Archive for May, 2010

// thoughts from an average Christian (beginning)

For a little while now i’ve been thinking about writing something more extensive than this blog, with some kind of narrative arc and over-riding theme to it. Recently i actually got around to plotting it out in rough and working out what form it would take, and now i’ve started writing. What i’ve posted below is the first bit of what may well end up being a longer story, and i need your feedback. I know i’ve asked for feedback on posts before and i don’t often get it, but i really need your help, all of your help, on a few things here, so if you have anything to comment i would really appreciate hearing your voice on them:

Firstly, do you think this is a compelling beginning? If you read this, would you want to read on?

Secondly, how is the tone? If you were to spend 200 pages with this person, would he grate on you?

And thirdly, do you think there is a market for this sort of thing, or should i just quit right away?

If this is going to go ahead, i am going to need your help – not to mention the fact that i want it, too. Your input on this is hugely valued, and might help wrestle this thing into some kind of shape, so if you have something to say, please say it.

Right. Enough explanation – without any further ado, here’s the first bit of what i’ve got so far.

Be gentle.

* * *

1. // testimony

Many of the testimonies I have been told over the years have stopped at the moment the teller became a Christian, as though their life simply ended at that point. That always got at me a little, because I always thought it should have been the other way round. That life began there. If a story was going to have a beginning anywhere, it should be at that point.

Maybe those kind of stories, the story of what happens next, are out there but, for whatever reason, I haven’t heard them, or we don’t talk about them – as that’s not the done thing here, or there are more important facts, namely salvation, or we feel like we’ve been talking about ourselves for far too long and we can feel the other person’s eyes burning into us, or whatever. Or maybe – and a more terrifying prospect indeed – the truth is that we don’t really have anything interesting to say any more.

Perhaps we just shut part of us off one day and we never really opened it up again.

If Christianity really opens your eyes to a new way of living, or at least gives you new eyes with which to see the old way of life, then we need more of those stories. We need people who have seen the world anew and are willing to talk about it – people who cannot be the same and who cannot or will not remain silent any more. The best stories out there in the world are those in which conflict is overcome, where people are transformed, where something profound is said about the way that things truly are.

I don’t often hear many stories like that, but I would like to. Those are our stories.

I tell you all of this by way of beginning. This is my story of redemption.

*

A while back I ran a cell group with a guy named Vince, who came from New Jersey and spoke like something out of the Sopranos. The group had its focus on evangelism, and so each week we would ask people their stories in detail, then sit around talking about those stories and what they told us about God and how we related to them.

Vince thought that who we were before we became Christians told us something about who we are now, at least on some level. We had all been given gifts and passions and when we were going the wrong way, we channelled them into the wrong places – into our own comfort or gain, perhaps, or maybe just into ineffective areas. He was interested in how we got it wrong, as well as how we’d changed since, because that story of redemption is just as incredible, if not more so. If we knew where we’d come from, he thought, we knew better where we were going.

There is a man in Oxford who spends every day walking up and down the street telling people about Jesus with a broad grin on his face. He is there every day, and people know him and regularly stop to talk with him. As I write this, my friend Andrew, who used to sell the Big Issue, just came up to him in the street and they hugged like old friends. I do not know the entirety of his story, but enough of it is written on his face to see. He is a man transformed.

I have some friends who are so transformed from where they used to be that they can barely believe it, or contain their joy at this fact. My friend Luke, whose company I value deeply, has a story which is shot through with pain, conflict and doubt, but the testimony that is etched in his face and in his words tells of a God who has never left him in the midst of that, who holds all things in His hands. I have another friend, who I only met this year and who only became a Christian shortly before that, who tells me that she is now known for being joyful to the point of hyperactivity. The change is from death to life. I did not know her before, but I know her now, and well enough to know that I cannot imagine her without the joy. She must have been a different person entirely.

These are stories that my friends cannot help telling. They are stories of a God who is still at work today.

Those stories, they show a movement from death to life, from walking away from God to actively seeking Him. They show that our life doesn’t stop when we meet God, but changes into something entirely different, as though the lights have suddenly gone on. Like somebody once said, dying for something is comparatively easy; living for something is much harder altogether.

Maybe you are reading this with a broad smile on your face at what has been done, and I hope so. I hope that you are reading it in the aftermath of an encounter so incredible that life will never be the same for you again.

And if not, I hope that you will by the end.

*

I became a Christian at the age of twelve, and then I became a ‘proper’ Christian at the age of fifteen, on a Scripture Union holiday. I still remember it vividly, hearing the story of Jonah and how Jonah was running away from God, and realising that I too was running away from God. Somebody said something about “counting up the cost” and, lying in my bed alone that night, I counted up what was being asked of me and wondered whether I could do it.

I became a Christian for social reasons, I think. When I first got involved with Christians, it felt like my life became a lot more interesting all of a sudden. I joined a youth group full of people who were fun to be around, who liked cool music and who seemed to genuinely like me as well, even though I was not very cool. And it was good. I got to do lots of cool stuff over the years – I went to Ukraine, and I led on some holidays, and we went on some of those tree-top assault courses, all stuff I would have never have done on my own otherwise. It felt a little bit like this was the way life was supposed to be.

What it felt like I was being asked to do on that first holiday was to join the group, learning to be a part of what it meant to be a Christian, what Christians were meant to look like. I reckon that when you’re a teenager, a lot of why you do things is in search of meaning. So the people who ended up taking drugs, getting epically drunk or sleeping with whoever they could get their hands on, they were testing whether the things the world sells them are satisfactory, whether a life of comfort and pleasure is worth spending 70 years pursuing. They usually found out that it was not in the end, but it often took them quite a while.

The instincts that drove me to Christianity were much the same, sad though that is to say. I needed meaning and purpose – I felt directionless and useless, with a decent amount of academic skills that didn’t seem to serve any real goal – and so the evangelisation of the world seemed like as good an aim as any other. It wouldn’t upset my parents, at least.

I wasn’t enough of a risk-taker to take drugs, I was useless around girls and I looked like a fifteen-year old, so getting served in pubs was hard. Christianity provided me with an identity, a solid group of friends and a purpose in life. It was an easy way to become normal. I heard plenty of talk about how we were supposed to tell our friends about God and face persecution for it, but I didn’t know many people like that, so I reasoned that it wasn’t really that important.

So when I decided to follow Christ on that camp all those years back, I was pretty much giving my assent to the rules of the club, and my “counting the cost” was more a case of assessing whether I reckoned I would be able to stick it out, to not smoke, swear or sleep around and to tell people about God during my teenage years. My mental calculation left me thinking that I probably could. If I’d been wiser I would have seen the fact that I could calculate this stuff mentally as a problem, but I didn’t. In fact, it seemed like a pretty sweet deal. Plus, I got to go to heaven at the end. Cool.

*

There is a song by Death Cab for Cutie in which Ben Gibbard sings about how he wants to live where soul meets body, and after a while of being a Christian I got to the point of knowing what he meant too. It was like an ache, or maybe a bruise – a desire for God-life to underpin normal life that underpinned every interaction. You wouldn’t always be aware of it, but every now and then something would knock it and you’d notice that it had been there all along.

When I became a Christian I thought things would change, but after a while in the new community the novelty wore off – or maybe the novelty of me wore off on them – and beneath the surface there were the same issues that there had always been.

I didn’t seem to fit in with non-Christians, and I didn’t fit in with Christians either. That was disheartening, as that gave the impression that I didn’t really fit in anywhere, then, and that wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear. Jesus once said that those who knew him would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. He said that he came to set the captives free, too, this revolutionary Jesus, and I thought that meant something more than simply storming the jails. It promised a new way of living, other than the world’s way. The way I saw it, Jesus was like Che Guevara, only a Che Guevara without the violence and with a better message, a Che Guevara whose life changed everything and whose words showed the world as it really was…

I was no good at the world’s way of doing things, never have been. At the end of the day, I’m just not all that impressive. But this group of people I had found, they seemed to think that this was the answer, and in some ways it worked for them – they seemed sociable and personable enough. So I reasoned that if I just got my head around it enough, and told enough people about it, it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t very impressive – because, after all, I would be part of the crowd.

When it comes to stories, if your meaning is simply to know about God and to teach others things about Him too, then of course your story is going to stop at the point where you reach the limit of what you can know. There’s an endpoint, at least of sorts.

But if your endpoint is to know God, and to keep getting to know Him more, then that story will keep on going and doesn’t come to an end in this lifetime, because there will always, always be more to know. If you listen to the people who have been married awhile talking about what it is like to be married, they will tell you that one of the joys about marriage is that there is always more to know about this beautiful, extraordinary person that they have chosen to bond their life to. You will keep discovering more about who they are, and so that story will not stop until one of you stops.

If life is about knowing God, and I am learning that it is, then there will always be more to know – more extraordinary revelations of just who this being who you have chosen to follow truly is, and what He is like, and what He is capable of…

My problem as a young Christian, I think, was that somebody gave me the impression that knowing God just meant knowing about Him, and after a while I felt like I knew a lot of what there was to know.

But then I met God, and everything fell apart.

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// Crowder on the Psalms

Apologies for the lack of updates for the past couple of weeks – a combination of an incredibly busy schedule and a whole host of things to stress about, but i’m hoping that things will get back to normal soon. I’m also working on something slightly more large-scale that i’d love feedback on, but i’ll say more about that in a little while.

For now, i’m reading Praise Habit, David Crowder’s awesome meditation on the Psalms, and here’s a little of his thoughts on Psalm 84 that i thought was worth sharing:

Psalm 84 is often romanticized. We read a line that goes something like “one day with You is better than a thousand anywhere else,” and we think of lovers lost in each other’s eyes, floating in embrace, a million miles away from anywhere. What a line. It would melt you to have that whispered in the ear. But the context that follows totally ruins it…

It sounds much less romantic to think that the rest of the declaration could be, “I understand that to be with you may in fact mean degradation rather than accommodation.”

We have not been promised palatial housing, but we have been promised His presence. We often find ourselves in spaces that seem the last spot on earth we would have picked to insert ourselves, engaged in things that we never imagined ourselves having to do, but we can know this comfort: that wherever we are, we are in the very residence of God and this is sweeter and greater than anywhere without Him. We carry His residence into these spaces. Perhaps we’re on our hands and knees with sponge and soap because someone has just made a mess of things or maybe we’ve just noticed that most places we inhabit are in need of cleaning. Living praise often leads us close to the ground. To dirt. It often leads to industry that is unglamorous and unromantic. It often leads us to sweat and toil and lonesome valleys. But around the bend are cool springs. These moments are holy because we know that wherever we find ourselves we are in the very house of God. And there is space and presence here exceeding anything offered elsewhere. Even if it leads us to dark places on our hands and knees, it is sweeter than lying on a beach in Greece because the sunshine of our Maker’s presence is brighter and stronger than a thousand stars, and it reaches to wherever we are…

I hope that wherever you are right now, that you know His presence, the gentle whisper in your ear that He is here; that His presence reaches beyond the meetings and beyond the sometimes strained attempts to feel Him in those meetings into a revelation of the God who Dallas Willard once described as “our Father, who is closer than the air that i breathe.” I hope that for you He is a God who speaks in the quiet moments as well as the ones when you walk down the street with ipod in your ears and with every part of your being feeling like it may explode in praise.

That is the way it was supposed to be, when we walked with Him in the garden and knew His voice and it was good…

We are a long way from that now, it is true, but that does not make it impossible. And it is truly something worth pursuing.

// rest

I don’t find rest easy. It’s never been a conscious decision to be intense, it’s just happened that way – as some combination of circumstances and genetics and personality would have it, I find it very difficult to relax. Even when i’m trying, it doesn’t come easily. You may have seen me in the pub on Thursday night staring at the wall intensely and asked me, “what are you thinking?” In all likelihood, i am thinking about nothing. I am just thinking about it very hard.

But it seems like this is a problem. I am driven, and so capable of achieving a lot, but i am also worn out. People do not find my company restful. I get depressed sometimes because it feels like all i ever exist for is the stuff i do, and there is nothing else underneath. The only way to rest is to take the effort to rest, and that feels like even more work.

And because i am not so good at resting, i often feel awkward when i try and do so. To deal with the awkwardness, i try to diffuse it by asking lots of questions so i don’t need to think about it, or by changing the subject to something trivial in order to distract myself. This works, but it is not always the way to foster healthy relationships.

This year i have been living in community, and this has been difficult. There is nowhere to hide, and eventually your energy for pretending just runs out. The person that is underneath is different – sometimes awkward and sometimes incoherent, but real nonetheless. He doesn’t come out that often. Instead, a lot of the time what i do is run away from this community whenever i get the chance, and spend some time recovering my energy so i can go back and carry on pretending. My times in Starbucks are a safety valve so that i can keep up the façade.

Even my times with God have been high-pressured, crammed into the gaps where i can find them in the short period of time where i do not have to be working. They are not so much restful as they are necessary.

I tell you all of this because this morning i did something different. Rather than storming round Christ Church meadows with ipod in or frantically reading chapters of some book in the short time i had, instead i took my ipod out and walked, very slowly, to a different park with no regard for time or what i should be doing instead. It was incredible. It felt like being set free.

Recently i heard Tim Keller give a talk on rest, and on how at the cross Jesus’s declaration “it is finished” is the ultimate reminder of the fact that nothing is owed anymore. No longer do we have to justify our existence, to work to prove that we are worthy of being here; all of that is done. Nothing is owed. We are set free – honestly we are. So why doesn’t it feel like it?

I know i’m not alone in this, because last week i sat down with the cell group of which i’m a part and we ended up talking about the odd habits that we’ve picked up over the past few years owing to stress, nervous twitches and OCD among them, as well as how some of us haven’t had more than a three day period of rest in nearly three years.

It doesn’t feel like i’m set free because i’m not living it. I’m still fighting to make myself worthwhile, fighting for my place in this world, and it’s draining. Sooner or later i’m going to lose that fight, or just quit, because unless something changes it’s going to go on forever.

And i’ve had it. I’m all out.

This morning i took a walk in freedom and rediscovered that i have intrinsic value apart from what i do or what people think of me; i am loved unconditionally, and i was created as someone good. I rediscovered the joy of talking to God with space to talk, rather than squeezing desperate prayers of “help!” in the middle of a packed day.

I am an introvert, but i love having conversations with people who i am close to, or who see the world from a similar angle to me. That is restful, and it is fulfilling, too. But if i was cramming one of those conversations into a 20-minute slot, desperately talking about all i needed help with as fast as possible (as i have done with some people recently), some of my friends would just let me rant, knowing that i needed to.

That’s what i’ve been doing with God for a while, and i wonder if He’s known that i just needed to let off steam and let me do it. But today i went out to talk, in leisurely (albeit deep) fashion, and there is a deep joy in being able to do that. God drawing near to us – that’s what the cross was all about in the first place, wasn’t it? How tragic to have been going for so long and yet just recently come back to that fact…

Sometimes i have caught myself wondering if this Christian life is really any kind of salvation, or whether we’ve really been saved from anything at all. Much of the time it just seems to provide me with a whole bunch more stuff to stress about, and makes life a lot harder. But when i do wonder that, it probably means i’m not living this life the way it was intended – just turning it into another way to justify my existence.

I am sorry that i have failed to come to God in the level of honesty that He desires – really i am, sorry for myself, too, as that level of peace and honesty is something that i have been looking for a long time.

The truth is, i devalue my humanity in doing that; i say that i am not worth anything unless i am doing something, and in doing so i turn my back on the God who stands pleading that i have always been worth dying for – even before i became Oxford and started being “useful” to God.

Here’s hoping my eyes stay open this time.

// psalm 51

Apologies for the delay in getting this week’s Psalm video uploaded – it’s been a pretty hectic few days. This is the third in our series of contemporary presentations of the Psalms, this week’s Psalm is taken from Eugene H. Petersen’s paraphrase The Message and themed around “Confession” – you can watch it here and download it for ipod here by right-clicking and selecting “save link as…”.

The idea here is to capture both the public and private dimensions of David’s confession – being both an individual expression of repentance as well as a collective song of our sinfulness and need that is picked up again and again throughout our lives. Even our testimony of failure is, in itself, a testimony to our need of God…

Next week: Psalm 25

// revelation and risk

All morning i’ve been hearing stories from an event that was held yesterday. Crazy stories, it seems. Yesterday our church hosted a training day for something called ‘treasure hunting’, where people pray and ask God for the names and distinguishing features of people on the street, along with where they can be found, and then go and find them and pray with them. One girl had an image of two women, both with headscarves, one white and one aqua, outside a particular bus stop at a particular time, and showed up to meet precisely these women. Another met a girl beneath a specific tree, whose particular red coat had been accurately predicted by three separate people, and was able to pray for the friend with her, whose sore throat and tattoo were also accurately foreseen. There are many more stories, in similar detail, the sheer number of which raises big questions – the twelve people who went out came back with twelve separate stories of how they saw things predicted and then found them realised on the streets.

This is insane, right?

Except… except it’s not. In fact, it’s almost more insane to believe that this level of coincidence could occur any other way; i suppose you could argue that people had subconsciously noticed these guys on the streets earlier in the day if you were truly cynical, but they’d all been sitting inside for the previous two and a half hours before they stepped outside. And, i have to confess, it’s actually happened to me on a number of occasions recently, too. On at least three distinct occasions, i have been given an image of certain situations that have then been realised in exact detail. The first time it happened i shook it off, understandably a little disconcerted, but in truth, it keeps happening. To which the only (and frankly overwhelming) conclusion is that God is speaking. Here and now. To us.

The revelation of God leads us into action. Paul, knocked down on a road to Damascus, had a sudden and dramatic change of life; Peter and Barnabas, both visionaries whose lives were detailed in the Acts of the Apostles, saw visions that they then acted upon, both in dramatic and unexpected ways. And don’t forget Peter and John either, who, standing before the courts, declared, “we cannot stop speaking about all that we have seen and heard.” In my own case, and in the case of the guys who went out to the streets yesterday, that revelation carried with it a sense of our agency, too. We had to go, to act, in order to see those things realised and reaching their true purpose.

And when they are, your jaw simply drops.

There is an element of risk in all of this, an element of faith in action that is necessary for any of this to take place. For a while now i feel as though God has been calling me to take more risks, showing me the next step of the way and then challenging me to step out into it. I am tired of writing down my thoughts in coffee shops, apart from the world; i would much rather be out in the world, seeing the places where God is at work. He will go with me, but He will not compel me to go. That first step has to come from me.

That element of apparent risk makes life a thousand times more exhilarating, too. When i spoke to a friend of mine about this lately, he told me that what i thought of as risk was actually not as risky as i thought, because when i went i did so in the knowledge that God would work out all things for good, and that in His love He was trustworthy. My friend is right, and that does make it easier to take those risks – but i am caught between the old and the new, even now just learning how to have faith. And like Jesus once said, “one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much”…

The places that God has called me lately have revealed a level of living that i never really knew possible, even when the journey to them started out from seemingly mundane beginnings, or when they seemed monotonous as they were going on; even when taking that risk seems less like a heroic achievement than a weary slog. The people that i’ve met, the circumstances that i’ve ended up in and the sense of God’s presence while i’ve been there, all of those have been staggering, and i am broken. I want more; want to know Him more, want to see Him more, want to hear Him more.

I hear His voice calling me onwards, and i am fearful most that i will not follow. Fearful that i will stop stepping out or stop seeing the ways that He is at work and speaking evn now. Fearful, too, that my fear will get the better of me and end in retreat rather than awe. Maybe i am one of the mad ones now. Certainly i am stepping into territory that would put off some of my more conservative friends, and it scares me that maybe, just maybe, it might be there that God is found.

But as long as He continues to call, i hope i will continue to follow.

And i hope you will too. Wherever that leads.

// who is your God?

There are some prayer meetings that are very much action-orientated. Some times they’re obviously so – that is to say, when you arrive, somebody hands you a list, you pray through the list – and sometimes it just happens that way, lots of prayers for how events are run and so on. I always struggled with that kind a bit, though. They were very practical, but sometimes they just felt a bit like planning meetings…

For a while, I had this theory that you could tell what subjects people had studied at university by the way they prayed. We used to have this student prayer breakfast when I was an undergraduate and I always reckoned you could tell the difference – engineers and mathematicians would be pretty logical and practical, social scientists prayed about enlightenment and justice, arts students used metaphors. So I figured that because I studied English Literature then I saw the world differently to the others – and a lot of my prayers were about seeing the world with new eyes, rather than praying for things that were going on.

I don’t know that many people got where I was coming from, though. You know, in some prayer meetings you get murmurs of assent, or shouts of “amen!” (depending on how Pentecostal you are), and I never seemed to get enough of them, for the most part. It’s not about that – of course it’s not – but, you know, sometimes when you’re trying to work this stuff out it’s useful to have some pointers at least.

Last night at the cell group we run with our youth we were looking at prayer in practice, and asking the question of what it is that prayer is all about. Who we pray to, and why. From the very start there were two different opinions. Some people think that prayer is mostly about praying to God in order to change situations directly. Others think that prayer is about changing our own perspective, receiving peace or wisdom or courage to proceed and spur us into action.

The answer, of course, is that it’s both (although not necessarily in equal measure)…

If you listen to people praying, then that tells you something about the God they’re talking to, and that’s not always a bad thing, either. There’s something incredible in hearing other people talking to God, just in the same way that watching other people worship can be a breathtaking experience. I love the way that Donald Miller puts it:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad theatre in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way…

If you watch people who are in love with God, who living lives for Him, in real, dynamic and regular communion with Him, then you will know that there is something amazing about the relationship that they have. If you watch their lives, their perspectives and their priorities, then you won’t be able to avoid the fact that their lives are different. You can just see it. “If you are in love with Jesus, it is blindingly obvious,” Michael Ramsden once said, and he’s totally right. You’ll know. By the way, if you haven’t heard Michael Ramsden’s incredible sermon on this same topic, download it here and listen to it immediately. It is utterly brilliant.

It really pays to spend some time reflecting on what your prayers say about your perspective of God. The way you pray to Him, do you see Him as a divine handyman? A supernatural confidant? Is He distant, or close? Does He care, or is He impartial? Is He trustworthy?

None of this is a call to unhealthy introspection, but it does help to spend some time examining where you get those perspectives from every now and again.

What do you hope to get out of a prayer time? Should you hope to get anything out of it, or is the time spent in God’s presence enough in and of itself?

If you really love God, is that reflected in your time with Him?

Is your relationship like that of a lover?

Our community last night came to no real conclusions about prayer, which I think is okay – there are no decisive conclusions anyway, which is part of the beauty and mystery of prayer. But I like it that way, and I like that I’m still learning more about it as I go on, that I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet. I like that my prayers have developed over time, too, the more that I know of God, and I like that I can expect them to continue to develop too.

And so maybe that explains why I like listening to other people praying in prayer meetings, because I think they remind me that I am part of a church all of who see different sides of the same God, and also that what all of this is about is our differing relationships with that God.

I’m starting to think that the only way to write about prayer at all is in mystery, straining at words to make sense of what is so difficult to articulate. But then, living in mystery is definitely a more fun way to live anyway…

// psalm 8

The second in the series of creative Psalm presentations that we’re putting together for our youth group Reality – this week focussing on Psalm 8. Voiceover is today provided by Oli Clarkson – huge thanks!

Watch it here, download it for your ipod here by clicking “save link as” and let me know what you think.

The idea of this video is to follow the Psalm’s revelation of ever-increasing degrees of glory throughout creation until this is itself totally overwhelming – check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCunuL58odQ for one of our sources of inspiration.

Next week: Psalm 51