(a quick note on the title: various of us, including me, have different beliefs about the existence or otherwise of gods, but what I mean by ‘secular humanist’ here is the beliefs that (a) religion of any kind should have no role in government and no disproportionate power in society and (b) we regard human beings as good and with the potential for good and seek improvement of life in human actions)
I found out on Tuesday that my brother, Paul, was preaching at Alstonville church, his former home church, about 90 minutes drive from here. It’s close to where my best mate Cam lives, and I’d been telling Crank and Peter about Paul’s preaching for a while, so we put together a bit of a road trip for yesterday. Along with Cassie and Alex, the five of us (Suzie was working and then had an exam later) drove south yesterday morning.
None of us are regular church attenders, but all of us have backgrounds in churches: Cassie and Alex in the SDA denomination, Crank in an Anglican church in Toowoomba and (I think) Peter in a C of E Sunday School in England. So part of the interest for ‘the boys’ was just what a Seventh-day Adventist church service is like.
We said ‘very varied’, and provided some calibration: if there are drums, quite progressive, if there’s a bass but no drums, middle of the road, if there’s only piano and organ, quite conservative. Seems simplistic, but it works – and Alstonville was in the middle category. Hymns, but sung off PowerPoint rather than hymn books, a bass and guitar along with piano and organ, with 4 singers, and multiple songs in a row at the beginning rather than a few hymns interspersed with activities.
These codes relate to much more than the music, they will pretty strongly point to the theology and politics of the congregation.
Things didn’t start especially well when the person welcoming the congregation went off into some impromptu remarks about how experiments ‘prove’ that plants grow better with nature sounds and music than without. That was more of just a ‘science says no’ eye-roll moment.
The same person did the children’s story, a rather dark little tale of near child abduction, with a happy ending, but threw in a parenthetical comment: “It was a public school, so the teachers left 20 minutes after school finished”. With both Cassie and Crank being hardworking public school teachers who often don’t leave school until security throws them out at 6 pm, this did not go over well!
Fortunately Paul did a much better job! He did a couple of daring things – the first trying to preach two separate sermons with about 25 minutes to go before 12. The second was noting, to the congregation, that people tend to start fidgeting at 12 – then confidently preaching on well beyond 12 but keeping them riveted enough not to fidget!
First sermon was about prayer, and focused on dispelling a number of myths and misunderstandings. It addressed a lot of issues and ideas in about 10 minutes, and was typically well thought through and reflective. One metaphor – about choice and kids and foods – didn’t *quite* come together at the end to elucidate the point being made, but the point was clear nonetheless.
The key point was interesting. That ‘free choice’ thing keeps coming up, and (in very brief) the point was that prayer is not for coercing God to act, but about giving God permission… i.e. willingly giving up some free will to allow God to act. I’m not sure I can fully embrace it, but it’s a deeper and more thoughtful position than many we hear.
The second sermon was about ‘people and policy’, and used a number of case studies of Jesus’ iconoclasm from the Gospels to illustrate the issue – also graphically illustrated with props – that there is an Ideal way of relating to human beings, and that religious traditions can get in the way of that rather than support that ideal.
It was reflective and thoughtful and included taking a list of conceptions that non-Christians have of Christians. Rather than bridling at them, Paul took these as a mirror in which Christians can look at themselves to become more Christlike: to treat people better, and to challenge themselves to focus on amending their own faults rather than attacking the faults of others.
We chatted with Paul and his family – wife Vanessa and daughters Lucy and Anna (yep, like me, lucky dad of two daughters). As we headed out, I’m not sure, but it looked to me as though Paul was getting a bit of a lecture from a member of the congregation: a nerve touched? Perhaps I guessed wrong.
Went to lunch with Cam and Jen and their family – they fed us deliciously with virtually no notice, which was much appreciated, and hung out on their verandah on a gorgeous sunny afternoon for a while.
On the drive back we discussed all manner of things, religious, social, political and so on… and it was a great day all around.
Hopefully some of the people involved in the story will be by with comments. 😉