Oops, I did it again

A complete failure to plan ahead and get someone else to do it for me, coupled with an unwillingness to use a Nooma twice in a row (at least, twice in a row with me leading) left me stuck with doing the talk again.   I still don’t enjoy it.

So, in case it’s of wider value, here’s the text I didn’t deviate from too much (although it could do with some of the asides in order to flesh it out, to be honest; unfortunately I can’t remember them all).

The Talk

Recent events in almost every area of my life have brought home the value of simple, clear, straight forward communication.  So, on the strength of that, I’ve torn up the original plan for tonight, and am cutting straight to the point.   It’s not original or particularly profound, but if you take nothing else from this evening, then I pray that you’ll take away one simple encouragement: keep on running.  Keep plugging away.  Don’t listen to the little whispers that seek to grind you down. Wherever you are in the journey: whether seeking, taking the first few steps, or a long way down the road, keep on keeping on.

The Apostle Paul often uses the metaphor of a race to describe the journey of faith:

Acts 20: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me”.

Galatians 2: “I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.”  Then in chapter 5: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?”

Hebrews 12: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

When you hear those verses, I wonder what kind of race you picture.  The idea of ‘running’ coupled with the historical period in which Paul writes probably puts most of us in mind of athletics.  And I guess that the majority tend towards thinking of long distances; marathons not sprints.  Maybe because the closest direct experience I’ll ever get of a marathon was back before they called them Snickers, although I still picture the runner, I tend to view the race as more of an epic orienteering exercise.  You know where you’re starting, you know what the goal is, but the whole route’s not mapped out, and you’ve probably only got enough detailed information to get you through to the next stage.

It’s also interesting to think about which part of the race we tend to picture.   I know that my first thoughts are normally of either the start, with everyone fresh and ready, or the end – crossing the line, weary but elated, and ready to relax in the glow of completion.  However, the Hebrews verse says “Let us run with perseverance”.  That’s not a particularly attractive thing to hear.  Perseverance implies that it’s going to be a long haul.  It’s not going to be easy.  The ground won’t always be even.  The climate won’t always be pleasant.  There will be opposition, distraction, frustration, temptation to chuck it all in.  As happened to the Galatian Christians, there will be those who seek to “cut in” on our race, to divert us from the goal.  We even distract ourselves all too easily.

It’s often said that we are called to be “in the world, but not of the world”; at times that’s a hard distinction to maintain.   Just as we can be salt and light to the world, so the values and messages (often mixed messages) of popular culture can seep into how we live out our faith.   Potentially one of the most subtly corrosive of these is our apparently ever-increasing celebration of celebrity, laden with the assumption that celebrity somehow confers ease and  fulfilment. There are any number of potential PhD theses in our relationship to celebrity and fame – both the yearning for it, and the delight in seeing it flawed or tarnished.  However, for now, there’s only one little aspect that’s relevant.

A quick glance down the newsagent shelf, or at the reality TV listings, or through much of what gets posted on social media websites would indicate that we’re big on the escapist celebrity dream.   Our heads know that a lot of it is a myth, smoke and mirrors.  But to our hearts, the glitz, glamour, and perceived ease still sing a seductive song.   We court it, mock it, shun it and venerate it all at the same time. Further, it becomes easy to see Christian celebrities in the same light.  Whether theologians, activists, song writers, church leaders, it’s easy to slip into the assumption that the “names” have it all sorted.  That somehow they live in a more refined world where it’s all dropped into place.   Not like me, stuck trying to work out how to live it out in my ‘normal’, flawed and hum-drum situation.

Even as we read a Steve Chalke or a Jeff Lucas confessing to some epic dropped balls in their ministries, there’s a strand of thought going “Gosh, he’s so sorted he can say all of this stuff openly in a magazine, how cool is that?”.

This isn’t to knock celebrity per se.   Those in the public eye can be an enormous source of inspiration, challenge and encouragement. What we should guard against is the idea that they’ve somehow been hit with a magic glitter stick that’s passed us by.   Take the inspiration, be blessed by their work or words.  But don’t let the gloss of celebrity paint their perseverance in the light of a Hollywood film, where even the grim bits are somehow shiny.  We need to leave behind the subtle lie that so often lurks on the flipside of every inspirational story – that somehow you’re not up to being part of that, that it’s “different for them”.  It’s all too easy to get tricked into the comparison game: “If only I was Shane Claiborne/Jackie Pullinger/Jeff Lucas/Mike Pilavachi/Mother Theresa/one of the original 12 …”.   Because we’re all in it together.  We’re all running the race.   And it often seems that one of the easiest diversions is our tendency to assume that the grass is greener, the road smoother, the air more refined, and the view more picturesque from elsewhere; and further, that if it is, then elsewhere is a place we simultaneously aspire to but don’t believe we can ever attain; it’s not for the likes of us, with our flaws and failings, doubts and fears.

 The race we’re running isn’t necessarily to the swift; at times hanging on in quiet desperation might be all we have left in us.  But again, whether seeker, believer, youngster, old timer, or anything in between – when the race takes you into the middle of nowhere, and it’s dark in the woods, persevere in hanging on. Because God will be hanging on to you.

So, to end with, a selection of verses – taken out of context, but not out of their meaning:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Luke 12: 6-7

God has said “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”
Hebrews 13: 5b

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
John 3: 16-17

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Hebrews 12: 1b-2a