Wednesday, 13 February 2019

3 Almost Helpful Attitudes to Singleness

One Saturday a couple of years ago I found myself on the dance floor at a wedding with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” blaring out of the speakers. My initial response to it was a surge of sass, as is the norm when Queen B drops the beat, but as I glanced around the sense of empowerment quickly fizzled away and my enthusiasm waned: the whole circle I was with consisted of couples- young, young couples, who all - sheepishly, awkwardly- ended up looking my way. Everyone smiled and clapped and we all did 'the dance', but instead of feeling liberated, I felt ashamed.

For me, shame is a large component of my battle with singleness, especially as I get older. When I was in my mid-twenties I wore my singleness with pride. If you dug a little you would have found anxiety and the lurking suspicion that maybe my relationship status would be permanent, but nonetheless I would have been front, centre and singing on the dance floor.

All this to say that my experience of singleness has changed as the years have gone by. Over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that marriage is a very real uncertainty. I realised that I was finding this extraordinarily hard to accept: looking at a future without marriage in it seemed like something I couldn’t cope with, and having spoken openly about it, I know I am not the only one. But that seemed absurd to me, given what the Bible says about who Christians are, what they're made for, who they are known by! I am more than a conqueror, I am part of a royal priesthood, I am an heir... and yet I'm not worthy if I'm not married? Please. Jesus did not come so that I could hitch my entire identity, hope for the future and joy on some mortal man!

Given this, why have I, at times, felt so distressed by the prospect of singleness? I have been trying to unpick what the attitudes are that have made facing the future single feel so shameful and implausible. There's must be something askew somewhere, so what is it?

Some attitudes were easier to unpick than others. For example, those attitudes that helpfully suggested I “try going to the gym,” or casually quipped, “I bet you pray for a husband every day”, were cast aside lightly (or thrown in to the bin with great force). But there were some other attitudes that I think needed to be dealt with with a little more nuance, especially as they are often offered up as comforts to suffering singles. Although it is by no means exhaustive, I hope this post is helpful to married and single folk alike... and I am ready for the push back! And... what better time to share these thoughts then on Valentine’s Day Eve? Jokes! But also- here we are!

 “If it makes you feel better, marriage is hard too…”

What I like about this is that it is true: marriage is hard. Having seen many, many, many friends get married, I can testify with both hands (is that a thing?), that marriage is difficult with a capital D! It exposes sin and selfishness, it’s humiliating, it’s exhausting, it's painful and it’s a fricking miracle! Seriously married people: go book yourself in for some celebratory Valentine's wine. Praise God for his grace when he makes it work! I like the helpful challenge this attitude presents to the idolatry of assuming marriage will be a "happily ever after". 

What I like less about this attitude is that, because I’m not a psychopath, the suffering of my married friends does not bring me comfort. I want to take the suffering of my married friends seriously, and I don’t think it would be compassionate or kind or sensible or helpful to say, “well, you should try being single!” Marriage is hard. Singleness is hard. Marriage has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with singleness. Singleness has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with marriage. Given this, dismissing one with the other does not help! 

 “This is God’s best for you.”

What I like about this statement is that it acknowledges the fundamental truth behind every person’s singleness: God is Sovereign. If you are single, the reason you are so is because God is working his purpose out, and for now, part of his purpose is this. This means you can stop worrying about whether you are single because of your appearance, your weight, your personality, your history, your circumstances, your mistakes, your fussiness- because even if those factors are… factors, over all those things, God is Sovereign. All the days ordained for you were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. I also like it because it acknowledges that God is good, it aims to communicate God's care for me, and it begins to testify to the truth that God is at work to bring about ultimate good in all things.

What I don’t like about it is that it’s not a Biblical phrase, and as such is slightly clumsy theology. 

I have a basic test for such soundbites that goes: “is it true for every Christian in every place?” For example, I would find it an inexpressibly inadequate thing to say to a Christian in a work camp in North Korea, and an outright offensive thing to say a Christian whose child just died of cancer. I am not denying God's Sovereignty or his goodness. Yes, the Lord reigns. Yes, all suffering has a purpose. Yes, God will redeem. But redemption comes with the acknowledgement that things are broken. Death camps are bad. Cancer is bad. Sin is bad. Loneliness is bad.

God’s best for us was Eden, and God’s best for us will be the new creation. But in the meantime, we suffer, because the world is not as it should be. And part of the wretchedness of the world’s brokenness is that the curse is uneven. Some people have it worse than others: suffering isn’t handed out in even batches- it's irrational and disproportionate and terrible. Evidently I am not saying here that I think singleness is the worst of all sufferings- far from it! I am just making the general point that this "God's best" attitude can be short-hand in a way that I have not found particularly helpful…

The Lord redeems: it is his glory that this is his work. I’ve been reading Ruth recently, which is a powerful story of redemption. Naomi loses her husband and sons, and yet God brings her from a place of loss to a place where she becomes the grandmother of King David. It is a powerful, beautiful and gracious redemption. But Ruth’s baby didn’t “replace” the lost sons: that's not how redemption works. There was redemption, but there was also brokenness, and still grief. In this world, Naomi still had to carry the brokenness of her son’s premature deaths. One day that brokenness would be healed forever, but not in Ruth 4. 

Single people suffer in singleness because the world is broken (and because the church doesn’t always function in the way it should- more on this later!) and "God's best" can undermine that. 

The glorious news is that God is working powerfully in all things for good, shaping his children in to the likeness of Jesus. And as with Jesus, suffering now means glory later. So if the attitude behind “this is God’s best for you” is actually, “God is achieving for you glory that will far outweigh all the brokenness you suffer now, because he is an incredible redeemer who is delighted by how you’re honouring him by persevering in suffering”, then it’s a glorious attitude. But maybe we need to qualify!

 “Maybe God is teaching contentment in Jesus…”

What I like about this statement is that it is acknowledging the reality that God is at work in our character at all times and that he loves for us to find refuge in Him. It points to the glory and sufficiency of Jesus and to the fact that God cares about both our holiness and our happiness.

What I don’t like about it…

Firstly, it is dangerously close to, Peggy (for example, name inspired by photo from Peggy's Cove) saying, “I found someone when I learned to be content.” 

As my friend once courageously pointed out at a hen do where she'd heard a few too many 'aw you deserve it' statements: “marriage is not a reward for good behaviour.” The gospel reminds us that none of our blessings are a reward for our goodness. Marriage is a gift! A glorious, generous gift- so it is unhealthy to make it sound like it is something that is earned by contentment, or maybe some other attitude of godliness. This lands you on a trail of misery where you think you will be married once you are more (or less) of XY and Z. But, as with all goodnessess from the Lord, marriage is something that comes from grace- an exceptional gift in a broken world- that demonstrates the power of the cross, not something that comes once you’ve chalked up enough godliness points. 

So when we clap engagement announcements in church (for example) it is a celebration of God’s generosity rather than an applauding of someone’s achievements. And boy is God generous!

(As a brief aside/ sass at Peggy...  it is wonderful if Peggy learned contentment aged 25. But there are probably many single people who had long periods of contentment when they were 25 too- but when 26, 27, 30, 40 tick over, they had to learn to battle with it again: another round of shame, of changing friendships, of joy in their friends joy. It is different being single when all your closest friends are married to being single when all your closest friends are also single! So though Peggy might feel that the narrative was that her marriage came from her contentment… perhaps her discontentment was satisfied by marriage.)

But more importantly, finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It may be that the very fact of someone's singleness is a sign of their contentment in Jesus. It may be painful, but it is accompanied by perseverance. They could drop the whole shebang and go find any old partner (though the Holy Spirit would be on their case), but they haven’t. They've stuck it out trusting God and said- I’m suffering, but Jesus is worth it.  

One more time: finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It's a sign of being human. Humans were made for community. That was God’s plan. The reason singleness can feel hard to bear is not because of an insecure relationship with God, but because it's hard to conceive of what community will look like apart from marriage. In my twenties it was clearer, because we all hung out together, but what about when all of my close friends are paired off in to new units?* Jesus and I both know that I need other humans. That's what the church is for! 

[I should say here that I am incredibly thankful to friends I know who have made me feel part of their families and lives, because that is what has made singleness seem like a more plausible option.] 

To take it further, I recently realised, with some alarm, that I would be theoretically willing to jet off to Siberia... or Antarctica... or the moon with a man I loved, even if I knew only him, because it seemed that marriage would offer me a more stable covenant community than life in the place I've lived for the past eight years has! Realising that willingness (ahem... desperation?) in myself helped me see there is something skewed about the way church community is functioning (and I don't mean my specific church, just our culture in general!), and the reason singleness feels sad is not necessarily because single people are being ungodly, but because they're being human. Humans are made for human family, made to live life alongside other people, made for interdependence. 

So yes, God may be teaching a single person contentment. But that doesn't mean their singleness won't hurt. And yes, there are blessings with singleness. Very, very many.  (Including being able to still own the dance floor with Queen B when the occasion arises!). But there is also pain. 
As Christians, single, married, divorced, bereaved, we can be perplexed, persecuted, hard-pressed, struck down and always carrying around in us the death of Jesus, and still be content. Being content in Jesus means looking the suffering full in the face and then looking up and saying, “Jesus, I see the cost, but you’re worth it. You're with me, and you're worth it.”

So instead of the attitude, “maybe God is teaching you contentment,” it might be better if... (and I don't think there's an easy fix here, so please excuse the enormous leap...) the church operated more like a family, so that singleness doesn't feel like being shut out, and marriage doesn't feel like being shut in. What we want is for marriages to overflow with love that welcomes in the widows, orphans and singles, and for singles to serve their married friends with the love that trusts Jesus' promise it is better to give than to receive. I have no idea how to change this, but I'd like it to change!

Waiting for Glory! 

Jesus came to be a hope to those who had no earthly reason to hope. He came to build a loving community out of sinners and to make himself known by their love for one another. He came to enable us to suffer and rejoice, until all things are made new in the new creation and ultimate community! Yes! And it's my prayer that whatever our relationship status, we'll help make being human better for one another, and in doing so, make the glory of Jesus known. 

Those thoughts will do for now. I hate posting about singleness, but people love to read about it. So, here is my almost-Valentine's gift to you. Yours to me could be some kind of acknowledgement you've read? There's something unnerving about silent readers, especially on this issue. 

Love to you all. xx 

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Painful Faith in Dark Nights

"Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, "where have they laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "see how he loved him!" But some of them said, "could not he who opened blind eyes also have kept this man from dying?" John 11: 32-37

A prayer of faith 

When she was at the tomb
and her brother had died
Mary came to you broken, weeping.
She cried,
if you had been here he would not have died.
If only you had been here.
She wept because she knew you:
You could have made things different. Deathless. Divine.
She wept knowing you:
You had set so many free,
Your power had settled exploding seas:
You were love and power and power and love
And the sun rising in the darkest of nights.

But this night the sun had not risen.

It was her faith in you that broke her heart.
If you had been there... it would not be so.
It was faith, not doubt, that dealt the tragic blow.
She knew and she'd seen and she trusted:
You could put a stop to pain,
And send it howling into the sea.
You could make whole the broken
Undo decay, send them leaping away.
You could liberate the ashamed
And send them home.
You could
You could
You did.

But this time the sun had not risen.
This time,
You didn't.
You hadn't. 
If only you had been there.
But you had stayed away. 
And now the splinters of her self looked in to the bleakest of tombs,
Staring into the stony face of her worst case scenario.
Worst case that would not have been,
If you had been there.
If you had been there she would not now feel the sting of shame or
Feel the burning gaze of those who said:
he blessed others but he didn't bless you. Maybe he couldn't. 
But her heart shattered because she knew,
she knew from those days where your words
Took root and grew
cut through twisted weeds that choked belief, 
that had hissed, he couldn't.
Yet in the darkness of the soil bloomed truth:
You could.
You could.
Of course you could.

But this time, you hadn't. 
If only you had been there.
If only.

And I know that you could put a stop to my heartache too.
You could reach out and heal those soul sores
Raw with wondering when you'll turn up,
Stinging with the disappointment, more, of wondering
If you do turn up,
Won't it be too late?
Isn't it already too late? 

My faith breaks my heart
Because I know the tenderness of those scarred hands
That can bind up the wounded -
That could bind up me.
You could.
You could.
But Lord, I'm undone.
And you say death has lost its sting
But life sure hasn't.
But it could.
Surely, Son of David, it could. 
My faith breaks my heart 
Because I know you are the Dawn to defeat the blackest of nights,
But I'm still in the abyss.  

Lion of Judah,
You could tear up the dark.
Lamb of God you could tend to my heart.
Gracious Jesus,
In whom the nations hope-
how my soul aches, quakes, trembles, breaks
Wishing you would,
Knowing, you could, 

Liberator of captives,
That you would break the chains of shame.
That you would settle the explosions,
silence those voices that cry: 
he blessed others but he didn't bless you. May be he couldn't, they say.
But you could.
You could.
Of course you could. 

Lord Jesus, I know-
I know because your word bloomed in my heart too-
Glory as of the only begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth-
You bloomed in my heart-
Love and power and power and love
And you could.
You could.
You could. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Why I'm Still a Christian (Part 1)

My last post was the story of how, aged 15, I became a Christian.

When I was a teenager, I was aware of a lurking assumption that I'd fizzle out of this phase soon enough, just like I fizzled out of recording every single song in the UK Top 40 every.single.week. But while I eventually stopped being a Top 40 addict (I blame the break up of the Spice Girls), I haven't stopped being a Christian. And why not? *

There are two main thoughts that have tempted me to throw in the towel. One is, "it's not true" and the second is, "it's too hard."

I will discuss the elements of faith that have sometimes felt too hard another time: depression, singleness, the church, unanswered prayer. But if I had not found peace over the first question (is it true?), I never would have stuck around to figure out the second (is it worth it?).

The first time it even crossed my mind that Christianity might not be true came about a year after I became a Christian.  I had enjoyed a year of joy and freedom, where every hymn I sung sounded fresh and glorious; the whole world looked hopeful in a way I had not imagined possible.Then I hit a bump. I went on a five week trip to Kenya with a team of other teenagers, where we ran kids' camps in partnership with local churches. One of the churches we partnered with was part of a tiny Christian population on a beautiful, largely Islamic island.  While we were there we stayed in a stone guest house in the Old Town. Bougainvillea hung on the lattice above us as we slept on the paved floors in sleeping bags, or on them, because even in the night the heat was clammy. Each morning we were woken up by the call to prayer. Long before we managed to get our weary eyes open to assess our mosquito bites, the song resonated across the island and our Muslim neighbours made their way down cobbled streets to one of the many local mosques.

During my first year of faith the thought that someone might be able to believe something with the same conviction as I believed in the trustworthiness of Jesus had not crossed my mind. But during those early mornings, I began to see that sincerity wasn't enough. I was sincere; these Muslims were sincere. We believed contradictory things; we couldn't both be right just because we were both sincere. It would be disrespectful to the Muslims who were worshipping Allah to diminish their beliefs and say, "well, really we're praising the same God." The smallest knowledge of both religions demonstrates that this is not the case (for example, Muslims do not believe Jesus died, Muslims do not believe Jesus is God... two points central to Christian faith). Somehow the question of the truth of my belief began to matter.

The same year I began studying philosophy at A Level, which threw up all sorts of intellectual challenges to the Bible. At the same time, my unbelieving friends upped the tempo. They'd let me have my faith for a while, but when my enthusiasm had outlasted the year, they began to ask probing questions. I am so grateful that they made me figure out what I believed and why; they were not willing to settle for any bluffing on my part. Just because it made me feel better didn't make it true.

As a brief aside I should say that just because it made me feel better didn't make it untrue. Just because thirsty people find that water quenches their thirst it doesn't mean that water can't be trusted. Yes, Christianity dealt with my guilt. But if I really was guilty, then its dealing with it wasn't evidence it wasn't trustworthy, but that it was. If I was made to find joy in depending on my Creator, it shouldn't come as a surprise that when I depend on him, I find joy.

But I could see how easy it could be to believe something only because it made you feel better, with a complete disregard for reality. Yes, believing Jesus died for me had made my life better, but it might have made me feel better to believe that Keanu Reeves, over in Hollywood, was desperately in love with me, even if none of the boys in sixth form were. If it wasn't actually true (I am beginning to concede that it probably wasn't) then my believing it would just be delusional.

And so I wanted confidence beyond, "it makes me feel better." It wasn't enough for me to have people say, "I wish I had your faith" when what they really meant was, "I wish I was crazy enough to disengage from reality as much as you can." It became clear that I needed to explore whether or not Christianity could make a claim to truth, quite apart from my own experience. I couldn't shake my experience, but I felt challenged: was what I believed valid beyond my wanting it to be true?

So I read a lot, particularly about the resurrection of Jesus. I read "Who moved the stone?" and "The Case for Christ", both books written by men who had become believers through the process of trying to disprove the existence and resurrection of Jesus. I listened to a number of talks by Michael Ramsden on truth, suffering, and the historical record regarding Jesus. I compared the historicity of Christianity with that of other religions, looked at tables comparing ancient manuscripts, and thought frequently about how the evidence surrounding the resurrection might be explained, apart from the resurrection. Like many others before me I couldn't find an explanation more compelling than the obvious one: that Jesus was alive! (Of course this was also corroborated by my own experience of the living Jesus). I also asked questions, a lot. At youth group, time and again I would say, "this is probably a stupid question but...." How I must have tried my poor leaders! I'm still glad I asked.

By the time I was 18 I had decided I was going to study Theology at a secular university (shout out to Nottingham!). Several people warned me that studying this course would be the death and burial of my faith - but my conviction was growing: there was no point in believing in something that wasn't true. I decided that if the course threw up legitimate objections to faith, then in the end I would be doing myself a favour. Life without the Jesus of the Bible would be most brutal if the Jesus of the Bible really existed. If he didn't, and academic study proved it, then I could get on with living life my way. Reality might hurt, but it still mattered. In the end, all of us want sanity more than happiness.

At university, Theology was a big (though not the biggest) challenge. Some doubts were knocked on the head forever: did Jesus really exist? (Of course he did!), was the New Testament good history? (Luke was remarkable!), was there anything to the God Delusion (ranting, but not much more!), was Islam comparable in terms of the scrutiny its texts had been through? (not even close!), was it possible to be an intellectual and a Christian? (yes, and humble, gracious and kind too - shout out to Dr Chad Van Dixhoorn whose faith, faithfulness and glorious selection of bow-ties helped many of us through second year!).

Looking back I could have been more rigorous in my approach to some of the questions I was presented with during the course. It was difficult to pursue every one to its end, what with living university life and everything. Sometimes I took the short cut of putting my trust in other Christians, well known intellectuals, who had engaged with the cutting edge debates and come away with robust, inspiring, evangelistic love for Jesus. I had three evangelical lecturers who were honest about their own doubts, but who were unwavering in their confidence in Jesus. Sometimes I let them do the hard work for me.

I also had some excellent Christian theologian friends, and we'd sit in the cafe in the Trent building, sipping hot chocolate and helping one another figure things out, or extensively discussing Chad's bowties. At some point during this time I read a fantastic little pamphlet by John Stott who argued that our confidence in the Bible is rooted in our confidence in Jesus. Did we believe that He was the Word made flesh as he claimed to be? If we did, trusting the Bible was ultimately about trusting Him: given He had conquered death, could he be trusted when he saw the Old Testament as authoritative, the New as his commission? The question was more about whether I could trust this person, than whether I could trust the book. In my life outside of theology lectures, I was experiencing the faithfulness of Jesus and getting to know him better, so the call to trust Him was reassuring and made sense to me.

One of my lecturers was an atheist who taught us the "Life and Teachings of Jesus" module. He taught us that Jesus didn't really believe he was the Son of God, that he probably didn't do any miracles, that none of the grand claims of John's gospel could possibly be true. But when he came to the session on the resurrection, he admitted that he could not find an adequate explanation for the birth of the early church, the emptiness of Jesus' tomb, the witness of the women- that wasn't the resurrection of Jesus. He said he thought it was some kind of mass hallucination, but admitted the flaws of his own position. "It's a real problem," he said. I wondered whether, if he'd allowed himself to go in the direction of the evidence, his other views on Jesus might have shifted. Christianity makes the resurrection its own cornerstone, after all. Paul wrote to the early church in no uncertain terms: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith."

Now I should make clear that these questions concerning the truth of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. As I asked these questions I was also continuing to read my Bible, continuing to pray for my friends, doing my best to obey what I found Jesus asking me to do, and finding great freedom and joy as I did. I was doing my best to tell others about him and finding that my friends were also compelled by his person. I was going to church and singing hymns written hundreds of years before my lifetime that spoke of a Jesus whose faithfulness resonated with my own experience. As I read more of the Old Testament and saw more of the intricacy of the way the Bible held together, Jesus became too good not to be true, good beyond what one writer could make up- let alone what countless writers from across the centuries could bear witness to! As I got to know Jesus, I found it increasingly hard to believe he was a fantasy. He just did not behave in a way the God of my imagination might behave- like a bigger version of me. He was consistently surprising. He said things I didn't like. He disagreed with me! And like very few people had been able to do before, he managed to change my mind. He commanded me to! And he proved himself to be consistently (sometimes irritatingly) right.

 All  this to say that all of these factors contributed to my perseverance too. I was not asking, "is it true?" from a neutral position. But is anyone, really?

You might read this with the thought, "you had an incentive to believe what you did- it made you happy." And I would agree that believing in the love of Jesus has done me good beyond expression (although my experience of happiness has been complex- as you'll see in the next post!). But I would argue that most people's faith positions are held by an incentive. My lecturer had a reason to want to discount the resurrection- if he did, Jesus could stay as a misunderstood teacher who had no claim on his, or anyone else's life. In fact the Bible says we all have an incentive to want to disbelieve God: if we can dismiss him, then we can go on living lives our way. But if Jesus really did conquer death, he cannot be ignored.

Once I was chatting with some fellow students about the existence of God. They said, "you want me to believe in God when he just swept thousands of people in to the ocean with a tsunami?" The legitimate question of suffering aside, they were blaming the suffering in the world on a God they didn't believe existed! That's quite a tough position to hold! But it was convenient. And we are all very capable of believing what is convenient over believing what is true. What strikes me about Jesus is that he doesn't say, "come follow me, it's convenient." He says, "come follow me to the cross." And many do, all the way to death.

None of this is to say that I have found 'proof' for my faith. But whether or not it is true matters to me, whether its something rooted in history rather than wistful longing (although my wistful longing must be for something!), whether or not it really makes sense of the world as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. Could I have read more? Yes. Do I have unanswered questions? Yes. Do I think I'm a Christian because I was clever enough to figure it out? Absolutely not! I have scratched the surface of theological study. I know countless people who are significantly cleverer than me, many of whom were mentioned in this post, who don't believe. And I didn't even consider the evidence for Christianity until I'd already started following Jesus. But did seeking answers to the question, "is it true?" help me to stay a Christian? Yes, I think it did.

And I hope they may help you too:
(If you have better suggestions, that's what the comments are for!)

- Read the New Testament: does it sound made up to you? 
- Do Uncover with a Christian friend: what impression do you get of Jesus? 
- Why trust the Bible? Amy Orr- Ewing
- The Case for Christ, Lee Stroebel 
- Who Moved the Stone, Frank Morrison 
- More Than a Carpenter, Josh Macdowell 
- The Reason for God, Tim Keller 
- Making Sense of God, Tim Keller 
- Tim Keller "Overcoming Objections" Podcasts
- Glen Scrivener: Debates from Sam Harris (prominent atheist) and Jordan Peterson 

*Of course, the answer to both the how I became and why I still am a Christian is the same: because God is alive, gracious, and committed to me. I think this will become far more evident in next time's post! 

Friday, 12 October 2018

Joy Story

Today I am giving my testimony at youth group, and decided to write it down to get it in my head. I also decided to share it with you all, because it's probably about time.

Q: What does your life look like when you're not helping out here on a Friday?
When I'm not at here, I am mainly doing a Masters in Creative Writing. This means I spend a lot of time staring out of windows hoping for inspiration, or travelling across town to find new places with different windows I can stare out of, and hope for inspiration.

Q: What was life like for you growing up?
I guess I had a bit of an unusual life growing up in that I lived in Africa until I was 12. My parents were medical missionaries working in Rwanda, and then Tanzania and Uganda, and then I was away at school in Kenya from the ages of 5-12. We moved back to the UK when I was in Y8, where I went to a local Cardiff comp.

Q: If someone asked you back then who Jesus was, what would you have said?
I might have said, "the Son of God", but the honest answer from my life probably would have been "irrelevant." Of course I never would have said that... but I did spend a lot of time thinking about big questions about God, and even wanting to live in a way that pleased him. But I never thought much about Jesus. I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by how distant God felt, how hard loving him seemed and how some Christians seemed to be really joyful. I kind of scorned them for that joy because I thought they were unrealistic about the real world... but of course deep down I wanted that joy too. But I didn't get what Jesus had to do with it.

Q: So what changed for you, and when?
The big change came for me when I was 15. I went to a big Christian festival and there were a few things that happened that week that completely changed how I thought about Jesus, and therefore, everything. Firstly, I heard a talk where a guy was saying "there's a difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus"...and I realised that I easily fit the first category, being an MK and all, but that I definitely did not know him. Secondly, for the first time in my life someone explained the cross to me and I understood it and saw how wrong I'd got God. I understood that at the cross all of my sin was dealt with, but also my shame. God wasn't stingy and grumpy, waiting for me to jump high enough. He was generous,  and kind. In Jesus, he had dealt with the whole burden of sin and shame. Seeing this made me realise how beautiful Jesus was to know.  And then I guess the third thing is what really blew my mind. I remember sitting in my tent crying, with this really strong image in my mind of Jesus standing in front of me, holding out his hand and saying, "Philippa- follow me." I was overwhelmed that Jesus would want anything to do with me, that he'd know my name, speak it- and want me with him! A year or so later I came across this bit in Luke 5, right after Peter meets Jesus. He sees something of who Jesus is and says to him, "get away from me, I'm a sinful man." The wonder of that passage is that Jesus knows he's a sinful man- but he calls him anyway, and uses him to build his kingdom. When I read that it took me back to how I'd felt in the tent- totally humbled and utterly joyful to be called, seeing the kindness of Jesus and thinking: why would you want anything to do with me!?  As I've been remembering all this I've just been struck again by the incredible privilege and grace of the call... I don't deserve to have Jesus know my name, let alone to have him call me to follow him! But He does. And that's what's so unrelentingly wonderful about him. One thing, anyway!

Q:What difference has knowing Jesus made in your life?
I guess the most immediate change was that I felt joy- sometimes bubbling over, sometimes still and steadfast- but I distinctly remember rejoicing in a physics lesson as I remembered- the way to God is opened up, my sin is dealt with, I'm loved! A physics lesson.  And I still feel it now- it's not always a rush of exhilarating emotion- but it is this unshakeable and glorious conviction that my biggest problem- my big old stinky pile of selfishness and sin has been dealt with, forever, by my Saviour who loves me. Before I'd seen Jesus I felt like God didn't want anything to do with me, but I could think why not. Once I'd seen Jesus I knew God did want everything to do with me, but I could not understand why. I saw him and saw my own unworthiness. But seeing his love for me inspite of that brought me great, unshakeable joy! Now I've had depression for most of my adult life, so I wouldn't exactly say the years since I was 15 have been sunshine, rainbows and lollipops, far from it (I mean I grew up in Wales so sunshine was always unlikely...) - but knowing Jesus has brought me joy. Whatever else is going on, I've been forgiven- completely forgiven and called by someone who loves me. Jesus.

Q: Who would you say Jesus is now?
Whatever the opposite of irrelevant is! It is baffling to me that I missed it (though I guess that is what blindness is!). He is the definition of relevance- the central character in the story of the world, the King of glory, Lord, Saviour, God. I mean, I cannot articulate his importance but thankfully he did himself. He said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." - and so much more. Read John's gospel to be staggered by Him! And the wonder of all this is that though He is reigning, though all reality is all about Him, though all of life finds its ultimate meaning in Him, He's also my friend.

"I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I might gain him..." Philippians 3:8 

Monday, 3 September 2018

He Does What He Wants

If this year has taught me nothing else, it's that there is nothing like signing yourself up for a Creative Writing MA for making you absolutely freak out and freeze up every time even the mildest thought of putting pen to paper/ fingers to keyboard enters your freaking, frozen head.

But here I am, hoping the thawing process has begun.

(Full disclosure: my sister's mother-in-law Heather has made the most amazing frosted blueberry cake - it's so fluffy I could die- and I have banned myself from eating any until I have finished this post.)

In addition to my writing anxieties, it's felt like a rough few months. In a number of ways, life has been hard. I don't know about you, but I find that every time I go through a tough patch I am baffled that my 'theology of suffering' is not more robust. But recently I have found myself, amid the turmoil, coming back to the thought: God does what he wants.

Life circumstances have felt ruthless at times and I have spent an inordinate amount of time (even for me) weeping, as I have tried to understand God's Sovereignty and the fall out of living life in a messy, broken world with a messy, broken heart. I've realised that I want things to be different, and the weight and rage of my disappointments have shown me how much I really resent the fact that I am not the one calling the shots.

Yesterday in church we sang: "be lifted up, be lifted up - as we bow down, be lifted up". I felt wretched as we sang, feeling the call to surrender to Jesus and his will as it seems to have unfolded this year, this lifetime. At least part of me wanted to bow down before the truth that God is God, and I am not. God, after all, does what he wants.

I am staying with my sister in Canada at the moment and we've had a number of heart to hearts. One day we walked to the lake near her house, sun beating down on us, shimmering water lapping on to the rocks.  Tranquil? Ha! Not so much. In these serene surroundings, (and not for the first time this summer) I railed (and wailed!) against the way God works, the way sometimes things play out so brutally, against the way, however much we fight for hope, suffering and despair seems so inevitable and inescapable. I said, "if I loved my friend I wouldn't work this way."  I talked about what it feels like to have your hope broken so completely that it seems beyond repair, how dreadful that loss is when hope is such a precious commodity to you. I said to another friend, "I trusted Jesus would catch me if I fell. But I feel like I've fallen, and all there is is brokenness."

And all these conversations ended with these words lodging heavily in my heart: God does what he wants. Every time it came to me I could feel my heart hardening around their truth, feeling them thud in my mind like concrete blocks: He doesn't need to explain himself to me; he made the heavens; he made me; he can ask whatever He wants of me, regardless of how costly it may feel.

Of course, this is true: God does what he wants. At the end of Job, God didn't sit down and tell him all the ways he had been working to glorify himself through his servant's faithfulness. He just said, "Did you make snow? Do you know when mountain goats give birth? Are you commanding the universe?" (And of course, like Job, my answers are no, and no, and I'm trying, but evidently no. So I too lay my hand on my mouth (Job 40:4))

But this morning as I was praying, I was convicted that I wasn't believing the full truth and felt I should look at the context of the verse my cling-to mantra came from.

It's Psalm 115: 3, and it was a real rebuke to me. It is actually given as an answer to a question.

The question is: "Why should the nations say, "Where is their God?"

And verse 3 answers: Our God is in heaven; He does all he pleases."

What a rebuke to my heart that used those words as a way of saying, "I just have to endure the harshness of God." These words are written to challenge the question "where is God?" The psalmist is saying: don't believe the idea that God is  Sovereign and so therefore far off and callous and aloof  and harsh and entitled to do what he wants so suck it up, y'all. No, he says: our God is doing what he pleases, which is loving us.

God is not just "God". He is the LORD: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." (Exodus 34:6)

And of course who He is makes and enormous difference to what he wants. And what does the Lord want? This psalm is rich with declarations of it. What the LORD of the covenant wants, he boldly declares, is to be faithful to us.

The LORD does all he pleases so "he is our help and shield" (v9, v10, v11). The LORD does all he pleases so "he has remembered us" (v12). The LORD does all he pleases so "he will bless us, he will bless us, he will bless us" (v12, v13).  The LORD does all he pleases so he will glorify himself by showing us "steadfast love and faithfulness" (v1).  Again, God wants to help us and shield us and remember us and bless us and love us and be faithful to us. And hallelujah, God does what he wants!

As John Piper writes, "our salvation through the death of Christ for us hangs on this: our God is in heaven; he does whatever he pleases."

So as I keep limping a long a path that feels harsh and steep, I am trying to remind myself that God doing what he wants is not bad news, but glorious good news. These words can be a soothing balm rather than a weighty slab. His will is to be steadfast in his faithfulness and love towards me: to be my help and my shield and my source of blessing.

I am praying that, even through tears, Jesus gives me humility enough not just to surrender to a God who does what he wants, but to trusting which God this is who does what he wants: the faithful to the covenant LORD.

The LORD is not a God who needs to have what real love looks like explained to him. He is Love's definition from deepest eternity. He is Love's source through all ages. He is the Lover of Israel: patient and faithful and redeeming and patient and faithful and redeeming. He is the God of Calvary's Love: mysterious beyond fathoming and faithful unto death, the crescendo of Heaven's sweetest songs and most triumphant anthems, the redeemer of Hell's greatest darknesses.

How foolish of me to think I could teach him about love.

In the coming days I imagine I will need to, time and again, throw myself on the One who binds up messy, broken hearts and this messy, broken world, reminding myself that He does what he wants, but that what He wants, by the unfathomable mystery of the grace of His perfect character, is to be covenantally, generously, infinitely faithful to a wretch like me.

I'm praying you'll know Him too. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Call of Joy

In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon writes to a junior demon to berate him because his human has recovered from a period of spiritual dryness. He writes,

“And now for your blunders. On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there- a walk through countryside he really likes, and taken alone. In other words, you gave him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as to not see the dangers of this?  The characteristic of real Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real and therefore, as far as they go, a touchstone of reality. How can you fail to see that a real Pleasure is the last thing you out to have let him meet?”

In 2018 I’ve been reading through the works of C.S. Lewis, and what has struck me time and again is his deep conviction that God calls us to joy. All joys are an overflow of the Joyfulness of God, and they come to us, as a free gift through Jesus, the source of every joy.

So, I decided to write a list of things in my life that call me to joy. And maybe as you think about them he’ll call you to joy too.

But a couple of caveats before I begin:
  • I am not feeling particularly joyful right now. I’ve felt pretty anxious and angsty all week, so please don’t think this is coming from a place of self-satisfied shiny radiant ease.
  • This is an incomplete list.
  •  Sometimes there are no other joys in our life but Jesus himself. Recently as I’ve found the battle for joy a little harder, I’ve been struck time and again by the fact that Paul’s command in Philippians is possible: “rejoice in the Lord always.”  Sometimes our sorrows outweigh all the smaller calls to joy, but in Jesus, there is always basis for rejoicing. That call goes out to those in prison for Jesus, to those who have losses only the New Creation will restore, to those who have faced what seemed to them to be worst case scenarios. But that’s a different blog post.
  •  I hope that delighting in all these joys are fundamentally reasons for delighting in Jesus himself- the Giver of all good things.

1)      Music. Songs that remind you of when you were younger and even more of a mess, songs that remind you that there is other joy and other pain beyond your own, songs that are beautiful and harmonic and cause your heart to swell with a thousand emotions that lie beyond the scope of words. Songs you can dance to, celebrating the fact that dancing is an exercise in not taking yourself too seriously and indulging in self-forgetfulness because who actually cares if you look daft when you are soooo in sync with Chumbawamba’s vibes (entirely hypothetically of course). Music calls me to joy, and points me to the God of harmony.

2)      The sun is a call of joy: sunrises that fill up the skies with all the best colours and in a different combination every morning and sunsets that however good your filters are you can’t possibly be captured in a little Instagram box; their glory far exceeds their capacity to gain you likes and the warmth of the sun and the fact that is makes things grow. And things grow!  And the sun turned up to volume 11 so that skies become super blue and piercingly clear and behave as though you were a fool to ever imagine a cloud could belong there. And the sun being turned down to low so that at a certain hour on a certain day even the most appalling human architecture looks interesting, or hopeful.

3)     Beverages: your first sip of coffee on a morning when you have felt only tired and then it’s warm and tasty and immediately a comforting promise that the day will happen, as other days have happened- and maybe it will be better than you expect it to be. Cups of tea: the cup that was made for you by someone else, the cup that accompanies a hopeful chat, the cup you’ve been dying for, the cup you have time to enjoy every single warm sip of, the cup that comes with a cream tea and sings “Saturday” and is all the sweeter because you know you have a whole pot of it. And the pot is pretty.  

4)      Children. There’s something joyous about entering a smaller world where what really matters is the right way of brushing a hedgehog’s hair or where delight means having a whole 50p to spend on whatever sweets you want. 

5)      Books. I mean, books bring me joy before I’ve read a word- just their being there is like having countless little doorways to countless exciting new worlds at your fingertips. And sometimes the doorways are beautifully designed covers that convey something of the wonder of joy or reality or hope or whimsicalness or hilarity of the world you are about to enter, and sometimes the covers are dull and dumb but then you open them up and you’re suddenly standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon or in a mysterious train carriage or in a submarine under siege and somehow the fact that the doorway gave you no clue makes being in there all the more exciting. Books! Books that don’t really win you anything other than the pleasure of having read them, of forgetting yourself for a while and entering another world, another life- maybe it’s older or harder or maler or easier or similar but the key is that even if it is like yours, it isn’t yours! 

6)      Outside. Let's start with flowers. Just that there are flowers are a big indication to me that God is for my joy. They come in so many different sizes and colours and smells and they bloom in different seasons and they expand towards the light with sometimes ridiculous enthusiasm and they are relatively cheap and significantly cheerful and they transform a room from just a space in to a home that humans want to hang out in. And I suppose connected to flowers are trees, and insects, and rivers and just the whole of outside that you step out in to and are reminded that your little world really is just your little world- that the sky is still the sky- a large dome that has encompassed countless little worlds through the years and little lives that kept going and loving even when it was tough. And the sky is an umbrella over all of the excellence of nature. And on that note- wellies. I mean, surely wellies are made for sheer delight. Wellies say- we’re going to get muddy but WE ARE GOING ANYWAY, because mud, mud GLORIOUS mud.

7)      Laughter. I really think that laughter is a beautiful testament to the fact that the world is good. Even when life is at its worst, sometimes laughter can creep up on us and overflow with something that makes us a little more self-forgetful, or relieved, or aware that at the centre of the universe is Unspeakable Joy, not misery, that ultimately will overcome everything! Obviously not everything funny is godly. But there is so much in the world that reminds us that we were created for delight: the doddering of a toddler in to a serious interview about trade in North Korea, the sassiness of cats, the comments on a Nifty video where they rightly get rinsed for showing you how to make a bathmat our of your own underwear… (To quote C.S Lewis again: “Those who call for Nonsense find it comes.”)

8)      Things going well that don’t always go well, by which I mean- the joy of knowing that today your boiler isn’t broken, today your clutch hasn’t gone AWOL, today you have your voice, today your headache is better than it was yesterday, today you did remember milk, today work wasn’t in every way terrible, today your phone stayed charged for as long as you hoped it would, today you didn’t burn your dinner, today there wasn’t a traffic jam, today you didn’t get a massive dollop of Nutella on the middle of your new white blouse. Oh the countless joys we might have in those very things that are such kicks in the teeth when they fail to show up. 

9)      Sleep. You sleep for 30 years of your life. This means for 30 years of your life, in practice at least, you had a correct perspective on yourself- that the world would keep on turning without you, that giving yourself rest matters, that God is running the show in gracious kindness even when you are out for the count,  that some days really just need to have the “switch it off and on again” approach. 

10)   Learning about things you find interesting just because you find them interesting: why William Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience; GDPR; the ten year history behind the outcome of a 1990s court case, why the French Revolution was more effective than the American one, how Alanis Morrisette became famous (she once supported Vanilla Ice in concert); how and why people are able to live in incredible subterranean homes, why killer whales seem to go psychopathic in captivity; how to say "I'm sunbathing" in Malagasy ("Mitanin andro aho", FYI) ; how to knit stripey baby hats; how to swim front crawl faster; how to take better photos or where the best places are to go to take good photos; how to make an origami dog (without losing your mind) and so very, very, very much more.

What are some of the ways God calls you to joy?

(I am asking you so that you answer in the comments. My brother read my blog for the first time the other day, and nearly commented, but then didn’t because he saw that no one else had so thought it actually could not happen. LOL!)

Monday, 26 March 2018


“The President has been assassinated.”

My mum’s anxious words cut through the blur of warm recollection and bright anticipation that made up the atmosphere of a typical holiday morning. It was immediately clear from my parents’ subdued attitude: something had changed; the President’s death meant war.

Most of my memories of Rwanda belong in the haze of heady nostalgia: I remember lining up for birthday party photos on the veranda steps, racing around the garden with slopping buckets mid water fight, scouring the depths of the dressing up box for just the perfect wig. I remember clambering over the hot corrugated roof, scaling the heights of frangipani trees, then avocado trees, then kapok trees, adventuring on my bike down red-mud roads. Rwanda days were days of tea parties in the bushes, of hide and seek in the wilds of the mango patch, of wheelbarrow rides and banana tree planting with our gardener-friend Manueli until we were all helpless with laughter, of splashing around in the lake at the bottom of the hill until the sun sunk low in the sky.

The weight of tension that characterised those months fell almost immediately. The eerie quiet hung heavily, its suffocation always descending oppressively after any skirmishes disturbed it. The morning was warm, but the village was empty.

After that, my memories come in glimpses and looking at them is like trying to grasp shards of a broken image, a breaking image.

We saw houses burning ominously on the opposite hillside; the sight made my sister sick.  There were odd- and increasing- snapshots of desperate fear. A frenzied man pelted through our garden, his reckless urgency unfamiliar and disturbing. Another morning I found a man cowering in the darkness of our spare room- trembling, humiliated by fear, eyes brimming with a plea for mercy.

There were nights sleeping away from home for safety; anxious discussions with other families; gunshots; tangible, severe tension. Brutal nights were followed by hollow, haunting mornings. Guttural wails of mourning echoed around the valley; there were reports of incomprehensible violence, there were death threats, there were deaths. And then there were clear instructions from the Embassy: Brits must leave.  

We had half an hour to pack our things.

I couldn’t decide which of my Sylvanian Families I should pack. I remember looking at the villagers- hedgehogs and ducks and bears laid out on my bedroom floor, little lives frozen in the unremarkable ordinariness of their being. The decision of which to bring with me was impossible. The pressure, the urgency, the fear made the very act of deciding futile. I left them all behind.

Once we left, there was the tension of the journey: we drove through multiplied checkpoints, the Union Jack taped to our windscreen as our refuge, we hoped, from the surrounding fray. Members of our convoy were threatened by soldiers and the sudden blast of a puncture added to our strain. We feared for our lives and those of who remained; wretchedness permeated our exit: how were we able to leave when so many we loved had no choice but to stay?

In the July after the war broke in April, our family had come back to the UK for a few months. Someone had lent us a house in Virginia Water and my abiding memory of that time was the heat of the summer’s drought, the palpable tension of uncertainty, and countless letters scattered across the breakfast table: one envelope might contain words of relief; another letter might turn to slate on reading, an unbearable burden of devastating news.

The radio emanated reports of mass exodus, of countless deaths, of callous atrocities, a low drone of statistics and generalisations. But each bulletin brought to mind particular faces we had known and loved and trusted.

We longed most for news of Manueli and his family. But letter after letter came, and none of them gave us hope that our closest friends had survived.

This is just a prologue. I stood on the shore of these events; the experiences were memories for me before the real storm broke over most people in this conflict. My age and my parents sheltered me from many of the horrors, and the privilege of my position protected me from many more.
More than a year after we left Rwanda, we set out on another tense journey.

Since the war, my parents had been working in a large refugee camp to the East of Rwanda. Reports had come that another camp was opening up on the border with Zaire, and with them came a minute by-line of optimism; could Manueli and his family still be alive? After some investigation my mum discovered: they were.

We travelled across miles of rugged terrain, our Landrover churning red dust in to the humid air, leaving us in a ruddy cloud of uncertainty. We were accompanied by an armed guard, there to protect us from notorious bandits that occupied the intervening miles. Our stomachs lurched with the turbulence of the rough track and with the restless anticipation of being reunited with our friends.

My first sighting of the refugee camp was overwhelming. Suddenly, the vast East African horizon was punctuated with endless blotches of unnatural blue. The rolling green hills suddenly became a sprawling sea of UNHCR sheeting, tarpaulin patchwork city as a refuge for thousands and thousands of families, united by their obligation to escape. Each tent contained its own stories of fearful desperation. 

It had rained that day, and all the moisture of an equatorial storm hung in the air. As soon as we clambered down from the vehicle, the smell of earth filled the dense air. Immediately we were surrounded by a throng of children, who milled around us and one another, bubbling over with energy and life. We set out to find the family, weaving through the rows of tents, accompanied by this lively new entourage.

When we got there they welcomed us in; there were embraces, smiles, laughter, warmth: praise to God that we’d been reunited. Manueli’s eyes shone with laughter, as they always had, as he made space for us on the floor of his makeshift home that was comprised of nothing more than sheeting and straw.

We had not been there long when it became evident that they were preparing a meal for us. In the camps they had daily rations. Once my mum had calculated that from the quota, each refugee would have been assigned five kidney beans a day.

We were a family of five who had had breakfast and no doubt would have another meal later on that day. My parents were desperate not to, but at Manueli’s absolute and delighted insistence, crouching in his refugee tent, we ate the meal he had prepared for us.

Manueli’s family had not been able to leave quickly; they had not been able to swiftly find safety elsewhere. They had walked for fearful miles, in constant danger- bewildered, horrified, surrounded by incomprehensible brutality. They'd experienced betrayal and many who survived slaughter died of starvation on the road. They'd finally got to safety in a vast refugee camp of plastic sheeting and rationed handouts and yet when a wealthy Western family came to visit, they shared them with us.

They had even gone to their neighbours and collected spoons, so that there'd be enough for us all to eat their food in the way Europeans did. They welcomed us with warmth and love and overflowing kindness. Whether or not I knew it at the time, as I crouched on the floor of that tent eating someone else’s rations of potatoes and beans, I was taught that generosity is not about how much you give, but about how much is left over once the giving is finished.

We stayed for a while, and then, again, we left.

We travelled back to our roofed home, had warm showers, probably ate again and then went to sleep in our secure beds.

Sometimes when I look back to this afternoon, I find anxiety begins to eat away at the memory. Did I turn my nose up at the food? Did I scrunch my nose up at strange smells? Did I ask for more? After I’d eaten did I get bored and moan that I wanted to go home? I worry that somehow my childishness or my selfishness trampled over the beauty of a moment that taught me more about hospitality than I have learnt in the twenty years since.  

As time has gone by, I’ve found that the abundance of Manueli’s robust generosity has made it impossible for me to pity him. His generosity and love have made an even deeper impression on me than the wretched injustices of war and the world. Although insecurities about my thoughtlessness or my privilege lurk in the shadows of that memory, I can’t dwell on them for long without the rays of Manueli’s kindness scattering them away.

Manueli gave like all who are truly generous do- with delight, with hope, without any expectation of repayment other than the enjoyment of the gift. Had I been so foolish as to ask for more, he would have been thrilled that I’d found the meal so tasty. That afternoon remains a good memory, one of the best of my life.

On the noticeboard of our computer room at home, we have pinned a photograph that we took of Manueli and his family in the camp that afternoon. The image is faded now, specks of the colours have peeled off, there are creases towards its edges. But the photo tells a story of humanity. It has become for me a litmus test of what really matters in life. Light pierces the holes between the straw and the sheeting and the majority of their possessions are visible- a pot, a plastic bag, the mattress they are sitting on, the clothes they are wearing, and one another.

And Manueli is smiling- his broad, generous, radiant smile.

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