Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
The teacher looked out over the city from the balcony of his palace, taking in the skyline that stretched out before him, the sun a brilliant burnt orange as it started to set. He could see the temple he had built, the city’s magnificent walls, the beautiful marketplaces teeming with life. The teacher’s mind wondered away from the scene to his own household; he thought of the vast underground treasure store full of riches from all over the world; he thought of the harem full of his wives and concubines who would keep him company should he so desire; and he thought of the library full of knowledge and books, many written by the teacher himself. He had everything he needed to be happy. So why wasn’t he?
The teacher turned away from the window moving stiffly towards his desk. Age was not being kind to him. His hair had turned a pearly white almost a decade earlier, and he found his knees and hips were giving him more trouble with every day. He turned around and looked back at the setting sun – his life was like that sun, close to dipping below the horizon, disappearing from the Earth. But, thought the preacher, the sun would be back tomorrow, heralding a new day. Would he be so lucky? Would he rise to see the dawn or would his servants find his cold body in his bed, his spirit having left him in the night? And what then? One of his sons would replace him, and eventually one of his grandsons would replace his son. And so time would roll on, mercilessly taking each generation and replacing it with another. Suddenly it felt as if a weight had been placed upon his shoulders. He sat down at the desk, and pulling a quill and parchment towards him, wrote “everything is meaningless”.
A Life of Doing
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Its a question I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, usually from grown ups such as parents, family, teachers etc. but also from other children. From an early age, we are asked to consider what we want to do with ourselves when we hit adulthood and have to start earning a living. My ambition when I was seven was to be a combination of footballer (anyone who has seen me play knows what a stretch that would be), astronaut, rock star and history teacher. I am doing none of those things, probably because I got distracted by playing with my Pokemon cards or Beyblades. But the question of what we want to do begins to take a more pronounced importance once we hit our teens. We are expected to select GCSEs, A-levels or college courses, and maybe even University Degrees, all in the pursuit of this goal. But why?
Human existence is based around one thing – achieving. All of us will have a series of goals, dreams and dearest ambitions which we wish to accomplish in our time on on Earth, some of them realistic (getting a job we are passionate about, making money, finding love and starting a family), some fantastical (being the first man on Mars), but all probably near and dear to our hearts. Our lives revolve around reaching these goals, seeking the elation that satisfaction brings to us, that sense of achievement.
But as Fleetwood Mac once said, ‘Time made you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older to’.
Things Fall Apart
The goals we have all require a sense of a better future. We have to be able to think that if we achieve these goals our lives will keep going and get better. To have goals requires us to have hope. So what happens when the future stops?
At some point, our future will run out, or at the very least our sense of the future can run out. One of two things will happen; we could fail at some of our goals, and suffer an immediate sense of disappointment and despondency, the future immediately becoming darker as we realise we cannot get what we want; or we achieve everything we set out to do, but then realise that it hasn’t actually made us any happier at all. Think of an athlete, seeking to excel at their sport, to be the champion. What happens if they have a career ending injury, or never become the best because there is someone better? Or maybe they do achieve all those things, but are forced to retire in their thirties. What do they do next? Studies of athletes post-retirement have found that many of them become depressed, their lives having lost the meaning that competition and training brought.
I have my own personal experience with this sense of futurelessness. About a year ago, my relationship ended, leaving me almost unable to contemplate a happy future. Although life went on, and I achieved a great mark in my Masters Dissertation, I couldn’t help but think of the meaninglessness of it all. The grade didn’t make me happy because it didn’t replace the absence felt in the loss of the relationship. It hasn’t even translated into a career which was the entire reason I subjected myself to studying. And it was in the middle of this hopelessness that I read Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a twelve chapter meditation on the human condition found almost at the centre of the Bible, part of five books with Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon that put us at the centre, viewing God from the ground up, the ants eye view. Ecclesiastes is reported to have been written by King Solomon, son of the great King David. For those of you unfamiliar, Solomon was blessed with wisdom at his request by God, who then also blessed him with everything he could have asked for; he was richer than any man living (1 Kings 10), had great palaces and had over 1,000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11). Solomons wisdom was renowned throughout the ancient world, and we are told he wrote many Proverbs and Psalms, and also contributed to early scientific explorations into nature. If we could look at any man and said ‘He was contented’ it would be Solomon.
Ecclesiastes puts pay to that notion. The first words written by Solomon are ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”, a cry of despair about the state of the world. Solomon’s collapse of the future was imminent and in the most natural way possible; old age and death. In his twilight years, Solomon realised that all his great accomplish were for nothing in the grand scheme of things:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure... yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2: 4, 10, 11)
Solomon is realising just how fleeting his achievements are. Later on in chapter 2, he realises that he wont get to enjoy all he has built, because he will die and it will be given to someone else. Solomon’s life, all his glory, riches and splendour is just something that will pass, time ceaselessly moving on, the sun rising and setting, rising and setting until he, everyone he loved or ever remembered him is gone, and still time will roll on long after that.
The same thing will happen to us eventually. We spend our entire lives running after our goals, only to find ourselves old and maybe rich, maybe having even achieved something, but for what? Some people may remember us after we are long gone, but who cares? You’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. All of us dust in the earth.
12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
Well this has been a bit of a downer right? “So much for the joy and hope of the Bible and of Christians” you might say to yourself after learning about Ecclesiastes. But the book is in a weird way slightly hopeful, and this is why its one of my all time favourite Bible books.
See, if we realise everything in this world is ultimately meaningless, that means we can stop worrying about it. Who cares if you leave a great legacy behind you, or amass a large fortune? Its all for nothing in the end. God doesn’t value such things! He has given us a life in large part to do what brings us joy, not great renown, hedonistic pleasure or untold riches. Its a life to be enjoyed a celebrated!
Once, when on holiday down in Devon, I stood watching the fishing boats come in and out of the small harbour of a small seaside village. It was a small moment of tranquil bliss, with the smell of the sea, the sound of gulls, and I could imagine myself on a tiny trawler fishing for crabs and being perfectly contented with the world. That’s what God wants for me and for you, to enjoy the little things in life. There’s a beauty in the pointless, and joy in the meaningless
The crowd watched as the three men were hoisted high above them, silhouetted against a dark sky. The men’s soft moans were barely audible over the sound of jeers and insults, punctuated by a few sobs from the back of the crowd. Further away, a group of men in robes stood watching, grim satisfaction on their faces, pleased with a job well done. That was at least, until a young man in Roman armour propped a ladder against the cross in the centre, climbed it and nailed a board above the head lacerated by a crown of thorns. The satisfaction on their faces slowly turned to rage as they read the white inscription daubed on in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. As the Roman official overseeing the execution walked past, his work done, the priests shouted at him “why have you done this?”, to which the man responded “on the orders of Governor Pilate”.
Why write this? what was so incendiary about this inscription? Well, it gave the man on the cross the title prophesied that he would hold, but that the priests denied was his. Jesus Christ, descendant of the royal line all the way back to King David himself, the Son of God, was that day proclaimed king.
But what a strange King he was, for there was never one like him before or since. Nothing about this man would ever have struck anybody as Kingly. Born literally in the straw, from a mother who would have been considered a bit of a wrong’un (pregnant and unmarried), growing up in a less than desirable part of the neighbourhood, who was a carpenter until the age of thirty, decided one day to quit that job and become a travelling preacher! People who knew him must have thought he’d lost his mind!
Once this campaign started, he starts preaching his manifesto for his Kingdom. But it’s not a manifesto like we’ve ever heard of; it’s one where the meek will inherit the earth, that tells you to love your enemies, give to the poor as help the sick. He surrounds himself with the most motley assortment of people, the weirdos, the outcasts, the money-lenders, scabs, hookers and diseased. His own closest followers are uneducated country bumpkins from the middle of nowhere, not the generals, priests and the wealthy diners one normally needs for a revolution! Even worse, he shuns those people in favour of the outcasts! And he touches them! Rather than remaining aloof, away from the unwashed rabble, he rolls up his sleeves and gets on in there, with no fear for his personal health! He touches the blind, the lame, the mentally ill, the lepers and even the dead! He gives out food, washes feet and hugs those who need them. He acts with compassion, not judgement, never turning anyone away who might accept his help! In this way, he became a revolutionary, a man at the vanguard of a new way of life, one that chose to value all people, not just those with power and influence. Anyone could join his movement, regardless of status.
But all revolutionaries run afoul of the authorities eventually, especially when his own people turn on him. They come for him in the night. They put on a show trial with a predetermined outcome. Even when the Roman governor can’t find fault, the frenzy of the crowd cowes him. He releases Barabbas instead, a violent militant on the removal of Roman power. And the self-proclaimed king? Is nailed to some wood and left to die on a hill, his friends, family and followers left to watch as he agonisingly dies.
The Act of Dying
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. In history it’s unavoidable. Everyone dies, including Kings and revolutionaries, and they range from the heroic to the cowardly, from the mundane to the ridiculous. But this death is the strangest, and I’ve only just realised why.
One point is that Jesus’ death is kind of pathetic from a human point of view. If you were a King, you may want to die in battle, having cut down a dozen men in a heroic last stand that echoes down through the ages. If you are a revolutionary, perhaps you want the same, maybe after delivering a heroic braveheart-esque “FREEDOM” that ignites rebellion in the populace and that leads your face being plastered on t-shirts and the walls of teenage idealists. But Jesus dies without shouting, not ordering his followers or cursing his enemies. No heroic battle-cry, just suffocating slowly, hanging from a cross. Not exactly epic, is it?
Were the Bible pure propaganda, then you would expect something different. Perhaps a defiant Jesus, killing several people before being overpowered. A Jesus who at his trial delivered a speech so rousing that it rallies people to the cause, causing a revolt and the overthrow of the Roman autocracy. But the Bible doesn’t do these things. It chooses to tell us how the son of God died in public view, slowly suffocating as the pain in his hands and feet grew too unbearable to support his weight to breathe. It chooses to tell us of his cry out to God “My God, my God, hey have you forsaken me!”. It chooses to say he forgave rather than cursed. All this, because that’s what the revolution was about. Love, forgiveness and honesty.
But there is another, far more crucial thing at play here. You see, Kings are kings and revolutionaries are revolutionaries because they are the leaders. They are the names on the banners, the faces on the leaflets, the statues in the town squares. Their image and prestige are everything to their people. They are indispensable. But that means the people, their subjects, are in some way disposable.
Rarely does a King fight on the frontline. They send people to fight for them, choosing instead to sit on their horse overlooking and perhaps directing proceedings. The members of our armed forces swear allegiance to the King or Queen of the day. The President if the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And the same is true for all leaders throughout history; they all require grunts to do their bidding for them, and in many cases die for them. For millennia men have marched to war for the cause of their ruler, who does not put himself in harms way, except if he may achieve some glory. And when they are in danger, it doesn’t really matter how many of their people might die for them. When the wolves are at the door, the royals and people of power are often last to die, staying safe behind their walls as the ordinary ones are beaten and killed.
And that’s the distinction between them and the King Jesus. Because Kings don’t die for their people – their people die for them. Thousands, perhaps millions of men may lay down their lives in blood-soaked battlefields for their monarch or leader. But in this case this King, a King who could have wielded power beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, chose to die for his people, and not have his people die for him. His death didn’t come at the end of a long war, with thousands already perishing for his cause. He saw the danger, the threat of sin and death to his people, to all people, and chose to face it himself.
But also unlike other Kings or revolutionaries who die, Jesus is alive now. When these other Kings die, no matter how much wealth they may have had, will end up just like the rest of us plebs, rotting in the ground as worm food. But this man Jesus through his death conquered sin and the power of death itself, and by so doing broke the chains of the rest of us. This King chose to die for you. But his death means new life for us. No other leader would do that for you. So, maybe question your allegiances, because the King who died for you offers something far greater than anything in this world.
A couple of weeks ago, I began listening to a podcast called It Could Happen Here, a podcast all about the prospect of a Second American Civil War. The host of the show, journalist Robert Evans, takes the listener through a list of possible scenarios that may occur if a Second American Civil War broke out. Evans, who has travelled to and covered the Ukrainian protests in the Maidan Square in Kiev, the Syrian Civil War and Iraq in the battle against ISIS, uses this experience to paint a picture of a civil war not unlike the one in Syria, with besieged cities held by left-wing separatists, to gangs of right wing militias roaming the countryside, and a state unable to handle the violence. A handful of the episodes begin with Evans narrating your life as someone trapped in a city at war, trying to maintain a life in a place where nothing is certain. The city you live in experiences violent clashes between militias, protesters and soldiers, the attempts to rebuild a normality which is then wiped out in bombings, and the subsequent flight from home as a refugee. Why do I bring this up? Apart from being an amazing podcast, Evans talks about the necessity to be prepared in case of events that change our lives.
Imagine for a moment that your life was turned upside down. Its probably a lot easier now than it would have been three months ago, perhaps even three weeks ago. As we have seen, Covid-19 has caused huge upheaval in all of our lives, whether its through uncertainty around employment, exams, or family, all of us have been affected in some way. For me, its made me realise just what a precarious position I am in in terms of employment and income; up until recently it was uncertain as to whether I would get sick pay as a zero hour contract employee. I am also worried about being a carrier of the virus whilst not exhibiting major symptoms; many of my closest friends and people I know are at risk of being severely affected by the virus.
But that’s not really what I mean when I say imagine life got turned upside down. Instead, lets think about what’s been happening in our supermarkets right now. I went to my local Tesco on Monday night for a Mothers Day card, and walked through the rest of the store to see if what I had seen on the news was true. And it was. There was barely any food on the shelves at all; no pasta, no potatoes, no rice, no paper products of any kind. It reminded me a little of a zombie movie, except the store was still lit and no one was chasing me for my brains.
But it made me really think about just how vulnerable we are to disaster. Covid-19 has caused many people to panic buy, taking as much food and other things as they can carry without a thought for anyone else. And this is thankfully for a crisis in which we can stay safely tucked up in our homes! Imagine if we had to leave en masse for a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, or were left without power and access to other services. Imagine if that happened tomorrow:
- would you have enough food, or would you know where you could get more food if you needed it?
- Would you have access to clean water or a method of making your own?
- would you have suitable clothing in case you needed to travel long distances, potentially on foot?
- would you have enough medicine, or even know someone who could treat any injuries?
There is a necessity to being prepared for unexpected events. Life as we know has changed, and i don’t think we can now go back to whatever “normal” was after this. So much of our world and its systems have been shown to be flawed, whether its the medical preparation for pandemics, the number of people who are unable to save money, the fact so much wealth is concentrated into the hands of a few. The world is a house of cards that could topple at any time. Our modern wisdom of individualism and capitalism have come up short against this crisis and will come up short, and will do again. But perhaps there is some older wisdom that may help us.
Be Prepared for the Unkown
“The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.”
Proverbs 21:20 NIVUK
Now we are so detached from the food making process, that it probably didn’t occur to many people in the West that starvation is a real potential threat within the next few decades. We are so used to having full supermarket shelves, it’s the first time I remember in my life that people in this country may not know where their next few meals will come from if they can’t access food.
We must remember however, for us, this is a new phenomeon. When the Bible was written, people were far more vulnerable to sudden changes, particularly in food supply. If your local harvest failed one year, you may not have enough to eat, or even have enough money to buy food! You could be one bad season away from starvation. So people had to be careful with food and resources because you never knew when scarcity would strike.
So preparedness is already part of the Bible. Before the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites had packed everything and were told to eat unleavened bread (bread without yeast) so they could leave at a moments notice. They were only in Egypt in the first place because centuries before, Joseph had stored grain to prevent starvation during a famine, which lead his family to come to Egypt.
Jesus once told a parable about ten virgins, half of whom were wise and the other half foolish. They were waiting for the bridegroom of a wedding to arrive for the wedding party, but the bridegroom had not appeared by nightfall. The wise virgins being savvy had packed oil so they could light their lamps, but the foolish ones hadn’t prepared at all. They had to rush off to find oil, and while they were gone, the foolish virgins were locked out of the party, all because they weren’t ready. No this story is often told in the context of the Kingdom, but its just as relevant to peoples lives today. If you’re not prepared for unexpected events you will be caught unawares.
So I hope this post has made you think about being prepared. We are fools if we don’t prepare. Events like this do not always come with warnings, but we are getting some. The growing danger of manmade climate change will likely increase the frequency of pandemics, famines and natural disasters, threatening our way of life. So what are we going to do about it? We know the world is getting worse, that our very existence could be under threat within decades. So what will you do to prepare for it?
But in some ways, the more important question is who are you preparing for? Just yourself? Or do you have others in mind?
As I have discussed in previous posts, being able to love often requires us to be able to remove the masks and clothing that keep people out. This can be very difficult to do, especially when we worry that others may not like us for who we truly are. It ultimately boils down to one thing, that revealing your secrets, especially the ones that paint us in a negative light, is to expose yourself to potential injury.
We are all familiar with the expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. It’s taught to us as children in order to tell us that we shouldn’t worry what others say about us because the words cannot cause you pain.
What a load of crap!
We should all be aware of the damage words can do! Just look at the damage social media can do to someone, especially the young, when they cannot escape their tormentors. Words have a power sticks and stones do not have because they can cut right to the core of you as a person. Someone can zero in on an aspect of your personality or appearance and slowly destroy you.
This is where the armour comes in. Wearing armour protects you from these attacks, allowing you to continue functioning. It protects the core of your being from being damaged. This is something I learned to do at school because I am quite sensitive, so jibes at my person often hurt me quite badly. Or at least I had the appearance of not being able to care, because armour still has weaknesses.
Armour doesn’t just protect us from strangers though. Far more dangerous is the power the people we love have to hurt us. When we let people in, and they can see all of you, your foibles, flaws and damage, you are giving them access to ammunition that can hurt you really badly. When someone you love insults you, they have access to a far wider range of points to attack you for. It also hurts so much more because a level of trust has been broken in the attack; you let them in, and then they did this?! So putting on the armour prevents this kind of damage being inflicted because people never get close enough to access that kind of ammunition.
Rebuke and Weapons
“Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favour rather than one who has a flattering tongue.”
Proverbs 28:23 NIVUK
We often like to focus on all the nice things Jesus said and did. It’s easier that way. A cuddly Jesus with a warm, benevolent smile, perhaps a small child on his knee telling nice stories to an adoring crowd. And that part of Jesus is definitely real, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the whole story.
In Matthew 23, Jesus takes the Pharisees to task. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the establishment power. They were venerated because of their apparent holiness.
But Jesus saw through all of it. In Matthew 23, he describes them as “whitewashed tombs”! What an insult! It cuts right to the core of their hypocrisy! On the outside, they look completely clean, but on the inside is still a dead, decaying corpse.
This seems really harsh, and it is. But crucially, Jesus wasn’t saying these things to be mean or to try and hurt feelings. Jesus was rebuking out of love, wanting the Pharisees to change their ways and realise their faults.
The chink in the armour
Armour is useful but is also flawed. The more armour you put on, the more you can protect yourself, yes, but it also renders you unable to distinguish between personal attacks and genuine criticism. Imagine a medieval knights helmet, one that covers your whole face. I’ve no idea how they could fight anyone, you can barely see out of them! And that’s a problem because your perspective becomes blinkered. You cannot recognise when someone is criticising you from a place of love.
I was and still am really bad at this. As I said earlier, I am quite a sensitive person, so any attack causes my walls to go up and for me to go on the defensive. But this also means that I fail to tell the difference when someone is telling me something that I do actually need to work on. I get too locked in to a mindset of defence I cannot improve.
I have slowly been trying to work on this. The past year has taught me that this reflexive defensiveness is a serious flaw, one that prevents me from growing. A lot of the time, my friends aren’t saying things to hurt my feelings; they are merely being honest with me about things I need to work on. It’s hard to change an instinctual response, but I hope I can keep doing it.
Having friends willing to rebuke you to make you become a better person is a gift. Don’t squander it.
Life’s been stressful lately. When I think back to the past year or so, there have been very few periods in that year where I haven’t felt slightly panicked or … Continue reading Peace, Perfect Peace: Nottingham Walking Weekend
Imagine for a moment you are on a small boat sailing across the sea. You are alone in your little boat, and the sky is a beautiful blue and the sea is flat as glass. Despite this, you begin to worry about the journey ahead. You know that you may encounter storms where the waves, so much larger than your tiny boat, may capsize you into the unforgiving deep.
You turn and see something large approaching your small vessel. It’s a large ship full of people. It dwarfs your minuscule boat, with its lifeboats being even bigger than your current vessel. It has multiple sails, rigging and any other paraphernalia one might need on an ocean voyage. There are people hard at work on different tasks; repairing sails, mending holes, scrubbing the decks, navigating and cooking the food. They are all working together as a team, working with the sole purpose of reaching their destination. One of the people tosses you a rope and beckons you aboard. They want you to leave your boat and come and join theirs.
Our faith journey often feels like sailing across a wide sea. We know what we want our destination to be, even though we cannot see land on the horizon. We technically have all the tools we need; Gods word as food, and the Bible to act as navigation. But we need others to help us get there. Being part of a larger crew grants you access to skills and support you may need; there may be a better navigator, rigger, cook, helmsman who can help you on your way.
But you want to take the road to bad faith. And the best way to do that is to do that alone. Friends with the same goal may motivate you to continue the journey with them. They may be able to fish you out if you fall overboard. Nope. You want to forge this journey alone. You don’t need anyone else’s help or guidance. Friends are merely a distraction on the road to bad faith.
Loneliness and Folly
“Fools are headstrong and do what they like; wise people take advice.”
Proverbs 12:15 MSG
The book of proverbs is all about wisdom. Wisdom is defined by Timothy Keller as the ability to navigate the complex realities of life. There is no single solution for every problem, and wisdom is knowing what the best solution to use is and what’s the best way to use it.
Having friends allows you to broaden your perspective and therefore make you wiser. If you only had your own prior experiences from which to build your responses, you would have a very limited pool from which to build responses to situations. Friends can provide alternative perspectives which would help you navigate your world.
Which is why, traveller, you must journey alone. Foolishness, not wisdom, is a goal upon which you must set your sights. Making foolish decisions will help you to slowly destroy your life, and friends will merely get in the way; they may try and stop you doing something stupid or encourage you to do something meaningful and useful with your time. They will only be a hindrance.
Cutting your lifelines
“Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
Acts 2:43-45 MSG
In Acts 2, we read about the first churches set up by the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. We can see in these verses that the early church members provided a support network for one another, so that if any of them needed something, they could be provided for by others. In other places as well, people reached out to one another, especially to Jesus, and received help for their needs.
You’re support network should be as minimal as possible, perhaps even non-existent. You don’t need anyone else to help you! You’re an independent sort who isn’t pathetic enough to need assistance from someone else! If the sea you’re sailing on is flat, assume it will always remain so. When life is good you need less support. So assume that your life will remain on a smooth trajectory and that you will never need help from anyone else.
Cutting your lifelines like this also has the benefit of not having the inconvenience of having to help others. If they don’t help you, you don’t have to help them. Simple. But once the storms hit, and you’re in danger of capsizing, you will be so far along your path away from friendship, you won’t feel comfortable sending up a flare for rescue. It would be too awkward. You drown, not because others refuse to act, but because you refuse to call for help.
You look up into the face of all the people on the boat. They are smiling, holding out their hands for you to take and climb aboard. Your face hardens, and you cut the line mooring your boat to theirs. They’re expressions sadden as you drift away, but you don’t care. You don’t need anyone else. Your life is good just the way it is. Just try to ignore the black clouds rolling over the horizon.
As discussed in the previous post, being able to love sometimes requires us to be spiritually naked with one another, to reveal ourselves to one another so we can be loved for who we truly are. But that’s not what we always do.
What’s your mask
I don’t know about you, but I wear a lot of different masks.
Not real masks mind you. But masks that allow me to hide who I really am from others. They allow me to present an image to the world that paints me favourable light. Whether it’s a smile when I feel sad, confidence when I feel anxious, or righteousness when I do wrong, I have at various times worn all these masks.
Billy Joel called them the faces of the stranger. It’s a song all about wearing different faces and how they make us feel good. We all do it. Masks are convenient because they allow us to hide inconvenient truths from others. I know this drum has been beaten to death, but anyone who has social media does this. They cultivate their lives to project a certain image to others. It’s the imagined self, the way we would most like to be seen by others. But it’s not just how others see you. The mask can sometimes change how you see yourself.
In Matthew 23 Jesus really takes the Pharisees to task. They were the religious establishment, the people who were venerated above all others for their holiness. But Jesus saw that for a lot of them it was a mask; they had the veneer of being righteous, but it was all for show. The Pharisees hated him for it, because they couldn’t not separate themselves from the mask and see themselves for who they truly were.
Our masks can make us like that a little bit. We can wear them for so long we can trick ourselves into believing everything is ok, when in reality it’s not. They make us hypocritical which in the Greek means ‘play-acting’. It’s a performance of whatever the mask is meant to convey, whether success, love or happiness. And in some ways, that might be necessary, a sort of fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to love and happiness.
The problem with this is where love enters the mix. If you wear masks, people may fall in love with the mask and not the real you. Think of all the Instagram celebrities that people love. They are loving an approximation of a person who is by definition not real. This is a problem for both sides of the relationship/friendship; the bond is based on nothing concrete so might fall apart if exposed. An in some sense we may realise this and tie the mask even tighter to our face so it never slips. But this means that people will never be able to love the real you because they have never met them.
The façade cracks
I got really good at wearing masks.
A lot of this was for basic survival. If I looked like I was ok, then people wouldn’t probe. We are all good at assuming people are ok even when they’re not. And that is part of the problem with masks is that hey become toxic the more they are used. We get so used to wearing them, that we cannot see when we might actually need help.
This has been my situation for a while. Protecting others from my reality as much as protecting myself from the same became second nature. But once I allowed the façade to crack I was able to actually get help from others and let them see the real me. This is why I think my previous post is so connected to this one; being spiritually naked and vulnerable with each other relies on us taking off the mask.
And this has to be an active choice on your part. Because sooner or later, the mask will slip from your face, and like it or not, people will see the real you. It happened to me once; my mask slipped and a friend saw the real ugly truth and it changed our friendship. Because I hadn’t really opened that part of myself, it was a nasty shock for them.
So, choose to take of the mask. It will be painful, but I promise it will be worth it, as the friends that stick around will love you for the real you, and not some fake version.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I became puzzled by something I read in Genesis. Genesis 3 tells us the story of the fall of man, how the man and woman were corrupted and ate the forbidden fruit. But what caught my eye was what the account gives as the first response of Adam and Eve when they had eaten the fruit:
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
Genesis 3:7 NIVUK
They realised they were naked.
It’s strange that the very first thing you’d notice after eating fruit that gives you the knowledge of good and evil is that you’re starkers. I can’t imagine suddenly Adam felt a breeze around his nethers and that’s what made him realise! The garden of Eden probably wasn’t chilly.
But the fact that Adam and Eve were naked is also mentioned in chapter 2; in fact it’s the final verse:
“Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”
Genesis 2:25 NIVUK
The fact that the Bible chooses to reinforce this point twice shows that it’s meant to teach us something. But I didn’t know what. But then I listened to a Timothy Keller podcast on Genesis 3 and how it shows us the different behaviours of sin. He made the point that the nakedness in the garden represents a different kind of nakedness for us.
The nakedness in the fall is a reflection of the fact that Adam and Eve had not sinned and only realised they were naked when they had sinned. Why? Not actually being naked, but realising that others can see your nakedness. And that changed how Adam and Eve saw each other and wanted to be seen.
Being naked means the people who see you can see you for who you truly are. There are no tricks, no way to hide, nothing to conceal all the things about yourself. You are completely exposed. Being naked in public is one of the more common nightmares people admit to having, and I think that speaks to the primal fear within us of what people might think if they saw us that way. Everyone could see all those little imperfections, those unsightly lumps and scars, that weird mole that’s slightly too big.
But it’s not always physical nakedness. There are some people who have no problem being naked in front of others (nudist camps, events and beaches testify to that). It’s not even nakedness within the context of sex, as some people find it easy to have multiple sexual partners. It’s rather more subtle and interesting than at first glance. Because the nakedness in the garden of Eden wasn’t just physical, it was spiritual.
The Soul Laid Bare
Adam and Eve only realised they were naked once they sinned. This is crucial to understanding spiritual nakedness, because being physically naked and spiritually naked are perfect parallels. When you’re naked in front of someone, you have no secrets. They see all of you, all the bits you normally cover up. We cover our shame with clothes to hide those pieces of ourselves (or in my case, many layers, but that’s due to being cold all the time).
Before they sinned, Adam and Eve had no need to hide because they had no secrets. They hadn’t done anything that they would need to hide from one another. But once they ate the fruit and had realised what they had done, they covered themselves, because they now knew too much that could be used by others against them.
We are not so different. There’s loads of stuff we hide and keep concealed from one another in order to make our lives ostensibly easier (although whether it makes them better is up for debate). We are scared that if people can see us they won’t like what they see. I know I kept a lot of stuff in for a long time, and to an extent I still have trouble trusting people with my secrets. I’m scared that people will abandon me or decide to use them against me.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
Just think for a moment how many people you’d be willing to be spiritually naked with. Probably only a few right? Only closest family and friends, or if you’re lucky, your partner. You can be naked with them because you aren’t afraid for them to see your secrets. You can remove “clothing” around them to actually show them who you really are.
I was fortunate to make the group of friends I now have when I did. Before then there was a lot of hidden anxiety and trauma that I hadn’t begun to unpack. But what helped me was someone was willing to be vulnerable in front of me and lay bare their problems and worries. This allowed me to see that opening up wasn’t a bad thing, and that allowed me to open up and develop more meaningful relationships with my friends.
So yeah. In order to love, you have to be willing to get naked. You have to be able to let people see you at your worst, all the stuff you don’t think people would love you if they could see. Yes it’s scary, but you can achieve a depth of friendship or partnership you wouldn’t have done otherwise
And do you know what? Remember that God can see all these things that you hide from everyone else. He sees it all. And he loves you anyway. So you never know, others might too.