Phil Cox

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Atmosphere

27th September 2007

I was on holiday in Washington D.C. recently. While I was there, I visited the Vietnam War Memorial. It's a very special place. I've been told that the architect deliberately built it below the level of the rest of the park, to symbolise the fact that it was the war America wanted to forget. I've also been told that it was made out of shiny, black stone, so that (in certain weather conditions) you can see your reflection in it - to symbolise the fact that every American has an involvement in its wars. And it seemed to be special in another sense; there's an atmosphere that you can feel as you approach the monument - a very profound sadness, a sense of reverent morning. The Americans are rightly famous for honouring their military, but it seemed particularly powerful in that place. It was as if the whole nation was mourning those who fell in the Vietnamese war. A hush came upon all who were near. You could definitely feel it.

But some of the time I was there, two teenagers walked past the monument, chatting and joking. It was a really shocking moment. I don't think they were bad kids; they didn't seem to be deliberately upsetting the mourners. It seemed they just didn't notice that this place was special. While they were doing their thing, the atmosphere changed tangibly. It became almost impossible to give the same respect to the dead and the grieving, or to think through the deep questions about the morality and wisdom of war.

This reminded me powerfully of two things that I know are true, but which are seldom taught in the sort of churches that I'm involved with:

  • Firstly: different places are not the same - humanity has an effect on geography. For example, some church buildings feel particularly holy. This must be because people have been worshipping and praying there for many years and it made a difference to the place. Other church buildings don't feel like that at all. I suspect this might be because the people who gathered there over the years didn't genuinely worship God, or perhaps because some sin had occurred there, and again, this affected the place. Actually, you can find teaching on this in the Bible, but I haven't the space to go through it here. Russ Parker's excellent book, "healing wounded history" would be a good place to start, if you want to know more about this.
  • Secondly: One or two people acting inappropriately can totally change the "atmosphere" in a place.

And this second thought brought me back to the question of my own behaviour in a church gathering.

Sometimes, I feel laziness, or self pity, or negative, or insecure. And when I'm in a church gathering, I fail to remember that where God's people gather together, the occasion is special. And every church gathering is special; Jesus is there (in Matthew 18v20, Jesus said "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them"). And when I'm wrapped up in my own problems, I can communicate my own state by being critical, or by my body language, or by making a joke at an inappropriate time. And, just like those two teenagers in Washington, when I'm feeling particularly happy and silly, I can be inconsiderate, and I can have exactly the same effect. And my words and actions can change the atmosphere around me. Others can find it much harder to worship, or to pray, or to study, because my attitude is wrong.

I'm not suggesting that we should only go to church when we feel perfect (we'd never go!) but we must remember that we affect others.

And a similar problem can occur when someone wants to talk seriously to us. We can make jokes at the wrong time, or we can interrupt them. We can think that they want to hear about our experiences when they really only want us (at this time) to listen to theirs. Or we can offer unwanted advice. And we can really hurt people, without meaning to, just because we're not thinking about what effect we're having on the atmosphere.

Some churches seem to experience a deeper sense of worship, or more of God's power, than others. One of the reasons may be that some in the church are like spiritual wet blankets. For example, it's difficult to sing wholeheartedly in worship when the person next to you is sitting with their arms folded, or talking.

No matter how you feel, it's important to attend the weekly church meeting. In fact, when you're not on top form, you may particularly need to worship with your brothers and sisters in Christ. But take care to be a positive influence on the atmosphere.

Ecclessiastes 5v1-2
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.