Christian traveller, this is what you miss: glory

(NB: as with all my thinking, it tends to be flowing from the seminars I attend, the books I read and the minds of others.  Ultimately it’s “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” (Kepler).  So in this I acknowledge Mark Stirling of The Chalmers Institute and my homegroup, who put up with my studies on Ephesians, despite them having far better ones in years past)

Glory.

What does glory look like if you were to draw it?  Or for folk more like myself, what would the Biblical definition of it be? (please don’t look up the dictionary – I’m not sure we’re on a wavelength)  Perhaps a movie soundtrack would be easier to put to it.

It’s the question that comes into my mind when I read three or four times in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (chapter 1) that everything that happens in the Godhead and flowing from the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) through all eternity is “to the praise of His glory” or some equivalent phrases in other English versions.

What on earth is “to the praise of His glory”.  Can glory be praised?

Well, in brief, the reason I think such phrases could be better summed up in a movie soundtrack is because in the Bible they aren’t really defined that much.  But instances throughout the Bible tell us all what it’s about.

God’s glory is manifested quite often in the Holy of Holies in the temple: the part of the temple where no-one could enter, apart from a High priest, once a year.  Even then when he entered, he did so in fear and trembling, recognising his unworthiness, and need to make sacrifices for sin, for himself and for the people.

So often when God’s glory came down, nobody could go near.  It was often manifested by fire, by cloud (and mystery) and great power.  It rendered false gods powerless, priests speechless, and left people dead who tried to falsely come near.  You could hear the dramatic and climatic, thundering music.

GLORY!

But what has this to do with anything?

Well, Paul goes on to describe the church community in Ephesus using various pictures (chapter 2).  Pictures of what they once were (dead, aliens, strangers, uncircumcised, haters of God etc) and now what they are (alive, family, brought near, circumcised, lovers of God).  And in those images Paul brings in the fact that we’re a temple.  Not as individuals, but as a people together, with Christ as our cornerstone.  And all very well.  Until we remember what the temple was really like.

The temple was where this “glory” stuff happened.  Or not stuff at all.  Where God manifested himself in the fullest we way the people at the time could manage.  BOOM!

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Crashing waves of the Atlantic are often something that reminds me of the magnitude of God and His glory as I glimpse the power of even a fraction of His being.  This one, Ardmore this weekend.  But so often I don’t connect glory to humans, or His Church.

And so the fact we’re called the temple is baffling.  We are the place where God will manifest his “glory”.  So presumably it’s not too far of a jump to say that when people meet His Church (with Christ at the centre), they will be hit by His full “oomph”.  It renders people speechless.  Everything else in the world will seem small compared to approaching this beautiful community.

I’m still trying to work out how much continuity there is between old temple and new temple, and what exactly we can say about this.  But it’s got me excited.  Excited because I’m freshly convicted that when people meet and mingle with God’s new temple/community, they’ll be struck by something powerful.

And so I want to meet with this community and draw others into this community.  “Oh but we’re not a very [insert adjective] community here.  We’d need to change first, before inviting people in”.  Um, no, I think we need to invite people in and let them see us as we are, and continually strive for change through that, in that, with others, and for His glory.  And primarily before being a loving/forgiving/gracious/hope-filled/[insert adjective] community, we must be a community.

And quite frankly, that’s where most of us fall down.  We don’t see each other past a Sunday, or maybe a midweek smallgroup or meeting.  And if we do, it’s just as Christians together.  For the rest of the time, we’re expected to be lone wolf evangelists, doing personal evangelism to the max.  And we wonder why it doesn’t work?

In prescribing ourselves to this model, we heap pressure on ourselves.  We are our only contact with our friends.  It’s us or nothing.  And to be honest, there’s not much difference between my typing away at my desk all day and theirs.  In fact, many of them show far more positivity all day than I manage.  So much for being asked “to give a reason for the hope that’s within you”.  Few ask questions, because few see any difference, and rightly so – what difference can there really be in how we type, offer someone a coffee, or treat each other in the workplace?  Of course, some, but let’s stop our hyper individualism.

In prescribing ourselves this model, we also rob ourselves of true fellowship.  When we don’t see our fellow brothers and sisters apart from sporadic occasions, we tend, if you’re anything like the churches I’ve been involved with, to resort back to polite chit chat.  And that’s natural.  Only when you’re in and out of others lives, will you be able to walk up on a Sunday morning and ask something more deep or personal.  Because you’ve seen them in the messy-ness of life.

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Our church home-group out this weekend with some of our friends.

So what does this look like?  Well, it puts major questions about geographical proximity to each other in everyday life, or at least to your smallgroup members.  It also puts questions about our individual choice of how we spend our time.  Is it ours to choose our passions, or do I fit them around serving others?  Does “Peter the hockey player” take second place to “Peter the temple brick”, if hockey doesn’t manage to fulfil temple-like functions?  (though in most cases, I don’t think there needs be dichotomies).  Perhaps for your church, it’s even simply starting small-groups.

In Cork, it’s led to us all deliberately inviting our friends who aren’t part of church, into social gatherings where there’s a mix of people, so that they see God’s glory in Christ.  And they are indeed noticing exactly that:

“You’re all so different, but love each other so much!”

“How do you ever hang out with him/her, they’re so weird/different?!  I’d like to be able to do that.”

“I wish I had a community like this that looked out for me in the city: it’s fab”

“I didn’t understand and completely disagree with what was said at your church this morning, but I’m glad we can chat about it this afternoon in a more private place together”

Now don’t get me wrong.  This is hard.  It’s costly.  Half of us haven’t braved sharing our friends yet with each other.  And there are moments I grimace inside and wish I hadn’t invited my friends along, after something has been said in convo that hasn’t been helpful.  But it’s worth every step of it.

The more I find myself committing to community, the more I feel free!  Free to be myself, free to not have to produce evangelistic results myself, free to be weak in front of others (they see everything), free to fail, free to ask for forgiveness, free to keep short accounts with people I see lots.  Free!

That’s what living for the praise of His glory does.  And that’s why being away travelling lots robs you of everything about it.  You’re unable to do this community.  For someone with a job like mine – I’m robbing myself of joy!

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

(John 13:35)

Travel: escaping God (2)

I wrote earlier today about the futility of escaping God.  Here’s just a final word on that for Christian travellers that I thought was a necessary postscript, given those I’m living amongst.

One final word to the Christian traveller.  Since God has given us His chosen means of working in this world (His Church, presiding over His Word and Sacraments and guarding them by healthy church discipline), who are we to complain if we suffer when we choose to neglect it?

What do I mean by all that religious language above?  Well, if we choose to travel on weekends and deliberately forsake the local church: the people of God who we’ve committed ourselves to (for their good and for ours); who will preach God’s word to us; celebrate his death and resurrection with us and guard and guide us; then we leave ourselves in a dangerous place.  Because when we neglect the grace he has provided, in His Son’s body (the church), in the intimacy of His Son’s words (the Bible) and in the brokenness of His Son’s sacrifice (the Lord’s Supper), we reject Him.

That’s right.  We reject Him.

“Oh but I can have fellowship anytime abroad or with the global Church” you may say.

Perhaps for a short while yes, but they won’t know you the same way, point you to Christ the same way, preach God’s word to you in your heart language the same way, exercise church discipline if you go astray (if these things aren’t happening in your church at home already, I’d start thinking).

“But I always get back for homegroup in midweek” you may pushback.

Fantastic!  And I don’t belittle that.  But he uses the preached word particularly, and his sacraments that aren’t often found midweek.  Nor do we often fulfil commands to encourage each other by singing to each other in midweek gatherings (perhaps you do), or come across our elders/church leaders as much.  And that’s not to start to mention that Sunday may be a special day for God’s people.

It’s in sombreity that I say these things because my heart needs to hear them.  I sit here always so tempted to book that next flight.  And all for good reason.  “What about those friends I haven’t seen in so long who even support me in my work?”  “what about my family who I am called to love?”  “What about that other church who wants me to share about my work with them?”  “What will one more Sunday away do?” I think to myself.

So this semester to keep me around, I’ve agreed to lead a Life Explored course each Sunday afternoon so as to keep me from thinking I can waltz off on my travels and it won’t affect anyone.  I can think it will have no affect on my spirituality, but I’d be wrong.  There’s more freedom and joy in community as God meant it to be.

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Sunrise on Juggartha’s Table, Tunisia, looking over the Algerian border.

Travel: escaping God

It’s the perfect get-away in many terms: travelling.  For anyone who has had to bear preachy, conservative folk breathing down their necks, whether that be family, friends or just the culture around you, you know what I mean!

I mean getting away from people who enforce their thoughts and narrow ways of living on you, and escaping into the utter wilds and freedom that is to be found is an epic feeling!  But even if you’re not escaping anything other than the mundane things of life, it’s still fabulous.

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Going wherever.

Doing it whenever.

Meeting anyone you want along the way.

The world (as it is overstated) is your oyster!

Now feeling bitter about such a religious, conservative culture may not be a bad thing (for some of religiosity, if it makes itself known/felt as primarily “do nots”, is not true religion).  But in our story we’re considering today, the bitterness of our friend Jonah is far from justified (though certainly understandable!).

Jonah has decided that the people he was asked to bring the bad news about God’s judgement and good news about God’s rescue to, (the same good news that someone else brought him and which gave him life,) are not worthy of it.  A fairly natural feeling, given the horrors present in surrounding cultures at the time.  Though we’re always quick to forget our own failings and how God dealt with them (in grace), no, Jonah?

And so, not understanding the irony of refusing this mission, he “does a runner” in precisely the other direction, away from Nineveh.  He goes to the port of Joppa, jumps on a ship going to Tarshish and heads off travelling.  It’s the natural reaction when we don’t wanna face the music and dance.

But he’s missed one crucial thing.  He can’t hide from God.  As God’s children we can’t hide from God.  There are no sacred spaces.  No places devoid of God.  No places that God is more inclined to hang out in (apart from where His people gather to worship, wherever that is).  The Psalmist wrote:

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,’
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

But equally for those who don’t follow God, they can’t run from his judgement (Amos 9:1-6):

I saw the Lord standing by the altar, and he said:

‘Strike the tops of the pillars
    so that the thresholds shake.
Bring them down on the heads of all the people;
    those who are left I will kill with the sword.
Not one will get away,
    none will escape.
Though they dig down to the depths below,
    from there my hand will take them.
Though they climb up to the heavens above,
    from there I will bring them down.
Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
    there I will hunt them down and seize them.
Though they hide from my eyes at the bottom of the sea,
    there I will command the serpent to bite them.
Though they are driven into exile by their enemies,
    there I will command the sword to slay them.

‘I will keep my eye on them
    for harm and not for good.’

The Lord, the Lord Almighty –
he touches the earth and it melts,
    and all who live in it mourn;
the whole land rises like the Nile,
    then sinks like the river of Egypt;
he builds his lofty palace in the heavens
    and sets its foundation on the earth;
he calls for the waters of the sea
    and pours them out over the face of the land –
    the Lord is his name.

It is fearful imagery.

There is no escape from God.

Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat.

Tonight I drove home past the University College Cork campus.  At times I stopped the car to avoid running over drunk Freshers stumbling out onto the road on their way into town.  On their way into a university experience they’ll never forget (apart from on the morning after).

If my case for it being a lonely world or one where we struggle to look past convenient relationships with people like us, was merely a whisper, then surely these patterns of life are the screaming of similar yearnings on our hearts.

The rhythm of university life for so many.

Eat.

Sleep.

Rave.

Repeat.

Or so the saying goes.  One of my old university hallmates still ushers in each month typically with the facebook status:

never-drinking-again

But the joke is that we all know, he knows, that come next week, he’ll be posting the same thing again.  But my point in saying this isn’t to rant against such things.  You can find enough of society doing that elsewhere.

My point is that the fact we delight in this pattern of life (and 80% of students do,) illustrates that we seem incapable of looking outwards to people who are different to us, to appreciate them, unite with them and get along with them in very real ways.  We struggle to even do it in a university scene where we’re all like each other!!  The joke about Irish lads like myself is that we need 3 pints before we’d even talk to a woman.  And there’s a reason why that story has come to pass.  Our unity seems to come at the expense of everything apart from our drunken experience, which is our one uniting factor.

(And for those who don’t drink as much, like me, let us not think any more of ourselves…once the proverbial party bus leaves the university halls of residences, you rarely get a buzzing community of other-person-centred people appearing to unite for the evening.  On the times we did, we tended to all sit round and focus on our homogony “we’re not common people like those clubbing types, we’re so very different!”.  The irony didn’t strike us.)

We seem incapable of having motivation and desire to look beyond ourselves (apart from maybe the very few of us who’ve been raised in very diverse settings, but we couldn’t expect that to be replicated worldwide for everyone).

And from what I can tell it’s two or three main things that we struggle with as we consider how we can be united in our diversity:

  • we struggle to be vulnerable and admit weakness or neediness
  • we struggle to see others’ cultures or strengths and are quick to think highly of our own (we’re blind to ourselves)

and ultimately:

  • we struggle to know why we should bother to look outwards if we’re not harming anyone

It’s why when I’m travelling there’s always the draw towards the Irish pub in the city.  Familiarity.  A place where “the craic” will be mighty (as we say).  A place we can find comfort and feel at home in.  It’s the reason a hotel resort where I never see a foreign person, or have to speak in a foreign language is often what we opt for.  Neither are inherently wrong, and so I’m not making a moral judgement on those who, like myself, lean towards these at times.

But what will help us do these three things?  For one, the answer that I attempt to start (you’ll be pleased to hear), isn’t found in religion as we’ve seen in Ireland.

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International Student Cafe Cork: radically different

Yesterday I discussed how lonely it can feel in life at times, even in the midst of many people.  Today, let me describe the difference using an accelerated example: an international student.

You’re far away from home, foreign language and foreign culture.  You’ve just realised us Irish aren’t as friendly as Lonely Planet and the travel guides make us out to be, especially when you’ve announced your intentions to stay here.  And so you think about hanging out with other international students, because they’ll understand.  “They’re people like me”.

You head down to the local Language Exchange night at a local pub.  There’s a great buzz.  You meet a few more internationals, socialise as much as you can in that environment with poor english and loud music, and call it a night when most people seem to be paying more attention to you as a female to flirt with, than as a human being.  The morning after you’ve not many more genuine friendships, but you’ve had a whale of an evening that’s given you a relational high, enough to go back next time.  And good news, next time you recognise a couple of people, though conversation seems harder with them now you know the basics – where do you go from here?

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Alternatively you go to the far smaller, far quieter, weekly International Student Cafe in a rented hall nearby.  You’re greeted by a mixture of local people (team members) of various ages, and other students from far more varied cultures than were in the pub (Muslims, mainly the difference).  By uni standards it’s a tame night.  But a fun activity/theme, took away the pressure just to make brilliant conversation and allowed personalities and diversities to shine through without too much stress.  A chance to chill over tea, coffee and an international snack soon had us in stitches with our mis-communications to each other.  This certainly was a socially less extroverted group, but nice none-the-less.  Going home, it was nice to have had a different night but nothing incredible.  Would I go back?  Perhaps if there wasn’t a better, cooler option.  Until…

Well, then I got a text the next day asking me whether I’d go for a run and a coffee at the weekend.  I hadn’t realised the guy at the cafe did running like me.  Actually, I hadn’t realised much about him as he’d always been asking me good questions about what I liked, come to think of it.  And so we did.  And I came back the next week to cafe as a result, though I stayed a bit longer to help clear up afterwards.  After all, they seemed a very nice bunch, random as they were.

And then the next week I went on a trip with them to some stunning coastline (they don’t make profit, interestingly) nearby.  And before I knew it I was organising one of the week’s themes in my own culture.

What seemed like quite an ordinary cafe started to grip me.  This wasn’t just one person who was like me, who took interest in me.  This was everyone there.  And I could see it was starting to change me and the others there for the better.  I was thinking mid-week about how I could show interest in their lives too.  I mean, was this friendship?  But it was so random, so….different!

So what makes this difference?  This very real community?

Well, I’ll save my thoughts for next time and in the mean time, thoughts on the back of a postcard to me please!

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PS: I hope I haven’t been too harsh in characterising other language exchanges and international groups in this city.  Some of what they do is fantastic and will have helped develop leadership/entrepreneurial flair in those leading, helped other make friends, find love and much more.  And most of what we do relies on them to take away most people from us (it wouldn’t work with more students currently).  So thank you!  I’ve always pointed people towards you and what you do and spoken highly of you, and still will.  And find any of us on an off-night and we’ll be just as self-centred as anyone!

Loneliness

Community is a buzz word of late.  But for all the buzz, for most it’s a little bit like looking behind a facebook profile into the messy reality of what lies beneath.  Many are lonelier than ever before.  And I know what it feels like.  Especially when I’m travelling.

I grew up in Belfast (Northern Ireland), studied and worked in Nottingham (England) and now am into my fifth year working in Cork (Ireland).  By this stage I’ve lost contact with most of those I grew up with (by living a flight away from them for 5 years), and haven’t done any better with my uni friends (yip, still a flight away).  Starting afresh in a new city, new culture, new job and new everything (it would seem) hasn’t been easy even for a fairly outgoing social person like me.  I guess working evenings and away from home hasn’t helped.

I’m happy playing in sports clubs, I’m grand sitting in pubs, I love a classical concert but nor do I object to dancing the night away on a dancefloor til the “wee” hours.  Happy chatting deep philosophy or bantering the night away on a surface level.  I’m happy in most place to be honest.  But it’s still hard.

I’d love to say it was because young professionals are few and far between in Cork, but I’m not sure it’s true.  Or that there aren’t the places to hang out and meet people, but there are.  So why do most of us in the city that I’ve talked to find it so hard to make friends?

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Perhaps the post-uni relational lows of not having endless free-time, not having clubs and societies that meet in convenient times and locations to us, not have common  experiences of everyone leaving home and being thrown in together.  When we don’t have people perfectly like us around us, we struggle.

The more the years go on, the more I see my friends looking to live by themselves.  Why?  Well I think partly because living with other people (even good friends) is hard.  They find those they live with are not like them.  In tiny ways, but enough that irritates them after a long day at work.

And the more years go on, the more I see sex being assumed in every young professional’s friendship in the city.  Not because we love someone.  Just because it’s fun, it’s an escape, and it may just cement a friendship and make it work.  So often the same people who’ve offered me sex, are the ones next month offering someone else.  Not because they’re desperate for sex per say.  Or because they’re horrible people (in fact, quite the opposite).

But because they’re lonely.

Unfulfilled.

Unsure what they’re looking for.

And so I think people are always surprised when they find real friendship.  And mistake it for romance unless they see that every member of several communities that I’m part of the city are offering that kind of friendship.  Very real community.  And it’s beautiful to be part of (though far harder to cultivate).

I’ll come on to some of what I think that looks like tomorrow.

What do you get when an orange lodge marcher meets an IRA family member? A hug!

Northern Ireland has had a deeply divided past, mostly marked in recent decades by “the troubles” in which worldwide it’s claimed that protestants fought catholics.  I’m not sure how many realise how hilariously silly such notions are.  Not that religion never played a role, but certainly it was a small one (sadly vocal in such horrid cahfses where politics and religion were mixed).  Perhaps as an (overused) example (sometimes told as a joke), note the few Jews in our local area who were supposedly asked by locals whether they were Catholic Jews or Protestant Jews.  Clearly few realised what true Catholicism of true Protestantism really was.

Given these (still fairly large) differences between one half of the community and the other, the question of what can unite us always loomed large.  That’s a question I raised elsewhere, but for the meantime I’ll just mention one encouragement today.

I was speaking at this meeting in North Belfast today, where I lived the very first years of my life.  Right on the “peaceline” between two communities.  Sitting week by week in such meetings are everyone from young children, through to old age pensioners.  There’s the odd folk with top class degrees from university (some leading international projects in health or education), next to majority of people of working class background, some who didn’t finish schooling.  Some we drove past a paramilitary gathering at Mount Vernon to pick up, whose relatives were/are in the IRA.  Others exclaimed how they’d been out at the orange lodge parades the day before supporting them.  Some have had family killed by “the other side”, and both have seen the effects of drug usage, alcohol and jail sentences tare into lives (either theirs or family).prep peace ready war

It’s an unlikely place to find unity.  But there was.  A beautiful unity that has everyone hugging when they meet, seeking to love each other well and not even caring at the hilarious difference between them all.  A unity bought by Jesus and lived out by people who all claimed to desperately need Him, in this mini church community that no-one will have heard of.  Many would say I was out of place, as a uni grad, young professional, happily working my way up the career ladder, living where I want, travelling where I want and  nothing obvious screaming out from my life (feeling quite satisfied).  But this feeling of sufficiency and total, unrestrained freedom, I’ve realised is a delusion.  And so the most important part of my week is the messy family of randoms who’d otherwise often never associate, commonly known as the church.

But of course the question is a complex one (when isn’t it?), so I’ll come back to vital questions of integrated education, council strategy and many other great things.  But in the mean time, if this hasn’t been your experience of church, why not ask me where you can find that kind of community?