When I was ten years old, my family moved away from Cornwall to Essex and I was introduced in my new schools to life as an outsider. Looked upon by some teachers as some sort of country bumpkin and bullied by some pupils, I was marked out as different. My accent certainly set me apart. Was I American? Was I Chinese? (Really! I kid you not. Bullies aren’t always the brightest.) The first year or two were far from easy although I made some good friends too. But those bad experiences helped make me what I am today. Thankfully that’s not a quivering wreck although I still have to recognise what confrontation does to me and how it makes me react in order to deal with it as well as I can. Nevertheless, if I was the underdog there and then, somehow, and I think without any conscious decision, I have found myself largely on the side of the underdog ever since. I have become more and more inclusive, unwilling to see anyone as “other”.
Although brought up in Methodist Church Sunday Schools it was when returning to faith as an adult that I found in the Christian story (although, sadly, not always in the church) a Jesus who seemed to be biased towards the poor, welcoming of the outsider, willing to touch those whom society shunned. That picture resonated with me and following where it seemed logically to point has sometimes put me in opposition to people who read different things into that same story. I have found myself in opposition to people of my faith who cannot welcome those of other than their own heterosexual orientation; it has put me at odds with those who think that to be Christian must demand one condemns those of any other faith; it has set me apart from those who suggest that the “godly” are to be found only in the church.
So, why stay? Why call myself a Christian? Well, I’m not alone in thinking as I do, far from it, even if those who would exclude are sometimes rather noisy and drown out gentler and more welcoming voices. And maybe there is a problem with that word Christian, freighted as it is in the minds of many with a monochromatic view of what “we” think and believe. I call myself (it’s a bit long to put down when one’s being clerked into hospital wards when Christian must do) “a disciple within the Jesus story”. The suggestion there, for me, is that to be a person of faith is not having to accept a set of ancient creeds as unalterable truth but to put on a set of lenses through which to see the world around, through which to discern the right path to take.
So, I stick with the Jesus story (as part of a fourfold approach to life that includes scripture, tradition, reason and experience) because in that story I see hope. (I see hope too in the actions and words of people of good will of other faiths and none, but this is my story.) I see hope because of the way that story strengthens me when I struggle; challenges me when I’m tempted to slip into acceptance of injustice; but also, and mostly, because it provides a model for acceptance of each other in a changing and challenging world.
These are difficult times. Populist politicians toy with people’s fears and vulnerabilities for their own ends by setting one group, one race, one religion, one colour, one class of society against another. Barriers are being built instead of bridges; connections smashed instead of strengthened.
The book chosen by the Penlee Cluster of Churches to read for Lent comes then, in my view, as timely. By John Pavlovitz, “A Bigger Table” is subtitled “Building messy, authentic, and hopeful spiritual community.”
As I read it, I expect to be challenged and I hope to be encouraged but in the title is that hope I see that there is a place for all at the table if we just make that table big enough. And that applies whether or not we’ve any faith.
Although I am off work at the moment experiencing the big table that is the wonder of our National Health Service, I hope that I can blog again as I read through the book. If you’ve read this, thank you, and do please come back and see if I’ve written anything else on the run up to Easter. And if you want to get in touch, email me or message me on Facebook.