Review: It’s all about the journey

12 November 2021

This excellent book is hard to categorise; it straddles the divide between autobiography and spiritual insight. It is

Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light by Brandan Robertson (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2016)

Though still a young man (born 1992), Robertson has had more than his fair share of life’s ups and downs, as he has struggled to find his identity within evangelicalism in his native America. That has included coming to terms with his growing awareness of his own non-mainstream sexuality, which didn’t go down well in that circle, especially as he was in theological training to be a pastor.

He became a ‘nomad’—thrust out from mainstream church life and forced to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery and new alliances. And from these experiences he draws out some life-lessons of great value. These include the need to actually be with people we disagree with; the recognition that Jesus taught and modelled a way of life based on unconditional love; the need to stop trying to force our views on society through legislation; the fact that more of life is grey than black and white; the value of experience over doctrine—and more.

He leads us through some of his own discoveries, including the rich traditions of Orthodox and Catholic faith, and Celtic Christianity. He has found the contemplative approach to prayer of great benefit and has come to see the foolishness of writing off ‘tradition’—especially liturgy and ritual—the way most evangelical churches have done. And he is not alone: he has been surprised to find how many young Christians from charismatic and Pentecostal churches have moved in the same direction.

He tussles with the concept of what it means to be ‘holy’, and concludes that it is to embrace our own uniqueness as the products of an infinitely creative God. For him, of course, that has meant coming to terms with his sexuality—which he wisely refuses to be defined by. There are some challenging insights in this section of the book!

He has a chapter on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Here, again, he has found the older traditions hugely helpful in appreciating its significance and depth. His eucharistic journey has also taught him the importance of ‘social justice’: feeding the poor, caring for the environment, and more—aspects which evangelicalism has tended to set over against the ‘important’ job of ‘preaching the gospel’.

He has much to say about grace, as expressed in forgiveness. Raised by a violent, alcoholic father who made his childhood a misery, his experience of putting this into practice is intensely down-to-earth, and I suspect many readers will find this deeply challenging. It was equally difficult for him to forgive his old pastor who, in the name of Christ, had treated him in an appalling way.

This really is a unique book. It is well-written and easy to read, but anything but shallow. And it’s one that will shake every reader out of smug complacency and urge them to get up and journey with Jesus.

Here is a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

I began to realise that I ‘struggled’ with same-sex attraction. As a good Evangelical Christian who felt called to be a pastor, I knew that this ‘struggle’ had to be kept quiet, lest I become the recipient of the harsh treatment I had seen the Church dish out to others.  (120)

I received handwritten letters from professors at my Bible college who were ‘deeply grieved’ by my support for same-sex marriage and even called for me to ‘renounce’ my degree, claiming that I received it under ‘false pretences’ as a ‘deceiver’.  (155)

The book you hold in your hand is not primarily about sexuality or gender identity. Instead, it’s about my journey so far from the rigid confines of religion to the vast desert sands of true spirituality.  (215)

Christians often define themselves by what they believe versus what others don’t. There is security in staying in a particular place with people who share our convictions and experiences. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all way of faith. For a growing number of us, this way of having faith is simply unrealistic and inconceivable. We need to move. We want to push the boundaries and traverse in lands where no one has gone before. We’re nomads.  (266)

Many people are leaving the safe confines of the faith of their upbringing and are roaming the streets, looking for and often discovering, new and innovative ways of expressing their devotion to God. This isn’t a symptom of unfaithfulness but is, I believe, a movement of God’s Spirit. As a new generation of Christians are taking to the streets of the world, looking for signs of God’s movement in the most unlikely and unexpected places, we are discovering that the God we worship is much bigger than we once expected. That Jesus is actually ‘alive and active’ as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Ephesians, in places we never thought he would show up.  (330)

What happens when the pat answers that once made so much sense now begin to seem uneducated, ill informed, and archaic?  (341)

Jesus wasn’t worried about giving anyone any answers. He was interested in leading them on a journey. Jesus created spiritual nomads, not doctrinal guards. Jesus stirred up doubt in the minds of those who thought they had it all figured out and honoured the seekers.  (414)

When I was still a Baptist, I believed that any church that used the NIV Bible were sell-outs and heretics. Seriously.  (583)

Fear and demonisation of ‘the other’ is one of the biggest problems with Christianity (and perhaps every religion) today. Anthropologists have long understood that one of the fundamental methods that humans use to create a unified community is to unite against a common enemy.  (620)

There is another means to fostering unity within our communities that brings life and breeds openness. There is a way that disarms both the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ and creates, in the midst of our great diversity and complexity, a ‘we’. And that way is love.  (645)

During my high-school years, I was very involved in inter-faith dialogue. What that really means is that I liked to argue with anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian like me. Throughout my four years, I spent countless hours debating with Mormons, Muslims, Wiccans, Pagans, Atheists, Non-Religious and of course, the Methodists, trying to convert them from their way of false teaching to my way, or rather, the way.  (675)

Part of loving is sacrificing our ego’s need to be right.  (712)

Even though the average Christian isn’t actually militaristic, this mindset of war does affect the way we interact with the people and culture that surround us. We begin to see everything in our world as increasingly dark and hostile to us and our faith… It’s this impulse to defend our faith against perceived threats that has made Christians more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.  (764)

I was a fan of the Apostle Paul. His words were clear, straightforward, and deeply theological. When Paul wanted to say something, he said it. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke in parables. His words were often cryptic. And most perplexingly, he seemed to have really bad theology. Paul made it clear that salvation was ‘by faith alone, through grace’. But Jesus seemed to suggest that we would be ultimately judged based on what we did, how we lived, and not on what we believed.  (788)

On the cross Jesus put an end to all judgement, condemnation, and war. He revealed that the Kingdom of God would not be established through Christianising our culture but by sacrificing our rights, privileges, and positions of power out of love for our neighbours. For our enemies. This is indeed ‘foolishness’ to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.  (824)

We vocally war against legislation to support same-sex couples’ civil right to be married under the law, claiming that marriage is ‘our’ institution. But when did Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or anyone ever ask us to do that? As we force our worldview and values on a nation that cannot relate to them, is it any wonder that there are such negative perceptions of Christianity?  (860)

The modern pursuit of winning over the culture is ultimately a pursuit of power and domination… While many great contributions have been made by Christianity because of its position of influence over the centuries, the truth seems to be that whenever Christianity is given power and prominence, it ceases to be authentic Christianity.  (874)

I found myself amazed that at the core of every religious tradition, there seemed to be beliefs and values that aligned with mine. Many of the religions we learned about had similar ideas and practices that seemed to complement my Christian faith in unexpected ways.  (959)

Truth isn’t a set of absolute propositions; rather, it is a person. Jesus Christ. He is Truth and like all people, he is dynamic. He cannot be classified, systematised, and organised into neat little boxes and categories. He defies boundaries and descriptions. And if Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, as the Apostle Paul claims, then we must assume that God is just as dynamic.  (1033)

When I understood that everything didn’t have cut-and-dried answers, that theology was a complex and imprecise art, and that God himself was dynamic and filled with colour and tension, I began to finally feel … safe.  (1045)

We are told to confess and affirm, rather than to critically think, engage, or seek after a personal experience with God. Many are even told that desiring to experience God instead of mentally assenting to his existence is somehow sinful and untrustworthy.  (1096)

…the Pharisees, a hyper-orthodox, Scripture-centred group of religious leaders who, like many Christians today, valued theological accuracy and moral purity over an intimate relationship with God.  (1120)

The early Christians’ spirituality was far more than reading the Bible and praying every day. It was deeply rhythmic; a well-structured pattern of living that ensured a person would remain aware and connected to the presence of God throughout the day. Many traditions involved some form of meditation.  (1144)

In my journey to experience God, I have found great resonance in the contemplative traditions of the Franciscans.  (1179)

When our theology and language fall short, as they always do, it is our experiential knowledge of God that will ultimately sustain us. As spiritual nomads with an insatiable desire to delve deeper into the depths of the great mysteries of our Universe, we must learn to seek and sense the presence of God.  (1215)

Though many of us may find ourselves in a place where we feel like no one understands our struggle and no church could ever be a comfortable fit for us, it is essential to intentionally commit to a community and to relationships, no matter how much tension or discomfort there may be.  (1396)

To be holy means to be unique or different. So when God calls us to be holy, we’re being called to embrace our ‘True Selves,’ the authentic being God originally created us to be.  (1466)

To be holy is to be like Christ, and to be like Christ is to be rooted and confident in our God-given identity.  (1509)

When a person diverges from the normalised cultural image, we marginalise and demonise them. Those who rock the boat by being their authentic selves are often the ones society despises most. Why? Because in our bondage to our false identities, which we perceive as giving us value and security, we can’t stand to see someone else walking in liberation.  (1522)

Instead of preaching the Gospel, which invites all people to come just as they are, we began to preach a message that required LGBTQ people to conform to our standard of holiness before they were welcome into the body of Christ.  (1634)

I now believe that God blesses LGBTQ marriages, that covenanted same-sex relationships are a reflection of the love and glory of God, and that identifying as both LGBTQ and Christian is not contradictory.  (1646)

The sooner we relinquish our desire to label and classify each other in neat boxes where we can understand and ultimately control each other, the sooner we open up ourselves and our world to true freedom.  (1669)

Growing up as an Evangelical, I never really got what the whole communion thing was all about… It wasn’t until I began to explore the ancient traditions of the Church that the importance of the Eucharist began to radically change the way I viewed Christianity altogether.  (1712)

Jesus seemed less concerned about whether his disciples were exemplary theologians and more concerned with whether or not they embodied grace, forgiveness, and peace to their neighbours, their enemies, and themselves.  (1797)

The ritual of the Eucharist provides the image of what it looks like to be a Christian. Beyond having the right answers or believing the right things about God, being a Christian is first and foremost about following Christ. About being filled with the Spirit of God, and allowing ourselves to be broken and poured out in the world.  (1834)

To the natural mind, it seems absurd to assert that the way to foster healing from a toxic or abusive situation is to return to the situation and offer forgiveness, blessing, and love. But this is the way of the Kingdom.  (1963)

One thing that I have become absolutely confident of is that life is not about achieving goals, gaining notoriety, or reaching a destination. It is about the journey.  (2025)

It seems to me that God has always been more interested in faithfulness to his leading and direction, wherever it may take us, than about reaching a place of certainty and comprehension.  (2037)

Beyond all of our theology, traditions, and practices, to be a Christian means to live every moment consciously aware that ‘in God we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28a).  (2087)

This is the goal for which I strive. This is the desire for which I long. For myself, for you, and for the entire world. That we would live lives of wonder, totally amazed at the goodness of God, the complexity of life, the diversity of human experience, and the peculiar reality that it all fits together somehow on to the giant canvas of the cosmos on which God is painting a beautiful masterpiece that defies comprehension.  (2160)

 


Miserable Sinners? Our status as God’s people

21 February 2018

Regarding my nature and behaviour before I became a committed Christian I have no doubts. A phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes it nicely: I was a ‘miserable sinner’.

That doesn’t mean I was gloomy all the time—in spite of my melancholic streak. No, ‘miserable’ here bears its older sense of ‘wretched’, ‘needy’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, and that was me, all right. And what a relief it was to feel Jesus lifting me up to better prospects as I called to him in faith! That was over sixty years ago.

depressed_bigHe sorted out the ‘miserable’ bit straight away. Far from feeling spiritually ‘wretched’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, I now felt dusted-down, clean and upright, saved by grace and ‘reigning in life’.[1] The sorting-out of the ‘sinner’ bit, though, proved less straightforward. For some years I limped along, often beaten by temptation and feeling awful. But all that changed when, aged seventeen, I had a dramatic experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Love for God and his Word took over, along with a strong victory-consciousness. Sin wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly unthinkable, and I now powered my way through life’s temptations with holy gusto.

I went to my first Anglican service at the age of nineteen and it gave me a shock. Coming from a free-church background, I found it hard enough to cope with the set prayers, but my brow furrowed when we came to the Litany:

  • O God the Father, of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

I had problems with that. Here was the church at prayer, and in my book ‘church’ was by definition the redeemed community. So the folk gathered in that gothic building were presumably Christians, saved by grace like myself and there to worship God. But if they were, what was all this ‘miserable sinners’ stuff? Yes, we’re ‘sinners saved by grace’, but the emphasis surely lies on ‘saved’ and ‘grace’, not on ‘sinners’, which can no longer be an apt label for children of God—can it?

Some Christians, I discovered, warned that we are all apt to take sin too lightly. Others said it was an unhealthy preoccupation, and that we should focus instead on liberty and victorious living. I leaned towards the latter position—and still do.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. Over the years it kept coming to the surface and demanding re-examination. Not that I held to ‘sinless perfection’. I knew it was to Christians that John wrote, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.'[2]  In keeping with this, I tried to live each day for God and had no awareness of sinning with any regularity. If he drew any sin to my attention I was quick to confess it to him, receive his forgiveness and march forward again in a manner becoming a child of the King.

My convictions on the issue became more settled. Grace had enabled me to ‘participate in the divine nature’,[3] and, in line with that nature, the bias of my being was now towards doing God’s will, not towards sin. Didn’t Paul affirm, after all, that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come’?[4]  Yes, the new nature was now in undisputed charge as the driving force of my being!

But friends of The Book of Common Prayer, and some of the Reformed persuasion, kept casting doubts on my conviction. They reminded me that even the saintly Apostle Paul admitted to defeat: ‘I am unspiritual,’ he confessed, ‘sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'[5]

So there!

Finding it hard to square this with Paul’s high doctrine of victory in the power of the Spirit, I concluded, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that Paul wasn’t talking about his current experience here. He was using a literary device—the ‘dramatic present’—to describe the powerlessness he had felt years earlier when, as a legalistic Pharisee, he’d begun finding his way towards Christ.

Then I came up with a clincher. ‘Notice,’ I told my breast-beating friends, ‘Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They were guilty of pride, party-spirit, greed and drunkenness, and were slow to discipline the sexually immoral. Yet Paul insisted that their fundamental nature, as believers in Jesus, was godly and good. They were to get rid of ‘the yeast of malice and wickedness’ from the ‘batch of dough’ that they were, he urged, so ‘that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’

That settled it. As Christians we don’t want to sin and, through the Spirit’s power, we don’t have to. But the habits of our pre-Christian days, and daily shoulder-rubbing with an often-corrupt society, combine to trip us up from time to time. When that happens, we avail ourselves of God’s gracious provision, get back to our feet and resume our journey forgiven. But tripping up is surely a rarity, not a way of life? Our bent is towards godliness, not sin, for God himself ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.'[6]

That’s it, then. Cranmer and Co., who compiled the Prayer Book at the Reformation, got it wrong. As committed Christians, we’re not ‘miserable sinners’ after all. That notion was baggage brought over from Rome, and good riddance to it!

Then a friend told me the story of the flashlight. ‘When a light shines on you from a distance, many parts of you remain in shadow,’ he said. ‘But as you move towards the light, it penetrates ever more deeply into those shadows. And as we draw ever closer to God, who is light, the more aware we become of hitherto unrevealed sin in the farthest recesses of our souls. It’s the paradox of sanctification,’ he concluded. ‘The closer you get to the Lord, the more conscious you become of remaining sinful tendencies.’

Oh shucks! In that case the measure of godliness is not increasing victory by the Spirit but an increasing attitude of ‘Woe is me!’—back full circle to ‘miserable sinners’.

Undaunted, I dipped again into John’s first Letter for consolation. And I found some. ‘No-one who is born of God,’ he asserts, ‘will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.'[7]  That’s genetic terminology—’seed’ is the Greek sperma. John is saying that, because my heavenly Father begot me, I just can’t help growing like him. Spiritually, his genes are shaping my character as surely as my earthly father’s genes shaped the colour of my eyes. God isn’t a sinner, so neither am I—miserable or otherwise.

So that’s it, ‘the conclusion of the matter’, as the Preacher said. End of story. I’m a saint, not a sinner; a child of the King, not a breast-beating peasant. I’m moving from glory to glory, not from bad to worse. I have a brand new life, a stake in the divine nature, the divine seed within me and victory before me.

I just wish Paul hadn’t said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am (not was) the worst.'[8]

Footnotes

  1.  Romans 5:17
  2.  1 John 1:8-10
  3.  2 Peter 1:4
  4.  2 Corinthians 5:17
  5.  Romans 7:14-20
  6.  Philippians 2:13
  7.  1 John 3:9
  8.  1 Timothy 1:15

%d bloggers like this: