At the foot of the cross

After spending the first 31 years of my life occasionally attending an Anglican church, in 2001 I switched denominations and joined a Baptist Church.

It’s a very different way of doing church and not a denomination you can make many sweeping generalisations about – well, not in Britain anyway.  What I soon came to realise, that where decisions in Anglican churches are usually made by a small group – the Parochial Church Council (PCC), in Baptist Churches they are made by the membership.  That means everyone who is a member (formally joins the church), has an equal part to play in the running of it.

Just recently we’ve run into troubled waters and had a difficult few months.  I’m happy to say that after this week’s meeting, things are looking brighter.  I’m glad; it’s so much of my life (I work and worship there, these people are, in many cases, close friends); that to see our church struggling has been hard.  It affected my work, badly in some cases and my heart just went out of things.  But with a decent break over Christmas and New Year and the benefit to have some time to let things settle, I believe we’ve finally started to sail into calmer waters. I certainly feel happier.

But things haven’t gone away; in many cases the healing and reconciliation process has only just started.  Things have been said and once you say them, you can retract them as much as you want but it’s hard to forget what’s been said.

Last Friday in my blog post here I said the tongue may be a little thing, but it’s capable of doing enormous damage.  Words are the same.  Sometimes I’ve read things and the words have carried such force that they’ve almost burned themselves onto my retina. Some things are not easily forgotten, but we must forgive; even when it’s the hardest thing in the world.

Forgiveness is one of the hallmarks of the truly mature Christian and the one that I am probably furthest from achieving.  Not that I am a bitter and resentful person, I’m not; but I can’t easily lay things down once my spirit has been stirred up.  I will ruminate on them in much the same way as a cow chews the cud.  It’s not helpful and sometimes ties me in such tight internal knots that it’s a heck of a job to start to unpick it all again.

But forgive I must, it’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13):

“But forgive us our trespasses (sins)
as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us.”

God forgives us for each and every thing we have done wrong, so who are we to be withholding that same forgiveness from others?  The whole point of being a Christian is being able to show and share God’s love with each and every person around us; we’re not allowed to pick and choose who gets it and who doesn’t.

But I’m not going to sit here and pretend it’s easy.  It’s not, sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world to forgive.  But there is perhaps something else that we can do: Lay it at the foot of the cross, nail it to it, even.  Take your burden, whatever it is and give it to God.  You can’t sort it, it’s too big, so let God take it from you.

What brought this to mind was the church meeting, where one of the women in our church who you absolutely can’t be without in your life (trust me, everyone needs a Jane!), said just this thing and that it was something that our young people were using – nailing things to the cross, putting them down at the foot of it. Young people put the older ones to shame sometimes.  But the most important thing is not the putting the burden down, it’s leaving it there.  These are not things for you to worry about anymore, you have handed them over.  But yet it happens time and again, that we pick them back up, restart the worrying and fretting and get them even more in a tangle.

For the rest of the week I’ve had the words from a song we sing, going round and around in my head. I think they’re appropriate for a church community that’s still hurting and embarking on a long period of reconciliation to build one another back up.

At the foot of the cross,
Where grace and suffering meet.
You have shown me you love,
through the judgement you received.

And you’ve won my heart,
Yes, you’ve won my heart.

Now I can trade these ashes in for beauty,
and wear forgiveness like a crown.
Coming to kiss the feet of mercy,
I lay every burden down
At the foot of the cross.

At the foot of the cross
Where I am made complete
You have given me life
Through the death you bore for me

I lay every burden down
At the foot of the cross.

I’m no expert at reconciliation, but I know that if I am to heal the relationships with people in church then I have to do so on purpose. I can’t ignore them and hope they’ll get better in time. Left unchecked they will only fester and become worse and that is no state of affairs to have myself in.

But where for the moment I’m struggling to do that, then perhaps it’s best if I let God have control of it, give the whole tangled mess to him and allow him to unpick the strands, straighten it out and put it all back together again.

What I’ve learned from this experience has been profound.  I’ve learned that being church can sometimes hurt an incredible amount.  If you engage fully with what’s going on,  to have something like this happen can affect you so deeply.  Up until now, Church has always been a joy; but the last few months have been painful.  It’s always the way isn’t it that you grow so much more during the trials and tribulations?  You learn more about yourself, about other people and most importantly, you learn more about God’s immense capacity for grace.

God has suffered too; he watched as a group of people crucified his own son.  But out of it came good, so much good, for each and every person who stood and yelled ‘crucify!’ and each and every person since then.

I can only write about what I’ve experienced and in the grand scheme of things it’s always been very minor.  I’ve not had to wrestle with forgiveness over medical blunders, physical attacks or other big issues.  So if all this sounds a tad simplistic, then I hope you will forgive me.

I know that God has plans to prosper our church, to give it hope and a future.  This week I think we’ve seen a tiny glimpse of that future.  Slowly, slowly we’re starting to move forward to appoint a new Senior Pastor. This week I felt genuinely excited and I’ve enjoyed working there for the first time in a good couple of months.

I don’t have the answers, but God does.  This year our church is 215 years old, having being founded in 1797 by people who trusted that God had a vision for a Baptist congregation in Ampthill.  215 years later, it’s still there; a thriving, growing, big chaotic mess of a place.  It’s not perfect and it never will be, but as the Mark Knopfler and Emmylous Harris song goes about a couple looking back through their photograph album: ‘This is us…’ Doing Church.

And this is how we do church: Sometimes we get ourselves in a right royal tangle and sometimes we doing amazing things for God; but always, at the root of it we are helping people meet Jesus Christ and become his fully devoted followers *points to banner on the wall*

Cue congregational sniggering.  Sorry, in joke :)

Thanks for reading.

Have some Mark and Emmylou…

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4 Responses to At the foot of the cross

  1. carys says:

    Yes ,I do read your God stuff too ,and today this has really struck a cord with me . Forgiveness is sometimes the hardest part of a relationship ,and without the ability to forgive relationships find it hard to continue ………..but what to do when the relationship is past fixing ,what to do when you know if you continue -in any way with this- that you will end up being hurt again ? I try to live my life by the rules set down by Jesus ,but just at the moment ,in this particular situation I`m finding forgiveness impossible .
    I will however continue to ponder on this and feel quite shocked that you tacked into my brain with quite so much accuracy ! Thank you

  2. Alex Carr-Malcolm says:

    Another brilliant piece!

    If I am hurt by words or actions, sometimes I find it helps to look below the surface and find out why it has affected me. Sometimes it is because my ego has been bruised, or because I feel threatened, or just plain angry, (usually self-righteous indignation!)

    Occasionally, if I can nail the underlying cause, and I have, ‘named and shamed’ the emotion, it makes my emotional response much more transparent and easier to experience, and work with.

    Another approach is to ask if what you are feeling is
    pleasant or painful,
    is it, helpful or unhelpful,
    is it, negative or positive
    and is it, skillful or unskillful?
    When I have realised that what I am experiencing is either negative, painful, unhelpful or unskillful, sometimes, just sometimes it becomes easier to see behind the scenes and start to work with what you have unearthed. (Though often easier said than done!)

    However, just because we are able to analyse our emotions and motives – not everyone will do this.
    The Buddha said;
    ‘Some there are who are clear sighted and do not need my teaching, and some whose eyes are clouded with dust who will not heed it though given, but between these two there are also some with but little dust in their eyes, who can be helped to see; and for the sake of these I will go back among mankind and teach.'”

    I hope that I am one of those with only a little dust in my eyes!

  3. John Mooney says:

    About a year ago, I was talking to two priests and both said that I was the best Catholic they had ever met. What can I say? Either the Catholic Church has had to lower the bar or the priests need to meet more people.
    I am not so sure that Forgiveness is really as difficult as people say. We make it more difficult than it maybe is.
    For a Christian, Forgiveness is NOT an optional extra. Rather it is part of the contract. If the Lords Prayer is really meant to be the definitive prayer….then forgive us our trespasses “as” (ie to the same extent) that we forgive others has to be …..basic.
    The easy bits in “Morality” are the bits spelled out clearly for us.
    The hard bits are the ones we have to think about.

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