“Why were you coming to the conference if this is not your scene?” my friend Penny asked me as we were driving back from the women’s conference in the Antioch Church in Llanelli. She had got a point.
When I grew up, I greeted my parents with a hand-shake. The few times I went to church (I was nominally a Catholic, but did not believe in God back then), people also shook hands at a certain point in the service – actually, you would only shake hands with those you knew. That was as far as emotional expression in family and church went.
I have come a long way since then: I no longer change the subject when my husband tells me that he loves me. I have graduated to hugs and a kiss on the cheek when I see my parents. I also give hugs to friends at church, and I do raise my hands in worship or bow down when a song calls for it.
However, you won’t find me leaping in the air and dancing in the aisles (although I used to try a few dance moves in the privacy of my living-room when I was a young Christian). I don’t shout, holler or speak in tongues I cannot understand. And no, I do not actively try to enter the throne room of God or connect with the supernatural - to be honest, I avoid anything that makes me feel out of control.
I am now part of a charismatic fellowship, but many worshippers in the Llanelli church make our local church seem cerebral…
I also get easily distracted. There was plenty to distract me in Llanelli, apart from the expressive, emotional worship. In the meeting hall, we could try our hand at helping to weave a tapestry, paint stones that had been collected at the local beach or add our drawing on a huge white piece of paper on the wall. We could also rest in the “tent of meeting” where apparently the presence of God could be felt particularly clearly – when I went in, I felt the ground shake… from the worship band drums!
I tend to get my insights when I am in nature, ideally by myself, and I love silent retreats to connect with God. To be honest, when other people are around, I am often focused on what they are doing and saying (and worse, on whether it is actually OK what they are doing).
So you can see that my friend Penny had a point: What had I been doing at the conference? I have had a week to reflect on this question. Here is what I have realized so far:
1) It is the content that counts, rather than the packaging. When I am in unknown territory, I tend to pay more attention, so it can be helpful when things are packaged differently than I am used to.
2) Immersed in an environment that focussed on an emotional response to God, it was easier to take a step, tentative as it may have been, towards dealing with my heart. It was certainly not the first time that I was told that God loves me just as much as women who were able to have children or that I have realized that I need to repent of the belief that I am living a second best life because some of my dreams have not been fulfilled. Yet it is one thing to deal with these issues intellectually and another to engage with them at heart level.
3) My most natural way of loving God is with my mind, but if I want to grow in wholeness and freedom, I also need to learn to love God with my heart and soul. (Incidentally, when Jesus talks about how to love God, he puts the heart and soul before the mind…)This does not mean that I need to become a carbon copy of the women in Llanelli – after all, we are also called to worship in spirit and in truth, which surely requires authenticity. However, it does mean that I need to find ways of engaging all of me.
4) Church life is a bit like trying to weave a piece of tapestry together. We may have different tastes and different approaches. I may not like that you put pink after my red thread, and you may not like that my line looks crooked when you have tried so hard to make things look neat and tidy, but we are all called to make our contribution. Ultimately, it is not up to us to tie up all the loose ends – the Master Weaver will decide when the piece is finished and will add the final touches to pull us all together into a united whole.
Penny, I hope I have answered your question!
About the author: Sue Irving is the co-ordinator for the Creative Communicators in Petersfield. She has co-written a book with her husband John about their experiences when climbing Kilimanjaro. It is aimed at both trekkers and those who are going through a dark time in their lives. How to conquer a mountain: Kilimanjaro lessons is available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon, with all proceeds going to charity. The German translation Wie man einen Berg bezwingt: Was der Kilimanjaro uns gelehrt hat was published in June 2017.