While I was researching material for this sermon on the Internet, I came across reference to a collection of books called the Left Behind series. These wonderfully titled books - The Indwelling, Desecration and so on, start from the point after the rapture, as described in today's gospel - the moment when the blessed are simply pulled off the earth. After the rapture, those left behind have to struggle on alone under the tribulations as described in Revelation. These are translated into modern global terms, with much of the action taking place in Israel and Jordan. So exciting and well-devised is this version of the end-times, that the books, along with the simplified kids' series and now the new graphic novels (that's comic books for adults) have sold some 36 million items, and the new book in the series has just gone straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Here's a taste:
Two military types in the desert
"I'll make it quick, sir. It's just that I like to tell people how it happened with me." "It?"
"You know, sir."
Rayford loved these stories, but there was a time and place for everything, and this was neither.
"Nothing dramatic, Captain.
Had a chopper instructor, Jeremy Murphy, who always told me Jesus was coming
to take Christians to heaven. 'Course, I thought he was a nutcase, and I even
got him in trouble for proselytizing on the job. But he wouldn't quit. He
was a good instructor, but I didn't want a thing to do with the other stuff.
I was loving life-newly married, you know."
"He invited me to church and everything. I never went. Then the big day happens. Millions missing everywhere. Smart as I'm supposed to be, I actually tried calling him to see if my session was called off that day 'cause of all the chaos and everything. Later that night somebody found his clothes on a chair in front of his TV."
When I described these books to Court who is 15, he immediately wanted me
to buy one, then and there, because they sounded terrific fun. And I must
say that the notion of the graphic novel appealed to me - so much I suspect
that I would probably have to buy - for research purposes of course - were
I to see one in a bookshop.
This got me thinking that somehow, we in the mainstream, had missed a very important point. These books with their gripping storylines, though peddling a strongly religious line, are fun. And so much of what goes on in hard-line evangelical churches is exciting - the preaching, the prophesying, the music - it's not so much that the devil has all the good tunes, it's that the religious right has got all the rock. But we - us ordinary, sensible middle-of-the-road Christians - have forgotten how to enjoy ourselves. No-one here, no matter how much they love God and honour his church, not one of you would describe what we do here as fun. You would probably be quite shocked and the linking of the words fun and worship. - imagining some ghastly seventies attempt at levity, like Godspell.
But this is to misunderstand the nature of fun. I am not talking about pleasure, which is a totally different thing from fun. Mostly we associate the word with Disneyland Paris and Morecambe and Wise - overt, laugh-out-loud, scream-out-load - 'gosh wasn't that fun!' enjoyment - with fireworks and Christmas crackers and party games. In some ways this is the most blessed state a person can attain - most like heaven, when we forget our petty self and become one with everyone else in the thrill and laughter. But like happiness, true fun cannot be relentlessly pursued, and is by nature fleeting. There only so many Disneyland rides you can take before the fun wears off, only so many crackers you can pull and jokes you can tell, before tediousness sets in.
Don't get me wrong - I am not disparaging that kind of fun - my friends and family will attest to my undignified lack of seriousness, and a dangerous passion for fireworks. But there is another sort of fun - what I call serious fun and it is serious fun I want us to consider for a few minutes today.
I would contend that almost everything we do which is worthwhile or rewarding is serious fun. If you observe the choir at choir practice, we don't look very cheerful. Chris is always exhorting us to smile and himself grins like a ventriloquist's dummy to encourage us. But actually we are having terrific fun, which bursts out afterwards. If you watch people working out in a gym, you will see them sweating and frowning and puffing and panting. Gosh they look miserable. What they don't tell you is that, when they emerge from the showers afterwards, they feel wonderful. They have had fun, though not many would admit to it. When I shut myself in my room to work on a book, I have to force myself to write, and seize almost any excuse to stop and check a quotation or get another drink, but nonetheless, at the end of a session, I am exhilarated, and I will describe what has happened as fun. It didn't exhibit as fun while I was doing it. Similarly with almost everything we do that's worth doing - a vigorous walk in the country, a heavy session pruning the roses, a few hours up river with a fishing rod, a training session in the park, even manning a stall at the church fair - doesn't look much like fun on the surface, but underneath we recognise that it is.
Now it seems to me that the practice of our religion ought to be fun in the same way - not a comedy show, with lots of jokes from the pulpit, and sing-along hymns and a strip cartoon Jesus - but serious fun. Religion doesn't have to be overtly entertaining to be enjoyable. I was listening to a couple of Muslims at work discussing the proper way to observe Ramadan - the minutiae of what constituted a fast. I listened fascinated and impressed - and then I realised they were enjoying themselves! And I remembered sadly the ritualistic observances of my Anglo-catholic youth - the serious fun of trying to keep a good Advent fast when all about you were knee-deep in mince-pies and warm white wine. It was a jolly enterprise we were engaged, we silly young Catholics, though we were deadly serious about it - rose pink vestments for mid-Advent Sunday, the Advent Prose, and the Great Advent Antiphons - what a strange and terrible joy they fill me with, even now. And the hymns - the marvellous extravagance of Lo he comes with clouds descending, and Wake, O Wake with tidings thrilling! It was fun - serious fun - because we were all in it together - doing something of which we saw the serious point, but which everyone else failed to get. A bit like the special (and it turns out dangerous) fun of plane-spotting. It's more precious because you do it with others, and because the world doesn't understand.
And I think that is where the serious fun in religion comes from - doing something together, and feeling set apart by it. Not in being secretive, or in elitist, or trivial, or obsessed by detail, not from feeling pious or suffused with generalised goodwill, not in warm fuzzies vaguely connected with loving people and doing good, but in the sense of a special, shared enterprise, a sense of doing something together well, for a purpose you understand.
You remember the delightful actor Derek Nimmo famed for his silly-ass curate. He was a church-goer, and wherever he went on his travels as an actor, he would set congregations astir by turning up at Evensong. 'I'm always in search of the perfect Evensong.' he would say. You see, he actually enjoyed a proper Anglican Evensong - some people do. It's not everyone's idea of fun, certainly not my son Court's - but for some, it is precisely that - pure fun. Serious fun, because there aren't many laughs in evensong, but there is a great deal of joy I think going to church should always be like that, for all of us. And I fear that it is not.
So how should we go about rekindling our sense of fun in corporate worship, our delight in the practice of our religion? Well, closet ritualist though I am, I'm not going to suggest we all return to the great Catholic glories of our past - for I don't detect any appetite for that among you- although I never give up hope. I think the way to find serious fun in the worship of God is twofold - one is to identify what it is you really enjoy - what brings you personally close to God - for I am making the huge but warranted assumption, that coming close to God fill us with joy, and therefore is something we enjoy at the deepest level. What is it that personally makes you feel close to God? Is it a certain style of praying? Is it silence, is it conducted meditation, is it gazing on beautiful flowers, is it arranging those flowers in an empty church? Is it a style of music, is it the rolling cadences of the old psalms? Is it Fr Max's teaching sermons, or is it David Broome's prayers? Whatever it is, identify it. And then go for it - lobby for it. Tell the parish team and the worship committee, and anyone else that will listen, that this is what you love. Don't be reticent about this - be bold. You may find that enough people feel the same way to make a change - how many of you long for silence in the presence of God, as I do? Have you ever talked about this - shared it - asked for more - begged for more? Or do you feel constrained by the idea that to enjoy your time with God is somehow self-indulgent? But how can it possibly be -as George Harrison said, the search for God is the only thing that cannot wait.
The other way to get more serious fun back into worship is to join in physically. Not everyone can sing, but almost everyone could be a server, a steward, read the prayers, help with the children's church, pour the coffee, stack the chairs. These activities are not for the few; every single one of you should join in with some part of our combined enterprise. It may look like work, but the fellowship, the sense of belonging, the sense of contributing usefully turns it into fun. Instead of sitting in your seat, you are part of things, making it happen. God created us with a terrific sense of fun - gave us the capacity to enjoy almost everything we do, even work, if only we allow ourselves to recognise where the joy resides. Don't turn down his gift. Have a seriously joyful Advent.
The Left-Behind Series
a sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere