Archive for July, 2010

// the past year

One of the sections that I love most in Donald Miller’s latest book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which I’ve just finished reading for the second time, is where Don talks about the way in which people are bonded together by their experiences. In one chapter talks about resolving to cycle across the country with a bunch of other men, a group where he felt kind of out of place, and then he writes of how on the first day “we climbed more than ten thousand feet into the mountains, and we were in such pain it no longer mattered how old we were or what we thought was cool or whether we knew who was in what band.”

He writes,

I think it was about the third week on the bike trip when we began to bond. You’d think it would have been sooner, but you don’t have a lot of time to talk about life when you’re trying not to get hit by a car or when you’re chewing on a lung because you’re breathing so hard. But it was after Arizona, after we did 112 miles through 108-degree temperatures. It was after the mountains of New Mexico and those hot, wet hills of Texas. It was after we slept under an overpass, and after one of us fell and broke her tailbone. It slowly happened in our subconscious that though we were different, there was nobody else having these experiences with us. It was just us. We’d call and talk to the people back home about it, but all we could do was say some words about how hot it was or how much our legs hurt. But when we said those words to each other, each of us had a mental catalog of similar experiences, and those experiences bonded us together…

It’s on my mind at the moment because today marks the end of the community of fourteen people that I have been living with for the past year as part of my time working with St Aldates church in Oxford, and I have been wondering what I will tell people when they ask about it. I will tell them stories, for sure, about the time when we found maggots in our sofa or the day I had a breakdown on the floor of a bathroom in an Indian hotel, and if I am good at it then, hopefully, I will tell those stories well enough that people will laugh, and also that they might get a glimpse of what it would have been like to have been a part of that group.

The truth is, though, nobody really knows exactly what it was like to have been a part of that group except us. No matter how close somebody is to any one member of the group here, there will always be some degree of distance, and so, whilst it will perhaps be possible to see the way in which we have grown over the past year, we may never really be able to articulate just how much effort it took to get out of bed some mornings, or what it means for us to have survived to the end. That is one of the strangest things about community – when you are a part of it, working in context, with a sense of having undergone shared experiences and with shared histories as a result, it is incredible, but if you were to walk in from the outside it would be impossible to really comprehend the depth of that.

A lot of people have this problem with church, and I understand why. They walk in and they don’t see community, just people who don’t know them and don’t seem to care. And they do care, and they would care, most of them, if they got to know you, but to get to the point where that is even possible you have to immerse yourself in community, saturate yourself in people and their lives, jump in with both feet and let yourself be a part of things. That is not an easy thing to do.

I am convinced that when we do that we will become more compassionate, less critical of our surroundings. It is like that in any community, and the same goes with any church. When you have seen, for example, the struggles that your worship team has battled with and fought through, when you have lived through them with those individuals over a period of time, then you will see less of their failings in the present and more of how they have grown instead. When you have witnessed the difficulties in managing a church and a family on top of writing sermons for three or four events a week, you will become less brutal in your judgements of how the Sunday sermon measures up. It will change your perspective, guaranteed. Unless, of course, you are sufficiently stubborn to close your mind to any prospect of change at all.

That has been one of the great joys of the past year; you look at these individuals who you have shared a house with and suddenly you realise that you can’t do so without seeing the way they have fought and overcome the stuff that has faced them. The times you have shared together stick you like glue, and arguably more so with the bad times than the good. Somebody asked me recently what my best memories of the past year were, and it was hard to tell them, not because there weren’t any, but because the moments that really shape you tend to come out of conflict, difficulty, challenge – or at least from the resolution of that conflict. We are not the same as we used to be. The process has changed us. And maybe, meeting each of us now, you might see our flaws, and they are certainly still there, to be sure. But if you had been through what we have been through, and if you had seen who we used to be, then maybe your view would be different.

Perhaps if I had been picking housemates for the year that’s gone, I might have chosen people who understood my sense of humour a little better, people who were more prepared to compromise on things on my behalf, but for precisely that reason I’m grateful that I wasn’t the one making that choice.

We will all head on to other communities in the next year – some of us in the next few days – and one of the most worthwhile lessons I will take away from living with thirteen others is how great is that need to let yourself dive into the middle of a group of people, to spend time with them, risk your energy and money and emotions and the million other things that go into relationships on people who may not understand or reciprocate, and then go with them anyway.

This is a large part of the life that we were called to, I reckon, and if we dare to jump in and take that chance on people, I don’t think that we will be disappointed with what we find in the end. Just don’t expect it to be an easy ride.

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// thoughts from an average Christian (community)

Okay, so this is the fourth extract of what is provisionally entitled “Thoughts from an Average Christian”, which is (also provisionally) entitled “community”.

It’s not yet been properly proof-read for typos and after staring at a computer screen for a while, i’m no longer able to tell if it makes coherent or compelling narrative sense, which is where you come in. Please, if you can, post feedback, on the usual issues – tone, pacing, anything that stands out, any obvious heresies etc.

Thanks for everyone who’s been reading. When I’m finished this year I’m likely to take up writing smaller pieces again as well as these larger, epic chapters, so business as usual may be resumed for a bit, but we’ll see. At the moment life is busy, and so i’m sticking with a chapter every time I can post one…

* * *

// 4. community

If you look at the Christian faith sometimes, it can look a little bit like a self-help manual. There are all those books that talk about the transformed self, about the visualisation of your dreams, written by men and women with perfect smiles and tailored suits. And many of these men and women have seen God work in amazing ways in their own lives, providing for them and blessing them in totally unexpected ways – but then their experience has become an industry, with a sense that if you follow God then you too will have a perfect smile, a tailored suit and a dream house or job or family.

I have never really bought into what they are selling, and maybe I am missing out as a result. But I struggle with a view of life, and of God, that is that self-centred. In my experience, when I get the things that I want, more often than not I am disappointed – not because they are not good, but because they are not enough. Usually, getting those things makes me feel lonely, more than anything else, desperate to share them with somebody.

Around the church I attend, people like to tell stories about David Ruis, the speaker and musician. He wrote that song “He is the Lord” back in the nineties, along with a bunch of others, which made him a lot of money, all of which he gave away. Then people gave him a lot more money, and he gave that away too. One of the stories I most like hearing about David is about the new building project that his church raised about a million dollars for. The morning that they were supposed to open it, God spoke to him. He got up in front of the platform in front of the building and addressed the congregation. “You know this building that we’ve been raising money to build?” he shouted. “Yeah!” they replied. “Well, we’re going to give it away!” His congregation cheered. A few months later, somebody gave him a shopping mall to host his church in. He gave that away too.

God gave to them to give to others, and when I hear stories of people like David they strike me as people who I would like to meet, and not just because they might give me free stuff. They are people whose faith is building a better world, reversing some of the loneliness and self-centredness that started when Adam and Eve blew it in that garden, and that seems to me to be a very beautiful thing, the kind of thing that God looks on and smiles.

Often I struggle to hear the voice of God when it comes to direction for the future, or at least to work out if it is Him who is speaking. I sit in my room trying to listen and thoughts swirl around my head, some of them relevant, some of them distracting, and it is easy to get drawn off on wild tangents. It could just be that I am not listening hard enough, or effectively enough, because God has spoken in dramatic and specific ways in these times, showing me what do to next and where I should go in great detail, although perhaps not as often as I would like. Perhaps that is what it means to be in His will, contributing to that work of reconciliation and redemption that God is doing and seeing things with His eyes – maybe when it is in that place He will speak to us.

For a long time, many of my prayers have been selfish. I will make no secret of that. All the same, though, I am still confused about how God speaks much of the time, which could well be the best place for me to be. That will keep me chasing after Him, anyway. I remember talking to Ash about this a few weeks after I left South Africa. It was a couple of weeks after I’d been baptised, so I was still on kind of a high with the whole “glorious and inexpressible” joy thing, but that didn’t stop me puzzling over why God didn’t seem to speak more. And then one Friday night we were hanging out as a fellowship – it didn’t seem like an especially significant evening, and I guess we’d probably been watching a film, and sitting around hanging out pretty aimlessly. But as the evening had dragged on and it got late, Ash had joined me at the kitchen table.

“So… you’re not okay, are you?” she said, looking at me intensely. I haven’t been good at meeting people’s eyes for much of my life, so I got kind of shy and looked down at the table.

“I’m fine. Long week, that’s all.” Standard excuse.

“You sure?” Cocking an eyebrow. “Because you don’t really look fine.”

I scratched a groove in the table with my fingernail. “I’m fine. You know. God’s been a little quiet lately. But it’ll pass.”

I think I expected her to give me some advice. Lots of people had done that to me before. Maybe I had expected her to pray for me, that things might get better. Or to give me a prophetic word. That would have been cool. But she didn’t. She just punched my arm gently and told me, “that sucks. I know the feeling.”

(There is something comforting in the words “me too”.)

I looked up from the table into Ash’s eyes. “You reckon that’s okay? To live a life where it feel like God has gone… quiet, I mean?”

She sighed softly and kind of half-smiled. “Do you really want to hear what God has to say?”

Sweet, I thought. She was going to prophesy after all.

“Why?” I asked her. “Do you know what it is?”

She gave me a sidelong look. “Tom, I’m not going to give you a prophetic word. That’s not what I’m talking about.” (She knew me well, did Ash. So did her mum. One night I asked her if she could prophesy who I was going to marry. She said no. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that.) “I mean it. Do you really want to hear what God is going to say?”

Was this a trick question? I knew the answer was supposed to be ‘yes’. “Yeah,” I said. “I do. Really.”

She nodded. “Me too. But it’s not easy, is it? And sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you mishear things, or you’re not sure if it’s God at all. So you just have to keep listening. Keep asking. You’ll learn.” She paused. “It’s not like He’s gone quiet, you know,” she said, slightly sadly. “It’s just that… other stuff gets in the way.”

I stared off into space. I wasn’t used to this kind of uncertainty. Wasn’t this heretical? And weren’t we supposed to have rock-solid faith? Maybe I should ask.

“Ash, are you a heretic?”

“What?”

“Forget it.”

“No, I am not a heretic.” She shook her head in exasperation. “Why do you ask?”

I looked down at the table. “You believe in the Bible, right?”

Even without looking at her I could tell that she was torn between anger and bemusement. “Yes, I believe in the Bible.”

“So, I thought it was simple. Like, we got it wrong, Jesus came, forgave us, and if we believe in him, we get to go to heaven when we die. And anything else is overcomplicating it.”

She stared at me, thinking hard. “Well, it is,” she said eventually. “But it’s also a record of how people heard from God throughout history. And that isn’t simple. And God isn’t simple, either. And He – if He is real, and I believe He is – He is not going to become simply any time soon, so it’s best to stop expecting that.” She paused. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Not really.”

“If you really want to hear what God is saying then you need to listen to what He is saying. In His word, and through His people, and through His world, and in your times with Him. You listen to God, right?”

Shifty eyes. “Uh, yeah. Sure I listen to God.”

There was a long pause.

She looked quizzically at me. “So, did that help at all?”

I wasn’t sure yet, but the moment was kind of awkward, and I knew I had to say something. So I got up from the table and hugged her where she sat. “Yeah,” I told her, “thanks.” I made to leave.

She turned around. “Tom?”

“Yeah?”

“Another thing.”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Please don’t call me a heretic. It’s not very polite.”

“Will do. Sorry.”

*

Ash was a wise woman, and I knew she was right. And I tried, believe me. I really did. But the summer I got back from South Africa I nearly punched a 40-year old man in the face, and that tends to raise some questions about what direction your faith is taking you in. I didn’t remember Jesus doing it, anyway, although maybe some of the prophets had.

Before I had gone away to South Africa, I had led a few times on some Christian holidays, where we would go away to these old English boarding schools for a week and talk about God-stuff. Growing up, they were amazing experiences, really, where I first heard about God and saw people following Him for real – and so leading there seemed like a great chance to get stuck into a different community once again. The morning I had left South Africa I had sat in the airport with the fellowship, all of drinking milkshakes and staring out of the window in silence pretending to watch the planes take off. Nobody had known what to say, really, and it had been emotional, leaving that group behind not knowing where we would meet again. I had been pretty lonely without them, so I jumped at the chance to hang out with some old friends again.

It took me about an hour to realise that I was in trouble, though. We arrived in a minibus and a couple of my friends ripped it out of me around the dinner tables about the same old stuff that they always used to, and I decided I’d had enough. I had been on mission, I knew who I was and what I was capable of, and if they didn’t like that, I wasn’t going to stand for it. I think I even told them something similar to their faces. That didn’t help much, either. Then I withdrew and kind of hid for the next week, confident that I knew best, even if nobody was listening to me when I spoke, and only slightly bitter about that fact.

So many people treat faith like it is an individual, isolated thing, anyway, and so I figured that I could just let them be wrong and get on with living faith my way (that was, the right way) and everything would be okay. Only my faith was kind of skewed, as it turned out. It didn’t listen to others, and it certainly wasn’t exactly forgiving, or humble, or especially loving. It alienated people, even though it consciously tried to do the direct opposite. I was confused. Clearly if people just saw things my way, everything would be alright. Wouldn’t it?

Worst of it was this one guy, who had been leading 10-14s work for longer than I had been alive and who just kept telling me what to do. Nothing was too big or too small; whether it was how to set up the plates for dinner, what was the best way to run a game, how one could most effectively make a vat of hot chocolate, he was always on hand to point out how I could do it better. He was only being helpful, but I hated him for it. Every time he would give me advice it would feel like he was telling me that I was not good enough, that I was failing some unspoken test again, and that I needed to be better still. Eventually, I lost it. We were assembling a gazebo and he insisted on singling me out to give me his view on how it should be done, like I was some kind of terminal idiot, and I found myself biting my lip and shaking, I mean literally shaking, with rage. I didn’t say anything – he was a big guy, and older than me – but I walked out of the room without looking back and ran twice round the sports field in the pouring rain instead. By the end of it, my hands were still shaking. I couldn’t even bear to look at the guy. I knew I was supposed to love him, but I couldn’t.

My friends didn’t say anything, but I could tell that they were looking at me and thinking that I was the same old guy inside. In retrospect, I wish they had said something. If I’d had the sense to see my time in that community as evidence that I needed help, that I was incapable of loving on my own and I was simply driving people away, then I might have done something about it. But they didn’t, probably unsurprisingly, and so instead I held onto my position of superiority, asserting that I knew best, trying to convert the world to the kingdom of me.

A totally internal, isolated faith is a weird and disorientating thing. You start to lose all context, especially when you don’t have anybody to bounce your ideas off or to call you up when you are being an idiot. After a while you wonder if you’re a crazy person, listening to the voices in your head, or if everyone else is crazy instead. It is a little like trying to navigate without a compass. Maybe you can work out some of the contours and try to get the lay of the land, but without direction you end up wandering pretty blindly, just pretending that you know where you’re going.

Some people can do it, but not many. It is not what we were made for, and the people who do end up walking alone, it is rarely a choice that they make voluntarily. Of course, though, it is very easy to say that in retrospect.

*

There are not that many Christian communities that look cool from the outside, and when I arrived at Oxford, the Christian Union was certainly not one of them. The first few meetings felt like hard work, and considering that the first few weeks of an Oxford degree are also pretty hard work, it wasn’t long before it was jettisoned from my schedule. I felt like I knew it all already (I had been on mission, don’t you know), and like nobody was listening to me, really, and that they were just waiting to ask me to do stuff for them, and I already had enough to do. Every time I walked into the dimly-lit room on a Wednesday night, I felt a pang of disappointment, like I knew better and it was tragic that they just couldn’t see things my way.

I was cynical and stupid back then, I know that now, but I do understand how people feel when they get invited to come to CU meetings by their friends, and I also understand why they don’t often come back. There are all these in-jokes in place already, and people stand in the corners looking at you suspiciously, and if people walk in everyone stares in expectation, or maybe shock, because they don’t believe anyone would want to be here, which is very disorientating when you’re the guest. Of course it’s awkward, like most social situations are awkward the first time you’re in them.

Pretty quickly I decided I was too cool for the Christian Union, and left.

I was definitely not too cool, though, as it turned out, evidenced by the fact that I spend much of the next two terms either failing to get into the friendship groups I wanted to or rejecting the people who did want to spend time with me. And, ironically, the Christians around college did teach me a lot over the next few years, about grace, even in the face of my arrogance, patience in the midst of my intellectual belligerence, and faith, albeit of the quieter, undemonstrative kind. Gradually it came to dawn on me that something might be wrong with the way I was doing things. After all, if your faith has left you, for example, sitting alone in a college room surrounded by a stack of Middle English texts, then you have to ask some questions about whether this is the way that things are supposed to be.

Faith wasn’t designed to be done alone, and don’t misunderstand me when I say that. Christianity is absolutely a personal faith, and the decision to follow Christ is one that you must make alone – nobody can make that decision for you. But the men and women who made up the early church believed in what Christ had done and then they joined others who had also seen, believed, and then acted. People who would support them, encourage them, retell the old stories around a fire when they were weary or wondered what they’d gotten themselves into.

Simon Peter was an idiot on his own, after all, but when he was around Jesus and the disciples he became bold, even if sometimes he was kind of impetuous. And sure, he may have denied Jesus, but that was when he was separated from the others, lost in the instinct for self-preservation, and he found his calling when he led the early church, seeing God work in the most astonishing ways through him and his friends.

The men and women who made up the early church found their calling when they stepped into the move of what God was doing during Jesus’ time on earth and in the aftermath of his resurrection. In doing so they found a community that echoed the desires deep within them, desires to know God deeply, truly, rather than just in some abstract theological system. They found people living in the light of what they had seen and heard in their time with Jesus, and transforming their world as they went out with that knowledge. That is the story that God has been telling throughout history, and that is the community that we have joined in following Christ.

These men are our brothers.

This is the faith we have committed ourselves to.

That is the Saviour we follow.

People need community to stop them from hiding, because otherwise we will instinctively retreat into something. That’s what we do. You need people who will challenge you and dialogue with you, even if that dialogue only serves to reassure you of why you believe what you believe in the first place. In short, you need to be engaging with the world rather than withdrawing from it, or something has gone wrong.

In South Africa it had felt like community was easy. It had seemed like all you had to do was learn to be yourself, who God made you to be, and then you could transform any community. After all, surely community is any group of people. You can choose to love, choose to persevere, and it will be beautiful, and it will reflect God. As a fellowship we had eaten together, prayed together, shared our experiences and tried, somehow, to understand what goes on inside someone else’s head.

These do not look like hard things to do, at least on the surface. But make no mistake, if you do take that risk, it may cost you everything.

We are either going one of two ways – towards greater authenticity and connection with one another, true friendship, or towards greater withdrawal from each other, more layers of masks, more posturing and competition with each other. When we dare to risk ourselves and show something of who we truly are to one another, we make a dangerous choice.

I understand now why Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of following him. Because, even if it seemed simple at the start, they would quickly come to realise that the apparently simple things always end up being the most costly in the end.

*

In the end, I wound up living in community by accident. A bunch of people who I kind of vaguely knew asked me to live with them, and I told them I would, even though it meant living next to the one guy who I had met in University who I wanted to be the furthest away from. I thought I was taking a chance on them, but they were taking a much bigger chance on me – and, disconcertingly, they were stronger than I was.

Vince told me once, in the voice of Tony Soprano, that God puts us in particular communities for particular times. He has a purpose, and He knows what He’s doing when He puts us in certain places, even if it doesn’t necessarily always look like it at the time. He said that sometimes you go to a particular community because they need you, need your insight or the way they challenge you, and sometimes you need them, need their encouragement or support or perspective, and most of the time it is both. God works out all things for good, he said, quoting Paul, but He also cares enough to make stuff happen specifically for His glory.

At the start of the year, I hid. I worked long hours in the library and I came home in the evenings and watched TV on my laptop on my own. It wasn’t a great routine, but it got me through. I got up at a regular time and my essays came back with good marks and most of the time I didn’t even need to think about the fact that my life looked nothing like I had expected it to. One day I woke up and realised that I no longer had any possibility for spontaneity in my life, and it briefly terrified me, before I went back to the library and buried myself beneath a stack of books.

But there was a problem. My housemates. The problem with them was that they just wouldn’t go away. Pete, in particular, a lanky Philosophy, Politics and Economics scholar with an obsession with a submarine simulator (which he played for hours every day) and a deep love of classic Westerns, simply refused to leave me alone. He would show up in my room while I was in the middle of an essay, eat my biscuits and then hassle me incessantly until I went downstairs and watched, say, Terminator 2. I got pretty anxious about it after a while, because he was messing up my routine, and I was kind of rude to him for a while. It didn’t stop him, though. He just kept showing up and waiting until I caved in.

Eventually I did, and rediscovering spontaneity learning to breathe again. I had forgotten I was a human being, started living like a machine (like I say, Terminator 2 has a lot to teach you about the Christian faith) and doing the bare minimum that I needed to do in order to survive. It is a sinful life, arguably. A life without room for faith, living for the empire of yourself. God risked Himself on us so that we might risk ourselves on others. He sent His son to die, to be rejected, to bring some of us to know Him, in the knowledge that so many would choose not to. And God risked entrusting us with playing a part in reconciling this world to Him, even though He could have done it more efficiently and simply on His own.

We were designed for community, but pretty early in the story of humanity we messed that one up too. And although God is in the process of making us new, the truth is that the way we relate to our community reflects on us. Jesus said that all men would know that his disciples belonged to him if they loved one another, and that’s because the kind of love he was talking about gives us a glimpse of how God loves us, what life with Jesus looked like in the times when he wasn’t nailed to a cross, naked and bleeding and straining for life. That kind of love is so empowering because it both shows you what love looks like – challenging and tenacious and transformative – and teaches you that you too are capable of loving in that same way, even if you never believed it before.

Humanity was created for that kind of relationship in the beginning, and, fallen though we may be, we are called to it even now.

*

The first time I met up with my good friend Luke in a coffee shop to talk about God, I hated it. It was one of the most awkward days of my whole life. I vaguely knew Luke from church and through some mutual friends, and one day he suggested that we meet up to be accountable and I said yes instinctively, because I knew it would be a good thing to do. But Luke is an introvert, like me, and he studied theology, and both of these things made an already awkward situation agonising. I would make comments about God and he would offer his opinion or sometimes correct me and we would stare awkwardly at our coffee, talking round in circles in an attempt to talk about the stuff that we really needed to talk about. There were long gaps between our meetings, because they were pretty painful experiences, and also because both of us were busy, or made ourselves busy so we wouldn’t have to meet up. I wanted out of it fairly early on.

After a few months, in which we met up maybe four times, Luke asked me if I would mind if another guy joined us, a guy called Jeremy who I also vaguely knew. When he showed up, he irritated me no end too. He was endlessly enthusiastic, passionate and rambling in his stories, full of faith and desperate to know more of God in a tangible, emotional way. He was prone to falling on his face and weeping (I am not, generally). I was pretty rude to both of them, and spent the first few weeks that we met up avoiding their advice. One night I even sat Jeremy down and told him that I didn’t understand his theology and I didn’t think we were going to get along and maybe we should just give up. He refused, though, and I couldn’t leave the group because I thought I’d look bad, like my issues had got too bad or I didn’t want to deal with them, so I realised that maybe I was stuck with the two of them. Even rudeness wouldn’t make them go away. Maybe honesty wouldn’t, either.

So for the first time in years, I dared to talk honestly about the chaos inside my head with people who would not turn away. And as I did, suddenly it became apparent that I hadn’t talked honestly with another person, about anything, in a long, long time. There was almost nobody on earth who knew me truly, not even my parents, and that made me very sad indeed.

I realised that my entire life was just the story of me, and even in the times when I acted like I was drawing near to people I had just been taking calculated steps and always maintaining control. And it was a really, really boring story. I knew how I wanted people to see me, and so I tried to shape their attitudes in that way by the way I acted. But none of it meant anything. I had convinced myself that it was living for the glory of God, presenting Christianity well, but it wasn’t, it was just making myself look good.

It turns out that you can’t tell a good story – much less live a good one – unless you’re willing to risk yourself on people. When I was around Luke and Jeremy, I realised that you have to risk that people will not see things your way, risk rejection or conflict, in order to live a life of any meaning at all. You have to show people that you do not have it all together, that you are not as polished as you would like the world to think.

Otherwise you are still hiding, albeit in a very good disguise, and – well, you know where that started.

Community feels very easy when you know people will love you back, but most of us feel the need to test love, to see if it stands up, and if you do that then you are always just looking for a fault line, a point at which is breaks. You will always find one, too, because love, at least between human beings, is not perfect. I was scared I would get hurt, and so I looked all over for one in my times with Luke and Jeremy, and I found one too, of course I did. Those guys weren’t always loving or supportive when it came to my needs, and sometimes they were sharp or blunt in their comments, and maybe I could have walked away from the whole thing, if they hadn’t refused to give up on what we had.

And so instead gradually, over a year or so, what developed was something authentic, that wasn’t moving the world in the same direction it had been moving for all those years since we left Eden but was actually going against that tide, in the strength and tenacity of a love that could only come from God alone. I mean, on the surface we were just three guys trying to live faith out the way it was supposed to be done, but I reckon He looked down on what was happening there and smiled, too.

Predictably, things with my housemates took a long time to overcome their initial awkwardness, too. That bothered me at the start of living with them, but recently I’m coming to expect awkwardness the more I go on, or at least to fear it less than I used to. I have just finished living in community with thirteen other people, and it has been agonisingly hard. Most of the time I have wanted to run away because these people did not seem to understand me, or care about me, or listen to me. Once again, I nearly punched a well-meaning friend of mine in the face. On a number of occasions. But listen, running away is not the answer. You have to embrace the awkward. I figure that honesty is awkward because we are not used to it, and so, somehow, we have to learn how – how to draw close to other people, and how to deal with them when all they want to do is hide. Relationships of a real kind take work, after all, and the friendships that end up mattering most to you tend to be the ones where people have persevered over time, stuck it out through all situations. We were not created to be alone, and that is not life as God intended it. And community is worth fighting for, even if it is a hard fight.

There are these personality tests that you can take that tell you what sort of person you are, how you relate to people and so on, and according to these tests, I am apparently an “idealist”, which means that I have big ideas and am disappointed when they don’t work out. You might think that knowing this could make relating to people easier, but it doesn’t solve that much, in fact. I still find the initial stages of friendships pretty hard, and kind of confusing. Small talk has never been my strong point. There are some elements of my personality that make it instinctively harder for me to relate to others, but saying that sounds like an excuse, a reason why I am allowed to run away.

I – we – are not, should not and must not. And this is a hard thing to hear, because we are fallen, stubborn and confused people, and everything around us tells us that we must be in control of our lives and the way we present ourselves to the world. This will seem like the right thing to do, to hide ourselves, to protect ourselves, and something in us might scream, ‘what if it goes wrong?’ This is the way things are now. Risking ourselves will, most probably, always seem as though it is more than we are capable of.

But God is making all things new, starting, if we will let Him, with our hearts and our view of what He is capable of.

And if we will let Him, then I am convinced of this: the end result will be beautiful.

// apologies

Sorry about the delay on the next chapter. This is proving to be a really, really hard project to put together, and so although I have something, I’m also having doubts about whether or not it’s of a good enough standard to post here yet.

The difficulty with posting first drafts on the internet is that you always feel the pressure to have something in a finished form before you post, and that turns you into a perfectionist, which is a suffocating amount of pressure to have on you. All of which is my way of saying, the next installment on this site may be a little, um, ‘half-baked’, which is all the more reason why i need your feedback on it.

And I thought that writing a book would be easy…

// thoughts from an average Christian (honesty)

Phew. Sorry about the delay on this one, but this has been an incredibly difficult chapter to write, and I’ve been through about eight or nine exhausting redrafts on it over the past month.

I’m still not quite sure that it works, and so feedback is appreciated as usual (thank you for all your comments so far – i’m taking them on board, and they are a great help), but please be gentle – like i say, this was not an easy one to write. Let me know on the usual topics – what works, what doesn’t, what is compelling and what seems self-obsessed, tone, pacing, typos etc…

* * *

// 3. honesty

And after the mountaintop, silence.

*

Have you ever sat across from a close friend to whom you have given an evasive answer and felt their eyes boring into you, even as you try to avoid meeting their gaze? The people who know you really well, well enough that they can tell something is up, they just keep staring. And they always get the answer out of you somehow.

The silence that followed me as I walked down from that hilltop was not the silence of absence, even though it felt like it at the time.

It was a waiting silence. The silence of a God who knew exactly what He was doing.

There is a moment in the life of Jesus where he and his disciples are on a boat, travelling across a lake, when a storm comes up. Jesus is asleep, in the midst of the turbulence, and his disciples are terrified, wondering why he doesn’t do something. And so they wake him up and he calms the storm with a word and then asks them, “why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”

There is a similar moment in the story of creation, where the world is described as being “wild and waste”, in a comparable state of turbulence and chaos, and God speaks to the chaos and brings order. He shapes it into days and creates patterns, ordering that which was previously disordered, and then creates life at the end of that. From chaos, there is stillness. From turbulence, peace.

It is that kind of chaos that God is in the business of resolving.

What the silence that followed me down from that hilltop revealed was my own unease and anxiety, the chaos that reigned within me. Next to that kind of impossible stillness, you cannot help but realise your own limitations. Everything seems to echo back on itself. You start to hear the control and manipulation that lies behind your conversations with your friends, the arrogance and self-centredness that punctuates your Bible studies, the cruelty of the humour with which you put down your colleagues, and suddenly you start to look that much less good.

And the silence followed me wherever I went. It was there when I walked down the hill, and there when I lay on my bed trying to work out what had happened that afternoon. It was there when I showered, there when I opened my Bible. It followed me as I caught the train in the mornings, riding alongside my co-workers, and it followed me as I sat in work, providing admin support to the organisation for which I worked. It followed me in my lunch breaks and in my evenings, too, as it turned out. It was eerie. I was sure that people would be able to tell just by looking at me.

Naturally, I started trying to hide from it. But how do you hide from something that is inside of you, anyway? Where do you start even trying to run?

*

When Adam and Eve sin for the first time in that garden all those years ago, their first thought is to hide themselves. They make clothes, and then they hide from the presence of God among the trees. It’s like the direct opposite of what God created them to do. God creates people for relationship with Him, each other and the world He has created – relationship in all its crazy, mysterious glory. People are made in the image of God, which means that they carry something of the glory and mystery of God within them in their very core, and the world is created to glorify God and to witness to Him, and God – well, He is God, and He’s pretty glorious, as it goes. And so, in and of itself, that process of relating is incredible, something jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring that was offered to us at the very start.

But, naturally, Adam and Eve start trying to hide instead.

God asks Adam where he is, because Adam is hiding (even though God, of course, knows where he is hiding). And Adam tells God that he was afraid, and so he hid. This is where alarm bells have to be ringing for Adam. He even starts trying to scrabble for excuses and blame it on his wife.

The original design for us was honesty with God – ‘being naked, and feeling no shame’. And yet pretty soon into our story as a species, we blow it, and so begins humanity’s ongoing story of trying to hide from God. It’s something that our parents did because they saw their parents doing it, and it’s something that, for the most part, humanity has been doing since that very first time…

We all hide. We hide in shells of who we’re supposed to be or how we’re supposed to act, and we do it at least in part because being totally known by somebody is scary. We put up these coverings and we put on stereotypes because that way it allows us to stand at a distance from ourselves, because if somebody knows who you really are, they can hurt you more deeply than anyone else. They have huge power over you, not least because they can call you up on all the moments when you’re not being who you were made to be.

We have been hiding since Adam and Eve. We do it because we are afraid of being known and manipulated. Because we are scared of the state of our hearts, and the mystery contained within, and the pain that they are capable of experiencing in this broken, fallen world. Something is rotten at our core, and we do not want anyone to see it. The Bible calls this sin. And it shows itself in self-control, the assertion that we can run our lives better than another, and that we do not need anyone else, least of all God.

We were created for honesty, but after a while spent hiding behind a mask it becomes disconcertingly easy to forget that we are even doing it.

I don’t think that, as Adam stood there blustering before God, God was standing there shaking his head angrily. Instead I think He stood there just watching, with tears in His eyes. Watching as the reality of what Adam and Eve had done sank into their heads and they started trying to comprehend the consequences. It had only looked like a piece of fruit.

That first step into honesty on that hilltop was a big step for me, and a dangerous one at that. It acknowledged before God that there was a division between outward and inward, that I was hiding, and once I did that I realised that He was not going to stop until He had the real me again, the way I was created to be. Not the fake me and his achievements, successes and skills, but the person that was there beneath all of that. He was going to get to him, irrespective of how many layers of junk He had to peel back or just how much trauma it cost in the process, because that is how good He is. For as long as we assert that we are okay, He will honour that, because that is what He does, but when we cry out for help, acknowledge that things are not the way they are supposed to be, He will run to us and fight for us, fight to bring us back.

God calls Himself a jealous God. He will not stop until He takes back what is His. And I had promised myself to Him without really knowing what I was letting myself in for. Now He was not going to let me go.

*

A man called Gregory Treverton has made a brilliant definition between the way in which humanity looks at problems as being either puzzles or mysteries. There are some things that can be solved by having the right piece of evidence; if the question is, say, how many missiles does an Iraqi regime have, or where is Osama Bin-Laden, then having more information will likely solve the problem, getting us closer to those answers piece by piece. That’s a puzzle. It has a definite solution, too, an endpoint. Mysteries, by definition, are different. In these cases, more evidence just complicates things, creates more noise. What is needed is the right way of looking at the given evidence, the right analyst, who is able to look at the mass of detail and draw conclusions from it. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it, “puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.”

Even since that day in the garden, humanity has tended to look at sin as a problem to be solved, which it is, but they have often tended to try and solve it by establishing systems that stop people from even getting close to sin, as though not sinning were the end goal. We know that there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, for example, and we know that it’s important that we keep them because God is holy, and so in answer we put more commandments in place to keep us from even getting close to breaking the important commandments. We think that if we do enough of the good stuff then one day something will click into place in our heads and we’ll suddenly become the person we were originally supposed to be, although of course it doesn’t work that way in practice. That’s puzzle-based thinking, and it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because the problem is much more complicated; the problem is in the human heart, and that’s about as complex as they come. And to solve it, we don’t need more information about it, not really – that would just confuse things. What we need is the right way of looking at the information we already have in order to work it out. Jesus breaks those 613 commandments down to just two when he talks about it, to love God with all your heart, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. The issue is not how well you keep those 613 commandments, then, as though that’s what’s going to transform you; the issue is how (and by extension, who and what) you love, which is both much simpler and infinitely more complex at the same time. In short, the issue is one of the heart, and that is much more difficult to sort out than the mechanics.

One writer, a guy called Dallas Willard, has written about what he calls “gospels of sin management”, and about how these so-called gospels are simple, old-fashioned legalism. They suggest that following Jesus is just a case of not doing certain things, like having sex with people that you’re not married to or taking drugs or watching movies rated 18, and if you are not doing these things then you are not sinning, and therefore staying holy, and God is happy with you. It’s for that reason that sin always seemed like kind of an abstract notion to me. It was the thing that kept us from getting into heaven, so we had to not do it so that when we died, we’d get to go to heaven, where we could not sin forever. Or something. And then there was Jesus, who died so that we could have grace, which meant that our sins were forgiven, past present and future, only we still weren’t supposed to sin, because sin wasn’t good.

I had always figured that I was doing pretty well at avoiding the usual suspects – no murder, no theft, and so on – and so it seemed like I was okay. Sure, I had heard that people were instinctively sinful because of what Adam and Eve did in the garden, that all of humanity and creation was fallen from that point. But I couldn’t work out how, and it just sounded like sin was a disease that was communicated through the blood, to which Jesus was the ideal cure – the perfect solution to a logical equation that I seemed to have comparatively little part in.

I got that humanity as a species had done stuff wrong and needed to be put right. I just hadn’t made the connection to the fact that this meant Ineeded to be saved, too.

Jesus once talked about being among a people whose hearts had grown dull, whose ears could barely hear and whose eyes were closed. I had always been taught that this referred to the people outside the church, but I was wrong.

It referred to me.

And the silence had to come to show me that the mechanics would never be enough, that the problem is me, it is all of us, buried so deep beneath our skin that no amount of scrubbing could ever clean it off. It is a sinful heart that is driving so-called Christians and Muslims in Nigeria to kill one another as I write this, to rape one another’s women and chop off each other’s limbs, and it is a sinful heart that is behind comparable atrocities in Rwanda, Zimbabwe and many, many others over the past few decades. It is a sinful heart that drives men to kidnap girls and install them in the growing number of brothels and lap-dancing clubs across Europe, and it is a sinful heart that drives married men from their wives to the arms of prostitutes. It is a sinful heart that is driving up knife crime in the estates across the United Kingdom, a sinful heart that drives us away from our lovers and neighbours and families and friends, and I get that this may sound very blunt and very brow-beating, but it is this simple: the problem is with our hearts, with your heart and mine. And if you believe that you are better than this, that you are more tolerant or respectful or dignified or self-controlled, then maybe you have not yet examined your heart, and maybe you are still hiding.

It is this that tears at us from inside. We are broken people, and no amount of trying to change ourselves is ever going to succeed. At our very core, something has gone wrong, something is out of whack, and the consequences are written large across our world as a result. Systems and institutions are not going to mend it, as the problem is not a problem that can be fixed. The problem is a mystery that we know all too well, for it dwells on the inside of us.

And its solution, of course, lies in God.

*

I spent a lot of time staring at the wall over the next few months, wondering what I was going to do next. The best option seemed to be to just sit it out. When I got back to the UK I was headed to Oxford, to a whole new setting where I could start again. I had blown it here, or at least that was what it felt like, and starting again wasn’t an ideal solution, but it was the best that I could come up with. I sat on my bed in the silence waiting for God to speak and becoming less and less sure that He ever would.

A couple of weeks after the silence first began, they were talking about baptism at my church. One of the coolest things about attending a church that was by the coast and that was attended by a lot of young professionals and musicians was that in the summer they used to baptise people outside in the sea, which is an awesome thing to do. The guy up the front, Sydney, who was the assistant pastor and had a soul patch on his chin (we had bonded over our shared love of facial hair) was talking about baptism as being a kind of death. You go down beneath that water and something of you dies, like you leave the old you in the water, and then you come up a new man, with a new way of life. The way Sydney described it, it was like you were some kind of reanimated corpse. You died in the water and then you stayed dead, and it was only Jesus living in you, empowering you for this life, which kept you walking on at all.

I had been baptised already, baptised andconfirmed in fact, because I went to an Anglican church where they expected you to have been baptised at birth and then you resolved to follow Jesus when you were old enough. I was never baptised at birth, so they baptised me quickly, and I confirmed it about a minute later. It had never sounded like it did when Sydney talked about it back when I got baptised, though. Death had never sounded like it was on the cards. It was all about deciding that you were going to live the way you were supposed to live.

Since the silence had begun, I had become pretty despondent. When you realise that your efforts are no longer enough, what do you do then? You know that something is wrong but you also know that there is nothing that you can do about it, that you can’t fix it on your own, and so you’re stuck, and all of a sudden life starts to feel kind of purposeless. So when Sydney started talking about baptism as a kind of death, my ears pricked up. As he did, a montage of the past four or five years of getting it wrong over and over started to play through my head – all those attempts to look good, all the manipulation and control and rage and bitterness and arrogance and cruelty – and with it a rush of revulsion deep within, like nausea in my gut. It wasn’t guilt so much as a sense of wanting nothing at all to do with that stuff ever again. Wanting out.

But I had been baptised already, and this stuff had been dealt with, I figured, and so all that remained was to try and live differently in the aftermath, to try and change something now. What was done was done, and so I sat in my seat, staring straight ahead, and letting the words wash over me.

And as I did, a voice broke into my reverie. The same still, small voice that had haunted my dreams.

You should do it.

I ignored it and kept staring at the chair in front of me.

You should get baptised.

Clearly my mind was playing tricks on me.

Seriously, you should go and talk to them.

I sighed and let my mind go with it. “But I’ll look like an idiot,” I said inwardly. “Plus, I don’t need to. Plus, isn’t it heretical to get baptised twice?”

Are you embarrassed?

“Not… embarrassed, exactly, just… confused.”

Confused is okay. Now go.

“But…”

Go.

So after the service I went up to Sydney and asked him about getting baptised. He looked shocked.

“Dude, you’ve not been baptised?”

“Uh… well, sort of.” Oh, this was going to be awkward.

“Serious?”

“Yep.”

“Really?”

I no longer had any idea what I was being asked. “Mm-hmm,” I said, non-commitally.

“No!”

“Sydney, I’m… I’m confused. About – well, quite a lot of things. But, uh. Well. I have been baptised. Sort of.”

He looked quizzical. “Sort of.”

“Mm-hmm.” I was staring at my shoes.

“Like, they just put water on your forehead?”

I gritted my teeth. “Well, uh, yeah – but that, at least, is okay. Theologically, I mean. But I mean more like, uh, I didn’t mean it first time round.”

“So you want to get baptised again.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You want to get washed clean of all your sins once and for all… twice.”

I gave a wild, slightly panicked grin. “Yep!” I chuckled nervously. “First time only my head got washed clean, so now let’s do the whole thing, eh?”

Sydney looked unconvinced, clearly thinking to himself that all English people must be idiots, and then he shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, sweet,” he said. “Let’s do it!”

“Sweet.”

We high-fived, and then I walked away, muttering to God about how nothing was ever easy these days.

*

Later that afternoon I told the fellowship, too, over lunch.

“You’ve not been baptised?”

“Well, uh, sort of…”

“Sort of.”

“I’m kind of getting baptised… again.”

Again?”

Oh, this was not going to be a fun day.

*

Things happened pretty fast after that, and they lined up a baptism for a Sunday about a fortnight later. The night I got baptised, it rained. It rained a lot, in fact. A proper Cape Town storm, with sheeting rain and forked lightning, and so rather than get baptised in the sea the church sensibly opted to do it in a hot tub instead. About an hour and a half before it was supposed to go ahead I got a phone call telling me that Ash had been driven to hospital with suspected appendicitis, and part of me thought about backing out of the whole thing at that point. I could chalk this up to being a crazy gap year idea, on a par with getting a tattoo or something, and claim that I had seen the light at the last minute (after all, I had already grown a beard).

This was supposed to be a public declaration of faith, a solemn covenant that this time I was going to go for it, witnessed by my brothers and sisters, right? Without them here, the magnitude of what I was about to do had finally sunk in, and I was scared.

People talk about being ‘born again’, but birth hurts.

But as I thought it, that voice broke the silence and whispered me, you’re going to do it, you know. And before my mind could even form the word “why?” the answer came.

Because it’s not about you. It’s about me.

There were two of us getting baptised that night, me and another girl, and she had about thirty friends with her, where I had about five. When she came up from the water it was to a chorus of cheers. And then it was my turn, and suddenly this all seemed terribly unimpressive, and I looked around at all the guys gathered there and my heart kind of sank. Maybe all of this stuff was just hype after all, and transformation didn’t really happen in this world, there were just lots of people who really, really wanted it to work out and so convinced themselves of the reality of it all…

And then Sydney looked me in the eye and asked me, “are you ready?” I swallowed hard and nodded.

He grinned and lowered me back into the water, and as I went down beneath the surface all that panic and doubt simply… fell off, and stayed there. The sheer wave of joy that swept over me was so irrational and so unexpected that there aren’t really any words for it. Paul talks to the Philippians about their “glorious and inexpressible joy”, and I couldn’t put it any better than that. I had thought that the silence was absence, but the silence was revelation, and behind it all it was now possible to discern the presence of God, standing, watching and waiting, knowing exactly what He was doing. It was learning to hear His voice again, that voice that humanity had been hiding from or blocking out ever since that day in the garden all those years ago. As I stood up in that pool in the pouring rain, feeling for all the world like a man who had just been reborn, shiny and wholly new and real for what seemed like the first time in my life, under my breath I whispered the word, “thanks”.

And, from somewhere, a voice replied, you’re welcome.

*

See, I don’t think that God wants to make us unrecognisable, just new. He bought us back at a price because we are valuable, because we were created for good, way before we picked up those bulky coverings and layers of baggage.

At some point, all of us are going to have to take ownership of our sin. Whether that occurs in this life or when we are called to account in the next, one way or another it is going to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant experience. But sin does not only have consequences for eternity, it has consequences for now, too. People say that God cannot draw near to us because He is holy, and we are sinful, and His holiness cannot tolerate any sin at all. That is true, and it is vital to remember that. It is also true that God cannot draw near to us when we are sinful because we are still hiding parts of ourselves from Him, still refusing to stand openly and honestly before Him in acknowledgement of who we truly are. That is the beginning of honesty, and the beginning of transformation.

God is interested in our hearts, not just the outward appearance. Who we are when the silence falls. And standing in that hot tub in the pouring rain, it really felt like I was finally beginning to figure that out.

The problem, however, was far more complex than it seemed at the time.