// 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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    • alanna
    • June 1st, 2010

    wow tom, this is great. i want to think some more and come back to you with something more constructive and helpful. but just for thr mo wanted to say that i have read it and i am impressed and excitd 🙂 alanna x

    • Hin-Tai
    • June 22nd, 2010

    Hey Tom – was just casually browsing and came across your last two posts and could not stop reading! Very compelling – I can recognise a lot of myself in what you say.

    Especially love the bit about testimony – so true that there’s a tendency to neglect what life as a Christian is like, when, as you say, it is really where life begins.

    constructively: I agree with the other comment about non-Christians maybe not grasping what you say – this seems to me very much geared towards Christians, and in your personal story you might skip over a lot of things too quickly for a non-Christian.

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