Sunday, April 13, 2014

Thought for the Day - Palm Sunday - What is real worship?

This is the second of four recorded Thought for the Days that are being broadcast on April Sunday mornings just before the 8am news in Kim Lenaghan's programme.

It's partly based on my observations at a gathering of Sunday Assembly Belfast just over a month ago. It was so nearly based around the divine cake they served at the end until I spotted a bumper sticker while driving home from Ballymena.

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Recently on a damp Sunday afternoon I gathered with 40 or so other people in a dimly lit venue in Belfast. Some like me had come on their own. Others in groups. Younger couples brought small children.

There was an enthusiastic welcome and announcements were made. A small band that was assembled at the front played a song. The lyrics went up on a screen and we were gently encouraged to sing along. A 23 minute illustrated address was delivered by a well-spoken woman standing behind a carved wooden lectern. A collection was taken. And there was more singing.

Church, but not as you know it. You see, one of the songs was Blondie’s Sunday Girl! And the address was about “the Suffragette movement in Ireland and what we can still learn from it”.

Franchises of Sunday Assembly are popping up all around the world. It’s not intentionally anti-religious and the Belfast organiser stressed that they weren’t hung up on atheism. As a regular church goer – from before I was born – I was curious to see what this Godless service would be like. Would Sunday Assembly feel like church? Could God really be banished?

It was a deliberately secular humanist space, albeit with plenty of inherited ecclesiastical references. People gathered together where they could celebrate life through song and word; and where they could be open to challenge about the issues being discussed.

God was not being worshipped. And yet God was definitely not absent. Unannounced God was still at work, in me at least, through the challenge of building a fair society and even the mindfulness exercise near the end – a practice not unfamiliar to some churchgoers – which was a very natural opportunity for quiet, meditative prayer.

Driving along some time later I noticed a car with sticker in its back windscreen saying: “Liverpool is my religion. Anfield is my church.” Cheering on the terraces can so quickly be replaced with chanting for a manager to be sacked.

This is Palm Sunday and as Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowd was cheering for him, when they thought he was going to overthrow the occupying Roman regime. Yet days later when he preached a different agenda, attacking the religious authorities and valuing the wrong sort of poor and downtrodden, the crowd turned and called for his crucifixion.

Comradeship on the football terrace isn’t enough for me. Nor is just getting together with likeminded souls for a shared experience on a Sunday morning in church or an afternoon at the Sunday Assembly.

Where you worship isn’t what matters. Who and how you worship does. Are you worshipping yourself, a team, a tribe? Or are you wholeheartedly worshipping the God that created us and gives us the strength to endure and maybe even forgive the oppressive forces at work around us?

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