Let me tell you the story of a very important year in my life. I will try as hard as I can not to make this exhaustive, self-deprecating or self-serving and if I am honest I will be surprised if anyone else ever reads this as it is meant primarily as a means of straightening out the past year in my mind.
To begin, I suppose I must tell you where the year began and how things stood in my life. It was late July 2014 and I had just finished my second year at University studying for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. My closest friends and girlfriend at the time were all fellow engineers on my course and if you had been bold enough to ask me then the philosophical question “Who are you?” I would probably have answered you by saying belligerently “I am an Engineer, and proud of it!” This was not because I was unaware of the other facets of my character and personality but because I had spent two years immersing myself in university culture, study, friends and little else. At this point in the conversation I would also probably have felt the need to add hastily “Oh and a Christian too, of course,” but there was much less said about that for I had become - in my long struggle with theists and atheists - much more of a ‘champion of the people’ than a member of the body of Christ.
University life is very ill-suited to those who would call themselves (to use an ancient expression) followers of the Way, as a large part of University and growing up in the West is the universal recognition that there is no single, omnipotent way but the one we choose for ourselves. It became all too easy to hear in the voices of my Church friends and fellow believers a note of arrogance; as though every friendly greeting and mild question seemed to be claiming “We are right, we have the right answer, follow us.” which was an attitude I could not stomach.
It was here that I began to slip into the habit of assuming all people - non-believers and believers alike - were approximately the same in the eyes of God. When asked about this I preferred to redirect and draw attention to the verse “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” and in doing so propose that we are basically all the same; it is just that some have said some words and some have not, not yet anyway. This may seem very silly to those of you hearing this, but I was very proud of my new-age Christianity. Finally, I thought, this is a faith people can get on board with; no rush, no strings, no presumptuous claims to absolute truth or anything like that, simply a matter of belief in a higher power and tolerance of unbelief to the point of complete inactivity.
I found that I had more time on my hands than I had ever had in my adult life but instead of filling me with delight, this time filled me with great foreboding and worry. I used to anticipate with dread any time that I would have by myself, for my mind would slip into a pattern of dark, introspective thoughts from which I was unable to break free.
Thinking this a symptom of serious extroversion, I tried to find solace in the people around me and my friends from University - now scattered across the country - to no avail. Sinking deeper into loneliness and isolation, my relationship also began to buckle under the strain of long distance and my own unhealthy dependence. I distinctly remember moments alone where I would ask myself quite seriously “Who am I?” which is a truly unpleasant experience when your mind can give no ready answer.
You might wonder - as I have wondered myself - why I never sought the comfort and community of the Church during this time, and it was here at last that I gradually came to a horrible realisation.
My long disdain for what I scornfully called ‘the very worst kind of evangelism’ had subtly wrought a great change in my heart. I saw the Church, not as the family of God or the bride of Christ, but as a group of elitist and closed-minded people whose only effective outreach was to the weak and the needy. I had raised myself and my own personal theology above them and found myself saying things in my head along the lines of ‘Well yes Church is all very well, for those who NEED Church..’ and what a self-fulfilling prophecy that became.
It was for this reason that, during the first months of my placement year, I could not sit in Church without squirming in embarrassment or hold conversations with Christians without cringing at the simplicity of their seemingly irrational faith. All the things I had grown up to welcome and love about the Church were suddenly facile, dull and humiliating and though I felt justified in my personal brand of evangelism I have never felt more alone in my life.
God was very patient with me during this time - as he is at all times - and led me quietly to a place of what I can only describe as breathtaking self-doubt; for it was only here that I could see how much I needed Him. It was also at this time that my relationship, which had become very difficult, fell apart for a number of reasons and I felt as I imagine Joseph must have felt looking up from the bottom of the well where his brothers had thrown him; suddenly far away from the sun with no coat and very much alone.
My journey of coming back into the family of God started at a weekend away with my Church in Winchester. I had been reluctant to go as I was still wrestling with morose singleness and only changed my mind at the last moment when, with a stroke of divine intervention, my parents offered to pay for me to be there. I can never thank them enough, and cannot write this without great emotion for it was in that hotel in Berkshire over one weekend that I remembered what it is to be called a son of God. In the safety and comfort of my family and among old familiar faces - people who had known me and loved me before I went to University - my guard dropped, and instead of the happy-go-lucky clichés, soppy hugs and cultural blindness I had come to associate with the Church there came instead a firm, firm grip round my shoulders, warm sunlight and a fierce whisper in my ear saying “It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m here.” And as I’m sure the prodigal son must have felt on that dusty road with his Father’s arms around him; I knew I had come home.
Since then it has been difficult. Prejudice often takes longer to strip away than simple dislike or hatred and I have gone backwards and forwards between old scorn and new vulnerability; only to be delighted all over again by that sensation of coming home that I now know comes from God and from being with his many children. There is a freshness to the world that I cannot describe, which often leaves me filled with a quiet disbelief that life could ever be this good, and disbelief that I ever could have forgotten.
There is much more of my story to write and even more of it that needs to happen first, but what started as a year of loneliness and painful endings has turned into a year of many joyous beginnings and a reaffirmation of hope; the ‘hope that we have’ that Paul was always talking about.
I have met many wonderful people in Leamington who have helped me kick-off this new part of my life, and I hope that I can serve them well in the future; now that I count myself blessed to be called a member of the Church. One Sunday morning talk brought the year round full circle and silenced forever the part of my mind that whispered those subtle notions of separation for so long. It was a simple sermon on the passage at the beginning of John in which he spells out neatly and clearly part of the nature of grace: ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’.
However lost, however broken and however imperfect we are there is grace for us all, because Jesus did die for all, while we were still sinners. It is a free gift in the sense that we can all have it, and yet it is also unlike a gift in that it must first be asked for.
Those who do not ask will never receive it, which I am sure breaks God's heart infinitely more than it broke mine when I started University and went so far down the wrong path. I will never forget this year, and I will never forget the simple, earthy passage that will forever remind me that God was always there.
“As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked alongside them;”
Things have continued to change for me since that transformative year, and God has continued to teach me things I had not even imagined. Becoming a part of Something More has come from my desire to effect real change in the community and culture of the twenty-first century. I see how powerfully we as a generation are affected by what we see and hear on a daily basis, and I see how many of those messages are unfulfilling and hollow.
For me, Something More is about giving people a glimpse of something true; something that has genuine power to change lives, and showing people that this is a message worth paying attention to. It is about using God-inspired creativity to point people towards Him, and showing them that there is more to life than this.