Have we evangelicals effectively lost the proper focus of Christian gathering? Its all about time.
Humanity inhabits a universe that is both beautifully strange and stunning all at once. Our very existence in this wonderful world is one of those shocking facts. So is a sun with billions of years of fuel, black holes denser than the mind can imagine and physicists telling us that time and space are illusory. If these facts were not enough, we are now told to accept that at one point in time everything we can see with the human eye came from absolutely nothing. The world confronts us with its unavoidable strangeness and mind-numbing beauty. We touch, feel and experience both good and evil while reflecting on how it is we are able to stand back and consider and observe as if our minds float free from the constraints of the physical world.
One of these many mind-bending wonders is time itself. Time is the ever-running filmstrip on which the events of our lives are somehow imprinted. And when we think of time, is it not true that two moments can be separated by decades and yet connect in a way that makes them seem inseparable? If you ask someone who has experienced some great life-defining event they will tell you that it seems like this event happened only yesterday and that it has left its weighty imprint on their lives. Our sense of time is elastic and relative not just in the mathematical sense that Einstein helped us understand, but in the emotional and experiential sense. Moments of fear from years ago can sneak up behind us and pounce and in those moments we are pulled back to an event that marked us. Moments of celebration also. Our ability to time travel mentally and to re-connect to our past takes on a greater weight as we approach middle age. But what is universal, I think, is that our distance in years from an event in no ways means it has to be less impactful or less real. If you doubt this then spend a few brief moments talking to a survivor of a WWII battle. This thought crystallized still further for me while sitting beside my Father in 2013 as he was dying of lung cancer. I do not recall all the details of that particular day, but as he waited for the doctor to see him he gently and clearly said, with a sense of airy bemusement, “When did I become old? Where did the time go?”.
So where does this leave us and what, pray tell, is the value of reflection on this reality? Having established that events in our lives were indeed real and that some were so impactful that they seemed like only yesterday, I now detour to a corollary. The corollary is that at no time as we reflect on the past do we question that certain events happened. Oh yes, before you protest, there might be some wafting light memories of some moment alone in our rooms where we question if we remember the moment correctly or whether we dreamt it. These thoughts are dew and mist that may or may not be accurate. However, our lives are punctuated by significant events marked by witness that can never be doubted to be true. We know that we experienced them. We may have pictures, we have family that can describe being there, we had friends present, etc. These are the markers of all significant events that define our lives. Our birth, our graduation, our marriage, our first job. They are concrete and no reasonable individual can live their lives denying the reliability of basic memory at such times as these. The physical world presented them to us and we lived the physical and emotional impact. We cannot doubt, short of some sort of mind-bending philosophical idealism, the reality that went with these happenings. Where on earth am I going with this line of thinking? Simply put, as Christians, we need to enter into a full acceptance that the historical events around the life of the God-Man, Jesus, are as real in history as such events in our lives. Not equivalent in significance only, but equivalent as real events that occurred in real time and place. Things that occurred that created a wake in time and an impact on people and things.
Of course, you say, but I say, “Not of course”.
As a Christian, I fully understand what it is to which we witness. And yet my experience over decades of church service and worship is that at times it seems there is a certain air of, “but this is different”, to the way we actually gather and worship and live. There is a sense in which we gather and pray and open the word of God and leave and forget the bedrock reality that stands behind it all. There is also a sense in which we enter a mode of theatre that risks us drifting into some spiritual dreamland where what we believe is somehow not a historical reality like the snowstorm we experienced last night, but something we accept as prepositional, not descriptive. If you stopped many Christians after church and asked them what they are doing their answer belies this underlying problem. They might say that since they believe in God they have gathered to encourage each other and learn more about His Word and worship Him. True. But would they also go on to say that they gathered as a Holy Memorial and Witness to the actual events of the life of the God-Man and to re-present that reality to their souls? In this sense, Church is time travel. We should be trying to place ourselves beside the Cross, or in the Garden and yell to our souls, “This is why everything is now different“. It is different because something real transpired that impacts the cosmos in the same way your marriage or the birth of your first child changed your cosmos forever. Somehow in light of that to gather casually and listen to the typical worship band warmup to a typical sermon with a monthly celebration of the Last Supper seems not untrue at all, but true in the same way a child thinks he knows where babies come from. When we gather there should be a sense of deep occasion and although I am struggling to articulate it, here is one small analogy that at least directionally points me. When my Father did finally die, at the next few family gatherings as we said grace before our meals we would say something like, “And today we remember Poppa and think of the great man he was at this time and how he is missed by us all”. And to me and those who loved him there was a moment where the reality of his existence in time and the gap between the “now” and “then” of his life collapsed and we remembered a life lived and its impact on us as if it was yesterday -in fact, as if it is today. We were “re-presenting” Poppa to ourselves to both honour him and encourage us to live as he lived. And this felt so very real because it was. He indeed was born in time, he died, he raised a family, and he served his country and God. That reality of even a human life matters. How much more the Grand Life that saves all lives who trust in Him.
Should church not feel like this as we gather? Our aim must be to connect to the electrifying and awesome reality of events that forever change the trajectory of our world. God bless my Catholic and Orthodox brothers for better understanding this truth. My weary soul has tired of singing and preaching that seems to lack the deep sense of the reality of Christ in Life and Christ in Death. Would that I bring this sort of Heart to worship each week, expecting to deeply recall a Life truly lived on this earth that forever changed the course of history and the future. Would that the Pastor, rather than preaching a discourse again, just once dropped their weekly preparation and just stand in front of the congregation and say something like “Today we have gathered to remember our Saviour. His life. His love. His humility. His servant’s heart. His purity. His Obedience. His compassion. His forgiving heart. His pain. His willingness to redeem and repair. His real presence with us today. Let us today kneel together in silence as we remember a life lived to redeem the unredeemable world and then let us go and show others His love and tell them why when asked.” At that moment those who are true believers would fall to their knees with thankful hearts. And would we not leave feeling more impacted than hearing yet another four points on why it is important we read the bible and pray? Or more exegesis on Hebrews? Are these other things not also part of our growth in the Faith? Yes, yes and yes indeed. But when the heart has been stripped from the endeavour, and the Author and Finisher of our Faith is not regularly re-presented to our minds and souls by the power of the Spirit, then we begin to look a lot like just another self-help group who study the Bible for more knowledge about God. And please do not kid yourselves that the world of unbelievers does not see this. And this may, in fact, be part of the problem and why so many refuse to engage with the Christian community.
Dear Lord Jesus, come quickly,
And yet while we live in this dark and sometimes hopeless looking gap in time,
May we re-present You to our parched and thirsty souls
And call others to the same joyful ecstasy,
as you haunt us daily until that happy day we see you come again in time.
And my I yet say to my heart again, “Cheer up dear heart, why again so forlorn?”
Jesus Came, Jesus Lived, Jesus Died so that you, dear heart, can be again-born.