Church: a place, a people and a purpose

Warsaw church candles

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. Continue reading

Quarter life crisis – work and the need for adventure

I’ve written before about how even in a job that I love, working with people who are great, I at times get dissatisfied. And I think that’s a pretty common symptom of the quarter life crisis.

Later this week I’ll reflect a little more about the factors that come together to create this effect, but for now let me simply say that there is both good and bad in the dissatisfaction with how things are and the desire for something more fulfilling.

Like virtually all people who enter adulthood, whether after university or having skipped it, I need to work in order to pay my rent, keep my stocks of ready meals intact and occasionally have some fun. For many work is simply a way of paying the bills, but for many also this is not all they want work to be. There is a desire that while the pecuniary aspects are essential, fulfilment of some sort would be a nice accompaniment.

On the spectrum of work satisfaction I consider myself fortunate to be towards the positive end. Although I could hardly write this if I were to vent my frustrations and hatred of my place of work. I like variety, and in work I get variety. I like challenging tasks, I get those, I get to write, solve problems and work with some great people in a cause I believe passionately in.

And yet. And yet it doesn’t give me everything I want. Sometimes the workload is heavy and the problems too complex and I decide that becoming a tree surgeon might be a serious option. At other times I want something more tangible, perhaps providing clean sanitation to children in The Sahel would sate my appetite for doing good. But what I’ve come to realise is that I would always want something else.

There is a need for adventure in all of us. There is a desire to be living a story that has purpose and be playing a role quenched with meaning. Last week I got to go to a screening of Blue Like Jazz and hear from the director afterwards. Part of what he said was the story of Don Miller’s follow up best seller: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years which chronicles the process of writing the screenplay for the film and in the process learning what it felt like to edit your life down to a meaningful and worthwhile story. What if, he pondered, we did a better jump of knowing the story that we are living and the part we get to play?

It may be that you are fortunate to be living out a story that melds your work and your passions together. But I don’t think the Paul’s overriding passion in life was to make tents. It may be a cliché to fall back on, but I think it helps, sometimes our jobs will pay the bills and our adventure will come alongside. However, I wouldn’t write off just working to pay the bills, or marking time until the next big thing comes along. I spent a year making sandwiches and coffee and was challenged for the way I tended to say that this was ‘just what I was doing for now’. It was important and I learnt a lot through what I was just doing which I thought was to just pass the time.

How should we embrace the need for adventure without giving into every wave of dissatisfaction that comes? How do we integrate all parts of our life into a story that is consistent with the purposes we seek?

The art of availability

Don Miller’s two posts on living a great love story has sparked quite a lot of debate across the internet. Maybe it’s because I’m new to this blogging malarkey, or because I’m reading people who write on the topic, but everyone seems to be talking about it. Everywhere I turn I see another post about dating, singleness, knowing whether he/she is the one. This is a topic that interests people, and one where people have very different views. It was these posts that got me going, and its taken a while to properly engage with the issues raised. If you haven’t read the earlier posts, please take a moment to, I started off with The church kissed dating goodbye, then Why guys don’t ask girls out, and yesterday posted When friendship hurts. This is a long post, I am sorry about that, I’ve included some pictures. Tomorrow comes the theology.

As in all things context matters, and by taking account of this hopefully we can clear away some of the debris and make headway through the midst of misunderstood machinations of the heart. I write in my situation, and that it is probably different to yours. I don’t think there are many things I could say which would apply in every circumstance. I live in London, I am 27 and I am single. I go to a church where most of the congregation are of a similar age, living and working in central London and neither married nor in a relationship. I think that while the problem is found all over it is particularly acute here, one friend from the other side of the world said there were few single people over 25 in her church.

As I read through Don Miller’s posts I was slightly uncomfortable with his approach. Perhaps I was a bit circumspect because an earlier post of his on dating a few months back had sparked widespread ridicule when I parroted the advice which he in turn had taken from Henry McCloud. Don Miller is a great author and out of respect I felt it appropriate to wear my Blue Like Jazz t-shirt as I write what I intend as a gentle critique.

When I first read his posts I skipped over the comments. Then I picked up from other blogs and tweets that a sense of growing outrage was spreading, in particular over his depiction of women, and use of the label ‘slutty’. I then took time to read through the lengthy thread of response and saw repeated comments venting fury and claiming betrayal. It is worth remembering that this wasn’t a hostile audience, in most cases people cited the positive impact his books had on their lives, before putting the knife in.

So where did he go wrong? And what do we do when we characterise relationships in a way that makes them harder and not easier?

I think Don Miller made two mistakes, firstly he painted a picture of women who have less than perfect pasts using crude and derogatory language. For an author who has a reputation for using words and phrases and sentences on pages to winsomely communicate important ideas, this was a surprise. It also conveyed a sense that girls who had perhaps gone through a more promiscuous period were some how tarnished. The redemptive options were underplayed, perhaps to emphasise his point and encourage more chaste behaviour.

But the second mistake he made is the one I want to focus on. He proposed a model that is idealised, even romanticised, and therefore hard to translate to reality. And when it can’t be transferred, is open to abuse, because, dare we need reminding, we all get most things wrong most of the time.

It’s not just Don Miller that thinks like this. I do, you do, we all do. We all have hopes and dreams that are infused by Hollywood on how we should fall in love. Don Miller even points this out in his advice to girls, he explicitly tells them not to fall for the romantic version of life. And I think this is crucial. Because life and love is a lot more than infatuation. It is not about the swooning over someone who has just taken your breath away. It is about car maintenance, mortgages, and projectile vomiting.

Love is hard, and I should know, I’ve spent enough energy avoiding it. We should not sanitise it or idealise it.

And the way the church often does this is by promoting the guy as the conquering hero: that women need men to lead them into a love story.

This places unrealistic expectations on guys, and too easily disenfranchises girls.

If I were to caricature the gender roles in this ideal type relationship, the guy pursues and the girl makes herself available. I’ve asked a couple of girls what it means to make themselves available and they weren’t sure. And this was reassuring to hear because I certainly wouldn’t have been able to spot a girl ‘making herself available’, at least not in the restrained Christian sub-culture.

There is the intention to not make the girl’s role entirely passive, but availability seems a rather nebulas concept which when contrasted with pursuit as the male preserve looks like a rather limited option.

Here are a couple of thoughts for what it might mean for a girl to make herself available:

  1. Don’t hang out too much with guys you are not interested in. If they like you they will think it’s reciprocated, and for other guys who might like you it will look like you’re taken (see yesterday’s post).
  2. Tell them 

I could have thought up a whole schema of other signals a girl could send, and how much they should flirt, what they should wear, how often they should sit next to the guy in church. But really, most of that just magnifies the confusion. When I notice something in a girl’s actions I clock that it might mean she is interested, but have no static reference point to measure it against. And when I sought some elucidation from a girl on this, she shrugged and suggested it was mostly intuition.

And of course it is, because I am not the same as someone else. I communicate in different ways to different people, my words, actions, even my presence varies from person to person, from guys to girls, and from girls I am interested in to those I am not. But it’s not an easy distinction to make. So I think we need a remarkable degree of honesty and integrity, and I know that I am a hypocrite I write these words because so rarely have I been honest about how I feel.

The whole notion of pursuit conjures up an image of a guy catching a girl who is playing hard to get, or winning over her heart despite her initial intentions. I know of couples who started out like this, where the guy liked the girl, and she did not, I recall hideous being the moniker used in one case. But he persisted, I thought he just wasn’t getting the hint, but in the end she turned around and they are now husband and wife. But I think this is rare, and if guys get too much encouragement to pursue it can make it hard for girls who have bad experiences of aggressive and abusive relationships.

For many couples the opening stage is nuanced and confused and often more than a little bit messy. So being open about how you feel, rather than waiting for the other person to initiate something is really important.

I’m not a particularly perceptive person. I don’t always realise what’s going on around me, I’m often the last to notice that a couple are together. So it’s useful to have friends and to use them. They will see things you don’t, even the most perceptive people often have a blind spot. If you are interested in someone you are likely to interpret their actions in a certain way, if you’re an optimist everything re-enforces the idea that they like you back, if you are glass half empty type then they could be throwing themselves at you and you would still be convinced that they are just being polite.

A lot of this comes down to us caring too much what other people think of us. We are reluctant to put ourselves on the line and run the risk of people, or a specific person, seeing us as we really are.

Post script: In the comments of an earlier post it was pointed out that guys do ask girls out, often discreetly, and they deserve credit for doing so. Yes they do.