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Monday, 7 April 2014

Having to take a break

Various pressures mean that I have to take a break from blogging at the moment. Hope that you'll stay connected as I hope to be back before too long.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Vulnerability and Intimacy

The healing journey is inter-connected with the devotional journey. The transparency and vulnerability that are part of the healing process are also necessary for intimacy. It is impossible to have intimacy without vulnerability. And God takes the first steps to teach us this. Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes:
'Most people in my experience are still into fearing God and controlling God instead of loving God. They never really knew it was possible, given the power equation. When one party has all the power - which is most people's definition of God - all you can do is fear and try to control. 
The only way that can be changed is for God, from God's side, to change the power equation and invite us into a world of mutuality and vulnerability. Our living image of that power change is called Jesus! In him, God took the imitative to overcome our fear, our need to manipulate God and make honest Divine relationship possible.'
The incarnation is, among other things, about the vulnerability of God for the sake of intimacy with us. It is God's humility enabling such intimacy. For God to become a babe in arms, a child who had to grow and learn and submit to the aid of others, and live life in this messy, mundane and painful world is in itself amazing. That he also received our hatred and scorn, and was taken in our rough hands and nailed to a cross is the utmost in divine vulnerability. It is not only the basis of securing salvation. It is an invitation into vulnerability. And so into intimacy with God.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Guilt, Shame and Responsibility

When I first started hearing about and realising the need for the healing journey, I had to get over some quite strong reservations. For a start, I worried that it meant selling out to modern psychology rather than holding on to a biblical worldview. Isn't a lot of this stuff about 'inner healing' just a load of secular psychobabble? And doesn't it just keep us focused on, and even obsessed with, ourselves rather than on God and others? I was also influenced by my own tradition of conservative Christianity which often considered it to involve going 'soft on sin'. Painfully aware of my own faults and failures, I was concerned that it might lead me into a victim mindset rather than to appropriate guilt, repentance and taking personal responsibility to change my behavior. Instead I would focus on my own pain and brokenness and use them as an excuse for my behaviour.

Slowly I realised that although guilt may be the appropriate response at times, it easily and often gets wrapped up with shame and self-loathing. These emotions do nothing to change our behaviour and actually only erode the soul. In fact, shame is the cause of a lot of addictive and dysfunctional behaviour. Far from making us more other-centred, self-hatred actually keeps us focused on the self and seriously distorts our love for God and others. And I have to admit that, frankly, lots of heavy duty guilt and earnest attempts at repentance in the past had not secured much change in me - or many others I knew! I am now finding that a deeper appreciation of the truths of grace that I have preached for years, but which are now slowly seeping more deeply into my inner being than ever before, can offer real hope. A grace that doesn't shame us into change (or more likely into more hiding) but that enables us to take responsibility for our behaviour in the context of total acceptance and unconditional love. It is only such love that can enable us to have the vulnerability to be honest and the courage to take responsibility.

I recently read this article by Derek Flood which has really helped me to think through these things and summarizes the issues beautifully. It also shows that it's possible to value the insights that psychology can bring to understanding the dynamics of the spiritual life.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A Fresh Voice: Two Key Questions for Healing

I am resorting to stealing other people's material for my blog now! But given I have been thinking still about transparency-intimacy and the healing journey, I loved this when I read it today, from Frederick Buechner:
After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God came strolling through the cool of the day and asked them two questions: "Where are you?" and "What is this that you have done?" Psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the like have been asking the same ones ever since."Where are you?" lays bare the present. Adam and Eve are in hiding, that's where they are. What is it they want to hide? From whom do they want to hide it? What does it cost them to hide it? Why are they so unhappy with things as they are that they are trying to conceal it from the world by hiding, and from themselves by covering their nakedness with aprons?What is this that you have done?" lays bare the past. What did they do to get this way? What did they hope would happen by doing it? What did they fear would happen? What did the serpent do? What was it that made them so ashamed?God is described as cursing them then, but in view of his actions at the end of the story and right on through the end of the New Testament, it seems less a matter of vindictively inflicting them with the consequences than of honestly confronting them with the consequences. Because of who they are and what they have done, this is the result. There is no undoing it. There is no going back to the garden.But then comes the end of the story, where God with his own hands makes them garments of skins and clothes them. It is the most moving part of the story. They can't go back, but they can go forward clothed in a new way — clothed, that is, not in the sense of having their old defenses again, behind which to hide who they are and what they have done, but in the sense of having a new understanding of who they are and a new strength to draw on for what lies before them to do now.Many therapists wouldn't touch biblical teachings with a ten-foot pole, but in their own way, and at their best, they are often following them.- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
It is only in recent months that I have begun to learn from writer and pastor-theologian Fredrick Buechner, mainly by way of the website devoted to his work, and a few extracts. I still have only sipped from his work, and must soon take a good gulp. But it's good to taste fresh waters, to hear fresh voices.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Can we know...any human heart?

I suggested in my last post that we cannot know our own hearts. That is why we have to ask God to search it for us. One thing we can know for sure about ourselves is that our hearts are deceitful (Jer.17:9) - this is not so much about wickedness or total depravity, but simply the universal tendency to fool ourselves, to believe our own publicity, to hide behind our self-made masks. (And we can't duck out of this so easily by supposing the new heart we receive as part of the new covenant deal removes this tendency automatically or immediately - even a cursory reading of the New Testament should remove that illusion). I share this not to encourage despair in ourselves but dependence on God and mercy towards each other. It need not discourage transparency because part of transparency is acknowledging this tendency in a frank, open-hearted and good-humoured way. True intimate friendship with God (because he is the kind of friend who can inflict the loving wounds that reveal our folly) is the best protection against this self-delusion.

But this reflection over recent months has caused me to think more about the greater foolishness when we suppose we can know and judge what is going on in another human heart. Some of us have often done this in the past and called it 'discernment'. And when we told the said person what we thought was going on in their heart we called it 'speaking into their lives.' I am not talking about mutual instruction and encouragement in God's good ways, or even godly confrontation when a friend's actions, words, or blatantly obvious bad attitudes are causing them to fall far short of their true identity in Christ. I am talking abut those times when we presume to know and judge what is going on in another human heart - despite its complexity, messiness, ambiguity and depth. When we do this it is like presuming to do keyhole surgery with a machete or broad sword. I have had this done to me and I know I have also done it to others in the past.

And every time we say 'well they are only saying that because....' or 'that's just typical of them' we are indulging in it. You may sometimes be right about a person's weakness of shortfall, but that is not the point. There may well be a problem that requires surgery but that does not qualify you to conduct the operation. And it does not take great wisdom to see weakness; it is the ability to see beyond the weakness to the amazing potential within that is true wisdom. There may be a precious few friends who invite us to help them try to understand what is going on in their internal worlds and, if they do, we should tremble as we tread on to this holy ground. I cringe when I think of the times that I have stomped over the hearts of others and still smart from the times others did it to me. 

What if we could create communities when all we did was love each other unconditionally and just looked for the best in each other, largely ignoring the faults and weaknesses, and certainly not supposing we can know what was going on in people's hearts? What if our default response was just to encourage the good that we see, with the confidence that such kindness, encouragement and grace was the best way to disinfect our environments so that people felt able to open their hearts and allow the divine surgeon to do the operating.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Searching the Heart - Wounds and Idols

I suggested in my last post that transparency involves laying our hearts open before God. In fact, DIY open heart surgery is probably not a good idea. We have to put ourselves in the hands of the divine heart surgeon. In response to my last post, John referred to Ps.139:1, 23-24. I have thought about those verses quite a lot over the last few months. I have realised afresh that we cannot really know our own hearts, even when we think we do. That is why we need God to search them (we can't know other people's hearts either and that's really important but the subject for another post).

The great thing is that he has searched us (v.1) and is not shocked, offended or intimidated by what he finds. In fact, as the rest of the Psalm shows, knowing everything about us he still pursues us in love, even when we try to flee from him into our own darkness (vv.11-12). And when we finally realise that we do not really know ourselves and ask him to search us, we do so perhaps still in fear that he might find something unexpected that causes him to recoil in disapproval and offence; and so the translators write 'see if there is any evil/wicked/offensive way in me'. In fact the Hebrew word so translated is a word, Strong tells us, that can be translated - 'idol' or 'pain'. We are conscious of our sin and failure, but I find that when God does the searching, the deep heart surgery, this is what he uncovers:

  • wounds - the pain from stuff that has hurt us, some self-inflicted and some not, but which causes us to be sensitive, reactive, to hide or to flee; he wants to heal those wounds.
  • idols - the things that we lock on to and use to try to get our sense of significance or security from instead of God; they are the counterfeit gods that in fear or foolish self-centredness we try to replace God with in our hearts; he loves us too much to allow such worthless idols to remain.
Whether it is the cauterising of wounds or the burning up of idols, we sometimes experience the fires of his holy love in the intimacy and transparency of this divine heart surgery. But make no mistake it is his love we are experiencing - the holy and painful love of the one who searches us and knows us, and still loves us with an undying love.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Transparency - a Key to Intimacy

I guess my last few posts have still been under the general 'category heading' of the healing journey that I have been loosely blogging under since before Christmas. I also said I wanted to post a little on the devotional journey (see here for my my thoughts on the different journeys we are really all on). When it comes to the devotional journey, I am really speaking about growing in increasing intimacy with God. And this connects so readily to the issue of transparency that I have said something about in the last couple of posts.

I have always valued the idea (and some experience - not enough!) of walking with God. Just that phrase makes me catch my breath. The picture of God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day in Eden stirs my inner embers. And of Enoch who walked with God and then was not! Feel the shivers in the spine! To walk through life with God as our most intimate friend has always been at the heart of what it's all about as far as I can see (though I have been distracted and drifted from the simplicity of this far too many times!). I love that phrase in Job:
'...God's intimate friendship blessed my house'   (Job 29:4)
But I think I have too often seen intimacy only in terms of the shivers down the spine experience, the precious moments of expressing our love to God in worship, the times when I have felt the thrill of his presence. These are good and vital of course. But I have been learning over the last year or so that actually intimacy between friends (including God) is at least partly developed through the three key ingredients of time, trust and transparency. It must mean being real with God about how we feel and where things are at for us. Pretense makes intimacy impossible. God just cries 'where are you?' when we hide behind our 'shoulds' and 'oughts' and 'supposed tos', our 'worship times'and 'spiritual disciplines', our happy, holy faces. He so wants us to be real before him. He wants us to lay our hearts and life open before him in all their beautiful mess and holy muddle. How else do you explain so many of the Psalms? True transformation surely only comes to the transparent. Or am I missing something?