In Praise of Self-Esteem

Why do so many Christians have such a big problem with the concept of self-esteem? At Bible college I was ticked-off once for mentioning it in a positive way. I was told that it was an unbiblical idea. I have heard and read similar dismissals and rejections many times since then.

It seems to me that at the root of this rejection of self-esteem is a concern that it promotes pride, is humanistic and is contrary to Christ’s instruction that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. But it also seems to me that the ire of the self-esteem deniers is misdirected – seriously so. Continue reading

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Authentic Spirituality (2)

Authentic Prayer

Inauthenticity: the art of faking it. Only after writing these first few words did the one word, ‘art’ really strike me. Art speaks to us because it speaks about us. It explores what it means to be human. From Micheal Angelo’s David to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to Adele’s 21 the subject of art is ourselves: our desires, our fears, our experiences our ideals and our story.

I think then that there is an unintended truth in my opening words. Faking it is an art in that there is something truly human about it. Inauthenticity arises out of a vulnerability that we all share, a vulnerability we would rather others did not see. We all know this, and so it can’t come as any surprise to us that Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5,6) that inauthenticity will encroach into the life of the church.

Hypocrisy and phoneyism have been ever-present accusations against the church throughout its history. This isn’t because Christians are less authentic than others, but because we carry the same payload of vulnerability – our shame – as everyone else and we need to keep this explosive truth about ourselves away from others. And so we fake our public demonstrations of spirituality hoping in that way to win those precious items of body armour – popularity, admiration or power – that will guard us against public humiliation.

Do others think I’m a good Christian? Are others impressed by what I’m doing? How can I get others to defer to me? How can I get others to look up to me? These are the concerns that come to dominate our public acts of ministry when our shame is too unstable for us to handle. These can become the unspoken desires behind all our petitions in public prayer. 

This is Jesus’ warning in Matt 6:5,6. His point is that inauthenticity’s colonisation of our public spirituality reveals what is happening in our character.

The hypocrites have already received their reward. What they want from prayer they actually usually succeed in getting: the approval of others. But that is all that their way of praying offers. It can give them nothing more. The suggestion is that this is a pretty meagre return compared to what prayer can actually give. It’s a bit like owning the most flamboyant and best performing sports car, but using it to keep chickens. Prayer has so much more to offer than we are getting from it when our prayers lack authenticity.

That there is a reward associated with prayer is an important point for us to notice. Jesus is not referring to some prize in the afterlife. He is talking instead about the formation of character in the here-and-now. The true reward of authentic prayer is the growth of a godly character.

Through prayer God addresses our shame and leads us into growth without our shame messing it all up for us. Without this our growth will be stopped in it’s tracks by grandiose self-loathing (“I’m so rubbish!”) as we discount God’s grace, or grandiose self-admiration (“I’m so amazing!”) as we desperately protect ourselves from our shame. 

Prayer is the means by which we as individuals and as church communities open ourselves up to what God is doing in the world. By it we discern him in our experiences and bring his story into our own. Through prayer we are made open to Christ who, by his love, has defeated our shame. Grandiosity is neutralised by the grace of God in Christ and true humility is encouraged. And it is prayer that plugs us into this truth. In doing so it connects us to the truth of Christ and the future that God has created through him. New possibilities for our future are opened up, possibilities that entail a renewed character and a transformed life. Through prayer Christ is formed in us.

Inauthentic prayer may well get us what we want from others through manipulation and exploitation. But prayer coupled with authenticity — prayer which leaves our shame with God — brings with it a far greater reward.

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Authentic Spirituality (1)

Authentic Charity

True faith is a faith of the whole person. It doesn’t belong to the mind or the feelings to the exclusion of other parts of our being or experience. It can’t be squeezed into our behaviour while leaving our motives untouched by its influence. Where faith is present it flows into all that a person is.

This is the point Jesus is making in the part of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 6:1-21. In our worship it isn’t enough that we do the right thing, say the right words in the right way at the right time, behave in the expected way in front of the right expectant people… Authentic worship happens when the whole person is engaged in Continue reading

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Wellbeing Partnerships

 

Why isn’t the church more concerned with people’s wellbeing? I come from a tradition that is only really concerned with getting people’s souls to heaven. Any other concern for a person, for their economic, social or physical wellbeing is then seen as of little significance when compared with the urgent task of saving their soul. To my mind this leads to a church that is content to stand on the sidelines of people’s lives and shout about impending judgement and salvation. Any involvement in the everyday concerns of the people around is then always under threat of becoming contaminated by the ulterior motive of getting those people saved.

Setting the ethics of evangelistic techniques aside I have another problem with this view, which is that I no longer believe in souls (at least not in the sense of non-material substances that have a separate existence from the body) or heaven. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in a salvation, but because my hope is in the resurrection of the whole person, my understanding of that salvation is of the renewal of the whole person. The gospel is the good news about human wellbeing.

For this reason, our church recently partnered with a couple of people from our community to put on a wellbeing festival in which we choose a broad definition of wellbeing. We were able to promote and celebrate the work of charities and community groups, of the kind you would normally expect to be represented at a wellbeing event. But to these we added artists,  musicians, circus performers, gardeners and craftspeople. I was thrilled with this diversity since, to my mind, no conception of human wellbeing — and therefore of the gospel — is complete unless it encompasses the fulness of human experience.

I believe, therefore, that the church needs to be developing expertise in mental health and other aspects of wellbeing. I believe the church needs to engage in issues of poverty and justice. But we also need to acknowledge (and be thankful for) the work of organisations and individuals outside the church who are already labouring in these fields and that have developed a great deal of expertise in them. I believe we not only need to acknowledge them, but we also need to work with them.

In short, churches need to be developing wellbeing partnerships. Very few churches have the resources to be effective in all these areas and those churches that do would be guilty of duplicating the work of others and taking resources such as public funding away from them. Rather than competing against these organisations or abandoning this particular sphere of the work of the kingdom altogether, churches need to create partnerships with them. 

Wellbeing partnerships will take different forms in different places according to each location’s particular needs and each congregations particular skills and resources. In principle, however, they will entail the sharing of resources and facilities, supporting ventures and outreaches and promoting activities. Hospitality is an important virtue and I see wellbeing partnerships as the church showing hospitality to institutions and organisations whose work enhances the lives of individuals and communities.

I also believe this arrangement to be a more accurate reflection of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. In the kingdom parables Jesus doesn’t see the kingdom as acting on the world from outside. Instead he announces a kingdom that is integrated into the world; a kingdom that is effective in transforming the world because it is mixed into its culture and institutions as yeast is thoroughly mixed into dough. The church is not to stand apart from the world, creating its own institutions in order to advertises its brand: “Today’s act of charity is brought to you by …”.

Wellbeing partnerships enable the church to be embedded into society and so to engage authentically in charitable works. To do so not for their advertising potential, but because people matter and people matter to God.

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Accompanying the Heartbroken*

I well remember the blind panic with which I received news of a death in the community in the early months of becoming a minister. Questions would shoot into my skull as though fired rom the gun of an arch tormentor and, finding no answer to exit through, would bounce around loudly and sadistically. How should I be? What should I say? What if I mess up? What will people think when I’m exposed as being incompetent?
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Identity Theft (2).

Failure is a challenging experience for today’s westerner. Our culture demands that success must be achieved no matter what. The form of that success doesn’t matter so much. It’s not really that important if we achieve our goals on the rugby pitch, in the boardroom or in the pulpit. What matters – what is vitally important – is that we succeed. Within this culture failure is experienced as being deeply troubling. It undermines us; it calls into question our identity. Continue reading

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