Archive for September, 2010

// authenticity

Deep breath. It’s a Starbucks. The familiar buzz of conversation, tatty sofas with people lost in thought or discussion sat on them, walls in comforting shades of deep red and olive green with tiny black and white photos placed artistically. There’s a stack of papers (because there’s always a stack of papers these days) and my phone is blinking steadily to tell me that I have new messages, old friends trying to organise a trip to a mutual friend’s wedding in a few months.

I have a pen in my hand, and nothing to say.

When I started out writing this blog, it seemed like there were stories to tell. But I haven’t really told any story but my own, giving you these fractured glimpses into what it is like to be an average Christian, troubled by doubts and confusion, in the hope that their progression might somehow reveal something of God.

Gradually, over time, the voice of God has become muffled and indistinct, lost among the haze of voices here among the comfortable confines of this coffee shop, when He used to speak with such clarity and power, bringing words of life to this thirsty soul. I have spent less time in His word and out in His world, and more time trying to express the things for which there are no words, and it is increasingly noticeable.

The other day a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of another blogger, who I’d heard about but never read. This individual had written a post about certain issues that have been going on at the church that I attend, and as a result around 500 people had read the post in a day. The comments then had to be moderated, but the author proceeded to post the ones that praised the courage of their post, spoke about its boldness and willingness to stand out from the crowd.

I read it all with a growing sense of unease. It read like it was a lone prophetic voice, crying in the middle of a wilderness. Like there was oppression on all sides, and somebody had to stand up for what was good or there was no hope. It was blunt and brutal, and saw issues in stark shades of black and white. It was a typical blog persona, in short.

Idealistic. Nakedly political.

What made me most uneasy was how much it reminded me of myself.

When I started out, I never came to a coffee shop in order to try and change the world, just to find some corner of it that I could call my own. I don’t know that blogs should be about politics or points-scoring, as that just seems to me to be aggressive, overly combative. But recently I’ve been acting otherwise, living like I am a man with a message, something worth hearing, and it makes me just the same – another voice crying out, “listen to me”.

I am not a prophetic voice crying out in the desert, just a bewildered individual trying to articulate some of the struggles that twentysomething Christians face in the twenty-first century. And for that reason I feel like I owe you an apology. I have not been authentic recently, I have been trying to be something that I am not; a guide, or a politician, or a prophet, and that is not who I am. So much of writing seems to be self-promotion anyway, and now I am unemployed, it felt like I needed to develop a more marketable persona, something that was easier to sell.

But frankly, it’s not working – as life tends not to when I pretend to be something that I’m not.

I want to write for me again, and by extension for God – on this blog, at least. I used to be okay with being unimpressive and honest but for some reason, lately, I am less okay with that. I have become insecure, self-conscious when I write. That is not a good thing, and it is a sign that I am trying to maintain an illusion that I cannot sustain, rather than writing in faith.

I am going to try to stop faking it, in the hope that I will not end up chasing numbers or recognition, and will not simply become somebody shouting loudly about his own merits in the already overcrowded marketplace. If that makes me a less marketable commodity, then so be it. This was never about being marketable anyway.

A couple of days ago, the author Anne Jackson posted a beautiful blog, her reflections on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and the parallels with her writing causing her to ask of her own posts, “will someone read them one day and think of the soul of the girl behind them and be amazed? In tears?”

Van Gogh bared his soul on a canvas even when nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to his work, and he did it for himself. And when you look at his canvases today, there is an honesty and personality in his work that shines through, reflecting something of the truth of who Vincent Van Gogh really was. What Anne Jackson recognised is that it is that honesty that carries through the ages – you can tell that there is authenticity in his work, and that is why it has lasted. That is an admirable quality in a transient age.

Better to write from the soul than to write from cynicism, I think.

Even if it means that in the end nobody knows my name.

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// thoughts from (another) average Christian

The other day, I interviewed a good friend of mine about what it means for him to be an authentic individual. Because he may one day work in a missionary context, he didn’t want his name disclosed, and so for the purposes of this interview he is referred to only as “H”.

He is an Oxford student who is now in work, and we talked for an hour or so about the realities of living out a life of faith in the day to day. It was a thought-provoking interview, and for the next couple of days I’ll be posting excerpts from it. Let me know what you think, and whether or not you agree with his conclusions.

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Tom: H, what does it mean for you to follow Jesus?

H: For me, following Jesus is about a continual process of getting to know Him better. Learning how He does things, say, how I can hear Him speaking to me, and how He responded to situations. You know, the Bible says that the same Spirit that flowed through Him flows through us too, and I want that, to see how it is worked out in specific ways. I want His perspective on things in the end – His priorities.

Tom: Are there any specific moments that you can point to that led you to that realisation?

H: I remember being on a Christian Union weekend away with my school back when I was in year 10, and I sat in the corner pretending to worship and making obscene gestures at the worship leader for the whole time. And it was there, for some reason, that God chose to make Himself known. It was like this bell rang in my head, and I just fell to my knees. It was so unprovoked, and it completely came out of leftfield, but from that point I said to God, “I don’t know much about You, but I want to follow You.” There was really no need to fabricate anything, it was a reality that broke in of its own accord.

Tom: And how does that work itself out in practice, hearing God in the day to day? Typically, what form would that take?

H: It’s hard to put your finger on, really, because it’s different from person to person. I read a lot of biographies of Christian missionaries and sometimes stuff just leaps out from the page – the same thing goes for sermons. Day to day, it’s all about catching a glimpse of what is possible with God. Sometimes it’s just like an echo of what could be, but it inspires you to know more, seek more, pray more – it builds a desire for God, and for things to be the way that they are supposed to be, you know?

You get these glimpses of transcendence, of something more, and that’s exciting.

Tom: If you were presenting the gospel to me, what would you say? How would you tell it to me?

H: I want people to overhear my own conversation with Jesus before anything else. That is to say, I don’t want to spend my time talking about myself, my own achievements – no matter what they are – but want to put the focus on God, because that’s where it belongs. I think it was Hudson Taylor who advised preachers, “let them only hear thee talking to thy God”.

I remember this one night I was sitting in the college bar and this guy just came up to me and said “H, I know I’m far from God, and I don’t know what to do.” That happened without any planning on my part, but that’s the way it should be, I think – evangelism that comes out of an overflow.

If I presented this stuff to you I would major on the fact that this is something real; a real meeting with a real being that transcends anything we have known before. You know the parable of the pearl of great price? Man finds a pearl in a field, sells all he owns so he can have it? I would start with that, maybe. People are so tired of hearing about life solutions that end up being cop-outs – they are looking for something real, and they instinctively know that if it’s real, it is also going to be costly. It’s like the disciples say to Jesus when He asks them if they’re going to leave Him. They say, “where would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

I would tell you that I believe there is nowhere else on earth where we can have this kind of meeting with eternity. Do you want that?

Tom: Where, typically, does God fit in your daily routine? How focussed are your prayers either on yourself or others, and what is the motivation behind them?

H: I suppose it’s roughly 50-50, an equal mix between passion and duty; obviously when I hear about situations I try and pray specifically for them as far as possible, but sometimes my prayer life just feels like repeating a mantra, asking God day after day to intervene in situations.

So much of prayer is about acknowledging God as the one who does great things and praying in line with that perspective anyway, and so often prayer is a case of speaking to Him in light of that – laying yourself down and saying “Jesus is Lord, not me.”

Tom: Who would you describe as your role models, the people who you aspire to be like? Are they all Christian figures?

H: Again it’s those people with an air of transcendence or authenticity that really stand out to me – the people who seem to see things from a different perspective to a lot of the world. I have this one friend who works for an evangelistic organisation, and his zeal is incredible. There’s no pretence in him – he is sold out on telling people about Jesus, and I admire that, for sure. I admire those people who demonstrate by their lives that God can do great things. Hudson Taylor, Jackie Pullinger, Heidi Baker. What marks those people out is their rawness. They are willing to not only see the pain of their communities but to actively ask God to let them engage with that pain so they can witness in the midst of it. That is incredible, and humbling.

I’ve met other people like that. Some medics, for example, who are so committed to excellence in their medical careers and who, in their devotion to medicine and their commitment to maintaining the humanity of their patients, really stand out. There are some people who seem to just “get it” on a different level to the rest of us.

Tom: And is that the ideal? Should we all be Heidi Bakers or Jackie Pullingers?

H: In my experience, whole-heartedness is rare, no matter where you go. Sure, not everyone is called to Mozambique or to Hong Kong, but there is darkness everywhere, and those women have been called to the darkness that is there and have given their all to serving God in the midst of that. All of us are called to be salt and light somewhere, and we all need a tight focus on something.

Some people just haven’t fully grasped that parable of the pearl of great price. Because when you really get that, you will find yourself saying to God, “my life is truly no my own; I am read to run with whatever You place in my hands.” It’s worth asking, if God were to break your heart for one of those places, would you go?

Or would there be a million reasons that would stop you before you did?

[TO BE CONTINUED]

// sunday music: matt redman

For the past week I have been working as a Verger at the church I attend, filling in for a member of staff who has been off sick. It’s been a worthwhile experience, overall – manual labour is good for the soul, after all, and it’s provided some much-needed space to think.

The other day, whilst cleaning toilets next door to the prayer room, I rediscovered this lesser-known Matt Redman classic. It’s a great, great song. Apologies for the video quality, but it got me thinking:

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I want my life to be a life of prayer, and I think a lot of us do. We want our every action to be a meditation on God, done in the context of Him. And if the dream of creation is for us to be reunited with God, dwelling in His presence, that ultimately means our whole purpose is to come back into relationship with Him. Everything we do is communication. The vision is that our whole life will be one long prayer, spoken or unspoken.

What exactly would that look like? The writer of Psalm 1 declares,

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked

Nor stands in the way of sinners

Nor sits in the seat of mockers

But his delight is in the law of the LORD

And on His law he meditates day and night.

Maybe to meditate on God’s law day and night is to make our every action directed towards Him. When the Hebrews talked about “wisdom”, one definition that I’ve heard is that they were talking about “the art of living skilfully”.

I want to be one of those people who lives skilfully, living in such a way that even cleaning toilets can be a prayer, that nothing I do is separate from Him. To know peace even amongst tasks that don’t seem to be changing the world, and to know that my life, lived the way He called me to be, could be a hymn of praise and a sweet-smelling incense to the God of heaven.

How about you?

// writing, reflection and introspection

This evening I was lucky enough to be able to hear Marilynne Robinson speak at Oxford Brookes. Robinson is the author of three astonishing novels – Housekeeping, Gilead and Home – and has recently written a new non-fiction title, Absence of Mind, which deals with the science and religion debate. She’s also one of the few mainstream authors I know who manages to effectively blend theology and creative writing at a level where they are inseparable (from what I know of Annie Dillard, she has achieved something similar, and people rave about Anne Lamott, too). Gilead is a novel that I particularly recommend, incidentally – it’s just breathtaking. It’s a testament to the quality of Robinson’s writing that even Philip Pullman was in the audience tonight, and it’s because in terms of evoking the mindset of people of faith she is second to none.

In her reflections, Robinson talked of how, to her, writing is “like walking backwards through your experiences and only then realising the truth of what you have seen”. I like that as a definition because it seems so accurate a description of what it means to be a writer. It is so difficult to articulate the true meaning of situations while you are in the midst of them, and so you are always placing yourself at one remove, stepping back to see things as they really are in order to draw meaning from them. That makes it difficult to live in the moments, it’s true, although to her credit Robinson talks about her memories with a vividness and wonder that makes you think that the experience of remembering them is almost like encountering these circumstances as for the first time.

I have been struggling to write the past few weeks. I am currently unemployed, having dropped out of the Masters course I was enrolled in at Brookes about a month ago, and it’s difficult to work out the meaning of this experience. In retrospect I am sure that it will teach me… something. In the midst of it, though, it seems dull, stretching out apparently endlessly and sapping my ability to see the world clearly by turning the focus upon myself. When you are that self-absorbed, the world becomes very narrow. It is not healthy. And it is not a good place to be.

In Gilead, the narrator writes at one point,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon… But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

It is a very seductive lie, the one that tells us that life is meaningless, that we would be best to simply settle into the most comfortable life possible. It is easy to believe, too, that just existing is all that we get, and to hope for anything more is naïve and idealistic – because nothing comes for free in this life. And so I agree with Marilynne Robinson that it does take courage to see things in their glory and radiance, because that ultimately forces you to confront the fact that if they have a purpose, then life does mean something after all, and so, if you’re wasting it then – well, you shouldn’t be.

Why not take the time tonight to sit in a darkened room and take a walk backwards through your experiences, to see what you discover? I am more than willing to bet that you have experienced, at some point, those moments where God breathes on a “poor gray ember” of existence and gives you the eyes to see it flare up into something altogether more glorious.

It is worth remembering those moments. Those are the ones we hold on to.

// sunday music: i am kloot

One of the very first bands i ever saw live were i am kloot, a beautifully melancholy band from Manchester who introduced every song they played as being about “disaster”.

“This next song is about bad weather… and disaster.”

“This next song is about Manchester. And disaster.”

Needless to say, i have loved them ever since (and they completely blew Turin Brakes, who they were supporting that night, off-stage). Their latest album, “sky at night”, was nominated for a Mercury prize this year, and is completely awesome. If you don’t believe me, listen to “fingerprints” and “to the brink”.

They call it “beat-up romanticism”.

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I’ll post a more substantial blog in the next few days, stuff suddenly got unexpectedly busy…

// sunday music: fyfe dangerfield

Today’s (rather late) slice of musical awesomeness comes courtesty of Fyfe Dangerfield, lead singer of the Guillemots, and his beautiful cover of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman”. It’s been on the John Lewis ads lately, so you may have heard it already, but i love the clarity and melancholy of his voice, and if you’ve missed it, listen to it here:

Fyfe Dangerfield is playing the O2 academy in Oxford on 24th September, and his album “Fly Yellow Moon” comes highly recommended.

Next week’s Sunday music will be on time!

// CassetteBoy vs. Biblical Exposition

Maybe you are familiar with CassetteBoy, the internet phenomenon who takes programmes like The Apprentice or Jamie Oliver’s cooking shows and then mangles them into unrecognisable (and frequently hilarious) forms. If not, then I highly recommend that you check out what is probably his greatest work here – although consider yourself warned, because that clip does contain swearing. You have to wonder how the man holds down a full-time job whilst watching as much TV as he clearly does, admittedly, but it’s nonetheless a very impressive effort.

It does show the ease with which you can turn something serious into whatever you want it to be, though. How if you’ve got enough time and creativity you can construct a whole different narrative out of the materials that you have in front of you. The same thing goes for the culture of making recut trailers, which has been knocking around the internet for a while (see one of the best here). But i wonder sometimes if that’s what we’ve been doing with our preaching. We take a bit of poetry, a bit of history, a couple of proverbs and some comments from the new Testament letters, tie it together with a weird section of prophecy and hey presto, you’ve got a recipe for a sermon!

Most of the time it’s done in a way that looks serious, but sometimes it just ends up looking unintentionally hilarious instead. Plenty of people i’ve met have cited proof-texting from Christians as one of the things that offends them the most about organised religion, that it is essentially people seeking to justify their own views with reference to a higher power. It gives them grounds for sexism, racism and homophobia, because that’s what the Book says. It’s a fair criticism, some of the time at least.

I think you can often tell the sermons that are written with an agenda in mind by the respect that people give the text – both the passage that they are studying and the way it holds together with the rest of the book. The preachers who work at getting underneath the skin of a text, understanding its context and what its first readers would have heard and then working at communicating that, they are people who speak words of life.

In their own way, too, these are the people who show that the Bible is still culturally relevant. It doesn’t need to be dressed up or handled with a kind of delicate embarrassment. There is a power in these words because of their situation in history, because they are written about the interaction of an incredible God with humanity, not just because they stand apart from their immediate contexts. In the end, although our circumstances and cultures have changed, we are not really that different from the people back then. There are some foundational elements of culture that have stayed in place across the years – general trends in morality, general approaches to the world, general arguments for and against the existence of God.

In contrast, the people who mangle Scripture to serve their own agenda always end up serving up sermons where the gaps are apparent and the message, although logically argued, just doesn’t quite ring true. They sound tired, overcooked, and that’s possibly because they don’t look at the words in front of them with any wonder any more. The Dove World Outreach Centre are one example of a church whose messages clearly serve a nationalistic agenda of xenophobia, fear and racial hatred, at the extreme end of that spectrum, but there are plenty of examples from elsewhere.

I remember sitting in a church once, for example, where the sermon was entitled “the humble poor” and in which the poor were not mentioned even once. Not even in passing. The rationale was to focus on communicating the gospel, the central and foundational message of the cross and salvation, but the impression i got by the end was that the gospel had no relevance to the poor at all. It didn’t communicate to them and it wasn’t for people of their station in life. (Needless to say, it was quite a middle-class church). I wonder what Jesus would have thought.

The Bible has always needed interpreters, but it needs interpreters who handle the words they have in front of them with a kind of respect and wonder, or else we risk turning preaching into an exercise for CassetteBoy, and i shudder to think of what the end result of that could be.

Earlier today Soul Survivor’s “Bible in One Year” project addressed some of the most hair-raising passages in Genesis, with the men of Sodom wanting to rape the visitors who show up at Lot’s house (who were actually angels), only for Lot to offer to send his virgin daughters out instead.

Which, let’s face it, isn’t much better.

Lot’s daughters then proceed to sleep with their father and get pregnant from his in order to continue their family line.

What do you do with something like that?

And yet the Bible is full of stories like that, and so that’s why we need good interpreters. Otherwise we either avoid them entirely, or we interpret them badly, and both of those are methods of avoidance that leave us reading an incomplete story.

If our preachers don’t have a sense of awe and wonder at the word of God, if it doesn’t take their breath away some days, then how can be we expect to have that same kind of awe if we are the ones following them?

What are your thoughts on this? What are the best ways to maintain a sense of wonder when it comes to reading the Bible?