So, yesterday I went to church. Kind of an obvious statement to make, what with me being semi-Christian and all, but the truth is I very rarely go these days. There are many reasons for my lapse in religious observances, ranging from not being at home at weekends (visiting friends, attending a LARP event, at a re-enactment, etc.), not having time at weekends (when I was working up in Lincoln I had to be packed and out the house by 4pm at the latest in order to get back to my accommodation with enough time to eat, unpack, and get enough sleep – yay 6am starts…), and yes, I admit it, laziness. Now Methodist services aren’t that long – the standard is about an hour – and my church starts at 11, but when you add in the socialising afterwards (because community is a major part of belonging to a church and I have several friends there) and the walk there and back, that’s nearly three hours. I don’t mind going to church, and when I do I’ve nearly always enjoyed it or at least got something out of it, but when my Sunday ends early or I’ve been out or up late Saturday night, the idea of setting an alarm or taking three hours out of what little time I have to spend in my flat makes going to church a lower priority than it probably should be. So yeah, something of a noteworthy event.
Another difference is that yesterday I had to go. Granted, no one held a gun to my head, but if I didn’t go my mother would have made my life hell. It’s not that I minded going, more the fact that she’d gone on and on and on about how I had to be there ever since this date had been arranged. Back when I nearly died my parents stayed in Lincoln the whole time I was in hospital, and had a terrible time of it, especially when I was under sedation. The local Methodist minister gave them a lot of support (me, not so much, but then the two times I did see him I was incredibly spaced out), and after I got better and was transferred to London they started to arrange for him to come down and do a service at our church. Now when Mum first mentioned this to me it was billed as a service for thanksgiving for my life, which is a lovely idea, and also something I was never ever going to be at because, thankful as I am to still be here, it would have been hideously embarrassing for me to sit there while everyone else sings and prays and listens about how wonderful it is that God saved my life. So I told her I didn’t want to go, which went down really well… Eventually, much to my relief, the service was changed to a normal one from a visiting preacher, which I had no objections attending, but that hasn’t stopped her from somewhat aggressively reminding me that I need to keep the 5th free because I need to be at church around three times a fortnight for the last two months. I love my mother, but…
Annoying as the lead-up was, the service itself was lovely. He started off by explaining that while he was a Methodist minister he’d also been ordained as an Anglican canon in the Cathedral, as a result of which he spent a lot of time driving around Lincolnshire visiting farms and food businesses. Now Linconshire is a large county (North Americans may laugh/scoff/snigger now), taking about two hours to drive north to south, with a very varied landscape. Most people outside of the county think of Lincolnshire as flat, but the Fens only make up maybe a third of it, with rolling hills elsewhere. and I can testify from personal experience that Steep Hill in Lincoln is aptly named, and not an exaggeration – the gradient is about 14%. So as he’s driving around doing canonical duties, he sees a lot of broad and beautiful landscapes. He then went on to talk about how some words have been cut from dictionaries like the OED Junior one, words like ‘willow’ and ‘bluebell’ and ‘wren’, with the reasoning apparently being that the exclusion of these and the inclusion of words like ‘internet’ and ‘iPhone’ are more relevant to children today. So if dictionaries are narrowing the view of natural landscapes to fit in with today’s world, is the view of our spiritual landscape narrowing as well? He then made the point, very eloquently, that we as both individual members of the church and as the church community as a whole have to change with the times. While we may be nostalgic for the way things were run in the 1940s, or 50s, 60s, 70s, or even 80s, those times are gone and are never coming back. The world has changed and the Church has to change with it or get left behind. Which, whether he realised it or not, is a problem my church keeps running into. We have a lot of older members (older as in the same generation as my grandparents) who are very set in their ways, which is fine, apart from when it discourages visitors or new members from coming back, or even arriving in the first place. On fundraising or events committees when someone suggests an idea they’ll say that we tried that and it didn’t work, or when someone new comes for a service and sits down, they are told ‘you can’t sit there, that’s So-and-so’s seat’. Ok, yes, we all tend to sit in the same place in the same pews – just as when I was at uni we ended up sitting in the same seats all term that we sat in for the first lecture. But our church is fairly big, and nowhere near anything like capacity on a normal Sunday – whoever normally sits there can easily sit elsewhere, even one pew up or down if they want. Unless of course they’re as hidebound as the person telling the newcomer to move, which is, of course, a wonderful way to make sure that person never comes back and tells everyone who asks that our church is unfriendly and unwelcoming. Not what we need when we’re trying to attract new members. And as for the ‘we did that once, it didn’t work, no point doing it again’ response to ideas for ways to raise money for things like new boilers, or redoing the disabled toilet so it complies with new legislation? There are several people who, like my parents, have been members of my church for over thirty years and don’t remember this event, and for good reason – when questioned, these hidebound naysayers say that this was back in the Fifties. So yeah, keep a broad view and remember that institutions need to change with the changes in society and the world in general, otherwise they will become obsolete, dwindle, and die off. That’s not to say you can’t keep traditions and customs and heritage going – far from it. But if the British Army had kept wearing red coats, or Oxford and Cambridge universities had refused to accept women, or the Methodist Church insisted all its members had to be teetotallers, they wouldn’t have survived. /minor rant
The second part of the sermon involved the idea of different perspectives. The reading we had was Luke 9:51-62, which is a notoriously difficult Bible passage to wrap your head around. The first part’s easy enough, written under the heading of ‘Samaritan Opposition’ in the NIV version of the Bible (often referred to as the Nearly Inevitable Version, as it’s the one most commonly found in Protestant churches, in the UK at least). It’s the lead-up to the events surrounding the Passion and Crucifixion, and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. He sends a couple on ahead to get things ready, and they go into a Samaritan village. The Samaritans and the Jews did not get on well, to put it mildly (which is why the story of the Good Samaritan is such a shock to Jesus’ audience), and the villagers told them to sod off. When the news got back the other disciples asked ‘do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ (actual quote), but Jesus, because He’s not that much of a dick, says no and goes to a different village. Not a hugely significant story, although it does show how fanatical the first disciples can be at times, but it does show that they’re all on the road which is the setting for the next, much tougher bit. As they’re walking along they meet three men – the first one says he will follow Jesus wherever He goes, to which the response is essentially ‘even animals have homes, but I don’t, so if you want to follow me then you’re not going to have a home either’. Bit tough, but then it’s not like Jesus hasn’t said before that following His teachings isn’t easy. What He says to the next two, however, is a lot harsher. He asks the second man they meet to follow Him, to which the man says sure, after I’ve held my father’s funeral. Jesus’ response? Let the dead bury the dead, you need to go proclaim the Kingdom of God. The third man says he’ll follow Jesus but wants to go say goodbye to his family before, y’know, going away for an unknown amount of time. He gets told ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’. So just ignore your families and everyone you care about, none of that matters any more. Umm… Really? Considering the amount of time spent on accepting those people that society shuns, loving thy neighbour, and generally not being an arse to your fellow humans, this seems to fly in the face of everything Jesus is generally supposed to stand for. It’s at this point that the minister asks if any of us have seen the film Dead Poets’ Society. Now I have to admit I haven’t, but a few people murmur assent. He goes on to talk about how Robin William’s character invites the students to stand on his, the teacher’s, desk in order to gain a new perspective. And this is what he wants us to do – to stand on the pews (metaphorically, due to H&S and protesting knees) and get a different, wider perspective on not just this passage, but also our spirituality and how we interact with the rest of humanity and each other. And this led on to my favourite part of the sermon – about how we should see the Kingdom of God.
Now the phrase the Kingdom of God shows up an awful lot in the Bible – whether it’s regarding the poor in spirit, the difficulties faced by rich men and camels, the proto-Lord’s Prayer, or many other examples including Luke 9:60 and 62. So the Kingdom of God is important, but, the minister argued, there is an extra letter in the word ‘kingdom’ that should be removed – the G. He argues that it shouldn’t be the Kingdom of God, which invokes ideas of hierarchy, structure, and a physical space of some kind in which to exist. Instead, we should think of it as the Kindom of God, an idea under which we are all related, close to each other and to God. When looked at it this way, that passage makes a lot more sense. So if we look at the response given to the first man, where if he wants to follow Jesus he will have no home to lay his head, we can see a different interpretation from ‘you will be a vagabond who people can and will turn away’. Instead, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, no burrow or nest like an animal or bird has, because He doesn’t need one – animals are territorial, always competing against members of their own species for resources and therefore needing a safe refuge. But in the Kindom of God we don’t need to have a bolt-hole handy, we don’t need our own territory, because kin supports kin. Similar to the passage about how God clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the air, even though they don’t ‘work or spin’. The same goes for letting the dead bury their own and not looking back – if you cling to the past and the way things were, if you refuse to drop the things that no longer have an impact or relevance to your life, you won’t be able to fully accept your place in the kindom, where you will need to make new connections to the people around you, who will help shape your present and your future. It’s another parable, like the woman with ten coins or the vine with bad fruit.
Kindom of God doesn’t just mean ‘family’ either. When talking of one’s kindred, it implies a group of people closer than mere family. A ‘kindred spirit’ is someone who is so incredibly close that you and they are almost interchangeable, similar to the idea of a soulmate. This idea goes back a long way – take the Latin word paterfamilias, the head of the household. The literal translation is ‘father of the family’, but the paterfamilias rules over not just those who are related to him by blood or marriage, but also the slaves. In Early Modern English usage (think Elizabethan and/or Shakespeare) when someone writes about their family, they’re using the word in its Latinate sense – that of one’s household servants. When talking about biological family they used the word kindred, and it is this past usage of kin and kindred that has come down to us as meaning ‘closer than family’, who, much as we may love them, are still randomly assigned to us rather than people we deliberately choose to be with. Compare best friend with sibling, or spouse with in-laws. So in the Kindom of God we have this very close connection with each other, with God, and the world around us. Sounds wonderful, right? One problem – the kindom includes other people, and other people are really difficult to get along with. The school bully, that really annoying co-worker, the guy who cut you up in traffic on the way into work, a lot of politicians, internet trolls… It’s still a tough thing to make happen, this kindom, but then so is always loving your neighbour, or always doing what God, or any deity to be fair (Freyja, I’m looking at you…), wants us to do as opposed to what we want or would prefer to do. But if we work very, very hard at it, we could, as a species, make it happen. Or at the very least make it more of a reality than it currently is. And that was the take-home message the minister wanted us to have – look at things from a different perspective, take a wider view of the landscape, and think of the Kindom of God rather than the Kingdom. Substitute your deity of choice or ‘the gods’ for ‘God’ and the message is not so different from the teachings of many Pagan paths – and still tough to do. Frith in Heathenry, trying to make sure all your choices and activities honestly harm none (or do as little harm as possible) in Wicca, and loving thy neighbour in Christianity. It’s hard, we don’t always want to do it, we won’t get recognition for it most of the time, but we can make it happen. And, if everyone on the planet put in just a little bit more effort into forging a kindom, I believe we’d see a fairly big difference overall. So put your hands to the plough, don’t look back at all the bad things that have happened in the past, let the dead bury the dead, and go out and proclaim the kindom of your god or gods, or of humanity. It won’t be easy, and you might need to stand on your desk to do it, but I believe it’s worth trying.