Afire with God

The reason for a recent visit to our capital city Wellington was not work-related, but on the Sunday I decided to go to a sister church; I’m always up for new experiences and ideas. This church is known to be somewhat avant garde, with regular opportunities for worshippers to access the creative arts. There are lots of students in the congregation, but they were mostly late, with only about six people being present at the start time of ten o’clock (no criticism; our church is like that too!). We sat in a back pew trying to blend in, and noticed a striking presence over the aisle from us. A young woman with the most amazing shocking pink Mohawk was sitting by the window, looking perfectly at home despite her unconventional appearance.

I suppose it was because we were waiting for something to happen that I came up with the notion of photographing her. Of course I would never do this with a camera, but having a phone that takes pictures means you can click something off quite discreetly. This turned out to be an issue later in the day when I was texting in the Te Papa Art Gallery and got told off by a security guard who clearly thought I was taking photos. Anyway, I did take two pictures of this amazing girl in church. I don't know what I had in mind, maybe to use in a sermon powerpoint to show how God accepts us, even if we are a bit way out. The service began, a careful blend of the Pentecost theme and the occasion of a water baptism of a university music student whose family sang her an amazing bluegrass waiata.

Later in the service when I sneaked a peek at the photos, I found that intriguingly the "girl with the hairdo" was almost completely obliterated by the sunshine streaming through the window above her. Haha, I sensed God saying, convicting me of the sin of inappropriate photography, "You saw the hair, but I only saw the light." For thousands of years God has been saying this to his people. From Samuel seeking to identify the future King and hearing "The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (I Sam 16:7) through to Jesus who forged his reputation for compassion by seeing "under the skin" into the souls of people rejected by their community, God teaches us not to judge on appearances.

I was still mulling over this divine pinpointing of my tendency to "be swift to judge" when a young man sat down with his guitar, to sing one of his own compositions. I didn't take in much of his introduction, which turned out to be a mistake. He sang well, but the poetry was a little dark and the tune was a monotonous chant of just three or four notes; he had written this song waiting for the dawn to break. I recalled hearing angsty songs like this from a young man suffering from depression some years back and with a critical air I thought, oh well, at least he's got a supportive community where he can share his talent.

Later, God was to whack me over the head again, as I learned from another worshipper that the man's baby daughter is seriously ill with cancer, and that the night he wrote that song was the first of many when they would have to watch over her spewing repeatedly, as a result of chemotherapy. "Don't judge a book by its cover," I thought, "there was so much more going on there than a song." I realised too that our church back home has been interceding for this little one, who is related to one of our own families.

So all this week I've been tuning my spiritual antennae for occasions when I shouldn't jump to swift judgment. That's not easy, for I have a Judging temperament that prefers to "have matters settled" rather than "keeping the options open." But I believe discipleship includes the invitation to the Lord to "put a finger on anything that doesn't please you, anything I do that grieves you (Rory Noland) and in this case he has got me pegged.

I heard someone else's story of a renewed perception yesterday. A Young Life director was asked to speak about Jesus at a gathering of local Def Metal enthusiasts. He spoke for just a few minutes amidst mocking, surly glares and insolent indifference. When he finished, he went outside thinking what a fool he was to even agree to speak. There to his shock, he was greeted time after time by young men thanking him and telling him how his message had impacted them - far more than the five or six guys who had organised the event. "I realised, " he said, "that God is at work in the most unlikely places, and that even when we think we have been useless or irrelevant, the Spirit can be at work deep in people's souls."

That's the message of Pentecost, isn't it, God's surprising life and energy, and its one to which we need to wake up for ourselves, and for others, as we pursue a godshaped life.

To Chew Over: when recently have you been proved wrong about someone or something? When has God surprised you with beauty where you didn't expect it, or responsiveness when you had given up?
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
And only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning.