I don’t see myself as particularly special.  I have not been involved in any conspicuously important or miraculous events.  My faith journey has been a gradual one, without significant drama.  Yet in many ways I know I am not your average early-50s white Anglo-Saxon ‘Protestant’ (more or less) cisgender heterosexual bloke who works with computers.

Image used with permission

For starters, I was a missionary kid for the first 12 ½ years of my life, after which I was a pastor’s kid here in Australia until I finished high school.  Six months later I went back overseas for a 2 year ‘short-term’ mission program, most of which was spent in Cairo, Egypt, where I became moderately proficient in Arabic.  But that was way back at the end of the 1980s, almost a lifetime ago.

My ‘MK’ (or to use the more general term, ‘TCK’ – Third Culture Kid) experience was not bad for the most part, I got to travel a lot (my parents had supporters in both Australia and the U.S.A.), I made some great friends at boarding school, I had a much more interesting culinary upbringing than the vast majority of other “Western” kids of my generation. In comparison, my high school experience in Australia was far worse, the saving grace being a strong and supportive youth group at our non-denominational ‘community’ church.  But my mostly positive childhood overseas, combined with the outlook I inherited from my parents that mission is the pinnacle of Christian service, resulted in that being the course I always expected to take as an adult.

By the end of high school, however, there were already a few flies in the ointment of that plan.  Firstly, my personality: it turns out that I’m the kind of person that questions everything I am told, no matter the authority, and I prefer to find my own way instead of following the well-trod path.  And though the latter is a metaphor for my in-built approach to life, it is also quite literal – on the many walks in forests and parks my family went on while I was growing up, I would invariably be the one bashing through the trees or scrub or field or whatever, 5 or 10 metres to the left or right of the path everyone else was using.

A second thing was an experience that has had a fundamental and profound impact on my life in every way.  Not long before my 16th birthday I was going through a period of angst about a girl who had broken up with me, exacerbating my deeper teenage struggles of feeling unlovable and insignificant.  One day I was with a friend from church and I was pouring out all my sadness and pain, and he stopped me and said, “Let me pray for you.”  I don’t remember a word of his prayer, but while I was sitting there with my eyes closed, out of ‘nowhere’ I was enveloped by an overwhelming assurance of the reality of God’s love, for me, that very literally changed my life, and has never left me. Little did I know that the deep and unshakeable certainty of God’s perfect and unconditional love that was planted in my soul in that moment would eventually upend almost all the Christian doctrines I had been taught growing up.

Perhaps the first significant step in that journey of disrupting my childhood faith was something said by an Indian man during a conference at the beginning of the afore-mentioned short-term mission program. While acknowledging the benefits that foreign missionaries can bring, he said that it is actually the Western church that needs the non-Western church far more than the other way around, to help return them to the perspective of the ‘underside’ of power where the Christian faith began.  That simple yet profound assertion changed my perspective on mission in an instant, and though I completed the two year program successfully (whatever that means) and for a long time afterwards still held onto the goal of returning to overseas Christian service, the vitally important goal I had always been taught, to ‘save the nations’, was irreversibly spoiled.

It was in my 20s, though, that I really started questioning the belief system that had been instilled in me. The major problem I encountered was both personal and communal.  I grew increasingly frustrated by my inability to change, in particular to stop doing the things I “knew” I shouldn’t do.  But in church I saw the same thing all around me, people who may have gone through rapid personal growth just after their ‘conversion’ but then stayed pretty much the same for the next 40 or 50 or however many years until they died. I realised that the ‘Christianity’ that I knew was essentially impotent when it came to real and deep change towards maturity. All it offered was ‘more stuff to do’, the ‘path of discipleship’ synonymous with spending more and more time in ‘Christian service’, the pinnacle of which was to be a pastor, or even better a missionary.  But with few exceptions the elders and pastors and missionaries I knew were no more mature at a character level than most of the other people at church.

A large part of the problem, of course, is the belief that all that really matters is getting to heaven when you die, so once you’ve got that ticket there’s not much else to do except hang around and don’t ‘backslide’. But another significant issue is that the only model for change in that system is a sense of guilt (heartily amplified by many church ‘leaders’) and your own willpower. Neither of those things worked for me, or most others I observed, and they didn’t seem right either, being too moralistic and focussed on human effort, and far far too conducive to pretending that you’ve got your life sorted out when you’re around other Christians. If that’s all that was on offer, I really didn’t want to be a part of it.

But yet, I knew my experience of God’s love was real, and continued to be foundational for my life, so I couldn’t abandon everything. I found some wonderful companions to help me along the journey, in the books and authors that challenged and fed me: C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton and Teilhard de Chardin; smatterings of Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey and N. T. Wright.  A significant book for me early on was Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel”. Through it all, my experience and certainty of the unfailing love of God (much reassured and strengthened by Macdonald I must say) has anchored me and given me the freedom to explore and ‘play’ without fear of punishment or retribution.

In the mid-2000s, exploring the new and exciting realm that was the blogosphere, I discovered that there were others like me who were questioning the theologies and doctrines once considered as bedrock fundamentals of Christian faith. One of these bloggers introduced me to the thought and writings of Rene Girard, and soon after that I discovered the great Catholic theologian James Alison.  It is the Girardian analysis of human culture and religion, profoundly worked out in Alison’s books, that I have found to be the most consistent and satisfying framework for understanding the Biblical story and God’s incredible plan to make us one in the freedom of forgiveness and self-giving love, but also and crucially for bringing about true, deep and lasting change to Christlike maturity in community.

There is one further aspect of my journey that I want to mention: since the age of 21, the soundtrack of my life has been the music of Canadian singer/songwriter/master guitarist Bruce Cockburn. His songs cover the full range of life experience, from faith and spirituality to love, politics, economics, justice and environmental concerns, and I wouldn’t want to imagine life without the companionship and beauty of his music and lyrics. One song in particular expresses and has informed my outlook and perspective, the wonder and gift of life and of each other:

Life Will Open

Waves can’t break without rocks that dissolve into sand
We can’t dance without seasons upon which to stand
Eden is a state of rhythm like the sea
Is a timeless change

Turn your eyes to the world where we all sit and dream
Busy dreaming ourselves and each other into being
Dreaming is a state of death, can’t you see?
We must live through who we are

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

We are children of the river we have named “existence”
Undercurrent and surface pass in the same tense
Nothing is confined except what’s in your mind
Every footstep must be true

If we can sing with the wind song
Chant with thunder
Play upon the lightning
Melodies of wonder
Into wonder life will open

(Lyrics by Bruce Cockburn, Copyright 1971, used by permission.)

–  David Roberts 

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  1. David Carpenter Feb 14, 2020

    Well said old friend

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