// “there are forces at work here you cannot possibly understand!”

LoveOxfordAt approximately 1:30pm today it started to rain – real, fat, heavy drops of rain, falling on a crowd of people that must have still been about 350 strong by that point.

What keeps a group of people, ranging from teenagers to the over-60s, standing in a the middle of a field in the pouring rain of a Sunday afternoon? It couldn’t just come down to the speaker, as good as she was; the same goes for the music. It wasn’t that it was an especially fun place to be on a Sunday (as it wasn’t). And I’m not prepared to believe that it comes down to religion, either. Religion doesn’t keep you standing in that kind of rain out of anything other than a perceived obligation, not when the first drops of rain start to fall on your neck, and that perceived obligation only lasts for so long, when push comes to shove.

Today was the day of Love Oxford, a yearly initiative uniting churches from around Oxford; in previous years it’s been held in Broad Street, a major street running through the middle of the city, where it has been met with glorious sunshine for the past three years. Today, in a park approximately fifteen minutes walk outside of the city, it rained instead. Actually, I should be fair. The first hour and a half it was pretty warm, if a bit overcast. But then it started to chuck it down.

And yet, in spite of all of this – in spite of the rain, the lack of shelter and the slightly depleted numbers, today it still felt like there was something in the atmosphere – a resolve, a desperation, that it’s hard to express in the aftermath of the event, but which has been there in previous years, too, distinct and noticeable.

I know that you could label all this as ‘madness’, especially this perspective that assigns significance to something unquantifiable ‘in the atmosphere’. It sounds like an expression of subjective experience rather than any kind of objective or verifiable truth. But this is not the place to argue the objective truth of Christianity (another day, perhaps), and I can only really speak from what I know. Yes, it sounds like madness, just like taking a day off before my final exams is madness, and just like giving money away to a church is madness, and yet people keep doing these things, keep coming back to these places and these activities, for a purpose. Not because it works in simple formulae, like “if I give £10, I will get £20 back”, or “if I take a Sunday off during my exams, I will get a first”, but because there is something unquantifiable, something mysterious in what happens in those actions. Unquantifiable, but undeniable…

Religion likes systems. It likes order. It likes formulas, and for good reason – it asserts that these things have been put in place for a reason, by people of God (in most cases, at least), who were reasoned, thoughtful, and prayerful about them. Religion has its good points, but today wasn’t really about religion, about points of dissention or particular systems, not at the end of it. Yes, a particular style of worship prevailed, and if you had to classify it, it would definitely be closer to the ‘charismatic’ end of the spectrum than the ‘conservative’. But what caused that crackle in the atmosphere this afternoon was beyond the music, beyond the general mood, and beyond the people gathered there, beyond all that any of us could organise or put together. It was down  to something glorious, and inexpressible.

Something like what you might call, for example, evidence of the Holy Spirit at work.

At a barbecue earlier this week, held in preparation for the event that took place this afternoon, one worship leader commented on how “part-way through leading Mighty to Save at Carfax, for a split second, I could hear an enormous crowd of angels singing with us. Or maybe it was just Steve’s harmony.” That’s the tension in place here. That’s what I’m talking about. Right here, in these moments, there is something else going on, something bigger, and more mysterious, than we could ever express…

It’s that which keeps us standing in the rain. Not religion, but something more than religion. Something way bigger, and way more exciting; something that goes beyond all our power to create, control, and manipulate. Those moments where a veil is briefly lifted and where it becomes clear that this faith isn’t just madness, isn’t just collectively-constructed hysteria, a kind of mass folie a deux; where it suddenly all starts to make sense, even as words fail.

I’m glad for those moments. They still make the hair on my neck stand on end. How about you?

*

[PS. Sorry if this blog isn’t regularly updated for the next week or so – I’ll try, but exams start tomorrow, and so if I don’t update on Wednesday, it will be because I’m busy revising the Renaissance…]

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