Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Face-to-Face with The Wall

(Face-to-Face with the Wall is the second part in a series of posts that started with Vibrant Spirituality and The Wall which you can read here. Part three Wrestling with God at The Wall can be read here).

Part Two:

And so, you find yourself face-to-face with “The Wall.” A place where the faith you once had “oh so” figured out now seems “oh so” terribly broken. You’re asking yourself, “what’s happening?” Well, you’re backsliding of course. Plain and simple. No I’m joking. Some might suggest that, bless their hearts, but you know that’s not what is happening. You’re not falling away. You haven’t lost your thirst. You’re thirstier than ever it’s just that what once quenched your thirst doesn’t seem to be working any more. Even more than that; your struggling to work out how it ever could have.

At the wall the rhythms, habits, practices and disciplines that have framed perhaps your whole Christian journey seem strangely obsolete. Perhaps even disingenuous. And the thought of recycling yourself back through enthusiasm, community and responsibility, well, you’re probably not sure you could handle that.

The wall is a distinct experience of disenchantment.

Simultaneously though, the wall is also a catalyst that awakens us to new possibilities. Even if at first they only seem like remote possibilities; just a rumour or echo in your heart there might be more to this whole Christian thing than you’ve ever realised. This should of course make perfect sense, after all, there is no wall in existence that doesn’t have something on the other side! The question is, “but how?” How do we find our way around, or through, or over the wall? And, what waits for us on the other side?

It is here that most people feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. And it is here that we need the help of those wiser than us in the faith. Specifically, the help of those that have made their way through the wall at some stage or another in their journey. Because the truth is, if you haven’t experienced the wall and processed it for what it is, then very little of this will make sense. Thus leaders who’ve not themselves experienced the wall will find it both hard to understand what’s going on and to guide folk wisely who are experiencing the wall. They’ll be inclined to perceive in someone a “bad attitude,” a “lack of faith” or even “divisiveness” and the encouragement will be to get “fired up” again, sort out one’s “attitude” and recycle back into enthusiasm, community and responsibility.

But a pilgrimage of re-enchantment is not one where old habits or practices are resuscitated and given a second chance. Re-enchantment is discovered in the declaration of the prophet; "Behold something new is happening! Now it springs up; don’t you see? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." Here one finally accepts that streams of living water cannot be bottled, marketed and consumed as a magic elixir for life. You can’t simply register for a “Jesus-fix.” Let’s be honest about this. Well actually, it’s hard not to be honest about this at the wall. Indeed, the wall is actually an invitation to some rare moments of deep honesty. The wall is the chance to be honest about some things we’ve perhaps not been honest about in a long time. Things slow down at the wall, and when things slow down we discover space to reflect rather than simply to hustle and bustle our way through life. The wall is a place of honesty.  

Honesty in regard to God – God is more mysterious than we care to admit. Less in tune with our agendas it seems. Perhaps even more distant than we’d like to acknowledge.

Honesty in regard to church – it’s a lot more sociologically driven than we care to admit. We’d like everything to be Spirit driven, but much of what we do is because we’ve always done that. Many Sunday’s are just another Sunday, not life changing, not “one you better not miss!” You could have missed it and you would have missed out on nothing.

Honesty in regard to truth – truth is more hard to pin down than we care to admit. Not everything is black and white. Much is grey. That can be disconcerting.

Honesty in regard to others – they’re not “wrong” and we’re not “right.” Those Catholics or Baptists or Pentecostals or Small Church folk or Mega Church folk or even those Emerging Church people (heaven forbid). We’ve much we could learn from each other.

Honesty in regard to authority figures – they’re not as all powerful as we care to admit, as they care to project, as you might care to project if you are one of those figures. They’re regular, every day, ordinary people. It would be good if they could admit that too.

Honesty in regard to our spiritual practices – they’re not as life giving as we care to admit. Though they once may have been, now they seem like dead ends and heavy weights.

At the wall, when we’re brave enough to be honest, we realise we don’t have a handle on everything like we once might have thought we did. We’ve questions about God, truth, the church, leaders, others and how exactly to outwork this Christian faith thing. What we were once so certain about, we’re not so certain about anymore. And it’s not like only one or two things are up in the air. Everything seems to be up in the air.

This can be pretty daunting.
This can be pretty overwhelming.
This is why some get stuck at the wall.

To try and get back to how things were would be to sell out in regard to something you intuitively feel God is doing in your life. At the same time though, it feels like a sell out to acknowledge you’ve less figured out than you thought and that much of what you’ve known might have been broken. [This isn’t necessarily true though and hopefully I can address this down the track]. Either way, to go backwards seems impossible, to move forward seems impossible. Where would you start?

Honesty is a good start. And one needs to be honest with oneself.

We are more broken than we care to admit. We’re selfish, we like to be in control, we’re very concerned about what others think. We need to be needed. We’re insecure. We worry about tomorrow. We worry about the clothes we will wear. We worry about what food we will eat. Most of the time this is all suppressed beneath the multiple layers of excitement and enthusiasm, the dynamics of community and the weight of responsibility. At the wall we need to be honest with ourselves. About all of this.

At the wall we need to acknowledge our true self, our shadow self, and our ego or false self; the self that we project to the world around us. It’s not that we have three selves, all of this is collectively who we truly are, but these are useful ways of thinking about oneself.

True self = our “true self” is the divine image bearing core of who we are, children of God created to reflected his likeness to the world. This is the part of us that is growing in the knowledge of God and in the likeness of Christ in order to reflect the fullness of the image of God in our world. It is that within us that has been animated through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and our ongoing journey of discipleship, healing and sanctification.

Shadow self = this is the fallen bias that we all have. It is the “fleshly” part of our nature that is weak and that requires ongoing sanctification. It’s the broken, un-discipled, dark side that we all have.

Ego / False self = this is our projected self, the way we cast ourselves to the world around us in order to be accepted, find approval, fit in and even get what we want.

Prior to the wall we’d be hard pressed to admit that we are not primarily a flourishing “true self” with a slight “shadow self” and “ego” that needs to be kept in check.  At the wall we realise this may not be true. More of our life than we realise is being lived out of the ego, out of a false sense of self than we realise. At the wall we realise that much of what we do is all about keeping up appearances rather than birthed from our “true self.”

It’s not that we are hypocritical in the sense of being white washed tombs, clean on the outside but dirty on the inside, the rebuke that Jesus had of some of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. But rather that often a lot of the doing we are up to our ears in, doing all the right things when it comes to church and prayer and leadership and whatever it might be is because basically because that’s what you have to do. Isn’t it?

That’s what you have to do to prove your faith to everyone else in your faith tribe.
That’s what you have to do to prove your faith to yourself.
That’s what you have to do to prove your faith and devotion to God.
That’s what you have to do to because, well, isn’t that what faith us?

Doing certain things. Ticking certain boxes. Taking on certain responsibilities. Jumping through certain hoops.

There is clarity and confusion in regard to all of this at the wall. Clarity in regard to how much we are living out of religious obligation and duty, out of an unhealthy commitment to the uniformity and conformity that might see us accepted as a stand out in our particular religious context. Clarity in regard to how much of our life is sociologically driven in order to fit in rather than Spirit driven and birthed from a place of delight. There is also confusion though. Confusion in regard to what it might look like to live in a true place of freedom in Christ Jesus. Would we simply be doing all the same things but from a different motive? Would we quit half the things we are doing? What would we change? What are we missing? What needs to be reformed and renewed? What needs to be discarded and deleted?

Answers to these questions will come. In time. For the moment though, the questions themselves are an attack on our ego.  There is a greater sense of obligation at play than we might care to acknowledge. We’re experts at “keeping up appearances.” Much of our Christian practice might very well have been about projecting the right picture to others. Pharisee on the corner, who loves to pray using impressive words, big sentences. Surely not!?! And yet yes, because at the wall one senses a need to disengage in some way or another, at least for a bit to process some of what is happening, but; “what will people think?”

Some of our Christian practice is probably actually the false-self feeding straight back to the shadow self. There is a self-centred and self-serving shadow side to you that desires to be someone important, someone needed, someone successful, someone looked up to. Your shadow self can’t bear the thought of being, well, a nobody. An “average Jane” Christian. The false self is busy, busy, busy, keeping up appearances feeding the shadow self’s desire to look the part, fit in, stand out, be acceptable.

But Jesus says we’re already accepted. And it’s not based on doing.  

In Dancing with God, Irene Alexander writes; “Most of humankind is caught, to some extent, in this construct of the false self. To put it in other words, we continue with certain behaviour that serves to make us feel acceptable in the dominant paradigm. Most of us do this most of the time, but some people escape from this.”

The wall is an opportunity to escape from this. The wall is the chance for one’s true self to find resurrection life in the face of the shadow self and the false self. The wall is an opportunity to be born again, again. To find new possibilities on the other side of the wall. 

There is much more to be said… But the starting place is honesty and the abandonment of ego.

The broken are advantaged here because they find themselves at the end of themselves. They’ve no strength to do, to please, to prove, and so they throw themselves to the mercy of God. Ego is no more. They look at the rules and regulations of religion and give up. “I can’t do it; I can’t reach those standards.” They find themselves naked and not ashamed. They’re no longer hiding behind fig leaves. They’ve given up on trying to clothe things with ego. And they find a God who responds; “Come as you are…”

The mystics and monks have a head start too. These are those rare people who’ve long given up trying to master techniques of faith and instead have learnt to lose themselves in the awe, wonder, beauty and mystery of God. Their talk is never of “5 steps to supernatural breakthrough,” but rather of bread and wine and friendship and of the reality that God is “the Lord of heaven and earth and lives not in temples, and is not served by human hands, but rather gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” That God is “never far any one of us, from any that would seek him, because it is in him that we live and move and have our being.”

The mystics and the monks never ask “Am I doing OK?” It’s an irrelevant question. For them to die is Christ to gain. They’ve no ego to protect. They aren’t trying to climb to a higher plane, some next level as a Christian, they’re already lost in the wonder and beauty of the truth that God stooped down into our world! That’s grace. The simple truth is that God holds us, we don’t hold God. They’ve let go of worry and concern for the things of this world. After all Jesus says, don’t worry about tomorrow, about food and clothing. You Father knows all that you need.

Hafiz wrote this in the 14th Century…

What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The saint knows 
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God.
And the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is continually 
Tripping over Joy 
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying "I surrender!"

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.

The challenge is to accept at the wall a call to honesty, to the abandonment of ego and to pilgrimage. To see as a mystic and to live as a monk having cultivated a “monastery of the heart.” To go on a slow journey of rediscovery, a pilgrimage of re-enchantment. Here the pilgrim is not one who travels from New Zealand to Israel to be re-baptised in the Jordan river. The pilgrim is the one who is willing to journey with God, to places they may never have been before. Inner places of the shadow self, true self, false self and find healing and wholeness and personal transformation. Inner places of pride and resentment and addiction and control. The pilgrim is also one who is willing to have another look. To reconsider. To explore afresh God and church and prayer and community and what it means to be a Christian.

Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth. – George MacDonald

This isn’t a pilgrimage that everyone is willing to make. Too costly, too unsettling, too messy. And of course, it isn’t a necessary journey for everyone. Not everyone hits the wall. For some people everything rolls around swimmingly in the enthusiasm, community, responsibility cycle. For many though, it’s what they have been looking for.

Dave Tomlinson in Re-Enchanting Christianity writes; “The gap between critical approaches to Christianity and the simplistic spirituality promoted in many spheres of the Christian community lies at the heart of so much of the disillusionment with Christianity today. Many long for an expression of the Christian faith that reconciles heart and head, that offers a positive, engaging spirituality which is also committed to grappling honestly with difficult and painful questions.”

The pilgrim is willing to go on a journey and consider things in a new light. They are willing to chase the Wild Goose wherever it might go, a Celtic term for the Holy Spirit. Some though, can’t stomach the thought of the Holy Spirit being pictured as a wild goose. New ways of considering things can be too much. But oh, to be born again, again.

Grace and peace and more to come. 

Part three in this series Wrestling with God at The Wall can be read here

PS: The thoughts above are some of my reflections on life, ministry and the journey of following Jesus. They are informed by more than just my own journey though and a tip of the hat must be given to Fowler's Stages of Faith, Hagberg and Guelich's The Critical Journey, Tomlinson's Re-Enchanting Christianity, and Alexander's Dancing with God.