A couple of years ago I took my dad out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. (I say, “took my dad out” when in fact I chose a restaurant it turned out he didn’t like and he paid, so how well I did in my son-ly efforts is debatable, but we did have a lovely evening and a great chat).
We discussed work, life, faith, and church. We shared what we were reading and what was inspiring us. As we approached the end of the meal, the conversation turned to me and my dad asked a question;
“Are you okay with the fact that, when it comes to how you view things, you’ll always be outside the norm and seen as a fringe character in the church?”
In case of confusion, I should be clear that this was not the question of a father trying to convince his son to “get in line” or “keep his head down”. My dad is both a huge encourager and supporter of me and my two brothers. In fact, when it comes to what I do and who I am, few people have shaped me profoundly like my dad has (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, if I really mean that I should have paid for dinner…but I did offer to – he just wouldn’t let me). His advice, wisdom and support have always been vital to me and, both he and my mum are incredible examples of what faith, hope and love really look like when lived out in the real world.
This question, then, was a very real effort to delve deeper into my thinking, and was one that he was genuinely wanting to know my answer to.
I, somewhat typically, answered quickly and emphatically with a “yeah of course I am”. I think I may have even expanded and explained why this was absolutely the case…but the question has really lingered.
In fact, even recently I have shared this story with people. I don’t know how it’s come up or what’s prompted me to tell it, but it seems to have stuck with me for all this time and, if I’m honest, I’ve never really found a complete answer…until Monday night.
On Monday night a bunch of friends and I went to hear Rob Bell speak about his new book. Rob Bell is an author, theologian, TV producer and all round inspiring type who has become one of the leading voices of the church in the USA and around the globe. His first book, Velvet Elvis, is one I’ve read countless times. I found and read lots of the book list that inspired that book, and his nooma DVD series was the material that my church, carus, chose to study when in its very early days. In fact, when it comes to what I do and who I am, few things have shaped me profoundly like Rob Bell’s teaching has.
His latest book, ‘What we talk about when we talk about God’, is a brilliant and insightful study of the nature of God and the connection that people often instinctively feel to something “bigger” or “more”. It’s honest, compelling and timely.
After he’d spoken, he took questions, some that had been sent in before the event, and others from the floor. As he read and answered these questions I regretted the fact I hadn’t got round to emailing mine. Here was my chance to ask Rob Bell the question that my dad had asked me and I’d been unable to answer ever since. Here was an opportunity to finally put it to rest and hear from someone who knows, far more than I ever will, what being on the fringe feels like, and I’d missed it.
As he read the next question, I couldn’t quite believe it. Someone else wanted to know how he felt being on the outside of mainstream church thinking – it was my question, and he was going to answer it.
As he leant back on his chair he simply answered “I don’t feel that – because I’m here with all of you”. He explained that as he travels and meets people he realises that all over the world people are trying to live out their faith and make things better. He doesn’t feel like he’s on the fringe because he recognises that there’s a lot of people all in this together.
As I listened, I realised that it wasn’t that I didn’t have an answer to my dad’s question – it was that I had been missing the answer staring me right in the face.
I don’t need to worry about where I am on a spectrum, or how I’m viewed or talked about. The idea of being seen as a maverick, or an outsider in the church is an odd seduction. The lure of being seen as controversial or a bit of a rebel, can draw us towards big statements, emphatic tweets and bold observations on a, largely unnoticed, blog (the irony is not lost on me here).
But whilst the vanity of isolation might attract some, it shouldn’t appeal to me because I’ve never experienced it.
The dad who asked me the question is part of the family unit that encouraged me to ask questions, explore my faith and delve into my church experience.
I’m part of a marriage in which my attitude, behaviour and spiritual temperature are checked, challenged and co-exist with an amazing woman of God.
My church in carus is a gorgeous community of brilliant people who leave no-one behind no matter what and who are constantly seeking to become better disciples and better servants in our city.
My network of friends, mentors, and guides is like a wish-list of quality people. Near and far they never cease to amaze me with their timing, ability to see through any facade, and want only the best for me.
And so, a few years later, and still owing my dad a birthday dinner, my answer is this;
I don’t know where I am on that spectrum and I don’t know what the norm is because no matter where I’ve found myself or what has been going on around me I know this for certain – I’ve never been on my own.