A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

Yes. I want to write against the famous Protestant Work Ethic. I think it damaged the church in the West and it continues to do so. I really do. It created competitive capitalist economies and a considerable degree of prosperity in the West, but the price for all of these on the weak and the under-performing have been devastating. I had a sense that this was the case the moment I moved to Western Europe. Something didn’t feel right. Why did the poor in Glasgow tell a minister friend of mine: “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” Why did one of our non-church-going friends tell us that church is elitist, and only the well-off are really wanted there? That seemed a bit harsh to me. This was not something I experienced in the East.

It took me awhile to begin to realise why the church is NOT perceived by people living in poverty as a place of grace and acceptance, but rather as a place of judgement and condemnation. I believe we have the Protestant Work Ethic to blame for this situation. I know it’s controversial, but I will say it nonetheless.

Here’s how the wretched PWE works: If you want to amount to anything, you have to work hard, be frugal, and perform to your maximum ability. If you don’t, you starve. Or in other words, you’re not really worth very much. That’s it. Wait a minute! What? What about grace? Oh, here’s how it works: the results of your hard work and high performance are SIGNS of the grace you already freely received. Ooooh, right. OMG! This, friends, is how you render a word like ‘grace’ meaningless. Prosperity gospel anyone? That’s where it comes from! Not the same thing, but a logical consequence.

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Sermon – Not to condemn

John 3:1-17

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 20th March 2011, Second Sunday in Lent.

There is a special time in everyone’s life when they come face to face with the vastness of the ocean or the sea for the first time. I remember many holidays we took at the Black Sea as a child, and I distinctly remember every time the train approached the sea shore and I could just spot the shore over the top of some buildings. The excitement of that first view of the water extending all the way to the horizon never really died down for me. I still feel that excitement today, whenever I go to the sea side. This is true perhaps because the sea has a special capacity to bring eternity within our reach.

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Sermon – From the past to the future

Matthew 5:21-37

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 13th February 2011, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.

Every time I sit and watch a new film I am impressed by the power of stories to capture our attention and draw us in. What I particularly like about films is their capacity to stimulate imagination and open up possibilities which we may have never considered before. Perhaps because of that, one my favourite genre is science fiction. I always loved science fiction films, ever since I was a boy. I grew up with Star Wars and Flight of the navigator. I also remember a trilogy called Back to the future.

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Father and Minister

Since I was only recently ordained as a Church of Scotland minister, I am noticing a strange internal transformation. Suddenly, I care. Wait, let me read what I just wrote… Yup, I now care. It is a similar thing to when I became a father. Suddenly I woke up worrying and caring about another human being in a completely different way to, say, the way I care for my wife. The need to protect, to nurture my offspring was overwhelming.

After ordination, I now experience the same kind of feelings towards my parishioners. Since today it snowed again in Bishopton, I find myself concerned that people will be slipping on the snowy car park tomorrow morning when they come to church. I have this nagging feeling that I need to protect them, much like I protect my children from harm. What’s wrong with me? They are not children! Most of them are older than me. And besides, who can handle worrying about 700 children? Is there a pill I can take for this?