Wrongfooted

How easy it is for us to trip up. A respected Christian friend tells me we can tell the quality of our walk with God by the extent to which we suffer for it. I am alarmed. My face watches her lips move, as she tries perhaps to explain, but all my attention shifts inward, searching for something that might be labelled suffering for my faith.

My ordinary life with its usual stress and distress doesn’t quite measure up. So I am temporarily derailed. I have been on a relatively smooth track recently, oiled by a newly discovered take on the the concept of faith. Faith has come to mean the opposite of worry, working-out-what-next, and telling God what needs to happen and how. If I really have faith, I don’t need to do all that any more.

Except now my Achilles heel of self-condemnation has yawned, stretched and got dressed for work. Once again I have to force myself not to let it in. To trust that God is in control and He may be using this to keep me honest.

A friend once told me that she feels closest to God when things are going well. At the time, I was surprised and almost shocked. I had, I realised, associated closeness to God with crying out to him in adversity. I simply did not associate him with joy or success or any of the stuff that feels good. I thought that true piety equals pain. Painful pain.

When challenged to audit my life for suffering, I began to leave the secret sunny garden of childlike faith I had recently found to return to the cold damp cloister where discomfort demonstrates you’re on the Way.

Because of my earlier ideas about God this felt right, even if it was disappointing. Even if it seemed to reopen the wound of anxiety. Here was a truly enormous thing for me to worry about.

But then I remembered who I’m meant to be looking at. Not myself. Not even my pious sister. She may not be wrong. But she may not have the whole picture.

Just passing through

Followers of Jesus belong in two places at once: in the world as a kind of temporary resident and in the kingdom of heaven as a permanent citizen, currently away from home on an extended visit. This is confusing for me because at times the place I’m visiting feels more like home than the one I belong to. I recognise the ordinary patterns of the way people live, everyday good and bad behaviours, some informed by religious beliefs or morals and others just by what feels good or right at any given time. What I don’t recognise, and need to learn, is the ordinary patterns of the kingdom of heaven, which, to paraphrase Dallas Willard, is the place where God is fully in charge.

My dad the Jim Reeves fan used to regularly blast this one through the house on a Sunday

‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through

My treasure’s all laid up somewhere beyond the blue

The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door

And I can’t feel at home in this world any more…’

Brutalities like the assassination of cartoonists in Paris or the Sydney hostage-taking or the kidnapping and recruitment of schoolgirls in Nigeria (sadly, the list trails back as far as the eye can see), evoke a similar ‘please just get me out of here’ response. These are ways of being which I don’t recognise or want to admit into the normal pattern of the world I inhabit. They make me long for escape. But that’s not an option. Christians live and die alongside Muslims and those of other faiths and none in these times of international or personal tragedy. Much as I would love God to give me a get-out-of-trouble card which would annul life’s adversity, I know that the strongest witnesses of God’s love in the world have lived sacrificial lives within society, not outside it.

Perhaps the sacrifice God calls us to is to be the slightly odd person in your circle who believes in God and the claims of Jesus, the one who has quaint ideas and isn’t always taken too seriously. For some of us sensitive (and vain) types that’s a hard pill to swallow, along with the willingness not to have the clever answer but to treat people consistently in a loving, compassionate and respectful way, regardless of how they treat you or what they think about you. It is also being willing to hold onto that faith when life seems to be falling apart around you, whether through personal tragedy or events that make the news.

While I’m fretting about the lack of the spectacular in my life, I can forget that the mundane is equally powerful. The consistent witness of everyday faithfulness that God requires over years and sometimes decades, is noticed by our neighbours, friends and acquaintances. That kind of stamina is simply impossible unless I bring my life to God in good times and bad and sometimes in boring detail, sharing my failures and triumphs with him, letting him tend my wounds and celebrate my victories. He is my source, my hope, my encourager, my guide. I am refreshed and affirmed by a different set of standards than those of the world. Love, not power, service not prestige. I hope to show, on my better days at least, that I may live here but I belong elsewhere.