It’s been a year since I arrived in London, fresh out of university, a 10-month internship to get stuck into, and the world at my feet. I was ready to see what graduate life could offer me, and to grab every opportunity with both hands.
A month or two later, the vicar of my new church asked me how I was doing.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I need to sort myself out. I thought I’d leave that student lifestyle stuff behind once I stopped being a student, but it doesn’t seem to have worked like that.’
By student lifestyle, I didn’t mean living off baked beans and inhabiting a pig-sty that you euphemistically call a bedroom. (Although on an intern budget, it wasn’t too far off.)
What I meant was that the opportunities and temptations to go out too late, drink too much, meet men in bars, and leave your dignity in a gutter somewhere don’t diminish when you move from university life to graduate life. It’s just instead of taking your hangover and vague sense of regret to lectures the next day, you take them to the office instead.
And when I brought those same opportunities with me to a new stage of life in which I was armed with anonymity, freedom and youthful arrogance, the result was this:
I changed the terms and conditions of my faith. God could stay, but on my terms.
Before the responsibilities of a paid job or the grounding influence of a boyfriend, with all the excitement of a new city and a thousand new friends to make, God was not at the forefront of my mind. That prayer-and-Bible-reading time that I’d been taught to keep each morning and guard with my life, it didn’t really fit. In a nutshell: no time, little inclination, fuzzy head, better things to worry about.
At the same time, I was carrying on a kind of process that I’d started a few years back, when I’d started this blog. Or even further back, when I started trying to work out for myself what I thought about women in church leadership.
It’s a process that many of us who were the most zealous and assured in our Christian youth groups go through in our 20s.
A process that happens as we come to know, love and accept gay friends or family.
As we question our own sexuality or gender identity.
As we find ourselves inspired by people of other faiths.
As we meet people whose faith doesn’t fit into neat categories like ‘saved’ or ‘not saved’.
As we gain a little life experience, and discover that black and white definitions don’t always work, and unquestioned proverbs aren’t always true.
It’s a process of deconstructing our faith. And for some, reconstructing it again.
For me, asking questions of the Christianity I grew up with has been the most important thing I could do. The freedom to question doctrines like the Bible’s literal inerrancy, or the definition of marriage as exclusively heterosexual, or purity culture, or original sin, or exclusive salvation for those who pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’, is a freedom that’s kept me from throwing in the towel of my faith. The freedom to express doubt and pain and disappointment and disillusionment and frustration is a freedom that’s kept me sane.
And finding a community, online and offline, of other people who are deconstructing the religion of their youth and reconstructing a faith that makes sense in their adult life, has spurred me on and encouraged me.
It’s a good thing. And yet…
I didn’t stop praying. I didn’t stop going to church. But the combination of this indulgent independence and intellectual endeavour led me down a path of increasing complacency. I’d lost much sense of needing God, or of needing to learn from other Christians.
It sounds ridiculous to say, and I really hope that I’m exaggerating for effect, but I started to look back at my old churches and habits belonging to my old expressions of faith as almost primitive. And the people who still hold to some of the language, beliefs and culture of that way of practising faith as unenlightened and unquestioning.
I wrote a couple of blogs about it: ‘5 ways I’ve replaced Christianity’ on this site, and ‘How I broke the first rule of evangelicalism‘ on Threads. They were attempts to think through these changes to how I live out my faith. Attempts to justify myself to myself and to others. Attempts to express unease with how far things had changed. Attempts to reach out for wisdom from others about where to go from here.
My dad, as ever, knew what to say. ‘So you’ve identified the issues….which ones need attention most pressingly? What tiny step do you want to make next?’
What tiny step? My tiny step was to start getting up an hour earlier each morning and find space. Find time. Find intimacy with God. For the last month, I’ve been taking my Bible in one hand and my laptop in the other, and spending an hour or so in a coffee shop, learning to be dependent again.
I started reading the sermon on the mount, little by little. I started to ask what God wanted to teach me, or reteach me. I started scrolling through the emails I get each morning from the Guardian, praying for the situations I read about. I started to pray about work, friends, relationships, life plans again.
And I said sorry.
Right from the first day, I realised I needed to say sorry. As I took time to come back to that place of intimacy with God that I’d neglected for so long, and as I surrendered a little bit of my independent, self-sufficient day to sit and learn and listen, I saw how arrogant I’d become.
I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made, that time with God each day. I should have known because I’ve been in this place before, coming back and remembering and being astounded at how quickly I forget. It’s like being able to breathe again. It’s like cold water tasted when we were climbing Mount Sinai in searing heat. It’s like resting at home after a long journey with no sleep.
So each day as I order my pot of tea (or sometimes mocha as a treat…), I imagine myself ordering a slice of humble pie too. It’s important for me to work out what faith means in my little corner of 21st century life in London. It’s important for me to work out a few responses to intellectual questions and personal experiences.
But more than anything, I need God. I’m free to do all that. I need God. And I’m so sorry that I forgot that yet again. I need God.