Monday, 13 April 2020

On love, bows and arrows

The strength and effectiveness of an act can be measured by the degree to which love was the motivating factor. An arrow can be fired from a bow without much tension in the bowstring but its potency and impact will be limited. A man can do the right thing without much desire, perhaps out of a sense of duty but without proper motivation its impact will be limited.

Love sees the person in front of you and desires their good even at its own expense; love motivates a man to risk reputation, or to risk rejection and the degree to which love is the motivation the man's risk will be worthwhile or not. The seed once planted, flowers eventually.

Knowing I am loved is the key to how I live. I can live my life in such a way that I am craning for validation, or I can live my life from the position of already being validated and approved. The same act can be noxious or sweet according to the driving force behind it.

In Christianity I see that it's not just an act but it's intention and motivation that matters. The right act for the wrong reasons is no good, it rots and dies in the very doing of the thing. A bad act but done for the right reasons and with the right motivations can be life giving and result in a harvest of good fruit.

Living consciously aware of my life-giving Father's love for me and approval of me means that whatever I do has the potential for far greater impact than I could ordinarily expect. My Father's arm is the strong arm that draws back the bow enabling me to sore high and penetrate deeply into the enemy's camp. A life lived under God's loving approval is a generous, open-eyed and encouraging life; it is able to give little thought to its own reputation and instead can see, truly see, the people in front of it.

I am loved. The bow is drawn back.
He loves me. The bow is drawn back.
I lack no good thing. Further. 
I know he cares about me. Further still.
I am his and he is mine. Taught and fully extended the arrow can be released.

Or in more familiar terms: abide in me and I will abide in you. If you abide in me you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.

Knowing he loves me and approves of me gives me what I need to leave familiarity and walk toward uncertainty. Knowing he loves me and approves of me makes it possible for me to approve of others, give life to others and look to do and give genuine good to others. The important thing for the world then is that the saints sit often enough under his approval to allow it to flush out their insecurities and fears long enough that they may be effective.

I know that when I am starved of love I'll snatch at any approval I can. I'll play manipulative games for my approval, I'll give in order to receive, I'll self-promote, I'll build my own kingdom, I'll withdraw from the world and isolate, and instead of crucifying my flesh I'll feed it. Being love starved makes one meagre with encouragement or dishonest and manipulative with it. Being love starved makes one fearful and afraid of others, it rejects others or keeps them always at a distance.

Only his love can draw life's bowstring back far enough to make the unexpected possible.

I see it, I long for it. I must sit often enough and walk often enough and meditate often enough in his love that it becomes not an idea on a page or the theme of a song, but the strength and vitality of everything I do.

Because of his great love we are not consumed. His compassion never fails.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Thin vs Full


Thin. This is the word I find myself reaching for to describe the experience of life and relationships over video rather than in person. Whether a time of prayer with friends, or an evening of games in 'gallery view' it has all the components of the real thing but none of the actual experience; I mean we're all there, visual versions of ourselves on a screen with all the same noises - the 'yes, amen' and the 'hey you cheat it's my turn!' but somehow it doesn't feel, well, real.

This time of perpetual digitisation is reinforcing for me the significance of the embodied life and it's driving home the importance of stressing that we're embodied creatures, not just machines and not just souls with shells.

Praying with friends over screens is the activity where I sense it the most. There is the same sounds and the same intentions but none of the same experience. Praying with others in the flesh is an intimate and life-giving expression of familial affinity, praying over screens gives the appearance of the thing but with none of its life.

Sitting with someone in the same room as them and talking with them, requires me to attend to them in much closer detail. I can't walk away while they talk, I can't multitask, I can't fein interest, I can't offer the right words with none of the right sentiment. Rather, when we're in the room I feel your presence, I'm aware of the space you occupy and the atmosphere you've created. I have to move around you, I have decide whether you're a friend or a foe. When I'm with you I become tense when I've upset you, my skin discolours when I feel shame, my pulse raises when I'm angry; or I can tell when yours does. When I'm with a person I have much more capacity for empathy.

I have also noticed during this time how much TV shows and films require ad rely on music to elicit my emotions, and I've come to see that this is in large part owing to the lean medium of the screen. The musical bed does what a person's embodied presence in my kitchen does for my intuition and empathy. Had you noticed that before now?

It's not that a physical encounter with someone is better and a video screen encounter worse, it's only that a video experience of someone is, well, thinner. It is the difference between pornography and loving, faithful monogamy, between individualism and a loving family and between a facebook friend and a loving father.

I have noticed as well how, paradoxically, in a video call I don't seem to see a person anywhere near as much as I do in a phone call. Why is that I wonder? Perhaps it's because that in the phone call my visual handicap forces me to focus much more on the nuances and subtleties of their communication, their intention, their pauses and their tone. On the phone I listen to them, on the video call I only see them. In the video call I recognise that they exist, whilst on the phone I can validate their existence.

To quote the famous wedding passage from 1 Corinthians 13: 'Right now, we see as through a glass darkly - but then we shall see face to face.' How ironic it is then that even though we see one another face to face we still miss the experience of being in one another's company?

We were made to know life to the full, God is life. We were made to know God face to face but experience instead thin encounters with him.

Our experience of life at the moment has been made thinner by the experience of forced separation, what we crave is fullness of relationship. Face to face relationship, for all it's awkward social experiences, and nervousnesses allows us to experience ourselves as living and breathing and shaping and making creatures. The pressure and anxiety we sometimes feel around one another stems from understanding the responsibility on us to make our interactions count. It comes from perceiving that our words and ways are acts of creation (or destruction); and it's this that makes our life feel, well, full.

Video calling feels like a constant exercise in planning for life rather than actually living it. We are designed to be movers and makers, cultivators and creators; that's what full living is, and that's why the video life feels so, well, thin by contrast.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Strange

I am finding myself use the word 'strange' a lot to try to describe the way I feel as I, along with everyone else, try to process the Coronavirus pandemic. As a country, our schools closed three days ago and we're all trying to get our heads around the prospect of home educating our children for the next three months.

How do I feel about everything at the moment?

Ans: Strange. 

But strange isn't a feeling, and in fact as a word the more I see it on the page the more the word looks, well strange.

It isn't an emotion, and yet it feels very much like the right word to use. It relays the general disquiet I feel in my soul. I've become quite attached to the word like it 'gets' me, it sums up the mood and manner of the hour. But what's behind it? I resonate with the word for sure, but it isn't good word to communicate actual experience and emotion. It's a word that essentially means 'I don't know' but it's a word that makes honest the fact that 'not knowing' isn't the whole truth; I know enough to know that everything is not ok.

No, what I believe I am feeling (and what others are as well), when I say I feel 'strange' is actually that I am feeling 'afraid'. Fear of the unknown, the myriad of potential worse-case disaster scenarios in my mind and fear of personal redundancy. I have no reason to feel these things, since nothin too obvious has changed in my immediate vicinity; friends and family members are largely healthy, shops are stocked, and yet there exists a foreboding and impending sense of inevitable chaos. It feels, well, strange.

But what I have also noticed is the behaviour my 'strangeness' is leading me toward; which is also pointing to another reality present in my soul. I am finding myself drawn to temptations old and new. I want to binge eat, I want to drink alcohol often, I want to (I feel drawn to) watch things on TV that I know what do be good - essentially pornography.

Why?

Ans: Fear. 

The events of the past week have unsettled me and have therefore created much greater need for comforting. My flesh seeks comfort in the only ways it knows how; by gratifying its desires. It convinces me that this wound of fear and discomfort can be treated with a bar of chocolate or a glass of wine, or the adrenaline of pornography. But these are not good sources of comfort. They hit a spot, but the spot then recovers, moves and grows (and needs another 'hit'). The fruit of the flesh, the result of gratifying the sinful nature, is not life but death. No, the flesh is good only for one thing - to be crucified.

Instead I must recognise that these feelings of fear and the need to be comforted can and must be taken to the Lord in prayer. I must do all the usual things I do to fight my flesh's demands - wrestle it, flee from it, involve friends in the struggle, and I must preach the gospel to myself and throw myself under the shadow of the Most High.

He and he alone is my comfort and the Comforter. In a world of uncertainty and crisis, he and he alone can lead my through it.

Do not gratify the desires of the flesh but rather listen to source of their noise, your need for and desire for comfort. 

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Failure

I'll let you into a secret. Most months I feel like I'm failing. It's true. I live with an expectancy that sooner or later someone somewhere will call me out and point out that everything I've ever done in ministry has been wrong and that I cannot and should not have done all the things I've done. More than that, I'm half expecting it to be true that quite frankly everything I've tried to do over the years has amounted to next to no improvement or advance in anyone's life or the kingdom of God. O how I'd love to know what a better, more prepared, skilled and gifted and experienced person would do with my job; I'll copy them.

I don't say this to elicit cries of 'Oh poor you, that's not true - you're not a failure.' it's just how I feel.

The thing is, I've felt like this the entire time I've been in ministry and in whatever aspect of ministry I've worked in. When I worked with children and ran the Kidz Klub and Sunday children's work it was the same - 'failure'; ill equipped, poorly organised, lacking legacy, failure (standard fair in my mind). When I did youth work, it was the same and now as a pastor of a small church it's still the same - only now I find that the fear actually grows as I become aware of the potential reputational damage to the gospel and the lives of the church members.

These feelings and this reality is interesting to me and is something that's worth thinking more about.

The truth is of course that in some (many?) people's eyes and minds I am a failure. I have not met their expectations, I have not been and am not being what they want me to be. I am not succeeding in spotting and resolving the right tensions and problems in the church. As a leader I am not taking them anywhere fast. 

But how long does a building have to stand for or a community have to exist in relative health for before I/we are willing to say 'maybe it isn't that terrible after all'? Whilst I wouldn't want to take any credit for the health or strength of the community, I may have played a part in it not collapsing or disintegrating into ill-health.

And in that, lies some hint of a way through the latent fears and feelings of failure I have. If I try to answer my anxiety by pointing to success I'll always fall short and stay where I am. For success to offset feelings of failure, success has to be Total. I have to be able to point to every part of everything I've done and everyone who has been affected by it and see health and strength. Then and only then can I say with absolute certainty 'depart from me feelings of failure, for you are a liar.' But Total success like that of course is impossible, but does that mean that the elimination of failure-anxiety is impossible as well? I hope not.

If instead I point to a lack of catastrophe, I may perhaps find that to be a better defence lawyer.

Am I a failure? Not right now.

Will I fail in the future? Maybe. But even then 'failure' is too much a term of identity for me to allow it to be slapped on my head as a label. For even in a potential future where I am shown to have failed on a colossal scale (I mean failed in skill not moral character), I am much more than the sum of my labour.

Will I still be known and loved by God? Yes, definitely.

In which case, I'll ask it again: Am I failure? It doesn't matter. Case closed. The question is the wrong one, and the fear is spectre and I have a life motto on that one: don't waste time fighting ghosts, they don't fight fair.

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Subtle Shift

I don't know what I think.

I've sat down to write but don't know why, nor do I know exactly what it is I want to process in this writing. I could let loose a stream of consciousness on the screen and stand back afterward to see what unfolded (another blog sat in 'draft' stage forever perhaps?). Or I could try and say something. But sometimes 'saying something' feels contrived and my mind doesn't think as freely as it otherwise would. I can set out to write sometimes and appear as though I'm exploring and musing and 'fellow travelling' but when I do this, I know all along where I'm heading; and so the journey isn't as free and loose as I'd like it to be.

I've returned home from another evening's discussion in which a diverse group of people expressed a diverse range of beliefs on a (you guessed it) diverse range of themes. I've come home trying to filter through what I've heard and I'm now trying work out what I think about it all. Nothing I've heard unearthed any evidence that Jesus isn't alive and that the Christian gospel isn't the fullest version of truth we have, but a lot of what I've heard has unsettled me. Confident, strident naturalism that has a lot of emotional and moral force to it always creates a level of revision in me and often I stand at my fireplace and stare into the middle distance (long enough that Amy asks what on earth I'm doing - to which the answer is often 'wondering what I'm on earth to do!'). 

As I pulled out my laptop with a sense of 'I must write something' not knowing at all what I ought to write, the title of this blog came to me. It came to me because of some work I've recently done in the room I'm sat. I laid laminate flooring where there was previously carpet. Sat here, at the table on this laminate floor, I am still aware now (a week on) of the feeling I first had upon completing it; that of being 'higher up'. The room feels different to be in because I'm higher up than I was before. Things look different, I see them differently and that is very noticeable. In real terms I am higher than I was before, but since it's is less than a centimetre's difference I'm surprised by how long lasting the  feeling of height is.

Wrestling with what I am tonight after the night's discussion I've had, it's this thought that gripped me as I sat down to write: new ideas raise us up to see things differently, and that takes getting used to. The size of the impact on us is directly related to the challenge it forces upon the foundations of a particular way of seeing the world. Whether that's good or bad of course depends entirely on whether you like the new perspective on the world you've been given, on whether you think we're meant to live in the mountains or make our peace with the valleys.

I am also left with an awareness that the world needs (and the church does too), more saints who are able to grapple with the same ideas and things the world does and at the same level that many of the professionals and academics that the world does. The world needs to see a church that isn't happy in its stupidity but is instead able to show that Christianity is not incompatible or unable to engage thoughtfully with the issues it raises. It needs also to present to the world a group of rationally very rich but also spiritually and experientially and philanthropically very deep people as well.

That's all for now.

God, send us those men and women and enable us to release them to equip the saints and give an answer to the world. Amen. 

Friday, 5 July 2019

It's Personal


Ultimate reality is personal.

That idea if true, has huge implications for life. The works and lectures of Ellis Potter are having a big impact on me at the moment and this statement is from his book on knowledge. Ellis was a Zen-Buddhist monk for ten years (many years ago) and is now a Christian lecturer, thinker, pastor and writer.

Ultimate reality is not mechanical, it's personal.

It is perhaps, in our society, more natural to think of ultimate reality as being mechanistic. We have broken the world down into its smallest parts, convinced as we are that a thing is best understood by isolating and understanding its smallest details. Having uncoupled the world from its goal and purpose and having done away with 'big-picture' meaning and objective absolutes we examined the world from that starting point and found it follows mechanical processes.

Tick follows tock follows tick follows tock.

The natural laws in the universe appear to be constant (we're not sure why but that doesn't seem to matter much) and so the universe is predictable, mechanical, repeatable, empirical. Drilling this down and asking the question 'what's at the bottom?' the answer comes 'it's turtles, turtles all the way down' or more specifically 'it's entirely mechanical and predictable.' This is a 'bottom up' natural theology, a philosophy that extrapolates from the data we've preoccupied ourselves with. The implications of this of course is that life, relationships, art, love and beauty (and any other things belonging to the personal aspects of living) are by-products of the process. They are useful, and sometimes necessary by-products, but they are the tip of the iceberg, the point above the water's surface, the actual reality underneath is not personal or interested in anything it may produce, it is blind, unfeeling and mute. This idea (that the world can be fully known by examining its component parts) has moulded our economy, industry, education and (increasingly) our ideas and politics. Utility and usefulness for society are commonly the measure of a things value. Not useful enough? Then make way for something that is, and wait your turn until the universe respawns you into something more useful than you were before.

But what if the personal and artistic and beautiful and musical elements of life were the thing that is most real, and the mechanisms we examine were the surface-level reality? What if, underneath, it wasn't turtles but persons and love? Sound romantic doesn't it? But that doesn't make it wrong, in fact it may be just the opposite.

The more I observe about human life the more it becomes clear to me that what we need and enjoy most in life, what we value above all are the deep relationships in our lives that make us feel so significant; not accepting the egomaniacs and narcissists (who are the exceptions that prove the rule).  You see, the Bible also does a natural theology, but it takes as its starting point something else. Rather than examining the world bottom up the Bible takes a 'top down' approach. It opens our minds to consider that maybe, just maybe, the things we find most commendable about human life are the thing that is most real and most true and then sees everything else as an extension and distortion of that.

The Bible reveals a universe that celebrates love, sacrifice, heart, character, intention and beauty and dares to suggest that the reason for this is because the Origin of everything knows and appreciates and revels in, those things as well. We love Love because ultimate reality, God, is Love. The Being that gave birth to everything we see and feel is a personal, multi-personal Being who created the cosmos as an extension and overflow of his communion.

What that means is that everything we see around us, the mechanisms and processes is an extension of that Being. What that means is that the wonder-full sciences are much richer than we first thought they were. We may know how a thing operates, but it doesn't originate in those 'hows'; rather it originates in the 'whys' the thing is. And the 'why' a thing is, is found in the origin of everything, the God who is Love, the Being who is personal.

What this means is that fate isn't blind, chaos isn't ultimately chaotic, and a thing cannot be fully known until we understand the 'why' it does what it does, and not just the how it does it.

That's why we love, that's why we long for loved ones and that's ultimately why we miss people. Why we long for the father and mother we never knew and agonise over wanting to be liked and known comes from the grains of Reality we sense in the world. That's why we fear loneliness and exclusion and why we spend £100 on a pair of shoes we don't need. The reason, ultimately, is because it's personal - everything is.

Don't buy the fatalistic 'switch me off when I'm too old to be of use' and 'I can't help it I'm hardwired that way' sort of thinking. Don't swallow it, but instead spit it out and replace it with the truth that Personhood, relationships and love matters most. Spit it out because, ultimately, it's a poisonous pill and creates a very different community, society and world than the one we flourish best in.


Monday, 27 May 2019

The Fragile Self

'Such and important message!'

'So beautiful, and so so needed!'

'It's so wonderful to see such empowerment on display!'

Accolade after accolade followed their performance, and deservedly so for a fantastic and important, oh so important message.

I watched the performance of the all girl dance group The Khronos Girls in the semi-final of BGT and echoed many of the sentiments shared by the judges above. I shared them but for different reasons. It is a needed message but I fear so few can hear it. Their dance depicted the struggle of teenage girls everywhere to match up to others' expectations of themselves and their fight for self-acceptance in a world that makes them feel constantly like they don't measure up.

It was heartbreaking to see such a clear presentation of one of the main problems with our psychological age, and baffling that so few people see the huge fissures that seem to be opening up beneath our feet. Fissures evidenced by the terrifying rise in mental health disorders, the suicide rate and the traction that the message of The Khronos Girls gains.

Our self-expressive and individualistic age has surely created one of the most vulnerable and likely to shatter versions of the self I can imagine there ever existed.

People have commented that World War I and its awful sequel, together with its holocausts killed dead the widespread story of modernity, namely that the human race is an ever improving species destined for moral beauty and greatness. Yes, believe it or not, that story is dead (although due to our shared amnesia over recent history many people still insist on parading it through the streets). What has arisen in its place is not a grand story of our species' potential along with its big vision of what we can achieve together, but the rise of the individual demi-gods. We have transferred our optimism over the potential of the group and have instead put that hope onto the individual. We have put all the weight of hope and longing onto the shoulders of each one of us.

Every one of us is now meant to the be the star of the most impressive and meaningful display of human virtue and rags-to-riches story there can be.

What the dance act portrayed was the struggle faced by every teenage girl to accept who they are, but what lies underneath it is the cultural narrative of why that pain exists in the first place.

It is frankly a crushing weight to grow up under. Be brilliant. Be smart, be beautiful. Be yourself.

The dance ended with the battle cry 'we are all beautiful' (or something similar) at which point surely, for those who are willing to hear it, could be heard the desperate longing of a sick soul, longing to be enough hoping to high heaven that it is enough, praying, dear god let me be enough. It was the noise of a soul struggling under a weight it cannot bear, and our society won't see how impossible it is to realise its expectations.

The longing is real, the angst is real, the crushing weight placed on the individual is real and the need for our symptoms to be treated by something other than the earnest plea to 'just be yourself' and 'you are enough!' is real as well.

The reality that those pleas don't often break through and don't provide us with the foundation we need to actually live on them needs to be acknowledged. They don't do what we want them to because deep down we know that we're not enough, we're not beautiful or amazing or incredible; at least not truly/fully; not enough. And the reason those statements don't cut it is because - we each know what we're really like, deep down. We know what we're like when we're alone.

What's needed is an encouragement to see ourselves for who we really are, to stare the cold hard truth in the mirror and see our lack and our insignificance for what it really is. The angst we feel about ourselves is meant to be there in order to help us sober up, and the reason we need sobering up is because we're drunk on our potential and our self-importance.

I dare you to stare at and allow your vulnerability to over power you; dare you to feel the terror of reality that you'll never be enough, you'll never be the hero you want to be. I dare you to stare at it because there in the light of cold hard truth surrounded by your nakedness and your fragility, in the dust and dirt of life, stands (or rather hangs) a true demi-god if you can see him. There you'll see a saviour who sees you for who you are and who calls you out on it.

Jesus sees your brokenness and fragility and impurity and wickedness. He sees it and he calls it what it is. It is only once we see it and bring it to him that he is able to replace it with something far richer and thicker than anything our image obsessed, individualistic age could ever offer us hope to get by with.

It is then that we see perhaps what the Bible writer meant when he said: My life is hidden with Christ in God. Christ is your life. All other ground is sinking sand.

Only Jesus offers you a self that won't be crushed under the weight of our self-expressive and individualistic society.