“Take me to Church” – Songs of Spiritual Longing and Pain

take me to church

Christians often get their proverbial knickers in a twist when trying to figure out how to engage with the wider world. There is a lot of energy spent on thinking of ways to be (or seem) ‘relevant’ or ‘genuine’ or ‘attractive’; ideas which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. Or work for a while and then stop working.

What if the issue isn’t about ‘them’ (the outsiders) not wanting to engage with us, but actually about us and the messages we are sending out to ‘them’? Messages which say “WARNING!” rather than “WELCOME!”

What if the issue isn’t that those outsiders are spiritually uninterested or unengaged, but rather that they are, but that we are not able to see it, or respond appropriately to it?

I am really struck this week by two secular songs, both called ‘Take Me to Church’. Both of these songs, one by Sinead O’Connor, and the other by Hozier, express a desire to go to church (actually, to be ‘taken’ to church).  This desire isn’t the simple one anticipated by asinine evangelistic ploys, though. It is not one that will be satisfied by the easy answers offered by the standard model. In these songs, the statement ‘take me to church’ comes with qualifications that we should listen to. They set out a fear and a longing for church, they ask for – demand – a different model to the one they have both experienced before and come to expect. Will the Church listen?

Sinead O’Connor’s song is gusty and upbeat. She begins with a disavowal of ‘love songs’ (“What’ve I been singing love songs for?/I don’t wanna sing them any more”), she wants something else instead: “songs of loving and forgiving/songs of eating and of drinking/songs of living, songs of calling in the night […] songs that mend your broken bones/ and that don’t leave you alone” (Verse 2). If I were starting a church tomorrow, I might just choose those words as my mission statement. This song really gets what the Church is supposed to be. It also really gets how often the Church is not as it should be.

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Moving (back) into the Mainstream

My partner H and I have been attending a mainstream Evangelical charismatic church. If you are surprised then you’re not the only one!

Never would I, in a million years, have expected to be attending this church. It is precisely the church I would have avoided. Perhaps secretly I have longed to attend something similar, but, for obvious reasons (once bitten twice shy, see here and here) I have definitely avoided mainstream Evangelical churches.

Why did we go? I think just curiosity at first. It was Greenbelt Festival weekend and we weren’t there (again!) One of the things I really value about Greenbelt is that you get challenged and stretched and you experience new and surprising things. So we decided to go to this church instead. I guess to give it a chance to surprise us.  The big charismatic Evangelical one. We had actually been there for worship once before, years ago. Nothing negative happened but I felt really uncomfortable the whole time, like someone was going to jump up in front of me and tell me I’m going to hell for living an ‘unrepentant homosexual lifestyle’ (when this has happened to you once, you’re fairly keen not to let it happen again). I was anxious and unsure. It was a one-off.

I still felt anxious this time round. Even though it was (supposedly) just another one-off (!)

Maybe we went because of the weird sense of on-and-off paradigm shift that is  happening within UK churches at the moment with Vicky Beeching coming out and movements like Diverse Church and the Two:23 network bringing together LGBT Christians from Evangelical backgrounds.

It was like going home. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was like going home after years and realising that things had changed, or perhaps it was like going home and realising we had changed. I wondered to myself what I would do if someone was horrible to me about being gay and Christian and realised, with relief, that nothing anybody could have said to me would be able to assail my newfound trust in God, in his love that supercedes all human boundaries and reaches out to me. Where I am.

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Sabbath is a choice.

My first encounter with ‘mindfulness’ was several years ago when I found myself living in France under stressful circumstances. Not only was I adjusting to life en français and a new job teaching English at a French secondary school, but an ongoing situation in the UK was taking up a lot of my time and emotional energy. This draining situation affected my spiritual life too: I couldn’t pray and for various reasons I didn’t get to church much. Worse, I had no outlet for my increasing frustration. The ‘noise’ of all this became acute: at night it felt like the walls were closing in on me, like I needed to burst out of them and run screaming for the hills. Like I needed to plunge into the ocean and wash it all away.

I confided some of my personal situation to a friend who advised me to use the mindfulness techniques that had helped her through situations of severe clinical anxiety. ‘Imagine your thoughts are like leaves floating in a stream. Don’t try to block them, just notice them approaching and then watch them go past.’

tabitha

Although my mind was too chaotic at the time to make much sense of this, I did find that attempting to ‘live in the moment’ (which is essentially what ‘mindfulness’ boils down to) was helpful. If I was lucky I could catch the breeze and fly, be involved in my task, and simply forget the meta-narrative, the constant voices in my brain that were attempting to catch me and drag me downwards. Far from thinking less, it allowed me to think more, that is, to think more freely. To imagine, as well as to ‘experience’ and ‘just be’.

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