For Day 4 and 5 of the WordPress Finding Everyday Inspiration Challenge
Struggling has hope of success, but forsaking the struggle does not
– John Piper
John Piper is perhaps most famous for his espousal of Christian Hedonism, the idea that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him’. One of the essential tenets of this is that we are designed to, and should indeed, desire God not only on the level of mental assent but also at a deeper heart, emotional level. The reality of most people of faith is that our hearts and heart connections to God wax and wane, the strength of our feelings never really existing continuously in that Christian Hedonist space.
It is in a reflection on fifteen years since publishing that book that the quote above comes. This is both a source of hope and concern, hope because the struggle is proof that some life is still left in my faith, but also concern that they might just be the final thrashings of a thing recently dead thing. Food for thought!
For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.
I trace the beginnings of my faith journey to Easter of 1992, the enduring image of the day being standing alongside forty or so other people at the front of the bare, minimally decorated assembly hall of the College of Education Ekiadolor. I was there because I had been dragged there by my family; there being an Easter conference put on by the student Christian movement my parents spent a lot of their spare time supporting. Besides my irritation at being taken along — and thus losing the few days of freedom free from parental supervision — responding to the altar call along with the others whilst sobbing profusely is the only thing I remember from the events of the weekend. That would not be the last time I would respond to an altar call — or pray a similar prayer for that matter — but the sense of relief, joy and confidence about the future which followed that day is why I come back to that place as the definitive start of my spiritual journey, never mind the fact that it lasted for all of three weeks before the reality of life brought me down to earth. That personal connection was the final piece of the jigsaw that created a church bubble for me.
Growing up, church life was pervasive, bleeding into every other space I did life in. For all the distinctiveness of the other spaces — home and school — the burden of my recognisable surname meant that in the small town where I lived, certain assumptions were made about my character and behaviour. Life in the bubble had its own versions of things outside the bubble — its own popular music, TV shows, super star speakers and youth group events. Then there was the sense of certainty about what was right or wrong and what the expectations of behaviour were. That pervasiveness only increased after my father took the plunge and plopped for his collar. The ordination in 1993 strengthened the sense of insulation, focusing the involvement in a number of para church organisations into a single one, a properly pentecostal church. Where prior to that church was the University Chapel, stylistically aligned with the Anglican Communion complete with the use of the book of common prayer, church was now loud hand clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and all the other trappings of Pentecostalism.
In my experience, self reinforcing certitude is a notoriously difficult thing to preserve, especially once the barriers that protect it from outside scrutiny are removed. Going away to University did that for me, being the first time I would leave the cover of home for distant lands 80 miles away. Of the various things which chipped away at this bubble, the freedom of distance from home made the most difference, allowing me re-invent my associations with connections outside the bubble. That coupled with the multiplied numbers of people that I met on a daily basis created an overload of influences, ones which were decidedly more worldly wise and cosmopolitan than I had been exposed to previously. Wider questions about biblical hermeneutics — particularly Genesis in the light of the geological record — soon piled on the misery, blowing wide the door to drift and doubt. The only exposure to a non young-earth based theology I had up till then was in the margin notes of my father’s Dake Bible, notes which considered an alternative interpretation of the ‘days’ of Genesis as epochs or ages and hence less discordant with archaeology. Elsewhere a young earth, a historical Adam and Eve and the Fall were put forward as essential building blocks of the worldview I espoused. The seemingly significant disconnect between that and scientific reality left me questioning everything, further loosening what inhibitions remained. Since then five years in the South East of Nigeria — working in a town where a combination of oil money, single men, expats and a pool of attractive, educated single men fuelled a libertarian culture — and nine years in my corner of Scotland, as far removed from my bubble days as could be have done little to ease the sense of drift that I now carry. All of this notwithstanding, I have never fully managed to become untethered, church and faith somehow managing to remain embedded in my routines.
Most days I feel a deep kinship with the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, his hightailing it to a far country somewhat akin to how my faith journey evolved in the University years, once I was out of my church bubble. Whilst the emotional response that followed Easter of 1992 suggests a real change happened, my continuing struggle with the simple stuff — a regular practice of prayer and bible study, engaging a discipline of fasting and evangelism amongst others — often leaves me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Smarter theologians such as John Piper make a distinction between justification and sanctification; justification being a more or less instantaneous accounting of righteousness with sanctification being a more gradual growth. Implicit in that — in my layman’s view — is that a propensity for cognitive dissonance exists in all faith journeys, driven by the distance between what one knows to be right and what one does, between being justified and growing into a ‘sufficient’ degree of righteousness, as Paul’s example in Romans 7:13–24 suggests. The consensus, as I understand it, is that a measure of discipline, work and effort are required to bridge this gap, God both working in one and through one. That I largely accept, what is less certain is how much of the push to grow and improve is due to a real change as opposed to the remnants of the church bubble I grew up in, much in the same way a Muslim or Jew, by dint of culture abstains from non-Halal or non-kosher meat.
Yesterday was a seventh consecutive day of having managed to start my day with a time of quiet contemplation using the devotional I’ve chosen to use for the year. The reading, from 1 Corinthians 9:27 with its imagery of war with the body got me thinking of all the other metaphors faith (at least in the Christian sense) is described by. A few readily came to mind; an athlete, a soldier,a farmer and a steward of resources. I suspect there are more, if one chose to delve deeper, but all these seemed to support the narrative of focus and discipline on one hand, and reward on the other.
Three chance occurrences over the space of the last month have done a lot more to unsettle me than anything else in the year so far. Not in a bad way by any chance, but in an ask-myself-hard-questions way. Of the myriad of questions bobbing around in my mind, ones that relate to authenticity, passion and faith and how these can be melded into a coherent practice have come to the fore, inspired by how the people in question are doing life in their real worlds, leaving marks in ways I can only aspire to at this stage.
A few days later, a chance conversation with a friend of a friend somehow segued into a critique of life in our corner of the world and our lack of viable love interests. Somewhere in all that, a name popped up, of someone who now lived down south in a corner of England my traipsing had yet to lead me to. Egged on by curiosity, I ended up on Google again, from where I ended up on a church pod-cast site, listening spell bound to this message on singleness. Well worth a listen – it opens in a new window – if I say so myself.
And then there was Jürgen Klopp, whose arrival on Merseyside has us Liverpool fans – real, arm chair or pretend ones – buzzing again. The press conference at which he was unveiled, was a tour de force of hope, joy and anticipation. He does of course have pedigree, having delivered success on what was comparatively a shoe string budget at Dortmund, but peppering his answers with words like intensity, emotion and passion did his image no harm at all.
One of the things I have struggled most with over the past year is regaining the sense of focus that defined my early years, which is perhaps why reading and listening to people such as those I stumbled on over the past few weeks – and I would add Louie Giglio, John Piper and Francis Chan to that list – puts these questions front and centre in my mind. That some of the most important influences in my life from growing up are people who were incredibly passionate about what they did; such as G & H from children’s Sunday school, DEL and MK from work, has only served to reinforce the sense that I am missing something by simply coasting along.
No where at the moment is the lack of passion and earnestness more visible in my life at the moment than in my spiritual practice. Although ebbs and flows here have been part and parcel of my experience, in my quiet moments there is a deep dissatisfaction with where things are – and have been for far longer than I’d care to admit.
I’d like a year of tearing everything up and beginning again, of focus – of living earnestly and intentionally, one which includes more praying, more meditating, more reading and more engaging with the thorny issues bobbing about in my head. Like Francis Chan puts it:
I want to fight, I want to know that I am battling and doing something with my life. There’s a joy of a soldier walking out of a battle all bloodied up and cut up because he went and did something. This Christian life is very difficult sometimes, but even in that suffering, it’s something we desire, that we want to rescue, that we want to be part of this battle.
These have gone through several iterations in the past, but having taken time again to consider this the five below stood out as my core values. It’s obvious I need to work on several of these to make them front and centre, given the reality of my life in certain areas doesn’t reflect these values. But don’t they say a problem identified is half solved?
Faith: God, faith and how these interact in the real world and translate to personal and worldview integrity.
Family : Nuclear and the future family 🙂
Continuous Improvement: In three main areas – professionally, relationally and in delivering on the stated objective of contributing to life in the civic space. The intent is to actively seek out opportunities to learn both formally and informally for self improvement and a broadened knowledge base; challenging myself in the three main areas identified above.
Mentoring: As someone who has benefitted greatly from the input of knowledgeable others both in my personal and professional life, taking an active interest in the lives of others with the aim of improving them is something I want to do more of.
Health and Healthy Living: The ‘rigours’ of being a hands on rustgeek demand that I pass a medical exam every two years. The numbers from the last check in 2013 were a real wake up call – no thanks to shed loads of pizza and salt. That prompted a rethink and serious action to get the weight and junk food binges down to good effect. Getting healthy, staying healthy, leveraging technology to identify and eliminate risk factors and all the little decisions that feed into that has to be be more of a focus going forward.
A few weeks ago, ‘Jane Doe’ prompted some deep thinking by Single Nigerian, leading him to ponder if trying now and then was enough when others had sacrificed things (even their lives) to ‘get the word to the common man.’
I was listening to an old message by Al Mohler – Being Men and Raising Men [mp3] – whilst walking to work today, and a section [begins at 51;11] struck me as being a very apt answer to that question.
The disconnect between labour and reward is one of the most unbiblical manifestations of the confusion of this culture. We must teach our sons that they are expected to work, and that labour is by God’s design followed by reward. And the reward is more than money and more than material; it is the satisfaction in a man’s heart of knowing he has done something to the glory of God.
There is the temptation for some men to say, “You know, I can see what he does. He gets to do great things for the glory of God, the world gets to observe him and see him in what he does, the church gets to celebrate that, but all I do is this! ”
Whatever you do, do to the glory of God……. There are no little people, there are no little places, there are no little jobs in the kingdom of God. You will never know what life you were touching by your honesty as an accountant, by your steadfastness as a police officer, by your integrity as a teacher. You will never know how the glory of God is shown until in eternity you are given a glimpse of how God worked through you.