Phil Whittall, @ Church of Christ the King, Brighton, 2006. "Living simply"
Now this current winner of my list may seem a little bit odd. Most people of a certain persuasion would expect a gospel presentation which I responded to and that changed my life. And that did happen, several times in fact, as I grew up in a Christian family and in a Church environment, there have been some great times of coming closer to God and responding to him, but I cannot condense them into one "time", one "moment" or one "sermon".
This talk, on the other hand, is a single moment in time, from which nothing has been the same.
Context: Two mates going to the world cup. Phil and I go on a road trip to Germany to watch some football. This was not where I was expecting to encounter God. This was not some conference of biblical heavyweights with me preparing in gleeful anticipation for months in advance, this was an afterthought.
On the way back Phil had been invited to go and do a presentation at CCK about "living simply". Now I have known Phil for close to 20 years, and I have always thought he is a bit "simple", so it came as no surprise he was speaking on the subject (this is jest). He has always been a bit of a "leftie", never really had great control over his hair or his facial hair, and he spent time in Africa, worked for Tearfund, rides a motorbike, and moved onto a council estate in Shrewsbury to plant a Church in the least churched area of the town (all of this is true).
I was aware of a few of his projects, like his blog, and Breathe, but they all sat squarely in the "my hairy leftie friend" category so I had never shown them due diligence, beyond a polite smile and passing interest. "Good on you mate" sort of stuff, but no personal reflection.
I was not that way off the mark in my own thinking on this. I too have lived in Africa, visited works amongst the poor in India, have a family steeped in the fair trade movement through my Mum's work locally and so I was not coming into it blind. This is no "capitalist semi fascist loses arm wrestle to eco-warrior and goes to live in a Teepee" scenario.
But this is a UK evangelical charismatic christian coming to a real sharp awakening that these things really do matter. "Really do matter" as in not just signing the petition at Greenbelt and hoping for the best but seeking to reflect them in everything. This is no neatly wrapped social gospel. This is not taking on the "green" issue as a potential convert grabber. This is a child of God actually seeing deep down that not only is this our problem, as children of God it is also our responsibility, and I was not in step with scripture.
So up steps my friend, and starts to ask questions. You, me, Christians...
- what about the consumer dream?
- what about the environment?
- what about consumption?
- what about the way we label success?
- what about generosity?
- what about the desire for ownership?
- what about sharing?
- what about the goal of our lives being the accumulation of wealth?
- what about how we approach debt?
- what about trade justice?
- what are the desires of our hearts?
- what about community?
- what about our security?
- what about the future?
How does this fit with:
a) our view of God b) our rights as people c) our responsibilities as "followers" of God
I was ruined.
Suddenly I realised the ground upon which I was building was very very shaky indeed. Slightly hip lifestyle choices needed to become deep rooted convictions. The scriptural basis was secure, and my own conscience played out its tune - this is part of my freedom, and part of my calling.
I can genuinely say that I have pondered this process every day of my life since. I have not set up a shrine to Phil in my room or anything - and have not spoken much to him about it since. But this is an adventure Esther and I have been on since then. We are way off the finished article, but have been pondering ways of working through this and making radical choices.
Most of the outward things we have done sound really little and petty when listed. What I need to express is the burden for this has shaped everything, the big and the small decisions, the way we have shaped and built the practicalities of our married life together, and the economic pattern for our lives is through a window that opened up to scripture through that talk.
Every consumer decision bows to a greater clarity, and a more ruthless determination to live for Him not me. Our resources have become more and more His resources.
It is not really a question of whether we can justify a new car or not (which we can't) or if we choose Cafe Direct above Nescafe (which we do).
The actual question asked was "Who do you say I am?", and I was horrified to find I could not say "Lord" in several of my attitudes to money, possessions or the environment. That cut me deep.
And so began a quest to live more simply, give more generously, share more freely, accommodate more selflessly, appreciate more readily, and be content.
There is much still to do, and much still to lay down, but my life changed that day, as the sword of the spirit, yielded by my friend Phil, hacked off a huge cancer that was weighing down my soul, choking my faith, and hampering my witness.