Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Angst

Allow me to be honest online. 

I doubt. I struggle emotionally and philosophically to make life make sense, I always have done. But I also believe. I believe deeply and wonderfully and passionately, I always have done. 

I don't know why I live with these two opposites so often. Maybe it's a personality defect, maybe I'm just not clever enough or well informed enough to figure it out. Whatever it is this is the headspace I live in and here's how I process some of the angst it creates.

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I was helped recently by reading something Chris Evans (the TV personality & DJ) wrote in his new book: 'What to Do in a Midlife Crisis' (actually named 'Call the Midlife' but my title sums it up better). In his chapter on religion he wrote 
'I've often wondered - and when I say often, I mean several times a day for as long as I can remember - whether I'm a man of faith or not.
It helped me since it told me I'm not alone; non-religious people worry about religious questions too. This may be a silly thing to say, of course they do, but then people give off this 'we've got it all sewn up' kind of attitude when it comes to belief and rarely show weakness in this area. That's why Christians jump all over any statement of faith/uncertainty made by a celebrity or media mogul: aha! It's not just us. See, you do have questions! Retweet, repost, share link...

James Smith wrote in his book 'How Not to Be Secular' that:
ours is an age where believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief.
I don't know what goes on inside other people's heads, I can only see life in my eyes, but I find it very encouraging that people of all creeds share some anxiety in this area. I don't know why I do but I do. I like it that I'm not alone, maybe that's it. 

'Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist' wrote Dawkins and it seems like most popular believe this. I don't for one second think evolution = no God but a lot of people take it as read that it does. People act like, since we have an alternative origins story to Genesis we have all the answers we could want. Everything can be explained along a purely naturalist and materialist way of reasoning. Paul Hollywood in the introduction to his bread baking book comments that 'even neanderthal man baked'. PaulflippinHollywood for crying out loud, (in a book on baking) felt it necessary to throw in the 'our shared ancestry gives credibility to my profession' line. We've defined ourselves so sharply now that credibility can be given to anything just so long as we can draw a straight line from cave dwellers to the present. The reverse is true as well, if you can't then it's not. 

Such is the power of an explanation of our origins and this reductionist way of explaining human existence is everywhere. The 'Big Story' or meta narrative that our life fits into has nothing to do with God and purpose any more; but we're not supposed to let that phase us.  

Comedian and writer Tim Minchin in a speech at UWA said:
13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think this universe has a purpose for them.
and also:
it's an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.
I hear it more and more: life is meaningless but that's ok, just enjoy it. It seeps out in everything we make and do and buy and break. 

The grave looms ever closer therefore cycle that exercise bike like you're getting somewhere!

I spoke with a friend once and admitted that 'in the moments when I doubt I wonder if I'm not better off doing something that adds more obvious value to society than being a pastor and preacher. I mean, what if there's no God. I've made a life out of deceiving people. Maybe I should become a teacher and contribute that way.' My friend responded by saying:
if there is no God then nothing really matters anyway, there is no meaning in anything. We only pretend there is. 
I think he's right. Meaning is up for definition once we've first agreed there is no real meaning, no instruction manual in the first place. Do whatever the heck you want and convince yourself it matters, that's what's really important isn't it?  

Nihilism (extreme pessimism and meaninglessness) may be reasonable but it's not practical mind you. No one lives like that and besides which, it's still an attempt at meaning. Perhaps Minchin is right though, we all ought to just: exercise, teach, love, respect etc. 

I can identify with Steve Carrell's character in 'Seeking A Friend For the End of the World'. He gives this bemused, existentially desperate and yet quietly resigned portrayal of what it would feel like if you knew your world was ending and yet you still wanted life to mean something. It's a good film.

Have you ever just stood back and watched what we humans do for fun? 

What am I to do then? There are so many voices telling me 'the answer':
Empirical evidence only... except where love and truth and beauty and morality are concerned.
God's not interested in us: pain, inequality, injustice and an unimpressive church prove it.
God does love us, he does care, he is involved, we must trust him.
My God wants me to blow up people who don't fall into line with my interpretation of what he said to my religion's founder.
Eat, drink and be merry - for tomorrow we die anyway. Play golf anyway and enjoy it.
We're nothing more than evolved animals. Our meaning comes from our shared ancestry and primate commonalities.
I think a lot of us are just after consensus. 

We surround ourselves with people who think and believe the same as us, people who reinforce our values. Or maybe we just believe the things that cause us the least resistance: Ok so I can do what I want then? So I can square that circle like that then, that works? Ok so they'll stop calling me names then? And then I'll be allowed to have tea at that table then? And people won't think me weird?

Mind you, I must to stop making assertions about 'we' and 'us'. All I really know about is 'me' and 'my'. That's why I find 'angst acknowledgement' so encouraging, especially from people perceived to be in a different tribe to me.

The real lie I think I tell myself is that 'everyone else has got it sewn up.' The real lie our intellectual and celebrity elite tell us is that 'they have it all sewn up.' I believe that tension and mystery cannot and must not be squeezed out of life. Fundamentalists flatten our landscape into binary, on or off, right or wrong stuff and life doesn't neatly get boxed like that.

Don't get me wrong, I believe what I preach. I'd say I believe it strongly. I believe that a personal knowing, enjoying and trusting God the Father, Son and Spirit is what we were all made for, that it's the meaning of life even. But being convinced about something is not the same thing as being certain of it. No one is certain, not Chris Evans, Paul Hollywood, Tim Minchin nor Richard Dawkins and anyone who tells you they are is possibly worth avoiding. 

Life is a lot more colourful than that. It contains a lot more adventure and daring and mystery and uncertainty. The real challenge is trying to keep your head and forge your path while grappling with all these questions along the way.

I think Jesus was/is right. I think so because of Easter Sunday and because the Universe had a beginning. But that doesn't mean I don't have plenty of questions still. My worldview allows for it, answers for it even. Existential angst, bizarre as it may be for outgrown animals, is part of life. Sit in silence long enough and you'll feel it. 

Sure it's uncomfortable this oscillating between boldness and uncertainty, truth and doubt. It's uncomfortable but it's not unusual; at least that's what I'm learning.

Let me end this post with this, a beautiful description of how Sheldon Vanauken (American writer) became a Christian whilst at University in Oxford:
There is a gap between the probable and the proved. How was I to cross it? If I were to stake my whole life on the risen Christ, I wanted proof. I wanted certainty. I wanted to see him eat a bit of flesh. I wanted letters of fire across the sky. I got none of these... It was a question of whether I was to accept him - or reject. My God! There was a gap behind me as well! Perhaps the leap to acceptance was a horrifying gamble-but what of the leap of rejection? There might be no certainty that Christ was God - but, by God, there was no certainty that he was not. This was not to be borne. I could not reject Jesus. There was only one thing to do once I had seen the gap behind me. I turned away from it, and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus. 
I hope that in 2016 you find what you're looking for.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Essence: Saints


This week we're considering why it is that Paul addresses his letter to the Colossians to saints. To help us engage with this idea there's a video (above) and a blog (below), as well as our Weekly Challenge to complete (see bottom of the page).

Saints

Below are some reflections from Ephesians, a letter addressed to the saints living in Ephesus (a town in what is now Turkey). Before reading it write down on a separate sheet of paper or in a separate computer window everything that comes to your mind when you hear the word 'saint' as well as some questions you may have concerning the topic.

Scripture
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 1:1

Observations:

I’ve often heard it said that Paul uses the term ‘saint’ to include every Christian and that in doing so, he is viewing us as God does, as holy and set apart, fully righteous in Christ.

I’ve heard it said, but is it really true? Let’s have a look by considering the letter of Ephesians as a whole.

Paul's writing to the ‘saints’ in Ephesus. One question I have is: 
Does this refer simply to a group of leaders within the Church, a group who were more holy than others?
Within the letter he goes on to address different types of people, all of whom fall into this category of saints. The saints he addresses here are: 
  • non Jews 
  • immature (4:4),
  • thieves/former thieves (4:28),
  • wives (5:22),
  • husbands (5:25),
  • children (6:1),
  • parents (6:4),
  • slaves (6:5),
  • masters (6:5),
Within this list is perhaps every group necessary to make the confident assertion that when Paul says saints, he means everyone in the Church.

The word saint, then, includes me and you! If you're a Christian you are a saint. You're a holy one, meaning you have been set apart by God and for God. You're his; he owns you. You're his child, his friend, his dwelling place, a member of his body and his Spirit is within you. 

You are a saint.

You're totally secure and accepted in God. This is true and is a correct perspective on life. Isn’t this just amazing? You and I are saints!

Prayer

Thank you Father. You have done what I could never have done on my own. I have been made holy and clean before you, acceptable in your sight. I choose to accept this as the label of my life. Although I often feel as though I'm not holy and not acceptable to you, I choose today to accept the truth and live in the good of it. Amen.

Weekly Challenge

To help, here's a little challenge to complete...

By Friday have memorised the statement of truth below taken from the Freed For Purpose course. Find a friend who's doing the same and at the end of the week, test each other:
I recognise that there is only one true and living God, who exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is worthy of all honour, praise and glory as the one who made all things and holds all things together. (see Exodus 20:2,3; Colossians 1:16,17)





Friday, 18 December 2015

FIGHT: Tigers & Puppies

Scripture

Read Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Observation

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to not think about something, especially something you're worried about? I well remember a few years ago when I was speaking at church on the subject of anxiety. The Bible passage said 'do not be anxious about anything...' and my message, it followed, was on 'freedom from anxiety'. Well, I was a mess. I was so nervous about it that I couldn't prepare for the sermon. Anxious thoughts about 'how not to be anxious' flew round and round my head. I couldn't sleep, couldn't pray, couldn't escape thinking about it. The irony wasn't lost on me 'physician heal thy self' was all I could hear spinning back and forth around my brain, it was horrible.

Where worry is concerned our thought life can behave badly can't it? We don't try to obsess about missing that flight or not completing that essay in time, it just happens. And of course worry is a very reasonable virus, it uses all the right logic and explanations. Anxiety convinces us that it's not only permitted to consume our thought life, but that it's entirely appropriate and commendable that it does so!

Paul's answer to anxiety, as he explains it in the above Bible reading, isn't to use reason and persuasive argument. He doesn't try to out argue anxiety, he knows that's a lost battle. Reasoning against anxiety isn't a fair fight since we're emotionally compromised from the start. Anxiety, you see, has a head start on us and anxiety has access to the arsenal of our emotional life making it a very powerful foe indeed. If it was only a question of explaining politely to worry why it is that we're not going to go where it wants us to go then I'm sure many a worry would be stopped dead in its tracks. But it doesn't work like that does it?

'Goodness did you hear yourself just then?' Anxiety says 'you made a complete fool of yourself. Is it any wonder why NO ONE wants to be your friend?! I'm amazed you have any friends at all, or do you? I can't see those supposed friends of yours hanging around too long after they find out exactly what you're like. Can you see that happening?' 

After that comes the hot flushes and clammy palms, followed by the loss of all colour from our face, an ice cold forehead and then that all too familiar knot in the stomach - the permanent resident in the body of serial worrier. Sound familiar?

So what's the answer to anxiety? Sadly for us there isn't a pill to fix it. It isn't a case of praying a particular prayer (perhaps five times a day), or singing a particular song. Anxiety is tiger that needs taming rather than a puppy that needs training. Puppies aren't too ferocious, they can be quite cute and (after much effort) they can be house trained. We're bigger and stronger and more powerful than puppies and so in the end, they will obey us. Not so with a tiger. Tiger's are ferocious and strong and move at a lightning quick pace. They will run rings around us and destroy us if we're not careful. Taming a tiger isn't just a matter of persistence, it requires courage, strength and nerves of steel (I speak from experience of course).

Getting our thought life in order involves more energy and effort than puppy training (and even that can be pretty full on). Getting our thought life in order requires determination and courage, and supernatural power.

Just prior to the above Bible passage Paul explains that he's 'learned the secret of being content whatever his circumstances' something I'm sure many of us would like to know.

In our Bible reading three big clues are offered, three things that will aid us in our fight against anxiety: Rejoicing, asking and thanking.

Celebrating what God has done in the past and asking (petitioning) God to help us in the present. Mixed with a helpful amount of thankfulness, creates quite a powerful concoction. It enables us to stand our ground against anxiety and positions us to receive peace from God in the midst of worry.

Celebrate, ask, thank.

It isn't easy (tigers don't give up without a fight), but it is possible. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can be free from life crippling worry.

Weekly Challenge

Read Philippians 4:8-9:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
The first step toward enjoying your status as a forgiven, loved, adopted and empowered child of God is to start taking seriously what you think about. Do your thoughts past the Philippians 4 test? 
  • True
  • Honourable 
  • Just
  • Pure
  • Lovely
  • Commendable
  • Excellent
  • Worshipful 
Take some time this week to write down as many things as you can that meet the above criteria. List areas of your life, perhaps things you're consistently worried about, and write things that might pass the Philippians 4 test. Do it over a few days and see what the Holy Spirit brings to mind each time:

For example:

Myself: What's true is that I'm a Christian, I'm loved by God, I've been adopted into his family...

Difficult circumstances: What's true is that my Father promises to be with me throughout every difficulty I face. What's worshipful is that he's always got me through things in the past, he's worthy of my worship

Others: What's commendable is that I'm grateful for my wife, for how she loves me and cares for me. I'm thankful I've got friends who, despite knowing the worst bits about me, have stuck by me and pray for me...

I might also list: my future, my job, my kids, my self image, my past, my money... Adding to this list daily will force your mind to think about and dwell on true and good things as opposed to the destructive and anxiety laden things we often think about.

Have fun!


The Original Battlefield

Every week for the next 7 weeks as part of the Essence teaching series we'll be posting videos & blogs to help us get to grips with our new identity in Christ. Be sure to visit our Facebook pages regularly for resources designed to help you grow.
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Let's start by considering an important principle.

Take a few minutes to read over the Bible verses listed below. Consider as you read them what they might have in common:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1-2
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
2 Corinthians 10:4-5
Did you find a common thread woven through? I'm sure there are plenty of things they have in common but the reason I picked them is because of their mention of the mind and our thought life:
  • Be transformed by renewing your mind (Romans 12:2)
  • Whatever is honourable, whatever is... think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • Take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)
The principle is this:
What we think about matters. What we allow ourselves to dwell on, matters. What we play on repeat in our heads over and over, matters. It all matters.
In my experience, what goes on in the grey matter between my ears has a huge impact on my joy, faith, peace, and contentment. My thought life greatly affects the quality of life I'm enjoying. 

As a new Christian I kept a journal in which I documented my thoughts about faith. I remember on one occasion after seeing something quite miraculous take place, writing in my journal: 'never forget! God is real, God is Good. Never forget! I'm going to live for God, wholeheartedly, 100%!!'

That ought to have settled it then; wholehearted, determined Christianity from then on. Except that it wasn't, and it didn't. 

A few weeks later I'd done exactly what I'd told myself not to do, I'd forgotten. I'd concluded that God wasn't real, that if he was real then he didn't love me and wasn't helping me. As such I wanted to quit as a follower of Christ. 

That process has been (and still is to some extent) a common one for me. It's a process of remembering and forgetting, remembering and forgetting, remembering and... you get the idea. What I find reassuring however is that I'm not the only one who battles like this. For the past 10 years I've had a front row seat on many people's different experiences and Christian lives. I've watched again and again as others have gone through the same cycle I've just described. 

The apostle Paul (who wrote the Bible verses above) seemed to be aware of this problem as well. He understood that being a Christian requires a diligent and careful approach to our thought life. That's why he wrote so often about it.

Here's some questions to consider:
How much are you aware of the positive or negative impact of your thoughts? 
Do you ever find yourself walking to the shops but daydreaming about disaster?
Are you aware of where your mind wanders to most often?
At the end of the day, if I were to present you with a highlights tape of your thoughts what would the repeating themes be? 
We must start to take seriously the responsibility to discern the truth from the lies in our minds. There is a call to arms in the whole area of our thinking and we can't afford to go AWOL - too much is at stake.

Weekly Challenge

To help, here's a little challenge to complete...

By Friday have memorised the statement of truth below taken from the Freed For Purpose course. Find a friend who's doing the same and at the end of the week, test each other:
I recognise that there is only one true and living God, who exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is worthy of all honour, praise and glory as the one who made all things and holds all things together. (see Exodus 20:2,3; Colossians 1:16,17)