Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Community (Page 2 of 4)

Loneliness kills more people than Ebola ever will

Great but tragic article from George Monbiot on this age in our existence being known as the age of loneliness. Check out some of these startling quotes:

  • “Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
  • “Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism.”
  • “For [all our technological and material prowess], we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.”

What does maturity look like?

Understanding peopleI’ve just been reading a bit of Larry Crabb’s book, Understanding People, again. It’s a book I got in 1987 and it has made a huge impact on me.

The sections I read today discussed maturity and what that looks like. The fact is that much of what looks like maturity in people is actually a commitment to self-protection.

Here are some quotes from the book that have really struck and challenged me. The fact that I find a lot of these quotes so uncomfortable is a sure sign that they apply to me.

  • “Maturity is less related to perfection than to a growing awareness of imperfection, an awareness that…drives us toward dependency on Christ for anything good to come out of our lives.”
  • “A mature pattern of relating involves whatever actions represent the abandonment of self-protection. The defensively pushy person will become more gentle as he matures, while the self-protectively gracious person will assert himself more.”
  • “Mature people relate to others without self-protection as their controlling motive. They love. Their actions may be gentle or brusque, silly or serious, traditional or progressive, quiet or noisy, gracious or severe, tolerant or confrontative, but they will be patient, kind, not envious, humble, sensitive, other-centred, slow to anger, quickly forgiving, haters of wrong, lovers of right, protective, trusting, hoping, persevering.”
  • “[Mature people] relate to others on the basis of a trust in God to look after their deepest welfare that frees them to direct their energies toward helping others.”
  • “In [the presence of mature people], our growth seems more appealing to us than required of us.”
  • “As people learn to love, the internal structures that sustain their emotional and psychological ills are eroded.”
  • “When the Scriptures give no clear instruction to govern specific choices, then the principle is always to do what is loving.”
  • “The effect of dependence on God is freedom to take hold of our worlds and to deal responsibly with them without being controlled by a fear of the pain to which our obedience may lead. The effect of clinging to God is the freedom to love.”

Loneliness in the age of Facebook

This is a wonderful article on the realities and false security that social media can bring if we let it.

This issue has been discussed before but it’s always good to be reminded. This author raises some great points.

It reminds me of CS Lewis’ quote about love:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

You don’t get this on social media when you can hide behind your online persona. No technology will ever remove our need for relational intimacy.


Are the New Atheists the new outcasts?

outcastsThe New Atheists have been around for quite a few years now. They have been pilloried by Christians of many persuasions. Often the criticism has been justified because of the generally misinformed commentary they have made on issues of Christian faith.

For a long time though, many atheists have felt pilloried by society as well. They have felt left out and misunderstood by much of society. Atheists of a more mild persuasion – as many are – have been tarred with the same brush that has been applied to Richard Dawkins and other outspoken atheists like him.

How would Jesus respond to the New Atheists today? I certainly don’t think his first priority would be to organise a debate about whether or not God exists. As has been mentioned elsewhere, Jesus had no need of an apologetic. His apologetic was the “greatest of these”: love. How did Jesus love the pilloried ones? He ate and rank with them. He accepted them just for who they were. It goes without saying then that the approach of Jesus is the approach that we best take.

It is perhaps an indictment on the church in Australia that some atheists have started mimicking the church and organising their own meetings. When NT Wright was in Australia recently, he made the point that the church is possibly the only organised group in society that meets together regularly for the purpose of mutual edification and the promotion of the common good. In our individualised culture, such fellowship is sorely needed. I believe it is hugely enhanced when there is a sense of acknowledging a transcendant power that is greater than ourselves. That is not to take away though from the need for community generally. We are relational creatures, and it is in relationship that we find our true sense of self.

What would a Christlike response to the atheist movement look like? Well, it certainly wouldn’t criticise or mock them for copying the Christian church. It would love by welcoming without any ulterior agenda. It wouldn’t welcome solely for the purpose of trying to convert. It would welcome and show the love of Christ regardless of the response. And if one wanted to commit to the way of Jesus, then great.

The Jesus of the gospels is always our example, inspiration and empowerment when seeking what an appropriate act of love looks like. The atheist movement is possibly one of the equivalents in our society of tax collectors, publicans and sinners. A response of Christlikeness is the way to love them.

A day that changed my life

vulnerabilityCan you think of a time when someone has been brutally honest and vulnerable about themselves and it’s taken you by surprise? For me it happened about 20 years ago at a church I had just started attending.

As I remember it, the person leading the service that day asked anyone to come forward who wanted to share what they thought God had been doing in their lives recently. One young guy got up – he was probably about my age at the time – and told about his relationship with his girlfriend and how he had recently gotten her pregnant, and how he had walked away from his faith. He then shared about the support he had received from the church community through his struggle.

My first reaction upon hearing this was just sheer admiration at this person for getting up there and being so vulnerable and honest. He didnt’t beat around the bush; he just got up there and said it like it was. He was honest, humble and vulnerable.

Looking back, that was one of the reasons I ended up staying at that church for about a decade. That sort of honesty was the norm at this place. People could just be themselves; there was no subtle, unwritten pressure to be a particular type of Christian. I have since heard it said that God is much more interested in us being honest with him than giving the impression to others that all is well in our little world. More recently I have heard Bono say that God is more interested in who we are than who we should be. I’m glad about that because I’m not very close to where I should be.

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Strength in weakness

Purpose Driven LifeFrom Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life:

“God wants to use your weaknesses, not just your strengths. If all people see are your strengths, they get discouraged and think, “Well, good for her, but I’ll never be able to do that.” But when they see God using you in spite of your weaknesses, it encourages them to think, “Maybe God can use me!” Our strengths create competition, but our weaknesses create community.

At some point in your life you must decide whether you want to impress people or influence people. You can impress people from a distance, but you must get close to influence them, and when you do that, they will be able to see your flaws. That’s okay. The most essential quality for leadership is not perfection, but credibility. People must be able to trust you, or they won’t follow you. How do you build credibility? Not by pretending to be perfect, but by being honest…

Paul said, “I am going to boast only about how weak I am and how great God is to use such weakness for his glory” [2 Corinthians 12:5b LB]. Instead of posing as self-confident and invincible, see yourself as a trophy of grace.”

Simon Moyle’s thoughts on leaving Facebook

Facebook_heart_c-thumb-200x154-94395_180A typically well-thought-out and humble post by Simon Moyle on his reasons for quitting Facebook. Some of his thoughts are exactly those I have wrestled with at times over the years. Here are some of his thoughts that resonate with me:

  • When it begins to feel like a burden and is liberating to stop…that’s a pretty good indication right there that something’s been wrong.
  • What does it mean when the new ‘marginalised’ means those not on Facebook?
  • We have more information than ever but I wonder if we are more informed?
  • Do we give information enough time to do its inward formation work on us or is it just washing over us because of the sheer volume? Or do we listen only to that which reinforces our existing beliefs?
  • What are the lines between information sharing, boasting, and straight out propaganda? Where’s the line between “letting your light shine before others” and not “practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them”? I’m not sure I know anymore. Does anyone even care?
  • it’s the question of whose desires ‘run’ me…I’m glad my posts have been valued, but I don’t think I should allow others’ desires to run mine. There’s only one Other whose desires I want to run me, and if I spend more time listening to the louder voices instead of the still small one I’m going to have a hard time being ‘run’ by the latter.
  • [Getting off Facebook is] less “efficient” in terms of reaching fewer people in a smaller geographical area, but then efficiency is not a gospel concept.

I agree with most of Simon’s post, though I’m not sure I agree with all of it. That is something I will have to think through. Or perhaps it’s something I don’t want to face. What I am sure about though is that I definitely agree with his points that I have quoted above.

I have written a number of posts (here, here and here) about the impact of Facebook on human identity and relationships, and challenged by someone like Simon who doesn’t just write about it, but as usual, puts it into action.

The Way of meaning

My wife and I saw the movie The Way last night. It’s a wonderful story that portrays the unbreakable fatherly love of Tom (Martin Sheen) for his estranged and just deceased son, Daniel. In learning that his son has just been killed on his first day on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) in France, Tom travels over to collect Daniel’s body. While there though, he is suddenly hit by the magnitude of his loss and decides to make the trek himself that his son had set out to do.

This is a story of redemption and the search for meaning. Richard Rohr says that the soul can live without success but it cannot live without meaning. This is something I have been thinking about a bit recently. If we spend our lives dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, or money, or status, we will be forever coming up short. We will remain in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction and never be happy, or else we will become satisfied with a life of mediocrity and never reach the potential we all have.

As Tom goes on his journey he comes across some characters that he would never choose to have as friends in his cosy Californian lifestyle back home. There is Joost from Amsterdam, Sarah from Canada, and the stereotypically Irishman, Jack. What we don’t see so much of in this story is the change in these latter three characters, but we see it in spades in Tom. Older than the others, he gradually thaws from a frozen, aloof and even arrogant man to learning to enjoy the company and care of his three new travelling companions. His journey reveals that he is not only deeply affected by the loss of his son, but also by the love and warmth of these three strangers in his midst.

Meaning is something we all strive for, whether we realise it or not. Most of the time though, we are so satiated by the entertainment saturation of our culture that we don’t recognise the void within our souls. Walter Brueggemann explains this eloquently in his book The Prophetic Imagination. It is often only when we are confronted with the type of terrible loss that Tom is faced with that we see our need for change. As Tom continues on his pilgrimage, the frown on his face softens, and he learns to get into life and smile more often. The real change though comes after an encounter with a gypsy family, one of whom runs off with Tom’s backpack (which contains the ashes of his son). The much-maligned gypsies, defined stereotypically by theft and deceit, show Tom what community and relationship is about. In one revealing conversation between Tom and the father of the boy who stole Tom’s pack, the father explains that up to 2,000 people attend gyspy weddings. Surprised, Tom points out that they couldn’t all be close family or friends. He is shocked however when the father explains to him that they are indeed all close. These gypsies know what community is all about.

As Tom continues on the way, he is occasionally struck with images of his deceased son, and reminded of the admonition his son once gave to him, that you don’t choose a life, you live it. We only get one chance at this thing called life; this is not a dress rehearsal. We are thrown into it at birth and expected to make the best of it, hopefully with all the love and support we need. As my wife pointed out to me, choosing our life is a very Western idea. Most people in the world don’t get to choose their life, and many don’t even get to live it. But our attitudes towards life are something that no one can take from us. It is amazing what those who have been through the most immense suffering can teach us in the West about how to live our lives. I think of people like Viktor Frankl, stuck for years in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Frankl of course didn’t choose that life, but he has much to say to us about it , especially in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

One of my greatest fears in life is that I will end up like Tom’s three new friends at the end of The Way. In the end, they didn’t change. Joost decided he wasn’t going to lose weight after all, Sarah was never going to give up her cancer sticks, and Jack seems to remain stuck in his mediocre life. We are too comfortable here. Australia is the second most wealthy country in the world, yet we seem to have the least in terms of meaning to our lives. Many would dispute this of course, as many find their meaning in their devotion to daily and friends. But beneath all of that we are sold the lie that life is found in more stuff. Advertisers deliberately create a dissatisfaction within us by telling us that we will never be happy until we buy their products. So we walk through life perpetually unhappy and comparing ourselves to others. The sin of covetousness is alive and well in 21st century Australia. That is not an indictment on the Australian public, but I think of Jesus’ warning: “woe to those who cause others to sin.” Advertisers, hear the warning.

The human soul cannot function without something to live for. And as John Mellencamp sang so many years ago, if we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. Our life needs to mean something, and if we are constantly entertained, if we constantly live for the weekends or for the next holiday (as legitimate as these are in themselves), we will remain forever dissatisfied. For real change to take place, we need to be aware of the dissatisfaction in our souls with the way things are. We also need to have a vision for a better alternative, and to have people around us who are yearning for the same thing. This is what Jesus meant when he said that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions” (Mark 10:29-30). Contrary to what prosperity ‘gospel’ preachers may say, this passage is not at all about Jesus saying that we will gain a fortune in houses for ourselves when we follow Jesus. That is a purely individualistic way of looking at it. Jesus was talking about community. When we follow him, we gain the hospitality of other pilgrims on the way, as the first Christians showed.

Tom found meaning on The Way of St James (interestingly, it is James who has the most dire warnings to those who want to be rich in the early church). He began to know again what life was about. He could relate to the God of Jesus in knowing what it was like to lose a son. His pain drove him to become a better person. He didn’t push it down or try to drown it in short-term pleasures which would only leave him more unsatisfied later on. He found a deeper magic, found the things that really matter like relationship, community, and the joys that come from sharing life and its struggles in true intimacy with others on the rough road that is often life. There is a revealing scene in another poignant movie, Up in the Air, when George Clooney’s character is trying to talk his future brother-in-law out of bailing out of his upcoming wedding. He asks his future brother-in-law to think about the fondest memories of his life, and then points out that the are always ones that were spent with others. Our fondest memories are rarely ones we experienced alone. Our best times are with loved ones, as they would be for a species like us that is wired for relationship. It just makes sense that our most enjoyable moments are the ones for which we were made.

The Way probably wasn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it definitely had an emotional impact on me. It touched something deeper, something raw, something which we all know deep down is what we are really about. Relationship does that; it resonates with everyone. The saying certainly is true that while we can live without success, we cannot live without meaning. May I further realise that on my continuing journey on the way.

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