposite – prayer and fasting, about which you say little and to which you draw no attention. The problem is that they keep coming back to see if the house is empty.

Is there a more demonic voice than that – one that would draw me away from conversation with God to activity with a sheen of goodness?

Spiritual warfare starts, and (if it ever does) ends in my soul.

Also in this series:

1: I don’t have to do it all

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s probably me

8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

Lessons on the Way 8: The Hero Trap – what if I’m Goliath?

The Old Testament is a pesky document. For a start it’s often blamed for many of Christianity’s PR problems – it’s claimed by its critics to present a picture of God that’s all smiting, vengeance and wrath as opposed to the fluffier, grace-filled God of the New Testament. Anyone who’s spent any serious time studying the Bible knows that this is a woefully simplistic misreading of very complex texts but it’s still easy to see why people do tend to fall into this all too obvious trap. In an instant age it’s easy to avoid some hard theological work and take the headline-grabbing response.

That doesn’t really concern me, though. There’s a more insidious type of trap that Christians of my flavour are in danger of falling into. It plays to my flawed vision of myself, appeals to my sin-ravaged self-esteem and is especially toxic to someone who’s paid to lead Christian communities. I call it The Hero Trap.

The Old Testament is full of derring-do, of larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things in ways which give lessons for life and insights into the way God deals with people. There’s a Promised Land (I know that in itself is problematic to many, but that’s a subject for another day) to take, and it’s occupied by an army so fearsome that they look like giants. There are people who fight lions, there’s visitations from angels, there’s vengeance and there’s war. It’s all exciting stuff, and preachers of my tradition often like to use it to draw parallels: we too have land to take, we too face opposition that appears to be over-whelming and we all know that we’re in a battle against powers and principalities too much for us by ourselves. There’s truth in there, but it’s not the whole truth.

Consider one of the most famous stories of them all; David and Goliath. We know it well from Sunday School and sermons galore; young David is the only one brave enough to stand up to the overwhelming and overbearing Philistine champion. Armed only with a sling and stones he takes out the enemy with one shot (incidentally, Malcolm Gladwell’s take on this story in his book David and Goliath should be essential reading). We know, I’m sure, how we’re to read this story: we’re all puny in front of our enemy, but in the power of God we can overcome any opposition.

There’s truth in there, but not the whole truth. You see, as much as I may be a David, I could also be a Goliath. The Hero Trap is appealing because it casts we in a heroic role that will stir the blood in film adaptations and sunday school stories. My ego is fragile and it needs to be rubbed and nurtured.

The trouble is that my ego also needs to be kept in check. The Bible’s actually quite good at that, reminding me that without God I’m dead; I can do nothing and I need Him if I’m to do or be anything, if I’m to have a life worthy of the name from an eternal perspective. So this should give me pause; might I not, sometimes at least, be the giant in the land, the one who causes fear and who needs to be opposed? What if I don’t need to conquer, but need to be conquered? What if I’m learning the lines of the wrong character in the script?

It’s a slightly less inspiring thought and somewhat harder to preacher appealingly. However the reality is that I’m more naturally capable of opposing God’s purposes than I am of being the one through whom they come about ; I’m more likely to stand in the way than I am to be used to remove problems. That’s not going to change anything eternally – to be blunt, God will still win – but it should at the very least make me less eager to cast myself as the hero in the story.

Peter is often said to be one of the characters in the Bible to whom it is easiest to relate. There’s good reason for that:  he may end up as a formative figure in the life of the early church, but he gets there by way of denial, being called Satan by Jesus and a brush with a watery grave. He’s a funny sort of hero, one whose weaknesses are appealingly real. At my best I’m Peter flirting with disaster. I, and we, would do well to remember that next time there’s ground to take. It may just be that we’re already occupying the ground; and we may need to vacate it.

Put that in a Sunday school lesson.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness of Grace

4: Tables and Chairs are Spiritual

5: I’m (a bit) Like St Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

7: It’s Probably Me

Lessons On The Way 7: It’s Probably Me

The answer is ‘me’.

Typical church leader, making himself (and would be himself, wouldn’t it?) the centre of it all. The world has to revolve around him.

That was this morning’s revelation. At this stage it may help to know what the question was that prompted such an egotistical answer. So here it comes.

Ready?

The question was this: who or what is holding the church back?

By church in this case, I mean not the denomination or the world-wide body of believers; I mean the local expression I’m called and paid to lead.

Not quite as egotistical as it first looked, perhaps. Actually, it probably is because now I’m writing a post about on my blog in which I use the word ‘I’ a lot.

Oh dear. If this carries on any longer I’m going to spontaneously combust in a haze of self-referential introspection, like a character in an aside in a Douglas Adams novel.

I’ll plough on regardless. I meant it like this. Not that there’s a specific problem in our church; it’s just that it’s always good to ask the question … ‘what could be stopping this church from being all it could be?’.

I have a rhythm about which I am very protective. On Monday mornings I detox from Sunday with a trip to the gym and then sitting in a coffee shop with a coffee, a Bible and other reading material, earphones and something to jot some thoughts on. I find this rhythm essential for my physical and mental health; it’s not time off. It’s part of my working week. This morning I was reflecting on what had been a vibrant and positive church service the day before (it hadn’t been me preaching, which made it easier for me to really see how it all was). The question bubbled through my mind: why aren’t there more like this?

Part of the answer is, of course, that you can’t live on a perpetual high; you need some average services, and because we’re human there’ll be some pretty poor ones. Factor in the Holy Spirit too; He, of course, is capable of taking a shoddy, poorly prepared and delivered effort and weaving something significant in the heart of some present. That’s not an excuse for poor work; it’s grace and a fact of the way God always seems to be.

Part of the answer is also that I get in the way. I get in the way, because 4 and a half years into this post and with no expectation of leaving, my desires, habits, personality and ways become increasingly part of the shaping of what’s going on. That’s just inevitable. So who I am and how I am matters; not in an egotistical way (though there’s a real danger that it becomes that), but in the sense that I’m the full-time, paid leader so … it just does, matter. Which is good in some respects. I believe God’s behind this sort of thing, so He must want to use my strengths and abilities and interests.

It cuts both ways, though. My blind spots, my foibles and failings, my mistakes, will impact more, get in the way more and people (including myself) will generally need to clear up after me. So I really do need to be ruthless with myself; which is why I was thankful this morning when the penny dropped that certain variants of my reactions to certain types of things cause problems in the development of the church; that my fears and limits are most likely to be holding things back. I need to be aware of them, account for them and as far as it lies with me, work around them (or at least enable others to work around them and make up for them).

We all know the truths about God’s will being made perfect in our weaknesses; and we know that it’s all about grace so it doesn’t depend on us leaders, it depends on God and God alone. All that’s true and important.

None of that negates the truth that the longer I’m in one place the more likely it is that my faults and weaknesses will create blockages and bottlenecks in the life of this expression of church. So I need to be aware of them, able to be challenged on them and working to do something about them.

In a way, then, it really is all about me. And God. Him most of all. But me too.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness Of Grace

4: Tables And Chairs Are Spiritual

5: I’m (A Bit) Like St. Paul

6: Nothing’s That Important

 

Lessons On The Way 6: Nothing’s that important

Most churches run on the fuel of volunteers. As I’ve alluded to before, working with volunteers can be one of the unsung pressures of the paid church leader. It’s often hard to shake the feeling in your gut that because volunteers are … well … volunteers you can’t expect them to be as committed to the church as you are. Or you feel guilty about asking things of them. You may have moral or spiritual authority, but there’s very little actual positional authority to draw on in relation to volunteers. You live with that nagging sense that they can leave at any time; and sometimes they do.

Which is why church life often gets so busy, with programmes and courses and events which need volunteer hours to run. Give people a target to work towards, then people are more likely to buy in and give their time and energy and money. In addition, the more good stuff your church runs the less likely your fickle church members (and thus your pool of volunteers) are to head off to the slick, busy, mega-church down the road with a large staff team.

All this needs vision. Vision is good; it provides a clear sense of where we’re going, as well as where we’ve been. It gives direction and momentum. People buy into vision. People will give time and money, blood, sweat and tears to vision. Keep the vision compelling, front and centre and people are more likely to stay around and get involved.

Vision is – or should be – God-given. I don’t mean by that it descends from on high like the Law, but that it’s worked out in community under God in a process. Sometimes it needs be steered to a greater or lesser extent by the leadership of the church, but it should come from God. Vision is a blessing given by God, and when it’s received and handled aright, it can be deeply significant. But it’s not God.

We people have a nasty habit of turning blessings into gods, Isaacs in idols. It’s very easy, disturbingly easy, for vision to subtly creep into spaces it shouldn’t be in. I’m sure it would be easy to write one of those ‘8 signs you’re replacing God with vision’ type of posts. That’s not really my concern here.

My concern is this. That people are burning out. That could be the clergy, it could be paid lay-staff, it could be volunteers. Frankly, the way people of all 3 of those categories burn out in church life is frightening. No wonder we have a generation cynical about church if they look at it and see bruised reeds being broken. I recently read the following in another blog: “For example, a well-known mega-church pastor once advised me to think of people in seven-year terms. He explained that people generally burn out after seven years. And if I wanted to build a big ministry for God, I would need to leverage those seven years“. You may need to re-read that a couple of times to grasp the full, disturbing nature of the statement. Not find a way to stop people burning out, but leverage the volunteers until they do so.

This doesn’t stop with volunteers. Frankly, I’ve seen employment practises for church staff (including the senior pastor) that are abusive. Sometimes this is justified by the fact that unlike volunteers, staff still need to ‘give time’. Nonsense. If church is your job, you don’t need to ‘give time’. You need to rest, away from it. If people are burning out, they are not responding to God; that may be their own brokenness causing it, or it may be driving people to a vision rather than calling people to God. 

I understand why happens. For the leader, and often for other over-committed staff, church takes up so much time and energy that we have to make sure it works; whatever that means for us. So we pour into it, and expect others to do so too. If we don’t, we might fail.

It’s so hard not to do this, and it creeps into my own life, thoughts and deeds insidiously. Far too often, when someone’s unable to do something or does something in a way I don’t like, I respond with angry words in my head, moaning at lack of commitment or vision. Nothing should be that important, but that doesn’t stop me needing ‘success’ to prove myself to myself or others … and needing the overwork of others to achieve it.

When I get it right, this is what I do. I tell people to find an area of church to serve in that gives them joy and life and energy, and then to do it. If it stops becoming a joy, stop doing it. If that means we don’t have Sunday School one week, or the church is a bit messier, or the music isn’t what it has been, then so be it. God will still be on His throne and Jesus will still love us and want people to come to Him and will work through us anyway. Something about jars of clay, I think.

Of course there will be moments. Moments when we all need to chip in because there’s a crisis, or something especially unusual or occasional that needs to be done. Sometimes we do need to move outside the space of our strength and joy just to use a different muscle for a bit. But those are all the exception; no less real because of it, but the exception for all that.

There’s nothing in the Bible about being driven beyond what we’re capable of, moving beyond natural healthy human limitations, following God so recklessly that relationships, health and spiritual life suffer. Live life as God calls me to; that’s my daily challenge. The rest is God’s responsibility. Not mine.

Also In This Series:

1: I Don’t Have To Do It All

2: How To Make Sure Your Church Leader Doesn’t Turn Into A Psychopath

3: The Dangers And Offensiveness Of Grace

4: Tables And Chairs Are Spiritual

5: I’m (A Bit) Like St. Paul

 

Lessons On The Way 5: I’m (a bit) like St Paul

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. 

2 Corinthians 11:28-29 (The Message)

Church leaders are controllers. Any of you who have been around churches for a while and neither heard that said nor felt it yourself? No? Exactly.

That those of us who lead churches are prone to excessive levels of control is a statement uttered so often that it’s taken on the status of indisputable truth. For good reason. I’ve been close enough to church leaders and seen enough of myself in this role to know that this is a real problem. Maybe it’s manipulating sound levels on the music to ensure worship ‘takes off’; dressing (or not dressing) a certain way; insisting on a certain title being used; micromanaging staff or volunteers; coming into the church office most days of a 3-month sabbatical; bullying of staff and volunteers … and so many other symptoms. If a church leader won’t admit control isn’t an issue or temptation for them, then they are either ignorant or untruthful.

There are many reasons for this. There’s always going to be some of the leader’s own brokenness at play. In addition there’s the strange dynamics of spiritual and ecclesial power, the projection of other people’s father/mother/brother/sister/power/church/god issues onto the leaders, the stress of working with volunteers, levels of pay that when can seem low compared to people with similar skills and qualifications in other sectors, the hours, the obligation to work when others are relaxing and partying.

These, and other reasons, are all real – and ultimately not an excuse, but an explanation as to why factors of control can enter into a leader’s life. However there’s a fine line between control and natural concern. One of the manifestations of control I often get told about is leaders checking in with the church when they are away on holiday. Text messages or emails to those handling things while the leaders are away are often taken as examples of control. Leave it be and relax! Trust us! Let go and let God! Stop controlling! I’ve heard them all.

There’s a fine line though, and it’s one that is hard to explain but that I see referenced in that quotation above from 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. The simple fact is that going away and doing something fun for a bit doesn’t help you switch off. Not totally. We talk of this role as church leader as a vocation, a calling. We do the same with doctors; I learned recently that the Hippocratic Oath compels an off-duty medic to take action if she happens to find herself around a medical emergency. Now we leaders don’t have a legal compulsion like that, but it seems to me to be similar. We view this not simply as a job, but a life (that doesn’t mean you can pay leader pittance because ‘they aren’t in it for the money’ … think how much some medics are paid …  but that’s the subject of a future post). It is a job, but it’s also not. It’s something which consumes and shapes and draws on everything we do and are. Leading a church means your whole life is lived in public; it means that you allow people with less expertise than yourself in relevant areas know details of your pay, your benefits, your working patterns and then they have some kind of ‘right’ to tell you what they think of how you’re getting on. It’s why in many countries employment law just doesn’t apply to clergy because, quite simply, it would be impossible to justify the levels of pay against the hours worked in a legal setting. On a quiet week I’ll work 50 or so hours, and I don’t begrudge that all; but it’s not a legal arrangement if viewed in the ‘normal’ way.

The job of leading a church is not a ‘normal’ one. That’s what Paul is getting at there. You pour your life and soul and blood and sweat and tears  – all quite literally as well as metaphorically – into something that most people never see or understand but about which they are very happy to have strong opinions, often very strongly articulated when the leader is feeling most vulnerable. Turn it off whilst you’re on holiday? You might as well try to turn off the wind. It may die down or become strangely becalmed for a while. You can’t, simply can’t forget it or not think about it. It’s impossible. It’s not control. It’s love, and the reminder that this is of eternal significance.

Granted there’s a dividing line, which ultimately only an individual leader can answer for herself, often best judged in accountability to honest friends, counsellors, medical professionals or spiritual directors. Coming into the office most days  – or even at all  – on a sabbatical  is not good. Checking in with people looking after things when on holiday? Maybe controlling; or maybe just showing love and prayer and support. Only one person can answer that.

If you’re a church leader be honest with yourself about when you’re controlling and when you’re not. Get counselling or therapy – we all need it. It will help us be less of what we shouldn’t be and more of what we should.

If you’re not a church leader, please remember this. Your leader is a bit like St Paul. That’s sometimes delusional. Sometimes unhelpful. Sometimes just a fact of the life to which she’s called. What you experience as control may just be love speaking, refracted through your own brokenness or assumptions. Be kind. They will, after all, be judged more strictly than you will. If we don’t do our job properly we will be held to account. So by all means challenge examples of control, but do it thoughtfully and prayerfully. Disagree, vehemently. Get angry. But do it all in the consideration that they will be judged, no matter what; and do it all remembering they carry something so dear to them that it can’t be properly expressed. Your church leader is indeed a bit like St Paul.

Question. I wrote this on holiday. Is that wrong?

Also in this series: 

4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all

Lessons On The Way 4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

“When do you discuss the drains?”

It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.

It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?

There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things.  So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?

One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.

We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.

So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.

Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that  – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.

There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed  – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.

Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.

A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very  much alive.

Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.

It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.

It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.

Are you on holy ground?

Also in this series: 

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure you church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all