Fake it until you make it

Two types of posts get read a lot on this blog. Those about relationships and those addressing current political or church issues. So when I write about dating or singleness or Mark Driscoll or women bishops my stats page is suitably satisfied. When on the other hand I take a more rambling approach to writing, the readers do not come flocking. I suspect this is one of the latter.

It is also probably worth explaining at this point what happened to the endeavour I had provisionally titled ‘The centaur and the heir’. It was my attempt to write a novel in 30 days, 50 000 words from scratch onto the keys and into some semblance of a novel. I could try and sugar coat it and put it in diplomatic fashion but basically I failed. After ten days I was a few thousand words behind schedule and with a mostly free Sunday ahead of me I could have spent all my free time writing and given myself a boost. I had also rather shamefully posted the first two chapters of the work so instead of clarifying my abandonment I slipped quietly into the night. I decided I had other things I wished to do with my time. I took the choice to fail. It’s not often we make a choice so consciously as that, but I realised that while I was deciding to fail, I was still not entirely sure what is was I was failing at.

My novel would never have been published, not even in my most remote and wildest dreams. It was a work of fan fiction, an effort to hark back to the Chronicles of Narnia and explore what became of Susan Pevensie after her family’s death. I had lost the plot quite literally, I had no idea where it would go next, a vague concept I wanted to pull through the whole story but the characters were weak and they asserted no direction on the page. I had a handful of readers who had taken in the first two sections, but their engagement was not enough to keep me going. Nor was the brute stubbornness that had propelled me through the same endeavour last year enough. I had proved I could do it, proved I could write an inordinate number of words that made very little sense, read by even fewer and done so at a particularly busy period of work.

I simply had no reason to go on writing.

And sometimes that can be a lesson we face in so many parts of life. We want something to whisk us up and propel us forward. We want the glorious crusade, the righteous campaign, the infusion of meaning into a life otherwise droll and predictable. We don’t want to just carry on because we think we ought to carry on.

Sometimes in church life it can feel like a massive effort to keep with the programme, to show that you are on the same page as everyone else. Sometimes it can be a spiritual equivalent of keeping up with the Jones. We want to be as mature as everyone else, we want to have the same experience as everyone else. When we see others having prayers answered we wonder why ours are going unmet.

I see the doubt in my own mind and think others are plagued by the same lingering thoughts. But there is one particular doubt I want to zero in on. I doubt that there is purpose and meaning behind what I am doing. In the world in which I spend most of my time much is made of calling and vocation: of what you are doing with your life to serve God. And I feel I have none. I can scrabble around and cobble together something approaching a spiritual sounding narrative, but it is really little more than a projection of where I have come from and where I am currently at. It is all I have.

I hear exhortations to have plans and goals, and strategies, ideas of where you want to be in ten years time – and this is in church not a job interview. I hear the calls for a vision of what your sphere could look like if the kingdom of God was to break in. Except I don’t know what my sphere is and I don’t have a vision of what it might look like.

I sometimes think, if only I had something to commit myself to, a passion to throw my weight behind, a mission to get lost in, a conviction that it is this (whatever this might be) to which I am to spend myself. But I don’t and therefore I leave myself with two options. Well three if I include giving up. But unlike writing a novel in a month this isn’t something I want to pack in. At least, I hope not. So my options are either to fake it until I make it, to conjure some vision out of thin air, construct it on the back of what I do and what others might expect me to be passionate about. Or alternatively to get back to basics.

When I put it like that it seems like a no brainer, of course the basics should win over being a fraud, but I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Maybe part of the going back to basics is doing what I am doing right now as well as I possibly can. Going back to basics means not over complicating life. It means not looking for something that isn’t there. It also means stripping out the extraneous elements that combine together to create a noise through which we cannot hear the movements and melodies that lie behind our lives.

It means for me I need to stop worrying about not having a ten year plan. It means not being ashamed by what I am doing or not doing. Rescinding the relentless rhetoric towards bigger and better, onwards and upwards, letting go of the need for validity and worth in what I am doing or where I am going. There is a lot that I can do, or stop doing.

And I want that to be the focus of my attention, but there’s also a slight critique I want to make of the language, tone and rhetoric used in churches. I get the desire to cast vision, to get people caught up in where you are going, to inspire them to hear their own call. But does it run the risk of encouraging people to fake it until they make it? They see something that looks good so present themselves in a spiritual light and hang a personal vision off that prefabricated script? Does it lead to a conformity with the corporate vision by accident rather than design? Does it stifle innovation while actually seeking to unleash it? I don’t know. But I’ve felt the pressure to conform, and to find something which I do not at the moment have.

It’s a concern I have with all areas of the Christian life, if we place the expected and modelled level of behaviour high without an equivalent modelling of grace, we run the risk of encouraging a fraudulent faith because the fear of not performing up to the expected standard becomes too strong. And when faith comes down to performance it may be time to bring the curtain down, send home the cast and rewrite the script.

I don’t want to glorify messing things up or not having a clue. I don’t want to privilege doubt over faith. But I want to be honest that all these struggles exist and not present too perfect a picture.

Writing in the shadow of CS Lewis

Last year I decided to write a novel in a month. Over the course of November I wrote on most days and ended up with 32 chapters totalling over 56 000 words. This was not just for the sake of it. Although once I’ve said a little more you might think there was no greater purpose. Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a challenge to write a 50 000 word novel from scratch during November, you can plan beforehand but not write, and because the rules are actually more or less non-existent plenty of people do it in different way – including working on existing projects.

Last year I had no plot until the night before I started. I lay in the bath and came up with a cast of characters and a couple of defining events and then started writing. It was a bit crazy and I lost a fair amount of sleep and by virtue of posting a chapter each day to this blog lost quite a few readers as well. The story was basically a Christian romance novel. It was pretty dire. I had about half a dozen regular readers, and the plot development was aided by a couple of crowd sourced brain storming sessions where new characters jumped onto the page and interacted with each other.

This year I’m doing it again.

I said I wouldn’t. A bit like Steve Redgrave when he got out of the boat, except it’s not at all like that. I felt I had achieved something, shown what I could do with a large helping of self disciple and swift typing skills. I also felt it was unnecessary to do that again to produce something that I would never get published, or even try to get published.

But then I came across a single line in a book and I knew I would do it again. I was reading through Rowan William’s book about Narnia, The Lion’s World and found a letter from CS Lewis to a reader regarding Susan Pevensie: “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman.” It goes on a bit but I don’t want to give anything away.

I had the starting point for my story. And I had all of October to research and prepare.

Unfortunately moving house and doing a lot of work writing meant my research amounted to reading books 1-6 of the Narnia series, and hoping to get through the Last Battle in the next couple of days. I also have only a vague plan of what will happen in the story, but as well as a starting point I also have a rather intimidating back drop against which to write and ensure at least some measure of continuity.

Firstly though, it is worth stating very clearly that this is fan-fiction, it is not to be published other then on this blog and I am doing so for no financial gain. I don’t know who owns the copyright for the books and characters, but no infringement is intended. I am also doing this from the place of huge respect and appreciation for the series and CS Lewis’ other writings.

Secondly, this is rather scary, CS Lewis is a brilliant writer with hidden gems within and between each sentence, reading through them again has drawn out new aspects and reinforced other themes I’ve seen before. In writing a sequel to the series I have the challenge of deciding how closely to try and follow his style and themes. I am setting the book a few years after The Silver Chair and probably more or less contemporaneously to The Last Battle. This poses two additional challenges, firstly to ensure the language and especially the dialogue is appropriate to the period. The second challenge is that the Narnia books are written about children and for children. Down to the little asides CS Lewis throws in about grown-ups not understanding things and similar, the writing is so brilliant because it is simple and profound and presented from a childlike mentality – especially the earlier books.

What I intend to do is shift that a few years forward. Susan will be twenty-one at the start of the book and I intend to write from that period in life, with a mind towards readers also at a similar stage. While I will try and situate the novel in the right era, i.e. starting in 1949, much of it will take place in Narnia so that becomes less relevant.

A final challenge is that in The Last Battle the old Narnia is passing away. That’s why I say that it’s more or less contemporary, because I’m making the most of the discrepancy between times in different worlds to present a story happening in Narnia before it draws to a close, yet after Peter, Edmund and Lucy are on their way to Aslan’s country.

I hope you enjoy reading, I don’t think I’ll post daily, but probably twice a week or so in longer chunks but as PDFs so as not to overload the blog posts. Currently undecided on the title, either The Centaur and the Heir or Hunting the Heir, or something else that strikes me soon.

Waiting on an Angel – Chapter 1

Samuel waited. He’d been waiting for a while, slightly uncomfortable with his tie done up too tight and the shirt that fitted well just a few months before now rather snug around the collar.

This was a rather novel experience for Samuel. He wasn’t accustomed to having to wait for very much in life. He either got it or he didn’t. And now he was waiting for a church minister.

Samuel fidgeted on the seat and thought that maybe he had made a mistake. He gazed through the glass partition and saw the people seemingly lounging around. He could swear that a couple of them were just chatting over a cup of coffee. He played around with his keys in his pocket, restrained himself from pulling his phone out and tapping out a tweet or two. In fact, he was sure it had vibrated a few times in the moments since he had sat down. Only good manners stopped him from drifting back into the digital space.

It was a day like this two months ago that Samuel had first met the Rev Dr Adam Glynn. The clouds hung low in the sky, desperate to trap the heat in, a day when public transport verges on a health hazard and makes you glad for a change of clothes. And it was only since that day that he had adopted the full form of his name, trying to get used to it so as to not make an inauspicious start to this next stage of life. It had not been a normal interview. Far more examination as to whether he felt that abbreviating his name was paying disservice to the biblical hero of Samuel, than to any skills or qualities that had been nervously rehearsed the night before. The reverend doctor went as far as to suggest that it might be considered a minor form of blasphemy to truncate such an inspirational name.

That was the thing that had very nearly persuaded Samuel not to take the job. His stubborn independence stretched beyond not being inclined to change his name on dubious hermeneutical grounds. He wondered what other points of confrontation would lay ahead, and on reflection it was this aspect of challenge that made him take the leap.

Samuel was also surprised not to have to defend his decision to give up teaching. Virtually every other person who he had spoken to had urged him to think again, quietly suggested that he had a very strong career development programme and should be very grateful for the opportunities that had been presented to him.

“Samuel Engle”, and suddenly he was dragged out of his frustration with his family as the reverend doctor came out from behind the glass doors and clasped his hand between both of his. Samuel also realised at this moment that the tie was the right choice. He’d spent a good few hours going back and forth over whether it was too formal, or not. And everyone had different advice, they might as well have suggested turning up in Bermuda shorts he thought. He’d been tempted to lose the tie, set his stall out straight away and refuse to be defined by tradition or anyone else’s behaviour. But as Adam stood before him, shoulders forced back and elbow pads just visible, wearing a tie seemed to be the only thing Samuel had got right.

“We begin our week with a time of Bible study together as a staff team, it’s expected that everyone contributes, but we’ll go easy on you today, perhaps you could read the passage?”

Samuel nodded in grateful relief, this I can do, he thought to himself, also silently proud that he had remembered to bring his new Bible. He followed Adam into the small hall where the staff had assembled and was introduced to them all. Suddenly before he had acclimatised to the draught that was running across the floor from the side door he was asked to read from James 2.

As he lifted his Bible out of the bag he noticed a few suspicious glances at the book, but he ploughed on and read the chapter in the firm and authoritative voice that had developed in the classroom. Samuel was slightly pleased as he reached the end, no stumbled words, and no difficult names; all told he felt he’d got through that unscathed. But his dreams were shattered as the reverend doctor turned to his left and suggested that Esme might like to also read the passage from her version. Later as they filed out even more furtive enquiries were made in the direction of Samuel’s Poverty and Justice Bible.

“That was perhaps a little unfortunate Samuel” Adam started as they sat down in his office. “As a church we are firmly in the word-for-word tradition of biblical translation and while looser translations can provide an enjoyable read they do not secure us in the same depth of understanding.” Samuel made to point out that he hadn’t actually bought the Bible but it was a present from his sister as he started this new job, but already sensed that this would be futile.

Samuel had attended Holland Park Baptist Church (Continuing) for the past two years, but suddenly everything seemed different now he was on the inside. He glanced around the office for some solace of comfort but between the Hebrew dictionaries and tomes of commentary he wasn’t entirely sure what might offer any encouragement. Adam started up again and Samuel girded himself up for another rebuke to an indiscretion he had not yet noticed.

“You are a very bright young man and we are delighted that you will be working with us. The next year will be full of challenges, the life of a minister of the gospel is never easy, but it will also give you some fantastic opportunities.” With his ego suitably boosted he sat a little taller in his chair and started to speculate what these might be. Before the pause between Adam’s instructions had taken its last breath he had begun to conjure an image where he was stood in front of a large crowd, clearing and firmly guiding them into a full knowledge of what the Christian life was to be. “I will be personally mentoring you this year, and I expect you to apply yourself to all parts of church life as well as your theological study.

All parts of church life seemed positive enough; Samuel had been worried that as a lowly apprentice he would be the receptacle for all the tasks no one else really wanted to do. All parts of church life meant that he would get a chance to preach: because that’s a part of church life isn’t it? And the subsidised theological study, that was the clincher in him deciding to move on from teaching and find a challenge in a more stimulating and enriching environment.

As the revered doctor set out the programme for his first few days he thought back to the interview and wondered again why he had ever doubted he would get the post. Samuel did not consider himself an arrogant man, only one who is confident in what he can offer to the life of a church. Surely they couldn’t have been deluged with candidates for a job that barely pays and a life of the pressures already becoming evident.

Samuel’s sister Emma still hadn’t got her head around what he saw in this church. As his mind wondered he realised it was probably best he hadn’t elaborated on where his new Bible had come from. If there was anything he was going to set as his ambition for the coming year it would be to reconcile the relationship between the churches they both attended. How could it be that he had to tread so carefully when he referred to the church she attended?

In the interview he had been asked about his testimony, in fact he had been asked to prepare a three minute presentation on how he became a Christian which he used when none believers enquired of his beliefs. He was a bit shaky on this, since the halcyon days of conversion he had grown steadily worse at this practice known as evangelism. But at least he had a good testimony, that’s what he reassured himself with, none of this rather boring growing up in a Christian family malarkey. He even had a feather in his cap because Emma had become a Christian after he had so he reckoned he could notch that one up as a successful piece of evangelism.

Samuel didn’t really understand why Emma wouldn’t come toHollandPark, it was also an acute source of awkwardness, having to skirt around the fact that she was living inLondon, close by but attended a different church. When he’d got the post Samuel had suggested to his sister that it might be nice if they both went to church together. This idea, as uncontroversial as any he had proffered was met with a hasty rebuff. Before he got completely sidetracked from following what his induction programme was for the next week he made a note to try again and find out quite what it was that kept Emma away.

The reverend doctor appeared to have finished his spiel, and suggested that they take a tour around the office and meet all the staff. Samuel hadn’t imagined that this many people would work for the church, he knew it wasn’t just a one man show but Adam did preach virtually every week. But the office was a hive of activity as he was introduced to the various different departments. Suddenly Adam drew him to one side and suggested that the following staff were not publicly known to be working for the church because their project was rather on the confidential side. Had this been big business he would have understood the concern about industrial espionage, but in a church it seemed rather over the top. And the two men in question were hunched over a bank of screens playing around with images of an empty unfamiliar church hall.

“We are working on a new project with St Peter’s Stratford; they have requested our assistance during their ministerial interregnum so I will be preaching to both congregations from a few weeks time.” An idea pounced into Samuel’s mind and thought carefully before he spoke.

“Technology can do some wonderful things can’t it? Are St Peter’s looking for a new minister?”

“Not at the moment”, Adam swiftly responded, “We think that there is no reason why should this arrangement work out it can’t be used for the foreseeable future.” And as quickly as the thought had entered Samuel’s mind that he might be being primed for this role it was vanquished.

As Samuel sat down at his desk he looked around and realised that this was an unusual environment. It was an office, everyone was busy, there was a finance department, a communications team, but it was not quite normal. Because the business was not making money, but running a church, and he reminded himself, a very successful church.

So despite the slightly awkward beginnings, and the confirmation that the reverend doctor might not be the easiest person to work for Samuel was content. He had only been teaching for a few years but had realised that it was not the life he wanted. He was not minded to wait for a better option to come along, or to hope that the life of a teacher miraculously transformed into the enriching and stimulating career his parents had promised it would be.

Over the summer he had realised that waiting was not his strongest of qualities. He had even asked if he could begin work during August, previous summers had put pay to the common misconception that teachers got gloriously long holidays as he spent days while the sun shone preparing lessons and researching new topics. In hindsight he thought, perhaps it was never worth the effort, the students did not appear to appear to appreciate his carefully researched and revolutionary explanation of the battle ofAgincourtand the alternative trajectory of European history that quite literally hung on a shoe string.

It was the commitment to biblical scholarship that had attracted him to Holland Park when he moved to London, not just a church committed to God’s Word, but one where his desire to further his theological understanding would be embraced and nurtured. This was why in turn Samuel was content as he found his way around his small desk and realised that it had not been fully cleared from its use by last year’s apprentice. A reminder had he needed one that he was only here for the year.

Samuel thought it was about time he got on with whatever work they had for him but the reverend doctor seemed hesitant. He suggested that Samuel might want to spend some time looking through the church handbook and come to him at the end of the day with any questions or concerns. “Once you have signed the church compact we will have plenty of work for you to be getting on with.”

He thought a little before he opened the red folder which continued the policies and positions ofHollandParkBaptistChurch(Continuing). He knew that this was coming, but he was still apprehensive, he was pretty certain he was going to have to lie. Not really the beginning he wanted. Somehow he had hoped that this formality would not arise and he would avoid putting pen to paper to confirm his deceit.