Addie Zierman has written a book that I can’t wait to read ‘ When we were on fire’. At the time it was launched a couple of weeks ago Addie hosted a synchroblog on her blog How to Talk Evengelical. I missed the boat on #WWWoF synchroblog, but reading some of the submissions helped with the writing of this post. Please check out some of the posts on Addie’s blog and BUY HER BOOK!
Middle class, middle England, we were and just up the road from the Midland Oak. That’s our Youth Group heritage. It’s fair to say for a number of us, church was something parents did with a kind of quiet persistence, turning up faithfully week in and week out, but not with a demonstrable, on fire excitement. A small core of us went to the same school as well, thrown together in the 6th form after five years in the single sex grammar schools. Heck we were even all in the same tutor group at college too, navigating our way through the fug of hormones, dating each other in turn, debating life’s eternal questions, parties, nightclubbing and sneaking under-age into wine bars and inappropriate films.
Our Youth Leaders were two of the dads, two high class professionals. They treasured us as people and had good, willing hearts. Their dressing down with the yoof on Sunday evening was always jacket, tie and trousers. We mercilessly teased the one who attempted the guitar and his dogged determination lead us in singing ‘We are one in the Spirit’. The chord changes were always playing catch up to the singing and the bottom end of his jacket flapped increasingly he shifted on the seat adjusting his position, as if that would somehow enable his fingers to get the chords out on time.
There was a period when we had a small gang of town centre kids hanging on to the group. They came back and piled bovver-booted, into the back corner pew and fidgeted noisily during the evening services. Volleys of tongue clucking and tutting from older members of the congregation, flew backwards in their direction. At the language, values and behaviour that was alien to most of us, never mind the oldies. They made all of us youngsters at least question our comfortableness and gave us an itch to scratch. I wonder if they ever found what they were looking for after they left us?
We were no more mature. What on earth is it with metal communion cup holders on pews? Are there or have there ever been any of these anywhere else in the world? When we crammed two too many in a pew it made the person at the end twang the cup holder when we sat down, and we always snickered helplessly at the loud comedy boing.
I felt the love of God most deeply at outside events. At the local youth evangelistic rallies we went along to occasionally. And a few of us ventured to Spring Harvest in the early days and caught the fire which elevated us in our own eyes. We convinced ourselves that we had stumbled across ‘the way’ and rightly irritated the others with our ‘holy’ ideas. It tainted the word holy for quite some time but in the end the draw, comfort and loyalty of the middle was always greater and ultimately the end point of spiritual hokey cokey.
Sterile, hymn sandwiches out of the 1969 green Baptist Hymn book were a major dietary element in services; some of old melodies that screeched thinly at the top of the soprano range or others that crammed an absurd number of syllables of arcane words into as few lines as possible. Not more than once at the time (and since) have I felt strongly about pipe organs, poor organists and fire in the same breath. But something beyond the particular singing ridiculousness kept drawing us back and thankfully so. In spite of antipathy and boredom, words and ancient truths from the better hymns were finding their way in, burrowing deep along with the chord structures which were crucial building blocks in my musical memory from early days.
Worship songs of the time were still finding their way, and enthused us mainly because they were new and shiny. We had and lost the customary arguments with church leaders over their suitability for corporate worship. Although most of them have now largely fizzled out and have had their day they too were crucial in the early development of a piano playing style that still I use today in leading worship.
But the old good hymns, they have lasted, they are the ones insistently still around. Each time I sing their words now, either ones we don’t sing that often or ones we sing more regularly, there is always a fresh nuance, a change in weight of a particular word, and a much deeper understanding of Jesus’ love. That is the way at the moment God speaks most often, from those places where the deep things have been in storage, From where steady, quiet and persistent fire burned the words in, in the years gone by.
And I was back in the middle town these past few days with the Scotsman, visiting surviving parents who are now more frail of body and mind. Driving along the beautiful tree lined avenues, the tunnels of burnished browns and oranges that come around during the autumn season, with leaves on fire. Most of the rest of the group also have ageing parents in the same place a quarter of a century on, and although these ties call us back during the year we mostly pass as ships in the night. We could even be driving down the same avenues and not even know it. Our wings are now spread all over England, older, mostly rounder, greyer and enough baldness for a fair contest among the men (the very same competition that went on with our leaders in the Youth Group days.)
Most of us are no longer close friends but we are loosely connected by the fine threads of social networking. For me I look back and see times when making friends was uncomplicated and relatively easy. At that time the actual making friends with Jesus personally bit didn’t happen right into the heart for me, mainly because the middle was too comfortable. That came much later, after disappointment, failure, tiredness, brokenness and everyday living finally pushed me off the fence and out of the middle. He was the one who turned up persistently, whatever and He needed me to learn that.
For a long time I looked back on these things of the early days and looked down on them, as something you learn as a youngster and move on to better things as you get older. But lately the realisation has dawned that I am now grateful for the heritage of all the ‘on fire.’ That which came from both the very slow burn of persistence within and the flames of excitement that licked from the outside.