This is possibly something to rile both the believer and the unbeliever. But maybe I’m wrong. Even the briefest of comments would be appreciated.
Said Satan on my shoulder,
His voice a gentle purr,
“In matters of importance,
My dearest friend defer
Your final stamp of judgement,
For when your wise and grey,
Salvation won’t a lifetime take,
So on your death bed pray”.
“Live life within the meantime friend,
And as your years abate,
You’ll find the time to dance and fuck,
As well as on God ruminate.
A decision of this magnitude,
Must not be made in haste,
For God sake please be sure my friend
Before life goes to waste”.
I know everything about everyone. Watching the congregation singing in praise I sift through those gripped by sincerity or sin. It might surprise you! The speaker today for instance, a bright young chap who has only just muddled his way through to the end of ministerial training speaks very well, pausing in all the right places, gesticulating just enough to emphasise his point but never overdoing it, smiles, frowns, jokes, looks very, very serious, oh and his speech, words interwoven with glints of wisdom which stun. Everyone nods in agreement. An enthusiast occasionally emits a low, thoughtful hmmm, embarrassing those around him. Oh doesn’t he speak well! His speech is recycled, something dredged from a dimming past of surety, but they don’t know that. Weary and ridden with guilt, his whole chest groans under the weight of his lies. Every word which glibly flies into the air, lewdly dancing at the ears of his listeners, earns another pin prick to the inner lining of his bleeding stomach. The only word too heavy for him to retch up is that which blocks any channel in his oesophagus through which his truth might pass: hypocrite. But enough about him. I was telling you about the singing.
How they belt, their voices whisked along by the frenzy of the pianist’s fingers, anchored by the drum beat, accompanied by a sultry saxophone and a guitar’s forceful strumming. Praises float to God from many of them. The Paltridges for instance, that perfect looking family over there with the three daughters, radiant, intelligent, utterly unavailable for anything other than furtive glances of boys who should be focusing on the worship but can’t seem to stop their minds from wandering. The mother, Alison, is an excellent Christian in the opinion of those around her. Hosting Bible groups with all her female friends she displays an intellectual and deeply personal knowledge of scripture, just enough to make them feel jealous, never quite so much that they think she is bragging (which she only does on rare occasions, and not without a stinging sense of shame afterwards; ‘it’s not about me’ she tells herself sternly, ‘it’s about what He has done for me, that is what deserves the glory’). Were her friends to know just how many glasses of wine she quaffs when the daughters are in bed and she thinks her husband isn’t paying attention, they may well find their eye brows inadvertently raised in mild judgement, but rest assured, they have no idea. Arthur, her husband, doesn’t say much, but he is obeyed in his household when he does.
Lucy, Georgia and Ruth glisten like budding flowers christened with dew. The eldest, Lucy, is off to Durham to study Theology. She wishes she could go into ministry, but she trusts scripture, knows that this isn’t the role for her and has accepted it. Georgia, in her last year of school, quietly wishes she could have spent the morning revising, though keeps this secret even partially from herself, and tries to invest her heart in the talk and the songs as she knows she should. Ruth, the youngest, harvests doubts but doesn’t dare tell anyone. She knows her parents won’t be angry with her, indeed they will probably seek to help in every way they can, but she doesn’t want to scare her mother. I would, based on her current line of thinking, place a bet that she might in years to come end up like our speaker; a husk, a very fine one make no mistake, but an empty husk none the lest. But then I already know the ending, so it wouldn’t be a fair bet. Fixed in time, there is hope for everyone. They all would hate to step outside of it for just a single moment and appreciate the rippling magnitude of every thought that crosses their mind. These little moments of thinking will set their path in the long run, but for now the possibilities seem endless, and will seem so even when they are fully exhausted and all their time is out.
Let us move from the perfect Partridges to the lusty young men who gaze after them, indeed quite a few this morning! Lascivious John Vilmer has eyes for Lucy (and Georgia but she is a bit young for him to allow himself to admit that). A third year medic and long time drifter from faith he has really only rocked up to please his increasingly worried parents who hope a good speaker might reinfuse that love for the gospels once zealous in his youth. It’s unlikely that it will when all he can do it hope his boner doesn’t stretch across the singing congregation and poke at Lucy. I don’t mind telling you, there is little hope for this brilliant young mind since he himself is resigned to that patch of uncertainty that will always lurk like a tumour in the back of his brain, prodding at him and questioning if he really has made the right decision. The rest of his brain is determined to trust in itself alone.
George has eyes for Georgina (fitting), though is ashamed of the darker fringes of his imagination and is grateful at least that she is friendly to him at youth group. It feels wonderful when he makes her laugh. How he would love to know that she does indeed nurse a soft spot for him and, were she not so tied to her desk, would not be averse to date of modest proportions. Indeed, since they will end up going to the same university they will spend just under a year together romantically. He will fall madly in love with her. She will like him very much but, as is inevitable, turn eventually back to her work and leave him broken hearted. But we needn’t worry about all that now and nor should he. Let him gaze at her a while longer. Too many admire Ruth to be worth mentioning, she is the prettiest, cliched though it may be for the youngest to be the prettiest. It would seem that hormones rage as abundantly in the air as the Word today.
Who else? Brian lost his wife last year in a car accident and hates being here. His sister made him come. May stands next to her brother, raising her hand to the sky as if stretching high enough may enable her to stroke the Creator’s feet. His wife was an ardent atheist. He knows where these fucking conservatives think she is right now. May prays for Elizabeth’s soul every night before sleeping, and for her grieving brother with whom she used to pray as a child. Brian looks at his sister as she transcends the room and, he thinks, any sense of social inhibition, both hands now have been flung somewhat manically into the air. Momentarily a twinge of envy is plucked within him, followed by a sense of remembrance; what it was to be loved unconditionally by the Lord of the universe, and though she mocked him for this, also by the sovereign of his world. However, it quickly flutters away and bitterness reclaims its rightful place.
On his other side are the Dunns, a young couple already aware that they cannot have children so they spend their time smuggling Bible’s into China instead. Everyone thinks they are very impressive. She is an academic who came to faith late having read every book she could get her hands on, and eventually trusting Him when thoroughly convinced of the historicity an intellectual strength of the gospels, and deeply moved by a breeze which, meandering her way one summer evening, was suddenly infused with the Spirit and coursed through her blood which bubbled from the heat and awoke her Soul from its slumber. He was born into a Christian family and never doubted it.
How I would love to tell you their story, indeed many people here, about whom I am intimately knowledgeable, are deserving of your focus and yet you simply haven’t the time. The lifelong Christian Ted Neeley, now an old man, will suddenly renounce it all on his death bed and break his daughter’s heart. Harry is a Christian but stares at those around him as they raise their hands and open their palms and wishes he felt this power which seems to embolden them to smile and shine. It’s always been a little theoretical for him. As far as he is aware, God has never taken the time to contact him directly. That woman with the ginger locks, politely attending to keep happy the uncle she is visiting will, after a series of visions, animate all the newspapers and enrage society when her deeply conservative views about homosexuality agitate headlines. Maragret Atwood is just kind, was born that way really, but now she works on it every day with the help of scripture, polishing it like a diamond which, though still rough, has to it a soft glow which for all its humility dazzles those who meet her. To live is Christ and to die is gain and the cancer won’t be a cause for her to cry, just everyone around her.
However, for my purposes may I call your attention to the gentleman at the back of the room? The one tucked into that corner where no one can properly see him but me. Notice his skin stretched taught, close to breaking point, across that narrow face, his tea stained teeth which move to the song but carefully guard his voice box lest any sound escape. Notice his white hairline now significantly receded as if suffering from a shock which robbed it of colour and sent it scurrying away, his tremor, his shabby attempt at smartness, his age. His eyes remain sharp at least, a last indication of wit and interest amongst that gaunt graveyard of a face. They flicker and buzz, assessing everyone in the room. Every beaming face, every false smile is analysed and judged and sometimes he gets it right, more often than not these days. Voluntarily crammed into his tight little corner he tries, with difficulty, to do something I manage automatically (though in fairness I am at quite the advantage): suss out the liars, identify the believers. Once branded a liar you enter a curious zone of paradox in his mind, you are admired, you are condemned a hypocrite. If option two best befits your demeanour your categorisation is equally indecisive as you are both envied and pitied; lucky man and poor, grinning idiot. Dichotomies bleed uncomfortably into one another and these categorisations, far from clarifying those people around him, result in synthesised confusion. At times this can be agonising.
The singing climaxes, then finishes, and all take their seats for a final prayer and one last bout of announcements before it is class dismissed. In an uncharacteristic display of socialness, the man stands and makes his way to the back room where tea, coffee and biscuits are an excellent excuse to talk to people. Milling around he notices a collection of familiar faces, those who were extremely friendly upon his first arrival at this Church but who, given his frequent absences and shielded manner, find him the same stranger they had warmly extended their hands to five and something years ago. Now he makes introductions anew to long time strangers.