An Irish Presbyterian night out: sandwiches, tray-bakes, harps, mythical objectivism, spiritual transformation and the grace of God

On Sunday evening a group from our wee church, joined with a three other Presbyterian churches in the wider area for a bit of a shin-dig in Drogheda.

A very convivial evening it was, with a generous surplus of sandwiches and tray-bakes, plenty of chat, worship led by a dynamic team of MCC musicians (including a harp and Be Thou My Vision in Irish); the service led by Rev John Woodside of Drogheda interspersed with people telling their own story of faith (i. e. testimony).

Listening to the stories was fascinating. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems as if someone telling their ‘testimony’ of what God has done in their life does not seem to happen very often any more? I wonder why?

Two things stood out to me:

First, how beautifully a woman spoke of the church.  This was a story of a specific experience of a particular community. The image used was from Luke 13:34

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Dominus Flevit
Mosaic from Dominus Flevit, a Franciscan church at the foot of the Mount of Olives

She used this as illustration of how she had been ‘gathered in’, almost against her will: gently, without coercion or pressure or force, but with love, kindness, pastoral care and friendship. Her experience of church was of soft feathered wings protectively enfolding her and bringing her into a safe place.

Now, ‘the church’ in general gets pretty bad press in Ireland. But this was a reminder what authentic Christianity in action looks like. Love. Nothing as powerful nor as moving.

Second, the stories illustrated something that was mentioned on this blog a while back when discussing conversion and finding / losing faith. Namely, the fallacy of ‘mythical objectivism’  (the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower).

Rather, spiritual transformation tends to be personal, subjective, storied, and nearly always deeply relational.

For some people it was a line in a hymn that suddenly became real, for another a Leonard Cohen song, or a post on Facebook by a virtual stranger, or a chance visit to a church that sparked off a journey towards faith in God. No one story was remotely the same.

One thing they did have in common was that they did not focus on unpacking rational arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, or how the atonement works. Nor did they tend to focus on sermons heard or teaching received.

Now, this is not to fall into some Kantian dualism where ‘faith’ belongs to the realm of the subjective. It was clear that the faith shared by the speakers had become / was increasingly becoming ‘faith seeking understanding’. In other words, faith based on historical fact, coherent biblical doctrine, gospel truth and so on. Each was on a journey of faith seeking increasing understanding; some just starting out and others a good bit along the road.

But (for me anyway) they highlighted how most of us humans are no mere ‘rational minds’ working out ‘truth’ in a detached, logical manner before making a carefully, calculated decision to follow Jesus. Rather we are a whole mix of emotions, experiences, relationships, questions, thoughts and beliefs – and somewhere in that pot-pourri God graciously breaks in surprising and unexpected ways.

I say graciously, because the other thing the stories had in common was the joy and conviction that this new life was a good one: not without struggle or doubt or questions, but full of thanksgiving and joy and hope.

All in all, a grand night altogether.

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