Archive for June, 2010

// thoughts from an average Christian (God)

Okay, so here’s the second excerpt from this extended project (the working title of which is “Thoughts from an Average Christian”, although this will almost certainly change), the first part of which can be found here.

This is very much a first draft, and so there’s a few clunky passages in this that need some revision, and i’m also not wholly happy with the pacing and balance of it all. But any feedback you could give would be greatly appreciated – what works, what doesn’t, does it follow on, do you still want to keep reading…

Let me know your thoughts, and thanks for all your input so far!

* * *

// 2. God

Maybe when those first friends of your spoke to you about God and His love you had a picture of Him. Perhaps you could visualise something of His character or His hugeness. The words “good” or “awesome” meant something beyond the abstract – they had some particular context for you, some reference point that they looked back to.

Once, the church was good at doing the ornate and the grand. It had jewels and architecture that took your breath away, and it was all for the glory of God. Some of those ideas have become skewed over time, it is true, but they started at a place that was good, a place of worship. People flock to sights like Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, still, because they communicate something bigger, communicate something about the greatness of God across all of history, over and above all culture and social phenomena.

But now, such imposing architecture can seem awkwardly grand, and most of us, we are not comfortable. We feel that people will be put off; that the acoustics are better in the hall or we need somewhere to plug in our guitars or the old church just has too much social baggage attached to it. The church I was attending when I became a Christian met in a huge old building that had been standing for hundreds of years, but it always kind of seemed uncomfortable about that fact, as though it had to emphasise the welcome in order to downgrade the awkward.

When I became a Christian, God seemed to be all about cups of coffee and free meals and discussion groups in people’s houses that often all ended up at the same conclusion anyway. He seemed so tangible from all of that, and people seemed to be able to explain Him pretty well, even if they said that nobody could. He worked in particular ways and He was particular things, and so if we too did particular things then He would behave in a particular way towards us. I liked God for that. He seemed logical. I was a good student, too, and so I learned the stuff pretty fast, and then came the point of trying to talk about it.

Maybe you have been at this point, where you tell people the story of the gospel, how we were created to know God but we weren’t interested, so we walked away creating a barrier between us and God that God can’t bridge because He’s holy and we’re not, and so He sent His son Jesus to die on a cross taking the punishment for our sins so that we can again come close to God? (it sounds kind of less poetic when you put it like that, but that covers the salient points.)

Have you ever told people all that and had them ask you, “so what?”

If so, I wonder how you answered. I would tell them about eternal life and they would shrug and tell me that they were not worried about death, because, after all, you just rot anyway. Occasionally somebody would ask what it was like to know God, and I would not be able to say. I figured that I had no known Him long enough. I did not think that maybe I had not known Him at all.

So I invited those friends to free meals and to church to meet people and from time to time they would come, and then my church friends would explain God to them in much the same way that I did and they would ask the same questions and then get roughly the same answer.

I went to this church for four years – and I want you to know it is a good church, full of people who love God and who are truly seeking Him, and who want others to know Him too – but throughout my time there, one question often niggled at me.

If I had God all figured out, why wasn’t He working like He was meant to?

*

The Bible talks about the God who is so big that we cannot possibly comprehend Him.

We can see His work in creation and know that He is big, and we can see His effects, know when He is at work parting the seas or leading the Israelites out of Egypt or raining fire down from heaven or raising the dead, and we can know His son Jesus, who is the “image of the invisible God”, true, but Him? He is the one for whom all words are too small. To describe Him as “good” is to downgrade Him to a level to which He should never be downgraded. No matter how grand our concept of good is, it is not big enough to contain God.

As an undergraduate I studied English Literature, and in those three years I studied the thoughts of the academics who spent their whole lives trying to come to conclusions about the origin of words and how to define their meaning. After sixty or so years of doing so, most of them were still struggling. Words are slippery, see, and they mean different things to everyone who reads them. And the God that Scripture describes cannot, and will not, be contained by them. He is the God defined as “the Word”, the God who was before all language, and although Scripture describes the way He relates to all humanity, all attempts at describing Him fall short.

He is the God who is, who is still acting, still working even today.

He is not simply a philosophical concept, not simply a logical equation, not within our ability to adequately express.

Our architecture cannot contain Him and our words cannot decipher Him. He will not be reduced. He cannot be communicated in abstract, but must be communicated through contact. We know He is good, because we have seen His goodness, and it is greater than all we have ever known of the good. We know His vastness because His heavens make a mocker of even the most beautiful of our constructions. We know His faithfulness because He has never, ever left us, and because in Him all things hold together…

We worship a God before whom all words fail – one we cannot adequately speak of, but about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.

The first time I realised that I did not know all that there was to know about God, I cried, because I had always believed that I knew Him well enough, and now there was more to learn. I had tried so hard to understand Him, had dedicated myself to His word and to knowing Him better, and ultimately I did not know Him at all. There was no perfect logical presentation of the facts that I could learn and that would bring everyone I knew to know Christ and simultaneously make me a legend within the Christian world. Instead, I would have to rely on God to do this.

Some people find this moment liberating. I found it a fight. I was good at being in control, and I had learned how to do it well. Now I was being told to let it go.

*

Before I tell you the story of how I met God in South Africa, you should know that I went there with good intentions. It was after school and I had decided to take some time out and spend some more time focussing on God. Something in me knew that things were not right, and I think I reasoned that I needed to get them sorted out before I went off to University, otherwise I would end up doing something stupid when I got there. And somebody had suggested that mission was a good way to do this. (I’m not saying they were right, but it was what they said.)

So I applied for a gap year scheme with a large and well-known Christian organisation and got accepted to it, and then I spent three months working in a Starbucks to raise money to go there, and then one January morning I jumped on a train with a huge backpack and headed down to South Africa to fly to South Africa. God was at work.

It seemed ideal. This was a step of faith, after all. I was flying a long, long way away from home, to do things that I wasn’t sure if I was qualified for, with people I’d never met. Maybe I thought that God had to come through because so much prayer had gone into this, and after all it was a Christian gap year, and that was where He was. He was in church, and there on camps, and those were the times I’d really resolved to follow Him, so if I resolved to give six months to Him then He would be able to do a huge amount, I figured.

In the airport I sat beneath the glare of fluorescent lights and read David Crowder on Psalm 84, one of those beautiful and resonant passages that seems to speak directly to you at just the moment you need it to. He was writing about how “living praise often leads us close to the ground. To dirt. It often leads us to industry that is unglamorous and unromantic… 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.” He was going to be in South Africa, I thought. I had not found Him before. But I would find Him in the dirt and the grime and the darkness, because that was where He had called me, that was where He was.

Beneath the harsh lighting of the airport, though, all I felt was cold. And somewhere in me there was a stirring, a question that if He was there, in the darkest places, then maybe He was here too, a God who came to earth to live beneath the impersonal and artificial glare of strip lights. Perhaps this was what Jesus had felt like, all those years ago, when he left home for an unfamiliar place with all its counterfeit ways of bringing light.

And if God was, could be, here in this moment, then that surely meant that all of this was alive with the possibility of redemption. Didn’t it?

That you didn’t, in fact, need to go halfway around the world to be transformed?

The ironic thing is that I spent six hours in the airport that day and for three of those, I sat next to a girl who was headed to the same place as me, on the same scheme – and I didn’t say a word to her. I figured that I needed to focus on God, and anyway, I didn’t dare risk that I might be wrong and that we might have a conversation about the God stuff that might have ended up in me not knowing the answer.

In the end, it was like the pull away was just too strong. In a different country you could be a different person and maybe they wouldn’t notice that all you had were a bunch of right answers that didn’t really seem to work for you over here. Sure, God was everywhere, but this was an airport, and He was the God of the universe. If nothing else, He was going to be found in church.

*

Only when I arrived, it turned out that, of all places, I was living not amongst the grime of the townships but in the Western comfort of Cape Town. For six months I lived with an old lady in a house on the side of a hill that looked out over the most beautiful beach that I have ever seen. In the evenings she would feed me roast dinners and put butternut squash with every meal, and then after that I would watch Prison Break on her Sky TV subscription.

This was amazing, but it was certainly not the way it was supposed to be. There was supposed to be dirt, and grime, and darkness.

So I did what I had done before. I became a new man. I would run on the beach in the mornings and I started doing press-ups until my arms ached; I ran leadership camps and learned how to rock climb; I grew a beard. If my circumstances were not going to change, I figured that what God must want to do was change me instead.

In my suburb in Cape Town there was this church that I started attending, and it was full of people who were really hungry for God. I came in as this missionary from the outside, with all this energy and these ideas of how to become a new man, and for a while things got pretty crazy. There were about six of us who got really into the God-stuff that year, mostly guys who were still at school, and we would pray and fast and stay up late at the beach and try to work out how to do faith in practice. We were truly earnest. One night we even tried to stop a bunch of Satanists from sacrificing a goat in the sea at midnight, only to find out that they were in fact a group of drunken farmers messing around. But all that said it really felt like something was happening, like this was stepping into the destiny that God had for us – not to mention the realisation that all of this stuff actually seemed to work after all.

Our group started calling ourselves the “fellowship of the unashamed”, after Paul’s comment in Romans where he says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. A pretty cool name, we thought. And for a while the church were concerned that we’d started a cult as we were praying too much and so we got called in to have a meeting with the youth leaders, which also felt pretty good. It felt like we were being persecuted, which was what was supposed to happen, after all.

I genuinely believed that revival was going to break out in Cape Town, and it would all be down to me.

But then the same thing happened that always happened; I ran out of ideas and answers and energy. All that initial passion seemed to add up to nothing, and after about three or four months I was totally spent. When people would ask me about it, I would give them some excuse about being ‘busy with work’ and then slink off home early. I started spending less and less time with the fellowship of the unashamed, because I felt like sooner or later they would see through the fact that, for all my talk, God wasn’t all I’d made Him out to be. And I was gutted, understandably. I’d thought it worked too, and it turned out I was wrong. What was I supposed to do now?

One night the mother of one of the girls in that group and her husband challenged me. I reckon she’d seen through me since the day she first met me, actually, but she was nice enough to leave it awhile before saying anything. I think the rest of them had gone out to walk the dog, this huge half-husky, half-Alsatian called Mieke who used to bark at the moon, but we got talking and she asked me what it was I was so scared of. It was an odd question, and it kind of came out of nowhere, and for some reason I told her the truth.

I told her that I was scared that everyone would leave and I would be alone again. Everyone always left, and I had thought that Christians were supposed to be different but they weren’t, they were just human like everyone else. And I told her that I always felt like I was failing some sort of unspoken test that everyone else seemed to get right.

And then I dissolved into tears and they hugged me, and just kind of held me there, not recoiling like people usually do from Christian hugs, just letting it go on, and they told me, gently but firmly, “you really need to get to know God”. The whole thing felt like being held by the arms of someone bigger, some heavenly Father who I now remembered had promised that He would never leave us or forsake us.

Maybe you know what I mean or maybe you think I am the sort of shallow, emotion-led fool who had no place in your Christian faith. But the Bible tells me that God created love and is marked out by love, and that when we love truly and selflessly, something of God is expressed. So I can only answer you by telling you the vividness of what I felt, of how in that moment something of the truth of all I knew seeped into my being like spilt ink on paper and stained me so deeply that from then on, I could not have walked away if I tried.

I was quiet for the rest of the evening. Deep down, beneath the layers of masks, there is someone different, and that night it felt okay to be real, because God would not turn away from that. The fellowship came back from walking the dog and maybe they knew that something had happened, because they did not ask about it there and then. But before I left, my friend Ash turned to me and asked, “are you okay?”

And I answered her honestly. “Yeah. I think I am.”

I walked back that night through the dark streets and climbed the stairs up the hill to my house. The house was dark and quiet, because my old lady had gone to bed, but she was used to me being back late by now. I was exhausted, but also wide awake all at once. I switched the light on in my room and it seemed to expose all the fraud that I had put together in such well-meaning fashion. It seemed to show up all the prayers on my prayer wall (which I rarely prayed anymore) and all the worship CDs piled by my bed and the four different translations of the Bible and the Christian paperbacks next to them as not enough. They had led me to so many insights and revelations, but maybe they were like those hurricanes and earthquakes and fires that Elijah saw, when God was speaking in a still, small voice instead.

Actually, somebody told me differently lately. Apparently where my Bible says “still, small voice”, the Hebrew says ruach, meaning “breath” or “spirit”. God may not have been speaking in the lifeless things, but that night He was speaking in the spirit that brings life, that brings revelation – in a small, quiet voice, almost inaudible, and barely decipherable. He was, indeed, the God who reached beyond reason, but not in the way that I had ever thought that He would.

I fell asleep, and that night, my dreams were haunted by a still, small voice.

The next day was my day off, and I didn’t much fancy spending it with people. The suburb I lived in was surrounded by hills, where you could hike and look out over the beach and the coast stretching round up to Cape Town proper, and I took off in the morning to climb to the top of one. It was the end of April, nearing the end of the hot season, and the sun was undercut by a cool breeze, that refreshed you when you were walking and chilled you if you stood still for too long. I walked for maybe an hour, an hour and a half, without my ipod in my ears, i think, hearing the silence as though for the first time, listening to the noise of the streets recede as I climbed higher and higher.

When I reached the top, I was tired, but the best kind of tiredness, the kind you get when you know you’ve achieved something. There were clouds in the distance, stretching out over the coastline, and it looked like it might rain on my way back down. I sat on the edge of a cliff and threw some rocks down over the edge, one by one, trying to delay the conversation that I knew I had to have. And then I opened my mouth and I started to speak. Not big words or impressive prayers like you might pray to a God far off who needs to be impressed, but stumbling, faltering, inarticulate prayer, addressed to the ground. Like talking to someone, an old friend maybe, who already knows it all already, but never heard you tell it to them until now.

“God, i’m sorry. I’ve really made a mess of all this stuff. I thought i knew it all, and it turns out that i didn’t have a clue after all. And i think i need help. I want to know you, or at least i think i do, but i don’t know how that happens. I’m pretty sure that it has to start with You, though, so i guess i want You to do whatever You need to do. Before all this i don’t think i ever really thought You were there or that You cared. Maybe i thought You were some kind of philosophy that made sense of the world. But if that’s true, then it’s not working for me. God, if You are actually God, i need to know you, not more of me.

So. What do i do from here?”

There was no answer then, just the wind blowing over the hilltop. The clouds were overhead and I realised that I had not brought enough clothes up with me as I began to shiver. My legs were starting to ache from the climb, and the path back down was starting to seem infinitely less appealing. “Well, amen, i guess,” I muttered, and set off back down the hill, inwardly wondering if anything had changed at all. As I did, it started to rain, huge, fat drops of rain falling heavily on my bare arms until I was soaked and freezing by the time I stumbled back through my front door.

As it later turned out, that was one of the most dangerous prayers I could ever have prayed.