Category Archives: Church

A guilt-free existence: Part 1, Guilt-free church

This turns out to be the first part of a two three, erm, multi-part series on guilt. This stuff has been an evolving part of my life philosophy for a while, now, and I thought I’d share. Apologies to the non-religious among you for the first one being focussed on church. Actually, apologies to the rest of you, too.

Over the last three years or so, I’ve been working extra hard on being able to live a guilt-free existence.

Now, if I’m honest, this isn’t a new idea in the psychology of me. I can remember horrifying my university flat-mate, nearly twenty years ago, by declaring that I didn’t ‘do’ guilt, which was both untrue, and in her eyes, morally bankrupt. Presumably, she thought that without guilt, there was no moral compass at all. I disagreed then, and I disagree even more, now. Guilt is a hugely exhausting and damaging emotional driver, and there are much, much more positive ways of making moral choices.

More recently, however, I’ve become aware of just how easily guilt takes over all the rational decision-making functions of a person’s life, and I have been making a small but determined stand against its power in my life, and where I can, in the lives of the people around me.

Guilt-free church

Probably the starting point for this line of reasoning, was the decision to join a small group of friends in starting a new church. We define ourselves both as a church (mostly – some people baulk at the word itself) and as a community group, determined to do what we can to make a real difference to the local area in which we find ourselves. Over the three years we’ve been meeting, that has meant a wide variety of projects, both one-offs, and on-going, from street-sweeping to debt advice, from youth work to food banks, some things involving all of us, some only one or two.

It very quickly became apparent that if we, as a group, were so focussed on Getting Things Done, we had a lot of potential to put a great deal of pressure, both on ourselves, and on each other. So, at a very early stage, we had important conversations, where we explicitly outlined our expectation that everyone’s contribution would be different; that some people had enough energy and enthusiasm for three of us, while others would burn out in weeks if they tried to match the pace. We stated, and promised for the future, that the people in our group were valued for who they were, not for what they delivered, and that every contribution was fantastic, however small, and however outpaced it may be by other people.

That mattered hugely, to me. I am not a pacey person. I have spent nearly 9 years as a stay-at-home mum, and during that time, my pace has dropped to that of a snail. We rarely do more than one thing in a day – if we have a thing in the calendar, then that day is full, as far as we’re concerned. Among my friends are people who do more by the time I’ve finished breakfast, than I’m likely to achieve all day. And you know what? That’s OK. I can choose to live life more slowly, take time to smell the flowers, work less hard, live on less money, and ultimately, know that I’m better off for it. I’m a happier, healthier person as a result. This is the pace that suits me, because we’re all different. It would be just as bad for some of my friends to live my life, as it would be for me to live theirs.

Guilt-free church is a great thing. I’ve knocked around a fair few churches in my life, and they have all, to a greater or lesser degree, functioned on the basic premise that if what we are doing is supposed to be to the glory of God, then to not do it isn’t an option. In my middle thirties, I started to see just how much this contradicted the things those same churches had (mostly) been trying to teach me about God.

The bible is all about God’s grace. It’s all about how he loves me and accepts me for who I really am, irrespective of what I do or don’t do. But then, churches are too often full of busy-work and guilt, and people run ragged by the belief that if they don’t do it, no-one will, and if no-one does it, God will be sad.

My old dad used to say, if you’re afraid God will stop loving you if you stop working, try it and see what happens. My old dad is not always right about things, but on this one he had it spot on. God’s love is unconditional. You don’t have to earn it.

So, why do anything at all, then? Why volunteer for anything?

Because I want to. In my church, I only do the things I want to do. The things that just don’t seem to be playing to my strengths, the things that are so far out of my comfort zone as to make me feel stressed, the things that threaten to take up so much of my time that they are destined to send me into some kind of stress-related illness – I don’t have to do those things. Nobody expects me to, and if I’m asked, and I choose to say no, that’s fine. If I’ve been doing it, and choose to stop, that’s fine. I am motivated, not by guilt, or fear, or duty (another dirty word in my book), but by my own desire to do what I can – but not more than I can.

Now, I prefer not to let people down. So, I tend to be a little cagey about agreeing to things, on the grounds that when I’m committed, I’m really committed. I try not to duck out of things at the last minute, and create problems for other people. But do you know what? If I was a thoroughly unreliable person, who only turned up a third the time that I promised to, I’m pretty sure my church group would quietly reorganise themselves around an assumption of my unreliability, be delighted when I came and helped, and hold no expectations about me for the rest of the time (if you’re reading this, guys, I don’t plan to go down this route!).

It’s all about a shift in focus. Instead of perpetually feeling bad about the things I don’t do (and no matter how hard you work, there’s always something you haven’t done), I am interested in celebrating the things I do. Church isn’t a stick to beat me with, it’s an opportunity to enrich myself and other people by pitching in. I benefit from that as much as anyone else, but my criteria are largely made up of the questions, “Will this activity help me? Will it help someone else? Do I have the time, energy and skills to do this? Do I want to, or is this probably more up someone else’s street?” And it’s OK to leave it to someone else, and it’s OK if the thing doesn’t get done, because none of us are suited to it. That’s a thing that wasn’t getting done before we came along, and can continue to not be done, if there’s no-one to do it.

Churches change and shift as they grow and progress. Guilt-free church is a very important value to me, and one I shall be defending carefully in ours.

Halloween, or How difficult it is to be this uptight

When I was a little girl, on a random Sunday morning one autumn, a chap stood up to address my church. I noticed this, because he was a) someone whom I had never seen addressing the church before, though I had seen him playing an electric organ there on many occasions, and b) I wasn’t usually there when people stood up to address the church. This wasn’t the sermon, when I would normally be in Sunday School with all the other little darlings, this was an additional message for the church, and it caught my attention.

The chap concerned – Keith, his name was – had stood up to regale the church about the the evilnesses that schools were inflicting on their children under the guise of Halloween. Witches, wizards, ghosts and gouls, spells and potions – it was all bad, and evil, and wrong, and the children’s heads were being filled with it all.

His message hit home, with me at least. I was nine. I realise now, of course, that his message wasn’t targeted at my nine-year-old self. It was aimed at my thirty-something-year-old parents, who needed to Be Aware of the Danger, and Do Something About It. But I was there, I was listening, he didn’t explicitly exclude me from his intended audience, and in my innocence, I took his message to heart.

School that week was very uncomfortable for me. Mr Liddle, in his wisdom, had decided to use a large navy blue sheet to mock up a kind of a spooky corner at one end of our classroom. I forget the details of what was in there, or what we were expected to do about it, but I remember the overwhelming feeling of wanting to avoid the Halloween corner, because it was BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. I said nothing. I just fretted. And, a bit, hated myself for not telling Mr Liddle about the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, thereby enabling him to see the error of his ways, and take the blue sheet down.

Imagine my relief, then, when he came over to where I was sitting, and said, “You’re not at all happy about all this, are you?” I shook my head, miserably. He smiled at me encouragingly, and my spirits lifted. He understood! About the dilemma of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. He’d stop, now. He’d take the sheet down, and stop.

Oddly enough, the unarticulated discomfort of a nine-year-old girl was not enough for Mr Liddle to change his plan for the week’s lessons. I quite see, now, that it would be an extremely odd state of affairs if it had, but the realisation that the Halloween stuff was going ahead anyway, in SPITE of that conversation, was something of a blow, at the time. I avoided it as far as possible, and took comfort in the fact that once Halloween is over, it’s downhill all the way to Christmas, a festival I felt much more comfortable with.

I’m telling you this story, because I still get that feeling about Halloween. That uncomfortable feeling that I’d prefer it just not to be there. That it would be better for everyone if we just didn’t do it. All the spooky-spooky programmes on CBBC; the trick-or-treating; the randomly ghoulish fancy-dress of the staff in the Pizza Hut – all of it. Bobbing for apples, is, as far as I can tell, harmless, but my gut instinct is to bob for them another time. So that it’s a fun game, rather than a Halloween Activity.

We carved pumpkins in church*, on Sunday. My initial reaction was pretty much the same as that of the nine-year-old in Mr Liddle’s class – Why? It’s uncomfortable. It’s associated with the BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, and it’s not necessary. Why would we choose to do something that’s neither comfortable nor necessary?

Well, I can tell you that, having never carved a pumpkin in my life before, it’s a lot of fun. We sort of justified the event by discussing All Saints Day, and the remembering of Those Who Have Gone Before, which seems like a very Catholic thing to do, for someone of my religious background, but not beyond the pale. Besides, we all knew that we were REALLY there to carve pictures into fruit, because that’s fun. And you can’t get a pumpkin for love nor money at any other time of year, so unless you want to switch to carving strawberries or clementines, it’s not easy to break the link with a certain late-October festival. But I really wanted to.

It’s all part of a very confused thought process surrounding a great number of things, of which Halloween is the pinnacle. I blame Keith from church – I think I’ve probably been confused from that day forward.

I am not against Harry Potter. I have friends who are, and when I’m with them, I feel lax, and naive, and foolish, and like I’m taking massive spiritual risks with my children’s well-being and future. But I have other friends who produce pumpkins to carve in church situations, and when I’m with THEM, I feel uptight, paranoid, and like I need to Get A Grip.

Don’t tell me that I primarily need to drop the angst over what other people think. I know that already.

I’m definitely not against dressing up – I love that my seven-year-old still dresses up, and whilst finding dressing up clothes to fit her is getting trickier (apparently, dressing up is an under-fives activity), I think it’s a fabulous part of being a child. But perhaps not dressing up on the night of BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in case that which is usually fine suddenly becomes BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, by association (I’ve now got “BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil” in my Copy-And-Paste clipboard, because it’s awkward to type).

Can you see how utterly tangled up and irrational my thinking is on this? I’m finding it all very confusing.

So, yesterday, I did what I often do when I have no clear idea of what I think about something. I talked to my dad about it. And, in the way that he very often does, he threw some very interesting light on the thing for me. What if, he said, Halloween is actually necessary? What if there is genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil, in terms of real spiritual influences, but that the stuff that goes on at Halloween – the dressing up, the pumpkin carving, the being delightfully scared, but not TOO scared – what if the role of those things is specifically to fulfil a need in us to acknowledge the scary. What if, without it, many more people would be driven to seek out the genuinely BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil spiritual experiences? What if Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than opening us up to such things, actually protect us from them?

I had honestly never considered such an angle before, and I’m still working out whether I think it’s valid or not. It does sound a little like precisely the argument one might construct if one was seeking to justify something that was actually BadAndWrongAndWickedAndEvil. But it certainly gave me some food for thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I remain very much against Trick-or-Treating – it amounts to demanding sweets with menaces, and is a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. But maybe I might just calm down a bit over the rest of it.

* For the record, whatever picture entered your mind when I used the word “church” just there, I can guarantee it was more formal and structured than the way we are currently spending our Sunday mornings. Picture a dozen people hanging out at someone’s house, carving pumpkins and cooking lunch.

Well, that was unexpected!

The Green Balloon Club, for the uninitiated, is a nature programme on the fabulous CBeebies channel. They usually talk about bird feeders and minibeasts, and leaves, and whatnot, and then they sing a song.  Daisy loves it, so we generally make a point of watching it.  Today, however, they broke with the entire format in order to tell the story of the Nativity.  It wasn’t entirely faithful – it was rather skewed towards excessive mention of the animals involved (and I’ve never seen a rabbit in the stable before!), and the small matter of WHY the baby was special, that he was, in fact, the Son of God sent to save humanity from its own wickedness, was airbrushed out entirely, but nevertheless, there was Mary and Joseph, an angel, some shepherds, some kings, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and a general sense that the story was the reason for the presents under the tree.  I was most impressed.

I think, on balance, I’d have liked the Son of God bit, even if it was qualified with “Christians believe that…”  Still, after an afternoon of the Grinch, it was a refreshing change.