|Book: Becoming a Secure Christian|
Part 1 : Setting the Scene
Part 2 : A Biblical Security
Part 3 : Personal Security
(Practice and Theory)
Chapter: 1 - What's it all about?
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek
it out”. (Proverbs 18:15)
1.1 The Tidal Wave of Change
Imagine lying on a beach in the warm sun. The waves are washing in with that steady roar that fills the back of your mind. It's a quiet patch of beach and there is no one near. You are dozing in the warmth, oblivious of the warnings about getting sunburnt. It just feels good. In the back of your mind there is an awareness of a growing roar and for a while you ignore it. But it seems to be growing and it forces its way to the front of your consciousness. You come to and open your eyes. The sky is still pure blue. It still looks beautiful, yet the roar is growing, you lift your head and look towards the sea. Suddenly horror fills your mind and you're on your feet in an instant. There, still a half a mile out at sea is the most enormous tidal wave you've ever seen. Your first thought is to run, but this wave is so big it will break over the land and keep going. If you stand where you are it will sweep over you and you will be drowned. What options are left to you? There is one but it seems horrific: you can take your surf board and plough as fast as you can towards the wave and somehow get on the front of the wave and ride it. It is risky but the alternatives are worse. Here is your one hope – to ride the wave. (* see note at end)
In the days in which we live, here at the beginning of the twenty first century, we are confronted by a wave that threatens to overwhelm us, a wave of change that we will allow to drown us, or which we will ride and triumph on. This applies whether we are Christian or non-Christian, believer or unbeliever. What is crazy about this, is that life is all about riding waves, so we shouldn't be too surprised or shocked by what is happening. Change is constant, we cannot help it.
What happens when life goes wrong - and you're a Christian? What happens when you make a real mess of life - and you're a Christian? What happens when disaster strikes and you wonder where God is? What happens when church goes wrong and the so-called people of God are thoroughly unpleasant and you're on the receiving end? Those are the sorts of questions we'll be considering in this book.
Why? Well there are several reasons:
1.2 The Retreat - where barriers came down
Let me tell you something that happened to us as a church a few years ago. In many ways this was a turning point in our life as a church, in other ways it was simply an expression of what God has already been doing with us for some time.
"I will be there!"
We agreed that we needed a time away as a church, a weekend, Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. As we prayed about who to invite to speak and what subject to cover we drew a blank. To cut a long story short, eventually we felt God was saying to us, “You are not to plan anything, just turn up. I will be there.”
Trying to recount what happened is difficult, because a lot of people shared and the weekend rushed by. As we went in to the first half of Sunday morning though, we had a sense that the Lord was focussing on us ‘being real'. It looked like we might need to make some space in the latter part of the morning for people to share, so we placed chairs in pairs around the perimeter of the room. Part way into the second session of that morning, it just seemed very natural and right to say, “We have a sense that a number of you are feeling like you would really wish you were able to share the real you with someone else and pray with them, so if that is what you're feeling we would like you to get up and go and find someone with whom you feel secure and share with them what you're really like on the inside.”
With no more persuading half of the group got up and took the other half to the perimeter of the room, and so for the next hour or so, all that could be heard, apart from the quiet playing on the keyboard, was low murmuring and the sounds of weeping as half the church poured out their hearts to the other half.
When we went into the afternoon session there were many glowing faces as a number gave testimony about the wonderful release they had felt, being able to share with someone else what they were really like, and knowing they were still loved. We sung and worshipped and praised God. At the end of it a prophetic word came, “This day this church has been reborn!”
On that retreat a door was opened, that said, “You can face who you are and still be loved.” The challenge then was, will it be a one-off experience or a way of life?
God looks on the inside
You may remember what happened in 1 Samuel 16 where God spoke to Samuel as he looked upon Eliab, the first of the sons of Jesse lined up before him. This man looks good, thought Samuel, surely he must be the Lord's anointed, His new leader. Not so, says the Lord, you just look on the outward appearance but I know what goes on inside a person. This isn't him!
Often all is not as it seems. So often in life we pretend that all is well, when in fact it is far from well. To catch this idea more fully I would like us to have a look at one particular church, imaginary of course!
1.3 The Real People - An imaginary look at a Sunday Congregation
The pastor stood before his congregation on a Sunday morning. He looked out over the many faces before him, some apparently eagerly alert waiting for his words of wisdom and revelation, others just sitting. They appear a typical congregation, mostly looking quite relaxed, and mostly there is a general sense of well-being. He had been there when people started coming in and heard the Welcome Team with the traditional “Hi, how are you this morning?”, and the traditional, “Fine thanks”.
“Lord”, he breathes, “thank you for this people. Thank you for giving them to me. Thank you for the peace and well-being that you have given us. Thank you for these people, so many of whom serve you so faithfully. Thank you that they are here”.
He goes to open his mouth to start the ‘message', yet before he can say a word there flashes before his mind, “Man looks on the outward, but God looks on the heart”. He has a slight sense of disquiet that makes him pause for a second more. The people look on and simply see their man scanning the crowd. They are unaware of what is going on inside him. Suddenly he's aware that as he looks at different people sitting there before him, he knows what is going on in their lives. Suddenly all is not as it seems!
To the side is sixteen year old Jenny. On the outside all looks good. She's well dressed, well groomed and has a bright smile - but inside! Inside Jenny is worrying about her parents constantly arguing, worrying about the fear that her best friend has shared with her earlier this morning, worrying about her forthcoming exams, and worrying because she can't seem to find or keep a boyfriend. Jenny's life is full of worries but she daren't tell anyone because she's been told “have no anxiety about anything” (Phil 4:6) and good Christians don't worry.
Three rows behind her is tall and handsome Darren who is now twenty and who also looks good. Darren is a model young Christian who always seems to be ever striving for greater things in ‘the kingdom of God '. Indeed only last week the youth leader confided in the pastor that he would be recommending that Darren lead the junior youth work next year. But now as the pastor looks on he sees the young man filled with excruciating pain from the abuse he received from his father many years before, which no one else knows about. If you mentioned it to Darren he would deny it, for deep inside him is guilt and shame over what happened during those earlier years.
Across the aisle from Darren is Shelley, a single mum. Shelley is twenty six, has two young children and her husband walked out on her for another girl just three months ago. As Shelley sits there looking attentive, her mind keeps straying to the last three months, and particularly to last night when she almost threw the baby across the room. “It's all right for the rest of them,” she thought, “they don't have to cope on their own! If only someone would understand. If only someone would help.” But they don't because Shelley looks so competent, so in control. Only last week she couldn't help overhearing two elderly ladies commenting, “Isn't it wonderful how our Lord seems to be undertaking for poor Shelley, she's doing so well looking after the children on her own now.” Yes Shelley SEEMS to be competent on the outside, but inside she's screaming, “Help! I can't cope with this much longer!” but as one kind soul reminded her recently, “Well as it says in the good book, my dear, God says ‘my grace is sufficient' and you only have to ask you know.”
Sitting just in front of her is Laurie. Laurie looks good on the outside, in fact she looks blooming, which is perhaps because she's pregnant. The only problem is that she's only just found out she's pregnant and the father was just a passing bad experience at a foolish party. Oddly enough, it's not so much that she's pregnant that is worrying her but rather what people in the church will say when they find out. Perhaps it's time to leave church and move on somewhere else where she's not known. People here won't understand.
Along the row is the Hayes family. They certainly look model Christians as they sit there. Dad has a Bible in his hand and seems to be eagerly waiting for the pastor to announce his text. But what's this on the inside? It's a combination of guilt, shame and anger. Last night he had a row with the older of the two boys who's been dating a less than desirable non-Christian girl from a less than desirable neighbourhood. More than that he's been missing classes at College and word has it he's been seen with a group known to be regularly using drugs. Dad tried to reason with him but reasoning turned into arguing and arguing turned into a full blown row which resulted in the son slamming out of the house at midnight and driving off in the car to who knows where. Dad sat there on the edge of tears feeling a complete failure as a father. Who cares about a sermon when you are racked with these sorts of feelings!
Two rows back from them is young Alan. Alan became a Christian just a year ago and ever since has been struggling every time the pastor preached. What nobody else knows is that Alan used to steal things - regularly! Something inside Alan confirms what the pastor says, that it was wrong, but what to do about it. If he tells someone they'll throw him out of the church and he'll probably end up in prison. Church is for good people and Alan wasn't good. Apart from the stealing he's got an uncontrollable temper. He knows it's wrong to get angry like he does, but he just cannot control it, except when he's in church, of course. If only someone would help him, but he dare not tell anyone what he's like.
Oh, and across there is Nina who looks so nice on the outside but is so angry on the inside. Whatever caused that? What's that? Oh, my God, no….
Quick move on! There's Bob, a pillar of the church. Been around since anyone can remember, he's all right surely. Oh no, not him too. Why is he so pained? He's still grieving for the loss of his Margaret last year from cancer? Oh no, and what's more he's worrying that perhaps that nagging pain that he's got deep down means he's got cancer as well.
There behind him is Lizzie, a common sense person if ever there was one, a real stalwart! What's that in her, loneliness? Why so? She's got a nice husband and two nice grown up children? What's this, the husband is away on work projects most of the time and the two girls never ring home. Why doesn't she tell someone how she feels? She believes no one will understand and anyway, so many people rely on her and look to her for support as she leads the women's group. Leaders don't feel lonely!
Quick, move on, there's a man I don't know. Who is he, this visitor? He's a teacher, a worried teacher, a very, very worried teacher, almost at breaking point. He's come here almost as his last hope. The strain of increased administration, accountability and ill discipline have taken their toll. He is nearly at the end. He can't take much more.
Next to him is Alec, he'll be all right. What's he thinking? “I hope he doesn't start on about tithing again this morning. I couldn't take any more after last week! It's all very well for him. He hasn't got a sick and demanding wife, or two children at college. I've tried tithing but it just made matters worse. What does he know?” Oh no!
Quick, try Jill four rows back, there'll be nothing wrong there. What's she thinking? “Please Lord don't let him talk about evangelism again! Lord, I tried. You know I tried. But Lord I'm no good at sharing my faith with others. Oh I feel such a failure!”
Next to her is Carol. What is she thinking? “Lord, why haven't you healed me? The pastor said Jesus did more healing than anything else, so why Lord haven't you healed me? Lord, it's not for lack of asking, you know that. Lord, I believe you DO heal people today, so Lord why haven't you healed me yet?”
Along from her is David. Now he doesn't look very happy, but he's always there at the prayer meeting, a real supporter that one. Oh no, he's depressed. He's always depressed? I can't believe it! He's been depressed since his late teens. Why didn't I know? Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't someone tell me?
Just back from him is his uncle Jack, not at all like his nephew, a really bright old man. What's that there? He's worrying about the doctor's appointment he's got at the hospital next week. Why have I been referred there? What will happen? What's wrong with me? What might they have to do? How will I cope? How will Milly cope on her own if I'm taken in for an operation?
A row or two back is his younger brother, Derek. What's that word over him? Sacked! He's been sacked from his job after thirty years with the same firm? Well laid off really, downsizing is what they call it these days. I'm too old now, I'm not able to work at the pace I used to. I'll never be able to get another job now, I'm on the scrap heap! Useless!
Behind him is Digby. He's all right, he's a managing director of a prosperous firm. What's that going through his mind? “If we sell off 40% of the shares it might stop the bank foreclosing, but we'll still have to restructure before the next shareholders meeting to be able to inspire some confidence for the future. Oh what am I doing here in this building this morning? I ought to be out on the golf course soft talking Sanders into giving us a loan rather than talking of foreclosing! Oh this is stupid. Keep it short this morning pastor!”
Oh, no, Lord, no, that's unfair, not her! Lord, no, not my own Gwen! Oh, why didn't she tell me about it? Why has she kept it to her self? What's she thinking now? “Get on with it dear”. Yes right, well…
And so the pastor took a deep breath. “My text for this morning can be found in….”
Thirty five minutes later the warmed and encouraged congregation stood up to go back out into the real world with its real problems. Grateful for their minister, grateful for his words, grateful for his encouragement, but largely unchanged. They felt better but the problems were still there, largely unresolved, and would still be there in two week's time. If only there was someone who could understand, someone who would listen, someone who would love, even when they knew the worst.
You think that's an exaggeration, that churches aren't like that? You've obviously never met an honest group of Christians then! That's exactly what life is like. Those are exactly the problems that face people on a daily basis - and it's probable you have similar things concerning you or those you know. But it's not only the ‘congregation', it's often the leaders as well. Consider the story that follows.
1.4 A Lonely Woman - Loneliness in Leadership
Diane reflected on the five years since they had been in the parish. When the bishop had offered Chris this particular parish their hearts had leapt. His own church at last, what possibilities! Yet the reality had turned out to be far from the dream.
For Diane the expectations placed on a vicar's wife in a rural parish immediately brought a sense of isolation. As the wife of a curate the pedestal had been there but not so distinct. Now she was elevated, not in a kind way, but as the lady with all the answers, the lady with the smile, the lady who was to be available, the lady whose job it was to be there! At first it had been a novelty, being treated as someone different, someone special, but as the months went by she realised that actually she was really being treated as someone who was odd, someone who lived in the ‘vicarage', someone who supposedly lived in the presence of God. She had a feeling that because of who she was, she was the butt of much of the gossip in the village. As she failed to live up to the expectations of the so-proper ladies of the village, her reputation plummeted. She sensed a feeling of sympathy for “the poor vicar” whose soul mate wasn't quite up to the task.
When Sarah died in her cot at two months, something also died in Diane. Everyone was so sympathetic yet the sympathy seemed to be tinged with criticism for a mother who couldn't care for her new born. Her cries to God seemed unanswered and she seemed alone in the universe. If only there was someone to talk to, someone who might understand. Chris was never available since he had been asked to take on the two neighbouring parishes. The ladies of the church looked up to her and held her at a distance. “There is no one”, she thought, “who treats me normally! Why can't I be just an ordinary person with ordinary friends, with an ordinary job? God why have you done this to me?” It was then that she first had thoughts of taking her life.
1.5 And So?
Yes, this is what life is like, a kaleidoscope of happenings, some good, some bad, some causing anxiety, some causing gladness. The good things causing gladness are easy to take, but what about all the other things - the health breakdowns, the accidents, the relationship breakdowns, the unexpected unemployment - how do we deal with these things?
Even more, how do we deal with these things as Christians? How do we deal with them as church? Dare we be honest about our feelings? Is there some way of being nice to nasty people? Is there some way we can smile when our heart feels like breaking?
Is it possible to become a church that acknowledges all the bad things going wrong around us, yet is somehow able to get the grace of God to handle them?
Looking back to the imaginary scene with the pastor viewing his congregation, what was your reaction to the volume and nature of things the pastor was seeing in his people? When you read that scene, what did you FEEL about the needs that were being revealed? Can we become a people of compassion and understanding, who can hear these problems and still love the people with the problems? Can we feel for them, understand them and be there for them?
In the scene with Diane, the vicar's wife, why is she so lonely? Is such a thing inevitable in the circumstances? What might be a course of action to bring change to her and many like her in similar situations? Dare we acknowledge that there are many people who are in her situation, people who feel lonely in leadership, isolated by the role they perhaps almost unwillingly take on?
These are the sort of questions we need to face up to in this book if we have the courage to do so.
(Note from 1.1 : Please note that this book was published a number of months before this picture was conveyed around the world when on Boxing Day 2004 the world witnessed the terrible power of the Indian Ocean tsunami. That graphically conveyed the picture of the change that I believe is taking place in our world today.)