Archive for September, 2009

// on free lunches and the kingdom of God

(you can actually buy these for your fridge)

(you can actually buy these for your fridge)

What does the voice of God sound like to you? I realise that’s a fairly daunting question to start any piece of writing with, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, ever since starting an internship at St. Aldates church in Oxford, and, honestly, I’m curious about what you think. You see, ever since I started here I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of people here – the amount of people who have offered their houses or their ovens or their Xboxes to me, and others, is huge, and a real blessing, especially at the start of a year like this. But it’s also got me wondering if there’s something else going on here. It’s very hard to accept that kind of hospitality without being challenged about your own generosity and hospitality and servanthood, and sooner or later you start asking yourself whether or not you would act in the same way.

It starts to feel like God might be prodding you, not to put you to shame, but in order that you might bless others with all that you’ve been given. Which is a great thing, but it’s also noticeable just how easy it is to avoid that prodding when the pressure is on; to assume that because your life is busy or you don’t have the money, or the time, or whatever it is, that different rules apply. I say that because at the moment I’m acutely aware of how easy it would be to fall into bad habits; because, if I don’t write it down, in a couple of weeks I may not even notice that it’s there. They say that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit. What habits are there in you that have been there so long that you don’t even notice them any more?

They say that your character tells a story about who you truly are, too, and I have to wonder if the way I act would ever really challenge anyone (well, maybe it would challenge them to have patience…). The people who offer me free dinners or ovens or Xboxes, they have all made sacrifices so that can happen. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”, remember; someone always has to incur some kind of cost somewhere down the line, whatever that may be. I’m grateful for those people, as they model what love looks like, but the thing is, if I’m not getting into the same habits of sacrifice and service then, ultimately, that model of sacrifice is going to die out, and the day that happens will be a sad day.

I write this from a Starbucks where I came to reflect on today’s teaching – which was, incidentally, about “hearing God’s voice”. But when I sat down today and switched off all the things on my mind, what I realised my thoughts were brought back to, time and again, were those people who have modelled God’s character to me over the past few weeks, not to mention the past few years. Maybe you realised it and maybe not, but if you look at the big picture you can see a God who is writing His story in each of us; and the way in which He is at work in His people even now is a testament to the fact that He is as active and as relevant now as He was 4000 years ago.

This is what a community of people who are seeking God and seeking to serve looks like, and that’s an overwhelmingly positive thing, full of grace and creativity and selfless love. And it’s something that makes me want to live similarly, too. I am still positive about the church, in spite of all its flaws, its bitching, infighting and pettiness. I am still convinced that it is an incredibly positive force, something worth fighting for and worth sticking with, and I’m convinced of that because I’ve met the people that make it up.

I didn’t sit down to write a post that praised the church – actually, I sat down to write one about the innate cynicism of Christians, how sceptical we are of any acts of generosity, always worrying about motives and perception. But the thing is, while that’s true in so many ways, it also forgets the fact that if you spend any time at all around the church then you WILL meet amazing people, passionate and vibrant and visionary and, even if they don’t initially appear that way, exciting, too. That’s not always true, but in so many cases that’s plain to see…

And today, honestly, I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for people who model God’s love and tell of God’s goodness, whether they do it verbally or otherwise. I want to be a part of their community, and I want to contribute to it too.

I have an embarrassing confession to make, I think.

I love the church.

But I don’t love the church out of duty, or obligation, or because Christ told us to.

I love the church because it’s amazing, and because it keeps reflecting the glory of God, and if you’re a part of that then, screwed-up as you may be, you do too.

Thank you for that.

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// broken church

empty church

I have been telling people for a while now that I have a passion for ‘broken church’ – church in the model of 2 Corinthians, made up of people who are aware of their own brokenness and need for God and who are subsequently passionate about honesty, integrity, support and love even in the presence of failure (see Rehab). All of which is fortunate, really, because on Sunday I start a ten-month internship at St. Aldate’s church in Oxford, living and working alongside thirteen others in a range of aspects of church life, and if anything models ‘broken church’, I am sad to say that it’s me…

Ever since I got accepted onto this internship it seems like i’ve been becoming more and more acutely aware of my flaws and the effect that those flaws have on wider church culture, as well as on my relationships with the people who surround me. That realisation feels like waking up, in some ways, but waking up from a warm and fuzzy dream world into the cold light of day. It forces me to remember that my actions have consequences, that, rather than being as independent as I claim to be, I am utterly reliant on others, and my character directly and unavoidably affects those people. On Sunday, I am walking back into a close community where it is going to be increasingly hard to hide those flaws – and, like it or not, they are going to come out sooner or later.

So this is me taking ownership of that fact.

For far too long I have been guilty of trying to be cool, trying to meet the right people (and impress them, of course) and to appear relevant and passionate and, I suppose, important – and in all honesty, it’s a sham. I have told people I am interested in justice and done nothing about justice issues; I have insisted on the importance of grace while I have had no grace at all in so many situations in my family and my church; I have claimed to be interested in service while serving only myself. I have used Christianity to make myself look good and to give myself an identity, and I am a hypocrite (and in case this sounds like self-pity, it’s okay; in all likelihood, there are areas where you are, too.)

I am loved in spite of it, covered by grace even in light of my many failings, but that’s no excuse.

Something has to change, and I have a distinct feeling that something has to be me.

I don’t say all of this lightly. I have written and re-written this post to try and make myself look better, or to try and make my situation more universal, to the extent that I nearly didn’t publish it at all. I don’t come out well from this. I know that. But I have spent years on the sidelines of churches, analysing and (in a lot of cases) criticising, and now i’ve ended up as a part of it and the question is whether I am any different…

In my heart, I am not. Every frustration I have with the churches I have attended I can fully understand, as, were I in the same situation, I would almost certainly do the same thing. Culture is built in the small, subtle things; in the attitudes that are in place when no-one is watching and in the way we act when silence falls. This applies as much to you as it does to me. Nobody changes the world overnight; changed culture and changed nations start with transformed character, at the absolute base level. It is, of course, God who who will have to do that, as I am not capable of doing it on my own…

But this is my acknowledgement of that fact. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. I am an addict. I am addicted to looking good, addicted to control, and to comfort, and, above all, I am addicted to the thought that God is not good.

On Sunday I am going back into a church community, and those attitudes and ideas are going to affect people and culture, whether I like it or not. But I am aware of them now, and so are you; and I am aware that I need your help, along with God’s, to deal with them – otherwise I could walk out in ten months having made a mess not just of myself, but also of the lives of others. If I can possibly help it, I’d really rather try and avoid doing that.

But I suppose, if the worst comes to the worst, I could always wash dishes for the next ten months.

I’m fairly sure that even I couldn’t make a mess of that.

// new ‘about’ post

I’ve updated the ‘about’ section on this blog to give a slightly clearer picture of what it’s about – it’s changed a bit since i started. Check it out by clicking the arrow in the top right of this page and let me know what you think.