Repost: Knowing who you are

mountain-lake-931726_1920[I wrote this post two years ago, in May 2014. I’m reposting it because it resonates strongly with where I’ve found myself recently, and because some more recent friends and followers might benefit from it.]

You cannot really know God until you know who you are.

OK, that’s a deliberately bold and attention-grabbing opening line. Bear with me as I try to unpack it.

Once we have passed the relatively innocent age of our youngest childhood, we quickly grow accustomed to living in a world that places all kinds of demands upon us. Our parents play a vital role in teaching us what to value and how to behave, but even this good and essential duty is tinged by a dark side: we begin to learn very early on what it is to perform. We come to realise that if we behave in a certain way that meets the desires and expectations of parents, family members, teachers, classmates and others, we will be rewarded with expressions of approval and favour.

This mechanism of learning how to please others is critical to our growth and development into well-adjusted human beings who can live more or less peaceably in society. However, as I suggested above, it also has a dangerous underside: we can become so trained in and accomplished at pleasing others and seeking approval that we forget – or fail to ever discover in the first place – who we really are.

First, we try to be the kind of son or daughter our parents seem to want us to be – and, since parents often have differing expectations, this in itself can be quite a task. Next, we want our teachers to like us (or at least not to dislike us), partly because this makes school easier to navigate and partly because our parents will be pleased with us if our teachers are pleased with us. Then there are our friends and acquaintances: no one wants to be the odd one out in the playground, the child who is the butt of everyone’s jokes, so we try very hard to fit in, to use whatever particular skills and talents we have to impress at least a few people and gain some kind of social status.

This sort of peer pressure is accentuated to the nth degree by the media. From the latest must-see TV show to the ubiquitous marketing and advertising messages with which we are bombarded daily from morning till night, we are continually squeezed by pressure to conform, to look like this, to act like that. Continue reading

Sheep and goats redux

Goat‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Continue reading

Why “God wants the best for you” is hogwash

business-163464_1280God wants the best for you!

If you’ve spent much time in and around evangelical churches, chances are you’ve heard this phrase or some derivative of it on quite a few occasions. Maybe you’re going through a tough time with your health or finances, or perhaps you’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. Whatever the specifics of the situation, when you feel trapped in a corner and everything looks bleak, isn’t it nice and encouraging to be told that God wants the best for you?

While this innocuous-sounding expression is undoubtedly well intentioned and may indeed sound reassuring, if we stop and think for just a moment, it’s easy to see that it masks some quite problematic ideas.

First off, the idea of “best” only really works inside a system of exchange.

If I’m going to be the best in my class, it follows that no one else but me can occupy that top spot. Similarly, in order for me to have an above average income, someone else (or rather a lot of someone elses) has to earn less than the average. Seen from this perspective, the very idea of “best” only makes sense within a hierarchical system. And in any hierarchical system there are inevitably winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless.

It follows from this that we can’t all have “the best”, whatever that might be and in whichever area of life it might apply. Simply put, if we all had “the best”, by definition it would no longer be “the best”; it would simply be the norm or the average.

That being the case, does God perhaps want some people to have the best but not others? Well, Romans 2:11 tells us that God has no favourites. Hmmm. Continue reading

Broken

old-ship-164981I have been to many places
Climbed many mountains
Stood on many stages
Taken many bows and soaked up the plaudits
Worked hard and done my best
Tried to make everyone happy
Keep the whole train rolling

But as I stand here in this place
Surveying all this landscape
All this accumulated experience and supposed learning
Here’s the One Big Thing I’ve learned: I’m broken

I’m a broken man living in a broken world
Speaking broken words to people with broken ears
Trying my best to limit the damage
But so often just making matters worse Continue reading

Book review: How Jesus Saves the World from Us by Morgan Guyton

Guyton bookToday I have the privilege of reviewing the first book by Morgan Guyton, titled How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

I’ve been following Morgan’s writings for a few years now, first on his personal blog and more recently at his Patheos blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. I’ve always found him a stimulating and thought-provoking writer, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out, I got in touch and asked for a review copy, and he was kind enough to oblige.

In terms of context, Morgan and his wife Cheryl are directors of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Perhaps as a result of his background and vocation, I find that Morgan’s worldview and theology are informed by a broad range of church traditions, in addition to which he is an astute cultural commentator.

There are a few reasons I’ve always been drawn to Morgan’s writing, and I find these characteristics just as present in his book as they are in his blog posts. First, he writes with clarity, freshness and incisiveness; many of his sentences and paragraphs pack a powerful punch; they “zing” off the page with a real edge that makes his work compelling to read. You may agree with the things he says, or you may not; either way, you are unlikely to be indifferent. Second, he somehow pulls off the difficult task of combining this high-octane style with an attitude of great humility and authenticity. The result is that he can say piercingly critical things about beliefs and/or behaviours without leaving you, the reader, feeling offended or defensive – because you know the person at whom he directs his fiercest criticism is himself. He is disarmingly honest about his own struggles, shortcomings and failures, and this lends great credibility to the insights he proffers. And third, his writing is peppered with colourful imagery, cultural references and playful allusions, making it genuinely fun to read, even when he is addressing matters of great import. Continue reading

On the necessity of being broken

broken-arm-1221297_1920A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about living in hiding. In that post, I talked about how a great many of us become expert at deploying a variety of strategies to keep our authentic, unvarnished selves safely concealed from the world. The problem is that, in keeping ourselves a safe distance from others, we end up being isolated and separated from ourselves.

I concluded in that post that we are not made to live in the shadows: there is a greater freedom that awaits us if we dare to lay down our armour and shed our various masks. The sixty-four thousand dollar question, of course, is how to find the freedom of living in the world as our true selves after a life spent in hiding. Many of us have been playing a largely fictional part in the play of our lives for so long that we don’t know how to stop playing to the audience, take off our costumes and just be ourselves.

Some will glibly say that, if you want to be set free from the endless cycle of performance and stage management, you just need to have a personal encounter with God’s unconditional love. While I appreciate the sentiment, such advice on its own, abstract as it is, is not always much help. Yes, we need to encounter God’s love in a personal way; but such an encounter is not something we can in any way engineer. The best we can do is try not to run away when it comes to us – which is also much easier said than done: when push comes to shove, our desire for self-preservation often keeps us firmly and squarely in the very place that’s killing us.

How, then, does a freeing, transformative encounter with God’s love and grace come to us? It seems to me that it very often comes in the form of an experience of brokenness. Continue reading

Living in hiding

AfraidImagine two young children, aged around two or three years old. Each lives in a different home; each is physically and mentally healthy.

Let’s observe each of these children for a moment.

The first child seems happy and carefree. She is intensely curious and interested in her environment. When she sees something new or hears an unfamiliar sound, her eyes light up with excitement. She is vivacious and seems to have a natural enthusiasm for life. She appears confident in her relationship to the world around her. She responds openly and affectionately to human touch.

By contrast, the second child seems somewhat sad and troubled. Rather than display curiosity, he keeps himself to himself. He is generally listless and disinterested; he responds nervously to new sights and sounds. He is wary of human contact. Overall, he appears withdrawn and guarded.

Which of these two children do you think is displaying normal, desirable behaviour for a young child? Most people would agree that the first child appears to be emotionally and developmentally healthier than the second. One might say she seems well-adjusted, while he seems… what? Continue reading