… where Christians put less emphasis on ‘bums on seats’ and more on genuinely loving and caring for one another and for humanity as a whole. How radical (and what a beacon) this would be! What a reflection of God’s presence on earth and His / Her overflowing love for each one of us!
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)
… where we encountered each other with humility rather than high mindedness, not seeking to push others down in order to exalt ourselves and not seeking to rank sins (especially ‘sexual sins’ – I blame St Augustine!) in some ‘holier-than-thou’ version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
… where we, to quote my new church’s website, consistently sought ‘to build longer tables, as opposed to higher fences’, engaging with rather than shying away from the issues of our day and meeting people where they are rather than where we would have them be: including the excluded, befriending the friendless and speaking for the voiceless in our society and world.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (Micah 6 v 8)
… where Christians stood at the forefront of social justice rather than preaching a gospel of (our own) prosperity: championing those at the bottom of the social ladder rather than lauding those at the top; opening our hearts (and wallets) to the plight of the homeless or the refugee, those suffering from disease or drug addiction, natural catastrophe or all-too man-driven war.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2: 14-17)
… where we, above all, took seriously our human custodianship of the world:
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their[g] feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, 8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8: 6-8)
Imagine a world where Christians across the globe consistently lived their faith out like this.
In choosing this title, is it wrong that I have the name of a band first formed in the late 60s plus a couple of their songs, notably ‘After the Love Has Gone’ and ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ trundling around my head? I trust not, particularly after looking at their lyrics.
Anyway… this was the blog post I’ve been intending to write for a while, before I was so rudely interrupted by my last.
See? That’s me, being diverted off course.
Because having left Elijah at the foot of a mountain, being asked by God: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19 v 10), I was really interested by what came next, which seems to also serve as a pretty good metaphor for my own spiritual journey over the last few years.
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been in something of a spiritual wilderness. And that’s been hard as my faith had always seemed so intrinsic to me, just like my blue eyes or general cackhandedness. (Seriously, the numbers of tables or doors that jump out and hit me …!)
But I can relate to Elijah, bereft and lacking clear direction. I tried. I really did. New churches. Online Christian communities or Facebook groups. Even revisiting the old church. But nowhere could I find God’s voice speaking to me. To others, maybe. But not to me. And that presence or voice of God was what I was really craving when I left my old church. Not the lively worship that seemed like just so many words to me. Nor the messages that just left me feeling alone, lonely, condemned. Neither of those, deep down, spoke God to me, or not the God that some part of me was clinging to.
So into the wilderness I went, and as this then led on to the pandemic, it was easy not to attend, not to log on to online services, although I toyed with those for a while too. But I think, for me, at least, the process of deconstruction had started some time before…
The wind was the first part.
For me, the wind was the restlessness, the sense of questions not being answered, not even able to be addressed (partly my own psychology, no doubt, but I also felt that church was a place for unerring certainty.) ‘Doubt not welcomed here’, the sign might just has well have read. But I doubted. And inwardly I questioned. Oh, how I questioned! Was God really going to condemn all those who had never even heard of Him / Her? Were human sexuality and gender identity really the hills that a number of evangelical churches past were ready to die on? Why were the Christian communities I was involved with constantly calling on me to serve and give of myself, way past the point of my energy, my health, my well-being? Why was there, ultimately, so much of an emphasis on mankind’s innate sinfulness and fallibility while, proportionately, so much less of an emphasis on God’s abounding Love, with a side-helping of Love and even more Love generously poured on and then more sprinkled on top?
And wind can tear down, even shatter rocks as it says in the Bible passage. But amid the potentially destructive power of this wind, I wasn’t seeing, or hearing God’s response.
The earthquake was the second part.
Having taken time away from my faith, it was easier to deconstruct everything I had believed in. Did I even still believe in God? (Yes, desperately yes but where was He / She?) Jesus? Also a ‘yes’ although questions remained. Spirit? Church? The Bible? The foundations of my faith had been shaken until I didn’t know what was still standing. And those formerly comforting rituals of faith felt empty, like poring over a ruined building (currently given extra poignancy by pictures from stricken Haiti – again), all those past mementos, in the knowledge that I didn’t, couldn’t, live there at the moment, maybe not ever again. And that hurt. Because deep down, I still wanted to believe – but still could not hear or see God in any of this, even though I wanted to.
And I know some evangelicals would probably say that’s because He (always He in their eyes) wasn’t. Or that my own sin or apostasy was blinding me to His presence in events.
Which leads me to the third part – the fire.
We’ve all seen pictures of devastating forest fires in California. And Turkey. And Greece. Italy. Algeria. South Africa. India. Cyprus. And other places (all in no particular order.) Now Israel.
Fire can be devastating. Deadly. Seemingly unstoppable. And it can smoulder, seem to fade then break out again in a new area, unexpected.
And we all know what it leaves in its wake, too.
For me, the fire was the anger I felt. At past churches for their manipulation of youthful energy and enthusiasm. Their cliques and smug self-satisfaction. Their blinkered focus on very small things, while losing the bigger picture. For the hypocrisy, the ‘do as I do, not as I say.’ For not being what I needed church to be, not reaching out to me too, not reflecting the face and person of Christ in this hope-deprived world we live in.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time being angry. And cynical, which is possibly worse. And reading stories of like-minded individuals who, like me, had fallen out of love with the Church. And in so many of those cases, I can’t blame them. And I have read those stories, where deconstruction sometimes led to deconversion, and that has just further stoked the flames. Because those churches have failed some of these individuals.
It’s relatively easy, once you’re angry, to find new things to be angry about. God knows, there’s enough within the world to keep you going. And, sadly, within the Church too, sometimes.
But God, beyond a certain point I believe, isn’t in this either. Anger only consumes (particularly if it’s held onto for too long.) Although it can clear the path for new growth, sure, how much is lost in the process? And at what point do we have to decide to choose a new direction? To turn that anger to positive ends?
I don’t want to negate anyone’s pain or invalidate their experience. God knows I don’t. And I haven’t suffered at the hands of Church nearly as much as some others I have read about. So I most emphatically will not tell anyone else not to be angry. That would be pretty pointless at best.
But if they, we, I can move beyond that anger, who knows? The ‘quiet whisper’ of God?
For me personally, I’m still trying to discern this.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I think I can just catch the sound of this:
In the words of hymns that speak to my soul
In heartfelt prayers that call on God’s love for the community, the world
Most of all in the love of my faithful guides (I hope they know who they are!)
When we encounter him towards the start of 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah is in trouble. Alone, friendless, fearing for his life. So how does God meet with him in his time of distress?
In the previous chapter of 1 Kings, Elijah had experienced a great triumph against the then King of Israel and his wife, Jezebel, presented as an idolatress serving foreign gods. In the post-Old Testament world in which we live, I struggle with the shape of his victory – kill all those with divergent views. Don’t have an easy answer to that – is it specific to the text’s history, culture or context, or is it metaphor for rooting out all that distracts or prevents us from focusing on God as we experience Him / Her?
Anyway – not really what this blog post is about, but important to acknowledge that particular elephant in the room, even if I’m not really sure what to do with aforementioned elephant! I no longer want to pretend to have all the answers though. Faith, if it is real faith I believe, necessarily involves areas of uncertainty, struggle or doubt. And so we keep wrestling!
But the backlash and Elijah’s response in the following chapter is much more relatable. Even if I’ve never had to flee for my life (which thank God, I haven’t), I can appreciate the ‘low’ that follows such a ‘high’ in spiritual terms. My psychological makeup sometimes seems predicated on the fact that what goes up must come down, often shot down by my own pesky internal voice, my own doubts or insecurities. That coupled with the exhaustion come from working too hard without due regard for proper nutrition or rest (the former more in terms of too much sugar or coffee, and the latter resulting from an inability to switch off …)
It’s no wonder that he is shattered and throws something of a pity party when he ‘came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” ( verse 5.)
God’s response is telling. He / She allows Elijah to sleep and then sends an angel with food and water, supplying Elijah’s basic needs before going anywhere near his spiritual ones. And repeat.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
Then, and only then does God probe a little deeper, asking him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ A lesson for us all.
These moments come in many of our lives, call them low mood or out-and-out depression. And they are faced both by those who have had setbacks and those who are counted as successful in the eyes of others. With obvious cause or out of the blue.
I’m not an expert but I have faced some times like this in my own life. And it seems to me there are clear principles that God follows in this passage and that we should too if helping others in this situation.
God doesn’t condemn or shame for someone’s perceived ‘weakness’. Neither should we. At no time does God tell Elijah to ‘snap out of it.’ Or that it’s all in his mind. Neither should we.
God doesn’t leave Elijah in that state but intervenes: those in the depths may not be able to reach out to help themselves. They need us to be their advocates. Above all, they need us to notice – and care. That person in your congregation who doesn’t say much but sidles off as soon as the service has ended? Or that you don’t see for a while? Ask them how they are. Even better – ask them twice. We are all masters at the ‘How are you?’-‘Fine’ verbal ping-pong match. You may get something closer to the truth the second time. Or the time after that.
God meets our needs: sometimes physical neglect (in whatever form) can be a corollary of low mood but low mood will always be exacerbated by tiredness or a lack of self-care. Before we can even get close to whatever is going on at heart, maybe we need to echo God’s approach and allow others, or even ourselves, to rest first.
We have a rather old-fashioned saying in England about ‘not throwing out the baby with the bath water’ so before anyone worries … no literal baby is being harmed in this process! It just means not making the mistake of eliminating something good when getting rid of something bad.
In this case, the ‘something bad’ is to do with the baggage left over from my evangelical upbringing, my simultaneous pushing away from people coupled with the need I have (we all have?) to be known by the church community I am part of, accepted, … acceptable?
And the ‘baby’ is my faith – that I do not want, have never wanted, to throw away. But for a long time, all the Christianity I have been able to see (to coin another phrase, not being able to see the wood for the trees!) has been the evangelical tradition that is so vocal, hence so seemingly prevalent, within the US although slightly less so here in the UK.
The Christianity that excludes those deemed less acceptable from the heavenly feast mentioned in Isaiah 25, Matthew 22, Luke 14 and elsewhere.
The Christianity that demands adherence to power structures akin to those of society around us, whilst at that same time preaching a gospel of separation from that same world.
The Christianity that preaches a gospel of prosperity (arguably, for some) rather than a gospel of radical inclusion.
But in recent days, since posting my last two blogs certainly, I have been discovering other voices, including the following:
And closer to home: Thinking Anglicans – https://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/ (I know – Anglicans are allowed to think!) How many times have I longed to be able to use my critical faculties in conjunction with faith rather than always seeing these in opposition to faith!
My journey is just starting and I cannot claim to know all about these as yet. There are other voices but these are the ones that are immediately arresting in saying things I have not dared to say or even heard for quite some time.
I am setting foot inside a church for the first time in ages tomorrow – while nervous and excited in perhaps equal measure (vicar – and choirmaster, as it turned out – sounded ever so lovely though when I was asking for details of the service / parking!), I promise the following:
To not rush in where angels fear to tread but to give time for God to speak. However He / She chooses to do so.
To not invest this church with unrealistic expectations (we are all but human, after all!) If this church is not the community for me, another one will be …
To remain open to whatever God has in store next …
Be blessed …
All pictures taken from Pexels.com.
Beth Allison Barr rather than Mary … apologies, now corrected!
Closure isn’t my favourite word, I must confess as it always seems a bit, I don’t know … gimmicky to me. But over the past few days I have found myself fairly regularly searching for the church I grew up in, over which I have, shall I say, mixed feelings at best. It feels, at best, like a fairly pointless quest since the church no longer seems to be operational and at worst, like picking at an old injury that has scabbed over. So why do I feel the need for closure so much?
I pretty much grew up in a small, independent evangelical church, affiliated to the FIEC, attending Sunday school (old-style flannelgraph stylie!), progressing to being part of the Young Searchers’ League (part of Scripture Gift Mission, now SGM Lifewords), a Bible-reading programme to which I can almost certainly credit a lot of my Biblical recall to this day.
Each summer the church ran a Holiday Bible Club, in which I aspired, as I grew older, to become a Young Leader. I am the youngest of four and my siblings shared this church background to a large extent, but it is not for me to tell their story, nor do I have their permission to do so – so this is very much from my own point of view.
At the age of 8 I decided to give my life to Jesus, or in their commonly used parlance, to accept him as my Lord and Saviour. This was after one of these Holiday Bible Clubs and was sincerely done, although to be fair, this was all I knew. At the age of 13 or so I decided I wanted to be baptised, which in our church was done as a believer rather than as a baby and by full immersion.
One problem – I was (and remain) terrified of water. So giving a public testimony was not the biggest ordeal or test of faith – the baptism (dressed in a white robe over my normal clothes) was. Thankfully there was the Pastor and one other male Elder (as leaders were of course all male … but that’s the subject of another blog!) to ‘dunk’ me and lift me up again – although apparently my foot came up in the process, nearly leading to a double-dipping!
As a violinist, I played with the church ‘band’ or often just with the pianist, a lovely man with a certain virtuoso, jazz style. My mum always knew he was getting into the music when he started singing along with what we were playing. We played fairly modern ‘choruses’ for the time – (think Graham Kendrick rather than Hymns Ancient and Prehistoric) – although I know GK is probably fairly old hat now and I actually quite like some of the hymns, particularly for the violin and also for some of their words. I loved playing by ear and harmonising, initially singing quietly under my breath and then by playing – a gift God had given me.
But He / She (because I refuse to believe that God can be encompassed by just the male pronoun when I believe the Divine must be more than either or indeed both!) had given me other gifts too. As a young person gifted with a certain amount of intelligence, it became increasingly hard to reconcile a fairly anti-intellectual stance (they liked 1 Corinthians 3 v 19: For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight) with the brains God had given me. And I believed / still believe that He / She had given me these gifts – and for what if not to use them? It didn’t make sense to me – although I then worried that I was being too ‘worldly’ or ‘proud’.
This came to a head during my university years when my mum started following the work of a man called Ken Ham, who believes in a literal seven-day Creation and that the world is between 6000 and 10,000 years old (called Young Earth Creationism.) Spoiler alert: I do not believe in this. A number of my friends in the Christian Union at university were scientists, including some geologists, and I, with them, could not believe that God would place seemingly millions of year-old fossils in the rocks as some kind of cosmic joke on humanity. Believing creation took place over millennia did not, for me anyway, take away from the wonder of the created world. Far from it.
This was later, however. At the time, I also failed to see a role for myself as a young woman in the church as women were limited to hospitality (making tea and coffee) or children’s work. Both are important – and I did in the end become a teacher – but I felt there was no outlet or place for a young, intelligent woman there. None of these characteristic was valued in any real sense.
So I left, at the age of 17, for a broader church – and my mum ended up following me. To a place where I could still play my violin but importantly felt that I could ask questions without being patronised in response (including inviting the then-vicar into my school to give his thoughts on whether a book which we were reading, which was undoubtedly critical of fundamentalist or theocratic societies was in fact anti-religious. He concluded – and I agree – that it was not but I admired his openness and appreciated his willingness to engage with it and, indeed, with me.)
Since then I have been involved in a number of churches, even preaching, as a lay person – (and lay woman no less!) at one. Until a year or so before the pandemic, where a number of factors have combined to make me feel less at home within the church community I had been so much part of. My faith has continued to go on a journey, detailed in a number of past blogs, reaching out for something that feels more authentic and true to me, that knows and values me and where I can be part of a community that truly reflects Jesus’ love for all.
So why my opening question? The pastor I grew up with is almost certainly dead by now, as are a number of the former leaders or Elders, no doubt. But I guess if I could, I would want to ask them certain questions (although this blog has been, as ever, cathartic in working out some of the ‘demons’ – knowing full well that some on the fundamentalist wing would take this all too literally but I am done with self-censorship.)
First would be this: 1) Why did you let me grow up believing that following God was like walking on a tightrope (and without a safety net)?
I know they’d quote Matthew 7 v 14 at me: But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
But that doesn’t justify the fear of every day feeling I could drop out of God’s loving arms. For me, that’s an element of ultimate control (don’t step off the path we are interpreting for you!) and tantamount to emotional abuse. I don’t believe a loving God would just let me fall (fall down, yes, but pick me up too rather than letting me fall completely into the abyss) but it has taken some time to get over that paralysing fear of doing something, anythingwrong. I’m not even sure I’m there yet.
2) Why did I hear so much about legalism and so little about love, growing up?
Growing up, I had a very skewed idea of God: I felt He / She was there to punish me, not someone who LOVED me in a way that understood me perfectly and wanted me to grow and find ultimate purpose. I didn’t feel any of that as I grew up and I had a real problem with the whole idea of Father God for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, my husband has shown me some small portion, in his care of our children, of what a Father’s love looks like – and it’s the opposite picture of the God I grew up with.
3) Why did you teach me (along with my upbringing, to be fair) that negative emotions were sinful and to be repressed?
Even now, I cry when I’m angry as I have real struggles expressing it. But emotions are part of this messy, beautiful experience we call humanity. Jesus was angry – yes, righteously, I’m sure but angry nonetheless. Jesus cried. Jesus was tired. And He understands our weaknesses, our imperfections. The Psalmist is also a great comfort here as there aren’t many emotions that aren’t expressed in the great splurge of the Psalms – expressed and worked through. Released so they don’t build up and overflow like a dam bursting. Or worse – stay within and slowly corrode from the inside.
4) Why did you teach me that I was always to put others first and so would always come last?
“JOY – Jesus first, Yourself last and Others inbetween”, we were told in an old chorus.
Yes, as per my last blog – I get it. Service is good. Selfishness is bad. But self-care is not always selfish. Jesus took time out to replenish so He could resume His mission, strengthened. Even Matthew 11 v 29 was used in a faintly coercive fashion: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. You can have rest – if you do what we say: – put your hand (or neck) to the plough; you exist to serve and in serving you will find ‘rest’. So you can never serve enough and considering your own needs is a big no-no.
In a world that encourages us to always do more, be more, work harder, sacrifice more – to some ulterior good – how is this message inculcated by my childhood church any different?
I proffer alongside this the God of Psalm 23 verses 1-3:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not [a]want. 2 He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures; He leads me beside the [c]still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
God cares for you. God loves you. God has a plan for you that involves hard work and struggle, sure, but also times of rest. Just as the day is followed by the night, so work should be followed by rest. A good shepherd will not continually drive his sheep, but will look out for good pasture, cool streams. And so our souls will be refreshed.
I don’t know if my questions will ever be answered – or if I will come to an acceptance – yes, of the fallability that we all share but also that I don’t have to be defined by my childhood church any more but can come to a fuller, more whole and infinitely more loving relationship with the God who created me just as I am and with full knowledge of who I could become.
My husband and I have just come back from a short break to Wales. It was only four days but after a long, hard year and a half (or so), much needed. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually- a chance to rest.
I haven’t blogged on here for a while before my last. Haven’t been able to. But this is the blog I’ve wanted to write. Nearly wrote ‘rise’ instead of ‘write’ and maybe there’s something in that too …
So – how do you go from burnt-out evangelical to something more like recovery, like wholeness? How do you rediscover a faith in God that is still there, even if your faith in much that calls itself ‘church’ is not?
Rest – so much about evangelical Christianity is about service, and – to an extent – there’s nothing wrong with that. Service is sharing God’s love. Service is a reflection of our shared humanity, shared community.
But when your Christian community or church is paying a certain amount of lip-service to the verse in Ephesians, chapter 2 v 8-9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
then something is wrong. If you forget Jesus’ injunction to Peter in John 21 v 17 to ‘Feed my sheep’ because you are too busy fishing (often a metaphor for bringing new people into the church), then you have plenty of fish (not a deliberate reference to a dating website!) but your sheep will starve.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a case of either / or but of both / and. You need pastoral care in a church as well as the desire to reach out, to embrace those who feel both unlovely and unloved – just as Jesus did. And you need to give yourself, and others, permission at times to be what God intended – human beings rather than just human doings. God knows, there will be work left to return to! But sometimes, as Jesus did by withdrawing from the crowds, there has to be times of rest and recuperation rather than an endless drive to do more, be more.
Which leads me onto my second point …
Nature – for me, the Psalmist’s words that: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; / the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19 v 1) ring very true and it is never easier to realise God’s presence than when I am amongst nature. There I can truly follow God’s words in Psalm 46 v 10:
“Be still, and know that I am God”
Perhaps because my job involves people, which, as well as being very rewarding much of the time, can also be very emotionally draining, being away from people for a while as we have just been means that I am happier and more grounded when I return.
And we all know that there has to be a return – God does not intend us to live on the mountain-top forever! I am again reminded of my mother’s words on people that are ‘so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly use!’ (words which upon research I find to be attributed to a Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. but which made their way, albeit slightly altered, into a Johnny Cash song: “You’re shinin’ your light, and shine it you should, / But you’re so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good”)
[Authorial aside: yes, hubby, I have just quoted Johnny Cash … the fact surprised me, too!]
So for me, another step on the road towards wholeness is to sit by a lake, walk by a stream, through a forest … and just breathe …
Accept the imperfections – a small confession … I am not perfect. And neither is any of us. And that’s ok. Let’s face it, Jesus’ own followers were a raggle taggle bunch and thank God they were, as that gives hope to the rest of us! I certainly take comfort from the fact that alongside the tax collector, Matthew, and the doubting Thomas, you have the big-mouth, feet-first Peter. Same in the Old Testament for people through whom God has worked – for example, you have Rahab. But here, another blogger, Jenn Abel has put it perfectly: ‘God specializes in weaving every detail – “honorable” or not – into goodness for us and for others.’
Again, this runs counter to much of my church upbringing, which made me hyper-aware of my own faults and imperfections and terrified of putting a foot wrong. Terrified too that God would never accept me as I was – and other people would not either if they really knew the real me. Cue: my habit of closing off self or only letting people see ‘acceptable’ snippets. So counter to what God intends for each of us in John 10 v 10b:
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
I firmly believe that God does not make mistakes so although we do, He does not throw us away and start again, but uses us, imperfections and all (dare I say through our imperfections?) for good that sometimes takes years (or a lifetime?) for us to see. So much as I am striving again my own, stupid, perfectionist brain, I am grateful that God accepts me as I am.
Hold on to the good
There have been times during the last few years that I have felt faith to be lost. And that’s been hard. But I have come to see this time as a little like the seeds we have sown earlier this year – all seems gone but underneath, in the dark, my dormant faith has been biding its time to break through the surface.
And like a young seedling, there are things that will not help it grow (in my analogy, I’m thinking of the heat we’ve been blessed with over the last couple of weeks) but also things that will help (again, I’m thinking of a good few watering cans’ worth of water!) So I choose (although the seedling can’t choose the weather!) I choose to hold onto the good – those people who encourage (yes, kick me up the posterior too when needed), those voices that challenge but do not demolish, that inspire and strengthen. Much of this is through reading but also (sometimes chance) conversations – whether ‘holy’ and obviously God-centred or not. And to paraphrase Galatians 3 v 28, there is no secular or divine – all is one in God.
I’m putting myself in recovery position. Recovery from a past faith that magnified my flaws, negated my gifts and abilities and put my self-esteem and self-belief at rock-bottom. Recovery from shouldering the constant guilt of not being, not doing, not sacrificing enough … psychologically, it’s not healthy. No more.
That’s why I am an exvangelical.
I grew up in a ‘bible-believing’ church that had me literally terrified of the ‘Rapture’ (I could talk about the psychological abusiveness of that right there), terrified of not being one of those chosen to go to Heaven. Even though the elders officially stressed faith over works, life still felt like a constant tightrope walk where any second, I could put one foot wrong and plunge into the abyss ….
As a young, intelligent girl, I was being told, in actions if not words (although sometimes words too) that I was subordinate. As a woman, I was always going to be less than a man (on biblical authority: the elders were of course all men.) My intelligence was something I should distrust (they particularly liked 1 Corinthians 3, verse 19: ‘For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.’)
It didn’t make sense to me; God made me a woman and She/He/It (post-applied – I always used male pronouns at the time!) gave me brains. What for – if not to use them? What use was a faith that could not be questioned but fell at the first sign of scrutiny?
I left that church at the age of 17 – the first stage of my deconstruction as an evangelical.
Since then, there has been more questioning – and much of my original faith held true, some was re-evaluated or re-framed (my conception of God, for instance – no longer the punitive man with a big stick! No longer male – or female – but vastly broader than either / both.)
Since then, there has been a lot of life experience. Learning to accept myself in all my messy fallibility. Lockdown has been hard but I have much to be grateful for: a mad, gorgeous, infuriating but lovely husband (I think he would say much the same about me, or I hope so); two brave and beautiful children who are so much themselves and who I am so proud of (ditto the writerly husband … get it OUT there!) and a whole host of fabulous and supportive colleagues (you know who you are!)
So what remains of faith? Good question.
I don’t want to judge all Christians by the narrowness and hypocrisy (the ‘do what I say, not what I do’ attitude) of the church I grew up in. Just because singing a lot of modern ‘worship’ songs in my most recent church started to feel like so much fake platitude to me doesn’t mean that faith is not being sincerely held by others present. Even though I’ve seen the harm that a number of different religions can do (currently exemplified by too many instances in the world to mention), there are those (of all religious beliefs as well as of none) who do incredible good. Am currently exploring progressive Christianity as something potentially broader, Celtic Christianity to try to rediscover a sense of mystery / the sacred, and Liberation theology as a marriage of faith and politics – something else that I am increasingly passionate about and which often seems of more ‘earthly use.’
I still believe in God. I still believe in Jesus’ teachings and compassion for the marginalised in society. I still believe in the good that people can be in the world.
Preaching on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents was always going to be a tough gig.
Last Sunday I went to church for the first time in a while and this was the text and sermon of the day. As I say, a tough gig, so I waited with some anticipation and sympathy, I might add, for what the visiting speaker would make of this.
He went through something of the identity and history of Herod. Then started to broach the uncomfortable topic – if Jesus was saved by angelic intervention, why not some of these other children? I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this (the essential problem of suffering) so I’m glad he didn’t try to give a glib response.
But then he tried to draw the different strands of his message together, mentioning the children suffering in Yemen today. I leaned forward. Inwardly – I am English (and therefore know how to behave with all due decorum in a church, after all!) “Now, we get to it,” I thought to myself, “Now we get to the heart of the matter, the relevant take-home message, the call to action.”
Except that we didn’t.
And in glossing over this very modern ‘massacre of the innocents’, I started to wonder when we had begun to accept this very tame version of Christianity, one that is loathe to get ‘political’, wary of causing ‘offence’, unwilling to shake the comfortable lives of those listening, myself included.
This happened last Sunday – I have been meditating on this since. And in writing this blog, I have looked at far too many harrowing pictures, most of which I don’t want to share here for a variety of reasons.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to SEEK offence, nor do I want to make a party-political (and definitely not a nationalist) point. I think there are more governments than one responsible for what’s happening in Yemen – and elsewhere.
But I don’t think we as Christians can – or rather should – shy away from speaking up for the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed – of whatever nationality, creed, colour, sexuality they may be. Jesus didn’t demand of the Samaritan woman that she either change her creed or become the model of an upstanding citizen before he spoke to her, nor did he shy away from challenging the stoning of the woman taken in adultery, contentious as that may have been to a contemporary Jewish audience.
Micah 6 v 8 has the prophet proclaiming:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
Acting justly and loving mercy here seem to be two sides of the same coin. And all of this is wrapped up in humility. I do not proclaim myself the final expert in anything, nor suggest that I have all of the answers – but I do seek to prayerfully challenge things that I believe are not right, because time and time again, I think that’s what Jesus did.
Again, in the New Testament, James challenges us in Chapter 2:
15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
This should – and does – speak to me as much as to anyone. To what extent do I live out the faith that I profess? Not as much as I should, no doubt. But the church I have been going to is involved with giving out food parcels to those in need and has a number of other practical demonstrations of faith, so the service above was not truly representative. And in my own work I am very happy to be involved with another local Food Bank (http://mkfoodbank.org.uk/) as well as helping to raise money for another charity (https://www.winternightsheltermk.com/) which seeks to house homeless people during the coldest months of the year as well as help them find longer term solutions to the issues that have led them to be there in the first place.
Are these exclusively Christian organisations or ones that only Christians contribute towards? By no means. By are they organisations the like of which Christians should contribute towards – if they practice what they preach? I would reply with a very strong affirmative. And there are many, many other similar organisations we can get involved with, that support the marginalised and oppressed either closer to, or further from, home.
Above all, I do believe that we are called to be Salt and Light in this world. And whether to season the world or to stop people slipping over, whether to light their way or point them to God, the world could do with some of both, in 2020 and beyond!
Resilience has been a growing ‘buzz-word’ over the past few years in a lot of environments and workplaces. As someone who works in education and also practices mindfulness (although not as often or consistently as would be beneficial), I hear this word a lot.
But I have started to worry about the whole idea of resilience.
When should we be resilient and when should we not be? Or how can we better implement a practical and wholesome idea of resilience, so it is not psychologically damaging?
We all know the idea of resilience as ‘“the ability to bounce back” or “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Equally we all know stories of immense and laudable resilience. I can still remember a student in my first school whose mother died during his GCSE preparation and who, instead of going on Work Experience was caring for her during her last illness. Now I am not sure if it was the practicalities of caring for her or any other reason that caused this, but when he returned to school, he had cut his hair and was without his patka (the variant of a turban often worn by young Sikhs.) What impressed me most was not just the massive significance of this – having uncut hair is an important part of Sikhism – but the lack of self-pity, the calmness with which, as he could not talk about his Work Experience for a Speaking and Listening assessment, he proceeded to talk about his experiences caring for his mother instead.
There are whole hosts of such stories, of people combating awful circumstances, overcoming dreadful odds, refusing to let these make them bitter.
But equally there are stories in which young doctors are told to ‘suck it up’ when they are in situations where they are over-stretched, under-staffed, over-worked, and made to feel that the problem is with their lack of resilience rather than the situation (often far more politically sensitive, so easier to ignore) that they are working within.
And can we, as Christians, compound the problem, by encouraging an unquestioning compliance to our employers or to the authorities, rather than the ‘righteous anger’ that Jesus also displayed, when appropriate to do so? When should things be cured rather than endured?
And what does the Bible have to say about resilience anyhow?
Certainly, from the early days of the Old Testament, we are reminded in no uncertain terms to have faith in God and to act accordingly: ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’ (Joshua 1 v 9.) We are told that God is the one who provides the resources we need: ‘I can do all this through Him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4 v 13.) And we are told that ultimately, this world is not our home: ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4: 17-18.)
This is all well and good but how does it speak to those who are genuinely suffering? How does it show genuine pastoral care to those who are depressed or even oppressed by a seeming cult of positivity? ‘Chin up, love’? ‘Keep on pushing through’? Are we just encouraging people to keep on giving and giving and giving, until they genuinely don’t have any more to give? And how seriously do we take Jesus’ words to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12 v 31) when any act of self-care is ingrained in us as something selfish or unworthy, not as the act of service we should instead be performing towards others? (Just as a side-note, personally I don’t think it should be an either / or and besides, how can we fill others’ glasses from an empty jug?)
Jesus didn’t say to the paralysed man, the bleeding woman or the leper – ‘Chin up.’
He didn’t even say to the hungry crowd of 5000, ‘Never mind – trust in God.’
Instead, he changed their situations.
Moreover, when he saw injustice or corruption, he dealt with it:
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
I have read different interpretations of this incident – I take it quite a lot as a protest about the corruption of a true religion: a railing against the exploitation of captive pilgrims, there in Jerusalem for the Passover; and an attack on the commercialisation of religion akin to the medieval selling of Indulgences criticised by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.
So where does this leave us? For me, resilience is often born of necessity: what are your options? To sink into a slump of depression (or worse)? Or to endure? Yes, we can have faith that God is with us in our situation and that He will give us the resources we need. But maybe, just maybe, sometimes God is giving us those resources so we can act against injustices and suffering where we find them, both for others but also for ourselves.
Which takes me back to my original question:
Far from seeing this soliloquy from Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1, simply as a death wish, I see this as very much a call to action and ultimately, I think I’m very much with Hamlet in deciding that while the former (‘suffering the slings and arrows’) is often commendable, sometimes the latter action is also much needed.
I’ve not been on here for a while as life has overtaken just a tad. A tad too much, if I’m honest. Which has led to a certain amount of metaphorical walking in darkness. And a certain hunger to find the light behind it all again.
But aren’t we all? Walking in darkness, I mean? In a world (and we call ourselves more developed!) where an old person can see no-one at all for 11 days; where people can make death threats against a 16-year-old for expressing his political opinion; where young people are increasingly suffering from poor mental health and where everyone is in such a tearing hurry that there is seemingly no time to sustain the ‘background music of civility’, to quote U.A. Fanthorpe.
In Isaiah Chapter 9, the prophet proclaimed the following:
This is generally seen as a prefiguring or a precursor to Jesus’ birth – the light shining in darkness. And don’t we all need that? I look at the world sometimes and can be tempted to despair – rising violence, whether guns or knives; politics that either don’t seem to speak to or indeed represent the majority, so a growing disengagement or political malaise; the ever-present and corrosive anger evident on so much of our social media – where does all of that come from? And more importantly, how do we combat this?
Now, I don’t pretend to understand the wheels within wheels behind our current political system, but I do know that it does not represent ‘justice and righteousness’ for all, let alone ‘from that time on and forever.’ But I have to hold on to the hope, however hard that is to do sometimes, that God knows what He’s about, and that His government will be one that represents all of these things and that one day, there will come a time, as Isaiah prophesied earlier, when ‘Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2 v 4c) where the ‘Prince of Peace’ will indeed reign.
But what about now? Is it all ‘pie in the sky until we die’? I hope not. Maybe those of us who hold on (some how!) to this same hope need to BE God’s Kingdom until such time as it arrives – or maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4: 17, English Standard Version.)
So whatever way you can BE light, GIVE light, SHARE light with others, even if you feel the candle is flickering oh-so-dimly, perhaps that way the light can dawn, here and now and as we go into 2020.