We left Sheffield behind us that weekend and spent an amazing two weeks in the Dordoyne region of France. The holiday did a couple of things. It gave us space to think about what had just happened, to talk about it, and try to make sense of it. Not that we did anything other than circle around it. We even caught up with some other TCH friends who were staying nearby.
It relaxed us too in a way that only a luxury camping site in the grounds of a chateau, great food, quality red wine, quaint villages, and a sun that stubbornly refused to shine in the UK, can. Oh, and it gave us an insight to how shameless middle-aged Dutch tourists are when it comes to near-naked sunbathing around a communal swimming pool. There are some things you can’t unsee.
And there are some things you can’t undo. On the last day of our holiday I remember walking over to the pool where Jill was helping Sophie learn to swim, and saying “We need to go.” The look on her face was telling. We were going back. The drive up through France, the trip over the channel, plus three hours of gripping the steering wheel ever more tightly to stay awake on the trip back to Sheffield settled a slight dread over us that was mirrored by the increasingly grey, drizzly weather. By the time we got to the last petrol station on the M1 for a stale sandwich and bottled water, my continental suntan had drained away with my mood.
Steve and I sorted it out – of a manner. There was a level of rapprochement – that’s as much as I could call it. Nothing is as simple in deep community life as ignoring each other and that’s a good thing. But was it a gospel reconciliation? It felt like if I was willing to take my medicine then the sunshine of approval would burst forth from behind the clouds. And so life went on. We still did all of the things we did before, loved all of the same people we loved before, and got on with gospel life in community.
But I began to sleep with one eye open.
Or more to the point I started to open both eyes all the time. I was Neo, in constant hyper-vigilance looking for the Matrix glitch. Always watching out for a black cat to walk past again. And then again. And it emboldened me, triggering a few more contretemps with leadership along the way. Asking harder questions. Pushing back at shibboleth responses.
But that’s the way I should have started. The prevailing narrative was that we were there in Sheffield to be examined to see if we were fit to church plant back in Perth. But our narrative was a little different. We were also exploring them to see if this model could deliver. If I had been a better critic rather than a groupie those first six to eight months, perhaps I would have been less stung when troubling times hit. This was raising questions about my own ability to critique. Jill, clinical psychologist that she is, started to have deeper, and more honest conversations with some of the women. We wanted to know – will this thing work?
Yet, even in all of that our experience at TCH has spoiled things for us. Since that time no expression of church we have done has met the depth of life-on-life, “eyeball-to-eyeball” experiences we had there. In my missional journey nothing has come close to this in terms of what it appeared to offer in relation to Christian community doing gospel mission together. Yet at the same time no expression of church has stung as deeply either.
Yes, ninety percent of it is amazing. But if the ten per cent is not simply “not amazing”, but in the wrong setting, dangerous, then it’s no wonder many Christians, after going through an expression of “deep church” such as we did, end up out of church either forever or for a considerable time. Small wonder that many end up burnt out, unable to get over the heavy-handedness, yet at the same time yearning for their loss; their frustrating inability to rekindle a depth of community that seems lacking elsewhere.
Here is Bonhoeffer at his best on this very subject from Life Together:
Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.
Great disillusionment had assailed me. The dreamy mists were not so much lifted as blown away. And where will this lead you if it happens to you? To a more realistic expression of church that takes into account our sinful nature. That’s what we need a good dose of. To be disillusioned with those around us in a gospel way. My concern as I watched things ever more closely over the final four months of our stay, was that nobody seemed up for true disillusionment – a disillusionment that would liberate us all to be really honest with each other. Yet this seems at odds with a reformed theological framework that acknowledged total depravity that this group espoused.
And I am not sure if that is an English middle class sensibility or something else entirely. There was plenty of loud, outward talk about how fallen we all were, but the truly honest conversations I started to have with people about their struggles within, and their fears or concerns without, were in those last few months almost entirely sotto voce and one-on-one.
There is always a gap between the language we use to describe ourselves or our group and the reality. That is to be expected. But when the gap becomes so large that the language no longer describes what is on the ground, and can in fact describe the opposite, then it’s time to change either your self-descriptors to match the reality, or yourself to match the language.
We need to be disillusioned of our dreamy visions. Dreamy visions tend to justify a level of human collateral damage; a body count that is explained away by the need to reach the ideal. And how many bodies are enough? Just a few more. Just a few more.
And what about that trip to the US to visit my friend Mark that kicked of my disillusionment? How did that go? Great. I replaced the leaden skies of Sheffield with Perth-esque blue sky openness and beating sunshine with nary a green hillock in site. It was Western Australia only with more concrete and larger cars. Mark picked me up and we drove down the George Bush Freeway (next stop Baghdad), to check out his alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary, which seemed roughly the size of the Perth CBD.
But the openness was not limited to the sky or the roads. I sat in his elders meeting and just enjoyed older, professional business blokes who had a laugh, spoke up loud, and gave each other big bear hugs. They all wore polo shirts and mostly looked like they had a handicap of about 3 on the golf course. Church gathering was great, their missional communities were disparate, and full of people holding down full time jobs and doing school runs. It felt more like what Perth was going to have to be in a suburban setting. It just felt chilled. Mostly because Mark was a chilled bloke.
Which is just as well. He took me down to the laser shooting range at the local camping store, or should I say, a scale version of the Grand Canyon inside an aircraft hanger. We paid for a few rounds of hunting in a mock forest with wild (stuffed) animals popping up at random moments. Ex-Marine that he was, he hit 23 of his first 24 shots, missed one, and finished off the last for good measure. I hit three. If anyone was up for a body count for the sake of ministry this was the guy. Yet he operated a missional community church 180 degrees in intensity to what I was experiencing in the UK. Somehow people kept coming. Somehow people kept hanging out with each other.
Back in Sheffield we were gearing up for the Total Church conference that went along with the recent launch of the book of the same name. The Americans were coming – again – including Mark. By this time we were two weeks away from returning to Australia. By this time too Jill was seven months pregnant and we had a jitteriness about us that just wanted us on our flight without too many complications. It started to feel a little like this:
It all got quite tense. Everyone felt like they were being watched. Which, of course, they were. You can’t put out a book called Total Church that purports to be a game changer, invite people to a conference of the same name, host it among your missional community expression of church that models that book, and not expect to be watched. In fact you need to be watched. And watch they did. Questions were being asked. Comments were being made. It was also a great fun time. Two of my close friends who I still work with in Perth came and camped out in our upstairs spare room for the conference, whilst we made another good friend in a Brisbane bloke still planting churches who recently told me his ministry was transformed by that conference.
By the last Sunday we were in Sheffield Jill and I were already in a deep grief mixed with a desire to just get on a plane and get home. We’d had so many goodbyes. So many tears. So many promises to come visit. If you’ve ever left somewhere that you’ve bonded with deeply you know how exhausting those final weeks are.
The conference visitors were there that last Sunday at the gathering, which I had requested to lead. The singing was, as always, rich and beautiful. It felt like a true global gathering. I’d thought long and hard about a song to finish with. Now I am no singer, but I wanted a last fitting reminder of what God had taken us through and where he might be taking us next. We had no idea how it was going to be in Perth when we returned. I chose an old, and melancholic hymn; the final hymn sung by Jim Eliot and his friends as they went off to their eventual deaths in Ecuador in 1956 – We Rest On Thee Our Shield and Our Defender.
By the time we got to the end of the service after a brilliant sermon wrapping up the conference; after deep and moving comments from church planters around the world, after praise and prayer for all God’s goodness, the air was so thick with emotion and the sweet grief of us leaving that I could hardly stand up. My late teens were spent at an unreconstructed Pentecostal church in Fremantle (wasn’t everyone’s!), yet no slain-in-the-Spirit moment had prepared me for how suffocatingly rich and deep was the expression of love and loss of that moment.
Even as I write now I feel a reprise. I could barely stagger up to the microphone and blurt out that I wanted to close with a song that encapsulated our feelings at leaving. And of course, the moment we started to sing to that haunting tune I was a blubbering mess, Jill was a blubbering mess and so was pretty much everyone we’d loved and shared the missional journey with.
There and then with the Finlandia tune soaring over the top of a couple of hundred voices, Steve walked up to the podium, gently took over the service and put his arms around both of us and prayed for us in the most tender way possible in front of everyone. I have tears in my eyes even now as I write this, but that could also be because, as usual, I am a completely reflective tragic on my birthday.
A week later, another tough leadership conversation – the toughest so far and one with wider repercussions than I could tell at the time – we were on a plane, waving our last teary goodbyes, clutching to stuff that seemed necessary when we packed, but completely extraneous at customs; and ready for whatever lay ahead for us in a city and in a suburb we no longer felt connected to.
And that was Sheffield – the most shaping part of our missional journey. But before you finish and close up this page and await Part 7 : Zombie Nation, have a listen to that song and read the words as you do.