I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story that is completely true and, at the same time, a complete fiction. Are you staring at your screen comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
I was 16 and the local Baptist church was running a mission week in the local park with a big name speaker. I was taken along by friends and we sat near the back because all the Christians had turned up hours earlier to get the best seats. The marquee was hot, the music loud and the atmosphere intense. I couldn’t see a thing and couldn’t really make out what was being talked about. But this man talked, nay shouted, with such passion about the love Jesus has for me that my heart was struck. There I was, 16 years old and desolate in my self-hatred and loneliness. I had heard the good news my heart longed for and I went forward for prayer. And my life has never been the same since.
This event happened. It really did. But it also didn’t happen at all.
In fact I have spent the last 10 years working out what really did happen and why it is that no matter how many times I went forward for prayer in church, dark and lonely times kept happening. I longed to step into the light and experience the joy I’d been offered and I was taught to believe there was better waiting for me. I became part of a church that shared stories with lovely smooth edges.
Many people are struggling with church. And it’s not just the young. My work takes me alongside a lot of older people and I see the same search in some of them that I see in myself and my generation. They are also fed up with relationships that don’t go deeper than Sundays; not being missed when they’re not around; not feeling needed or known.
The full truth is, looking back, I realise that I’ve known and loved Jesus since I was small. I was born connected to him. As a child I knew instinctively how to pray and it was only going to church when I was nine that made me question whether I was doing it ‘right’. Because I had no happy ending. Life was occasionally tough in my family and we just plodded on.
I work now to rediscover that faith. The simple trust that Jesus sits down next to me where I am. There will be completeness and joy eventually in the world, this is the Christian hope and advent is the perfect time to dwell on this.
But I’ve also discovered that God is in the despair too; not just the shiny future. And that He isn’t there just to make it better. We’re up to our necks in it some of the time; my Jesus and I. Here is a God who was born in mess, scandal and bloodiness; into a faith and people group under occupation; who knows struggle and despair. My God is a beautiful God who is prepared to spend His days in the sludge of my emotions and not try and make me better. Because ‘I am’ is and so am I.