Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Christian life (Page 2 of 16)

Broken apart, together

Rail flowerLately I’ve been thinking and writing quite a bit about brokenness. While this is a subject that will always be relevant this side of eternity, there are particular reasons why I’ve been focusing on it recently. But I’ll come to that.

As I wrote in one recent post, it seems to be the case that we often need to be brought to a place of brokenness before we are ready to begin to receive the healing light of God’s loving grace. However, as I wrote in another post, we often carry a deep sense of shame that acts as a powerful pull away from the light: because we are broken, we feel shameful and unworthy, and the last thing we want is anyone else seeing what we’re really like.

So we find ourselves caught in a deadly trap: in desperate need of healing, but kept away from the healing light we so need by shame and the fear of exposure. And this often happens at a level that is below our conscious awareness. We do not know why we are hiding, or even that we are hiding; all we know is that we feel trapped, lonely and desperately unhappy.

It seems clear to me that our fear of exposure is largely driven by the deep-seated belief that our brokenness is a source of difference, and therefore something to be ashamed of. If you know about the particular ways in which I am broken, you will see that I am different from you, and you will judge me and find me wanting. And, given that our brokenness is often bound up with a deep need for approval and acceptance (and a corresponding dread of rejection), the idea of being judged less than enough is simply too devastating a risk for many of us to willingly take.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Full and free

FreedomWhen I was a young Christian, I often used to have a nagging sense that when bad things happened to me, it was because I deserved them. If my car broke down, or some other unforeseen crisis occurred, somewhere in the almost-unconscious regions of my heart, I would wonder which of my particular catalogue of sins had brought this calamity upon me. As a result, I lived under a constant burden of feeling that I needed to up my game and be a better person if I wanted to avoid disaster.

The flip side of this was that when things were going well or when I experienced what is often called “good fortune”, such as a financial windfall or a promotion at work, I would be plagued by a barely perceptible but nevertheless very real sense that I didn’t deserve it. In fact, the more good things came my way, the less I felt I deserved them – and the more I felt I was somehow living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, fate would catch up with me, my luck would run out and I’d get what I deserved.

Living with these kinds of feelings, and the resulting constant sense of unworthiness and foreboding they engendered, did not make me an especially happy bunny.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on some recent events in my life, I had a startling realisation: after thirty plus years as a Christian, and having come to what I thought was a much broader and deeper understanding of God’s love and grace, I am still carrying around some of this baggage even now. Those destructive feelings may not be as strong as they once were; they may be lying low much of the time; but they are still there at some level and able to exert a surprisingly powerful influence as soon as something happens to stir them into life.

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Maundy Thursday: living in the face of death

Last supper

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

These are familiar words for Christians, recited week in, week out in churches all over the world as believers gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. They are even more poignant today, Maundy Thursday, as we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. However, as is often the case, it may be that our familiarity with the text makes us blind to certain aspects of the reality it describes.

Because we often rightly take great comfort and encouragement from the sacrament of communion, I think we tend to imagine that not only the disciples but also Jesus himself took similar comfort and encouragement from the meal they shared at the Last Supper. In truth, it’s probably much more likely that the disciples’ reaction was one of bemusement and confusion – What IS he talking about? – and that Jesus himself was in something of a state of emotional turmoil as he broke the bread and poured the wine.

Think about it: Jesus knows that his “hour has come”. I don’t for one moment believe that he knew this by divine omniscience; he knew it because he understood that “love is just a recipe for getting yourself crucified”[1]. He knew that his words and actions had set him on a collision course with the religious and political authorities at a time when Jerusalem, amid the patriotic fervour of Passover, was a tinderbox of unfulfilled revolutionary expectation. And, as a fully-fledged human being, the knowledge of his impending suffering must have filled him with the most intense apprehension and anguish.

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Some thoughts on Lent, repentance and the power of symbol

5521959239_37e036560e_bThis year I’m observing Lent for the first time.

For most of my Christian life – over thirty years, in fact – I’ve attended Pentecostal churches. Seasons on the church calendar like Lent and Advent barely register on the radar of Pentecostal and other non-traditional churches. However, we’re now transitioning into a local Anglican congregation. What this means in practice is that we’re also still going to our former Pentecostal church every few weeks to keep our daughter company. (Going to both a Pentecostal and an Anglican church makes for some interesting contrasts, I can tell you!)

Anyway, this means I have the opportunity to experience some of the more ancient practices of the church in ways that I’ve never even been aware of before. Thus my observance of Lent.

In brief, Lent is a period running up to Easter during which Christians focus specifically on prayer, repentance, self-denial and charity. It generally begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), though there are variations depending on which branch of the church you belong to (Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant). This period is intended to commemorate the forty days Jesus is said to have spent in the desert before commencing his public ministry. It is essentially an opportunity to quiet the voice of the ego or the “false self” (what the Apostle Paul often referred to as “the flesh”) and allow certain behaviours and/or thought patterns to die so that the Spirit can breathe new life in their place.

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