|Saint Frideswide, Oxford’s First Saint. Burne-Jones window, Christ Church Cathedral|
There’s Nought so Queer as Christians
Old Northern English saying. Well, actually, “There’s nowt so queer as folks.”
I am taking a week-long course on the Christian history of Oxford. We learnt of Oxford’s strong religious underpinnings, and the contributions of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Cistercians, Benedictines, Carmelites and Augustinians to this beautiful city I love, and feel a strong inexplicable connection to.
Interestingly, only about a handful of people taking it were from Oxford or the UK. Most were from across the pond. It’s interesting why people who don’t live here would want to spend a week learning about Oxford’s Christian history. But I guess, “there’s nowt so queer as folk”.
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We were divided into small groups for one session. There are as many species of Christians as there are mammals, 4360, or perhaps insects, 900,000!!
And in Christian conferences without a strong focus (evangelical, charismatic, arts) you’ll meet many of them.
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When I first lived in America—late eighties and nineties, Wall Street traders were known as the Masters of the Universe. Well, moth, rush and exogenous events have dented their self-confidence and arrogance, if not their wealth. Are the Masters of the Universe in America currently doctors?
The two most arrogant, full-of-themselves people I’ve met in the last month have both been American Christian doctors. I guess their wealth is immune to economic downturns—if anything might increase if more people get sick from stress and false economies—and then, their intellectual pride makes them sure they have God in their pocket as well as wealth, and the life or death of their patients. I sat next to one at dinner last month, and was appalled by his full-of himself arrogance.
Well, today’s guy–a dermatologist from Houston, who boasts he can diagnose in two seconds– starts, “I am successful,” he says, (I kid you not!!). “I have two houses, and a boat and a stock portfolio. And now I wonder how I can follow Christ. He told his disciples to take nothing for their journeys. He told the rich man to give up everything to follow him. So that’s my first question.”
But this guy from Houston had a problem.
“My second question is,” he continues, “Why am I going to heaven when all the Hindus and Muslims and Jews I am working with are not, when they are better Christians than I am?”
(Now, I am, well, reasonably well-brought-up, so did not say, “Don’t be too sure on either count.” I just thought it. Well, wrote it!)
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Next, we get to Dallas. An impeccably turned out matron, who looks like, and is possibly wearing jewels worth, a million dollars, tells us of her life—comfortable, right schools, right universities, social success and prominence (Americans, stop one-upping each other, I think) going to a rich church for 49.5 years before she began to ask questions. Now her husband is terminally ill, and she delicately wipes a tear, and I suddenly feel sorry for her,
“I can’t pray for him to live for myself,” she says. “That would be selfish. But I pray he may live for the sake of the community, for the larger good he may do.”
“Excuse me?” I said. Had I understood?
“I can’t pray for him to live for just my sake,” she said. “How can I? But I pray he may live for our community, for everyone, for everyone’s good.”
That’s too much for me.
“Why should it be selfish to pray for yourself alone? You too are a child of God,” I say. “He loves you too.”
“Well, thank you!” she says, as if I am being nice, rather than truthful.” She cannot believe God loves her, I realise.
“God says nothing is too small to pray about. He cares about sparrows and our falling hair. He taught us to pray for our daily bread and trust our clothing dilemmas to him.” I say passionately, if didactically.
Upon which the doctor from Houston again has a problem.
“That’s an empty prayer,” he says, contemptuously. “Praying for bread and clothing!!”
I was too disgusted to speak.
Fortunately, a Swiss pastor explained, “Well, if you’ve always had enough, perhaps it’s an empty prayer. But Jesus did teach us to pray for our daily bread. And if you don’t have bread, then it’s a real prayer.”
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How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver! Proverbs 16:6.
I have been teaching the Bible in small groups for over ten years now. When I first started, in Williamsburg, Virginia, I was startled by the number of people, church-goers, who had got the worldly stuff sorted—the trophy husband with the trophy income, the massive house, the swimming pool, the vacation home, the status symbol car and body—but said they were not happy.
And were confused about basic things. I would be asked, “Anita, do you really have peace?” Answer, “Yes, I do. Mostly.” “Anita, are you really happy.” Answer, “Yes, I am. Mostly.” And they’d sigh and say, “I wish I were happy.”
God–even for church-goers, who hadn’t seriously sought him– was a source of more questions than answers, a confusing dark terra incognita.
But it shouldn’t be so.
We really do need to seek God with the same passion with which we seek success or worldly wealth or whatever our idol is, so that we do not arrive at mid-life empty, unhappy, dissatisfied, with more questions than answers.
We seriously need to prioritise the spiritual above anything else. “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life,” John 6:27.
And, we need to fill ourselves with this food, with these living waters so that they flow effortlessly out of us to those with more questions than answers, with more sadness than happiness.
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Happiness ultimately flows from our spiritual lives. And so—to be happy– we must put them at the centre of our lives, and find durable answers to the big questions.
1 What is a good life? 2 How can I be happy 3 What is the meaning of life? 4 Is there life beyond death 5 Is there a God and does he care about me 6) Will he guide me minutely in my day to day decisions. Can I hear his voice 7) How do I find peace and joy?
And these questions are more important than how to be successful, or how to manage time, or how to lose weight, or how to save, or how to get organized, or how to make friends—but how often we forget this!!
Over to you? Do you think happiness ultimately flows from our spiritual lives? What would you add to my list of Life’s Big Questions?