Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Of fear, and of trying not to be afraid

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 
John 14:27

The words "do not be afraid" appear over and over again throughout the bible.

For what it's worth, I don't believe this is because faith in God is some kind of magical cure for being afraid. On the contrary, the constant repetition of the command to not be afraid suggests that fear is very real: an innate human response to many of the situations which confront us. It is repeated as a command precisely because it doesn't come naturally, because it is something that has to be actively chosen, and tirelessly worked at.

But I believe it is also repeated endlessly because it is necessary: it is part of our calling as followers of Jesus.

We live in a world which wants us to be afraid: afraid of one another, afraid even of ourselves. Maybe 'twas ever thus, but whatever may have been the case in the past, it is certainly true today that we are bombarded with messages of fear. Messages of fear that say we have no choice but to lock our doors and keep our heads down and only talk to those we know and trust. Messages of fear that remind us, regretfully perhaps, that we must "protect" our own interests even at the expense of others. Messages of fear that encourage us to be constantly suspicious of the unknown.

It is this fear prevents people from building relationships with one another and which tears communities apart. It is this fear which keeps individuals trapped behind locked doors, communities cowering behind barbed wire topped walls, and countries hidden behind arsenals of increasingly terrifying weaponry.

It is this fear which is so often the root of that which manifests itself on the surface as hate.

It is this fear to which society wants us to succumb. It is succumbing to this fear which the bible so consistently warns against.

A radical commitment to the Gospel, then, is to not allow ourselves to be dragged into a culture of fear. The opposite of fear, the force by which it can be overcome, is love. Radical faith in a loving God means to dare to not be afraid.

I am not there yet, but I am determined to aspire to the fearlessness to which I am called by faith. The fearlessness to look into the eyes of others rather than down at my toes. The fearlessness to smile and offer a welcome to people not like me. The fearlessness to believe more war and weapons are not the answer. The fearlessness to keep believing that we can build a better world.

This is not naivety. It is deliberate choice. It is a choice founded firmly in a life of prayer which allows me to know increasingly deeply the joy of being loved. It is a choice to allow that love to permeate my life and influence the decisions I make about how I engage with the world around me. It is a choice I will try to make and remake each day.

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 
1 John 4:18

Sunday, 7 October 2018

The joy of being together

It was Lancaster University chaplaincy, really, which first taught me about both the importance of, and the possibility of, church unity; and it has remained a passion (and at times source of pain) ever since. I know I am extremely blessed that my faith journey has been enriched by such a diversity of traditions ... none of which are perfect, but all of which have added to the rich tapestry of what it means to me to be part of this community of those seeking to follow Christ and live out the gospel.

I have long since lost my youthful naivety which believed church unity, or at least institutional church unity, is imminently achievable; but I still deeply believe in the gospel call to "be one", not as an end in itself, but to add credibility to our witness to the beautiful and universal love of God. So when I was invited to attend the Churches Together in England National Forum, I was very pleased to be able to accept. The Forum happens once every three years and brings together those from all the different member denominations (47 at last count), from the associated organisations and charities, and from the interim bodies (regional and local churches together groups). I realise it was an immense privilege to be there and to be part of it, and I am grateful for having been offered such a wonderful opportunity. I certainly tried my best to make the most of it.

I went into the forum knowing very little about it. Sure, I had read the emails and skimmed through the programme, but I'm not sure it fully gave me a sense of what I was going to. Perhaps that didn't matter, perhaps it was even a good thing. I hope I went with an open mind to try and embrace whatever it turned out to be.

One thing I had picked up before I set off was, and which proved to be the case in the whole structure and ethos of the event, was that this wasn't seeking to be a decision-making meeting, with concrete outcomes intended at the end. I guess there is a risk in making such a choice: that it could feel like there was a lack of purpose or direction to the gathering. On the contrary, I discovered, that was very far from being the case. Rather it gave a great sense of freedom to allow lives and experiences to be shared.

With no required "outcome", discussion didn't have to be reduced to lowest common denominator platitudes, nor get bogged in irrelevant details. Instead it felt like a space where we could listen to each other, to share with one another the beauty, and the struggle of the Christian journey, lived out in different ways, but lived out with the same integrity and the same yearning. In the organised and in the imprompu, the formal and the informal, in the prayerful as in the pub; a space was created where conversation could flourish.

For three days, then, I talked, and I listened.

Reflecting, during and since, I think there were two things that ran as threads through the time, weaving together my experience of the forum.

The first was that for those present, the theme "The Transforming Power of Christ" was something lived and real; the questioning of this transformative power centred not on "if" but on "how". This was a gathering of people who believed in and were inspired by their faith. Don't get me wrong, nobody was promising perfection: there were plenty of conversations about struggle and challenge and frustration, but there was also an underlying sense of the joy and life of the Christian Faith. Across every tradition, and I spoke to people from a lot of different churches including at least one or two I'd never even heard of, there was a sense that this whole Christian thing was something worth living and worth sharing. Everyone's way of doing so might look very different, but the sense of the value of what we had was tangible across all those very varied representations of it. From the highest of high churches to the most we're-not-really-comfortable-calling-ourselves-a-church-at-all, from the church leaders to the people who didn't really know why they were there, there was a refreshingly unapologetic tone to the conversations about faith.

The second is something about language. It is no secret that I find language fascinating in all sorts of different ways. But throughout the forum I was struck multiple times by the effect and importance of the languages we speak. I am not using the word languages in the plural use accidentally, because I really think our languages of church, and of faith, and of mission and ministry are often like foreign languages to one another. This might seem a bit of a tangent, but I love teaching English in a multi-lingual environment where people have different languages but want to understand one another and communicate with one another. Assimilation happens on both sides: the speaker tries to adjust their words to make them more accessible to the listener; the listener tries to hear what the speaker wants to communicate. As we do so, we realise that, once we find a common language with which to communicate, our realities and our lives, are really not so very different. The forum felt a little bit like that at times. I would hear something which at first sounded alien to my experience, but as I listened, I realised it was in fact very familiar, just being said in a very different way. The beauty of creating spaces of attentive speaking and listening is that it allowed us to find a way to go beyond our very different ways of expressing our faith and realise that, when we could find a shared "lingua franca" our experiences, our vision, our faith, are perhaps not so very different after all.  I hope one thing I have brought away with me is a commitment to being more attentive to speaking and to hearing the deepest kernels of meaning within what is being said.

So what was it all for? Well, I didn't come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of the intricacies of the theologies of the various traditions represented, nor of their styles and practices. I didn't come away feeling I had contributed to resolving any of complicated, uncomfortable questions which keep brothers and sisters in Christ from living out their Christian vocation together. 

But I did come away having talked to lots of people who, like me, are doing their best to journey with God in the contexts where they are, drawing on traditions which have helped them to do so. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the struggles and the strength of these people with whom my path had briefly crossed. I came away feeling a few small steps closer to that vision of being "one".

Even as a self-defined extrovert, I also came away feeling in need of some quiet time to myself to process and reflect. I hope that is a symptom of having made the most of the opportunity! I am certainly very glad I was there.

There is a report on the Forum on the Birmingham Churches Together webpage, and lots of stuff about it on the Churches Together in England one