This morning I had breakfast with a great guy whose journey I really appreciate. During our conversation I shared some of my life story. Whenever I do that it always causes me to look at who I am now and the life I live, and it leaves me feeling extremely grateful. When I was young I couldn’t have imagined the life I have.
In all I do, I meet and have developed friendships with amazing people. It’s true of the local church I have the privilege of serving, the media chaplaincy work I do, what I do and have done with Tearfund, and the broadcasting work I do. My life is full of a colourful array of people with rich stories and beautiful personalities.
I’m no ‘superstar’ Christian personality (and I don’t want to be), but I do get invited to interact with various groups from time to time, to share my thoughts and engage with others. Sometimes that comes at a cost for those inviting me, whether it be covering my costs, or choosing to pay me. I never take that lightly and it still blows me away that people do it for me. Heck, it still fascinates me that anyone would even read things I write, like this blog post.
I often think about how I got here. I would put it down to the fingerprints of God through my life, the love of people and communities that have believed in me, and individuals being willing to invest in my life – especially those who initially could see something in me that I was a long way off being able to see. For the last 13 years I’ve also kept moving forward because of the love and belief of my amazing wife. Hopefully I have somehow enabled the same for her. Thankfully at 40 years old, I’ve developed somewhat of a grasp on who I am and am happy to ‘own’ both my strengths and weaknesses.
There’s something else that has been an integral part of it all though, and it’s central to the Christian faith. I’ve come to realise that it’s entirely counter-cultural, not the norm, and not something I can expect of anyone though I’ll gladly invite others into it.
In a world that loudly proclaims the sacredness of individual autonomy and upholds mottos like ‘my life, my choice’ – at the heart of the journey I have been on that has shaped who I am, sits an ongoing act of submission to an authority external of myself and the admission that I am not my own. In my case that external authority is God. Exactly how I identify that authority and live out submission to it is a complex discussion… though it could be boiled down to following the person of Jesus the Christ.
Disclaimer: Do not misconstrue anything I say as an endorsement of submitting to the abuse of power where it happens so often in the world around us. The abuse of power needs to be confronted… and I would argue that often at the heart of it lies the protected autonomy of individuals and groups of individuals who selfishly hold on to power at the cost of others.
At the heart of the disciplines and rituals that I regularly observe, is an ongoing journey of submission.
As I look back I see many junctures in my life that, though they involve different circumstances, fit the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-23. Time and time again I have been confronted with a choice towards being faithful and submitting to the external authority I have given my life over to, or protecting what I have. Will I keep hold of what I have and what I have built (or more to the point, what has been built for me), or will I submit and let it go if compelled to do so? In each of those instances, struggle has occurred when I have held on, and freedom has occurred when I have let go and submitted. Internally I face these junctures and the ongoing journey of submission regularly. The temptation is always to hold on and say no – to take hold of the power inherent in the veneer of my own autonomy. Isn’t this the crux of the story of Genesis 3 that Christian tradition calls ‘the fall’?
That call to submission is the heart of the Christian message – to recognise that we belong to God and each other and to give ourselves over to that accordingly. Such submission is the antithesis of modern western culture, partly because we’ve witnessed the constant abuse of power, yet I believe it’s an antidote to much of what is wrong and broken around us.
You see, the paradox of my submission to God is that I’m submitting to the One who first submitted himself to us. The story of Christ, as the Church fathers understood it and expressed it in the ancient creeds, is about the foundation and source of life (God) entering the world as one of us, revealing himself and his character, demonstrating humanity to us (including his constant submission to the Father) and calling us back into unity with ultimate Divinity and with each other. Then it’s about God, through Christ, submitting to the worst of who we are by walking to death on a cross. And somehow out of that submission to us and to the Father, new life broke forth.
When I feebly reach towards God in an act of submission, I’m reaching towards the One who has and is rushing towards me. I’m reaching towards the One who gave up autonomy and laid his life down for us. That’s a totally different act from submitting to the constant abuse of power we often see in the world around us. Submitting to the One who submitted to us and to the Father (his source of life) then demands that we act with the same service and selflessness towards the world we live and breath within. Sadly, we who declare ourselves to be followers of Christ often fail to live up to that ideal, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
My journey of submission should breed humility in myself. When I fight that submission I often come face to face with my own pride and ego – this is why the first call of Jesus is to ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ Repentance is an act of submission. It allows us to fall into the kingdom that’s right there. Failing to go there because I wish to tightly grasp my veneer of autonomy therefore holds that kingdom at a distance as I try to maintain my own fiefdom.
Paradoxically, in my constant acts of submission to God, through Christ, I continually find freedom and space. When I struggle to do otherwise I find myself getting trapped in a prison of self-made walls.
I have no great point to this, other than to publicly recognise an unspoken reality that sits at the heart of shaping who I am and who I am becoming – a reality that can seem at complete odds with our modern culture and hyper-individualism.