Let’s Fly The Jolly Roger!

Of course Christianity is not political so we’re not allowed to make a stand against oppression.

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Mathematics

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.

Sitting at the Table: A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.

IF

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Earlier this year our Parochial Church Council decided to back the IF Campaign.  Members of the congregation brought it to the wider church because they believed it is something we should be doing to make our voices heard.  This is something people at Holy Nativity care about passionately .

As a community we read the bible each week and find that the author of our faith is challenging us.  From the sermon on the mount where Jesus calls us to a kingdom where the lowest are raised up and the poor shall be filled (Luke 6:20-21) to the things that we do “for the least of these” in Matthew 25:34-36, Jesus calls us to bring Justice.  Justice for the poor.  Justice for the hungry.  Justice for the oppressed.  At the Churches Together Lent Course this week we had a scientist talking about “God’s divine love revealed through science”.  As John spoke these words struck me:  “We live in a world that produces enough resources for everyone.  Sadly there are people who don’t like sharing”.

We’ve seen rhetoric for years about how the world is full of inequality.  We’ve seen other similar campaigns to bring an end to world hunger.  We remember Jubilee 2000.  We remember Live 8.  We remember Dawn French’s impassioned plea as Revd Geraldine Boadicea Granger.

In the UK we live lives where people feel disconnected.  We live in lives where people feel powerless.  We live lives where we assume that there is someone else going to make the decisions for us and we don’t have a say in that process.  A faceless “suit” who is going to make these inequalities happen anyway.  The way we begin living in a society that operates like this is by losing our voice.  By refusing to speak out.  By allowing the distractions that those in power want to throw at us to become the most important priority in our lives.

Tonight we raise money once again for Comic Relief.  So much of what we do is a response to the symptoms of poverty not to the root causes of poverty.  We raise money to fix problems that are often caused by the systems we perpetuate.  We don’t even realise they are there because they are under the surface.  If we’re honest, it is only in the last six months that anyone has thought twice about buying a Starbucks coffee because we didn’t know that there was a problem with corporate tax avoidance.  A member of the Halifax Food Drop in spoke to our Deanery Synod last week.  She said “this was never supposed to be a long-term solution”.  The few raising money to feed the hungry on a global scale was never supposed to be a long-term solution.

This is not how it should be.  In God’s kingdom, this is not how it should be.  You have a voice.  We all have a voice.  It is only by giving up our voice that we allow the few “suits” to make decisions for the many.  Join the campaign.  Publish it wide.  Write to your MP.  Tell your friends.  Tweet about it.  Put it on Facebook.  I don’t want to find myself posting a video of Geraldine Granger again in 8 years time.

The Silent Conspiracy

For the first six weeks of my new role in North Halifax I’ve sounded a bit like a cracked record. As we celebrate the incarnation, we’ve been talking about the incarnate God who steps into the world to bring transformation. The words of Mary in the Magnificat set out the stall for a kingdom where the least in society are held up. At the main celebrations of Christmas I shared Howard Thurman’s poem calling the gathered people to putting their faith in action.

Little did I know that in the coming days I would be amazed to discover that a member of our community was awarded an MBE for just that, a lifetime of work for the good of the community. Archbishop Rowan’s last New Years message is dedicated to encouraging people to “join this silent conspiracy of generous dedication”. This is the work of the local church, a faith in action bringing transformation to the lives of the people we live amongst.

In 2012 we have had a year where the media have been writing their own narrative of The Church (TM) and it is not a story I recognise in the reality of our lives.  We need to continue to faithfully tell our story of God who cares so much about the lives of the least that He inspires us to action in the communities we live in.