Mirror, mirror on the wall…

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There are lots of posters on billboards at the moment with the heading ‘Mirror Mirror’ promoting a forthcoming film release.  Presumably this relates in some way to the fairy tale ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’.  For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the wicked queen has a magic mirror that always tells the truth.  All is well while she looks into the mirror and is told that she is ‘the fairest one of all’.  But a day dawns when this is no longer the case and the mirror says her stepdaughter, Snow White, now has a beauty that surpasses her own.  Overcome with jealousy, the witch seeks to kill her rival so she can be restored to the top of the world’s most fair.  Although thwarted by the dwarves Snow White finds refuge with, she succumbs to the queen’s evil spell sufficiently to fall into a death-like slumber.  This can only be broken by the kiss of a handsome prince.  As luck would have it one happens to be passing!  She regains consciousness and they all live happily ever after.

I wonder what it would be like to have a mirror that always told the truth when you looked into it.  Yesterday we meditated on a reading from ‘Anam Cara Friendship’ by John O’Donohue.  In it were these words, “…it’s utterly fascinating to me that no human person ever sees their own face.  We look in mirrors and we have images, but we never see our own faces…A friend is a true mirror in which we begin to get some little glimpse of who we are.”  This is a beautiful picture and the closest we experience of a mirror like the one in ‘Snow White’.  However, it has also got me thinking of the relationships and experiences that distort the image we have of ourselves.  The negative comments we have had from parents and teachers, the rejection of friends and lovers, even the narrow theology we have been taught by leaders in the church.  Maybe the mirrors we look in are more like those at the end of the pier.  They make us look short and wide or stretched into pole.  They certainly don’t reveal to us the person we truly are, a beautiful and unique creation of a good, loving and relational God.

So how do we replace the distorted reflection of ourselves with the truth that real, healthy and loving friendships hold up to us?  In part, as I explored in my last post, it is about overcoming shame, embracing vulnerability and choosing to believe the best of who we are.  Easier said than done!  For us to receive the healing necessary to do this, we need to know how worthy we are to be loved.  This comes from God, because God is love.  The bible tells us that we are the apple of His eye.  I have never really understood what this means.  I learnt at the weekend it is the vision we see of ourselves reflected in the eye of the beholder.  As we look on the face of God and into His eyes, we see ourselves reflected back.  Positive human relationships are vital and life-enhancing but, I believe, can only be fully enjoyed once we have gazed upon our Creator and seen our image perfected in His sight.  And how does this happen?  Well, I guess, like all other relationships, with one risk at a time!  Unlike other relationships though, we are promised unwavering love and eternal devotion in return.  This is an ‘Anam Cara’, or soul friendship, worth giving life, heart and everything to.

 

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Hole or whole-hearted?

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Do you ever feel like God is really on your case about something?  Well that is how it has been for me this week.  Everywhere I go the issue of shame seems to be slapping me in the face. 

The dictionary definition of shame is, “a feeling of distress or humiliation caused by consciousness of guilt or folly of oneself or an associate”.  And it has caused me to look again at the Genesis account of how sin entered the world.  When Adam and Eve, living in perfect harmony and contentment in the Garden of Eden, eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil, their eyes are opened.  God comes to seek them out and when confronted with their act of disobedience, Adam responds, “I was afraid because I was naked.”  Mike Higton in his book ‘Christian Doctrine’ says, Adam and Eve “…gain shame when they see their nakedness, and fear when they realise that God is in the garden and will see their nakedness.”  So what, from a biblical perspective, is shame?  He goes on to say, “It has something to do with seeing yourself as you imagine others see you – an internalised version of the external scrutiny you imagine yourself to be under.  And so it is indeed a form of knowledge, self knowledge…but it is knowledge without love (p. 266).”  The consequence of this new awareness is catastrophic.  As a result relationships at every level are forever ruptured and distorted: the relationship with God and human beings; relationships between men and women; the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.

But how does shame cause this exactly?  To attempt an answer, I am indebted to my friend Karlie, who sent me a TED talk by Brene Brown entitled ‘The Power of Vulnerability’.   In it she says, “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection.  Is there something about me that if other people know or see means that I won’t be worthy of connection?”  Brown went on to discover that what separated those who yearned for connection but never felt they ever really found it and them that she describes as whole-hearted, able to make deep, real and meaningful connections, was that the latter had a sense that they were worthy to be in relationship.  They had the courage, in the true sense of the word’s original intent, to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart.  “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were… The other thing they had in common was they fully embraced vulnerability.  They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful.”  Adam and Eve suddenly knew they were vulnerable in their nakedness, but it was ugly and shameful and had to be covered up.

Today we cover our shame not just with clothes but with coping strategies that numb the negative emotions that vulnerability generates – fear, rejection, grief and disappointment.  We withdraw and cut ourselves off from the very longed-for relationships where safety and freedom to be ourselves might be experienced.  But didn’t Jesus die to remove our shame, heal our dis-ease and restore right relationships?  Is this only to be fulfilled at the end of time when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead and put right the injustices of this present age?  I don’t want to wait and I don’t believe I have to!  But there is a cost.  It requires me overcoming my own shame and counting myself worthy of connection.  This takes true courage.  To reveal who I am with my whole heart and see it as beautiful.  To be honest, right now, I don’t know if I can be that brave.  So I join with the psalmist and ask God to, “Turn to me and be gracious to me,…Look upon my affliction and distress and take away all my sins…Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. ” (Psalm 25, verses 16-20).  In His goodness He replies, “Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34, verse 5).  And to this hope, I cling.

 

Our mother who art in heaven…

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Last week I went to a conference and heard about the father heart of God.  It was inspirational and listed all the wonderful attributes that Dads bring which are necessary for the formation of mature and healthy adults.  The speaker then went on to outline the social ills associated with fatherlessness – anti-social behaviour caused by a lack of respect and adherence to commonly held boundaries, gang membership that provides role models and a sense of belonging, the drive to succeed as a means of receiving affirmation and approval particularly from authority figures and the sexualisation of the young as they seek to satisfy a need for unconditional love and affection.  This was followed by a time when one could be prayed for to receive a father’s heart of love.  I was unsure how to respond to this.  While I agreed with everything that was said and think too many children are growing up without a Dad and we are reaping the consequences of that as a society, I am a woman and will never be able to fulfil that role by virtue of my gender.

At the root of my dilemma, I think, was the fear that while a large section of the male population in the wider world seem to have abdicated their responsibility and it is right to highlight this, men inside the church might assert themselves even more strongly by way of compensation.  In my experience patriarchy is alive and well in most sections of the body of Christ, even in denominations or networks who think they have dealt with this issue.  Yes there are women leaders in churches and Christian organisations but is it proportionate and how many of them rise to the very top?  Is this because by virtue of being male you are a better leader or that positions of influence are determined by men?  Perhaps we are unconsciously clinging to a theology that lays more of the blame for temptation and sin on women, believes the appropriate and Christian response to injustice and oppression is submission and feels uncomfortable with ‘the helper’, who was created second, being an initiator of newness?

I realise I am exaggerating to make my point and accept that feminism has harmed women.  It can be argued, for example, that sexual liberation has done more to demean and enslave women than give them greater freedom.  However, I am so grateful that I have been able to develop my intellect and expand my thinking through the opportunity for education and have a fulfilling professional life because of access to employment, as well as being blessed and challenged through becoming a wife and mother.  I also acknowledge that I could not have experienced this without men supporting, encouraging and giving me the space and confidence to ‘have it all’.  

Genesis chapter 1 verse 27 says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And I believe we only begin to see God’s likeness when male and female are operating in a partnership that is mutually respectful and liberating.  This can be exhibited in marriage, but not exclusively.   Ideally it is demonstrated in every sphere of life, work and ministry.  It is true that Jesus taught us to address God as, ‘Our father in heaven…’  But this is a metaphor and every metaphor contains the tension between difference as well as similarity.  God is also described as a rock, being a fixed and firm foundation upon which to build one’s life, but that does not make Him exclusively rocklike in every other sense!  Equally then God is not exclusively father and there is imagery in both the Old and the New Testaments which reveal God as mother.  In Isaiah God says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she as borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” And in Matthew 23 verse 37 Jesus declares, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” 

I wonder if it is possible to recover the feminine traits of God while focusing on Him as Daddy.  We need to address the lack of fathers in our society and call men to fill this gap in relationships formed through community as well as biology, but I believe it is only when parented by men and women working together in love and unity that we see God’s true nature revealed.  Therefore, I affirm the unique role of father, but acknowledge that as mother, both to my own children and those whom God has entrusted me to nurture in my wider sphere of influence, I too wonderfully reflect and model the character and intention of God.

 

Show me the way to go home

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When you think of home what image comes into your mind?  Sitting curled up on a big comfy sofa, wrapped in a blanket with hands round a steaming mug of cocoa surrounded by family and friends in animated conversation maybe.  And what feelings does it evoke?  Being warm and comfortable, knowing that you are loved and accepted.  A place to feel safe and where it’s OK to be yourself.  We all seem to be made with a longing for home whether we have been fortunate enough to experience it or not.

I have been blessed to have been part of churches that have felt like home.  Places where I have been cared for by the community and been introduced to the unconditional love and acceptance of a heavenly father.  More recently, however, I have felt exiled from this expression of home because I began to see things differently and was unable to express what I was thinking and feeling so that the body I am a part of could understand.  It caused me much pain, frustration and disappointment.  But according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, it is only out of grief that newness comes.  By experiencing the loss of home and letting go of that old expression of what it means to belong, a fresh vision of what is possible can be born.

In the last month I have met a couple of very different church leaders who have both seen their ministry in the church to be two-fold – giving established churches with dwindling congregations “a good death” as well as encouraging fledging expressions of faith that are springing up in unexpected places as small bands of often hurt and disaffected Christians dare to dream again and experiment with what it means to come together in the name of Christ for the benefit of those whom they live among.  One of these ministers quoted the words of Jesus in John 12:24, “I tell you the truth unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  This was the immediate future for the church in the UK as he saw it – death leading to resurrection.

But having gone through my own experience of exile and then re-creation by developing outreach to spiritual seekers and gathering a missional community to explore together what it means to create home for those a long way from the God who made them and yearns to be in relationship with them, I have recently received healing and reconciliation from the church that was home.  I took the risk of going again and in facing the potential for rejection found that God was revealing to others issues I had wrestled with.  Old friends welcomed me with open arms, leaders who did not understand my struggle sought my forgiveness and I was told how much I was loved and missed.  This does not mean that I can go back and fit the way I did before, but actually that’s OK.  I am coming to a new acceptance of who I am and doing the hard emotional work of learning what it is to be home with myself.

If church can truly equate to home, a place of security and honesty from which to adventure, the experience of pioneering might be very different.  But like the butterfly maybe it’s in the fight to emerge from the cocoon that the strength and determination to journey comes.  To skip the grief is to forfeit the newness.  I can testify that in having felt so far away, the homecoming is all the sweeter.