On Not Being History Makers

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There are lots of self-discovery books and courses out there in the wide world. Some of the Christian ones are worth a look. When younger, I found John Ortberg’s “The Me I Always wanted to be” helpful as well as Bruce Wilkinson’s “The Dream Giver,” Joyce Meyer’s “How to Succeed at Being Yourself: Finding the Confidence to Fulfil Your Destiny” and Rick Warren’s ubiquitous “The Purpose Driven Life”. But I would caution people against getting gung-ho about pursuing their identity and purpose in the Lord. For just as it worries me to see churches investing so much time and energy in mission statements and vision steering committees instead of studying Acts and investing in unity, discipleship, mission and prayer; so it worries me too that many spiritual writers seem to think that we need to ask God for a mountain to climb, a hard path to travel or a monster to slay. Besides which, I want to be the me God wants me to be. That might be something quite different than I imagine. And my “destiny” might be to just sit in this room and pray a couple of times a day. It’s not often stuff that would make Cecil B. De Mille drool, is it, this life?

No, the Christian path, it seems to me, is quite hard enough as it is. The Lord and his guidance are easier to find if you approach them with a humble heart, meekly and in the knowledge that if there’s a mountain to climb, he will show you the way to the foothills first. Likewise, if there’s a great task to be accomplished, it will begin most likely in frustration, with a need for faith and trust. Let’s not rush things and ask for great things to do, we shall only fall at the first hurdle and feel like idiots. God shall say gently, “See?” and pick us up from the dust. Only give him your heart and your will, and all shall become clear. These are small and difficult enough beginnings.

Besides which, our destinies may end up looking from the outside, far less dramatic than some modern texts would have us believe. Let us not forget that Jesus described our role in the world as that of yeast and salt; unseen and unnoticed influences for the most part. Yeast works slowly and steadily to change things, it does not announce its presence from mountaintops.   Christians are most noticeable, for the most part, by their absence. A wonderful exposition of this point is found in Dennis Lennon’s book “Weak enough for God to use.”

We are inclined to look over the head of the commonplace, searching for divine fireworks in the night sky. But the Creator loves his Creation and honours it by coming to us clothed in its familiar ordinariness.”

For some of us, the heroics of the day will be getting our elderly mother onto the commode, or biting our anger back when she accuses us of eating the dessert she had half an hour ago and now cannot remember eating. The legacy we leave the world might be the patience and kindness we show when our alcoholic brother has snuck out of the house with our credit card for the fourteenth time. The good example we lead by could be the silence we choose not to fill with raging expletives in front of the children when their new puppy has shredded the cushions again. These might seem like small things, but they are not. It is in these holdings and gentlings, this giving space and forgiveness, that we are being Christlike, rather than in any great visible achievement.

This is why real love is our greatest teacher. Not the romantic ideal of fairy tales, or the apparent perfection touted on the cover of Hello magazine, but the down-in-the-depths, dealing with chronic illness, trying to do our best by people who will never appreciate it, thinking of small kindnesses, saying prayers for which no-one will ever congratulate us, sitting with someone we have never seen before or will ever see again whilst they wait for an ambulance, listening to the same story ten times in one hour from a loved one with Alzheimer’s and smiling with them each time, kind of love. These are opportunities to be ambassadors for Christ, and when we miss them, we miss some of the greatest chances we will ever have to grow in love.

Each tiny act of kindness, of calming our own inner turmoil before replying, of counting to ten and smiling, these are the stones, or even pebbles* on which Christ builds his church. I do not find it helpful when we are made to feel failures because we have not become missionaries in Lesotho or surgeons working for Médicins Sans Frontières, or when we read something that makes us feel like we missed our vocation in life because we didn’t get ordained or write a thesis on transubstantiation. Whilst all those things are wonderful, most of us aren’t going to be doing that. And that’s okay, and we didn’t necessarily get it wrong or miss the way.

We have ample chances each day to live out the love of God, and some of them we’ll miss. Others we’ll hit out of the ball park and no-one but him will see. It is not about being seen. It’s about the loving. And in that loving, we become the Body of Christ, a very real ordinary flesh becoming sacred “transubstantiation” ourselves. We may never be mentioned in the history books, but our names are written in another book, and that one will turn out to be far more important.

©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt Photo from Pixabay

(this piece was adapted from a section in my 2015 book, “Positive Sisterhood”).

 

*When Jesus renames Simon as Peter, he uses the word petros, meaning a small rock or pebble, such as might be found along a road, but then goes on to use the word petra, meaning a mass or foundation of rock, in the same sentence, as the base on which he will build the Church. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:18 NIV

 

On Not Attending a Christian Conference

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A Story.

Saint Francis lasted longer than I did at the Conference for Christian Leaders “Using Your Influence”. He sat through several speakers and nodded politely here and there, whilst fiddling with the three knots on his long string belt that symbolised his sacred vows. Mostly he kept his eyes shut and just peeked out at the thousands of people seated round him occasionally and then wisely shut them again. Sometimes it is just better to gaze at the inside of your own eyelids. The lights were bright and hot, and the air felt strange in the huge auditorium, full of a pumped up testosteronic excitement that had pulses and egos racing.

After a while though, he did what I had done and wandered out into the corridors where the drinks and vending machines were, and ran the water fountain, cupping his bleeding hands in the stream with clear delight, and lifting the coolness to his tired face. He drank long of the sweetness, and sploshed his face. I had done the same, and then tried to steel myself to go back in, but I just couldn’t do it.

“Hello,” I said from my orange plastic seat, and he smiled, a little warily, in case I was one of them. I even think he looked round for the exits, just in case, and I can’t say I blame him. I didn’t know what to say but words have a habit of forming anyway, and there was certainly a torrent of loud ones being amplified behind us in the main room. “Isn’t it awful?” was what I came up with. He smiled wider then. Did he even speak English? My Italian was not up to much. Poco barely covered it.

For the purposes of my dream or my story, whatever you want to call it, he did understand me. “I don’t know what they are talking about,” he shrugged. “I don’t know what is this productivity, in a church, in God’s house? What is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I suspected it meant bums on seats, but I wasn’t going to sully this conversation with that thought. “More followers?” I hazarded.

“For them or for Christ?” he asked, bluntly. I loved him even more right then. I laughed.

“Who is counting?”

“Not God!” We both smiled.

“I will leave now. I don’t know why they asked me,” he said, looking small and fragile in the clinical surroundings and artificial light.

“Are you not a speaker?” He shook his head.

“What could I say to this,” he shrugged his shoulders and flung his arms out in a typically latinate gesture, encompassing the whole conference, “To whatever this is? This is no place for God’s fools. We do not belong. We are bleeding and small and unworthy.”

“I know. They asked you for kudos, to make it look like you approved.” That smile again. I knew he could not know what I meant, but he understood the longing in my heart.

“We will leave now. Will you join us?”

“Most gladly.” I did not care where he was going. But, “We?” I asked. He frowned a little, and lowered his voice, though no-one was listening.

“Have you seen a small, odd friar with a far too joyful face anywhere?” I wanted to say, “You mean apart from the one standing in front of me now?” and then realised I could, and did. He laughed. “Si, si, another one!” Behind him I saw a pair of burly security guards carrying out another raggedy Franciscan friar, his brown tunic hanging loosely on his scrawny body, his eyes rather wild but full of joy.

“This one belong to you?” the guards asked Francis roughly. The saint nodded, unruffled, but concerned for his brother. “We found him stealing things from the conference booths. He says he was going to give them to the poor. Didn’t even try to hide them. Is he dangerous?”

“Dangerous? Juniper?” Francis sighed, “Only to himself.”

“Will you vouch for him? I don’t think arresting a monk would look that great with the conference on and all. Especially if he’s with you.”

“We can vouch for him,” I said, “And we’re leaving now in any case.” Francis nodded, and Juniper followed suit, nodding a little too much and too hard, as expected. They let go of him, seemed glad to deliver the problem to someone else, and he slumped down onto the shiny tiled floor. “We ought to make him empty his pockets first,” said one to the other.

“Man, he aint got no pockets, look at him!” said the other, and they sauntered back inside the foyer.

“Oh Juniper, what have I taught you about stealing?” said the great man, puddles of blood now pooling below him from his stigmata. Juniper looked shame faced for just one moment before shedding it in a heartbeat and an exclamation.

“But, my brother, they have so much! Always we have the poor with us. These people will not miss a thing.”

“I know, I know,” and with that we all ambled out of the building for good, the saint, the idiot and the failure, three holy fools arm in arm, knowing that there was no place like home, and that it was definitely not to be found here. When we were safely three blocks away and standing waiting for the train, Brother Juniper giggled to himself and produced from within his stinking tunic a stack of books. Francis rolled his eyes as his fellow friar gave the books to a homeless veteran sitting on the platform.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with these?” she wisely asked. I explained she might sell them to those conference attendees passing through, and gave her a few dollars to use as change, or for whatever she needed. She shrugged, and set up a book stall on the ground. “These stolen?” she asked with a scowl.

“Taken,” said Juniper, “from the Lord’s followers. So they won’t mind.” I rolled my eyes, something Francis had long ceased bothering to do.

“They might mind,” I said, just to warn her.

“Good,” she said warmly. “If I get arrested I will be in the warm and dry. Looks like rain.” Francis, long-practiced, reached out an arm to stop Juniper lifting off his tunic to give to the woman.

“She has clothing, Juniper, and the sight of your scrawny hide is unlikely to give our sister any comfort.” Juniper acquiesced, and the train came, and we got on, not knowing where we were headed, not having any fare, with no plan for how to grow the potential of our churches, just glad to be away from the cold harsh lights and the business mantras and the stench of success.

© Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2017 Picture from Pixabay

On Not Getting out of the Boat

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(See Mark 4 and 6)

There is a phrase which I see versions of bandied about a lot in Christian circles, perhaps after the title of a John Ortberg book (which admittedly I’ve not read), “If you want to walk on water, you need to get out of the boat!” I see people term themselves “water walkers” and so forth. Where this is about growing courage and faith, that’s great, but it can also be an exercise in completely missing the point.

Does anyone ever say, we need to get out of the boat in order to sink? Which Peter also did, and which is much more character-forming, frankly. Jesus didn’t ask Peter to get out of the boat, nor did he berate the other disciples for not doing likewise.

For one thing, being in the right boat in the first place might be an idea. A great many churched Christians today have very little idea what boat they are in, if they have even the heart to have got on board, let alone the courage to climb out of it. A lot of us are still on the shore, and not even looking in Jesus’ direction. It’s not all our fault, because surprisingly, we aren’t always taught very much about the realities of discipleship.

Most people get shoved out of the boat at some point, and a lot of us are treading water or trying to climb back in. Life is hard enough without pressurising ourselves into leaping into places where only miracles can save us. Peter’s greatest example to us may be, not that he was not afraid to move out of his comfort zone, but that he was not afraid of failure. I don’t think, once he climbed back on board, that he was standing there, dripping wet, crying and bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t keep the miracle afloat for long, I think he was ecstatic that he’d walked on water! He had to embrace the divinity of the miraculous and the humanity of inevitable failure within moments of each other. Perhaps this gave him more insight into the nature of his Messiah. It was not about an achievement, but about learning.

We do all need to try to walk on water perhaps, but only because we shan’t find out who we are or what really matters to us until we fail, and sink, and reach out to grab whatever means the most to us. For Peter, it was an experience, not only of a brief victory, but of seeing his own weakness right before his very eyes and needing to reach out to Jesus. Failure is an immensely powerful teacher (I should know) and the spiritual road we travel as followers of Jesus, if we are truly committed, is strewn with it.

When Jesus was in the boat, earlier, he slept. “If you want a nice rest, climb into the stern” doesn’t have quite the same dynamic pocket devotional/house group session ring to it. But actually, didn’t Jesus say, “Come to me all you who are weary or burdened, and I will give you rest”? Can’t we know ourselves well enough to realise that there are seasons in our lives and faith journeys where what we need to do is not leap into action, but snuggle down there into the pile of cushions/coats and possibly torn fishing nets, and still be disciples? Is sleeping through the storm as courageous and miraculous an act as leaping over the side? Or am I a woman overboard?