Life is more than experiences. The endless chase for the next one won’t fill the ache in your soul…
Life is more than experiences. The endless chase for the next one won’t fill the ache in your soul…
I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross. Every eye looking every other way, counting down ’til the pain would stop. – U2, Moment of Surrender
On this day we remember Jesus walking the Stations of the Cross, from the place of his trial to the Place of the Skull – his crucifixion. It is a solemn route, a route of salvation through the most intense suffering.
Over the last couple of years I have become more aware of what my heart really desires. In a sense I’ve always been aware of it but growth is a gradual process. It’s a very rare person who has a lightning bolt experience of revelation.
The deepest desire of my heart, and I suspect of all of our hearts, is for intimacy. We long for connection to other human beings. It is the essence of who we are. We are hard wired for relationship.
The image in the above song line is of the way we rush through life on the subway, speeding to make a living but not stopping to make a life. The Stations of the Cross are a wonderful reflection timeline, scattered along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This Easter is the perfect time to stop and reflect as we stop for a few days from the rush of life.
In our culture we find it difficult to stop though. It’s like we are doing all we can to cover up some pain in our lives, something that is missing. As we speed through the subway, rushing through but not stopping at the stations to reflect, our eyes look the other way, not wanting to make contact with each other. We think the fact that everyone being on their devices and not connecting with each other is a new phenomenon, something that has arisen with the advent of our devices. But if you look at photos from a hundred years ago, you will see people lined up in the street reading their newspapers. Nothing has changed, just the way we don’t connect with each other.
Why are we fearful of connecting with each other while at the same time we yearn for it? Is it because we fear what we cannot control, because we have been hurt to the point that we cannot trust anymore? Why is it that every eye looks every other way, seemingly counting down until we can finally get off that train and not feel the awkwardness of being too close to others? It’s why no one looks at each other in lifts. We don’t want to be in each other’s personal zones.
Connection to each other is what we are made for. Jesus’ suffering and brutal death is a reminder of what love will do to be close to us. It is while we were still bitter enemies of him that Jesus died for humanity, to be close, to connect and to be intimate. That is what love is, and it changes the world.
Humanity can live without success but we cannot live without meaning – Richard Rohr
When life hits you where it hurts, when something knocks you off your feet, pulls the rug out from under you and turns your life upside down, it is then that the things that really matter become crystal clear to you again.
It is said by wise people that love brings clarity. I have found that to be true. And something else that brings clarity is suffering. It is only through suffering that we grow, that we come to a knowing in our heart and not just intellectually that things like relationship and meaning are what really matter and that everything else is just superficial.
This is a major reason why I remain a person of Christian faith. The Christian movement was birthed in suffering; Jesus was known as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Being Christian and seeking to grow in my faith makes sense to me when nothing else does. It allows me to have joy (not happiness) within suffering.
Our greatest lessons in life are learned in suffering. We don’t learn that in our daily interactions with our culture. Our leaders talk about being successful and winning, and our advertising is deliberately targeted to make us perpetually dissatisfied with what we have in life. But it was the Apostle Paul, writing from prison, who said that he had learned what it is to be content whatever the circumstances.
Why was it that those first followers of the man of sorrows, people like Paul, Peter and James, repeatedly talked about joy when they were beaten, lashed, imprisoned and tortured for refusing to budge from their way of life? They were people who were living in what Richard Rohr calls the second half of life. They knew through their suffering what really mattered. They were able to count it a privilege to suffer for what was called ‘The Way’. They were able to count it all joy when they faced trials of all kinds. That idea is lost on us in a society that values comfort and ease and feeling good above most everything else. But that brings its own suffering as addiction runs rampant as we want to feel all we can and are made to believe that more and better will give us what we want.
A few months ago I walked down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. The Way of the Cross as it is called is the path that Jesus carried his cross to his crucifixion. John’s gospel says that Jesus’ crucifixion was when he was glorified. This is another idea that is lost on an affluent society. But it is the only way to life. That is why Jesus, surely knowing what lay ahead of him, said earlier in his ministry that anyone who would come after him must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. It is why Paul later said that anyone who follows Jesus will be persecuted.
Relationship and meaning in life are what ultimately matter. Suffering is the key that unlocks these truths.
The last twenty years or so have seen an encouraging increase in the number of books being written focusing on what it means to be an authentic male in our culture. Ever since Steve Bidduph wrote his epic Manhood in the mid-1990s, the growth in the men’s movement has seen more men work towards becoming more emotionally centred and available to their families and other loved ones.
This life-giving trend towards becoming better men has been equally seen in Christian circles. Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, John Eldredge and others have written and taught much on what a real man looks like in a culture that pressures men to be someone they are not.
Into this mix comes probably the best book I have read on being a man among men. Nate Pyle’s Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood is a breath of fresh air in the increasing volume of literature on men and their issues.
It is wonderful to see an author be so open and vulnerable about his own vulnerability about not feeling like a man for such a long period of his life. Pyle’s experience will resonate with many men in the Church, including myself. It is only in recent years that I have done a lot of work on what a genuine man looks like. Reading Pyle’s book has allowed me to breathe a huge sigh of relief that you don’t have to be a “warrior man” – as some Christian authors emphasise, to be a godly man.
“Trying to manage my…image kept me trapped, working to control others’ opinions of me rather than doing what I knew was right…I stayed on the margins of my life, acted to get into the thick of things, terrified that I was going to hurt someone, or offend someone, or mess everything up.” – Alison Vesterfelt
I used to be like this. In my teens I wouldn’t talk to anyone unless they spoke to me first because I thought I might offend them. It was really about me being scared of rejection. I’m still a people pleaser to an extent. Just last year I was told by someone at work that I was the nicest person in the office. It was a compliment but it didn’t sit right. I instinctively knew it was something that was a character flaw in me.
When I was in my early twenties, I used try to compensate for my niceness by being overly blunt a lot of the time. I did it to the point of sometimes being rude. I was a mixture of both bluntness and niceness. People saw me as kind, which I was as well, but I didn’t know then what I know now about being loving. I was deeply insecure and scared of going back to the niceness that was previously such a large part of my character. I thought that if I went back to that, I was going backwards in my growth and wasn’t being real.
These days I speak up a lot more. I’m still a bit of a people pleaser at times, but I have learned that Jesus was not a nice guy. Let me repeat that: Jesus was not a nice guy. If you think he was, you’re missing my point about niceness.
But hear this though: it’s not a matter of trying to compensate for being overly nice by being blunt, or vice-versa. Neither niceness or bluntness is necessarily loving. It’s about trusting God, surrendering everything to Jesus with the attitude he showed in the Garden: not my will but yours be done.
As Alison Vesterfelt says, these days I try to think about kindness instead of niceness. Just thinking of it like that is mind-blowing for me. Jesus was the kindest, most loving person who has ever lived. That’s the sort of person I want to be.
A former colleague and friend of mine died last week. She was too young, and left behind a husband and two kids.
People who were closer to her than I was have been comforting each other this week in their grief. It has been terribly sad to witness.
The times in my life when I have known people who have died have been times of bonding with other loved ones of the deceased. It is not shared experiences necessarily or shared happiness that bonds people. It is shared suffering. When you grieve together over the suffering of a loved one, love comes to the fore.
It’s ultimately what life is about, really. Life is primarily about the experience of loss, ultimately to the loss of our life.
Martin Luther King said once that suffering is redemptive. What he meant by that is that it is not meaningless. In a friendly universe, where the moral arc bends towards love, suffering can always be turned into good.
Jesus was known as a man of sorrows, one who was familiar with grief. He cried at the death of his friend Lazarus, he agonised over his coming suffering and death in the Garden of Gethsemane. and he cried out in desperation as he hung limp on a Roman cross. Jesus’ suffering was real, but it was not meaningless. Continue reading
Hi, my name is Nils and I’m an addict. And so are you.
Most of us don’t have the obvious addictions like drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex. But we all have attachments, certain beliefs about ourselves and the world. Everyone of us is addicted to certain patterns of thinking. If you’re not sure about that, a great book to read about it is Addiction and Grace by Gerald May.
We live in a society that places way too high a value on feeling good. When that happens, especially at the expense of relationship and connection, addiction thrives and shame eventually sets in. We substitute feeling good about ourselves for feeling good.
In our culture, addictions take many forms. We are addicted to our smart phones, to shopping, to making more money, and it is killing our souls. If you don’t think you are addicted, try stopping for a few weeks and see how you feel.
Research is now showing that there is a definite link between the lack of connection in our society and addiction. As the above TED talk points out, in the United States, the number of people who can say they have close friends to call on in a crisis has been diminishing since the 1950s. The same would be true in Australia, as we are a very similar culture which is enormously influenced by the US.
Johann Hari, in the above talk, also says this:
“Wherever you are, be all there.” – Jim Elliott
Do you ever have the attitude that, no matter where you are, you want to be somewhere else? I do.
A friend and colleague of mine has been talking a bit lately about FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. It is the disease of the age. There are so many options in our lives these days, so many things to do, people to see and places to go, that we suffer from choice anxiety.
What this results in is an attitude of “keeping our options open” so we don’t miss out. But in the meantime, we end up not really experiencing anything properly because of our fear of committing. Continue reading
100 years ago this year, during the First World War, the Christmas truce took place between British, German and French soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers from opposing sides, who were stationed there to kill each other, instead got to know one another, shared photos of loved ones, and even had a game of soccer.
This of course made their superiors furious, not just because the troops were disobeying orders, but because it is much harder to harm someone with whom you have formed some sort of relationship. The enemy is to be faceless and nameless.
The same holds true for millions of people living in poverty around the world this Christmas. They are the faceless and nameless ones. In reality though, the enemy that is poverty is not faceless. Poverty is about people, it is not about statistics. Poverty is also not just about a lack of material goods; it is more about a lack of dignity, a lack of a sense that you are important. We are reminded that poverty is always personal because it is about relationship.
Back in the year 2000, the World Bank undertook a major study of poverty from the point of view of those actually experiencing it. In the study, called Voices of the Poor, 60,000 people living in poverty were interviewed and asked what their view of poverty was. The overwhelming response was that it was about lack of power, lack of dignity, and that it drives one into despair.
At Christmas many of us celebrate the coming of God to Earth in the form of a human, Jesus Christ. Also known as the Prince of Peace, Jesus came to set the world to rights. In The Message translation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels, Jesus’ prayer starts off as,
“Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best— as above, so below.”
The more common translation that many of us would be familiar with includes the phrase, “may your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.”
This kingdom of God is something that Jesus talked about more than anything else. It is a kingdom of transformation, and it is transformation at every level of existence: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
In the Book of Revelation – an often difficult book to understand – it is described in terms of a promise that there will one day come a time when God will complete this kingdom and that tears will be wiped away, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4). Justice, peace and transformation will prevail. This is the promise we have from the One who was born as a helpless baby in a manger 2,000 years ago.
Jesus made poverty personal. He saw everyone he came into contact with as a person of dignity. Once people encountered Jesus, they were never the same again. They were transformed in every way. This is also our very identity as followers of Jesus. Everything about who we are is wrapped up in who Jesus is and what he has done.
God has come to earth to identify as one of us, to bring good news to the poor, to set the captives free and to restore the world to rights. This is God’s dream and it is the hope of Christmas. May your Christmas be blessed, meaningful and hopeful.