Things Ain’t Nobody Got Time For

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Personal Identity 5: Christian Identity

As we’ve progressed through this series on ‘identity’, we’ve turned increasingly towards the concept of ‘Christian identity’. How do we view ourselves as ‘Christians’ within a Christian community?

As Christians, the world is viewed in light of our relationship with God. This naturally affects the relationship people have with other people who also have a relationship with God. Relationship is at the heart of Christian identity. Our identity is formed through the way we relate to God through Christ. When the first Christians described themselves as ‘followers of the way’ their identity was firmly routed in their ongoing journey with Christ. That was the way in which they identified themselves. It was others from outside who originally called those first followers ‘Christians’. I use this to illustrate the deeply personal nature of the Christian faith. It is centred around a relationship with God and an ongoing task; take up your cross and follow me.

Over the past few days I’ve mentioned the existential crisis for every ‘goth’: what if I’m not goth enough? It is also at the heart of many followers of the way. What if I’m not a very good Christian? If I am honest, I have those doubts most days. I’m still awaiting the day when the diocese send someone round to my house. They will knock on my door, come into my office, go to the filing cabinet, take my holy orders and inform me that a mistake was made four years ago. “Sorry mate, you’re just not a very good Christian”. I think this is at the heart of Doctor Ruth’s post on Saturday about imitating Christ: we are called to be Christlike, we are not called to be Christ.

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Experience is a key component of our Christian identity. When someone is certain of their faith, it can be a benchmark that others will be unconsciously compared to. When someone’s experience of God bears little relation to our experience of God we can either question our experience or theirs. As the diagram illustrates, the way we relate to others often leads to tribalism.

This kind of tribalism leads to the familiar conflict between followers of the way that can often take precedence over the journey. “They are not real Christians…”

Responding to Woolwich

In a week that has seen the internet in the UK explode with a wave of racial tension, I came across this cartoon on my desktop.

This is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ.

How to change the world

Organising a Baptism

Ever organised a baptism? Watch the first minute of this clip!

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Trinity Video

Trinity

Worship Idea – Pentecost Popcorn

Fr Simon Rundell published one of the best idea for Pentecost on his blog whilst I was on holiday. I found myself in a bar in Rhodes looking up popcorn machines on eBay. When the day of Pentecost had arrived, we were gathered in Holy Nativity Church with the scouts and a load of visitors when there was the sound of a violent air powered popcorn machine and the pop of corn all over the altar.

I hate watching videos of myself. If you want to see it done well, check out Simon doing it himself. He didn’t accuse the first followers of being small and round!

The Place of Honour

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As we sit in the Square of the Jewish Martyrs in the Old Town at Rhodes the whole world has slowed down. We laze in the late afternoon sun in a small cafe with a glass of beer shaped like a Wellington boot. Over in the corner of the square at the entrance to this cafe there is a Cockatoo on an elaborate wooden stand. There he sits all day living the life as he sits before his adoring public upon his throne.

Here the life is idyllic as he sits within medieval surroundings: fabulous archways and ancient columns are bathed in glorious golden sunshine. His day is taken as a regular stream of onlookers come over to see him, to be near him, to have their photograph taken with him. Like all cockatoos he has wonderful plumage on his head that he can extend to create a majestic crown. He loves being picked up and having his photo taken with an onlooker as he proudly display his plumage.

This is a great life! The people fawn over him as he is surrounded by more food than he can eat. The owners of the bar are forever fussing over him as they attend his stand. They extend a finger and stroke him under the beak or on top of the head as he nuzzles them. We watch as he gets down from his perch and sits in the lap of the bar’s owner like a kitten. They clearly love each other as he nuzzles into her lap being stroked. Life is good!

We sit and watch as the afternoon sun sinks behind a Byzantine fortification as we keep watch upon this place of honour he loves so dearly. And as he stretches his wings we see the price he paid for such an honoured pace with so rich a throne. The few feathers he has been left are there merely to keep his majestic looks. With a purely ceremonial function his wings no longer carry the plumage with which to fly. Never will he know what it is to soar higher and higher over the ancient city as the sun sinks into the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Nor will he be able to look down on the medieval archways nor glide over the golden beaches and rugged cliff faces.

He does still have his place of honour where all his needs are met. Onlookers still come to look at his ceremonial crown and gaze in adoration. The peanut supply is never ending and he is regularly stroked as he displays his glorious crown before the world.

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Personal Identity 4: To ‘Imitate Christ’.

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Robb asked me to contribute to his blog because a lot of his recent writings about identy are the culmination of years of conversations we have had together.

I remember as a teenager starting to read ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by the Christian mystic Thomas á Kempis, and giving up after about 4 pages due to feeling completely disheartened – no way could I ever live up to this ideal! I probably should have learned more about the mystics first before starting to read it, but that’s a whole other subject… In both my personal experience and in my professional work as a clinical psychologist, I have found that many Christians have highly unrealistic expectations of themselves, which has a significant impact on their sense of self and on their emotional wellbeing and functioning. This seems particularly so in some churches or Christian families where it is unacceptable to be sinful in any way, or where even the briefest unkind or unpleasant thought is ‘as bad as committing the sin itself’ (based on a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21ff).

During my training I came across ‘Self-Discrepancy Theory’ (Higgins,1987), which came to mind again during my discussions with Robb and got me thinking about identity and these struggles faced by myself and many other Christians. The theory proposes that we have a number of distinct domains within our identity, including the ‘Actual Self’ (how I view myself now), the ‘Ideal Self’ (how I hope to be), and the ‘Ought Self’ (how I should be, according to my sense of duty, obligation and responsibility). The theory also suggests we have a domain for each of these Selves from the standpoint of a significant other (e.g., how I believe my mother actually sees me, or how I believe my husband ideally wants me to be – no comments Robb!!).

The theory goes on to suggest that the greater the difference, or discrepancy, between an Actual self-state and an Ideal or Ought self-state, the more likely the development of negative emotional states, including low self esteem, shame and guilt, depression and anxiety.

So what does this mean for Christians? The difficulty is for many of us, especially those like myself who are ‘cradle Christians’, is that we are taught from a very young age that our Ideal Self is Christ himself. And with this self-state representation, who would not have a huge discrepancy between their sense of self as they are, and the self that they believe they should be? And even more troubling, what are our beliefs about how our fellow Christians perceive both our Actual Selves and our Ideal/Ought Selves? No wonder many Christians become guilty, anxious and depressed.

But what does it really mean to imitate Christ, or to have him as a representation of an Ideal self? I can’t believe that it means I should strive to be a Jewish male itinerant rabbi! Nor do I believe I should be striving for perfection – I constantly see the serious psychological consequences of such attempts in my therapy room. This may be a question better left to the theologians than for a simple psychologist like myself, but I am drawn to the narrative of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane – a moment where He too experienced anguish and uncertainty, and questioned God’s call. It is in this, and many other recorded moments of intimacy, genuineness and authenticity that we might see how we too could discover God’s call on our own lives.

Furthermore, perhaps some of the key areas for psychological therapy for depression or anxiety, based on Self-Discrepancy Theory, may also guide our thinking:
1. Identifying and challenging any unhelpful representations within Actual Self;
2. Developing acceptance and self-compassion;
3. Exploring Ideal and Ought Selves, and developing new and more realistic/helpful future-self representations. This is particularly important where there have been significant life changes due to trauma, loss, illness, etc.

If we can start to be more realistic and authentic about who we really are, develop both acceptance and self-compassion about the things we can’t change or feel less positive about (or worry that others feel less positive about), and have a more realistic and helpful sense of who God is calling us to be, maybe we can stop feeling so guilty, anxious and depressed, and start living ‘life in all its fullness’ instead.

Personal Identity 3: The Call to Authenticity

Part three of my musings on identity.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10

I am not a cradle Christian. I’ve been a follower of the way for a little over 15 years since I arrived at university. In those first days at university I made a lot of friends who listened to heavy metal, wore black and drank beer. One of the other things I discovered about a considerable number of them was that they went to church. Come Sunday evening at 6pm (we were all students) they would all pile into church before going to the pub.

This led to some pretty interesting conversations about personal identity. As a nonchurchy Metalhead, I asked the same sorts of questions I outlined in my last blog post: “But you can’t be a Christian because you are a goth”. Christians were supposed to be nice, mild mannered, middle class people with shiny shoes; more Harold Bishop than Ozzy Osbourne. The evidence I discovered at university was to the contrary: goths, metalheads, hippies and freaks, my friends, were Christians and welcomed within their communities. And my Christian journey began. I could have life and have it abundantly.

As I began my journey as a disciple there was a discrepancy between the description of Christianity as I was told it and the practice. “Jesus came for the whole of humanity” is a claim to which most Christians will assent. The reality is that most local churches have a pervading culture within them. The nonconformist church that I attended at university had a distinctive culture, sadly one that I was unable to be part of. For men to fit in to this culture of fifteen years ago, brown shoes, blue jeans and a checked shirt tucked in at the waist and tied off with a brown belt were the order of the day. “I have come that you may have a middle class smart casual life in all its abundance”. The same was true of the Christian Union that met 200 yards from our student flat. To ‘progress in leadership’ you must fit yourself into the cultural mould. Despite being a short walk from a Christian community we soon disappeared from the meetings.

This isn’t really about the specific places I’ve been but the places that we currently shape through our interactions week in, week out. The same types of culture still exist in most churches as people seek out other like minded people. There is a pervading culture that is seen to be the “way to get on” in a church; if it were not so, there would be no jokes about vicars driving Vauxhall Astras with wives in Laura Ashley dresses to be made. For some this culture is the black shiny shoes and suit akin to Fr Ted and for others it is the rugged smart casual of Pastor Mark.

Yesterday I said that it is a difficult task to stand before the world and say that Jesus is God. This is especially true when you begin that journey and set your first foot upon the path. It is a journey that usually comes with a steep learning curve; sixty-six books of ancient wisdom guide us towards the transcendent as we peer through a glass dimly. It is hard enough to make sense of the way God wants us to live our lives without the added complication of the way a pervading church culture wants us to “fit in”.

Authenticity

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12

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What does it mean for Jesus to bring life that you may have it abundantly? I don’t believe he meant for you to become a nice middle class clone. He came that you may have your life abundantly, not someone else’s! This means that you are to be the best version of you that you can be. The version of you that God made you to be! You are called to be the authentic version of you.

The all knowing God knows who you are. There is no pretending to be the guy with the acoustic guitar who stands at the front. Don’t go and buy a Laura Ashley dress because it will make you a better Christian! Go and be the very best version of you that there can be! Be the person God originally called to His path, and keep following the way! Sadly that does mean changing. It does mean growing. It means leaving behind the things you do that are not of God and taking up things that are. But that is going to be much more rewarding than giving up things that are not of a particular church’s culture and taking up things that “fit in”.

What is God asking of us as a church? To be an authentic people following in the path of Jesus: Grans and grandads; parents and children; men and women; goths, chavs, punks, jocks, hipsters; the whole plethora of society living together and following in his footsteps. God calls us to be the wonderfully diverse body of Christ.

Ruth and I have some close friends who are in their seventies. We’ve been friends now for more than a decade. We play cards together, eat dinner together, drink wine together, pray together and talk about our spiritual journeys together. Culturally we have very little in common and yet through our friendship and our faith we have so much in common. We are companions on the road. We share our spiritual journey with one another. To Ruth and I they are spiritual grandparents; “Elders” if you like. They have been walking this path for many years longer than we have. They bring great insight having lived through many more experiences than us; sometimes about the hardships and sometimes about the joys. There is something both comforting and challenging for instance about a couple who will tell you they have been married 47 years and it hasn’t always been easy. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, holding each other on the road as we form diverse communities together.

Ruth has just informed me that she has something to add so you can expect a blog from her later. She’s a psychologist so it will probably be from a slightly different perspective than me. Tomorrow I’m going to look at different Christian identities. I have a Venn diagram or two to share.

Personal Identity 2: Aren’t You That Goth Vicar?

This is the second in my series on identity. Coming out of a series of conversations I’ve had over the last week with friends about “being ‘goth'”. Today I’m bringing “goth” and “priest” together. If I am mentioned in the press I am usually referred to as ‘The Rocking Revered Robb’. My favourite headline was next to a photo of me carrying a life sized cross: The Road To Golgotha. Both puntastic and theologically deep.

Aren’t You Making a Statement?

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Every so often for someone who is “alternative” the conversation will inevitably turn to this question. Aren’t you making a statement with the way you wear your hair? Don’t you wear your earrings to prove a point? But the way you dress must surely mean you are going against society? But aren’t you being countercultural? How do you square what you wear with being a priest?

Here is the shocking truth. I haven’t changed my hairstyle in 20 years. I wake up in the morning and pull on the same style of jeans I’ve worn every day for 12 years. My boots were worn every day until they fell apart at which point I bought an identical pair. I have been contemplating changing one of my earrings for the past fortnight but the ones I’ve been wearing since 2002 seem to be doing ok. My first thought when I wake up and look in the mirror is not that I make a statement, more that Robb looks back through the looking glass at me. If there is any statement being made by my general appearance it is through the ’78 tour t-shirt I’m wearing. Incidentally, the year I was born. A pretty ancient statement.

On Friday at Whitby Goth Weekend the A Level sociology students asked us if anything we were wearing was “significant”. My response was “Yes, I’m wearing a cross around my neck and a wedding ring”. As a metalhead I’m part of a rather large sub culture. It’s not a tiny minority in the western world until you go deeper and begin to look within a smaller cultural group: the church.

Yes, I am being counter cultural. Regularly I make a statement that goes against the grain. Every day I make people do a double take as I wear clothes that “go against society”. I put on a dog collar each morning. I often wear a cassock as I perform my duties because it depersonalises me; this is important when performing a funeral for example. I stand before the world and make a truly counter cultural statement: Jesus is God.

We all belong to some form of subculture but with an increasingly elderly church culture there is often an increase perception of “difference” when someone younger is in church who isn’t a child. The 20’s-40’s are often the lost tribe of Anglicanism so when we do come to church it can be a culture shock. The real challenge is to enable people and support people as they go against the pervading culture and follow Christ. I wonder if it is harder to ‘admit’ being a Christian to a bunch of metalheads than it is to admit being a metalhead to a bunch of christians?

Tomorrow I’ll have a look at Christian culture.