Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Philosophy of Christian Focus

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First, a quick disclaimer. This is just some of my thoughts about Christian Focus.  You'll have to excuse me if it is a bit idealistic and theoretical.  I'm not saying we actually manage do all these things.  But they are, rather what I feel we try to do, could do, and perhaps should be trying to do.  And, what we have to offer, as a society, as a community and as part of God's Church.  I'm not trying to tell anyone how to do their job (note to the current exec).  This is just some of my thoughts, I hope it will help people think about what we do and why and how we try to do it.

I feel that Christian Focus, as a society, has something unique to offer, to individuals, to campus, and to the Church in our area.  For me the philosophy of Christian Focus can be summed by saying that we aim to be a Welcoming and loving community to everyone who may want one.  We have two main meetings a week, which, conveniently for this schema, match up with these two ideas, of building a community of people and of seeking to learn from and about one another and the wider world. We are fundamentally open to the world.

For me, these are all the same.  I believe God created all things and loves all things and because of this the Gospel, God's witness to us all, speaks to the whole of our lives, the whole way we conduct ourselves, the way we organise ourselves, both personally, socially and worldwide.  The things we have to offer the community of Christians are similar to those we have to offer our entire human community.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said that the worst poverty in the world is not that there are people who have no money, but that there are people who are totally alone, who feel that no-one cares that they are alive.  One of the greatest features of Christian Focus is that it offers a welcome with no conditions attached.  With most societies you have to be able to, or want to, do some activity or be interest in some particular thing, whether rugby, singing, french culture, beer or whatever.  With Focus, though, we have always tried to make it a place where anyone can come, regardless of what they do, or what they are like or who they are, and they will be welcomed and included in the group and accepted for what they are at that moment, without any requirement (you don't even have to eat).  Most basically, to make somewhere where anyone can come and someone will show an interest in the fact that they are alive, regardless of how they're feeling or acting.  And for me one of the ways I have tried to do this, for example, is to just, occasionally, look around at Socials and check that there is no-one sitting on their own with no-one talking to them, especially any new person who may have come in.

More than this though, is to try to build a community of people who know each other and support each other and have fun together and to offer hospitality and rest to whoever comes in.  To make a place that is as nonthreatening as possible so people feel able to come in and take part and get to know people.  The Bible tells us to give to the person who asks of you, lend to a person who asks to borrow from you, and in all things that the person who serves others, God considers master over all, and so we try to attempt to make a space where people can come in to be what they want, not considering it ours, rather than asserting ourselves to get other people to conform to our way of doing things.  Jesus also said "Come to me if you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take the weight I give you. Put it on your shoulders and learn from me.  For I am gentle and humble, and with me you will find rest.  For the weight I give you is easy to bear, and my burden is light."  So we try to make a place which does this so, as much as possible, people may always leave more at peace and happy than when they arrive.      

To be honest, this is just a posh way of saying making friends and having fun together.  'Making friends' is a simple phrase that means a lot.  Getting to know people, getting relaxed around people,  appreciating people for who they are and what they bring into your life, people who know what's going on with your life, who know how you react, who you trust, without having to explain everything each time you meet.  Enjoying people's company and having fun.  It is such a commonplace thing, but it is also, almost, the most important thing of life.  These are the building blocks of any community, and especially God's Church.  We can solve all the big problems of the world: war, poverty, prejudice; but if we do not build a society where every person is remembered and appreciated and has somewhere to turn in times of trouble then we still do not have much, because there will still be people who are afraid and alone in times of trouble.  Also, part of being welcoming and including without conditions comes a commitment to respecting and appreciating diversity, to all the different possible people that we may meet. You can only offer a welcome to anyone who comes in if you are also willing to respect everyone's difference.  To make a community out of people who are very similar is easy, it is a harder and, hence, a better thing to try to bring together equally people who are different in all sorts of ways.  For me, this is building the Kingdom of God, where the lion will lie down in peace with the lamb, and people from every nation will live together without fear or violence, caring for one another as Lord Jesus cared and cares for us all.

Another part of community is the fact that everything we have as a society, everything we do, we try to share between us and do together.  We eat the same food, we try to make sure everyone can do the activities we do.  We don't try to make a profit from anything we do, we do everything at cost and try to keep the price as low as possible.  We are, as much as we can be, a good socialist community, as the first disciples were in the first days of Christianity, and as religious orders around the world are.  This is all part of standing together and being a loving community that supports one another, whose first aim is to do things together and to help one another, without entry requirements, so that a diverse range of people can be part of it, and in which each person has a place.  St Paul spoke about the Church being like a body, with each cell linked with every other, each organ having a role and a place as part of a larger whole along with every other.  John Donne said that "no man is an island, rather each a part of the mainland", and we try to do this by attempting to bring people from all different groups together, and also appreciating and integrating what every different person brings and the perspective they have and what they like to do, whether music, mathematics, frisbee, photography, football, webcomics or whatever.  

Jesus called his disciples to make disciples of all the nations, and at Pentecost the disciples received the gift of languages to speak to people in their own tongue.  Christianity, for me, is not only a religion for all people, in whatever time and place, but also can never be a religion that attempts to force people to speak with one voice, but rather embraces them in their diversity, as it is that diversity which adds up to give the richness that God created and loves. For me, it is important that Christian focus is a community made up of people from different groups and backgrounds.  This gives us a chance to learn from different people, whom we might not naturally spend much time with, and we strengthen, and compliment each other through our difference, more than we could if we were all the same.  All individuals are precious to God, all are his children, whether Christian or not and Christian Focus would be a weaker place if we were dominated by liberal Christians or evangelical Christians, religious or non-religious people, catholics or protestants, Christians or people of other faiths.  Together, though, we have more to offer one another and more ways to learn about and experience the depth and width of all that God has made.

This idea also motivates our talks, the desire to learn and understand more about the width and richness of the world we are part of and the issues it raises.  They give an opportunity to learn as much as possible about the many different sorts of issues we meet in the wider world, inspired by a Christian perspective.  University is a time to learn and to widen horizons and a wide range of talks gives us a chance to be challenged in many different ways, whether faced with a different religion and way of being spiritual, or the realities of complex moral issues, or the possibilities of new spiritual disciplines and perspectives we hadn't thought of before.  For me, this is about just appreciating and showing an interest in all the world contains.  God made us, and the gospels speaks to us, as creatures of body, mind, heart and soul and at my time at Christian focus we have had talks that have spoken to each one of these parts of our being.  It is dangerous to risk neglecting any one of these areas, as too often happens in our wider society and culture.  

To this end we have talks on many issues, whether intellectual or emotional, or theological.  We also make an atmosphere to discuss issues like these informally between people and, on the intellectual side, we create a chance for people to talk to those at University in other years and get help and advice with work, at times.  Or just reassurance that it is possible to get through your course without going nuts before coming out the other side.  On the side of the soul, We also have Time2Focus, prayer times and various reflections and meditative things.  we try to look at new and different ways to consider faith and spirituality.  We also have food on a weekly basis, though, and we come together to hang-out, to share each other's company, to relax and to end the week in calm.  This just about covers body, mind, heart and soul.  Feeding people is just as important as being able to learn through the talks, or experience community with the people, or take part in new forms of meditation and spirituality or prayer.  Showing hospitality, as simple, as it is, is such a gift and a useful thing in the world, and it is our commitment to this world, as well as the next.

The last thing about Christian Focus, for me, and in line with its diversity and its welcome, is that it is complementary, not exclusive.  Being a part of Christian Focus is entirely compatible with pretty much anything else, and, especially in the life of our Christian members.  We do not try to do everything good or useful for a Christian life, so that we can do the things we do do, better.  For example, Evangelism, spreading the Gospel, telling people about the things God did, and God revealed, in Jesus Christ, is such an important part of the Christian faith.  But we don't do it, at least not explicitly or as a group, because it would appear threatening to some people and reduce our ability to be unconditionally open and welcoming, so we deliberately give up this part of our nature so we are more able to be open.  But it is good that people can then be part of groups, as well, that do do those things we don't.  Different groups and activities and approaches can complement each other and we do not regard that as a problem, but an opportunity to, between us, do more and better than just one group on its own, doing things one way, could.  And, for me, personally, I really like doing different things in different groups, giving me a chance to do things different ways and with different people, rather than doing everything related to my faith through a single church, say, or other group.  This is also all part of the diversity of the thing as well.  We can all do and want to do different things, as Christians and in the ordinary sense, that is fine, because we can agree and come together on certain important things, the importance of pasta bake on a Sunday being one of them.

Excuse me, again, if this all sounds very theoretical.  What it all boils down to, though, is people.  Appreciating, showing an interest in and caring about people.  Beings so precious that God, who is so far above all things, and against whom stars and galaxies and space and time are mere trifles, gave himself over to humiliation and abuse and death to try to save them, in all their messiness and fallibility and complications.  It is, after all, the people who make any community, and whether they care, or are willing to help out, that will make somewhere great or just a pain, far more than any principles or ideas they may be trying to carry out.  
And, as this seems as good time as any to say this, at Christian Focus, over the last three years, I have met the most interesting, diverse, talented and friendly group of people that I have ever met anywhere.  I have to say, that my favourite part of each academic year is the start, because of the excitement about what unique, funny, kind, talented people the new academic year will bring.  It is a source of constant amazement to me that there can be so many people in the world but that each one can be so individual, so different to every single other one, though I guess this doesn't necessarily reveal anything more than my poor imagination.

On a personal note: I have immensely enjoyed my time at Christian Focus, even the year and 2/3 that I spent on the exec, and both the chance to work, relax and live alongside such amazing people.  Over the years the chaplaincy has become a home, and you have become like a family: numerous, argumentative and difficult at times, but always around.  And this has been more and more true the longer I have known you, and we've been around for good times, bad times, exams, holidays, relationships, journeys, illnesses, arguments, and God alone knows how many speakers and how much over cooked rice.  With any luck Christian Focus will continue to thrive for many years to come and have something unique to offer the world, the University, the Christian community, and all its members.

Steve.

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