Christians in Practice?
Catherine Nancekievill reflects on the ongoing challenge to let God in – and love out.
One of the very first steps I took from non-belief to faith in my early twenties was reading the New Testament. I knew a bit about Christianity from school and the occasional church service I had attended. But I really had no idea what any of it meant. I couldn’t tell you the story; I had never actually read the Bible. When I did it was a revelation. I knew that Christians thought we should be nice to each other. But niceness has a limit and the Jesus I met in the Gospels didn’t set limits. There were no limits to his love or to who he sought out to love. This was radical, world changing stuff.
Jump forward a number of years and I have a loving family, a job and a house. I’m also a Christian; that Good News stuck. So that must mean I’m nice. I’ve turned into one of those nice Christians who apologises and prays for forgiveness when I lose my temper, and takes communion to elderly ladies who can’t make it to church. But my niceness has limits. I have boundaries to my loving and mustn’t risk my personal safety even slightly. I have boundaries wrought of my responsibility to be a good parent: providing, nurturing and protecting my young children. I have boundaries when I use my vocation as an excuse: I am doing what you called me to God. It drains my energy and my time, so surely that is enough?
Believe that this product really represents you, and you’ll want to own a piece of that. Is our outreach to communities, our giving, our social action, partially an expression of how we perceive ourselves, reinforcing our self-image?
I know I keep my discipleship in a nice safe bubble by the combination of doing enough ‘good works’ to satisfy my self-image and keeping my loving bounded through self-justification. I do not have to do anything about the homeless because I don’t know what to do, it’s too complicated and possibly dangerous. Anyway, I give money to charities and surely the government should be doing something? So not only do I do nothing, I don’t have to feel anything either, because it’s not my responsibility. In fact, I’d better make sure I don’t feel anything. Don’t let the love slip over the boundary or I’ll start to realise it is an actual human being under that sleeping bag I walked past this morning (it was -2C in Cambridge this morning).
Jesus, though, he didn’t love in that bounded, limited, fearful way. His love exploded out, not just a bigger boundary but no boundary at all. He wasn’t just ‘better’ at loving, he was love.
That radical, limitless love started to nag at me particularly strongly on Saturday mornings. I would take my daughter to her ballet class and walk to and from my favourite café. In doing this I’d pass the same man about four times. He was homeless, begging, and generally in the same spot every week. Gradually, through repetition, he stopped being invisible and I started to really see him. But I was afraid of being rejected, and didn’t know what would help, (like many people, I’ve accepted that giving money directly doesn’t help). One day the pain of walking past him again became greater than my fear. I took a deep breath and stopped and talked. I asked him if I could buy him a sandwich. He said yes, and “could I have a chicken and stuffing sandwich if they have one please?” I walked to Boots. Chicken and stuffing? Not something generic like cheese, but ‘Chicken and stuffing’. I wondered if it was as close as he could get to a roast dinner. I walked back with the sandwich and a bottle of Coke and handed it over, now unsure what to say. He looked up at me, lit up with a smile. He said “thank you, thank you… you’re an angel”. I walked away in tears; the love had escaped the box.
I still walk past often. But every time I see these piles of humanity invisibly living alongside us, it’s like a punch to the stomach.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t turned into an angel (just ask my husband). I stayed with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford in November and happened to be in a meeting with a Sister during the 2 minute silence on the 11th November. The bell rang, we stood. I prayed silently, a prayer of thankfulness… a prayer attempting to express sorrow… something trying to remember a list of all the places currently at war… The bell rang and I opened my eyes ready to restart our conversation, to find her with an expression of deep love and deep pain on her face and tears flowing freely. To follow Jesus means finding out how to love deeply and widely, and that comes with feeling joy and pain, deep and wide.
I have found the collision of discipleship in action with growing in faith challenging and thought-provoking. Do we allow our experiences of reaching out in love penetrate our boundaries? Or does serving others sometimes just reinforce the borders?
How can we let God in, and love out?