Unity

We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.

It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time.  This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.

So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark.  All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.

After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.

I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.

I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party.  Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.

What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.

It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices.  My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.

 

 

Course correction

Sigh. The more things change…

Months ago I described my epiphany with a declaration of intent to go into full-time ministry. Life took on a new, excited urgency while I waited to see what God would do with my generous offer of myself. I applied for and got a job with a Christian organisation running outreach courses. It’s been a steep curve, both stretching and affirming. Naturally enough this has filled my vision and my head for the last six months.

Then my manager asked me what I was doing about pursuing my vocation.  I was surprised to find myself reacting negatively, trotting out the same old excuses, feeling the same tug of conflicting emotions. The peace I had experienced before had been superseded by the busyness of my new role, its possibilities and opportunities. This Christian life is supposed to be all about dying to self and living for Christ. It turns out my self is still very much alive and kicking. Hard.

A few sleepless nights and painful conversations later, I gave in, again. Told God that he can place me wherever he wants to, hoping for the peace of before. Instead I felt flat and foolish. Unimpressed now with my years of acrobatic twists and turns away from God’s embrace, keeping close enough to feel his warmth, but just beyond the range of his all-consuming fire. I was exhausted by the struggle to keep my head above the waters, to avoid full immersion.

My internal critic pounded me with condemnation but then God sent a mature Christian to remind me that God is neither surprised nor disappointed by the time I have taken. Every experience is useful, even the wandering, the wondering, the downright disobeying and the genuine questioning. He loves me the same whether I say yes or no. Grace, the gift of love, was given in Christ because God is love, not in response to any input from me. I am God’s child and his love for me is an unchanging fact of eternity. He still and always loves me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I may even find out that I enjoy this ministry lark. It may not be the thing that I must do to sacrifice my fulfilment to the demands of the almighty, but it may actually be the fulfilment I was made for.

My son announced recently that he now loves reading. It’s really fun, he tells me. Small thing you may say. But after 2 or more years of tears and tantrums about reading, it was quite a speech. Over and over we had all assured him it would get easier and he would come to enjoy it like the rest of his bookish family but he couldn’t see it. Now he’s got it, he gets it. It’s great.

I trust that I will too. I dare to believe that after some 8 years of refusal, God may share my feeling of delight that his child has finally caught on and is ready to engage in some learning she might actually enjoy.

Not caterpillars forever

I have been looking over some of my posts of late. I seem a bit flaky, lurching from stability to crisis and back again. How come? How can I be sorted one minute and stressed the next? I travel in a straight line for a while, and then I stop and circle before I find my way back to the path.

Some days I just forget where I’m going.

There are two caterpillars sitting on a leaf when a butterfly flutters by. The first caterpillar turns to the second and says, ‘You’ll never catch me going up in one of those!’

I was prompted by this fine joke to look up the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Pretty amazing by anyone’s standards. And also pretty instructive. The caterpillar eats, grows and sheds a skin. It eats, grows (anyone else relating to this?) and sheds. It eats, grows and sheds. You get the picture.

In a letter to the Christian community in Rome Paul talks about how believers grow as they respond to God.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you will be able to test and approve God’s will – his perfect and pleasing will.
Romans 12 v 2

I’m happy enough to stand out and not conform when it suits me, but I suspect that’s not what Paul, the apostle who endured shipwreck, imprisonment and torture, had in mind. But he also says that a life responding to God’s love won’t simply improve my morals or make me nicer, but transform me. My imagination is unable to conceive what this might look like. So I take it on faith that change is a given.

Whether it’s changing country or teacher, or job or house, change cuts us loose from normality; suddenly all things are uncertain, shifting, impermanent. Almost as soon as it starts, what you have known starts sliding away from you. What has been will never be again.

Christians are promised this amazing transformation but in the meantime, we just see more of the same. We shed some old behaviours or habits or addictions or whatever, we look forward to being different and yet… we look the same. We can begin to doubt that anything is really different. That God has made a difference. We don’t fly to work or see through walls or, at least in the circles I move in, raise the dead. We can forget we’re moving towards something glorious.

Releasing the old to make way for the new is not a pretty or comfortable process. Think of the caterpillar’s bulk morphing, somehow, into a butterfly. Much like us. Like the caterpillar, all our baggage feeds into the process that produces a butterfly. We just have to take it on faith. And keep going.