About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. (Acts 10: 9-15 NRSV)
Now imagine this. It’s eight o’clock on a cold, dark and rainy Saturday night in West London and we are about to experience a new way of doing church. The pews have been pushed aside and we are lounging on oversized beanbag chairs spread around the sanctuary. There are over fifty of us including about fifteen clergy from the Netherlands who, like ourselves, have come to experience and learn. The lights have been dimmed and soft ambient music plays in the background.
A voice begins reading Acts 10 starting at verse 9 then slowly a black sheet is lowered from above by its four corners. As it reaches the floor spotlights show all manner of four legged animals as well as reptiles and birds – all plastic replicas of course. Then, as the voice continues, our attention is drawn to a figure dressed in a white robe walking into our gathering. He is blindfolded and carries a staff. He gazes upward as he hears a sound and the lights follow. Slowly descending is a pink piñata pig covered in small disco mirrors. The spotlights seek it out and the light is reflected around the sanctuary in a strange eeriness, as if something important is about to happen, as the voice continues, “Get up Peter; kill and eat.” Going off script Peter says, “Wait!” “What is it now?” asks the voice. Peter replies, “I am about to beat the stuffing out of a pig in front of all these witnesses and some of these people might be vegetarians.” The voice responds, “Good point! Now that I am freeing you from all those rules and regulations, these are exactly the sorts of things you need to bear in mind. I shall make it clear to them that this is merely a metaphor – no matter how sweet it looks.”
Peter swings at the piñata and candies cascade downward when it bursts. “Gather around,” says the voice. “Take and eat. Find something tasty or sparkly that will remind you of the freedom you have. Everything is clean.”
This is Grace, a Christian community that meets twice monthly at St. Mary’s Church (Church of England) in South Ealing, London. Grace is unique in many ways, but most interestingly they have no staff and no budget; everything is run by volunteers. Dean, a Chaplin at a nearby college, is a member of one of the planning teams and is available to celebrate the Sacraments when they are included as part of a service. A large part of the mission of Grace is to develop cutting edge, multi-sensory worship experiences for its members, the wider church in the UK and around the world. Grace has just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary as an alternative worship community for people who are seeking non-traditional ways to engage with God and the Holy Spirit. Grace is about worship using ways and forms that relate to our culture, an authentic offering to God out of who they are, not something they target other people with. It is not unusual for visitors from abroad to worship at Grace to discover how Grace’s style connects with those who seek liberal alternatives to traditional worship styles. Following each service everyone gathers for conversation and fellowship around food and drink.
The theme for this worship experience was “Clean” and the planning team arrived at six o’clock and spent the next two hours setting up for worship and the café afterwards – the service itself was approximately ninety minutes. At first the furniture in the sanctuary was moved to make room for the beanbag chairs, then the projectors and the screens were set up. Members were also in the galleries setting the rigging for the lowering of the sheet and the disco pig. Behind the scenes there were many hours of planning, preparing and procuring. Of course, since every service is different, there is always some anxiety on the part of the planners as to whether their ideas will effectively translate into a meaningful worship experience that those present can engage in.
As worship continues with the theme we are invited to take a fallen leaf – gathered from one the large trees outside the church – and write something on it that we do or use that might be wrong or bad for us. Then we broke into small groups to explore why the writing on the leaves might be bad or unclean. For example, my group discussed the dangers of too much television. Not that watching TV is bad or unclean in or of itself, but because it may disrupt our relationship with God and other people if it consumes our lives. Then a bare white tree made of branches and bright lights is brought to the centre of the worship space. We were invited to attach a leaf to the tree to symbolize the reconnection of all our broken/unclean things to the source of life – God who redeems all the ways we harm ourselves.
Then the following confession was said:
One : Most of us would prefer to live in a castle than a tent. Castles have stout walls that protect us from the contamination of the outside world. Within your walls you can bring order and control. In your castle you can admit nothing that may be bad. You can banish the unexpected and the unpleasant, and live a life that is secure and protected.
But in a tent, you aren’t in control; you are open to the world. You can’t shut it out; you have to learn to live with it. The green and vital grass outside becomes dirt when you bring it in on your feet. It’s your choice whether you call it muck, or consider it a natural carpet. You learn to see that what you might call dirt. God has made to be exactly what it is. Whether we might use it for good or bad doesn’t change its essential nature. It is what it is.
All : Help us to be tent-dwellers rather than castle builders, ready to see the hand of God in all creation. Forgive us when we divide the world into things that are good or bad. Remind us that good and bad can be found in our actions, not in objects.
One : Living in a castle, you can create exactly the impression you want to the outside world. People can’t see inside; all they can see is the exterior that you want them to see; the carefully manicured flowers around the walls, the polished paintwork and the trim lawns. No matter if the inside isn’t quite so clean and tidy; no-one sees it anyway. All that matters is the front you put up.
In a tent there’s nowhere to hide, and no appearances to keep up. By day, you never know when a gust of wind will billow the tent flaps, giving passers-by a glimpse of your inner world. By night, your lamp casts shadows on the canvas wall. You learn to live with your inner and outer worlds in sync.
All : Help us to be tent dwellers.
Forgive us when our righteousness is skin-deep.
Give us strength to dismantle the walls behind which we hide.
Give us courage, in community, to drop the front,
Come out from behind the mask of respectability,
And greet others with love and acceptance as they do the same.
As I continue to contemplate this worship experience I keep asking myself if I am ready to sell my castle and move into a tent. I pray that some day I might be able to.
Originally published in the Niagara Anglican