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October, 2013


11 ways a hitch-hiking journey is like your faith journey

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Two of my friends are about to do a sponsored hitch-hike, raising money for a charity supporting research against cancer (you can sponsor them!). A hitch-hiking journey is, in many ways, similar to a faith journey:


Photo: Petr Ivanov, re-used under CC License

1. When you’re hitch-hiking, you’re basically surrendering your journey to strangers. In most cases, you know the ultimate destination and know you’re going to get there (although that’s not the case for my friends), but have no idea what detours you might take, or how long it will take you. Much the same is true for your journey of faith: you can look to the final destination, but how it will come about is very much a mystery.

2. There is one major reference book to help you hitch-hiking. And in large friendly letters, that book has, on its cover: “Don’t Panic.”

3. Sometimes, you get stuck. For ages. And that’s discomforting, discouraging, and you can’t look beyond the present stage. But there will usually be a car that comes along. Patience is a great virtue, and one that is necessary in a journey of faith.

4. You need others. Without cars driving along the motorways, any hitch-hiking attempt would be doomed to failure. Crucially, then: you need people who are essentially different from you. Motorists are far more helpful than other hitch-hikers to go from A to B. People with experience and the theological know-how can get you quite a way down the road.

5. You need friends. People like you. Their advice as people who have hitch-hiked in the past is extremely valuable: laminate some card so you can change the destination/direction. Avoid roundabouts. Try service stations along the motorway. Travel in pairs – for your own safety. But the only people you will understand are people whom you know to have been in similar situations as you. Surrounding yourself with wiser people, or simply reading Hooker, Calvin, Augustine or Piper – useful though it may be, will not usually provide you with information you can relate to. It is not sufficient.

6. Some places are better to get lifts than others. But these places are not necessarily the most sheltered ones. When I was hitch-hiking in Wales, it was so windy that an elderly couple took us in – they wouldn’t usually pick up hitch-hikers, but they took pity on us while we were standing in the rain. It is a useful skill to have to be able to work out where those spots are, and to seek them out. They’re not the same for everyone, and they change according to circumstances, so it’s not easy – but it is the one way to move forward.

7. Sometimes, you just have to walk. When I hitch-hiked to Ireland, we got stuck in a little town with barely any cars passing by (that’s the  Welsh border for you), so we had to walk for quite a while to keep progressing. You can’t always expect to have a spiritual IV – there will be times when you will have to feed yourself. For those times, it is good to have a personal discipline of prayer, Bible reading, etc.

8. It is likely to look weird to the outsider. When we got stuck in that little town, a local reporter decided our appearance was weird enough to warrant interviewing us. I don’t think we made it to that local paper – but the fact remains that we looked out of the ordinary. The same should be the case for all Christians: not because standing out is good in  itself, but because it is a by-product of our innermost identity, which is different from what people are used to.

9. You don’t get to choose the ride. A Mercedes going at 120mph, a minivan with no seats in the back, a lorry,  or a friendly couple in an affordable car – I’ve experienced all of them. Of course, you can (and should, sometimes!) always ask to be dropped off, but you cannot demand to hitch-hike in a Jaguar. No church will be perfect, and trying to find exactly the church you’re used to, or looking for, is simply going to leave you stranded.

10. While you can get prepared before you start hitch-hiking (signs, phone chargers, etc.), all you really need is your thumb and willingness. The same goes for embarking on a journey of faith: you can put it off for ages, just getting ready or trying to; but you can always jump in.

11. Tea will get you through the day. And it needs to be shared: motorists and hitch-hikers alike need it. Advice to hitch-hikers: bring a flask.

Second-guessing: the death of conversation

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A blog post has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently. It describes the experience of someone who was the target of healing prayer. It’s a thought-provoking article, especially for  those of us who have been involved in outreach events. The question it raises for us hinges on this consideration:

Are the people we’re talking to/praying for/offering hot chocolate to seen primarily as potential converts, apologetics/prayer practice, or primarily as the individuals they are?

Just as importantly, is that how we are perceived? I remember going out to give ice lollies to people on campus one summer, with people from a local church. One person, wondering about our motives, first asked if they were laced with Rohypnol, and then jumped to the conclusion we were Christians, out to convert them.


Photo: Pava, reused under CC License

Second-guessing other people’s purposes. We do that all the time. School workers in France were recently asked to reflect on the shape education should take. Some took the view that this consultation was carried out in order for the government to look like it was listening, but that all decisions had already been taken; and that they would take any admission of failure as an excuse to give less funding.

Just so with the author of the blog post. She second-guessed the intentions behind the healing-prayer offer. She might have been right, but it could also be that the gentleman was moved by a genuine desire to see her healed. It could also be that he had a desire to get to know her, and to welcome her into the local church family, which he did by not tiptoeing around an obvious issue. The thing is, we cannot know; and the author of the blog post cannot know. Because in second-guessing the purpose of the conversation, in her head, that conversation could only end in one way: there was no room for genuine listening and for genuine conversation.

The same goes for every single time we second guess other people’s motives. If you see a stall of Christians with hot chocolate and assume they’re just there to shove the Gospel in your face and not interested in you as a person, then you’re not going to be able to listen to them OR to talk to them. If you assume that the government is out to justify cost-cutting measures, you’re going to make sure that you give them nothing – and conversely, they’re going to stop listening. Communication breaks down.

In communication, there are two main responsibilities: talking honestly (i.e., not hiding your motives) and listening genuinely. The latter involves trying, as much as possible, not to second guess what the other is trying to achieve.

A life lost for a life gained

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Some passages in the Bible are downright obscure. Some others are understood readily enough, but stop making sense when you start poking them around. But generally, that poking around is worth it because those verses point to deeper truths relevant to larger swathes of our identity. In Luke 17, we find such a passage:

Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

Luke 17:33 (NIV)


Photo: Pepsiline, under CC License

Once you’ve got your head around the apparent contradiction that keeping implies not keeping and conversely, it seems easy enough – especially in the context of the story of Lot: it is impossible to hold on to our earthly selves, we do not have the strength to do so ourselves, etc.

All this is true, but it only covers the first part of that verse. If we try to keep our life, we will lose it, probably by chasing after too many idols. But what about the second part?

Whoever  loses their life will preserve it.

The easy answer is to say that in dying to our old selves, we are new creations and gain eternal life. This spiritual death and rebirth, surely, is what Jesus is talking about. It is true that we are new creations, dead to our previous selves. But here, Jesus makes a bolder claim. He doesn’t say that “Whoever loses their life will have eternal life” or that “Whoever loses their life will gain a new life”, he says that the same life that we had will remain ours.

How can that be so? How can we be new creations and preserve our life? The  story told earlier in the chapter illustrates this. Jesus is at the border between Samaria and Galilee and sees ten lepers – that’s the only way in which they are described. Leprosy is uncleanness; sinfulness even. Then Jesus heals them, and only one of them comes back and we hear at that stage only that he was a Samaritan.

Rid of the uncleanness, rid of the sinfulness, the Samaritan’s true identity can live and breathe. The other ones who did not come back to thank Jesus are probably considered simply ex-lepers, seen as what they are not. Their identity is defined by their sin, albeit negatively.

Let us grasp this: the new creation that we become when we stop trying to grasp our identity is the continuity of our identity. Rid of the uncleanness, but still deeply and fundamentally us. The difference between Greek and Jew, or between any other identities we had before turning to Christ, is worth nothing because we are in Christ: we have lost our drive to grasp it; but those identities are still part of us. Only sin is gone.

This means that the new creations that we are should not discard or reject the old selves, because they are part of who we are. On the contrary, we should accept them as part of our identities, rejecting only the leprosy. Born again, yes, but the new  life is in the continuity of the old life.

Finding a new church


At Warwick university, term has only just started again. For lots of freshers, this means settling into new communities and, of course, finding a new church. There are many ways to face this challenge.


Photo: Wikimedia user Tarquin Bina, under CC License

1. Non-committed: I’ll never get involved with a church here. My real church is at home, that’s where I’ve got my friends. So, yeah, maybe I’ll go to church here ‘cos, you know, I still need some teaching to get me going. Or maybe I’ll be content with CU meetings. But I won’t get stuck into a church.

2. Church-hopper: Oh this is exciting! There are soooo many churches to choose from! I need to select the one that fits ME the closest. Hang on a minute, that other church might actually be a tiny bit better. I won’t settle into a church until I have found THE one. And because, of course, no church is perfect (well, except for mine) I won’t settle at all.

3. Forceful Visionary: Well, this church shares a name/denomination/vague resemblance with my home church, so I will go there. But, hang on, it isn’t exactly like what I know from back home. Never mind that, I will soon change that: I’ll talk to the incumbent to let him or her know that the way we do things back home is sooo much more efficient and Christ-like

4. Fanboy or fangirl: I have chosen this church. Because of this, it is bound to be the best church around (because obviously, I cannot make mistakes). This means that anyone I meet should be convinced to come to my church.

5. Disappointed fanboy or fangirl: I had chosen this church, but got sorely disappointed, either because I couldn’t change it to what I wanted it to be or because of something else. Therefore, that church is bad and I’ll let everyone know about it being bad.

There may be more reactions – and I’m looking forward to reading about them in the comments. But these five have two things in common: firstly, that I have been (and to some extent still am) guilty of them at some point or other; and secondly, that they betray a vision of church as an object that serves us, rather than as the bride of Christ that is to be served.

An approach to the local church as only a place of service to me as a worshipper is one which is intricately individualistic and bound to disappoint. And there are two ways  to look at a church in such a way: one is to see local churches as unchanging and the object of a choice. This means the church will see no growth other than in numbers, and I don’t think that can bring about the Kingdom. The other way is to see yourself as unchanging and the church as molding itself around you; and that means the only growth you can expect personally is the type of growth that fits your pattern. I have come to learn that growth does not tend to come in expected ways.

So here’s what I suggest: when going to a new church, stop and listen. Listen to the community it embodies, listen to its needs as well as to its leadership. Try to empathise with the leadership and to understand why they might be doing what they are doing. This takes time; and it takes commitment: the first two options aren’t open to us. It takes open-mindedness to realise that the local church is here to serve more than just our individual selves, and it takes humility to realise that it is here to serve and challenge us too.

It’s hard not to judge the local church – and there’s a time and a place for challenging leadership. But that time can only come after the acceptance of their greater wisdom – or we’re not speaking in  the church at all, we’re speaking to it as outsiders.