Is Christianity Weird?

Who would have thought Milton Jones was so sensible?

If you don’t have it already, buy his book.

20131008-131137.jpg

What Would Young Adults Say to The Wider Church?

I’m about to have a bishop arrive at my house to discuss how we engage with young adults 20-40 as church.  I just clicked on this link as I was going through my overflowing inbox.

Young Adults Leaving ChurchI am struck by the humility of everyone speaking to camera.  I’m also struck by the apologetic nature of the comments.  How do we as The Church ™ continue to instill an atmosphere that whether explicit or implicit makes younger people feel that they are interlopers?  The image says ‘leaving’ but I suspect that ‘leaving’ is a million miles down a road not traveled.

Last night I was asked how I ended up as part of the church.  As I told my story I recounted that at 18 years old I thought that I wasn’t allowed in church.  People like me are not acceptable in church.  We’re not good enough.

Is this the lived experience of most young people or is it the prevailing media narrative as told through film, sitcoms and newspapers?

I’d better dig out the hoover before the bishop arrives.

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.

20130527-111310.jpg

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…”

Organising a Baptism

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

20130523-154003.jpg

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

20130505-163220.jpg

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.

20130505-165043.jpg

Personal Identity 4: To ‘Imitate Christ’.

20130504-095912.jpg

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.