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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.

Signposts to heaven


In our church, we use this piece of liturgy (which, apparently, comes from the Iona community):

Make our congregations places of radical discipleship, and signposts to heaven.


Photo: Lairich Rig, reused under CC License

Radical discipleship means at the same time more and less than what may be ascribed to it. But that’s not what I want to focus on today; it’s the second half: “signposts to heaven“. I only recently realised the depth that this prayer contains. Here are a few thoughts on it:

Signposting means being visible. It means that our congregation needs to be put on a lampstand so that it is visible to others. Simply in being visible, we can be an encouragement to others, in the same way that a signpost on the side of the road can encourage people and let them know they are on the right track, and that the destination in fact exists and is known to the congregation.

Signposting is to somewhere. Far from being an end in itself, the church and the congregational aspect of church life in particular, is only a place to grow. If your going to church is simply part of a stable pattern – if you’re not experiencing growth, then you might just be pausing at the signpost, catching your breath. And the signpost, the congregation, is a safe place to do so, because you will know which way to move from there. But if you’re not expecting growth, then you may be doing it wrong.

Signposts have some information on them. There would be little point in having a signpost with simply a multitude of arrows (if even that!) without anything written on them. Just look at the photo: doesn’t the arrow pointing towards us look odd? Let us be bold in proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom; and (to use another bit of the same piece of liturgy) in expectation that the best is yet to come, be truly Christ-like.

The signposts in the liturgy are to heaven. It means that our congregations should evoke heaven to people: that in our churches, people should be reminded of heaven. That means that God should be visible in the way we live: it’s not just about being nice and spurring each other on to be better people, it’s about becoming, congregationally, Christ-like and allowing Christ to shine through us.

A final thought on this issue: it is a prayer for congregations. It doesn’t go Make us signposts to heaven, although that might also be a good prayer to say. It asks more, and demands less: it asks for unity in individual humility. It asks that together, we make up that signpost for others; and to do that, we all must point in the same direction. But it does not seek our own glorification as individual disciples, or demand that we get an instant revelation of heaven so that we can individually point in the right direction (and usher in those who clearly have had a distorted vision).

One thing’s for sure, next time I say this prayer, it will have taken on a much deeper meaning.

Do you have a prayer you particularly like?

Christianity: about community?

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Last week, I wrote a post in which I highlighted the shift, in terms of focus, from nations to individuals between Old and New Testaments; in order to stress the importance of individual relationships rather than merely corporate ones. This week, I’m looking at the community aspect of Christianity.


Background: adapted from GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license.

No better way to start than quoting a comment from last week:

The reformation, while rightly seeking to distance itself from the then overtly controlling religiosity of the Catholic church may have taken a step too far in their emphasis of individual salvation and personal faith.

As it is eloquently put, matters of individual/corporate nature of faith are matters of emphasis. Individual salvation and personal faith are Biblical. In fact, the picture painted in Luke 17 goes a long way to show that simply being with those who are saved is no guarantee of salvation. But this is “only” an eschatological matter.

Practice of faith is an altogether different matter. Have you ever noticed the following verse:

For when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

It is usually read as “there is no need for massive congregations to worship”, but it is two or three – not one: there is no talk of individual worship. Of course, there are other moments where, say, individual prayer is commended; but it is clear that community is important.

After all, all-consuming, all-pervasive relationships are at the heart of the Trinity. On top of that, Peter was anointed to build a church – and though the meaning of church may have evolved over the centuries; originally, it seems to me that this all-consuming, all-pervasiveness was present: ἐκκλησία, generally translated as church or assembly, but which etymology could mean “called out of”, is used in the singular. Out of the many who are called, the church of Christ is, in its very substance one. That alone should be enough to ignite our passion for ecumenism (although ecumenism in itself is another subject).

The early church modelled this community way of life by pooling all their resources, and by remaining inextricably linked even when they were not geographically co-present. There is an incredibly powerful sense of acting congregationally whenever Paul exhorts us to pray for all the saints (something that might be missed out because of the power of what comes before it!).

These elements, I feel, are far more powerful than the practical ones. The advantages of communal prayer, or the description of the Church as one body are helpful to convince oneself that it is worth doing; but let us not forget in this description that the Church is not just one body: it is the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the in-up-out triangle (1), then, the sense of community coming before the individual is very strong in the in and the up vertices of the triangle. Very importantly, these all-pervasive links between individuals which form the assembly are involving us: we are part of them. It isn’t like a different organisation we can distance ourselves from: we are intrinsically in the church.

But we haven’t seen that happen in the out vertex. Of course, the vertices of the triangle are not independent; so there will be elements of community shining through in our outreach. And we will do it with the support of our community. But the other whom we are reaching out to is not a community nearly as much as it is individuals; and this should not be forgotten.

(1) Yes, I have used Lifeshapes. I feel dirty now. But for those of you who don’t know it, it is about the direction of growth both for local churches and for individuals: in (fellowship, discipleship, etc.), up (looking towards God, worship, etc.) and out (outreach, evangelism, social justice, etc.)

9 lessons from 3-foot grass


I dislike gardening. I don’t even really enjoy having a garden. Somehow, we left our garden fairly (read: completely) unattended. The grass was about hip high a few weeks ago; when we finally got around to doing something about it. But the grass was too tall to use a mower on, and too wet to use a strimmer on (not that we have one anyway). So I went at it with shears and a rake. It was slow, not very pleasant, but little by little, the garden looked nicer. Yesterday, after a dry spell (finally!), the landlords came with strimmers and finished the job. Here’s what I got from the whole experience:

Picture of tall grass

1. You can’t do anything without tools. If you don’t have anything sharp (ish), there is no way you can do anything. Equip yourself: read, listen, seek wisdom. But don’t do it on your own, because you won’t be able to be discerning enough. Without tools, all you’ll do is uproot handfuls of grass and end up with a patchy garden. Without spiritual tools, you’ll end up with disconnected islets of knowledge which won’t help you and quite frankly don’t look good at all.

2. There is no magic tool. I had never used a strimmer myself, but somehow, I imagined that it was just a matter of quickly moving the tool over the grass, and that it would be done in next to no time with strimmers. The landlords took over a full day to do it. Surrounding yourself with books that just sit on the shelves is useless. Reading a ton of blogs (this one included) without allowing them to affect you is useless. Butterflying between leaders is useless. Going to three different churches (something I used to do) is not helpful if you’re just listening. When you decide to use a tool, you need to know that you’re going to commit to it, and allow it to affect you.

3. “Not having the right tool” can be an excuse; as can the specific circumstances. Oh yes, it was too wet, and we did not have a strimmer. But that never meant we couldn’t use shears. I may not find myself in a place with the most helpful structures around me… but it does not mean that it allows me to just sit on my arse and do nothing. Wherever you are, make sure you’re not using lack of ressources as an excuse. Don’t even do it to talk about your past, lest you give people the impression that your excuses are valid excuses and use them themselves.

4. Tasks generally look daunting until you put yourself to them. This has been repeatedly true: when I started cutting the grass with the shears, it looked better, and a lot of groundwork could be achieved quickly. It was slow, yes, but I could see the progress, square foot by square foot. When I had to write a disseration, I did not know where to start and had empty page syndrome for a long time… until I just decided to give a go at writing. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but little by little, the word count was reached, and then improvements were made upon what was there. So when you have a vision but do not feel it’s possible – still, give it a try. Little by little, you will get there.

5. If your work is not perfect, it can still be useful. Using shears to cut grass will never get it to a perfect green, but it did allow the landlords to use the mower directly onto this patch rather than using the strimmer. We live in communities. What you do will generally benefit someone – but you have to let other people pick it up. When you’re growing spiritually, you’re also helping others bounce off your growth. So keep on growing!

6. It wouldn’t have got to that stage if I had taken more care of it throughout the “summer” months (inverted commas necessary: this is, after all, England). Discipline is important as a frequent practice. Depending on the activity, different frequences are appropriate: I wouldn’t expect to mow the lawn daily; but finding the appropriate rhythm is key. For this blog, I’ve settled on weekly updates – and it does make writing easier to tackle. Reading the Bible can be a daily or a weekly activity – but once you found your rhythm, don’t slack, or you will find it harder to get back to it.

7. Cutting clutter allows more light to come through. Or maybe that’s just the sun that’s finally come out. But our living room is brighter. Similarly, with spiritual growth: you can’t just keep everything you believe.

8. Sometimes, the inspiration comes where you least expect it. I had the idea to use the shears whilst biking past people who were doing that to their own front lawn. Blog ideas can come from snippets of everyday life, as can spiritual growth. The important part is not to let that inspiration go unattended.

9. Boy, grass does grow quickly when there’s lots of rain and lots of sun! I could probably wrangle a way to tie that in with spiritual growth, but I’ll leave that to you: comment away!

Rejecting growth?


Growth is natural. Where there is no growth, there is wilting and ultimately death. This is as true of the physical realm as of the spiritual realm.

Photo credit: Danya Bateman, reused under CC license

Looking back, there have been a number of events which made me grow up. Big steps, if you like. But most of the time, the growth was incidental: sometimes I didn’t choose to go through what I went through; and sometimes I got involved in some activities because I thought I could be useful there. How those activities would change me was never present in my mind. There is one salient exception to this – one time where I was specifically seeking change, but “all” I did then was pray about it: there was no effort or drive in that willingness.

In the past year, though, I started to consciously and consistently seek growth. It was tough at the start. Growth is scary, because with growth comes differentiation, and therefore the fear of going down the wrong track. It is scary, because of misplaced feelings of inadequacy: because my growth requires both my own and other people’s investment. What if I’m squandering other people’s resources? is a question I’ve asked myself a fair few times recently, although this may simply be an expression of my reluctance to grow.
But I ended up going for it. I applied for a gap year type scheme, after much deliberation and prayer. Even though that fell through (due to the uncertainty associated with being a doctoral student), it was the trigger in a chain of decisions that came later. For the past few months, I’ve said yes to pretty much every opportunity to move forward, and got involved in – even sometimes started – some activities deliberately to gain some experience and simply go further.

I ended up being at a state where I’d say yes for the sake of saying yes – not out of a misplaced feeling of obligation, but because I was indiscriminately welcoming all opportunities for growth, particularly where church was involved. I got a phone call about a new project, and said I was interested before stopping and thinking of it in terms of where it would lead me; and it is only after a few days of prayer that I realised it wasn’t “for me”, even though it was an opportunity for growth.
I rejected growth: I said no for the first time in a few months, and not on simple, practical grounds.

But I did not reject growth altogether: I still grow in other projects, and keep on seeking growth elsewhere. I got involved in other projects I potentially would have neglected otherwise. This was pruning, not restraining.

And sometimes, that’s necessary – for growth.

How do you seek growth?

How do you cope with saying “no” to those golden opportunities?