(Not so) happy-clappies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who express their Christian worship with the musical accompaniment of a young male guitar-player, drums and a female backing singer (all the people being beautiful) are covering up their darker emotions and experiences with forced happiness and manufactured positive emotions.

Like many universally acknowledged truths there is, well, much truth in it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in large happy-clappy meetings and found myself engaged in conversation afterwards with people who felt like they were the odd one out in the room; that there a sense of exclusion from the exultation for people like them.

If only all the odd ones out could meet each other…

Anyway. The other side of universally acknowledged truths is that they are often generalisations which don’t bear the weight of the meaning read into them. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve been paid to work in and for churches for 11 years. Much of that time has been in and around the Charismatic movement so often characterised as happy-clappy. In that time I’ve also been one who has struggled with depression, as well as living with a long-term chronic illness with no sign of cure that affects my quality of life (ankylosing spondylitis, thanks for asking) and a learning disability (dysgraphia, which you probably haven’t heard of). Those things mean many things. For now what’s in my mind is that I am acutely aware of my own brokenness and fragility. People who mock Christianity say that it’s a crutch for the weak. To misquote a West Wing character, what you use as a badge of shame, I’ll take as a badge of honour. I need a crutch. It’s the ones who don’t realise they need crutch whom I pity.

Now many would say to that to live with that sense of brokenness, incompleteness, as I do is incompatible with being a charismatic Christian. Sometimes that’s felt true. I’ve sat in meetings, church services and conferences in which you’d swear no one had ever had a bad day, let alone a sense of weakness now that they’d signed on the eternal dotted line. I’ve heard charismatic Christian speakers say some stupid, ignorant, insensitive things. Many times I’ve said and hoped and prayed that the songwriters of the movement would write about a broader range of emotions and experiences.

And they have. As some of them have grown older, they have grown wiser. Songs have started to take on subtler shades. Emotions of different types are starting to find a place in worship: “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me”; “scars and struggles on the way…”; “..the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering..”

So, then. Whilst I’ve yet to have an experience in corporate sung worship as emotionally rich as a Radiohead album or gig, for me it makes emotional (as well as theological) sense to live with the label of ‘charismatic’ Christian, even if I don’t buy the whole package of subculture and marketing. For me – and recognising that some will not find this – at least in this way my good and bad days have emotional expression in worship. At least I find there that my emotions are allowed in the door of the worship experience.

I lead one church community, and on Sunday evenings attend another. The latter would wear the label of charismatic Christan. My experience of it, where I’ve preached a few times, is of an increasing emotional depth and maturity. People talk from the front and in conversation about dark times and difficult days, of mental illness and suicide. Recently one young man stood in front of that congregation, talking of his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he had learned in this community, this charismatic Christian group, that it’s OK for him to have very bad days, to be barely able to see Jesus in the distance. Among the many things I pray for the community I lead is that we will become a place where that kind of thing can be said.

At the worst this expression of Christianity, like anything led by people, can be hard and painful and make you feel crushed into a mould. At the best it gives you a space to make emotional sense of your brokenness before God and with people. The Bible refers to this as the experience of having ‘this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s a way of saying we’re prone to being broken, chipped and cracked vessels of something we are not worthy of carrying, but find ourselves carrying anyway. It means that what may sometimes be, or seen to be, an emotionally toxic brand of forced happiness is in fact what Christians call joy. That, as the hymn writer says, though things may get very, very dark, it is still well with my soul.

Dave Meldrum, 27/03/2013
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