It is abundantly clear that this lifetime is a series of simultaneous deaths and births. “Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn to live,” said Seneca two millennia ago, “and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die.”
It is also clear that the farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore the more deaths - the more joy and the more pain.
The Road Less Travelled, Renunciation and Rebirth, Scott L.Peck
This chapter sprung to mind for me today - as we adjust our vision and goals in life, we often have to give up our old plans to embrace something new.
Sometimes this is very painful, but often our most difficult moments of personal questioning are precursor to a rebirth in our lives, a stirring of fresh inspiration and vision.
I find myself in such a period at the moment - it’s been difficult for me, being off work for Christmas, slowing down and getting away from a busy routine. It means I have to face up to myself more acutely than normal without the safety net of activity to protect me from overthinking.
I think that spiritually and emotionally, we routinely go through periods of reflection like this. Often the pain can seem excruciating and pointless.
But I believe that in our seemingly random times of questioning or even our lows, something significant is going on - we are processing our experiences and preparing ourselves to ‘let go’ of our old ideas about life in order to embrace a bigger, more accurate understanding of ourselves and the role which we are to play in this world.
Just a few thoughts I’d jot down :) I’m going to try to do more writing from now on.
Most people know I’m from a Christian background, it’s not something I keep quiet. My roots in the church have majorly influenced who I am, particularly during my transition from my troubled teenage years into becoming the best looking Youth Worker to ever walk the face of the planet (ahem!).
I’m known amongst my friends for having a very good knowledge of the Bible. To my shame, this isn’t really true - when I was a teenager, I used to deliberately memorise parts of the Bible in order to win debates, which makes it look like I’m uber-intellectual and holy (which I am)
Approaching the Bible like some kind of answer book really distorts it’s message, none of the authors wrote expecting some weird guy with a laptop to sit around on a train in the 21st Century creating bizarre blogs about their work. And yet, that’s what I’m going to do (lol!).
OK, not really. But I am going to read some of the bits of scripture I’ve invested less time in and draw out some thoughts for people to critique and/or throw rocks at me if appropriate.
I’ve been re-reading the Bible lately and finding it very challenging, particularly it’s emphasis on justice and personal integrity. These themes didn’t so prevalent when I was younger *
insert random comments about reading own values into the text bla bla. Being honest with myself, I’ve always devoted disproportionate time to the New Testament and ‘passages I like’.
Although I’d read the whole by the time I was 19, I mainly read it for bragging rights (and look, i just bragged again… ) and barely paid attention to Psalms or Ezekiel! Approaching the Bible again as an ‘adult’ *cough* is an exciting thing - it feels like a new book to me (partly cos I took a 3 year sabbatical from being a Christian… but that’s another story!).
So, cos I am lazy I am going to start with part of the Bible commonly referred to as ‘The Minor Prophets’. Of course, if you meet Obadiah or any of his other ‘Minor Prophets’ crew in the afterlife, you’re probably better off not calling them ‘Minor Prophets’ to their face. Personally I want to give them a quick readichu cos if I meet these dudes in the afterlife, I’ll look like a major douche for not having read their books when I have taken the time to read the entire ‘New Avengers’ comic book series.
So, the ‘minor’ prophets. They’re not midgets. Their books are just a bit shorter than say Ezekiel (I thought I wrote a lot till I read his book - sorry Ezek-Dawg!). In order to understand them properly, it’s best to do some background reading.
The thing that is absolutely amazing about them in my opinion is the level of honesty these guys have - if these dudes with attitude rolled up in some middle class churches, they’d definitely upset the status quo with the sheer honesty they have with God, which ultimately comes from their passion.
I’m going to read each one that throw out some thoughts - I’ll do it here on Tumblr so that ya’all can respond and so that it goes on Facebook making me look weird in front of random people I’ve only met that one time on the train… yeah! I’m going to start with Habbukkuk, partly cos his name is cool and partly cos it’s an easier one for me to start with!
I had a very encouraging conversation with a friend yesterday. In some ways we are both quite similar people:
When you meet people with very unique giftings and personalities, there is normally a reason why they have arrived at becoming the person they are. My reasons for becoming the TDawg you see before you are as follows:
“Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.”
Jerome, 384AD, Letter 23: to Eustochium: Rome
1. See footnote for explanation of the phrase ‘Christ is dying’
These words were written shortly after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, at a time where the church was experiencing an unprecedented amount of material wealth.
Up until this point, Christianity had been largely an illegal religion with a characterised by caring for the poor.
Suddenly Christians found themselves in a position of power and began to use this material wealth to decorate Bibles and create grand church buildings.
How far this was from the teaching of Christ to love and serve those in need, caring for the poor! It is no wonder that Jerome was shocked at the shift that had occurred in the church’s priorities.
And yet, it raises some significant questions for our day. We live in an age where the church is richer than ever before and access to technology undreamed of in the ancient world. But in this environment, I wonder whether could it be said of many churches that:
‘Expensive PA equipment is purchased when it isn’t needed, overly costly dinner banquets are held for church members, unnecessary money is spent on advertising and Christians enjoy their own version of McFly called Hillsong United. Meanwhile the poor go hungry and Christ is left out in the cold.’
Are all of these things intrinsically wrong? No, they are not. I even enjoy Hillsong United… particularly rewriting the lyrics to ‘One Way’.
But like Jerome, I find myself a little uncomfortable with how wealth is used. There is something a little uncomfortable about a Christian sub-culture which owns sizeable publishing houses, music labels and the like. Though often these are vehicles for good, there is still a part of me that wonders:
Just me thinking aloud, not deliberately taking any cheap shots but wrestling with my thoughts as someone who knows that as a first worlder with a good job I am very affluent and need to see that position as a responsibility not as something to exploit for my own enjoyment.
1. The reference to Christ dying is an allusion to this passage:
‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
I recently took a retreat day to consider my goals and how I was using my gifts.
A lot came out of this time of reflection as I examined my strengths, weaknesses and what I really wanted from life.
One thing which I have been neglecting is my writing. People have told me that they enjoy my writing, but I haven’t done much lately due to other commitments.
At present I’m considering having three different blogs:
I plan to give more time to writing as this is one of the main ways I develop my perspective and each of these areas are ones which I feel are worth contemplating regularly.
I wonder also, do you have any thoughts about areas I ought to address? Or any feedback in general?
Thanks for reading :)
This week was a hugely significant one for me. For over a year now, my role at Stonepillow has been one of the primary focuses of my energy and dedication.
It has been an invaluable experience for me. There are so many memories which will remained edged within my mind for some time to come :-
The day I was sat in Starbucks and received a phone call offering the position. I remember well the sense of amazement which overcame me.
This is a job which I am not leaving without a heavy heart. I will miss my colleagues and the young people deeply. (move) The job was an intense one where I would learn something new every day.
One of the biggest things the job gave me was a significant raise in my self-confidence in multiple areas :-
1. I entered the role after having been out of full time Youth work for 2 years. I was apprehensive about leaping straight back in, particularly into such a challenging role. Stonepillow gave me the opportunity I needed to re-familarise and reorientate myself to working with young people.
2. Before taking on the job, I was unsure how I would cope with the long nights and increased stress. I thought that I may ‘burn out’ from the combined factors of exhaustion and emotional stress.
To my great encouragement, I have found the opposite to be true. The past year has been one of the happiest years in my life as well as one in which I have grown immensely. Every challenge I have faced in my personal and professional life I have found myself overcoming.
3. The intrinsic diversity within my role at Stonepillow meant that I acquired a myriad of new skills, in addition to honing some existing ones. I leave the role having acquired innumerable new abilities but most importantly with a greater belief in my own capability to use them effectively and appropriately.
Having a job which enriches you in so many ways is a definite rarity. There is no part of me that overlooks how much of a privilege it has been to have worked at the Stonepillow YPP. I will miss it deeply.
However, I know that life marches on and so must I. I have accepted a new post which is pretty much a dream job. I applied only for this post; if I had not been offered it then I would have happily stayed at Stonepillow. Competition for the role was steap and I did not expect to be offered the position. Now that I have, I will embrace it wholeheartedly, allowing the skills and experiences I have learned to propel me forwards and equip me for the challenges to come.
Tom Manning, 22nd September 2012
Hey my friend,
I’ve wanted to reply for some time but haven’t really had chance. Your post strikes a chord within me and I’ve gone to town a bit in writing a reply. Hope it’s helpful, apologies if it’s not! I think meeting up in person would be a lot better but I know from having written similar posts to yours in the past a reply is always appreciated :) (Charles, you might like this post too)
You may not know this about me, but I spent nearly three years away from the faith. It was a really complicated time and being honest, probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. I sunk into deep depression during this time; however I’m thankful as I’ve now come through the other side and am enjoying life more than ever before - but it’s been a hard path I’ve walked to get here! I tell you this for two reasons:
1. So you know that you’re not the only one who struggles
2. In hopes that the struggle having stopped for me will encourage you chance can come
In terms of advice, I think it’d be better if we spoke in person - I’m not a huge fan of offering guidance without first making sure I’ve fully listened and understood the process somebody is going through. However, there are a few reflections I’ll share of things which have helped me:
Doubt is part of the faith journey…
I know this is cliche, but our relationship with God can be likened to a relationship.
When you first fall in love with somebody, you value certain things about them. It may be that you find them attractive because of how they listen to and value you, perhaps it’s how they look. However, as you seek to get to know and understand the other person more fully, you sometimes realise they’re not quite the person you thought they were. You find out about things which make them sad which you didn’t know would & if you idealised certain aspects of who they are at the beginning then you soon realise that your initial perception of who they were does not reflect the whole picture.
Likewise, when we begin following Christ we might be completely enamoured with the sense of his nearness, completely captivated by all he has done for us. However, in a relationship the first 6 months are often the ‘honeymoon’ period, as time goes on the two people have to get to know one another beyond the initial infactuation. Sometimes during this time, God feels remote. This is because in order for us to love him and not just love his presence, we need to search for him in order to really understand him. Just like it can sometimes feel like you have to search with all your strength to understand somebody you’re in love with, likewise we can go through a similar process with God.
In getting to know God more, we can go through a process not dissimilar to bereavement - we have to ‘give up’ some of our old ideas about God which don’t reflect who he really is in order to get to know him better. I’ve got to be honest, I found it one of the hardest things in the world and I’m still in the process of doing it, but it’s enriched my life like nothing else.
(for a more articulate use of this metaphor, see St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul)
Furthermore, I’ve noticed most of the Christian leaders/thinkers I respect most went through extended periods of doubt or outright unbelief. These later proved invaluable in forming their perspectives.
To offer two examples of very different Christians who I respect I offer to cases of Phillip Yancey and John Wesley. Philip Yancey rejected Christianity altogether for a time after being brought up fundamentalist. He had to go through an immensely difficult period of disenchantment with the Christianity he had encountered before later encountering a Christian faith and understanding of Jesus of an altogether different kind which he embraced. Similarly, John Wesley went through a period of immense uncertainty about God, famously writing in his journal ‘I went to America to convert Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?’, and that he was for a time convinced that he was lacking ‘that faith whereby alone we are saved’. It was only later that clarity came but there are numerous entries in his journal which convey intense agony of soul leading up to his evangelical conversion.
There are numerous other examples but suffice to say that most of the ‘great heroes of faith’ in the history of the church spent years ‘struggling’, ‘wrestling’ with their faith.
Some people think of the years searching as wasted years, but I believe the opposite – I believe more often than not that it’s there that character and insight are formed. To use Biblical metaphors, David learned to be a shepherd for Israel by being a Shepherd in the fields; Moses learned to lead Israel in the desert by spending years in the Desert running from Pharaoh. The hard times are the times of preparation.
I would actually go even further than this and say that those who struggle often do so for a reason and purpose, but I won’t elaborate on that point here…
Sometimes the person who seems furthest from God is actually nearest…
I’m not going to expand this point too much as this post is already overly long. But an exploration of what’s actually in the Bible reveals characters who said things, thought things and even accused God of things which we would never dare to. And yet these people are the same ones God says he loves.
I’ll major on just one example, that of Job.
Job is held out in the Bible as an example of persistent faith which can save (cf James 5:11). However, when we look at some of Job’s words what we find can be quite shocking:
‘The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison; God’s terrors are marshaled against me.’ Job 6:4
If somebody said these words today, many Christians would offer responses. In the book of Job, we get to hear the responses of 3 companions - one is a conservative offering prescribed opinions about evil (Zophar), one claims to have received special revelation and speak for God (Eliphaz) and one is downright nasty in response to Job’s struggling with God (Bildad). Finally, a fourth appears who seeks a ‘middle way’ (Elihu).
And yet it is Job who pleased God, even though he said these words. And it is Job whose faith is worthy of imitation. From this we can draw several lessons: it’s ok to be frank and honest about God; sometimes no one has the ‘right’ answer and everyone has it wrong!
It can be hard sometimes when people around you offer ‘advice’. I used to find it hard when people said I was ‘being attacked by Satan’ or ‘just needed more faith’ or to be ‘more rooted in Christ’. All of these things can be true, but those saying them in their zeal overlooked how painful the situation really was for me or how important the search was. My advice would be, if someone offers something and it doesn’t sit right then remember that Job’s friends all got it completely wrong too. Don’t put too much stock in what other people think because it may be that God is doing something unique in your life that no one can understand. I believe that’s true of what he has done in my life but it’s taken a long time to get to the point where the purpose is unfolding.
Having said all that…
Faith is not a journey we take alone
This sounds cliche again I know, but…
There is no such thing as ‘lone ranger’ Christianity. Even Batman has Alfred, Robin, Red-Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, Oracle and on occasion Cat-Woman
We all bring our own baggage into our faith journey. I used to find it very difficult to trust people. I had had some experiences where Christians who I should have been able to trust had let me down and allowed those to colour my perceptions.
I discovered that in order for God to bless me, I needed to let my guard down to others.
Against all odds, I found myself becoming part of a church again. This became a huge part of my growth as I moved forward.
I would counsel you not to give up on the church. I did for a very long time. I ostracised myself from going to church, told myself I ‘wasn’t welcome’ because I ‘wasn’t a real Christian’. Don’t repeat my mistake. Find a church community and commit to it, and keep going no matter how you feel on a given Sunday. I made a decision mid-way through my final year of Uni that I was going to start going to church because somewhere, deep down, I felt it was what God wanted. I’ve been amazed at how much he has blessed and honoured that one decision.
At this point you may be tempted to say ‘Well, CU kind of is my church… ‘. With the deepest of respect and apologies for being blunt, CU is no substitute for a church. At CU the oldest person you’d encounter is probably me making bad jokes on the CU group… and I’m only 22 years old. Join a church & find people you can speak to about this stuff. I have been immensely blessed through chatting to several church leaders in Chi about my own journey, I suspect you will be too. There is a wealth of experience and knowledge to be gained by participating in community.
With all that in mind, I offer one final piece of advice… choose to let *some* people you trust into your life more deeply. Whenever crisis kicks in for me or if I have questions about faith, I have a list of people I’ve hand-chosen to speak to. I even have emergency txt and Facebook lists from back when I was find things much much harder (stories I’ll happily tell another time).
If I feel sad or lonely, I remember them. If I doubt myself, the fact they respect me and I respect them raises my confidence. They are remarkable people and yet also very ordinary people just like me. Identify these people and hold them close. On the dark days, find the people that will carry you through and allow them into your struggle.
The most important thing you can encounter, more important than any advice, is the presence of people who love you and who can reflect Christ to you. On the days when it’s all too hard and you can’t pray cos you don’t think God even exists, they’ll stay faithful and carry you through.
Last but not least (and aware I need to keep learning this & get a balance)…
Don’t take yourself too seriously! I used to, sometimes I still do. The faith struggle can become all consuming. Life goes on and even on your worst day of unbelief, if God is real then he loves you. Remember that, chill out and have fun. Never ‘over think’ yourself away from God or the people around you, I’ve been there and it sucks.