Long-suffering in the Free Church (it’s not about the pews)

Going to church can have unintended consequences – unintended by yourself, that is, of course. I went this morning, thinking that after a week on antibiotics for the mother of all dental abscesses, I knew the meaning of long-suffering. Indeed, perhaps I could even be perceived as the living embodiment of it myself. Three sleepless nights, endless pain which didn’t respond to any amount of ibuprofen, salty mouthwashes or stern talkings-to, and yet I had retained my sanity and even some humour. Perhaps, I allowed myself to think, I am a paragon of putting up with adversity.

You know, though, when you’re leaning towards seòladh àrd of any description, there’s always a Calvinist minister, just waiting to take you down. ‘Think you know what it is to be long-suffering’, they mutter as they stab their sermon notes out on ancient typewriters (in my imagination), ‘just wait till you hear what I have to say’.

Now, let me be clear on something. The take-down for myself this morning was in the substance and message of the sermon, not the delivery. I am in no way suggesting that a Free Kirk service is an object lesson in fad-fhulangas, however hard the pews.

This is all the more remarkable because it wasn’t a sermon on long-suffering, but on unity. It was Ephesians 4, and Paul’s call for unity in the church of Christ. Lack of unity grieves the Spirit, and it grieves him because he is a person of the godhead. In a quite beautiful image, the gift of unity was compared to the gift of Eden: just as the garden was given to Adam to tend, unity in the Spirit was gifted to the church for us – all of us – to nurture.  I am tempted into a segue here, but some things don’t need to be repeated, far less hammered home. We are all capable of meditating upon our own role in caring for what we have been given, and growing it to God’s glory.

I can and have picked holes in how we are as a church. Not gratuitously, I hope, but out of a real, prayerful concern that we are not as we should be. In reality, no Christian needs me to point that out – and there has to be some measure of gratitude for the fact that, to paraphrase Newton, we are at least not as we were. Crucially, though, we are not as we will be: we are the Spirit’s work in progress. And, listening to that sermon today, the unintended consequence for me was that I was both reassured and comforted, yet chastened and humbled also.

Christ did all that he did. He lived a life of service, putting everyone else first. A deserving everyone else? An impeccably behaved everyone else? Far from it. He poured himself out for a world that despised him. Even his own followers were not always faithful, taken up with a wrong vision of the Kingdom. James and John even jockeyed for a status of power within a government that was never intended to be built on any such thing. It must have been so disheartening for Jesus, not to have one wise friend, one close confidante to whom he could go for counsel. There was not one he could trust implicitly to do the right thing. 

This was why the answer to ‘whom shall we send’ and ‘who will go for us’ inevitably came back round to Jesus, for there was indeed no man.

Add to all this that he had no place to call home, no door he could close and be alone with his Father when disappointment and disillusion assailed his heart. Yet this same Jesus went willingly to the cross for those inconstant disciples, for a world that bayed to see him crucified and chose a criminal to be his substitute for mercy. Still, he elected himself our substitute for punishment, in the full knowledge that we deserved no reprieve.

And we fall out over the merest thing. Ironically, while waiting for the service to begin today, I overheard a whispered conversation regarding another congregation who are ‘together, but with undercurrents’. We are not long-suffering in the least. I forgive and excuse my own bad behaviour most readily, but I’m not so merciful to others. The slights and insults, the wrongdoings of my brethren are placed under my magnifying glass, while my own shortcomings, well, they’re easily excused.

What an absolute plate I have. Unity is a gift of the Spirit to which all of us who profess union in him must tend. The only way to that, the only way to anything worth the having, is through Christ. I am going back to one of the books I read assiduously as an apprentice secret disciple, ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Surely I should remember these words of Thomas a Kempis: 

‘Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be’.

Christ can, though, for all of us – and he will finish the good work once it is begun.

A Servant is for Life, Not Just Sundays

Last Sunday I was arrested in church. Before you imagine a group of burly policemen pushing past the elders – who would undoubtedly have tried to stop them – in order to cart me off, I didn’t mean it like that. In fact, I mean I heard something which struck me in its beauty and truth; something, believe it or not, about the deacons. Or, more specifically, about the duty of deacons.

It was this: deacons bring the love of Christ to the church in a practical way.

Yes, deacons – those guys who, in our tradition anyway, are seen as the money men, the fellows who hold the purse-strings and authorise paint jobs for the church vestibule. They are the ones who ‘do’. And their office is all too easily dismissed as being a bit, well, mundane.

Put it this way, if you were writing a novel about the Free Church (and, believe me, I’ve considered it), your hero probably wouldn’t be a deacon. They’d be there alright, but only in a supporting role.

Well, I say ‘only’ but, in Christian terms, a supporting role is the best kind. The main part has already been fulfilled.

There’s a song I love, (introduced to me by someone who has somehow ended up being responsible for my spiritual music education) in which Jesus is resembled to a hero who takes the stage when everything looks hopeless. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what He did.

Historically, He did. Spiritually, He does.

Almost three years ago, I thought my life was over. The person on whom I thought my world depended died. He left our home for what we thought might be an overnight in hospital; a week later I returned there, a widow at the age of thirty-nine, and wondering how many years I might have to get through alone.

The answer? None.

I was not alone, because Christ was there, waiting for me to notice Him. Christ had been there a long time. Maybe even since, as a child of nine, I asked Him into my heart simply because I couldn’t bear to think of Him knocking and not being heard.

He is the main event, the all in all, the ultimate star billing. Yet, He waits in the wings like a supporting actor, and appears to take His cues from us. Only when I turned my grieving heart towards His did I even know He was there.

That was when He took centre stage in my life. Just when I thought everything was finished, He walked on.

So, the bit-parts are for the rest of us. He is the hero; we are the supporting cast, as Christians. Deacons bring His love to the church in a practical way . . . but what are deacons? Yes, I know I said they’re the money men, the guys with the chequebook. But, in a wider sense, what?

Well, ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek, ‘diakonos’, meaning ‘servant’. And all Christians are called upon to have a spirit of service. That is why, in the best sense, we are, all of us, deacons. Yes, even the women. It isn’t about status, or titles – service never is – but about the satisfaction of serving a worthy Master.

This is an unusual Master, though. He is the starring role content to wait for a cue from the support act; and He is the Master who willingly became a servant. It is from Him we learn how to be the walk-on actors in our own lives, and the servants to the King.

Rendering service to Christ is not going to win you any of this world’s accolades. Even in the church, you may feel that the hours you put in, and the time that you give go unnoticed. And perhaps they do – by people. But you’re not working for people, are you? One lady I know who works hardest for Christ’s church has the truest servant heart, and never complains, or expects for herself.

Servants are often overlooked, or even despised. They may have their good name besmirched, their reputation degraded, and their heart bruised and beaten. But never, ever by Him.

He knows, you see, what it is to be a servant. We can only try at all because He first showed us how:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

This is the humble servant upon whom we are to pattern our behaviour. Our men who are deacons should follow Him in showing His love to the church in practical ways. Love is practical, after all: it changes lives.

But beyond the official designation of ‘deacon’, there is a whole church which ought to be showing Christ’s love to the world. Just as the deacons distribute the wealth of the church in the service of the Lord, we ought to follow their example in following His.

I can’t help reflect upon our own mission-field locally, and all the strife there has been recently between secularism and Christianity. The unbelievers, in their ignorance, think it’s all about Sundays. It troubles me that some Christians seem to think so too.

Our starting point with the world cannot be this. A servant does not seek to impose his own will, but, rather, to do his master’s. We will win no hearts for Christ by telling people what they must do and must not. No one will ever desire God’s law without first knowing His love.

And, if this community does not know His love, have I failed in my servant’s duty, to show what it is? Have I said too many words, and not demonstrated enough humility? Did I forget, somewhere along the line, to withdraw and let the spotlight fall on Him?