And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood…
I remember this song being sung one night in early January 2008, when the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union was driven outside by a fire alarm during the Houseparty ceilidh. Worship songs sound beautiful when sung outside in the darkness. It was a bit surreal, too. Surely only the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, feeling a song coming on, would burst into a stirring rendition of ‘And Can It Be’.
Ama—Amazing love! How can—How can it be
That Thou That Thou my God shouldst die for me!
The next evening, on the coach going back to Cambridge, a fellow CICCU member from Selwyn asked me—tongue in cheek—if I was feeling properly wretched: apparently the point of the pre-Lent-term Houseparty was to make everyone feel really aware of their sins, so they’d be more amazed by the cross, and, as a result, be Fired Up for Main Event Week. Shortly after that came Main Event Week itself, a week-long intensification of the usual frenetic CICCU haze of guilt, anxiety and busyness. If I didn’t buy the right quantity of refreshments for a pudding party, if I didn’t send a list of prayer points to the Prayer Secretary by the appropriate time each day, if as a College Group we didn’t somehow rustle up some people from Trinity to take to the central evangelistic talks, if nobody came to our college events, if there were no posters on the walls of the college computer room, if, in short, my activities as a College Group Rep were a confirmed failure, then I would have let everybody down, and all the previous reps and possibly also God would be extremely disappointed. I say ‘if’ and ‘then’, but of course one also felt absolutely sure that failure was impending and inevitable.
No condemnation now I dread
Jesus and all in Him is mine!
I think there was some truth in my Selwyn acquaintance’s caricature of CICCU-type evangelicalism, and I don’t think it always was as grace-less as it sounds. Some people live such grace-filled lives that the words they use don’t matter so much. Evangelical Christians, discovering that you happen to be feeling a little wretched, will say something like “well of course we’re all rubbish and sinful, that’s why Jesus died for us and that’s how good His grace is,” follow it up with a bracing time of prayer, and leave an Encouraging Note in your pigeon-hole the next day. Charismatic Christians will pin you to a comfortable sofa by the laying on of every available hand, provide tissues, break off condemnation in the name of Jesus, and speak a few Strengthening, Encouraging and Comforting prophetic words into the situation. Either approach may be genuinely loving. People who overflow with kindness tend to have a family resemblance.
Still, when I booked rooms at the Accommodation Office, gave the notices in College Group meetings, sent out the Weekly Email or lugged bags full of juice cartons across the college, love was on the whole a less obvious motivating factor than fear. Where did the fear come from? Perhaps from the preacher whose third point on Isaiah 6 was about fearing God? Perhaps from the preacher who said that “preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” was a worthless and nonsensical soundbite, because you have to use words?
Perhaps it was just my own general foolishness? Some people, after all, seemed to have a straightforward and unproblematic relationship with CICCU evangelism, a clear chain of reasoning which led to practical action. Jesus is good, therefore we must tell people about him, therefore we must run a Food-for-Thought. And yet, suddenly, one such person would say that he’d invented a new acronym: PMEB, or Post-Main-Event Blues. Or you’d have coffee with the CICCU President, so he could explain the history of the relationship between CICCU and Fusion, and maybe it was the coffee but you were pretty sure his hands were trembling. You’d mention to a church students worker how guilty and incompetent you felt, and she’d say that everyone felt like that—generations of College Group Reps and Central Executive Committees had felt like that. Where did it come from?
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light!
When there were beautiful things, they went unrecognized. During the preparations for Freshers’ Lunch, several members of the Exec unexpectedly appeared like ministering angels to help make the mountains of sandwiches which, of course, proved in the event to be far far too numerous. Somebody paid for almost all of those sandwiches out of his own pocket. At a May Week night-punting-and-barbeque trip, two College Group members abruptly sat down one on each side of me and presented me with what looked like a large gold brick and turned out to be chocolates. Once I accidentally booked two speakers for the same talk, and when I explained the situation to one of them, he was quite remarkably nice about it. None of these people received their due thanks and honour. There is no space for random acts of brotherly kindness in a schema for operations which states merely and comprehensively that the rep will run around like a headless chicken and always be destined to fail.
Sometimes, when you’re distracted by the preparations that have to be made, it’s not at all clear how you can love people—even the people you find easy to like, as opposed to those you resent bitterly for their way of preaching on Isaiah 6. When you have to attend a meeting to plan tomorrow’s meeting, or you’ve got a difficult email to send, or you’re washing a million disposable cups in the hope of reusing them sometime, or posting gospels through people’s doors or flyers into their pigeon-holes, or reflecting that zero would be an extremely confident estimate of the number of people saved directly through the efforts of the Trinity College Christian Union in the last year, or when you’re actually trying to do some work for your degree for a change—when all this is filling your life and your mind, how practically can you love people, except perhaps by making them tea at a pre-church breakfast?
Maybe (maybe) the problem was that we thought evangelism was the reason for our corporate existence. I remember sometimes scampering off quickly from meetings, feeling that sitting round chatting to other Christians didn’t count as a valuable use of time. We said that CICCU wasn’t a church. We said that CICCU was the only society in the whole university that existed for the benefit of its non-members. But if the members of the Christian Union stand back-to-back, firmly outward looking, and just occasionally shout prayer points over their shoulders, not quite, or not necessarily, becoming friends, what exactly do they have to invite people into? What kind of Christian union is really there? ‘Join us, and you too can put flyers in everyone’s pigeon-holes, strategise, memorise formulae for presenting the gospel on the back of a napkin, and pray through lists of people from other colleges all represented by their initial letter!’ It wouldn’t exactly feel like coming home.
This is a bit exaggerated, perhaps: there were friendships in CICCU, there were those people who overflowed with kindness. Still, where they succeeded in setting the tone, it was a kind of victory over something. I find myself wanting to apologise along these lines to those who were on the receiving end of CICCU evangelism: guys, I’m sorry we were so weird: I’m sorry about the invitations and conversations and whatever else came out fear and condemnation and the received wisdom of CICCU tradition and then got randomly dumped on you. I’m sorry about the simplifications, the mistakes, the fact that we disappeared off to so many meetings for no apparent reason.
But there was love in it all somewhere: I don’t think we could have started or continued with CICCU if we hadn’t had an elementary desire, deep down, for people to know that Jesus loves them. There might have been a grave lack of connection between that desire and what we actually did, said and thought, but it was there. You can, for example, hijack the matriculation photograph in order to advertise a free lunch to all the freshers, and you can stand there, stressed, scared, hearing the thinness of your voice, freaking out a little because you’re walking on the grass, and yet also know in the core of your being that every person in the neat matric-photo arrangement in front of you is totally, inconceivably precious. That was the reason. It really was meant to be a free lunch. It was for love of them. And maybe it was stupidity from beginning to end; maybe it did achieve nothing. But it was for love. All of it: the houseparties, the Food-for-Thoughts, the public debates, the Grill-A-Christians, the tea parties, the pudding parties, the night punting; the Reps’ Meetings, the Link Group Meetings, the College Group Meetings, the Central Meetings, the International Breakfasts; the 8am prayer times, prayer jargon, the heavy boxes and bags, the countless emails with the horrible electric blue background, the trolley of Sainsbury’s baguettes jarring down the pavement to St Andrew the Great. The anger and nervousness. The acronyms, the flyers, the Christianity Explored sessions. The five-minute talks and the lunchtime talks and the futile private discussions and the Q&A. The piles and piles of copies of Mark’s or Luke’s gospel. The lists of prayer points. The washed disposable cups that never were reused. It was for love. And love never fails.