Better Together (On Community)

A while ago I wrote this post on the way Christians often talk about and think about singleness and marriage. In it I discussed the reality that we will all have different seasons of life. Not just in the context of our relationship status – but because life is messy and it changes frequently and you never know what is around the corner.

Whether you are single, married, childless, a parent, divorced, engaged, going through grief or joy or loss or gain the truth is we need each other. We need community.

Life on your own can be very lonely and very hard. There’s all kinds of ways to be lonely of course, no matter what your circumstances. But community – real community – helps. At least it should.

I think the need for and longing for a community is true of all people. But maybe it’s especially true when you are trying to follow Jesus. Trying to do your best, not just coasting through. Trying to be more Godly, more giving, less self-centered: it is impossible to do without community.

People are really good at playing the-grass-is-greener game: we always want what we can see in others’ lives. Single people long for marriage and the closeness of family life. Parents in the midst of children and naptime routines long for the unstructured hours of singleness. What I’ve just described might not be your fantasy of choice, but we all have them – the ideal life, the better life, the longing for different circumstances which will surely fix the ache inside us.

No one’s life circumstances are ideal or the same. Not all married people have children (or will ever have children, or want children, for a number of reasons). Not all single people get married (or will ever be married, or want to be married for a number of reasons). Not everyone can be neatly divided into single or married or any of the other categories we use. It gets so complicated stepping around these issues: is hanging out with other married couples excluding our single friends? How can we be helpful to the friends in the midst of a relationship crisis? Is doing this fun thing on a weeknight excluding our friends with children? Is talking online about the joys of parenting insensitive?

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But Christian community isn’t about delicately stepping around the messiness of life. Christian life is wading into the mess with each other. Community is about all of us welcomed in together, no exceptions. It means that families are no longer exclusive, tight knit units that feel sacred and untouchable. It means those without kids might sometimes volunteering for babysitting (or hanging out washing if that’s more your thing). It means sharing your kids with those who might have wanted their own but don’t. It means married couples don’t seal themselves off or only socially see other married couples. It means single people don’t exclusively do expensive things at night if it makes it hard for those with children to join in. It might mean that your fun social event provides lego and a kids movie even if it isn’t your ‘vibe.’

All these things are possible – and are necessary. Life without a family and without community can be very, very lonely. Life with young kids and little or no support can be very, very difficult. Life can be lonely and difficult in so many ways and for so many reasons – heartbreak, same sex attraction, infertility, post natal depression, loss, grief, fragile mental health and all the other things the world decides to throws at us.

The world hasn’t been right for a very long time. But God doesn’t leave us in the mess alone, even when we feel lonely. God sent Jesus into the world to fix all that has gone wrong between us and in us.

At the cross, Jesus tore down all the barriers dividing us – the ones dividing people then: Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave and free – and the ones dividing us today: married, single, parent, childless and more. All the life seasons and circumstances that get between us don’t need to anymore.

We still have that ache, that things would be different. We know that things still aren’t right, because they’re not. But in Jesus we have a promise of eternity where the ache will be filled and we’ll never be lonely because we will be in God’s presence, face to face.

In the meantime, God has given us community. He has given us the church, which isn’t a building but a group of people united by grace. Saved from brokenness into life. A group of people who are better together when we support and sacrifice and give up for each other – knowing that there’s a whole community surrounding you doing the same thing for you. This mutual giving to each other, the mutual putting each other first is the only way human relationships can survive and be healthy, I think.

This kind of sacrificial love mimics and points to Jesus’ love and sacrifice at the cross. Community like this paints a picture of what it will be like in heaven, when the ache is filled and the brokenness gone. In the meantime, we press on with loving each other, not just in spite of life being hard sometimes but because life this side of heaven is hard, for almost all the people around you, whether you know it or not. So we do community. We meet together and eat together and laugh and cry together. We press on in Jesus and his name, loving each other for his sake.

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What to do about this blog

What is this blog?

Currently, it’s a mess of thoughts and opinions and reactions to books and to life and where I can safely write and write and write. I can post my thoughts and share it with a friend or two – but never more than that.

What could I do about this blog?

I could keep it half secret as it is, messy and crazy and unfiltered and unknown and mine: my safe place where words come out. But these words never go further than this blog, my writing would remain in shadows, though at least it’s not stuck in my head.

Or I could clean it up and trim it down and share it further. My friends, family, people I go to church with – wider than those I trust, but not much further beyond the reach of those I see in my day to day life.

Both secrecy and sharing have strong appeals. Like all humans, I want to be known, and I think my writing is my best chance of communicating who I am. But like all humans, I also fear being known and not loved. What if I share my writing and people hate it? The ideas or style, either would be crushing. What if they disapprove? What if the world thinks I am showing off or trying to gain attention?

I could go down the road of trying to gain attention with this blog – using SEO, link to other blogs and sites and promote and promote and promote. Weekly content, schedules and followers counts. But that doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest and besides, I’m far too busy.

Sharing it would mean it’s no longer a secret safe space. There would be things I couldn’t post about anymore, I would have to limit my tone and content in a way I’ve never bothered with. I’d have to worry not only about what I want to express but how people might interpret it.

But secrecy no longer feels right either. I want to be writing for an audience beyond myself and three other people. I want to share my ideas and my words.

What would I allow on this new blog? Where would I draw the line? For example, this kind of raw, honest, flow of thought and decision making process writing – would it fit onto this new kind of blog? What wouldn’t? What do I feel I have to hide anyway? My opinions on egalitarian theology or white western Christian culture?

Living as a Christian on social media can feel like living under a spotlight. I have liked that this blog is media without the social – just me and the words.

What do I want for this blog? What do I want for myself and my writing and my life and my words and thoughts and feelings?

I’m tired of living in shadows, but not quite sure I’m ready to step into the light.

What do I believe?

What do I believe?

I started this blog because I needed a place to work through my questions and search for the grace of God in the piles of answers and opinions. As you’ve probably noticed, finding my place in God’s family and in God’s plan as a woman has featured heavily in my search.

I feel like I have been waiting until I have all the answers and the jigsaw falls into place to define what I believe. I thought one day it might all click into place and I would have eloquent answers, better than what the best theologians and writers have come up with. I would defend my beliefs and persuade my listeners. They wouldn’t doubt that I was right. I wouldn’t doubt that I was right.

To state the obvious, that’s not going to happen. I will disagree with people and they will disagree with me. Sometimes they will be people I care about and respect. But we will still disagree and we will still be united in Christ and we will still press on with living out the Gospel in our messy lives.

So what do I believe?

I believe in a priesthood of all believers. I believe we are the new people of God, chosen out of the world (see 1 Peter 2). I don’t know what this means for free will and predestination and all those other things we Christians like to argument about. But I believe that God is good and he knows best.

In this new priesthood, where we are called to be like Jesus, the true high priest (see Hebrews 7) I believe we are called to be one. I believe we are to serve God with our gifts, united in Christ. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in 1 Corinthians 12  Paul talks about spiritual gifts and division and unity side by side. I think that deciding who is in and who is out and who has spiritual gifts and who gets to use those spiritual gifts has been one of the biggest causes of division in the church. One that I thought was addressed and decided at the cross, and again at the Reformation – we are all in! We are all part of the family of God and we are all, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave and free, loved by God and made one in Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The divisions caused by sin were destroyed at the cross. The command to be God’s witnesses to the world (Acts 1:8) wasn’t just for some of God’s family. It was for us all. This is what I believe. Grace was poured out at the cross, undiscriminating, just as Jesus was undiscriminating in his life in who he loved and spent time with. To limit and restrict roles and jobs and tasks in the massive undertaking of taking God’s good news to the world doesn’t make any sense in light of what the Bible tells me.

I have done a whole series on this blog about Half the Church – the book by Carolyn Custis James that explores the exact damage done when half the church is left out or holds back and how the mission of God to reach the world with his good news suffers. I won’t go into it again here, but I firmly believe that women have been given gifts and time and energy to serve God with, and at the end we will have to give an account for what we did with those things. The kingdom of God is frankly far too busy and has far too much to do to continue arguing about who gets to do what. We’re all in. All on mission for Jesus, all giving it our all – if that means a woman leading or preaching or teaching, so be it. As long as Jesus is proclaimed.

So what do I believe?

I believe Jesus is the head of the church. Jesus is the head of me. That Jesus would ask me to submit to anyone other than him as my head doesn’t make sense to me or sit right with me. It sends me back to before the Reformation, when I would have had to go through a man, a priest, to speak to God. Of course the idea of Headship in marriage or in church leadership isn’t that extreme in most churches (though to be clear, it very much is that way in some churches – churches my friends go to).

I’ve heard the arguments for Headship and leadership in marriage. I’ve heard all the interpretations of Ephesians 5, that while wives submit, husbands are giving themselves up for her as Christ did for the church. But none of them convince me. Nothing has convinced me that Sarah Bessey wasn’t right when she answered, when asked who the Spiritual Head of her home was, that it was Jesus, only ever Jesus.

So what do I believe?

I believe in grace, Transforming, restorative grace. I cling to this grace as the only thing I know for sure. Jesus loves this world he made, he came and he died for all of it – all of us – and he died, his hands stretched out in surrender. The story didn’t end though, and he didn’t stay dead. He was more powerful than death, and his goodness and love and mercy was more than death could hold. He rose and he stretched out his hands again, this time offering life abundant, eternal and overflowing.

Grace transforms. It takes hard, legalistic hearts and makes them soft. It turns outsiders into insiders, exclusivity into welcoming embraces and hate into love. Self centredness into other centredness. Despair into joy. Shame and guilt into freedom and delight. It turns sinners into children of God.

It turns us – selfish humans clinging onto our rights and just demands into followers of Jesus who are willing to give up, to sacrifice our rights and demands if it means someone might hear about Jesus, if it means fighting for those without a voice.

So what do I believe?

I read a lot of historical fiction set around the time of the Reformation, which, considering the interesting mix of opinions I hold, makes me glad we don’t burn heretics anymore. I doubt that I will be called to give my life defending my beliefs.

But then why do I feel I have to hide away my opinions, keep quiet and not rock the boat?

I suspect many people I know would see these beliefs as a mix of heresy and ill-thought-out wishes for how reality could be. I change my mind on what I believe so often – one day retreating into the comfort of the known-ness of childhood beliefs and the next venturing forth into new, progressive territories – that I’ve been reluctant to write down for certain my opinions and feelings and gut instincts.

I guess part of it is that I don’t have the energy to constantly defend myself. Maybe I’m afraid that if I say, out loud, what I believe, I will have to have reasonable arguments to justify it. Maybe I am afraid that in the face of well put together arguments and confident arguers, I will concede these beliefs. Maybe I’m just a coward and it’s easier this way.

So what do I believe?

More than anything in the world, I believe God is good, grace is powerful and he has it all in his hands. I could be right or wrong on all these things, but ultimately it won’t matter. My right opinions won’t save me and my wrong opinions won’t condemn me. Jesus has saved me. Grace has saved me. Thank goodness for that.

On Tunnels and Overused Metaphors

If life is like a box of chocolates, then depression is like a tunnel.

It’s all encompassing, surrounding you, suffocating you. It doesn’t let in any light. There’s no helpful exit points. The only way out is to keep going, right to the end and out into the sunlight.

I usually hate trite metaphors and comparisons about mental health: because everyone experiences it differently. But today I sat on a bus and went through a real tunnel, and realized that the feeling I’d been carrying with me the last few weeks was the same as the feeling I got the moment the bus emerged from the tunnel and into the light.

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I feel like I am coming out of a very long, dark tunnel that had swallowed me whole for most of the last two years – and perhaps longer. I feel lighter. Freer. I don’t know if this is an interlude or an intermission or a pause or any other kind of metaphor you want to use. I know this probably isn’t the end of what will be a lifelong struggle with mental health and my brain not being trustworthy and my heart not being whole, but for now, it is what it is.

I am planning for the future again, beyond ‘will I have the energy for that thing tomorrow.’ I am working and saving again, instead of buying things to fill the ache. I am eating healthier, but without punishing myself for occasional treats. I have exams but for the first time I am not a messy wreck of nerves or just numb, exhausted and crammed with facts that will slide out of my head the moment I am done. I am looking forward to going back to the gym when my exams are over.

I am not perfect and I am not entirely well. I still get anxious about the smallest of social interactions. I still have all my issues, bundled up and spilling out. But for the first time in a long time, I am not entirely unwell either. I am not consumed by my angst and regrets and fears.

How did I get here? How did I survive (for now)? All I did was keep walking through the tunnel, one step at a time. There’s so many things in life you just have to walk through – grief and sickness and periods of doubt. Walking through may sound easy but it  isn’t and it wasn’t. But I just kept walking through the tunnel until I emerged into the sunlight and could look up and around, rather than at my feet carefully taking one step at a time.

I just walked through the tunnel.