It seems to me that when you become a Christian the Holy Spirit downloads a desire to live differently. To somehow be more compassionate, holy, trusting, honest, wise, courageous, patient etc. And yet the Bible makes it quite clear that it’s impossible to live a genuinely holy life. ‘Only God is holy,’ said Jesus one day. And a string of misbehaving disciples in the Old and New Testaments seem to bear witness to this. So I feel caught in this life of contradiction. Following a man who is the way, the truth, the life, hope, light, peace, resurrection – yet often living with a distinct lack of these things in my life.
I recently made the comment in a sermon that I thought I’d be like James Bond – but it turns out I’m more like Johnny English.
About 8 years ago I wrote a book called The Bloke’s Bible, it was a way of getting out some of my frustrations with my failure to live this illusive ‘Christian’ life. And along the way it was a rip-roaring opportunity to explore the stories of many of the dysfunctional heroes and villains in the Good Book. 8 years on I still feel as if I’m battling with those same frustrations. Caught between the Rock of Ages and the hard places of life. Still juggling with the reality of my own weaknesses and the desire to be different that’s downloaded by the Holy Spirit.
A while back I read an interview with Ben Elton in Third Way magazine (a Christian mag), and the interviewer asked Mr Ben what he was trying to make people think with his writing. Ben’s reply has stayed with me. He said, ‘I’m not trying to make other people think, I’m trying to make myself think.’ One of the most telling things about this part of the interview, I think, is the ‘Christian’ expectation perhaps inherent within the question that we will be trying to tell others what they should do or think.
The reason I mention this is that it seems to me that in the Christian way of things the response to a fresh insight or new challenge is to preach it to others, rather than apply it to ourselves. To pass it on before we’ve processed it properly, before we’ve tried and tested it on ourselves. I’m an expert on doing this. – applying things to others, rather than to myself. Hell – I’ve been doing it all my life! And – Hey – here I am right now, preaching right at ya via this blog!! (Feel free to duck…) It’s just so much easier to preach a sermon about changing behaviour, than it is to actually er.. change my behaviour. It’s just so bloomin’ difficult at times!
I find it heartening (a massive understatement) that the template for the Christian lifestyle comes to us not so much via a series of sterile commands and injunctions hurled at us from the great beyond, but via the earthy stories in the Bible. Stories of those who have tried it before us and failed on a regular basis, yet still find themselves held up as heroes and winners. And that’s surely down to the mystery of what we call grace. That strange, divine glitch that persists in turning so much of life on its head.
In this race we don’t appear to succeed by being flawless, toned, perfect athletes. We complete the race by continuing to limp, somewhat embarrassingly at times, towards the finishing line. And having got there we find ourselves not hurled into jail for the fraudsters we really are, but instead hoisted onto the winner’s podium. Where there somehow seems to be room for all those who are having a go at competing.
One of the heartening stories from the Good Book that has encouraged me over the years is that of the foot-in-the-mouth disciple Peter. So many of us love Peter, not because he was a great preacher or pray-er or prophet. But because he made so many gaffs. We get that. We identify with that. A dubious disciple, an awkward apostle, a fickle follower. (Enough alliteration now.) So Pete and Jesus go for a walk on a beach and Peter’s feeling miserable because he has failed Jesus spectacularly. So spectacularly that he’ll go down in history for it. And as they walk, Peter scuffing sand and mumbling, Jesus tells Peter that it’ll be okay. He’ll make it, even though he has blown it. And it’s the absence of a certain promise that really helps me. Jesus does not ask Peter to promise that he won’t blow it again. That he won’t mess it up some other time. Jesus understands Peter, knows what a hotheaded, fast talking bozo he can be, and he invites him to keep following, learning by his mistakes, and discovering that, he may not be a saint, but he can always be a follower. And a leader for others too.
When Derek Redmond ran in the 1992 Olympic semi-finals his world fell apart with an injury, but it was not the end of the race for him.