Saturday, 15 December 2007

Christianity is Not a Panacea

For the last few months, for one reason or another, I have been going through a Difficult Time. Friends have been great in varying measures and without them, I don’t know where I’d be.

However, I have been amazed at some of the beliefs that have been unearthed through friends trying to give me words of comfort.

Let me give you an example. One of the exhausting motifs of the last 12 months has been my relentless failure to find full-time employment following UCCF. The rollercoaster of hope built by getting to the interview stage (17 times now) followed by the plummet of disappointment when again I am thanked for applying and told that my performance at interview was exemplary, but that one other candidate was better qualified and had more experienced than me, has been wearing to say the least and has gently eroded my confidence and my bank balance.

More than one friend has said to me in response, ‘God has just the right job for you, you just haven’t found it yet’. This was said lovingly, and with a real desire to restore hope, and a genuine belief in its truth. But I am incredulous.

Where has the idea come from that for Christians, if we wait long enough, everything will turn out just fine? That a little while longer, or just that smidge more faith, will give us just the perfect little happy ending? When did we decide that Romans 8:28 was authored by Walt Disney?

Look around you at your Christian community – how many Hollywood endings do you see? How many people in perfect situations that are just right for them?

I’m not saying that life is a crock of crap for everyone, that’s clearly not true either, but neither is this idea that because we believe in God, we will either be free from the big pains of life, or the little irritating shitty little things that seem to happen for no reason, and that deny the description of ‘just right’ whatever sphere they happen to be in.

Perhaps the most eye-opening thing about hearing all this from some of my friends is that I have bought into it too. Even though I am one of the most cynical Christians I know, I’ve become aware that the reason my response to suffering (whether it’s small-scale but slowly draining like the job situation, or large-scale and heart-wrecking like my perpetual relationship situation) is rage. I am just so angry with God that all of this isn’t easier than it is. That now that I have given everything to him, I still have hot water that cuts out, or bills that I didn’t expect but can’t pay, or loneliness, or unemployment, or friends that cut themselves up literally and metaphorically, or that people die, or miscarry or get Alzheimer’s and there just isn’t anything I can do to help. Those things just don’t seem to fit.

Surely we should be able to say to those who are not Christians, ‘Look! Follow Jesus and you will have a life like mine!’ without feeling the need to shove all the pain and disappointment and unanswered prayer into some big cupboard that gets opened up when they’ve been a Christian a little while, and everything comes crashing down off the top shelf onto their heads.

We know that this should never be what we sell, that’s why we bang on about the evils of the prosperity gospel. We know that becoming a Christian is not about converting to a rosy life of ease and laughter, because we are happy to quote things about ‘taking up your cross’. We would all, and perhaps me especially, readily tell you that often in this life following Jesus means suffering.

So why am I so surprised and angry?

I have felt pressure from friends recently (and sometimes from my own internal promptings) to stop being so angry and disappointed and be thankful for what I’ve got. And it’s true that I have a great deal to be thankful for. The 365 project was very helpful for someone of my personality, and I’ve recently started it again over text with a friend, because it’s good for me to remember to be thankful everyday.

But I’ve also been told repeatedly that ‘Christians should be joyful’. My response to this has been further rage; at other Christians for not understanding my pain, and at God again, for not giving me something that is a clear expectation from scripture.

I have felt that the pressure to be thankful and to experience joy, comes from an expectation that I ought to shrink my disappointments, my pain and my genuine authentic responses.

I don’t think this is the answer.

God knows my true heart reaction to these situations, so pretending that my reactions are different is a waste of time. All through the Bible Christians have responded to suffering by spilling out their anger and tiny human understanding at him;

“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
There is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 for example.

That is not slapping on a smile over the crap and saying that it’s all OK really because Jesus loves me. Habakkuk is a person with faith who just cannot see the mind of God in his mess and is authentically yelling out his fear and confusion to him. I am relieved that God puts passages like this in the Bible. It helps me not to be afraid that I will scare him off with my honesty.

So trying to pretend my problems are smaller than they are is not the answer here. Trying to pretend my response to them (to the pain and problems themselves as opposed to the bigger picture) is joy and gratitude is inauthentic. So what can I do?

I had a conversation with Priss last night about a comparatively small issue. She told me something she had recently learned and articulated;

“I was challenged to remember to make Jesus lord over everything. Wanting him first, even if that meant never having a well paid job or remaining single, not getting my own house, having no friends... etc.”

She shocked me with that. She shocked me by showing me how many millions of miles I am away from making a statement like that. That in fact I have managed to turn that attitude upside down. I realised that my misguided belief that God ought to give me everything I want because I’m his, had made me into this big greedy monster making demands, while God was my little servant, expected to feed me with things and if he didn’t, he incurred my rightful rage. What an ugly image.

Importantly, that does not mean that my needs and desires are not legitimate. It does not mean that my lack of them is not a real deficit. It does not mean that I ‘ought to be glad’ that things are hard.

It does not mean I should pretend that all of this is small.

It does mean I should remember that God is BIG.

Priss (and the Holy Spirit!) stretched my tiny butler God and showed me a glimpse of his greatness and his rightful place as Lord over everything. This is not then, a begrudging acquiescence that I have to submit to him, but a wonderful realisation that his bigness means that I can trust him to be big enough to carry me through the pain, the disappointment, all the rest.

Lately I’ve been trying to hold on to truths of him guiding me by his right hand, but I’ve been hating the places he’s taken me and wanted to shake myself free. I’ve now caught a glimpse of how powerful that right hand is. I hate to say it, but one of my most hated Christian kids songs has helped me here (I mostly hate it because English Christians seem to always insist on singing it inexplicably in an American accent. Since when did we worship Gad?):

Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
And he holds us in his hands.

This is TRUE and unbelievably for someone who hates kids songs, is a truth that helps me in the depths of my adult pain.

If Jesus is Lord of my life, I won’t demand from him. If he’s really Lord of all of it, I will trust him with it. I will not try to wriggle out of that great big hand, but I will rest in it. I might cry, I might shout, I might fall apart in the middle of it. But I will trust that it carries me, instead of assuming that it just pushes me where I don’t want to go, and takes away the things I want.

I have a long way to go still before I can say that this is how I am actually living my life, but at least I am on my way there. I feel I have a little way to go before I can say with authenticity that my response is joy, but at least I know that joy in suffering is possible (Romans 5 and countless others, promise me that) and so I can hope for that promise. Habakkuk begins with rage and confusion, but it ends like this:

“Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
He enables me to go on to the heights.”

I think I am somewhere between chapter 1 and chapter 3 of Habakkuk at the moment. I am feeling the loss of the olives, the sheep and the grapes. I am trying to learn not to expect them, while acknowledging the pain of their absence, and I am trying to learn and hold onto the hope, that the bigness of God will lead to joy in the heights, even if it takes me a little while to get there.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A Tribute to Relay

This morning has been a tearful one for me, as it's the morning that some of my favourite ex-colleagues head off for Relay 1 - the first conference of the year for UCCF Relay Workers. I am tearful because I am not exaggerating to say that the Relay conferences (which I have done 3.5 times over) have been some of the best weeks of my life. As far as I'm concerned the Relay programme just gets it right. It is so soaked in grace that it's dripping it all over the floor and there is no greater foundation for, well, anything.

Grace means that the nervous ones on trains and in cars right now will learn that they have every right to be there even though they are all too aware of their inadequacies and failings. Grace means that the cocky ones on their way there will learn that they have no right to be there despite their achievements and talents, but that they're welcome anyway because it's God that's going to be doing the work. Grace means that each of these things are equally true the other way around too. Grace is that wonderful leveller and I so wish I could be there for a 4th time to watch it doing its work.

At my first Relay 1, I was in the first camp. That first conference was the first time I ever remember feeling accepted as I was, and seeing that acceptance rooted in the unchangeable truths of the gospel. It was the first time I really realised that I did have something to offer, and that God had given me gifts that were usable and relevant. That conference was the first time I heard the parable of the sower taught, and that teaching was what got me through years of disappointments in the FE ministry. It was a constant (thought sometimes quiet) reprieve, whispering "Just sow, and sow, and sow, and sow, and sow, and sow....."
As I've repeated the conferences from the other side, it's Relay more than anything else that has taught me again and again that Jesus is enough, Jesus is worth it, Jesus is all I need, Jesus is all there is. I remember making notes in a talk at my last Relay 1, thinking "THIS is what I'm doing wrong! This is the key to the Christian life!" and then realising that what was being taught once again was that old chestnut, grace. There really is nothing new to learn, and nothing else needed.
I am going to miss singing songs to God with a room full of people who really, really mean it. I am going to miss singing those songs around a bonfire in the dark with people who really, really mean it. I am going to miss getting deep into rich books like Ephesians, Colossians, Isaiah and Zephaniah in ways that I've never enjoyed so richly anywhere else. I am going to miss that feeling of hard-heartedness, cynicism and failure being washed away by truth. I am going to miss waking up each morning with my mates. I am going to miss baring my soul to the girls and seeing it change and free some of them. I am going to miss caring for my fellowship group and watching it grow and change from conference to conference. I am going to miss the staff meetings, mixing hilarious banter with real love and concern for the Relays and each other. I am going to miss the 'fun nights', the content of which I can't reveal on here in case future or present Relays read and have their surprises spoilt. I am going to miss crying almost the whole way through Relay 3 each year as I hear testimony after testimony of God holding on to Relay after Relay, even through pain and grief, but often through real joy and change. I am going to miss the secret Relay rituals. I am going to miss having best friends as colleagues. I miss it.

The word 'privilege' has become a cliche when describing ministry, but there is no other word to describe what it has been to be involved in something like Relay. It has been genuinely life changing, sanctifying and joy filling, and it has glorified Jesus in my life more than any other gift he has given me.

It's hard to see, this morning, what life will look like without Relay. I can remember writing a similarly gushing post about Anna moving out a year and a half or so ago, which was equally accompanied by sodden tissues and snot. It took a long time to learn to enjoy the change that that brought. As I'm in two jobs without colleagues, that don't quite make ends meet and don't really get me out of the flat much at the moment, I think it's going to be a long time before I enjoy the gap that's left from Relay. But there was a kind of mantra that we learnt at Relay conferences, and that is not going to expire.

God is still God, and the gospel is still true.