Well, I’m back in the land of vegemite, budgie-smugglers and drop-bears, after two busy but invigorating weeks in the US.
I never quite managed that second ‘Postcard from America’, reality having collided viciously with my optimism. This week’s post is the next best thing: a postcard from a weary but happy returned traveller, with some brief reflections on his sojourn in a strange land.
I don’t say ‘strange land’ in any pejorative sense. It’s just that America is different in so many ways, and sometimes disorienting for an Australian evangelical Christian. At one level, there’s so much that seems familiar and immediately recognizable—perhaps because of our shared British heritage or simply because we consume so much American culture (in its popular and Christian forms).
And yet the differences also keep slapping you in the face.
Some of them are negatives. They put sweet jam on chicken-and-salad sandwiches. The coffee is mostly terrible. They never put the handbrake on when they park the car.
But let’s try to be American about this, which is to say grateful and positive.
That’s the first thing that strikes me, every time I visit the US (which I’ve done perhaps 15 times over the past two decades). The positivity. American evangelical Christians have an easy thankfulness about them that I don’t tire of experiencing. There’s no embarrassment in thanking you for the good or helpful things you’ve done, nor any awkwardness about receiving such praise or affirmation with humility.
In fact, my US colleague Marty Sweeney is sure that I keep coming back to the States each year just so as I can get my annual dose of positive affirmation, to keep me going for the next 12 months. He’s probably right. I think I get nearly as much warm and genuine thanks, encouragement and general affirmation during my two-week American trips than in the other 11½ Australian months.
Now, any kind of thankful positivity (including the American variety) can become cloying or fake or unrealistic or even manipulative. But I think my Australian instinct is therefore to dial it down just in case.
Insofar as walking and growing in the truth of Christ Jesus the Lord means ‘abounding in thanksgiving’ (Col 2:6-7), I’m always rebuked and encouraged by my American brothers to abound a bit more.
The flipside of thankfulness is generosity. I’m grateful to have received; I’m glad to be able to give. Perhaps Americans and American churches are wealthier or better resourced than their Australian counterparts. I’m sure that’s true in some cases. But I’m always bowled over by the graciousness of their hosting, the thoughtful way they provide for guests, and the generosity of the honoraria that they give to visiting speakers. We’re not talking chocolates and $50 Coles vouchers. It has been common for me to have been given a thank you note with US$1000 enclosed, just for preaching one Sunday at a church, or for delivering a single talk at a conference. (And in case you think that’s the reason I keep going back to the US each year, the money all goes to defraying the costs of the trip!)
It’s interesting to think why cultures are different; how they get to be the way they are — whether we’re thinking of churches, families, communities, or even nations. Culture is ‘the whole way we do things around here’, and it’s formed over time by a thousand words, habits, decisions, actions, structures, traditions, and so on. How did American Christian culture get to be (in general) more thankful and generous than our culture? Why for that matter did the culture of Sydney-based evangelicalism develop in the way that it did, such that a book that fairly plainly described its ministry culture (The Trellis and the Vine) should become such a fresh and powerful statement for American evangelicalism about some of its shortcomings? Who can say?
But I’m sure that the gospel and the work of God’s Spirit over time in a particular place has a great deal to do with it. And so when I notice the strengths of other Christian cultures (as well as their weaknesses), it challenges me all over again to keep shifting our culture in a godly direction, through trusting and applying that same Word by that same Spirit.
I guess that’s why God gives us each other.
One final observation from this recent trip. One of the conference gatherings I attended met in a hotel. There was no overhead projection in the room; no piano or musical instruments; just a very plain, large, hotel conference room. On the basis of this, I assumed that there wouldn’t be any singing during our meetings.
How wrong I was. What ensued was in fact the most edifying and heart-warming Christian singing I’ve experienced in a very long time.
We pulled out some printed sheets containing music and words, and turned to a particular song. Someone at the front sang a note for us to start on and then off we went. Just voices, about 180 of us, raised together, singing to each other, singing with thankfulness and rejoicing to God.
We sang some classic old hymns (Jesus paid it all; What a friend we have in Jesus). We sang some more modern songs (All glory be to Christ; Christ is mine forevermore). We clapped our way through some traditional African-American songs (Gloryland; I cannot tell it all). All of it was unaccompanied, with some clever people singing harmonies at various points.
It was certainly minimalist. And yet it was maximally powerful and encouraging, because the sound was the sound of Christian voices addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
I couldn’t help thinking about how different this was from the singing I usually experience in Australian churches, where the sound is usually the sound of a well-amplified band, with 4-5 instruments and 2-3 singers. Underneath or above the wall of sound coming from the stage can be heard the echo of the congregation’s voices, like a live recording at a rock concert where you can hear the audience singing along in the chorus.
I have some theories about how we’ve ended up at this point (another time!), but the contrast between the two kinds of singing is striking. Have we been sleep-walking towards a style of church singing where the dominant sound in the room is the sound of the band? Has our singing culture become one where the congregation is swept along and emotionally moved by the power and volume of the music itself, rather than spoken to, edified and uplifted by the sound of brothers and sisters singing?
To be quite clear, the majority of American evangelical church singing is also at the loud, amplified-band end of the spectrum (as far as I have observed). But this recent experience of a very different kind of singing—one where the voices of the congregation actually dominated—was both electrifying and unsettling.
Even as the hairs on the back of my neck started to resume their normal position, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is there any church I know back home that sings like this? And why not?”
Who would have imagined that Americans had Australian jokes? My friend Marty has two good ones:
Q. What do you call an Australian in a suit and tie? A. The defendant.
Q. What’s the difference between Australia and a tub of yoghurt? A. If you leave them out in the sun for 200 years, only one will develop its own culture.
It’s also nice to come back to Australia and discover what’s being going on while you’re away—because unless you go out of your way to find out, you won’t hear much about Australian politics or sport or life in general while you’re travelling in the US.
The federal election campaign has ground on, and I was mercifully spared any mention of it for two weeks.
I also came back to media reports that the evil arch-conservatives of the Sydney Diocese are preparing to do their worst at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia this week. Something to do with affirming what Christians have believed for 2000 years about marriage and sexuality.
If you’d like to pray for that General Synod gathering this week, you could do worse than use the collect that is set down for this week in the Book of Common Prayer (the third Sunday after Easter):
Almighty God, who shewest to them that be in error the light of thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness: Grant unto all them that are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may eschew those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.