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.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Beauty from violence

On the earth's creation.

'When I first saw the Earth from space I thought about how something so incredibly beautiful came from something so violent and destructive.' - Astronaut Nicole Stott

Watching a documentary on the creation of planet Earth I was struck by those concluding comments.

Throughout the episode there was a regular repetition and emphasis placed on the violence and chaos that surrounded the creation of our planet. Rocks 'smashed' into each other 'collision upon collision'. The narrator described our planet as a tiny droplet of calm in a massive surging 'storm', 'raging' all around us.

It made me think of the creation myths from antiquity. Unfamiliar with the details of any particular story I'm told that in almost all creation stories, the world is created amidst a battle between the gods, with war and violence as their themes.

Increasingly I'm interested by the process by which many of our early human ancestors created those stories, and I have come to believe that they arrived at them in large part simply by observing a lot about the universe and the way it functions. If careful, meditative and lived experience of the world was all you had to go on one would expect theories of monism and dualism to emerge; they seem in keeping with our observation of things.

It is the Bible's creation account that needs an explanation, not the others.

Referring back to the concluding comments of the documentary there seems perhaps to be an insight for Christian living and a hint of a fuller and thicker reality in the universe, a reality that can only be gleaned either from hindsight over billions of years and the latest in scientific research, or through some sort of revelation given by some being from outside the system.

This indeed is the message that Jesus' life, death and resurrection offers us and it is the message that offers comfort to believers all over the world. The storm is not our friend if the storm is all there is but as with the creation of our planet, so with the story of our lives; if God is at work in the storm to bring out incredible beauty, it can indeed be our friend. This is what the apostle Paul sees when he writes: and we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purposes. What's he doing when he says that? Where does he get that idea from? From heaven? No, I think he's merely extrapolating out from Genesis's creation account and from the profound activity of God in the gospel. In doing so he arrives at a conclusion that is not only comforting but also full of hope and beauty. It is something with far reaching implications for our lives. As Christians it would seem that this, and not the modern prosperity and comfort gospel, is our proper modus operandum.

Charles Spurgeon was right when he wrote:
Happy storm—that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! 
O blessed hurricane—that drives the soul to God and God alone! When a man is so burdened with troubles, so poor, so friendless, so helpless that he has nowhere else to turn—he flies into his Father’s arms, and is blessedly clasped therein! Oh, tempest-tossed believer—it is a happy trouble which drives you to your Father! 
Or as the documentary concluded:

'The storm has been our friend,'

Yes it has and it can continue to be only because it isn't the product of random forces (or warring gods) but of the guiding hand of a loving and awe inspiring heavenly Father. A Being who brings beautiful things from the dust and rubbish heaps of life.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Solitude: a journey of listening

I am listening God.

Silence. Then, like a stampede of elephants my thoughts crowd and crush through my mind demanding I attend to urgent matters and trivial ones. Holding the mind still enough for long enough to listen is hard. As external processors perhaps it is only in the engaging of our thoughts that we can hold and develop them. The thoughts come one at a time in this way, the next only appearing once the first has been captured. 

In my mind is this image, that as the stampede passes there is left behind in the elephant's path a small creature, shy and unassertive standing and waiting; ready to be listened to but not demanding. Lean in and listen.

Do I need ask questions or require answers? How will it know what to say?

A voice comes. It doesn't come from the creature but it can only be heard when I lean in to the thing. The voice comes out of the air in between the air, around the creature. The voice fills the room yet it isn't loud. It is thick and near, full even but not loud. Once I'm close enough to hear it there is no unhearing it or even avoiding it. It says simply: "I am the speaking one."

"I am the speaking the one," it says again "are you a listening one?"

"I am," I say

"Then. Listen."

And implicit in the word 'listen' is the multitude of ways I am to listen; the air, the earth, the word, the Spirit, the saints. It's as though it says 'listen, listen to them all and hear me'. I breathe in deeply and hear only my breath, I listen to the life force in my body, the energy that is distinct from my brain and heart and blood. There is a peace and a strength that is heard in my stillness but yet is also distinct from it, the source of it perhaps. Yahweh. In the stillness I hear; Yahweh is there. He is God and he is speaking.

The creature in the room suddenly springs into life. It leaps against the wall and then onto the ceiling and to the other side of the room. It continues doing this over and over and gradually it gets faster and faster until it is a blur or movement. I am fixated on it, following its every moment, focusing so precisely that I barely notice my surroundings change.
Now I am above the earth but not alone. The Speaking One is with me, I sense his strength. All around me is black and stars with the great blue planet below, and it is then that I see, then that I understand. The atmosphere around me seems charged with energy but as I lean in I notice the air particles or atoms or I don't know what, begin to move. It is the space between the spaces, the veil perhaps between our space and His. The movement is a stream and a ribbon of what can only be described as words and sentences. Constantly moving like a roll of film tapering around and down and back and forth to the earth, from the earth, into space and back. Back, all of it back and forth, from some unseen centre and source.

"I am the speaking One" I hear again, "Are you a listening one? Are you, therefore a seeing one? Listen, and in listening see. Hear and see my work in the the world. Know I am near and present."

I am back panting on my knees in a heap in the old room of my mind. There is calm. I will be a listening one and I will speak for and about the Speaking One.

This is the reparative work of solitude. We withdraw; in order to return.