Why I’m the sort of Christian I am

Recently I posted one of those semi-serious Facebook things about how the Easter season starts on Easter Day; that the day before Easter Day isn’t Easter Saturday, it’s Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is the Saturday that follows subsequently to Easter Day. A good friend, part of my church but with his roots in a very different Christian tradition, said he’d value more on why these things matter to me and how they help me follow Jesus. It’s actually something I’d been meaning to try and articulate more fully for myself for some time, and my friend’s comment prodded me to do something about it. Like much of what I write on here, it’s really for my own benefit – if it helps you also, that’s great.

I have lived most of my Christian life in the Anglican (referred to in some contexts as Episcopalian) church context. In 2001 I was ordained as a minister in that tradition. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s the only true church; I am often frustrated and even angered by aspects of how this mode of church works. But it does work for me as an imperfect structure within which I can minister and function as a disciple. For the record, I’m also greatly resourced by many other Christian traditions – but the Anglican one is where my feet stand, with the waters of other traditions intermingling around me, refreshing and renewing me at different times. So here’s a few of the things I value around this expression of Christianity – I do so acknowledging that strengths are often also weaknesses, and this is true here as much as anywhere else. They’re listed in no special order.

1) The Anglican church is often referred to as a ‘broad church’. I take that to mean that what you experience in public worship at one Anglican church may look or feel very different to what you experience at the Anglican church a mile away  – or a few thousand miles away. But they’re united by a few core points of theology (theoretically – and that’s where this can go awry) and practice. Weirdly, one of the places this has been bought home to me is on social media. Through social media I have made contact with numerous Anglicans who express their faith very differently to me – there’s much we disagree on. But we found ourselves drawn together, and connecting together and supporting each other. Similarly, the priest of the next door parish to mine was (he’s just moved on) very different to me, and our parishes’ worship are almost unrecognisably different. But Jesus untied us through something far deeper and firmer, and we’re good friends. I’m going to miss him.

2) Many Christian traditions give a rhythm to the church year, and this is a big feature of Anglicanism. That’s illustrated in what I mentioned above about the difference between Holy Saturday and Easter Saturday. Sometimes the application of this can all seem a little Pharisaical, but increasingly I’m finding it deeply beneficial. Let’s take the Holy/Easter Saturday thing. The week that leads up to Easter Day uses readings from the Bible and liturgy (prepared prayers) to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Now most of us know how the story ends – with victory and resurrection. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot of talk in the world of movie criticism about how much you give away about the plot of a film – spoilers. People don’t want the story spoiled before they see the film; otherwise the story loses power and purpose. To a large extent the point of a story isn’t the destination, it’s how we get there. We know the ultimate spoiler – Jesus rises from the dead, and it’s wonderful! But -and this is important – we only really grasp how wonderful it is if we’ve lived the whole story. The pain, the fear, the despair. The death. Make that journey, and you’re really going to want to party come Easter Day. In addition, we all know that life isn’t all about victory – it will be, in the new creation. And Easter Day gives us a glimpse of that. But in the meantime people still get sick, are still disabled, are still depressed, bereaved, alone, dead, crying, fearful, angry, numb … All those things and more are still part of our story, and the build up to Easter Day helps us to incorporate all those things in our worship and give them their place. It helps me to spend time with Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, pleading with God for another way and being let down by His friends. It helps me because that happens to me to; and if I spend time looking at Jesus experiencing it too then I feel less alone in my experiences, less guilty, better equipped for the trials I face.

3) When it works well – and I know that it by no means always works well – the way the broader Anglican church functions does a good job of holding people and churches accountable. Churches and their leaders get things wrong, step out of line, need comfort, support or challenge. People like Bishops are there – in part – to do that, or to make sure that it happens. When they get it right, it’s wonderful. A small illustration from my own experience. I was here in South Africa when my mother died a few years ago (in the UK). When that happened I was on the receiving end of many helpful comments and prayers. One of those that meant the most to me was my Bishop calling me personally, asking me how I was doing, assuring me of his prayers and support in whatever I needed, acknowledging that this was a hard time to be doing this sort of job – especially so far from my birth family. Years later, I still remember that. Don’t underestimate the power of these things – especially for clergy, who need to be pastored as much they need to pastor others.

4) There are many, many expressions of Christianity and I’m grateful for the variety. God is a big God, so it’s OK that there’s a multiplicity of ways to respond to Him. But for some people who aren’t Christians, there are some expressions that can feel odd (I’m not saying they are odd – it’s just how they can come across to some others), or even a bit cult-like. Anglicanism’s rich history and accountability structure means that this is a rare perception  – and that when things do go wrong, there’s a chance of them getting noticed and addressed. It often surprises people to discover ‘free’ Anglican churches – that are charismatic in theology and practice. The fact that these churches are present within Anglican structures can reassure some that this is, in fact, an orthodox expression of Christianity and not simply a breakaway cult.

5) Quite against some perceptions, the deep roots and wide resources of the Anglican tradition can (when used well) be the bedrock and resource for immense creativity. The rich theology of Anglicanism and the accountability structures can give a space for a lot of new things to happen. I’m thinking of, for example, the Fresh Expressions movement – which seeks to find ways of expressing church for those who don’t come to church and won’t engage with church as it currently is. This movement is by no means limited just to the Anglican Church; but the Anglican Church has been and continues to be a major player in the movement’s development. Hence we find Anglican churches that are based around a multiplicity of networks – meeting in pubs, skate parks, shops, nurseries and the like – which look very different to ‘normal’ church, but have the bedrock theology and accountability of Anglicanism.

6) Sometimes I don’t feel like praying or worshipping. That’s when the liturgy – prepared prayers for use in public worship – kicks in. Saying these prayers with others can carry me – their faith can carry me when I have none. Knowing these have been prayed by others in other places for many years reminds me that my problems may be significant but they’re not the whole picture – and life, faith, the church, God will all go on even if I’m struggling. I remember one day going for a walk on a windswept beach, so depressed and stressed I could barely think … and I found tumbling out of me the words of liturgical prayers I’d been praying my whole life, that I didn’t know I’d memorised. They just embedded themselves in me, and came to the surface when I needed them most, unbidden.

I could go on, and may do so on another occasion, but that’s enough for now. To repeat – I know many people find some or all of the above in traditions other than Anglicanism. And all these strengths can also be weaknesses. But this is me.

 

 

 

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Why we’re foster parents: it’s not about us

In December last year – around 4 months ago now – my wife Bev and I became foster parents. Within a short period we went from being a family of two adults and two dogs to two adults, two dogs and two children. The children came to us around the same time, but are biologically unrelated. It was the culmination of a long process of thinking, discussing and praying which I chronicled previously in this blog (links at the end of this post).

It’s an exhausting, exhilarating, life-enhancing, sleep-depriving, money-hoovering, faith-stretching, relationship-testing endeavour. Around the time we began to foster, some kind souls were praying with and for me in the context of a work meeting. One lovely person, in the course of his prayer, said something along the lines of “We thank you, God, for this expression in Dave and Bev of the desire to be parents.”

That sentence stayed with me, in a good way. I have a deep respect for the person who prayed it; he’s an intelligent, thoughtful and kind man. I’ve hardly had a spare moment since that prayer was prayed so couldn’t really give much attention to why the sentence had struck me so deeply. Until last week, when a brutal bout of tonsillitis forced me into bed for a few days; when I wasn’t asleep or watching TV, I could just think. In thinking about that prayed sentence, I began to realise why it had struck me so deeply. In saying what I’m about to say, let me make clear that I’m not criticising at all the dear man who prayed that prayer. There’s no reason for him to know my deepest motivations and drivers. And I’m only speaking for myself (and my wife, Bev); I hold no expectation that the same should be true for others.

The truth is that my wife and I have never really wanted to have children. We never desired to be parents. We have never felt a biological or emotional or spiritual urge to give birth. As far as we can tell, doing this is meeting no need in us. Don’t get me wrong: we love doing it. It brings us great joy; our lives are immeasurably enhanced. We are richer people for having these two children in our care, and we love them deeply. It’s a beautiful thing when one of them leaps into our arms for a cuddle or plays a game with us. But for us, that’s not the goal. All of those things; they’re grace given freely and abundantly by God, to us, through these two beautiful divine image-bearers.

So why do we do it? Because God does it for me, for Bev and for everyone who’ll notice and acknowledge. Though my wife and I, and you, are naturally different and cut off from God, He still makes an active, personal, focussed decision to love us and welcome us into His family. It has cost Him much to enable that to happen; we are welcomed into His bloodline at the expense of that blood itself.

So if God has done this for me, then it’s incumbent on me to do all within my power and ability to help other people realise it. So in our own broken, imperfect, faltering ways, in welcoming two children not of our blood; in making an active, personal, focussed decision to love them, we are saying to them and to others – see this? This is but the palest, limpest, most feeble hint of what God has done for me and for you.

We’ve done it also to militate against our hypocrisy. Bev and I speak, pray and preach a lot about the Christian imperative to justice, to ministry amongst the poor, to serving those with less and opening our homes to people whose homes are gone or broken. Fostering brings those we might label as ‘poor’ out of the charity projects, off the streets and the distant estates and into our home, around our dinner table and gives them almost unfettered access to our bank accounts. I am forced, now, to walk what I talk 24 hours a day.

A final reason, linked to these other two. If these two are true, then it’s our belief  – our conviction – that fostering and adoption should be a more central opportunity for Christians. We believe that it should, for many, be a first option not a fall-back. We believe it may just be one of the key invitations to the church of this era. We’ve been deeply challenged to see people we know – single and married – foster and adopt. My wife was herself adopted, and she knows that through that she was bought to a safe childhood and to life in Christ. So we’d be failing hypocrites if we didn’t at least do the same ourselves.

That, then, is why we foster. We are blessed and privileged to do so. That’s all grace, though. We do it not for the benefits, not out of our own desire; but simply because we can and we believe God would have us do so, as He has done for us.

The story can be found in these posts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

 

Grace’s inconvenient slap in the face

I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.

Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I  do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.

As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of  The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.

I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.

Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same  – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?

What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.

I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.

I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident)  a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.

The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.

So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.

Back to the sick-bed, then.