The Empty Pews

  
Last year I got to meet a Christian lady from Pakistan. She said where she’s from, people crowd in rented tents just to hear the gospel, until they are spilling out of the doors. Here, in what is known as a Christian country, we have beautiful buildings, and a freedom to believe what we want, but the preachers are speaking to empty pews. 

I have not been able to shake this image from my mind.

It is a large part of why I moved from Hillsong, a wildly expanding and very popular church, to a local Anglican Church. Because, although the preaching hits me in the heart, and the people are kind and welcoming, there are back few pews are pushed together, unused. And nothing has never stirred my heart so much as to see those pews filled.I think this feeling is common amongst Christians. The people who have been saved from drowning and are sitting safely in the boat drying off know better than anyone what it feels like to still be in the water. If nothing else, Jesus told us to make disciples and spread the gospel. That alone makes it worthy of our time, energy and passion. But I’ve come to realise three things in my mission to fill the pews.

Firstly, that we do not fill the pews to fill the pews. 
So often when you are passionate about converting people to Christianity, you let that become your focus and you begin to spurt utter nonsense in the hope of getting people to listen to you. I’ve seen Christians bring up the most controversial things in order to get attention, or start every conversation with “how do you feel about Christ?” There’s nothing especially wrong with this, but I’ve realised that forcing a reaction from someone on the spot is not the best way to get them into church, particularly with an open mind. For instance, when people stand on boxes in the city and shout bible verses about salvation and hell at passers by. They have this desire to see people saved, but they see the people in front of them as a mass. They are happy to fill their pews with people scared into being there, people they don’t know and who don’t know Christ, and to fill a yearly quota with numbers instead of humans. Something I had to decide from the get go was that I wasn’t making friends with people just to get them to church. People can smell fakes, and advertisers. No one wants to make friends with someone who is just going to try and sell them something. People want to make friends with the friendly. So we cannot blindly go about filling the pews with extras and randoms, just as it’s embarrassing when you find out your friend has an app that gives them followers on Instagram. 

Secondly, filling the pews takes time.
This is something that has been weighing on my heart recently. I’ve just started uni and everyone has been telling me this is the time I’ll have the best conversations and make life long friends. But, every time a class ends, someone has somewhere to rush off to. Every time I make conversation with someone, the next class they’ll be sitting next to someone else. And, as much as you may want to blame my lack of good friends and, consequently, good conversations, on my awkwardness, I had to realise that to get to a point where someone is willing to discuss religion with you, you will have to give them time. Just as you can’t make friends with only the intention to convert them, I think you can’t make friends until you’ve given some time to getting to know them. I think they are worth the time and effort in the first place.

Now, I’m having trouble making friends at all. But once I do, I need to remember, along with every other Christian who has any friends, that they may not say yes the first time, and there is no specified timing to it all. I became friends with my coworker when we started working together. A year on (this Monday, in fact), I gave her a book on Jesus. It isn’t instant, because people aren’t microwave popcorn. When you are genuine with people, you will get closer to their heart. It’s a simple truth, but one that means patience.

And finally, the pews may not always be full. 

When I joined the church I’m currently at, around 5 people left for good things in other places. And I realised that, even as I pray for God to use me to fill the pews, these pews are not the only ones that need filling. They will move, and fill other seats. But God will use them to fill 30, 60, 100 times what was planted. And I’ll just keep filling the seats I’ve got in front of me. And so, the church will grow. Do not be disheartened if your friend moves church- as long as they’ll be with you in heaven, both you and God can have a smile on your faces. The easiest way to fill a pew is to fill it with people who don’t yet believe, and get them to keep coming back. But if a Christian fills it, that’s great. If a person fills it for a while, that’s okay. It just means the work will not be done until Christ returns, and you knew that was the case anyway. 

So, in short, I’ve found my mission in life is summarised in the little catch phrase of “fill the pews”. I don’t care if that’s with kids, or they’re not real pews and were filling a football stadium for Christ. I don’t mind if it’s in Australia or Pakistan or if I’ll pioneer evangelism in Antarctica. I just want real people, with real problems and stories and hearts to come and hear the good news. 

Because there’s no point it being preached to empty pews in beautiful churches no one sees. 

My Mum

MWhen I was two years old, my mum had a heart attack. I didn’t know what that meant, and I don’t remember much of it, apart from dad sitting on the edge of my bed. I’ve decided to start here because maybe this is the first tangible memory I have of realising something was wrong with my mum.

When I was in primary school, mum got a shopping scooter. A big red one with a flag on the back, and a box which I could put my backpack in when she picked me up from school. When I was young enough, I would sit on the seat with her, wedged between her legs and sometimes even allowed to steer. As I got older, I eventually started to walk beside her or race a scooter which could go a maximum of 10km per hour. There was nothing about this which was odd to me. She was just mum, with her scooter and lopsided walk, who liked to cook and sing in the kitchen and dyed her hair red even though it must have originally been brown, like mine.

In year 2, two girls asked me why my mum walked funny. People also used to ask why she talked funny, but one of the girls had a Chinese family so I knew she wouldn’t go there. Something about this, the singling out of my mum from all the other mums as odd, stung and I began to cry. The teacher took me outside, told me to calm down, and left me leaning against the green wooden railing, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t cry for a while after that.

I don’t know if I realised how much I envied other kids growing up. Mums who would take them shopping or could easily converse about boys and troubles. But I do know that, the older I grew, the less that envy was. Because I realised I had a mum who loved me, and I knew that for certain. Surely that was something to be envied by others. I had a mum who thought she’d never have kids, and who rejoiced to get married and find out she was pregnant. I had a mum who was overjoyed just to see me healthy, my strong legs and chubbiness as a kid. I had a mum who thought I was beautiful on days I didn’t. I had a mum who was and is ferociously protective of someone precious to her. I have a mum who loves me.

My mum contracted polio as a three month old in Indonesia. As an adult, I ache at the unfairness of this. That she is disabled due to a virus that, somewhere in the world, was already being cured. That she can’t have any more children due to the risk of it when she loves kids. That the kids she loves so much stare at her in the street. I wept as she explained for the first time last year she struggled to hold me for a year after I was born, her body torn apart from the pregnancy. But recently, as she’s moved from a shopping scooter to a wheelchair, I’ve learned to put aside the pain and just love my mum back, as best I know how.

I like to write poetry…

(This short story is based off a secret I was given in a class, and asked to turn into a narrative. The original secret was “I like to write poetry about everyday experiences”.)

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to write poetry. I don’t mean garbage like kids are forced to do for the HSC or like Shakespeare who everyone thinks is so great but is secretly just making clever “ya mum” jokes. I mean real poetry. 

I kept trying, even when it was really hard. I wanted to write from every day experiences, stuff that I knew well, but it’s hard to rhyme anything with dishwasher, or lunchbox, so for a long time I’ll admit I was stumped. I mean, George Papanakis could write stuff that would make you weep, or sit for hours pondering the meaning of life. He was the kid who sat next to me, and every time we’d have to hand something in for English, I swear, the teacher would beam as if they were getting handed a crisp hundred dollar note, not Georges homework. But whenever I sat down to write, whether it was about X-rays, My Xbox or my eczema, poetry did not seem my expertise. 

So one day, I decided to go to the professional. 

“George?” I asked, sitting next to him one recess. 

He grunted, not looking up from his book. I hadn’t thought he was busy and he was just sitting there, moving only to shove a bit of sandwich in his face or turn a page. Looking at the amount of lines of concentration on his face, I realised maybe I’d caught him at a bad time. 

“George I need some help.”

“No, Juliet Chen does not have a crush on you, she only pretended to win a bet.”

That stung a little, but I pursued my aim.

“No, George, it’s not about girls. It’s about poetry.”

George ripped off a bit of paper bag and bookmarked his page. “Poetry?”

“Yea George. You know, I know you’re good at it and I’ve always wanted to be able to write about stuff in a beautiful way, so I just thought you’d be able to give me some handy hints.”

George looked up at me, chewing slowly. After a bit, he patted the bit of bench beside him. “Take a seat, mate.”

I sat.

“Look mate, you’re not very good at writing stuff.”

“I know! That’s what I’d hoped you could help with!”

“You didn’t let me finish mate. If you’re not good at it now, and you haven’t been before… I don’t think you’ll ever be, mate.”

“What?” I couldn’t have heard him right.

“You just don’t have the gift, mate.” 

“The gift?”

“The gift, mate.”

” I see.”

“Sorry, mate.”

“No worries,” I said, hopping up lightly. “Thanks for your time, George.”

“Sure thing, mate.”

“And mate?” He called after me.

I turned around, tears threatening to cascade from my eyes.

“Yep?”

“I’m sure you’re good at other things.”

For the rest of the day I couldn’t concentrate. The gift? I absentmindedly doodled on the back of my workbook. 

I felt like I’d been slapped across the face 

After being told I didn’t have the gift.

The gift of writing, the gift to create,

And my whole world had taken a shift. 
All this time trying to do something great 

And writing line after line,

Could it be, possibly, inexplicably, 

I had been wasting my time?

All my passion, my love for words

The way they skip and interlace

A dream I had dreamed since just a boy 

Was gone without a trace.

Good at other things?

I didn’t actually want to be.

All I wanted was to write,

Good, great, poetry.

I put down my pen and tried to focus on what the teacher was saying. George was probably right- I couldn’t write poetry if I tried. 

Music

There’s something special about hearing a tune. 

Apparently the sense most connected to our memory is our sense of smell, but as someone who lives in Sydney, I’ve all but learned to turn that off. No, for me it’s my auditory senses. 

My parents were always impressed that, as a kid, I could name a song by its first few notes, or a bar of the chorus, even if I’d only heard it once or years ago. 

The other day, I was standing in church, and we were singing “Love of the Father”, by City Alight, and I couldn’t help myself. After months preparing to perform it for our mission trip to Fiji, I knew all the dance moves. However, being an awful dancer, I also knew the lyrics and chords. One of my most favourite memories is sitting on the floor, strumming my guitar, not plugged into anything, trying to belt it over the top of fifty kids trying to learn the dance. Some sang along, others stood by and clapped, but the joy on their faces was something I’ll never forget. Kids are amazing. I later found my plectrum in someone’s mouth, but for some reason that also makes me smile. So, when we stood to sing it in church, despite being in Sydney, standing in a conservative Anglican Church, I began to clap my hands and stomp my feet. I belted it at the top of my lungs, my eyes closed because the lyrics were in front of me in a plastic sleeve on a woven grass mat, the faces of fifty smiling kids before me. Tears sprung to my eyes, the memories flooding through my mind until suddenly, it was over, and I was sitting on a freezing wooden pew.

Music does something to me. It connects me to people, it reminds me of emotion. There’s something about listening to a song where someone sings about things being okay, and feeling like they will be. For instance, hearing “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, actually brings to life the lyrics “all the things of the earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” As I sing, everything around me becomes so small and insignificant. Once I’ve started singing, even fears melt away. 

I found one of my first ever stories I wrote as a kid in an old word document. I wrote about listening to Evermore as my “emotional and deep band” and Kelly Clarkson for some “angry music”. I didn’t know about pop culture, or that you should write things you know but that others can relate to- I may have been about 7. But it’s cool finding such things and realising it’s sort of always been this way. 
A few weeks ago, I went to my first concert (this is turning very anecdotal), and I have to admit that, despite the amount of money I’d paid more than a cd, I shut my eyes and just heard the sounds. They were so close, and, despite all of the hard work they’d put into the lights and showmanship, I was satisfied just listening to all the raw sounds out together.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, music is awesome. There are just every day moments that make me realise what a privilege it is to have so many ways of accessing it, and so many different types but even just for what it is- vibrations, or maths, or whatever you want to break it down to. Sounds. There’s something about it that is special. Something about feeling those vibrations in your fingertips as you play, or something special about singing as opposed to saying, writing songs as opposed to stories. That even in the midst of life, we have the ability to switch off everything but our hearing and appreciate music. 

Break ups

Every once in a while they happen. If you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable with someone, they hurt. If you loved someone, they hurt a lot. 

I have broken up, over my short dance with life, with enemies, friends and boyfriends. To tell the truth, I’ve never been a great dancer- to practice and fall a few times, step on a few toes here and there, is the only way I know how to get better. Even after you’ve taken advice, evaluated situations and prepared yourself for the adventure, the blow can still come. It does, sometimes, in the form of a break up.

Sometimes, for instance when you leave behind an enemy, a break up is relief. Whether said out loud or not, the moment you decide to part ways with someone who had been poisoning your heart is a good one. Even bad boyfriends, or someone you knew it wouldn’t last forever with- just deciding not to contact a person again can be good. However, while those moments may help define us, what really makes a mark is when we leave somebody we love. 

My first ever break up was with my best friend. It wasn’t my choice and I didn’t see it coming, but when it happened, it didn’t hurt for a bit. See, a break up has a lot in common with actually losing someone. All the plans you made, and the future you hoped for, are gone. The places you used to hang out have a flavour- the first time someone asked me where she was, I broke down in tears because she was gone. But for a bit I was in denial. Like grieving, there’s a bit of denial, then sadness and rage and all the other fun stuff. After a while I had enough emotion to write pages about all the ways in which I’d been wronged, and it actually came to define a large part of who I am, who I trust, and even how I see God. However, unlike grieving, a break up was someone’s choice. It hurts in a different way because something happened that rendered you – what? Unworthy of love or forgiveness? Maybe to them. (Thankfully, not to everyone else.) In this case, I was passed over for someone else, when she had a choice. There isn’t the closure of death, and it was someone’s choice and someone’s fault, even if it was a million little choices and faults over a long time. 

My most recent break up was with a boy. And, for everyone’s sakes, I won’t assign blame or have a whinge. In all fairness, it wasn’t anyone’s fault and there’s not a lot to complain about. But I thought it might help someone feel better, or maybe give me something to read the next time I break up with someone. 

I wanted to say, what you feel (what I feel) is okay. 

The day we broke up was a Saturday. I was angry. The next day was a Sunday and I was sad. The next day a Monday and I couldn’t focus. I came home from work and called a friend. I called three friends over those two days, all who told me to take care of myself and treat myself. Tuesday I went and did stuff, and kept so busy that was the first day I didn’t cry. I got a haircut, I did what I loved (hung out with kids), and I binge watched tv until I fell asleep. 

From Wednesday to Friday I worked and saw people and distracted myself, and on Saturday I went out with a friend. Then uni started. On Thursday I felt uncontrollably anxious. On Friday and Saturday I cried. While Saturday morning was tough, that afternoon I went shopping with my best friends and we got our nails done. It ended with a smile.

 Today is Monday, and I don’t know what it holds. I’ve started watching “Lost” on Netflix. 

We all deal with grief, loss and break ups in different way. With that friend I felt righteously angry and that fuelled me. I was angry even as I wept, and I knew I would make it through. With the next friend I didn’t feel a thing, because we’d all known it was coming. With this guy, there is a logical part of my brain that says it was no ones fault, it will be okay, and it won’t meant much in a few weeks, months or years. I’ll have some great stories to tell, once I can bring myself to tell them. But the emotional part of my brain (what we romantics call a heart) hurts. It’s acting up in all sorts of ways, and my head keeps saying “well, that’s silly. There’s no reason to cry. Calm down. Breathe slower.” But that’s not fair, and it won’t work. Because, as much as breaking up sucks and grieving hurts, you need it. You are allowed to weep, and scream, and explain to people you’re just not feeling up to it. You’re allowed to listen to sad music and stare out the window at the rain, thinking of what could have been. Just don’t do anything permanent (tattoos, self harm), hurtful (angry Facebook rants, contacting their parents) or stupid (leaving the window open to hear the angsty storm and getting a cold, treating yourself to a pulled pork sandwich when you’re a vegetarian, going to T2) (seriously, treat yourself at Woolworths). And one day you’ll do something fun and not remember anything related. Or you’ll go to that place and a completely new memory will be attached. Or you’ll make a new friend (as tough as uni has been on the tail end, it’s been lovely timing in itself). And you’ll be okay. 

Don’t do it by yourself- tell a handful of trusted people. 

You don’t have to tell everyone – refer to “angry Facebook rants”. 

Let it out in some way, even if it’s sobbing to a chick flick as an outlet, or running, or explaining everything to a complete stranger (I found a lovely lady at church, and have been hugging my dog who doesn’t understand but doesn’t mind). It was awesome to realise every new friend I make has no idea what’s going on and won’t judge me by it.

It was also awesome to realise friends aren’t cards in a game of Go Fish and I could chat to people who knew us both. 

Hug your dad. 

Cry on your mum. 

Buy a tub of ice cream. 

Wallow for a bit.

Heal.

Forgive. 

Move on. 

“They say time heals all wounds,

I don’t agree.

Every wound leaves a scar.

They’re all over me.

They remind us where we’ve been,

And they teach us where to go.

If you haven’t forgiven,

It’s time to let them know.”

Scars; My Brothers and I