dare

Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

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Daring

A daring life is a life of unmasking. Fear, I am discovering, likes to dress up as all kinds of things that sneakily stop us from making brave choices.

When I chose dare as my one word for 2014 I resolved to say yes to more opportunities that might not work out. That might not sound particularly daring but for someone as shamefully risk-averse as I am, it is a stretch.

Here’s an example.

Back in December someone tweeted me a link to a challenge from the development agency Tearfund. They were looking for three bloggers to travel to Cambodia and tell stories of their work there to help them raise funds.

I looked at it and I said ‘No’ – just like that.

No – I don’t write well enough to win. No – I haven’t got a big enough platform. No – it would be hugely presumptuous and big headed of me to enter something like that.

Anyway I clicked on the link and the headline over the details of the contest made me jump. It said: ‘We’ve discovered something pretty incredible’ and then went on to explain how to enter.

Incredible! is the title of the book I’ve been writing for the past two years. I felt the headline was a kind of sign that I should enter. Sorry if this sounds whacky. I do believe God sometimes speaks to us through words that have important personal resonance.

So I wrote my entry. It took me the whole of New Year’s Day. The more I wrote, the more excited I felt about what Tearfund is doing in Cambodia. Working with local people, they are empowering villagers in great poverty to find ways of improving their lives through small scale agriculture, carried out in community, with the support of the local church. If ever a project tapped into the things that I care most about, this was it.

I hit ‘send’. That was a daring moment for me, exposing myself to the risk of failure and rejection.

I thought and prayed about the trip almost constantly for the next couple of weeks. My prayers were embarrassingly close to ‘Oh God, if you fix this for me I promise I will never, ever, ever do anything naughty for the whole of the rest of my life.’ I really wanted that trip, like I wanted a pony when I was eight and a boyfriend when I was 16.

(You might think that sounds like a pretty immature way to think about something aimed at helping people out of poverty. You would be right.)

Soon after, on a Friday morning when I was sitting at my desk doing revisions on the book, the news came.

I didn’t get it.

I had dared and I had failed.

But I didn’t lose and here’s why.

:: By daring to enter, I saw my initial objections for what they were: fear and pride masquerading as humility. God preserve us from false humility. It stinks to high heaven – literally, I would imagine. The real reason I didn’t want to enter was that I didn’t want to risk losing. But look! I lost and I’m still alive!

:: I tapped into some really strong emotions. They weren’t all pretty but I’ve been learning lately that the scary feelings, the ones we’d prefer not to own up to, can be points of growth. That’s a whole other blog post but as an example I think that being prepared to look at our jealousy can be a way of discovering desires that we’ve been afraid to acknowledge. Desires that, handled properly, can actually lead to discovering more of our purpose in life.

:: I got inspired to improve my work. Winner Rich Wells’ beautifully illustrated blog, for example, made me want to get much better at using visuals and so I’ve started experimenting with a digital SLR camera, even though I know it’ll be ages before I can use it well. (Rich’s main blog is here but the one I really love is Daddy Daycare, an enchanting record of his weekly days out with his toddler.)

:: I feel better about myself as someone who tried and failed than I would if I’d listened to my initial objections. And despite not being a winner I feel more inclined to risk the next challenge, not less.

Do I still wish I’d won? Yes of course I do. Do I regret entering? Absolutely not.

I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection: open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!
(2 Corinthians 6:11-13, from The Message version of the Bible)

You can read more about Tearfund’s inspiring work in Cambodia here and more about the winning bloggers here.

A visit to the plague village

riley graves

We came upon the graves suddenly, part way round a muddy walk in the grey half-light of a January afternoon.

They are protected by the National Trust now, a low wall like a sheepfold enclosing six weatherbeaten headstones and a tomb that mark the last resting places of the Hancock family: a father, John, and his children, who died of bubonic plague in 1666.

Only the mother, Margaret, survived and she is remembered today for having to drag the corpses away from the farm where they lived, then dig the graves herself.

Everywhere you go around the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced ‘eem’) you see memorials to the people who died of plague in a few traumatic months nearly 350 years ago.

The headstones, the tourist signs and the little plaques on the walls of cottages commemorate an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. For when plague arrived in the village, via some fleas that flew out of a piece of cloth the local tailor had ordered from London, the villagers decided they would not escape to neighbouring Sheffield but would remain in their homes in order to stop the disease spreading.

It was a voluntary quarantine and it almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the north of England.

But it cost them dear. More than 250 people died out of a population of just 800. The rector, William Mompesson, wrote in a letter to his uncle: ‘I may truely say our Town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles.’

I find the villagers’ selflessness hard to comprehend. It would have been so easy to walk out of Eyam, over the surrounding hills and into nearby places where there was no plague.

View across Eyam

View across Eyam

Instead, they stayed and if they did not catch the disease themselves they had to watch their families, friends and neighbours die slowly and painfully, their bodies covered in stinking, oozing sores.

The carved letters on the lid of John Hancock’s tomb were full of rainwater but gradually we managed to spell them out:

‘Remember man, as thou goest by, as thou art now, even once was I, as I doe now, so must thou lye. Remember man that thou shalt die’.

tomb

Perhaps this is the clue to how the villagers stuck to their courageous decision. Unlike us, they lived in a time when death was on display all the time, not sanitised and shut away in institutions.

They also had a moral framework that made it hard for them to kid themselves that their actions had no consequences.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to why there is so much suffering in the world, or why some people seem to get so much more of it than others.

I also know that most of us are not called to make the extreme sacrifices that the villagers of Eyam did in the 17th century.

But I did go away from the place wondering whether part of living a daring life might be having the courage to look death squarely in the face and let that reality shape more of my decisions.

One word for 2014

dare

After a year of ‘hope’, I started searching for my one word for 2014.

It’s all part of the One Word 365 project, an alternative to New Year’s resolutions. You choose one word to shape the year, a word that will act as a kind of compass, guiding your steps and influencing your decisions.

The word I have settled on for 2014 is dare.

I’m not sure if I really chose it: it didn’t feel as rational as that. I just prayed and thought a bit and before long I found that dare would not leave me alone. First it kept jumping into my head, then I started seeing it all over the place – in book titles, in a talk at church and even on Facebook status updates.

I’m excited about this word for my current stage of life. With all the offspring away at university there seems a spaciousness about the days, an opportunity to launch out into new things that wasn’t there before.

At the same time I’m watching my parents become increasingly frail and am more aware than ever before that we cannot take a healthy body or mind for granted.

Reflecting on dare I’ve realised how easy it is for some of us to play safe in life – and how much we might miss in the process.

:: If we play safe in relationships we will possibly avoid getting hurt – but we will also stop ourselves from enjoying the deep rewards of community.

:: If we always stay quiet in order to keep the peace, we can never be instruments of change.

:: If we are over-cautious with money we can miss the opportunity to invest our lives in projects that could benefit people long after we are dead.

:: If we stay in the shadows because we fear people will ridicule us or judge us harshly, we will never discover what we might have accomplished in the light.

In 2014 I want to change from being Mrs Cautious to becoming someone who dares.

I will dare to love people even though they might not love me back.

I will dare to say yes to opportunities that might not work out (I’ve already started with that one – more in a couple of weeks!).

I will dare to speak my heart out more often.

I will dare to risk criticism.

I will dare to make mistakes

2014: the year of dare.

Picture by Christopher Johnson. Used under Creative Commons Licence.