Confession time – I’m guilty of breaking the 11th Commandment. The scandalous sin was committed in the Wish Tower Café in Eastbourne, more than 20 years ago. I was out with friends from church, when the heinous offence was carried out.
There we were, sitting with our teas, coffees, cakes and sandwiches, enjoying some friendly, churchy chat, when I…… I can barely stand the shame even now, but because there’s catharsis and cleansing in confessing our sins to each other….
Here we go, I can do this…
What I did was….
I… dunked….my sandwich… in my coffee. There, I’ve said it. Phew! I understand if you no longer wish to associate with me, but I just hope you can find it in your heart to see beneath the shocking sarnie-dunking exterior and seek to understand the broken man behind the sandwich.
Perhaps you’ve dunked a sandwich yourself some time in your life. And if not, you may have dunked a biscuit or at least been tempted to dunk. As our Saviour said, “Let him who is without moistened food cast the first stone”.
My friend, Lex, explained (in love, of course) that publicly dunking sandwiches in coffee flew against social norms – and wasn’t I aware of the 11th Evangelical Commandment:
“Thou shalt conform”!
OK, so Lex’s 11th Evangelical Commandment was a tongue-in-cheek comment.
Funny, though, how a true word spoken in jest can stay with you. I’ve often thought about that brief conversation – in particular, how Lex’s observation implied an unspoken rule within evangelical churches. Pressure to conform. People aspiring to emulate each other. Unspoken pressure to adhere to the same set of values and beliefs, even on peripheral and controversial issues. “Believe exactly the same things as the rest of us or you don’t really belong” is the vibe we might feel is being communicated.
Conforming is an insidious hazard. We risk losing our identity. Worse still, for us Christians, we deprive the church – deprive Jesus – of a precious individual part of his body. The church is a poorer place when people don’t feel free to be truly themselves.
A popular passage in the Bible1, written by Paul, tells us not to conform to the world, i.e. to secular society’s atheist values. So far, so good.
What Paul doesn’t then do is tell us to conform to the church. Far from it. Paul proceeds instead to give us guidance on having a realistic view of ourselves and letting God transform us into the individual men and women he’s intended us to be, with our own particular gifts, abilities and characters.
There have been times over the years when I’ve compared myself with a very good friend (who will remain nameless here, to spare both of us embarrassment), who’s planted and grown a church overseas, where he’s also given practical aid to some of the world’s poorest people, seems to have been almost faultlessly faithful in his obedience to God’s call, and at the same time has grown in character and humility. Next to him, my life has at times felt like one big compromise – as if I’ve only half-heartedly been following Jesus.
But here’s a thing. During that time in Eastbourne, as a new-ish Christian making my way in this new life, I found myself instinctively befriending homeless people and started to volunteer with a local homelessness project. I’d bring rough sleepers to church and get alongside others with mental health problems.
With my help, together with one or two other friends, one older homeless man named Gordon, who’d been sleeping in the shelters on the seafront, was re-housed. He also came to faith in Jesus, experienced some remarkable inner healing and forgiveness and settled permanently into his new home until he died, at peace with his Maker, many years later.
I couldn’t help doing these things. I was simply being ‘me’. The new, transformed ‘me’.
One day around that time, Lex commended me, telling me I was good at getting alongside people who were (in his words) “a bit odd”! Although I may not have phrased it quite that way, I was encouraged and could see how I was beginning to work out my faith, discovering where my passion and calling lay.
During the same period I had a dream in which I was serving homeless people and exclaimed excitedly to my friend (the one who’s since planted the church overseas etc), “I’ve found my ministry!”
Like a lot of people with a passion, in the early days I couldn’t understand why every Christian wasn’t doing this. I mean, it’s there in the Bible, isn’t it?! To help the poor and the homeless.
Well, that’s true. But the Bible also commands many other things, which many other Christians do far more of, and far better, than I.
Helping the homeless is me. It’s who I am – who God’s made me to be.
John Ortberg coined the wonderfully expressive term ‘you-ier’:
“The most important task of your life is not what you do, but who you become. Here is the good news: when you flourish, you become more you. You become more of that person God had in mind when He thought you up. You don’t just become holier. You become ‘you-ier’.” 2
Grace shows us that God likes the true ‘me’, the true ‘you’. The more comfortable we can become in the Father’s arms, the more liberty we will feel to be truly ourselves. Not trying to conform to the religious (or any other) establishment.
God clearly loves integrity, genuineness. I love Jesus’ delight in Nathanael: “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” 3 And, of course, we don’t need to look too far through his book to find his hatred of hypocrisy (i.e. play-acting).
I’ve never felt comfortable fitting into a respectable, middle-class, pew-filling, church culture. That may be OK for others, and I do need other Christians to talk, pray and worship with. But I also need to be ‘out there’, engaging with people who don’t think Jesus or church is for them, who maybe don’t think society is for them.
People who – heaven forbid – may even dunk their sandwiches in their coffee…
There are other ways I sometimes feel ‘different’ from other people. Maybe others feel like that, too?
I’ve been slow to learn, to accept that it’s OK to be me, that “what I am needs no excuses”, as Gloria Gaynor put it. Slow to stop comparing myself with my friend.
Slow to realise I don’t have to toe the party line. Posting blogs that go against the Christian flow on homosexuality and the redefinition of marriage, for example, has been liberating – not trying to cause offence or be deliberately controversial, but giving myself and hopefully others permission to be themselves.
Me being me-ier.
How about you? Are you conforming?
Or are you becoming more you-ier, thereby delighting the Father’s heart?
Now, it was a tough dilemma here, whether to post Gloria Gaynor’s I Am What I Am (guilty pleasure) or Audioslave’s Be Yourself (amazing rock ballad). In the end, Audioslave won the day, but before I leave you to enjoy that video, it just remains for me to say:
1 Popular amongst Christians, that is! Romans 12.
2 John Ortberg, The Me I Want To Be.
3 John 1:47, The Message.