There was a time in my early years that my expectations of what should happen in church led me somewhat astray in my thinking. As a choirboy in our local parish church I had been seconded (army style!) to serve at the altar. The curate had been very keen to have a couple of boys for this duty, so after the service one morning came the time of our instruction.
Now, in those days particularly anywhere in the area of the altar was sacrosanct – a place where only the ‘initiated’ were allowed to enter (so I thought!), indeed, only those in authority entered that place. Therefore, we two lads had almost crept up the altar not quite sure what would happen to us if we put a foot wrong. The curate then started our ‘education’ during which time he leant with an elbow on the altar. We lads looked at each other in horror, and I fully expected the curate to be engulfed in a sheet of flame, he having done such an irreverent action. To me until that time, the altar contained the power of God and to act so irresponsibly was a great crime.
Well, the curate survived the ‘episode’, but the upshot was that I grew up with a very jaundiced view of the clergy, and especially of that particular curate. That was the beginning of a religious change that occurred in me over the course of the next ten or fifteen years, for I started to realise that, just as the altar could not have engulfed the curate there and then, so also it did not actually have the power with which I’d invested it - it was only a symbol, a focal point, and no more than that, although it was still a place to be treated reverently as far as I was concerned.
Perhaps it was just one of those growing pangs and the realisation that all things aren't just as the imagination states them to be. Indeed, I was finding that reality can be far more mundane - though I would be the first to wish that I could see the beauty and power of things that my own strong imagination had made them out to be when I was a child.
And yet, perhaps it wasn't all imagination - perhaps that's what we grown-ups would like to think - as an excuse for not being able to see as simply and without preconception as a child sees. How wonderful it would be to return to that state of innocence.
But, no doubt about it, I secretly nursed a deep sorrow that at least that one illusion had been corrupted for me. No, it didn't change the way I believed in God, that never would change, but it made me realise later that it was all too easy to invest in some inarticulate item - thing - a power that just isn't there.
Have you ever listened to a person on the TV or the radio or been at some meeting and have wondered what on earth that person is talking about? Worse still, have you ever picked up a book or paper and wondered what the author is trying to say, such is the convoluted language used? I must admit that I'm getting rather lazy in my old age and if I can't remember what the beginning of a sentence says let alone means by the time I reach the ending, I just give it up as a bad job, and wonder why on earth people can't write in 'people speak'!!?
Jesus, throughout his ministry, chose ordinary people – most of them uneducated and certainly never perfect in any way. He taught them in a simple and easy to understand way, making sure that his immediate disciples understood his parables. On the other hand, he often rebuked the hierarchy of the Jews and confounded these learned people with the simple answers to questions they had thought would trip him up.
Likewise, today, should we not speak and write of the scriptures in simple terms - terms which the ordinary person in the street can understand? Religious dogma and arguments about who wrote or said what and when, will always stand in the way of a simple faith, and this must be a faith that understands the simple truth that Jesus is the living Son of God, who was born of a virgin, who lived as a sin-free man on earth even though he was tempted, was crucified to redeem us all, was resurrected and so defeated death and that after he ascended to His Father, he sent his Holy Spirit to watch over us and to guide us until Jesus returns in glory when we all in turn will be resurrected. It doesn't matter how, or when – all that matters is that it did happen, and will happen – that's all. As we are told by the risen Jesus: 'It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by His own authority'. (Acts 1. 7)
The problem is that many people these days have a scientific and logical mind-set. As a result, these people are spiritually blind when really they ought to have the kind of simple faith such as was known in the early days of the church. In many respects, it would be a good thing if we could return to the basics of the Christian faith such as Jesus and His apostles and the apostolic fathers after them taught. Yes, we all have questions and doubts – that is natural, and as one writer stated – 'doubts can be the ants in the pants of faith' – in other words, doubts used in the right way can make us keep our faith awake and moving.
But perhaps we should always remember what Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' (Mark 10.15) In other words, one who has a simple, uncomplicated and innocent faith will find it easier to come closer to God than anyone who is bound down by earthly dogma, tradition and logic.
I knew a person once whose whole belief was – 'God is'. She knew the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed, she read the Bible and loved to sing hymns, but had no use for complex theological discussions. As she said, man has complicated all the simple things that God through His Son has given us.
But from this she had great faith and spiritual strength, which was to support her throughout her arduous life and particularly at her more difficult end when she suffered and died from cancer. And so, let this simplicity of faith in God and His works support and help us ourselves throughout our lives so that through Jesus, we can become closer to God. Indeed, as the hymn states – 'Faith believes, nor questions how…'.