Fragrant chaos

censer-incense-burner-01There’s a fuss in Burton about a proposed new Mosque. The far-right are planning a protest march.

I had a lift from a Muslim taxi driver. I invited him into S Paul’s. He took his shoes off at the door, stood and gazed, wandered around. I said I wished that some of our people were more like him and other faithful Muslims, respectful and with a sense of the Divine. Churches might be thriving.

If there is a protest about the plans for a new Mosque—and I hope not—I pray that the protestors will repent. But idiots are idiots, whatever their idiocy.

It is a fact, though, that church is irrelevant to many people these days. What does ‘church’ mean to those who’ve never set foot inside, whose parents and grandparents have never set foot inside?

In the film Chocolat there are two visions of church. The first is cold, gloomy, repressive, and governed by people who use power to oppress and control. Then, the wind blows open its doors. God the disturber exposes unhappiness and hypocrisy hiding behind a façade of judgmental pomposity. ‘Church’ that was an oppressor becomes a liberator.

As for the faith, it’s seen by most people as life-denying and over-regulated. This is criminal. The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simply to teach others what he had taught them. Rather than making dogmatic statements about how to get to heaven, Jesus modelled and taught how to live now—here on earth, and he said that this was heaven! Despite this, neurotic church people have made Jesus’ death and resurrection into a bookkeeping tally, good behaviour rewarded with the promise of a kind-of club class after-life. We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own. No wonder people dismiss church.

I think Christianity is really quite simple:

  • Every one of us has the divine light within, a bit of the Divine, like a pilot light on a gas stove.
  • All we need to do is let that inner pilot light grow to fill us from the inside. That’s the incarnation. We don’t need to do anything; we just let it happen. O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.
  • As the flame grows it brings to light our egotistical desires and all the vain things that charm us most, then consumes them, often very painfully – that’s the crucifixion …
  • so that we ascend to the heights, unburdened, unshackled, to be lighthouses lighting the path for others and lightening their burdens.

That’s it. All the rest—doctrine, dogma, rituals—is poetic window dressing, some of great beauty, and some well past its sell-by date.

During my ordination training I visited a Hindu Temple in Leicester. It quite took my breath away. Smells, colour, activity, incantations, devotions – quiet and not- so-quiet murmurings soaking the Temple. People coming and going. A family having a blessing here, people preparing a meal over there. Children playing here, adolescents chatting there. Religious bric-à-brac that knows nothing of middle class notions of good taste or the stifling conservation police. Facilities for hospitality, pastoral care, social action, learning and devotion. No moaning about how things used to be, but rather living in reality.

The building is used. There’s no scruffy notice apologizing for the Church being locked outside the one service every fortnight. There’s no rivalry between flower arrangers or intercessors. There’s nobody saying ‘you can’t sit there, that’s my seat.’ The temple is a place where people talk to each other, listen to each other and acknowledge the presence of something infinitely bigger than themselves. It’s life affirming. I suspect that heaven—if I ever see it—will be fragrantly chaotic like that Hindu Temple. I hope it will.

Is this an unrealistic dream: a church that is fragrantly chaotic, open in every respect? Not simply beauty of craftsmanship, but beauty of the human spirit, open and saying ‘yes’, like Mary was open, saying ‘yes’? Is it an unrealistic dream that Christians might learn from other faiths?

Let’s celebrate life abundant, not life resisting, life enabling not life denying. Let’s be a church, as Pope Francis says, that like a Mother always seeks the good and salvation of all her children.

4 thoughts on “Fragrant chaos

  1. i couldn’t agree more with your take on Christianity – if only everyone else could get it we’d have such a better society with room for all. And I’ve always wondered why we don’t just let our churches revert to the pre-reformation model: open all day every day, Mass here and there, sell a few commodities here, prayer yer Hours of Our Lady there. Or whatever – we were much more Hindu in them days. Greetings to me owd town, Stanley!

  2. As ever Stanley, right on the nail. I’ve spent my retirement reminding people that when Jesus was asked the way to eternal life his replies required loving God, loving our neighbours and giving away all our money. All the other stuff so beloved by my fervent evangelical friends is just distraction. My son married a Hindu girl so I am often to be found in the temple in East Ham, London. Your description of Hindu worship is blissfully accurate! I will take the train from Chesterfield to Burton sometime to accept a cup of coffee. Give my love to SWMBO.

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