Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
The other day I rang a lady on behalf of her son. Her son is someone I met in the gay bar I visit. He now calls me Dad. “Dad will you give mum a call, she’s pretty depressed?” I called the mother, a chronic alcoholic and asked her how she was. It didn’t take too long before she was sobbing on the end of the phone explaining that she just felt like ending it all as her life was out of control. She also told me that she felt completely empty inside.
I had previously explained to the young man that I didn’t have enough time in my life to catch up with his mother as I already was struggling to spread the time I had between a number of other equally needy people, my family, a young lady living with us and the people in our house fellowship. In my regular email I send out to some 150 people I thought I would ask whether there might be someone else out there who had time and inclination to catch up with this lady. I also suggested that this lady seemed ripe to hear the Good News of Jesus. I was a little surprised when I received not one single offer of help.
A week lady I had the young man ringing me in distress to tell me his mother had taken an overdose and was being rushed to hospital. She had attempted suicide after yet another night of drinking. This fellow had just lost his step mother a fortnight before, his father has been out of his life for longer than he can remember and now his mother could die.
Thankfully the story doesn’t end there. The lady had her stomach pumped and my wife and I visited her the day after her suicide attempt. She readily accepted our offer of prayer and later that day the young man rang to ask what we had said to his mum as she seemed to have rediscovered her desire to live. A few days later I was further informed that on returning home from hospital the lady had emptied all her alcohol down the sink as she attempted to start a new life. Where this story will end I have no idea and I would never want to limit God’s power and grace, but…..I have to confess that I began to wonder a few things.
I had recently used a quote from Isaiah 1 as part of a teaching on worship that I was giving at a discipleship school. As I thought about Isaiah’s words and also about the story of the Good Samaritan, I found myself feeling very sad. My suspicion is that most of the Christians I know would never consider missing a church service or fellowship meeting. Many go out of their way to attend prayer meetings, conferences and various other Christian events. I wondered how many would consider visiting a desperate alcoholic woman just as important, or more significantly, how many would consider such visitation as an act of worship. I wondered whether many like the priest and the Levite would choose to just keep on walking with all the more important duties of their life, bypassing the potential disturbance such a woman might cause. After all, this woman might require regular follow up along with the disappointment of potential relapse into drinking and depression. She might never get better. She might spurn the offers of help and even the offer of the Gospel. She might take too much time and effort.
The other thing that also saddened me is that I feel fairly confident if I rang a lady who comes to one of my Bible Studies in a gay pub asking her to help. She would happily have done so. She is openly atheist and dismissive of any belief in God. She is also a strong advocate for gay marriage. Like the Samaritan Jesus’ refers to, she is someone who we as Christians would see as outside God’s purposes. And yet, she happily takes in people, homeless due to their addictions, and would no doubt have done all she could to support such a woman as I have described. My only hesitation in asking for her help was my belief that this other woman needed God even more than she needed human support. Her attempted suicide however, maybe, lets me know that I need sometimes to entrust God’s work to Samaritans rather than unwilling Christians.
When I slowly made my way out of more traditional expressions of church, one of the things I was very aware of was that as a priest I would never think of missing a service in order to seek to make amends with someone who had hurt me or who I had hurt. I would choose to forgo Jesus words about leaving my gift at the altar and seeking out the offended party to fulfil the religious expectations of leading the service and preaching the sermon. After all what would the people do if the priest didn’t show? Sadly even in house churches it is just as easy to do likewise. It is easier to maintain the regularity of religious meetings than to give ourselves for the sake of a hurting world.
I remember challenging the independent congregation who had joined me in leaving the Anglican church to consider forgoing one Sunday’s worship service each fortnight in order to make ourselves available to spend time hanging out in our local community. There was a virtual rebellion that took place. Some believed that the congregation could fall into heresy without a regular message. Others were concerned that somehow people’s spiritual lives would suffer without weekly communion and times of singing songs of worship. Others still quoted Hebrews 10:25 regarding the scriptural injunction not to forsake meeting together. Interestingly enough, nobody quoted the Great Commission of Jesus or passages such as James 1:27.
As many are already aware, I have no illusions regarding styles of church. I don’t think meeting in houses or re-arranging church is likely to significantly alter peoples’ hearts or practice. Somehow, I do still dream that one day we will realise that church in whatever form it takes is not where it is at. Rather that Christians will be even more concerned that their worship is expressed in right relationships with one another and servant like self giving to those in our communities and places of work who don’t yet know the Jesus in whom we believe. Hopefully we will be known as people who don’t just talk about Jesus, but as people who like Jesus himself are words becoming flesh.
13 “Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings–I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that.
I hate them! You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why?
Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up. Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong. Learn to do good.
Work for justice. Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenceless.