Chapter 17



Anne Netherwood

ACPA Conference November 1986,

'Called by God, Architect and Planner in a World of Need'

What does God want of Me?

Question: How do you find out what God wants of you?

Answer: Ask him.

If it were as simple as that, I should not be standing here talking to you about guidance, as if I knew any more about it than you do. So I think the first thing to say is that you have to begin where you are. This sounds obvious, but we have not found it easy in practice at all. As soon as we have ever stepped out and started doing what we thought God was calling us to do or changed our lives so that we were more free to become what He was calling us to be, we have come up against other Christian people who have told us that God's will for us could not possibly be that, and we were on the wrong track and so on. This happened even when we had been through the Church Missionary Society selection process and had the assurance of people there that they thought God was calling us overseas, which confirmed our own understanding. Even then, we came up against other Christians' assumptions about how God ought to guide people; and we did not fit them at all. I got very threatened by this, but I still do believe that you have to follow what you believe God is saying to you. You must not let yourself be programmed by other people, although you are always acting in the context of other people, within the whole Christian Church, and therefore there is always going to be this kind of tension and balance. That is the first thing to note: point one. Different Christians are called by God in different ways.

The second point is that you have got within yourself the beginnings of a response to God's call. This has got to be articulated; it has got to be brought out and watched, if you like; you have got to see how it develops. But it is there, given by God himself. People have sometimes objected to this: isn't it totally subjective? But in fact if you read the Psalms, you will see that this is what the Psalmists were doing; trying to understand how God had led His people in the past and what He was calling them to be and do now. If you look at the Psalms you will find this constant struggle: looking at their own feelings; looking at God. Where has God gone? He is just not there any more, as He was in the past. What is happening to the world? And so on. Psalm 139 is a favourite of mine, because it puts my feelings in this context of who God is and what He has done. God made us, He knows us; He has made us what we are; and therefore within ourselves there is this potential to respond to what He calls us to be. He is not going to call you to do or be something completely different from what He has made you to be and what He intends you to become. He has actually made you with the potential to respond to what He wants you to be. That is point two.

And point three is that we have mucked it up. We have mucked up our lives because we have responded to a whole lot of other things - voices which do not come from God at all - and we have got all tangled up and gone away from God. And the whole world has done this: that is 'structural sin', isn't it? So when we talk about finding God's will, relying on guidance, and so on, it is important to recognise that there is not one thing: God's will; so that all I have to do is decide to turn to Him and do it, or not. There are two things: God's will, and whatever else in the world turns me from it. That is why there is a battle, which is what Paul says in Romans. There is a tension between what God has called me to be at my deepest level, my deepest desires, which actually do correspond to His will - and I can if I pay sufficient attention and with His grace find out what this is - and all these other things, this interference, which is pulling me in different directions. This is the context we are in. This is our lifetime's pilgrimage: to choose God's will; choose life. It is not something you do once for all. It takes the whole Old Testament to tell how God's people tried and failed and tried again to do this; so it is not something I can describe in twenty minutes. All I can do is perhaps give a few signposts.

Outworking in Practical Experience

I think there is a parallel between finding God's guidance in general and the process of finding out what we should do in the completely 'secular' context of our work in Tanzania, which was to set up a project to help self-build householders. We got there, and we looked round a bit, and we were forced to ask, 'Well, what's the problem? Here are all these people. They have been building houses for themselves for thousands of years. What is stopping them now? Why do they need us to help them?' Well, the problem was of course that there was a whole army of local and expatriate architects and planners saying, 'You can't build like that here'. Village houses and the people who live in them are defined as 'squatters' because they are outside what we have defined as the city boundary, or because even if they are inside, their homes do not come up to the standards we have set. Whose problem is it? One of the jobs we did was to draw the lines round some of the 'squatter' houses inside the boundary, and get the plots surveyed and registered, so that the people who lived there could have legal tenure. We found that people actually did improve their houses themselves, once they got legal tenure; and if they did not want to improve, they often sold the house to someone who would improve it, and built another in the squatter area outside. So, the city was getting built.

Why call it a problem?' It is a problem because not all the people were living where we wanted them to live. So what would happen if you let them 'squat' where you did want them to be? You would find that you actually got mass low-cost housing without any expatriate having to do anything about it at all. All you need to do is say 'Squat here', and it does itself, you see, and you can upgrade it gradually later if people do not do it themselves as they probably will. Well of course this was far too revolutionary a notion, because if you did that, there would go all those jobs for people coming to solve the 'problem'. There was a team who wanted to build everyone in the squatter area a concrete pit latrine, for which on our reckoning they would have to mortgage themselves for twenty-five years. For the same money, they could build a higher-than-village-standard of house. Well, everybody can dig a hole in the ground, but having a house is quite a nice asset. You see what I mean? The question is: who defines the problem?

But God's Will for Us??

I think the same thing occurs with my own understanding of God's will for me. I define my problems in someone else's terms, and what stops me finding God's true will is because I define Him in other people's terms too. It is amazing how little of my understanding of myself and of God are really based on His revelation of Himself and human life in Jesus. I have got limited understanding; I have got tunnel vision; I have got low expectations of what He might want for me and for His world. We have all got wrong images of God: quite wrong images quite often. When we talk about building people's identity by being prepared to lose our own, it is important to recognise this. I have got to shed my false images of God so that I can understand myself as being loved by Him in the first instance. If I do not do this, then everything I do will be 'grit your teeth for God'; peas in your shoes up the steps of St. Peter's, and back to the whole salvation-by-works scene which Christians have been trying to avoid ever since Paul wrote to the Romans in the first place.

You have got to understand yourself as loved by God. The problem is that the real God loves the poor as well. Therefore, in order to relate to the real God and to His poor, we have to lose our rich, successful identity, because it is not our true identity at all. We do not see straight because we are conditioned by this rich, successful culture which tells us God is like this, and the Church is like that, and Christian life is like this, and 'Mission' is like that, and so on. Wherever you go this is the same. The Church in England does it. The Church in Africa will do it as soon as it has got worldly wealth and successful status to lose. It will not do it the same, but it will still think that 'this is what God says because this is what God always says and look at where we've got because of it'. 'He said this to me; therefore He must be saying this to you; therefore He is always going to say it.' That is how Christians build their own systems up on what God has said in the past, rather than listening to find out what He is saying today.

Now the way past this is obviously Jesus, because Jesus is who we have to look at to find out what God wants. He is what is given to us, not only to save us but to be our example so that we know what salvation means and where we are going; so we can understand the new beginning He has made and the nature of the new life God gives us. He is born into our human condition so we can actually see what God is like in human life.

Take politics, for example. You can get very disillusioned if you go to a particular place because of a marvellous project description, and when you go there you find that it was quite cynically knitted together by someone for their own reasons. Where is God's will in that? Well, Jesus was born into this condition. He was actually born in a particular place because of the manipulation of the Roman government which wanted to increase its tax, and all those conditions of His birth were the same things that we have to operate in: a corrupt system, in England or overseas; a system of self-interest, in England or overseas. He was born into that, just as we are, and we can look at His life. Saying 'Look!' obviously is not the same as drawing propositions from His life and coming to abstract conclusions about it. We can look at His life, and let it struggle and wrestle with ours, and as we do that, out of the process of watching Him in His life on earth comes our own response to ours. We see the parallels and the similarities in our own situation, and we can actually ask Him to open our eyes to the situation in our life which is like His.

Freedom from Guilt

We can also ask Him to set us free from guilt about the past. Obviously we need to repent of what we have done wrong. But there is a lot of guilt around that simply cripples people, because it is not real. This happens especially with expatriates working overseas. It is easy to think, 'Here we are, we have got so much, we have had all these advantages, we really have to shed our colonial past and all these other dreadful things'. Now that is another false definition of the problem, this time put on Westerners by other people. We have to recognise how other people do programme our identity and our failures and our losses as well as the way our culture defines success.

It is the failures and losses which are our growing points, because the gospel turns everything upside down. But this refers to real failures and losses, not imaginary ones. God has given us our families and our upbringings. He has given me my particularly strict evangelical upbringing which I am very grateful for now, although I have found myself elbowing out of it all the time. He has given us our Western power in the same way, to be used as part of our stewardship, to be sat light to and not to be clung to, but to be seen in context, not to be totally rejected.

It is quite wrong to reject our past. It may have all sorts of aspects that we would rather it did not have, like the colonial history perhaps. But that is partly a myth, too; there are colonial struggles within Africa, and there have been tribal warfares and peoples dominating each other, and everybody has got colonial struggles of some sort in their history. There is no need to feel particularly guilty about this part of our past. Yes, it is sinful, but that is part of the gospel: that we are delivered from guilt and set free to serve God. With God's grace, anything that is given can be turned into something creative. However bad your past is, however crippling your upbringing was, however limiting your present circumstances are, by God's grace that is your growing point.

I think that is an important thing to understand. If you actually see your status and power as the things that are going to get the world going, then you are going to get very frustrated, because these things are so easily lost. But if you see that it is your weaknesses through which God has worked, then this is an enormous source of strength. One of our weaknesses in Tanzania was the fact that we were not Planners; we had done a bit of Planning in our Architecture course, but we had never taken up the course for the second year at the Planning school.

But we prayed about some squatters who were being moved from the new Capital Centre site, and it became clear to us that we ought to produce an alternative plan. We had very cold feet, but we did it; there were dozens of people who just turned up to help us at the right time, including people from the Planning Department itself who worked with us. And that plan was approved and got built. Now that is God's grace, working through weakness.

It was obviously the right thing to do, but if we had been Planners ourselves, I don't think we would have done it like that, because it broke some of the rules, and it was not a fashionable concept, and so on. We would have known what to do so we would not have taken advice, and we would not have said our prayers and we would not have ended up with a radical solution which has been a model for self-help sites and service schemes, because it was not tied down with crippling loan schemes and it got built when the official building programme had ground to a halt. Your weaknesses are often your strengths. I am not arguing against professional competence; I would not want to do that particular exercise again. But I do think we miss a lot of opportunities because we either react to them badly and see them as circumstances imposed on us against our will, or we miss them altogether because we think that we already know what to do.

How the Gospels Relate

I am going to say something now about how the Gospels relate to all of this. The Gospels are written into particular situations to help Christians react properly, as people who are open to God in changing circumstances. I don't know if you have gone into this at all, but the Gospels are not just a series of facts. They are actually products of Christian people thinking and reflecting on the life of Christ, and each of the Gospels has got its own understanding of what the life of Christ means to a particular situation, which each of the Gospels tells you if you look carefully. Luke says he is writing to the Gentile world; Mark relates the life of Jesus to a context of persecution; St. Matthew's Gospel relates to a Jewish Christian situation where the split between Christians and Jews has widened but the Jewish element still thinks it has got it all right; St. John's Gospel is written to strengthen faith in Jesus Christ Himself when there are many alternative 'gospels' on offer. Each of these Gospels challenges the assumptions of the Christians in these situations. I think the gospel in our situation is going to challenge our assumptions, and we have to let it do this.

I want now to talk about how this process of being challenged by the gospel takes place, which is a bit arrogant of me to think I can do this in the two minutes which is what I have got left. It is important to understand the process of salvation in us and in the world, so I will try. There is a visual aid to help: it is a diagram drawn by a Catholic Frenchman and expanded by me to explain the process which we know as 'conversion'.1

The trouble with us is that we do not recognise when we are far away from God. The whole difficulty about being away from God is that we do not know that we are; because when we are going away from God everything in us is very peaceful, and just carries us along, drifting along, because we are in line with our own cultural assumptions. When we are like this, God's call comes as a twinge, like an impulse of conscience. Something is wrong. All through our lives there are going to be parts of our lives which are away from God, and this is how He challenges assumptions which are not the assumptions of the gospel, but which pattern our lives.

You may be surprised to find how much of your own basic direction is away from God, even if you think you are fully converted. But even when you are turned towards God in your will, there will be parts of your imagination which are operating as if they were away from Him. God's call at this point is going to come as an uncomfortable impulse; a twinge of conscience; an awkward fact that does not fit the system, and we have got to keep our ears and our eyes open for the awkward facts, the voice of the outsider who says that it is just not like that.

When we were first thinking of going overseas, an Iranian friend said, 'Come and make money, if you like, but don't think you can help us'. That was a challenge: what is 'help'? Do we define ourselves as 'helpers' and 'them' as recipients of aid? It is a way of keeping superior, isn't it? Another example was the way the gospel we grew up with failed to speak to people outside the Church because it defined 'sin' in middle-class church-going terms, so that 'they' were sinners and 'we' were saved. You had to explain how our definition of them as sinners was correct, before you could go on to explain salvation (in our terms). Now that division into 'them' and 'us', whether it is in terms of development aid or spiritual health, is a sure sign that we are far from God when we make it. The thing is to recognise the voice of the stranger and these awkward facts which actually are the voice of God when we are like that.

Turning to God

That is the beginning: God is up there, and we are down here, far from Him. (The ex-Bishop of Woolwich would not approve of this talk, but you have to understand it is a diagram; it is not meant to be spatial.) The beginning of conversion is when we respond to the 'twinge' and realise that we are far from God. Then we are ready to hear the word of the gospel: God comes into our lives at the point of the Incarnation and we are still far away from God, but we turn to look at the incarnate Christ and we actually engage in a sort of dialogue with Him, grappling with the truth of the gospel. We let Jesus as He is challenge us - not our own ideas of God at this point. We have to see something of what God has done for us. Then there is a connection and we begin to move towards God, who has first moved towards us.

That is conversion: it is in the Anglican baptism service at the beginning - 'Do you turn to Christ?' 'Yes, I turn to Christ'. But this is not something you just do at the beginning. It is something you have to keep doing, turn to Christ; move towards God. Once this has happened - and it has to happen afresh with each decision and each particular part of our life which we are bringing into line with the gospel - then our basic movement is towards God and not away from Him any more. It is now in line with this inner impulse which draws us the way He has made us, and therefore our movement towards God will correspond with our deepest longings, so it is important to notice these moments of decision, these turning points, because then you know whether your peace is from God or is simply because you are drifting with the tide.

When you are going towards God's will for you, you find there is a resolution and integration between this inner impulse and the external circumstances you are in, because either He has put you in them or He wants you to follow Him out of them or change them. But because you are with Him, whatever He wants you to do will correspond with what He is calling you to be. There will still be difficulty. The things which turn you away from Him will now be the things which cause you distress. And because you are going against the grain of the 'world' whereas before you were drifting with it, there will be darkness. But underneath you have got this basic peace. These are two very important movements of discerning God's will, away from Him or towards Him. It is important to be able to recognise them in yourself. You may have to get away for a time in order to begin to recognise this process in yourself, but I think it is very important because unless you actually can pay attention to your own inner self you are not likely to pay attention to anything outside yourself because you just won't hear it, you won't be sensitive.

Following On

Once you have turned towards God, you get to a point where Jesus calls us to follow Him. Now you cannot programme this. You cannot say, 'I want to hear God's call', and try to manufacture it. There is always a danger of doing this if you really do want to serve God. But you have to remember that Jesus was a carpenter, learning to be a carpenter and being a carpenter for 18 years, whereas His mission in public was only three.

You cannot programme the point at which you take off and do something completely different. All that background to your life is what God uses, so you do not want to force His hand. But there does come a time in your life at which the healing process has got to the stage where Jesus has brought things in your life into line with what He wants you to be and He has dealt with some of the effects of your turning away from God, when He calls you to follow Him specifically, in His own mission of saving the world: making God's Kingdom known and turning people back to Him. He has to deal with us first, of course, because unless we let Him begin salvation in our own lives, we are just going to project our own inadequacies on to everyone else and that is not salvation at all. But there does come a time when Jesus says 'Take up your cross and follow me', and then we are going down again, because we are losing our security - the Christian security we had - and going back down the way of the cross with Him.

This is the point which comes in the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus says, 'This is My body', and He gives it to them, and they are becoming part of Him. That is how it is put in the three Synoptics. In John it is put in terms of the Vine and the Branches - the wine. You have got to abide in Christ. This call is a call to be closely united with Jesus. Unless we see it like this, the actual dying part is going to be totally negative. You cannot in fact afford to lose your identity. You will go mad, unless you are actually being clothed with the identity of Christ. This is this process of dying with Christ to the old certainties in order to be reborn into the new life where God actually can take over and work through us. Again, I am not saying that this is a once-for-all process. In churches which do the Church's Year, you can do this in Holy Week. Don't laugh, because it actually is a very good way of doing it if you happen to think like that. A lot of people find this useful. I don't find it particularly helpful myself, but don't laugh at it, because it does help some people, and it may even help you at one stage or another in your life.

But however it comes, I think it is something we have to be ready for. If we do not prepare in this formal way (and most of us do not come from that kind of church background) we need to be able to recognise when it is taking place in our lives. We need to see it as a call to be united more deeply with Christ, so it is a loss of things in union with Him. Then you can believe that this is going to lead to a resurrection, because this is the hope we have to offer. But unless we have gone through that process of loss with Him, we have actually nothing to give anyone else.

The Ongoing World

All this is taking place in a movement of creation, which is why I have put 'alpha' and 'omega' at the beginning and end of the horizontal line which you can see as time if you like. God is drawing all creation and other people to Himself. That is a process, but it is not automatic. People are turning away from Him and that is a process as well. We are part of the process, and our ups and downs and bits and bucks and turning away and turning back again is also all part of the process. We cannot say that we are bringing the Kingdom, you see, because God is drawing the Kingdom out. All we can do is correspond with the movement of Jesus as He comes to us and turns us to God, and then we can become part of it.

This is why it is important to recognise ourselves as part of the whole Church, because the Church is the example of this whole process happening. You can say the Church is full of corruption and inadequacy just the same as the world because the world is mirrored in the Church. But the difference with the Church is that the Church knows what salvation is. Therefore it can articulate this process - preach the gospel - and help people grow towards God. It has constantly, like each of ourselves, to detach from the past.

All Christians and Christian groups have to leave the past and move on and allow God to lead them out of bondage into the promised land, via the desert. The thing about the Church is that as Christians we should be able to articulate this process and point to God in it, and so be channels of His grace for ourselves and other people. We can be channels of grace and hope, because we know that in fact we are sinners ourselves. We are outsiders ourselves. We have defined ourselves with Christ who was made sin for us, an outsider; so we are actually all defined as outsiders, we are all of us defined as sinners, and that is the point at which we can have hope, and it is only found by getting right down to the bottom and seeing that Jesus is united with us in our sinfulness, in our corruption, in our being completely embedded in the system of the world set against God. Only then do we have anything to offer anyone else at all.

Rejection with Christ

But if we do identify ourselves with Christ in this way, the system will crucify us as it crucified Him. It certainly will not be so dramatic, but it will happen. It happens every time anyone questions the system. A trivial example: we wrote to the RIBA gentleman in charge of practice affairs, because we had just got back from Tanzania and we found ourselves uncomfortable with all the talk in the RIBA Journal about salaries and status and so on. So we wrote and said that we were earning this and this, and it was not easy, but if you really do want to make your services available to ordinary people (which is what architects were saying) then you have got to learn to work at a much lower level. Well, he wrote us up not once but twice, without mentioning us by name: 'a small country practice', architects 'selling themselves cheap' etc. We had threatened the system by questioning it, and we had got under his skin.

Now that is a tiny example, but that is what is going to happen, and we have to be prepared for it. As architects and planners there is in us that which God can use as being prophets and visionaries. That is what we are trained to do. Now let us not use that quality for the world. Let us use it for God. But if we do use it for God, what happens to true prophets is going to happen to us. We are not necessarily going to be heard. We may be rejected. But it is only when we recognise that in that rejection we are most closely united with Christ that God can take over and use the rejection for His own purpose; that He can use us in it, not in spite of it, and we can find our joy in Him.

That sounds beautiful in theory. I find it horrible in practice every time, because I never see it like this until long afterwards. At the time, I always go completely to pot. I hate being rejected. But if we can begin to recognise the process it does help us to make sense of what is happening in our lives and around us. Then perhaps we can be a bit more open for God to use us. I hope so.


1. The original diagram is found in Eduard Pousset: Life in Faith and Freedom, tr. and ed. Eugene L. Donahue (The Institute of Jesuit Sources, St Louis, 1980), p. 76. It was drawn to explain the process of conversion within the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, but I have also found it helpful for illustrating aspects of 'evangelical' conversion and sanctification, with some additions.

Anne Netherwood is an Architect in private practice with her husband Rob, and at present training part-time for the Anglican non-stipendiary ministry. The Netherwoods spent eight years in Tanzania with the Church Missionary Society, working on a joint Church/ Government project to set up and run an advisory service for self- builders. They have three children.

From ACPA Newsletter No. 17, Autumn 1989.

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