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franciscan - May 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Loved into Shape

by Brother Silas SSF

Some people come to faith all at once, in a blinding flash of light. For some, it grows gradually, almost unnoticed, until the point is reached when it can no longer be denied. For me, growing into faith has happened as a succession of small hops, each one opening to me a new face of God, a new tradition to be explored, new people to share it with.

So it proves impossible to separate my experiences of God and of the people of God, and both from the traditions I have adopted as my own. There is no disembodied notion of the divine, free from the influence of the people with whom we live it out, or of the countless saints who passed it down to us through their words and the example of their lives. If we continue to grow into the likeness of God, it is only because others continue to mould us, nudge us, love us into shape.

I grew up in the sort of Baptist Church which is now almost extinct, a place which loved words for the sake of the Word of God. Plainly and without emotion, the word of the Bible would be proclaimed week by week, and taken to heart. It was through words that I joined the church, and in the words of the Word that I put my faith, when I made the public confession of faith that preceded baptism. According to Baptist theology, at that moment when the individual stands alone before God, it is the sentences they say rather than the water they enter which saves them.

What I found in that tradition was a love of truth, just because it was true. The issue was not what was pleasurable or relevant or successful, but what conformed to the example of Christ. It taught me that the fact that some questions are unanswerable (and I seem to find new ones every day) is no excuse to abandon them; and the acceptance I found suggested that uncomfortable people should not be abandoned either. But I found other questions: in the sense, half-relieved, half-resentful, of a God who could not be reduced to words, who was going to be there for me whether I liked it or not; the growing realisation that, with a little ingenuity, words can be twisted any way one wishes. Who was the God who came to meet us in and beyond the words, the God who would not be named?

These were the questions which forced me into a second ‘small hop’, accepting that God never would be clear in my mind or summed up in my words: a change of course was in order. It led to a search for the Spirit, and to a charismatic house church where I was ‘loved into shape’ more intensely than anywhere before or since. It was a tight, committed, exclusive community which took it for granted that belonging to each other was part of belonging to God - an ideal place for confused Christians to find stability and support. Most of the relationships formed then have survived and continue to be a source of strength.

At bottom, it was all about power: the power of the Spirit, ministered through us, to (we believed) ‘restore’ the church and usher in the Kingdom of God. But the question of power somehow became detached from the question of truth and, when that occurred, it turned out that not all power is of God. In that closed, intense, perhaps overheated environment, the dark side of human community could also flourish, and criticism was suppressed as evidence of a ‘complaining spirit’. As the leaders struggled with each other for power, I was one of the few to leave before the whole project collapsed in pain, anger and bitterness.

By the time that happened, I had already fallen in love with Anglicanism. I had gone to All Hallows’ Convent to ‘de-program’ myself and there discovered a face of God I had hardly suspected existed. There were the ancient and absurd rites, the hymn book which described any tune written after 1450 as ‘modern’. They spoke of a Father-God who, having made a covenant, keeps it for ever, everywhere, regardless. And they spoke of a people who preserved these things, worshipped with them, lived their lives through them and handed them on across the centuries. So I discovered a tradition which did not worry overmuch about getting the doctrinal formulæ absolutely right, or creating an exclusive community of ‘true Christians’ which rejected doubters and no-hopers. In the end, it was God, and only God, who would protect and sanctify the children of God.

Of course, there is much to criticise. Often, faith in the God beyond words degenerates into a lazy reluctance to face the hard questions. Often, the church is emotionally constipated and offers to those in need resources without the heartfelt love they badly need. But it seems right to me that the church should begin by witnessing to the constancy of God, throughout all times and places. The Love which sustains us must, above all things, be one which is there for tomorrow because it was there for us yesterday and the day before that. And when the church stubbornly insists on maintaining a ‘presence’ in areas where it has no adherents, there is heroism mixed with the foolhardiness which witnesses to the fundamental constancy of the Love of God.

I have described three stages in my shaping as a Christian. Three faces of God: in truth power and constancy. Each of these is indispensable, for they are a reflection of the Trinity itself. Somehow, the nurturing of a Christian must embrace all three - teaching clearly without killing spontaneity; sharing commitment without exclusivity; constancy in love without rigidity. No ‘teaching pack’ or educational technique will ever be able to achieve this. Only the whole People of God, in their worship, their care for each other, their absurd attachment to things ancient and odd, their awkwardness and sense of impotence, can shape a human being into the likeness of God with their love. f

After working for some years with SSF in Papua New Guinea, Brother Silas is now back in the UK and reading for a doctorate in theology at Birmingham University.

 

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