Leadership Lies: Build The Church You Want To Be Part Of

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Assuming you’re not the sort of church leader who only spends a short amount of time at any one church, on the face of it there seems to be much that’s understandable about this. After all, it would be a hard experience to be part of a church for, say, 10 years, and for it not to be the sort of church that you would want for yourself and for any family that you may have. A disconnect in spirituality or theology between the leadership and the church can be a jarring experience that can lead to painful conflict, and to more than a few people (leaders included) leaving a church jaded, cynical, wounded and finding their faith ebbing away. It’s potentially even harder for church members if that disconnect exists in a church located in an area where there are few (if any) others to choose from: if you want to be part of a church community and don’t have a practical choice as to which church that is but find yourself alienated by how the leader is shaping the church, then it can be the sort of experience that asphyxiates faith like a slowly building carbon monoxide leak.

As someone who’s been in full-time paid church leadership for 17 years, I’ve been to several seminars and read more than a few books that tell me that as a leader I need to build a church that is the sort of church I would join if I was living in the area and looking for a church to go to. In addition to the reasons just mentioned, the argument goes that if I’m to encourage members to commit to a church community and invite others to join it, then it would be hypocritical for me to do so if I wouldn’t commit to the church myself in their position. It’s hard to argue with, and to a certain extent I don’t want to. If I had a fundamental disconnect with the dominant theology or practice of a church I was invited to lead, then I would have a choice: put up with it (which would be very difficult to square with my conscience), try to change it, or not do the job. If a church is on a path to death, then clearly something is going to have to change unless all present are in agreement that what’s required is a good death (and there’s no shame in that  – we believe in resurrection, so allowing a church to die so something new can emerge is a noble calling). However the truism that the leader must build the church the leader wants to go to is rarely aimed at theological fundamentals or practices that are at the heart of the church’s life. They’re more stylistic, fringe issues that make the leader feel safe, comfortable and at home. I’ve seen more than a few churches being broken apart as the leader seeks to bend the church he’s (and it’s almost always him) leading to the shape of his will. The result is a church that he and people like him like; and very few others.

At the risk of death by a thousand qualifications, it’s clear that after a few years of one person’s leadership, a church will inevitably reflect aspects of that person’s character, theology, practice and preference. To a certain extent that’s unavoidable and natural. More often, however, this maxim is preached by an alpha male sort of leader; the sort who I once saw spontaneously (I do wonder if that should have been in quotation marks) play wrestling with his leader mate (yes, really) on the stage of a leadership conference attended by thousands as part of an in-joke only about 20 were privy to. Oh how I laughed. I found myself thinking; you wouldn’t have seen women leaders doing that.

There’s the rub. For around 2,000 years church leadership has been mainly male. Inevitably, therefore, material on church leadership has been delivered by (usually white) men; the images and metaphors have been male-centric, appealing to the idea of the alpha male leader, courageously leading a church into an unknown future only he can see. Men telling men in leadership to be the sort of male leader men like to think they should be. Clearly God has done some good through all this – as God always will – but much harm has been done also; it’s way past time for a change. As more women (slowly) are oh so graciously permitted to step into a church leadership, we need paradigms of leadership that redress the balance. It’s also hard to square what we know of Jesus with the image of the courageous alpha male leading towards the future that has been revealed to him; after all, the real Jesus begs to be released from suffering and doesn’t know when He’s returning.

What paradigms are we left with? Well, we should let women develop them. This mustn’t be the leadership manifestation of mansplaining. One metaphor I’ve found illuminating, however, is that of the midwife. I’ve never given birth, nor been present at a birth; but it seems clear to me that the midwife’s role is to assist and create an environment into which the emerging new life can be safely born. In this metaphor the mother giving birth is the Holy Spirit, the church leader is the midwife working with the natural processes of the Spirit, the church is the baby being born. The leader with her knowledge, experience and training must listen carefully, patiently and attentively to the signs from the Spirit and the church emerging, blinking and wailing into life; and of course there are times when she must act decisively and even urgently. There’ll be blood, sweat, tears and screaming in the process of delivery; but it’s not as a result of shaping a church to a leader’s will, but rather a by-product of a new life emerging from the natural rhythms and work of the Spirit. The leader works; oh how she works. But it’s not for her; it’s for the mother.

Like all metaphors, it will break down at some point so mustn’t be pressed or stretched too far. It’s a visual aid, nothing more and nothing less. But we need more of them that are less alpha male, coming from an altogether different place. Those with more knowledge or experience of the process of human birth must correct or add to what I have started here; and we who are men in leadership must allow women in leadership to develop more, newer paradigms of leading a church that allow a new way of being. And we men must be willing to work with those new paradigms ourselves, as for so long we have expected women to work within almost exclusively male paradigms for 2,000 years.

After all, not for nothing does the Bible present the church as the bride of Christ; of course, an exclusively feminine image. It’s almost as if the Spirit planted that in the pages of the Bible, and was waiting for men in leadership to catch-up.

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Leadership Lies: Money Follows Vision

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I’m now nearly 17 years into the journey of being paid to lead churches. Over that time I’ve read a lot of books and blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts, and had a lot of conversations about the art of leadership in the context of the local church. Some of those have been helpful, some of them haven’t been; some of those that I thought were helpful at the time turned out not be; some of those that I thought not to be helpful at the time turned out to be rather insightful. I’ve also said and written more than a few things about leadership myself; some of which I still think, some of which I don’t.

Recently I’ve started thinking about some of those things I’ve heard and said myself, and realised that I need to revisit them, take them apart and expose them for what they are. Lies. Well, maybe lies is a bit strong – I don’t think many people actively choose to tell untruths in these matters; but untruths, that like all the best untruths carry an element of the truth in the same way that an inoculation carries an element of the disease it’s designed to protect you against. Hence this series of blogs, of which this is the first. When I say ‘series’, by the way, what I actually mean is more like: ‘One or more posts that I’ll get round to as and when I think of them’. As usual, my writing is more about my own processing of ideas to help me clarify what I actually think – if they help someone else along the way, then so much the better.

So to the first statement with which I wish to raise some issues. Three words: “Money follows vision”. I’ve no idea who first coined it, but it’s prevalent in some circles, and I’ve said it myself. It’s often used when a leader is trying to get a particularly faith-stretching, expensive project approved by the necessary committee. It’s a way of saying – yes, I know we don’t have money for this at the moment, but this a great vision, and God will provide (through His people, of course) because the vision is compelling. The money is duly raised, thus proving that the vision was compelling and from God and therefore God has provided (through His people, and sometimes a bank loan). At core it seems to say: God will provide where the vision is from Him. Hard to quibble with, surely?

No, it’s not. It may carry an element of truth in richer, often suburban areas, where there church members have relatively stable jobs and incomes; but move into poorer areas and the truth is somewhat more complex. For the last eight and a half years I’ve been leading a small-ish church in Cape Town, on the cusp of an urban/suburban divide.  Cape Town, as you may know, is a city of contrasts. It’s often cited as the most economically unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. If you have plenty of money, Cape Town is a wonderful place to live. If you are poor, it’s a living nightmare. My church has people in it who have good, stable jobs; it also has people who live right on the edge of the trapdoor that would send them tumbling into poverty. We have a Thursday night community based around supper, where many of the members sleep outside; for various reasons, the trapdoor opened beneath their feet and they couldn’t cling on to solid ground.

Amongst these groups (those on the edge of poverty, those on the streets, those in informal settlements or townships) I have met many people with powerful, compelling, Godly vision. In a sense, one has to have vision if you live in or on the edge of poverty; avoiding the trapdoor, or surviving once you’ve fallen through, requires nimble thinking and creative action that would shame many leaders and entrepeneurs with more loaded bank accounts. However, money hasn’t followed their vision. It has largely trickled away to the visions of richer, larger churches and projects in safer and more comfortable areas.

If you are trapped in poverty, or in avoiding the trapdoor, your options are closed down. You don’t have the time or the energy to build networks and make connections that might one day yield financial fruit; you’re too busy putting food on the table each day, or making sure there’s enough electricity to keep the lights on in church that Sunday. Whatever great business ideas you may have, whatever creative outreach projects God has laid on your heart, they easily get lost in the daily battle to say alive and just keep a church or a life ticking over.

Here’s a thought. What if the role of the money in the richer churches was to flow towards the vision of those with less? What if, rather than employing another staff member, a church in the safe suburbs walked in relationship with a church in the unsafe inner-city and funded a drug project or a social outreach worker, or whatever God had laid on their hearts?

This is not a new idea; the New Testament seems to suggest it and some churches in different places in the world are doing it. But what if the over-resourced really caught this vision? What if ,instead of planting 50 people into another young adult rich area and claimed explosive kingdom growth instead of actually acknowledging it’s really just sociology, a small handful of people, at the invitation of those in the poorer area, came and walked and worshipped alongside those with less – blessing the church with agenda-free time, abilities and money?

The church I lead was blessed with this around 7 years ago. The people we received were few in number but large in heart and responsiveness to calling. It was – and still is – a hard journey. Some have, for various reasons, found the mess and blurred lines of church amongst the marginalised too much and have needed to return to a context more like what they are used to. This is a calling, a calling that emerges out of agenda-free relationships between leaders, churches and individuals. The question we must face  – especially those of us who lead well-resourced churches – is something like this: ‘Do we give space and time for the calling to be heard? Will we lay down our dream of a church that looks successful for a wider calling of kingdom-shaped fruit to be borne that draws no attention to our own leadership? Will we allow my church’s money to follow a vision in another place? Will we support the social entrepreneurs struggling to survive, the leaders trying to keep the lights on and worried for the house-holds struggling to put food on the table? Will we forego a staff member here to nurture the slow growth of kingdom vision there? Will we die to self, that others may live? Will we respond to the life-giving invitation to take joy in seeing the vision we have flourish amongst those on the margins?’

In the answers to these questions lie the subtle, troubling difference between success and fruitfulness. May those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

 

Why We Can’t All Care The Same Way About The Same Things

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I like brie. Very much. Brie tends to be expensive, so it’s a treat when I have it. But I really do love it, in all its creamy, rich goodness. I don’t expect everyone to like brie. My wife doesn’t, for a start. My foster son calls it ‘white person’s cheese’. If everyone in the world liked brie there’d be a worldwide brie shortage, the price would skyrocket and I’d never be able to have it. That would clearly be A Disaster.

I support Arsenal Football Club (this isn’t a bid for sympathy, by the way), as my mother did and my grandfather before her. Much as I enjoy making friends with other Arsenal supporters, I don’t expect everyone to support Arsenal; in fact, that’s the point. Different people support different clubs, and we exchange jokes; going to a match as a fan of the away team can be a lot of fun (it can also be quite dangerous, which is when, of course, the point has been missed and a line has been crossed).

Scanning social media feeds, or listening to people who are passionate about one thing, can sometimes feel like the whole world is being urged to love brie or support the same team or Bad Things Will Happen. I know this, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve mistaken something I love or something I feel passionate about for something everyone should feel the same about. The reality is that this is not only undesirable, but impossible. We Christians – and especially those of us in leadership positions  – can be especially guilty of this. Guilty is an important word here, because it’s precisely that which we load on people if we’re not wise – and load on ourselves if we take it all too much to heart.

The latest iteration came for me this weekend, in the wake of the Irish referendum on relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws. This isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of that referendum per se; it’s more about what we say about it. Many times I saw arguments that went something like this: ‘If you’re not as passionate about refugee children as you are about abortion [or the converse] then you’re a hypocrite’. Now like all the best lies, there’s an element of truth here; American Christian activist Shane Claiborne writes and speaks eloquently about the importance of being ‘pro-life’ (as opposed to anti-abortion) in all our theology and politics, not just one area. There is a risk of hypocrisy, and we must be alive to it for hypocrisy is an often justified criticism of Christians. But the issue that concerns me is the level of passion or commitment that’s expected.

We’ve all been there. You’re deeply affected by a song or a movie, and you gush about it to whoever comes across your path and find yourself slightly offended and lost for words when someone says ‘Well, it’s OK I suppose’; or worse ‘I hate it’; or worse still ‘It’s wrong for a Christian to love that’. I get confused, for example, when I meet people who don’t love the movie Pan’s Labyrinth as much as I do; It profoundly moves me every time, I think it’s basically perfect and God even speaks to me through it. Amazingly, some people find it too violent, boring or too Spanish. It can be rather like that with causes. I, for instance, find myself passionate about homelessness. I want others to be too. At times my passion for the cause can tip over into a guilt trip, manipulation; the expectation that everyone else should not only agree with me but should feel the same.

The reality is that we can’t all feel the same way about everything. I have friends I admire deeply who are passionate about (for example) accessible education for all or care for the environment. They feel about those issues like I do about homelessness. If I felt about those two issues they way I feel about homelessness, whilst maintaining my passion for the latter, I’d quickly combust. Let alone all the other issues that are important – social justice-wise, doctrine-wise, practise-wise and the like.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One is (of course) Jesus. He cares about all this stuff, deeply, to the extent that it should be cared about and more. And he does so without combusting. He holds the fire for it, so to a certain extent we don’t have to. But there’s more; we are made in his image. We (partially) reflect Him; which means we sometimes find ourselves taking on the care for one or more of these issues from Him, because we’re His ‘hands and feet on earth’. It’s what Christians sometimes call a ‘ministry’ or a ‘burden’; but one that’s easy fitting. It’s given to us, with all our imperfections and gifts, because there’s something that fits well with us about it. We get to engage with the church and the world, promoting the issue and inviting others to respond to God’s call on it, inviting the church to act on it and so become more the church we’re meant to be.

Call, invitation is the key here. We’re not to treat people like a race horse, whipping them over the finish line; no, like Jesus we’re to call and invite until people respond as God places it within them to do so. Together we all make up a church, in the language of 1 Corinthians 12, a body. We can’t all be hands; we can’t all be kidneys. We can’t all give the same energy to homelessness or the environment or doctrine or abortion or refugees or …  But between us, we might just get there.

That’s why leading on an issue, or leading a church, can be so hard. You can see where we could be, maybe even what the church could look like; we want so desperately to get there that we’ll do anything to make it happen. But we mustn’t do ‘anything’; we are to act and invite in grace. Now there always moments and seasons, currents of the Spirit that are inexplicable; or emergencies in public life that require us to pitch in, even if we only know it to be right in our head but struggle to do so in our heart. It seems #metoo and #churchtoo, for example, may be an example of just that. We can’t, though, all feel   the same way; we’re finite, limited and fragile; social media, politics, the church all shout urgency about myriad things. It’s the ministry of leadership and corporate wisdom to discern when is a ‘moment’ and when is ‘just’ something important that a number, perhaps even a growing number, are called to. All of us may need to change our thinking or behaviour on something; we may need to confess, repent and change in some way. But the leadership on any given issue is left to a few. We can respond with prayer; with actions big, medium or small; with money; with support and encouragement in other forms.

So let’s be kind to ourselves and one another in our posts, in our sermons, in our words and actions. We are called to walk the way of Jesus; in doing so, each of us finds we walk like Him in a certain way that few seem to share. Following Jesus is always done in a group, never alone; a group where diversity of passions and interests and hopes and experiences is both welcomed and encouraged.

The One About The Actress, The Prince And The Bishop

pexels-photo-261848.jpegIt won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a wedding on Saturday; one of the royal variety. A British prince is marrying an American actress and a lot of people are very excited about it. I’m not that bothered about it, to be honest – I’m neither royalist nor republican, and have no special interest in dresses or any of the other questions surrounding the big day. As a clergyman, however, there is one aspect of the whole thing that piques my interest, with which I shall make sure that I catch up at some point. The sermon. Clergy like checking out the sermon on a day like this, because it gives us the opportunity to do to someone else what we imagine goes on in the lounges and kitchens of our church members after every service; discuss the sermon. This was given an extra twist this week when the identity of the preacher was revealed; the couple have requested that the sermon be delivered by Bishop Michael Curry.

I’ll forgive you if his name means nothing to you. It’s true that he is an eye-catching choice; not because he’s American. That makes sense, what with the bride being American. That he’s a person of colour is perhaps more notable and welcome than has been discussed; but that’s not what I’m talking about. The issue is that the branch of the global Anglican church which he leads is on the theological naughty step for a while as a result of a decision it took (and which Bishop Michael supports wholeheartedly) to bless the marriages of same-sex couples. There were consequences to this, hence the naughty step – sitting out various meetings for a period of time.

Same-sex marriage is, to put it mildly, an explosive issue in the church these days; and people on all sides of the debate can’t help but read something into this decision; those who support same-sex marriage are delighted because this feels like a vindication. Those who oppose it are dismayed and feel he shouldn’t have been allowed to take part (ignoring the fact that in the UK, royalty outranks Anglican clergy and we have to do what we’re told). Those who oppose Bishop Michael’s presence were further enraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s warm statement about the news  – feeling that he should at least have taken the opportunity to highlight that Bishop Michael’s church was still in trouble.

I’ve never heard Bishop Michael preach, but everyone who says he’s pretty good at it – lively, Jesus-focussed and very passionate. I’m looking forward to checking out the sermon at some point for myself. However I find the reaction to all this disturbing – even if it is understandable. Many of us seem to think that preaching at such an event is and should be a political statement; and that this represents a not so implicit encouragement to those who support same-sex marriage. It may be that, I suppose; but what if it isn’t? What if the Archbishop’s statement was meant to be taken at face-value – that he’s pleased to welcome such a passionate and able preacher to such a high-profile occasion? What if it’s possible to disagree – deeply – with one area of a person’s theology, and yet still see that God can and does use that person?

Such a view is not regarded warmly by many of my fellow evangelicals; for many, the doctrine of marriage is a line in the sand. Change that, and we’re no longer appropriately faithful to Scripture, goes the argument. We must, it is said, take a stand on this. All this will look rather embarrassing for evangelicals if, as expected, Bishop Michael preaches up a storm at the wedding and points people to Jesus without even alluding to same-sex marriage. It’s almost as if some of my brothers and sisters are willing him to fail, to make some big mistake so that they can be proved right all along. I’m sure they aren’t doing so, but that’s how it can feel from here.

The inconvenient possibility for many of us is, though, that is may be rather less important to God than we think it is. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul didn’t seem too worried about the motivation of those preaching the Gospel – he just longed for Christ to be preached (Philippians 1:18). There’s no mention there of the details of doctrine; just the longing that Jesus is preached. Those opposed to same-sex marriage say that this is a matter of Biblical authority and interpretation; with which I agree, but I also say that this is true of every point of doctrine. As long as we’re not changing the crux of salvation, we’re free to differ. What if the Holy Spirit is big enough to use people with whom you and I disagree? What if we’re wrong? Do we hold to this so tightly that we can’t even entertain the possibility that we may be wrong? Will those angered by Bishop’s Michael invitation to preach rejoice if he preaches a Jesus-focussed sermon Saturday? I hope that he does, and that they respond appropriately.

Doctrine matters, of course. I don’t wish to suggest anything else; but over the years I’ve been in ordained ministry, I’ve been humbled to realise that God seems to bless the ministries of those with whom I disagree with alarming impunity. I hope I’m learning to rejoice in that. Knowing some of these people well has challenged my doctrine and my practice, and has put some previously closely held ideas more in their proper place. I still believe much the same as I always have done about Jesus and the cross and the empty tomb; on much else, I have my own views (some of them unchanged, some of them changed) but seek to hold them with humility and grace towards those different to me. The wind of the Spirit blows where it will; it’s not for me to dictate the direction or the force, but rather to pray and join in where I find the Spirit moving. Even if – and perhaps especially if – that means I find out that I’m wrong, or that something I felt was important is of less significance than I assumed.

So I will pray for Bishop Michael, and for all who listen to him on Saturday. That he through him, the wind of the Spirit might blow, and that many may make much of Christ. If that happens, I shall give enthusiastic thanks.

Bored With Church

Bored With Church

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I get bored quite easily. People close to me – be they parents, my wife, or whoever happens to be on the receiving end at the time – have grown well used to me saying so, or displaying the symptoms. Restlessness, not focussing, disturbing others from the no doubt important things they’re doing, sighing, puffing of the cheeks. You know the score. I have a 9 year-old who does the same. I understood a bit of why I do this when I was diagnosed with ADD last year, making sense of my inability to settle unaided by medication.

In truth, many of us know the feeling – a weariness with what we need to do or should be doing, a sense that there’s something better and more stimulating just out of reach. I’m in my mid-40s now, and it can be something of a stage of life thing for many of us; we’re no longer young, but the finishing strait is a long way off. That can be a wearying, deadening thought for many of us; hence, perhaps, the famed mid-life crisis that some crash into, a desperate attempt to make life interesting again, often bringing others down with us into the bargain.

There can be spiritual, church-based ennui too. Especially, I think, amongst those who (like me) would call ourselves charismatic Christians. Our flavour of faith can often seem attractive because we can be seen to offer drama: ecstatic experiences, prayer for revival, things to ‘push in to’ and the like. That reels us in, and gives us a lot of momentum. I’m not saying that these things can’t be genuine or important, but they can end up inoculating us against how things often turn out to be. When the life of the church isn’t one of constant breakthrough, success and answered prayer, boredom can set in. Worship services can seem repetitive; the life of faith just a little more run of the mill than we felt we were led to expect.

At this point people like me – people who lead churches, that is – often start to berate ‘consumer Christianity’ and get a little shouty. It’s not about what you can get out of church; it’s about what you can give. Church isn’t about getting, it’s about giving; it’s not about me, it’s about others, and the audience of One. There’s truth in this, and I’ve said it myself in the past; the trouble is, it can all start to sound a bit too much like a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought’; alarmingly lacking in the winsome grace that draws us to Jesus in the first place. Add to the mix the wearying litany of church leadership scandals, and it can seem to very difficult to make it all seem attractive. The result is that good people; good, gifted, wise people start to opt out of church with all the implications that has for various aspects of the church’s life.

One of the reasons this can be so difficult is that church leader is often bored too. It can be quite dull ‘running a church’; or it can be very hard and costly and you can just get wearied and worn down by the cost of trying to bring to birth what you think God is inviting into being. Either way, the result can be the same – tiredness, cynicism and boredom. You opt out – in spirit, if not in body.

So what’s the answer? Of course it’s too complicated for there to be one silver bullet to fix it all; but I think part of the answer may be in reminding ourselves that Jesus doesn’t drive people. Rather, he invites, calls, beckons. We want to push people, drag them into deeper commitment and involvement; Jesus, on the other hand, seems to make an invitation that’s so attractive and luminous that people are compelled to follow. We often talk of church leadership in these terms  – ‘The Call’; but what about the rest of us? Do we create a culture where each person gets to consider what the invitation, the call of Jesus is for them? Are people called to our churches, as we are as leaders; or do they simply fill a seat, a space on the rota, until they no longer can? This seems to me to be the art of spiritual direction, preached, prayed and discussed over coffee. Of course, there’s a responsibility on the individual there too – is she searching, listening, asking? Or is she allowing herself to atrophy? But that in turn asks questions of the leader; do we expect God to call people; do we structure church solely in terms of the event that will convert or create drama or crisis for people; or do we, through worship, word, prayer, sacrament, conversation take people with us in to the deeper life of God, where the self is redefined and the life reoriented? Do we expect that to happen – perhaps even multiple times – in the life of the disciples in our care?

These are big questions, not easily answered. But the boredom people – leaders and lay people alike – experience is real and needs to be addressed. No one ever promised the life of discipleship would be exciting; Jesus did promise a cross and a yoke, albeit an easy-fitting one – hardly images to engage the thrill-seeker. We have a difficult balance to strike between fostering holy expectancy of anything at any time, and the slow business of walking a hot and dusty road behind a man on the way to his crucifixion (and later, his resurrection). The question remains: are we, leader and lay person alike, listening for the invitation?

Shadow Sides 4: Thomas who doubted

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

My wife and I were at the cinema – not unusual in itself. If we only had to think about ourselves, we’d be seeing a movie at least once a week. We were seeing a comedy – a very successful one, in a packed cinema. I was hopeful – there’s something very therapeutic about being in a roomful of people all laughing at the same thing. One problem: everyone was laughing, apart from me. At least that’s how it felt. Bev was laughing. The people on the other side of me, behind me, in front of me were laughing. I wasn’t. I think I laughed once in the whole film. Everyone else, it seemed to me, was laughing all the way through. I didn’t leave the cinema with aching sides and a perma-grin. I left disappointed, mildly depressed and doubting my sanity.

There’s something of that about Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, in John chapter 20. Jesus, precious Jesus, who everyone thought had died, was alive. He’d appeared in the middle of a locked room speaking of peace and breathing the Holy Spirit on people. The disciples were overjoyed, awestruck, dumbfounded – apart from Thomas. He wasn’t there. We don’t know what he was doing. Maybe something normal like shopping; maybe he was so overcome by recent events that he needed space to himself. Whatever it was, when he returned to find his friends in wide-eyed wonder, he wasn’t in the same place – metaphorically as well as literally. So he wants some proof.

Poor Thomas. He’s often known as Doubting Thomas. But hold on. Who gave him that title? Christians. Not Christ. Christians. Thomas is a saint! He died 2,000 years ago and there are still churches named after him (including the one I grew up in).

Doubt. A sin, a sickness. Right? Well …

Take James 1:6.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

Seems pretty unequivocal, doesn’t it? Except when you stop to consider that the word translated ‘doubt’ here isn’t about being unsure of a doctrine but about being indecisive, having a foot in two camps, being of two minds, being lukewarm. Not so unequivocal. Maybe doubt isn’t the sin or sickness it’s sometimes cracked up to be.

What does Jesus do with Thomas who doubted?

He seeks him out. He goes looking for him. He comes back, especially for Thomas. He doesn’t rebuke him, doesn’t tell him his doubt means he can’t be a leader or disciple or friend. He just comes looking for him, and invites him to do what Thomas said he wanted and needed to do – touch the wounds, go skin to skin with the resurrected one.

Which he doesn’t do. It’s one of the details the writer would have left in. It’s important. Instead there’s 5 simple, awestruck words:

“My Lord and my God!”

Thomas thinks his doubts need proof to assuage them. What he actually needs is something rather different. It’s not that proof is bad. Jesus offers him proof, invites him to it. But what Jesus gives him is something deeper – relationship.

Proof is OK. It matters. Proof can encourage and build up faith. But let’s face it; it’s rarely definitive. There are brilliant people who are atheists and equally brilliant people who are faithful Jesus-followers – and of many other religions too. No, proof may be helpful but it’s now what Thomas needs or with which Jesus is most concerned. We’re tempted to think that if only God would do this  we’d believe. Well, Jesus had already addressed that in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; not even a messenger from beyond the grave will make the difference.

God is relationship, Trinity, perfect self-giving love. We’re made in that image. We’re made for relationship. So what’s most likely to convince us that this faith thing is real? Relationship with God and God’s people. Frustrating as the latter can be and mysterious as the former is, we need both. We’re made for it, and we’re restless until we find it. Doubt hits Thomas when he’s away from the group; staying in the group doesn’t make him immune to doubt but it does give him a context for it and allow him to be held – until Jesus seeks him out and draws close to him.

So let’s be kind, to ourselves and to all who doubt. Let’s not push them away, push God away because we finite beings are struggling to believe in a supernatural God. That’s to be expected. Let’s seek those who doubt out; let’s love them, not argue with them. Let’s listen to our own doubts and those of others; maybe we’ll learn something. And maybe, just maybe, in 2,000 years’ time we’ll find that there are churches named after us. Thomas was a saint, called and precious and sought out by God. We’ve reduced him to one who doubts.

God evidently has no problem with our doubts. We’re made in His image. So let’s commit to not letting doubt drive us or others away.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons