How I found freedom from the prison of ego

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As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.

Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.

When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.

I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.

I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself.

When others were weirded out during the prayer ministry time, I was unfazed.

Ten years ago I remember chat boards discussing this or that issue, some theological debate, whether a certain band was better than another. I would spend many an hour formulating the killer argument. I remember writing a long paper on whether God heard the prayers of non-Christians. (The answer is yes. I’ve got better at being succinct. But not that much better cf. this post.)

I thought that because I recognised the bubble which existed, I thought that because I would critique it, and at times subject it to ridicule, I was better than it. I thought that I wasn’t captured by the tyranny of culture that makes faith a thing to be practised, perfected and performed, I was immune to it.

Faith meant something to me, it wasn’t just a culture that I was absorbed into, it was something more. Knowing God made a difference: it helped when I was lonely, when I’d stand at the back of the hall and no one would speak to me. It helped when I was in a crowd and acting cool, but not too cool, because that would be uncool. It helped when things went wrong, when the thing I had set my heart on crashed before my feet. I kept walking through the rubble knowing I was not alone.

My belief in God, and that he loves me, mattered when I messed up, when I disappointed, when I did not do the things I should and did others I shouldn’t.

I spent too many years hanging off the coattails of the vanguard of Christian culture. The people I was with were ahead of the trend, and I thought, by association, that was enough. Being innovative, creative, different, was important. Rejecting conformity, orthodoxy, ritual, was a badge of honour. If people weren’t objecting to what you were doing, it wasn’t radical enough.

When handing out chocolate selection boxes to the neighbours at Christmas is radical action, provoking ire and critique, something somewhere has gone wrong.

Many of my fellow travellers on that road those years ago are now on different paths. Some who walked this way in recent times do not any more. For some it was decisive, deliberate, definitive. It was giving up on a childlike ways, it was parting company with a life they were opting not to lead. It was the decision to leave God behind. But for many others the path is less certain, less clear cut, and cloaked with frustration, doubt and hurt, emotions they felt were not accommodated.

Not accommodated in a church where having it together was only optional if you were cool enough not to care (and your trousers were baggy enough and slung low enough around your thighs). Even then, being cool enough not to care about being cool was a carefully manufactured image.

Church was a place for worship, and for belief. It was a place for reaching to God, calling down his presence, sending out his disciples, going to the ends of the earth to comfort the wounded.

But often the wounded were sat next to you.

Often the wounded did not know what it was to know with the certainty they were told to know. Did not believe as earnestly as they hoped they did believe. Jessica Misener recalls her youth: “My desire at that moment was for Jesus, or as 30-year-old me wants to declare in hindsight, what I earnestly believed was Jesus.”

Others were hurt by decisions the church took, or what leaders they looked up to did when people weren’t looking.

Mike Pilavachi, leader of the Soul Survivor youth festivals and church, has commented on the different tenor to the conferences aimed at teens and Momentum, which is for students, 20s and 30s. For the younger attenders it is hopeful and optimistic: it is about changing the world for Jesus. For those a little older the dreams have sometimes been dashed, sometimes the hopes have faded, and the world has not changed how they expected, and maybe Jesus seems a little further away – seeing through a glass darkly resonates more than doing all thing through Christ who strengthens me.

I never gave up on faith, but there were many days, long periods, when I was stuck on autopilot. I was doing the things I needed to do, attending the meetings, reading the books, listening to the music, understanding the concepts I needed to grasp. But sometimes one was missing. Sometimes I wasn’t sure that I was sure enough that I believed.

Sometimes I wonder what it is I have spent the twenty years, since I went to the front at a meeting aged ten, doing. Sometimes I wonder who it is I’m praying to. I wonder if I am actually going mad and talking to myself.

But I never gave up, and instead I have learnt to let go. I learnt to stop performing, stop worrying, and know that peace is more important than knowledge. I needed to know that last week. This is not a past story of my teenage years, it is a daily walk.

It’s the paradox of childlike faith. Doubt isn’t the enemy, it is what makes belief matter. Children know with certainty but never stop questioning: everything is definite and nothing is sacrosanct. It is my hope that I know with certainty that I am loved, but I never stop asking.

Many who don’t currently go to church never decided that was it, they were not betrayed or hurt. Going to church just stopped happening. For some they still believe, they can still be still and know that God is here. For others God seems distant and a relationship with Jesus part of the clichéd Christian culture they are embarrassed to have embraced with such abandon.

My story is not one of rebellion, it is not one of rejecting God, it is not one of walking away. I was the one who stayed and kept up appearances. For me that mattered, for me hanging on when I felt god was not hanging on to me was important. But it also grew me a hard shell, it grew a heart that was harder on the outside, and a vulnerability on the inside I dared not expose.

It taught me that being seen as with it, together, sorted, grown up, mature, responsible, was what mattered. It made me hide shame with secrecy, and fear of failure with planning and perfection.

I wish that if I or anyone else could answer, beyond doubt, criticism or rejection whether the Bible is inerrant, infallible or trustworthy for faith and conduct and what that means, it would solve the problem many have with the Christian faith. But I don’t think it would. There are men and women who defend the faith with deftness and dignity, winsome writers who tell of the divine. And I wonder if it misses the point. The answers we give aren’t always the answers many are looking for.

There are people I know who left church behind, others for whom God is not what he once was. But in equal measure there are friends who find this road once more. Who perhaps stumble a time or two. Who perhaps wonder whether this is the place they can call home. Who nurse the wounds caused by hurt and betrayal. Who do not always believe with the fervour they feel their faith should elicit.

And one thing Jessica’s deeply moving piece portrays is that communities of belief are important, the place where we worship and the people we join with, makes a difference. It is why in the nineteenth century atheists set up secular societies, it is why in the twenty-first the Sunday Assembly copied church services but dispensed with the faith bit. Jessica says: “Losing Jesus, someone I talked to both hunched over in prayer groups and in the darkness of my bedroom, felt like losing a friend, even if he was an imaginary one all along.” She goes on: “With a divine outlet compelling me to focus on something besides self-preservation, I felt free from the prison of ego.”

Commenting on someone else’s beliefs, even when published on Buzzfeed, is a vulturistic past time. Stopping blogging for even a few months last autumn taught me a little about disengaging, leaving aside the controversy of the day, the outrageous statement, the fact that someone somewhere on the internet was wrong. I let it go.

So I’ll leave it at this: I believe that faith in Jesus frees me from the prison of ego, and I believe that enough to let it matter. That prison was broken down, not by the force of certainty, but the cracks that let the light in.

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The art of faux vulnerability

I learnt a while ago that a certain sort of post works well, it gets attention, it is shared, liked, commented on. And I feel that I’ve done a good job.

It’s the posts where I’m vulnerable and honest. It became my thing.

I learnt how to bleed onto the screen, find the valve of my emotions, my thoughts, my fears; and spill into words the pain and anxiety I held captive. I hit publish and shared with the world.

I wrote naked and people stopped and stared.

Brené Brown shot to fame with a TEDx talk a few years ago. Four years on with over 15million views her talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched videos on the site. I recently read her book, Daring Greatly. And it is possibly changing my life. In her talk she says, and you can watch the section here:

‘So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, I brought in my list of how the whole hearted live and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those because their BS meters are good. And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood S#*!. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. [you have to watch it to really get this!] And I said, “It’s bad, right? And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

‘And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.’

And I thought that vulnerability was my thing. I thought I had a unique selling point beyond being a guy writing about relationships.

I wrote posts where I winced as they went live, those I agonised over for hours and those I wrote in breathless minutes. I wrote pieces which part of me wanted ignored and a lot more of me loved being noticed.

I tore open my heart and threw it onto the screen to get noticed.

I wrote posts I regret. Not because they were wrong, or offensive, or unhelpful. At least not unhelpful for others. That was my rationale, the one I gave myself. I told myself I was helping people address issues no one else was, I was saying out loud what others were thinking. I was facilitating conversation, helping others open up. I convinced myself I was helping, I think in a way I was.

But I wasn’t helping myself. I was using vulnerability.

Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviours that are so common place in today’s culture.”

I had learnt the art of faux vulnerability and it was costing me dearly.

It was when someone I only know moderately well, but hold in great respect delicately expressed some concern about what I was sharing online that I paused to think. Initially I was defensive. It’s okay, I know what I’m doing, I regulate. I don’t overshare.

And I don’t. I know exactly how much to say online to have the affect I want it to have. I know the necessary emotions. The right amount of contrition, of personal reflection, the appropriate deflection and shift to abstraction from making something too much about me.

I was using vulnerability like a currency to get what I wanted. And like the Wizard of Oz, what stood beyond the curtain of my exposed vulnerability was where the wounds really lay.

I was using vulnerability as a strategy to avoid being vulnerable. I had corrupted the good and turned it inside out and put it to dubious use.

And yet. And yet, the answer is not to be less vulnerable. But to be truly vulnerable. In letting it all hang out, or being seen to do that while actually remaining resolutely in control I was numbing my emotions. I was manipulating them and putting them to use but I was not accepting and listening to them. I was pretending to be something other than that which I was.

In Brené Brown’s TEDx talk she talks about numbness. You can’t decide to just feel the happy thoughts and not the said. Numbness affects them all. It stops us experiencing joy, and kindness, and sorrow and grief.

Nor is the answer to never write publically about relationships, about emotions, about struggles with shame – yes shame, that great predator lying in wait to snatch vulnerability away – about what I don’t understand and what I do not know. But there are boundaries and boundaries are healthy.

In manufacturing vulnerability I made it harder to be vulnerable.

In Daring Greatly Brown talks about floodlight oversharing, and perhaps that’s partly what I’ve engaged in. It makes it hard for people to respond to, there is too much, too quickly, and without the foundation of relationship to digest it. When I share with a friend over dinner in a pub, or as we walk we take time to hear what each other is saying and doing. When we broadcast our vulnerabilities we are not looking for assistance or acceptance but affirmation.

Vulnerability is not one of those things where you can fake it until you make.

The sermon from about a month ago that got me thinking about this.

Should we mock David Cameron on twitter?

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David Cameron has done it again.

He’s tried to be nice to Christians and it went a bit wrong.

But this time my annoyance is not with him.

From time to time the Prime Minister makes comments in statements or interviews about his faith and the role of Christianity. He might compare his belief to being like listening to the radio in the Chilterns, fading in and out. He might suggest that the Bible is not a bad moral guide.

And we might pick holes in what he says, criticise the understanding of the Christian faith. I did.

On Wednesday various Christian leaders went to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s Easter reception. There were church leaders, evangelists, anti-poverty campaigners, those working with the persecuted church and victims of trafficking.

Normally such events are little more than a PR exercise, they’re press released and managed to present the Prime Minister in as good a light as possible. This one feels a little different. There was no press release, no prepared speech, and only belatedly a transcript of the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Those there swiftly reported what David Cameron had said. A single news story led to many others and by the evening the Prime Minister was being mocked on twitter.

When I read the full version of what he said I squirmed slightly at how evangelism was expressed (as little more than doing good). And yet the words I read were an encouragement to the church across the world frequently persecuted for their beliefs, and to the church in the UK to be dynamic in bringing life to communities across the country. A boost for parish priests who canoed through villages during the storms earlier this year.

The words were warm, and Cranmer notes: “clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister’s spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England’s ministry than anything he has previously disclosed”.

Unfortunately David Cameron doesn’t make it hard to be mocked, comparing himself to Dyno-rod was an unusual analogy. But it was the Big Society (yes, with capitals) that got the ball rolling. Perhaps appropriately for an Easter message, the Big Society is a concept that refuses to die. As Christian Guy tweeted:

This is where my sympathy for David Cameron goes into overdrive. He was trying to give the church credit for their work and respond, as he has repeatedly done, that all his packaging did was take what the church has been doing for centuries, millennia, and get more people involved.

As reported in the Times, a No 10 spokesperson commented: “The Prime Minister has long made the point that he may have coined the catchphrase but he didn’t invent the concept. All sorts of organisations from different faith backgrounds have made a positive contribution to society, including schools and charities.”

When the Big Society was first announced, churches jumped up and down yelling that they’d be at it for ages. Now he agrees the response is: stop thinking you’re doing God’s work. He can’t win.

You might consider the Big Society to be a cover for cuts, you might think it is painfully hard electoral message to sell on the door steps.

But I think there is a challenge to us all in how we respond to politicians, how we engage with them, and how we judge their beliefs and actions. I am certain we should not sycophantically praise politicians to get an invite through the famous black door. I don’t think anyone there got there by doing that. I think there is a vital prophetic role for the church to speak truth to power, to tell when the least are forgotten, when the abandoned are cast away, when the stomachs of the hungry groan, when the shelter for the weak is not there.

There are many things we can criticise the government for. We can say their welfare changes are pernicious, we can say their changes to marriage undermine the family. We can criticise governments for taking us to war, for favouring business over caring for the environment.

The bible tells us in Psalm 146 to put critical distance between us and our leaders, to be reluctant to place too much trust in what they can do: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

And we should remember that politicians are fallible, they are like you and me, they make mistakes, they have mixed motives, they put priorities in an order that fails to reconcile heaven and earth.

But maybe because of that, criticism should not be our only posture, in fact, I don’t think it should be our primary posture. It is useful, it is vital, we must critique what is unjust, but we shouldn’t start there.

Political leaders, like all other leaders, are taking responsibility, they are exercising authority, and as such, in a way that is always limited, never absolute, they are exercising God’s authority.

Jesus, before Pilate, asks where his authority comes from.

Jesus tells the challenger seeking to trap him, to give to Caesar what is his, knowing that the image of Caesar on a coin demanding fealty is itself an image reflecting Caesar’s creation in the image of God.

Paul writes to the Romans reminding them that the governing authorities only have authority because God has given it, and that those in authority are God’s servants.

In 1 Peter we are challenged to do good and honour our rulers: if that is a challenge today what must it have felt like to those under Roman oppression?

And in 1 Timothy asked to pray for those in authority – that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

This is not a weak prayer, a surrender, it is a challenge. It is a hard task.

There is a responsibility given to leaders that should provoke respect but not blind loyalty. There is an authority to rulers which we should live under but also challenge.

And when we turn to twitter (admittedly there were some funny tweets) to mock leaders who express gratitude to the church for the work they do, and stand with Christians persecuted for their beliefs across the world, I got annoyed. But more than that, I was also saddened because I think it undermines the prophetic voice we should have. A voice that respects, but is not cowed, by authority.

Watch the Prime Minister’s Easter message:

I got addicted… to 2048

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To 2048.

On Friday I saw someone playing it on the tube.

On Saturday I was introduced to the game and shown how it worked.

On Sunday I downloaded it and started playing.

On Monday I got 2048 and won.

On Tuesday I deleted the game from my phone.

In five day I went from never having heard of the latest craze game to removing it from my phone to cut off the addiction that had developed.

Addiction is a strong word. And the one the best fits.

I thought about the DSM screen for problem gambling, and reckoned I would answer positively to enough questions to be classified as a problem gambler. The lack of money traded and lost, and therefore the questions about getting money to play being inapplicable, only making the impact more marked in other areas.

From Sunday evening until Monday evening I played in virtually every spare moment. On Sunday evening I played for several hours straight. I went to bed with my head buzzing, unable to sleep. I woke and calculated how long I could play before I needed to catch the train to work. And of course I played on the train.

What’s crazier is that after work on Monday I hit the jackpot, I arranged the numbers to reach the elixir of 2048. And yet I went on. I wanted 4096.

Each time I lost I thought I could easily have not made the mistake that led my downfall.

Each time I thought the next time would be better. That if I got to the next milestone I would be satisfied.

On Monday evening I had watched Rev, but realised when reading the discussion the next day I had paid scant attention. Because I was playing 2048.

Sunday night when I want to relax I got more wound up as the numbers stacked up in unhelpful patterns.

A game, that thing intended as leisure, had become a point of stress.

I didn’t want to play for hours on end. And yet I was.

So I took drastic action. I deleted the game.

Sometimes that’s the only way to deal with something.

2048 is a brilliant game. I love it. And I also hate it. It is good, and yet it was damaging me. It had to stop.

Behind the blog title: explaining broken cameras & gustav klimt

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For more than two and a half years I’ve been writing in this space with the label Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt above my posts. And I’ve probably not done enough to explain it. I’ve roamed around the topics inspired by it, and thought one day I would offer an eloquent explanation. This is not that day, but perhaps an explanation of any sort is overdue.

The questions often come, enquiring what it’s about, what informed it. Whether there’s a reason behind the cryptic title.

The truth is a combination of the spontaneous and the profound.

The spontaneous is that on an early August evening in 2011 I decided to start a blog. I was annoyed about something someone had written on the internet – a trait that has become far too common in my blogging experience. And I wanted to write something in response. I had no platform, no place to put my words, my concerns, my disagreement. So I set up a blog and the following morning posted for the first time.

The title was what immediately came to mind. I put it in the wordpress title field and have stuck with it.

But the reason I plucked for this obscure combination of words has a longer history. To a week and a half spent in Alpine Europe a few years before.

I went away, I took some time out, I travelled, visiting 5 cities in 10 days. And I wrote. I wrote a lot, from the first evening I arrived under a lamp while sat on a park bench in Salzburg, to coffee shops and McDonalds and a hostel in Geneva while watching Million Dollar Baby.

I got home with pages scribbled, then put onto a computer and the word count clocked in at something a little over 12 000. And the title I gave to that compilation was Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

I’ve played with those words since, toyed with whether there might be something more to them, or if they were potentially part of something bigger. But mostly they were a wrestling of faith. Of finding words to explore what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing. Words to give voice to my hope and my dreams and my fears and my hesitations.

And two motifs came to the fore to describe the way I experience my faith coming to life and bringing life. A broken camera and the work of Gustav Klimt.

On only the second day of my trip I broke my camera. In fact it wasn’t even mine, it was my parents, borrowed for the trip, to take photos of the places I was visiting, the architecture, the cathedrals, the castles, the beautiful rivers winding through ancient cities. But I broke it.

I spent that afternoon in a melancholy mood in Vienna. I was disappointed, that something could go wrong so quickly. I had put so much hope in having a great trip and my way of recording it and giving witness to it to other people, was dealt a brutal blow. I walked through a grand park to the north of the city centre and I reflected on things going wrong.

I have sometimes had this arrogance that I could do anything if I set my mind to it. I could be who I wanted, achieve what I wanted. And then things began to go wrong. I didn’t get the job I wanted, I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was doing. And I broke a camera.

Sounds ridiculous. It was.

But if God can speak to Balaam through a donkey he can speak to me through a broken camera.

Things go wrong, that is part of life. And as much as our faith is about following Jesus and growing in likeness, it is also doing this in a context where things go wrong. Living out faith in a broken world.

The last day I was in Vienna Gustav Klimt got me thinking about beauty. Before I went away I had been chastised for never having visited an art gallery. I was not particularly bothered about this, I had never been very interested in art. But as I sat in the garden of the Belvedere Palace, quietly miffed it was an art gallery and not a museum, I realised I would be in for even more of a scolding if I only did not go somewhere because it was an art gallery. So I walked through the doors.

From the little I know of art, I knew I liked Gustav Klimt’s paintings. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to work out why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case it was housed in, most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good. It does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I couldn’t even find any deep symbolic value. Yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan: “What comes after the Internet?” unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses, or those of any other university. Innovation cannot be taught only inspired and encouraged. Likewise, beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no x marks the spot. Beauty may be captured but it cannot be controlled. Something truly brilliant and beautiful, existing on the very brink of chaos, is so finely tuned the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

Beauty exists on the edge of chaos, in places that don’t make sense.

Faith is worked out in a broken world.

Hence Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

On remaining evangelical, even when I’m not sure what it means

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I

On Tuesday evening I staggered home from the tube station, zombie like from nearly a full 24 hours travelling, from the rising of the sun on one side of the world to its setting back home in London. I’d been in Cambodia for just a little over a week, but the time I was gone failed to do justice to the intensity of the experience. Seeing communities overcoming poverty, and churches working for the good of their neighbours. Hearing about a regime in living memory that saw the deaths of a quarter of the population, many tortured and executed, many more dying from starvation and disease. Experiencing hospitality from a church of a dozen people.

I thought perhaps I would have a lot to process and a long post of reflection to scribe. In fact, it was rather simple, the good was great, the opportunity brilliant, the place beautiful and the food wonderful (mostly). The things that were hard, were not really that hard. It was tiring, exhausting, and has taken me almost as long as I was there to begin to feel human again. The burden I felt we carried through the trip was the attempt to encourage new supporters to back Tearfund and help communities such as those we were meeting in Cambodia become self-reliant and shrug off the anvil of poverty weighing them down. It was awkward, and it was tough, and we failed to achieve what we had set out to do. I found that very hard, and Rich has also written about this.

More than anything I was overcome by the beauty of the place I had spent a few precious days. And the chance to move beyond the sights and sounds of the capital and share meals with people in their houses, and hear the hopes and dreams they shared, and the problems that together they were going to overcome.

As I barely crawled along the footpath outside Bermondsey tube station with a rucksack on each shoulder I bumped into a friend and uttered some incoherent words. She offered to carry my bags, I turned down the help and staggered on, regretting my refusal to inconvenience her a few streets later. I had spent a week seeing and writing about the virtue about helping one another, and yet I carried on alone.

II

The week has seen a lot written about evangelicalism, did it write its own death warrant, was it the timely reassertion of biblical beliefs, does it mean anything anymore; who are these people anyway, and how do I know if I’m one of them?

This weekend has not brought the floods some thought could be attributed to the introduction of gay marriage but the sunshine of early spring.

Amid the complexity of a social order with mixed beliefs and contradictory worldviews, this is only the beginning of navigating our fluid modernity. A modernity which is not fully past, as absolutes still abound, but they shift frequently, changing colour and changing favour, in a way that it is never quite certain which way is forward and which is back. And if it is forward, what the forward is towards.

World Vision in the USA announced on Monday their decision to employ people in same sex marriages, which was welcomed by some and heavily derided by others. Thousands withdrew their sponsorship and further blows to the organisation appeared imminent when the board and president rescinded the decision. This provoked fury and sorrow from those who had welcomed the shift two days earlier and a glee I’m not sure totally appropriate from those who earlier called them traitors to the biblical cause.

For many in the States who were elated and then disappointed and hoped this was a sign that the church was coming to accept what it had previously rejected, this felt like a decisive moment. For some who wanted to call themselves evangelical this felt like a notice of eviction.

I wish this was simple. I wish it was as easy as saying they were wrong and now right, or right and now wrong. I wish I could applaud or lament but do either with clarity. Instead it feels like a mess. My instinctive response is they did it for the money, not once, but twice. Or perhaps they did what they thought was right but got scared by the cost to the balance sheet and then thought again. Or maybe they felt pressurised into taking their first change of position, and once the response became apparent regretted it, apologised and returned to where they were before.

The sorrow expressed through all of this was that the children being sponsored in parts of the world where they need it most, were being left behind on the back of ideological positions for and against. The cry went out, disagree by all means, but remember the children! And those who said just that swallowed their words and did remember the children when the wind switched against them.

Some of those who had walked away returned and asked ‘for their child back’. They had thrown their toys out of the pram and now they wanted them back. Except they weren’t toys, but children.

III

In ceremonies at midnight, as Friday turned to Saturday, the first same sex marriages took place in England and Wales. Many Christians, as well as others, campaigned against the change to the law. Most of whom did so with respect and integrity, refusing to be drawn into abuse or vilification. Not resorting to insults, even if that was how their opposition was characterised.

Just today I noticed on the Telegraph website an article about a senior executive in America whose employees were calling for his resignation because he opposed gay marriage in California. And in the side bar of most read articles this opposition was contracted to his homophobia. We cannot see disagreement and read into it something that is not there. We cannot take disagreement with gay marriage, or a belief that sexual activity finds its best place within a marriage between man and wife, and transmute onto that disagreement something else, something more easy to dismiss, discard and not tolerate.

I read Gillan Scott write profoundly about the landscape and his experience of blogging about it over the past two years.

I read a post by a vicar who would describe himself as inclusive explaining the tension he felt at whether to attend celebrations of the first nuptials.

I wondered at what defines inclusion. It is certainly welcoming those who are different to you. It is certainly welcoming those who disagree with you.

I believe the gospel is radically inclusive. I believe it is good news for everyone. I believe the church should be the most inclusive place in society. I believe everyone should be welcome.

And yet. You knew it was coming. And yet I don’t think that’s all inclusion requires. If that is what an inclusive church looks like I believe it is gagging itself. It may not want to challenge views about homosexuality. But I am sure there are some views and practices it would wish to challenge. And when views are challenged I do not think that undermines the inclusivity of the church.

The church should welcome and it should challenge. It should provide and it should provoke. It should be steadfast and it should show mercy.

On top of one ‘and yet’, comes another. And yet I don’t always think the words the church says should bring disagreement to the front and centre. I believe the world knows what Christians think about homosexuality and same sex marriage, and I believe that regardless of the care and attention and nuance we give to the words we apportion to speak about it, what is heard is opposition and not to an idea but to identity and personhood.

IV

This thing called evangelical. For some it is a burden to carry, for others a fortress to flee, or to defend; for others still an enemy to throw rocks at.

It’s what I am, and it’s who I work for, so that makes this kind of awkward.

I don’t always understand what it is.

I listen to theologians spend seven hours discussing it.

I hear journalists throw it about without a care for its meaning. Sometimes they mean evangelists.

I know people who are precious about it.

And people who avoid it like the plague.

Myself, I’m ambivalent. I get it, when I look at its historical depiction I recognise a Christianity I am inspired by and passionate to be a part of. When I look at its doctrine I agree with it.

But I hear the critiques and I wonder why the extra word is needed. I’m a Christian, I’m a follower of Jesus. What need for anything more.

Is evangelicalism a circle drawn to exclude, or a passion that lies at the core?

You hear it all the time. When people are evangelical about something or another. Their passion, their zeal, it spills over. Often said about many things nothing to do with Christianity. That’s the kind of evangelical I want to be. I want to have that passion. I want people to know what I know, and meet the Jesus I love and who loves me.

And yes, meeting Jesus is not always easy, it rarely is. To hear what he says, to understand what he did, and to accept what that means is not easy. And we should not make it so. It is a challenge, it is a cost, it is a cross on Calvary.

It’s exclusive, in a kind of way, but the kind of way where everyone should have the choice whether to be a part of it. But exclusive in that not everyone will be a part of it. The cost might be too much.

Evangelicalism isn’t a political platform, and it’s not a cultural formation programme as hard as many may have tried. For me being evangelical is not so about what I believe – that’s being a Christian – but more what I do with what I believe. And the complication is manifold because what I do with what I believe is an outworking of what I believe. It’s not easy to separate.

V

The church is at its most vibrant when it cares about the lost and the least. But not when it panders to them. The church should want to see the lost saved and the least served.

There’s a reason the church in Cambodia is who Tearfund work through, and why they work through churches across the globe. Because churches stay when charities go; because churches care for people, while charities have donors to satisfy.

The passion I heard from the church in Cambodia was for the lost to be saved and the least to be served.

I want my faith to be active, it isn’t always, but I want it to be, I want it to make a difference. I want it to be grounded in the Bible, and I want to never give up on learning more about it. I want others to come to know Jesus and be changed through that relationship – you could say converted. And I want to trust in the death of Jesus on the cross to deal with what I cannot.

Funny how that last part’s often the hardest. I can nod along to the creeds and sign the statements and affirm in theory the atoning work of Christ.

And I can go on and live like an atheist. I can walk out the door as though Jesus was nothing to me. As though knowing him did not change me and does not change me. I can forget too easily what the cross achieved and I can live as though I do not need God.

VI

When I sat on the upstairs balcony about an hour out of Phnom Penh after the sky had gone dark and prayed together with the church pastor and a few others I felt the Holy Spirit.

We can know things. We can even know a person. But until we feel.

Our doctrinal statements must lead to being known by a person who is God, and that must lead to feeling loved. Feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit that overlays the knowledge and the relationship and turns the good into very good. The thing that makes a difference.

Without the Holy Spirit we would be left on our own. We might have a knowledge of Jesus and what he did but we wouldn’t be able to know him. And we wouldn’t be able to feel part of the family.

It’s being part of the family that gives me confidence to go out, to be active, to let others know the joy I have and want to share.

And the feeling of being loved is also the feeling of knowing I need to grow. That there are old ways I should change. Paths I should not walk down.

The reason I couldn’t share the glee of those celebrating World Vision’s reversal was because I had read first of those hurt by it. And actions that cause hurt, even when important, even when necessary, are not occasions for rejoicing.

I read about leaving evangelicalism, and others opening their arms to welcome those who had recently departed.

And I grieved. Not that I want people to stay in a camp against their will, or affiliate to a tribe they no longer agree with. But I grieved that perhaps the place I call home is a hard bed to lie in. Maybe more of a circle than a passionate core.

And I hoped. That there is a future, for a faith that is alive, a faith passionate about Jesus, and passionate about changing the world as well as changing lives. And confident, that as the church in Cambodia and the church in the UK, and the church across the globe, commits to that mission, the kingdom of God is at hand.

PS. I linked to Sarah Bessey’s post above about welcoming those leaving evangelicalism. She’s also written a post to those who choose to stay which is also well worth reading.

Lent: when I feel like giving up on giving up

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On this, Shrove Tuesday, I find myself doing what I do each time Lent arrives. I wonder what I should give up. Because that is what you do in Lent. You give something up.

There is an irony widely noted that where once cupboards were shed of their excessive ingredients, making pancakes to use up the leftovers, now we hit the shops to buy the very ingredients, and the lemon juice will linger in its novelty packaging until next year.

We reach for the thing we do too much of and give it up. It might be sweets, it might be caffeine, maybe alcohol or social media.

We don’t give up things for good. We fast from them. It’s a way of acknowledging the inherent goodness of things, but their inability to fully satisfy us. Every year there’s a too and fro between those giving up social media and those committed to its benefit frustrated its categorised as a vice we should do less of.

That misses the point. We don’t give something up for Lent because it’s bad for us, but because we need reminding it’s not that important.

Even within the cycle of Lent we see an impermanence to the sacrifice. Count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter and it doesn’t add up to 40. The Sundays during Lent were never normally counted, on the day we set aside from work we also set aside from fasting. As though when we come to worship God we remember it’s not in denial of things that we find him, but in awareness of his place at the pinnacle of it all.

One year I gave up cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate, anything with sugars in apart from fruit and other natural occurrences. Another year I gave up caffeine, the most beneficial of all my Lenten adventures, I got over the afternoon headaches, the tiredness to sleep better, and wake better. Last year I gave up meat, for no reason other than deciding to do something.

Counter to the trend of giving up for 40 days is the encouragement to be proactive, take the period up to Easter to do something. A good thing to do, no doubt, acts of kindness to neighbours you know and those you don’t, an exercise in generosity over self denial. An attitude of grace and not legalism.

There are plenty of things I could give up. Some I want to and other I don’t. Some I would like to kick for good, and for others a temporary break would be healthy.

But to give up for the sake of it? To not do something because that’s what others are doing, or to do something because of the pressure of others? I suppose it is not the worst thing to do. Peer pressure is not always bad. It can push us forward, urge us on, it can make us better, it can help us grow closer to God. It is, incidentally, a good reason for church, not the only place it takes place, but an important one, and a vital one for me. A place where others encourage me in my discipleship, where they point out when I’m not doing the things I know I should.

More than anything, as I realise I won’t have any pancakes today, I note the limits of my actions. The smallness of my sentiments. That giving up chocolate for 40 days won’t change my life. That standing with those fasting food to raise the plight of those in Britain who cannot feed their families will not right all the wrongs.

I see my smallness. I see the insignificance of my acts. And yet I also see their importance, for me and for others. They are a symbol, a sign of commitment, a pointer to our intent to not place anything before God.

Signs matter most when we realise they are only signs. When we see through them, and we let others see through them and to what they are sign posting.

Whether we are giving up, or taking up, or lost among myriad options, Lent is a time to remember what matters most, and realise that sometimes, although it should, it sometimes doesn’t. 

Men strapped into floating beds, and other things we don’t understand

Why is the man strapped into the bed Grandma?” And there begun the attempt to explain gravity to a two and a half year old during her bed time story as she pointed at the picture book. But she wasn’t taken in. “Why is the bed floating in the sky?”

This grandmother didn’t tell the young girl to stop being stupid because you know, bed’s don’t fly. Nor did she say stop asking questions, just accept that the bed is floating in the sky.

Small children are inquisitive, they ask questions, and they know when you’re not given them the full answer. They keep asking questions, they want to understand. Because beds stay on the floor and people aren’t strapped into beds. So why is the man strapped into the bed, and why is the bed floating round the sky?

If this young girl decided to start a global conversation about beds flying around the sky and the inequity of men being strapped into such beds we might find it cute, we might admire her pluck and wish her well.

But we’d also want to encourage her to look at some books, consider what others have said and discovered in the past as they explored the same dilemma. Why does the apple fall from the tree? Why do objects float in space?

I don’t really understand why beds float through space, or would if there were any out there. You can tell me it is about gravity, and why that disappears in space. You can explain to me the pull of the earth, the moon and the tides. I can read and I can learn. And this makes me think, perhaps I should understand a little more about gravity – I have stopped asking the questions that are obvious to a small child and just accepted that when I get to bed tonight I don’t need to be strapped in.
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If young people don’t go to church, what should we do about it?

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What can the church do about the crisis of young people and the church, and what should it do about it?

There are young people in churches up and down the country, but there are less than there were, and they tend to go to certain churches. So why do they go to some and not others? What do those churches which are growing do right, and what do others do wrong? Or, is it that those churches which are growing are selling an easy faith which may swell the attendance but weaken the body of Christ?

We could get all the young people in the country into a church building on a Sunday morning and miss the point.

The reality is that many young people stop going to church. The Titanic drowned with a fatality rate of 68 per cent. That’s about the same rate of attrition of young people from the church.

A friend introduced me to the difference between something being difficult and it being hard. There are many things which are hard, but not difficult, for example, it is hard for me to ask a girl out, it is hard to admit fault when you’re responsible for something going wrong. These things are not difficult, they’re hard. And maybe church should be like that. Maybe it should be a challenge, something that takes effort, not laden with obstacles and complexities to weave through and overcome but a hard thing to do.

In the West Wing Josh and Toby are in a bar after getting left behind by the campaign motorcade, they talk to a chap worrying over paying for his daughter to go to college – the stock market had taken a tumble that day. It should be hard. I like that it’s hard. Putting your daughter through college, that’s-that’s a man’s job. A man’s accomplishment. But it should be a little easier. There is a value to something that is hard that is missing if it doesn’t require effort. (We’ll ignore the gender stereotyping.)

Our approach to getting young people into church has bordered on the, if we try hard enough we’ll get them into church without them ever noticing it’s church, and voilà! we have success.

The gospel is a challenge, the cross is a stumbling block, the life of a disciple is not a promise of an easy way ahead.

Some terms need clarifying, principally, what is meant by young people? Traditionally this would mean those below 18, but it’s now a term without clear boundaries and reflects the onset of adult adolescence across society. This matters because the stage of life that people would previously been at in their early twenties is now rarely the case. Far fewer are settled in a career, married, and starting a family, and this affects their relationship with church. Young people usually refers to those up to 30, and in church context sometimes includes them quite a bit older than that. It also usually applies to single people regardless of age over and above married couples and those with children. Youth becomes a synonym for flexibility and in turn understood as a lack of commitment.

Secondly, are we interested in getting people into a church building and sitting through services, or helping people follow Christ? We’ve done too much of the former and not enough of the later.

We’ve tried to be culturally relevant. And we find that culture changes. We’ve cropped our services of the bizarre and our beliefs of the baffling. We’ve heard the cries and criticism levelled against the church and there’s been calls from within to dance to their tune. If people don’t go to church because of this or that (judgemental, hypocritical and bigoted usually cited as the unholy trinity) then if we change surely they will come.

But Andrew Evans makes a good point, where are the flocks of young people heading to those churches and faith communities which have jettisoned much of Christian teaching to be more like the mores modern society apparently demands?

I do not want to be dismissive of the critiques with which the church is charged. They are serious and often based on very real experiences and observations. The church can be hypocritical, judgemental and bigoted. But I don’t think they’re the full reason many stay away from church.

I think they play a greater role in explaining why people might have stopped going to church, when the picture of Christianity painted by the church manifestly fails. When it is wrong, when authority is abused, when being right is the most important thing. In so many places in so many ways the church falls down in its role as Christ’s bride. It does a disservice to the God it represents.

If the church changes to what it thinks people want it to be then it loses its foundation. It becomes nothing more than a religious themed social club.

Before the church decides to adopt this or ditch that in an effort to attract more people or cling onto those drifting off the edge it has to first know what it is that it wants people to join or remain a part of. Otherwise it is a catch all for whatever works best.

The church is a people transformed by the grace of God and called to serve Him and make him known. The church is to be the agent that helps bring about heaven on earth, to rend open the curtains of darkness and find a way for the light to shine in. We don’t do this by throwing a blanket over the lamp just in case it blinds someone.

We need confidence in who we are, and what we’re called to, and then we can shed the extraneous baggage that is a barrier to people coming to know Jesus. But if we start jettisoning with our focus on people liking the church, or increasing attendance at services, when people reach the curtain to find out what is behind, it could be a bit like the Wizard of Oz, with a faith castrated and a god shrunk to the size we can understand and enjoy.  

Church: a place, a people and a purpose

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Every Sunday afternoon I cross the Thames, usually over Millennium Bridge and walk into a conference centre. Some weeks I’m away, but I can’t remember the last time I missed a Sunday I could make.

I go to church.

I walk into a crowd of a few hundred people, more than I can ever know, even their names. And yet, it is the place that I am known. There are people who know my fears, who know my doubts, have seen my failings, have heard my anger. And those who’ve seen me kind, watched me excel, encouraged me to grow, pushed me outwards, upwards, and delved into the places I would choose to keep to myself.

Church is home.

It’s not always easy, it’s frequently hard, painful, annoying, boring, it exhibits all those dreadful traits, the ones we have ourselves but expect the church to be above. For the first eighteen months I went to this church I would arrive as the worship team struck the first chords and slip out as the ministry team offered prayer at the front. I was leading a small group for most of this time, I had responsibility, I welcomed people into a place and into a community that I didn’t feel welcomed in.

Some essential caveats to begin with. I know the church is not about buildings. I grew up in a charismatic congregation began by students in the 1970s, and which my parents joined soon after, it met in schools, colleges, graduated to a lecture hall in Southampton University before buying the old Methodist Central Hall in the city centre. We held a church picnic when the purchase was completed, all I remember was playing hide and seek and finding a nook to hide in the huge organ soon to be ripped from its setting.

I also know that churches are not the only places we can worship God. The motivation behind this post is two fold, firstly the series the Church Times are running on the Church of England and secondly Don Miller’s post about not attending a regular church service. I want to affirm in the strongest possible terms the vitality in worshipping God throughout our lives and not just from the pew. Not that I have ever attended a church with pews. Worshipping God through our work, through our leisure, our relationships, our relaxation, is crucial to a relationship with God that is not restricted to defunct and never applicable categories of the sacred and the secular.

A final caveat, I don’t want to defend the church in its entirety, letting go of my critical faculties. Churches have done some dreadful things, things that defile human dignity and repress our personhood. Authority has sometimes been abused, we have taken shepherd and turned it into an excuse for coercion. We have burnt Qu’rans and said it was about truth, we have insulted and called it liberty.

And yet I love it. I love it for its quirks and I love it for its compassion. I love it for the mission we share, I love it for the community that I am a part of. It’s not just that I might miss out on community, because I could find that elsewhere, but the community misses out on me. As an introvert given to self deprecation not as a device for humour but because of uncertainty and insecurity that is a hard thing to believe. It is hard to believe that others would be worse off were I not there.

It’s hard to believe that beyond the tyranny of small talk that grates as we scratch around for something more, we are embracing the something more. In the meaningless and the trivial, in the laughter and the tears, in the songs, and the sermon, in the prayers and the readings, is more than a time of learning.

Because church at its heart is not a school but a people on a mission.

A tale for a different time is why we have so many churches, why there are churches on opposite sides of the road, both with dwindling congregations but committed to their own patch of ecclesiological turf. The path from a time when churches split because they were right and others were wrong to now when we call for unity in one breadth and commit to work together, yet plant churches defined by dividing lines as irrelevant as lines drawn in the sand about to be consumed by the incoming tide.

I’ve gone to church to keep up appearances. I work for a Christian organisation, it wouldn’t do to not go. It wouldn’t do to entertain doubts. It wouldn’t do to show weakness. And yet when we do, when we take the step of saying everything is not as it should be, that there are cracks beneath the recently replastered surface, we throw ourselves on the grace of those who are there for us. The very willingness to say we attend out of rote shows the benefit of the people we commit to worshipping with.

But church is not just about coming to worship. It is not about singing songs. We sing because it works, where else do we lift our voices in praise to a god? And I would choose to sing to my God because he is worthy of all the adoration, all the embarrassment and singing out of tune that I can muster. It is a reminder that we worship him together and we worship him on our own, we worship when others are looking, discerning sincerity from the angle of the arm lifted in praise. And we worship in the quiet, in the studious, in the productive, in the teaching and in the tantrums of toddlers who disrupt any pretence at sanctity in worship services.

I rarely lean when I listen to church sermons. I learn by doing, by reflecting, by writing, tell me something and I will forget, give me something to figure out and I will work out how it works, or I will embrace the mystery of not always getting it. But when I listen to sermons I am reminded, and I hear what others hear, we listen together, we talk together, reflect, apply, reiterate. As Sarah Bessey put it: Because I know Jesus better when I hear about Him from other people who follow Him, too”.

Church is corporate. Too often it is like a business, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that the church is corporate because it is a place where we come together, and sing together, and listen together, and work out what it means together, we pray together, and we go out together. We are a community on mission together. Church is not just a bunch of people enjoying each other’s company on a weekly basis, it is not just a self-help club, not a place where discipleship is interchangeable with life coaching. It is a community on a mission. A people who find their identity radically redefined through Christ committed to making that opportunity available to many more. The church is there for those who are not (to paraphrase William Temple).

If we stay away, if we are above it, if we do not benefit from it, if our learning styles are ill suited, we can maintain a relationship with God, we can be effective witnesses, but we are only ever a part of the whole.

And I wonder if the message that we are communicating to others is that we matter more than everyone else. I don’t think this is about being a sacrificial lamb for everything the worst of church can throw at you, but it is about prioritising the other. In church we worship the Other and we join with others. We leave self at the door.

A relationship with God is great but it is not all we are called to. Our congregations will fail, they will not live up to the hazy picture painted in Acts, we will not always sacrifice, we will not always exercise authority with wisdom and grace. But a church is a place we come to build a relationship with God in the context of a relationship with others.

It is where we come and share in the bread and wine and we drink to remember. It is where we place the shard of pita bread in our mouth, a scant representation for the sacrifice Christ made, in our weakness and inability to do justice to his turning of the tables.

Church can be in homes, it can be in schools, marquees, lecture halls, conference centres, it can be in cathedrals or monasteries. It can be formal and it can be relaxed, liturgical or free form. I can be called a church or it can be called Christians gathering together to help one another grow, worship God and extend God’s kingdom. It can be innovative or traditional. Form does not matter, its function does.

It is a place we come home to. A people we are known with. A purpose we go out with.

*** Coming next: how much should the church change to encourage more people, especially more younger people to come? ***