A few months ago, half-tongue-in-cheek, I wrote the outline of a book inspired by Marie Kondo’s tidying up system. How can we recognise what is cluttering up our faith i.e. what are the practices and beliefs we are carrying around that are either not giving us life, or if we are honest we don’t really believe at all.
I wrote a very rough draft of a first chapter and have sat on it for a few months (with two or three friends who have helped me think through the language and style). I however, have not found the energy or drive to continue. I’ve always been someone who works best in conversation. So I’ve decided to share the very rough draft and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does it make you want to read on?
(DISCLAIMER: I make no promises to include any of these words should I actually ever write on)
If you’ve got this far into this little book then either you’re merely intrigued by the title, or you’re tired of a complicated and cluttered faith. I got to the point of writing this because I realised I was bone tired. And my faith wasn’t a relief from that – it was the reason for that.
The spiritual systems and practices I was carrying around with me were exhausting to maintain. A de-clutter was long overdue.
That decluttering took a lot of time and a lot of careful consideration, but I’m now in a place where my faith sits more comfortably with me, and me with it, while still colliding with the edges of my life enough to challenge me and call me to worship God.
I decided to write this down not only because I had grown tired of lugging around my own life-draining religious and spiritual baggage, but also because I was tired of meeting people whose cluttered faith was becoming joyless and was doing them far more harm than good.
Neo-Atheist Hedgehogs and Fireproof Bibles
I meet people all the time who live constrained and disappointing faith lives. Much more exhausting is the cluttered and unquestioned beliefs of some Christians that are stealing the joy from the lives of others.
I grew up in a very Christian family in a very Christian part of the world. The town I am from has a brass plaque on the town hall commemorating the revival that happened there in 1859. There are churches everywhere. As a child my life was lived in the church: Sunday school, youth groups, uniformed organisations and one of the proudest moments of my life, the annual Northern Irish Bible Memorisation Competition (I have a trophy). I played Christian football, ran in Christian 5K races and spent my summers in Christian holiday clubs. My childhood was very Christian; but so was the childhood of a majority of my peers – that was, and still is to some extent, Northern Irish culture.
One of the most exciting days of each year was Sunday School prize giving day. Every year, every child would receive a book voucher for the Mizpah Christian Bookshop, and almost every year I bought the same basic thing: a book of some sort with wonderful illustrations of Bible stories, or an evangelical version of Aesop’s fables, before using the change to buy a Jesus Loves You pencil and a multi-coloured rubber with an out-of-context verse printed on it. The rubbers were almost always terrible at their only job but were amazing at leaving a greasy streak across my school exercise book.
One of those years – I’d guess I was about 8 years old – I bought an extended comic book with my voucher, which told the story of a young evangelical fox who lived in a forest amongst other talking animals, the majority of whom were unabashed heathens. I will confess, I’ve never quite looked at wildlife in the same way since.
This was a book about persecution and how to stand firm in your faith as a young fox, when surrounded by unbelieving badgers and an aggressive neo-atheist hedgehog. In one scene, which I remember vividly to this day, said hedgehog (backed up by an angry mob of other forest creatures) takes the young fox’s bible and tosses it onto a fire.
Now, you and I both (hopefully) have many questions about the realism of this scene, and the ability of forest animals to start, never mind safely maintain, a fire in the middle of the woods; but the drama is moving too fast for us to stop and think it through.
A challenge is put to the young fox. ‘Turn away from your belief in God, or we will burn your bible in this fire.’ The fox, channeling the spirit of Martin Luther, stands firm (for he can do no other), and the hedgehog angrily gives the order for the bible to be thrown into the fire.
A gasp goes up amongst the forest creatures – the bible does not burn! They fall to their knees and confess their sins and give their lives to Jesus and the forest lived happily ever after.
That is quite a story for a young child to digest. The message seems to be that this faith – which you’ve grown up in due to an accident of birth – is going to mean you get bullied and threatened by your peers. I bought into it hook, line and sinker, seeing myself in its light as a missionary to my primary school, with hilarious results.
The thing that strikes me, though, is that I absorbed some of the stranger aspects of the story directly into my faith. The standout belief, which I carried with me for another six years, was that bibles were fire-resistant and that – due to some mystery – they would never burn, as a sign of God’s glory. This belief crashed down when I was 14, as I watched a peer roll and smoke a cigarette using a page of 1 John as a skin, which I now know to be a very apt choice (the heavens will be set on fire).
I wonder how many things like that I have carried around with me for years. Ultimately inconsequential details of my faith, absorbed from living in a Christian world, have made their way from illustrations in books, song lyrics and misreadings, to being beliefs that I carry around with me everywhere.
I think every person of faith carries around a tapestry of truth and myth that’s woven into a colourful muddle that is unique to each of us. There are little threads (like ‘bibles don’t burn’) which, if removed, will be unnoticed – and yet enough of them will clutter up the weave. My personal weave is pretty cluttered.
And yet, I have become painfully aware in recent years that alongside these micro-beliefs, many of us are carrying much more significant things, which we have taken into our personal creeds and which are, at best clouding our view of God and the world, and at worst harming us and those around us. For most of us there are things we’ve believed without noticing that are cluttering our faith, and they are exhausting to carry around. I believe that if we don’t find the time to escape the pace of modern Christian spirituality and carefully review our beliefs, life might just force a derailment, just in order to escape the exhaustion that carrying the weight of our own personal Christianity through life will cause us.
I Believe in God, Who is Probably Somewhere Else
If you are recognising yourself in this then don’t worry. This is true of all of us. We all have what I call a personal creed. The majority of Christians I’ve met can agree with the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed; the pieces of ancient writing which start, ‘I believe in God the Father, Almighty. Maker of Heaven and Earth…’ These are tried and tested building-blocks of Christianity, and they have held firm for centuries. But for most of us, they form only the hub of our own personal creeds, from which beliefs weave out, like the many-jointed arms of a spider diagram, through the fabric of our lives and relationships. Each complex arm of our personal creed is made up of micro-creeds, both chosen and unknowingly accepted, which silently inform our experiences of the world.
Every Christian I know, if they were able to produce a definitive treatise of everything they believe in their personal creed, would look at it and very quickly be able to pick out the things that they don’t really believe or that they didn’t know they believed at all. Each of us would very quickly see that our faith-life is full of clutter that needs to be thrown away. I’m hoping that this book will give you some freedom to do exactly that, and help you to rediscover a life-giving and joy-filled faith that you can celebrate and call your own.
Decluttering can feel as terrifying as it does liberating. As we examine the beliefs that we carry around with us, and begin to extract those that no longer belong within our faith, we can experience a real sense of loss. The things we believe are often tied into memories and relationships. There is also a real sense for a lot of people who go through this process that they are choosing to question God, and that this questioning is in some sense an act of apostasy. The Bible and the following millenia of church history has been filled with people questioning, searching and finding answers to their questions. Far from being apostasy, the process of decluttering is central to a healthy and vibrant faith. It serves us well to shake out the dust and leave the blanket, it is good for our spiritual health.
Let me give you an example of something that many of us accidentally believe – a belief which, once I noticed it in my own life, I have been working to expunge from my thinking.
I’ve spent years of my life in a broad range of church traditions. My childhood was spent in some conservative evangelical Congregationalist and Baptist churches, and I worked part-time during my theology degree for an independent church plant and a Presbyterian church. Once I graduated, I moved to work as youth pastor in a Community Church, and soon after that a charismatic Anglican church, and from there to an 18-30s, politically active pub church. I’ve spent time in Vineyard churches and now am in a Christian community of about 10 people who are finding space to rediscover the God they chose to follow years ago but lost sight of some somewhere within the clutter. My church-ship is a very mixed bag, and I love that fact – it has given me a sense of the beautiful diversity of the Christian world. However, it has definitely made me an expert at gathering spiritual detritus into my personal creed.
One item of clutter that has had a real impact upon my spiritual practice is something which, if you attended church this week at a church that has moments of gathered worship, you may have heard as well: the pre-singing prayer where we ‘invite God amongst us.’
Someone on a microphone will have opened their palms and prayed for God by the Holy Spirit to come into the room and meet with his people. As a pastor I prayed that prayer many times, and as a worship leader I made that invitation almost every time I put a guitar around my shoulders. One Sunday morning, whilst eating a bagel, I asked myself what else I was saying to those in the church when I said those words. What was the unspoken theology of my invitation to God to be present?
It was in that moment, that (completely by accident) I came up with a little exercise that I now regularly do with the lines of my personal creed; a little thought process that helps me to understand what I really believe, and to de-clutter my faith where I need to. Sitting at our kitchen table that morning, I took a piece of paper and wrote, in my terrible handwriting, ‘Invite God’s presence’.
I turned the paper over and asked myself, ‘for what is on the other side of this paper to be true, what else has to be true?’
In about 2 minutes I had written down the following list:
– God was either absent before, or at least not fully here.
– God’s presence with us changes depending on where we are.
– God’s presence with us can change with time.
– God’s presence is based upon our invitation
I personally don’t believe any of those statements to be true; and yet by uncritically repeating a phrase that I’d heard numerous other church leaders saying, I had accidently written into my personal creed four huge statements that I did not agree with.
God, Who Is Always With Us
So what did I believe about God’s presence when the church is gathered? Well, I understood why that phrase had crept into our Christian culture. I knew the story of 2 Chronicles 5, where God’s glory descended into the temple. I knew the story of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on Jesus’ followers for the first time, and I understood that the phrase reflected a desire within the church to see moments like those happening.
I also knew that the Bible is full of references of God as an ever-present help in trouble, and contains a promise from Jesus to be with us always. The God of the Bible seems to be constantly present, and I had become aware that I had painted a picture of that God as absent or partially absent from human lives, as if he was withholding from us some blessing or presence until we offer the correct invitation. I understood the thinking, but the practice didn’t sit well with me.
My experience, however, was that in many of those moments, the gathered congregations did experience something that felt very much like God becoming more present. So how could I work out a different way of talking – something that reflected my experience whilst still sitting well alongside what I really believe?
I’m sure the day will come when I review it again but the alternative I settled on was to begin our services at church with some version of this prayer:
‘God who is always with us, may you help us to focus our minds and hearts on your presence. Where we have been absent may we be present. Where we have turned our gaze away, may we turn it back to you, so we can know your closeness to us more fully, and experience your Spirit in our lives.’
I found that I could agree with that statement, and that it didn’t steal that moment of consciously approaching God in worship for everyone else. For me, making that change meant that I became more conscious of God’s presence outside of gathered, explicitly Christian spaces. Something I had not made a choice to believe was having an effect upon my life, and changing it had surprising effects.
The Creed I Don’t Believe
I keep finding this – that I’m carrying around things which get in the way of the things that I really believe, which are causing me to accept things into my personal creed that I don’t actually believe at all – and that these things are informing my spiritual practice in ways I don’t even notice.
I believe that many of us have periods of spiritual dryness or a sense of God’s absence and even faith crises because of this clutter. Many people have walked away from Christianity because they just couldn’t reconcile themselves with their faith anymore; and yet if they had been given the chance to reflect on that faith, they might have realised that the issue was with the clutter, and not the life-giving parts of Christianity.
I hope that as I share some of my journey of de-cluttering, that you will begin to recognise the things in your own personal creed that you may not have been aware of. I want to think through the areas of my faith where I have tended to pick up some of these extra beliefs, and discuss some ways of thinking that have helped me to identify what should stay and what has to go, and to experience greater freedom. A journey like this can be tough, and I want to encourage you to be brave and honest with yourself. Facing bad memories, however much you’re able to, and even feeling the fear that you might be losing everything, are worth it to get to a creed that you can celebrate.
With that in mind, I want to start the next chapter by talking about how we know what marks out our true beliefs.