Sunday morning worship, 03 March 2013, 11.00am
Pastor: Gordon Allan
Charlotte Chapel isn’t the only church on the move. There’s been a grand game of musical churches going on in Edinburgh recently, and the Edinburgh Elim church is now in Morningside Baptist Church’s old building at Holy Corner. Morningside Baptist Church has bought the Methodist Central Hall and rebranded itself as Central: Jesus at the Heart. And if you’re wondering where the Methodists went, they’ve merged whatever used to happen at Central Hall with the congregation that’s been at Nicolson Square for almost 200 years.
So Edinburgh Elim is in a new building and has a new pastor, and if its aim is to appear modern and relevant then it seems to be doing not badly for a denomination approaching its centenary. The music is provided by a “worship team” similar in style to Hope! Church but less bland and forgettable, and there were even two hymns I’d heard before – "Just as I am without one plea" and "How great thou art".
I’ve rehearsed my dislike for three-chord praise music and its insipid greetings-card lyrics often enough so I won’t do that again, but I never cease to wonder at the habit among evangelical worshippers of raising their hands in the air, palms forward like holy antennae as if it improves divine reception. I still chuckle at a Catholic friend’s mischievous comment “Grace Receptors: On!” in the face of this phenomenon, which I’d assumed was an optional extra, but one of today’s songs actually included the line “with our hands lifted high in praise” … and of course, most people did as instructed.
I’d been expecting a Pentecostal service to be a bit more hysterical than this one turned out to be. There were a few shouts of “Alleluia!” but none of the more excessive manifestations sometimes associated with the gifts of the spirit. This was Morningside after all, so one expects a certain degree of restraint and decorum.
Nevertheless, there was a man sitting a couple of rows behind who spoke in tongues, something I’d heard of but never actually heard done before. I will admit to complete ignorance when it comes to the linguistics of glossolalia, but I suppose it’s a human instinct to seek an interpretation of any speech-like noises we hear. The only words discernible to me sounded like “אבא בבקשה” (Hebrew: father, please), which seemed a suitable sentiment for prayer, but there are many more languages in the world than I have a passing acquaintance with and I’ve no doubt speakers of Russian, Hakka or Swahili might pick up on other syllables that seemed meaningful in their own languages. At the risk of being cynical, a magician might have heard, “Abracadabra” … who’s to say?
I spoke to this chap afterwards and he said he didn’t know what he said when he spoke in tongues, but he was undoubtedly grateful for the gift. He also offered to pray for me there and then, which was awfully nice of him, but I did find myself thinking back to what the pastor had said about the unsaved “wanting what they’ve got”. I can safely say that I don’t want to have an unknown language pouring out of my mouth willy-nilly – I’d rather know what I was going on about – but it must be quite something to have the faith and assurance they seem to enjoy at Elim.
The sermon was on Psalm 42, described by Pastor Allan as “a prophetic psalm, laden with godly hope”, so there was much talk of thirst and water, which led us to the “living water” of John 7:38 and possibly the best extended metaphor I’ve ever heard: “God put the plug in the bath of heaven. It filled up and overflowed and it’s been cascading ever since.”
The coffee flowed freely too, and everyone was friendly and enthusiastic without being overwhelmingly inquisitive. For the church visitor, there's a happy medium somewhere between being love-bombed and being totally ignored, and Elim's struck it. They seem to have a busy social agenda, lots of evening activities and so on, if that’s what you’re looking for from a church. And most importantly, they seem to be happy, which is more than can be said for some of the churches I’ve been to recently.
But I also heard something strange, something which I’d dismissed as a slip of the tongue when I heard it before at Holyrood Abbey: that God is “desperate” to hear from us. Desperation didn’t strike me as characteristic of an omnipotent god, but here it was again at Elim: “Jesus is desperate to invade our lives.” That’s two heavily loaded words in a short sentence. An invasion is a hostile act; nobody invites an invasion. Do you have to ask to be invaded or does it happen to you against your will? If he’s desperate to invade my life, and if he’s omnipotent, why doesn’t he just do it? I’d be powerless to resist. But here I am, unchanged. Maybe I ask too many awkward questions, or maybe I’m just so keen to discover the logic among all the babble that I’m failing to see the wood for the trees.