Belonging: Aloneness

In the first session of this series I introduced you to Richard Kelly’s novel Crusaders and the characters of local vicar Simon Barlow and church planter John Gore.  One of their conversations goes like this:

Barlow: It’s not a class thing…that’s not the attraction.  It’s about friends telling friends there’s a place they can go and make new friends.

Gore: [P]eople on the estates…can lead quite isolated lives.  We have a chance to get them together in a group, however small.  Make them welcome.  Treat them well.

Joe Myers says that belonging happens when you identify with another entity.  Belonging need not be reciprocal: to whom we belong is within our control, but who belongs to us is not.  It is sad but true that there are many people who consider themselves to be part of the local church until they are confronted by someone who tells them otherwise.  There are hundreds of people who belong to our congregation who we have no idea of.  Either we have no knowledge of their existence, or we know who they are but we don’t know that they belong until they tell us, usually by getting the hospital or the funeral director to ring our minister.  Tribal loyalty takes place in public space; these people belong to the Uniting Church team in the same way that I belong to Geelong Cats: publically. I am nameless at Kardinia Park but I am not a stranger: I am a committed public belonger of the club.  When we think about it like that then all belonging is significant.

It is possible to communicate to people that they do not belong, to actually disinvite people from engaging with us.  One common example of this in the broader setting is the way in which, with the best of intentions, a worship leader may publically excuse visitors from putting money in the collection.  This might seem pastoral, but it can also convey the message that these people are isolated from the blessing in the tithe because they don’t belong here. They have been welcomed, but they don’t feel belonging.

In our generation there is a culture of aloneness; of people longing for community but afraid to get close, surrounded by friends but feeling ever more alone. You can see this in the great documentary series of Generation-X; eleven years of a show called Friends where six people fall in and out of relationships with each other and the people on their periphery.  We all want friends, but we don’t know how to be friendly because we have learned it can be dangerous to be too vulnerable.  According to John Burke this generation…craves [the] sense of community inside a spiritual family.  If they don’t experience hope for authentic relational support, [it doesn’t matter] how hip the service…the music, or…the vibe [:] they won’t stick.  The challenge for leaders is first to learn how to live in community with others, and then to provide ways to ensure that nobody stands alone.  As a local church, we need to form a strong community around ourselves into which we can welcome others.  As was said several sessions back, some people bring others to church, and some people are the church to which others are brought.

As participants in this culture we can help our leaders create healthy environments in which people naturally connect.  If we concentrate on building the environment instead of the result we might see healthy, spontaneous friendships emerge.  This is the way a slime mould works; as individual organisms when the physical conditions are harsh, and as a single organism when conditions are favourable.  With sufficiency in the environment each “it” becomes part of a larger “they”.  A Mexican Wave does not occur because of a coordinated plan, but because of a mass movement of individuals moving in time with their neighbours: as each person watches only the people around them they know when to move.   This is how swarms, schools, and flocks operate in the animal world.  In the light of each of these examples we can understand that spontaneous does not necessarily mean random.  It would seem that with a few environmental suggestions a sudden epidemic of cooperation may arise.  As a local church we need to help people to connect; not just look to entertain.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the author William Mahedy many young people are suffering from the same sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that American veterans came home with from the Vietnam War.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder arises out of a stressful incident beyond the normal range of human experience and Mahedy thinks that for young people these incidents arise out of issues of feeling abandoned as children in the divorce of parents, or in sexual or psychological abuse along with overexposure to media violence and sexual exploitation. We are living beside a generation with widespread problems with stability, self-image, feelings of emptiness, depression, suicidal and self-destructive thinking, lack of hope, and a fear of the future.  To be effective in reaching this sort of world the whole Church must create a culture that will welcome a generation that feels alone.  The Baby Boomers valued anonymity above all else when coming to church, but the Generations which follow seek community.  It doesn’t matter how postmodernist we are, no one will return to a place where she feels ignored or disconnected, where she is an outsider.  This is especially true of spiritual seekers: no one wants to feel alone.   There is a difference between being alone and feeling alone.  Most people like space, some want more space than others do, but even when we are by ourselves we need to know that we belong.

Flickr friends

Flickr friends (Photo credit: Meer)

This generation longs for deep connection, yet often settles for shallow ways of relating: the one-night-stand means that I “belong”, even if only for fifteen minutes.  The generations reared amongst divorce and abuse want to belong, yet their history of neglect has programmed them into an aloneness that goes much deeper than simply being alone. This sort of aloneness comes from longing for people to see you and know you, yet still feeling isolated even with lots of friends around.  If local churches do not help connect people into the Community of Christ in meaningful ways then we have failed in the full ministry of reconciliation: of restoring authentic relationship.  According to Paul, local congregations are supposed to be the rebuilders of broken bridges.  II Corinthians 5:16-19, 6:11-13.  The irony of this generation is that although we long for people to reach out to us, we fear appearing needy.  We know we need help, but we find it difficult to trust people with our vulnerabilities because we have been hurt, neglected, and rejected before.   I am fragile.  I am china in a bull shop.

We long for those who are already engaged in community to draw us in, but when they do we tend to forget how isolated we felt at the beginning and we neglect to engage the newcomers who followed us to the edges of community but were not brought in.  One way to make visitors and new people feel welcome is not to make them stand up and identify themselves, which can be daunting, but to stand up and identify ourselves.  We give the new person permission to approach us: if you are new here let me tell you we have coffee in the hall behind this building, turn left outside the door.  You are welcome to come with me and talk with me because I would like to talk to you.  Often that permission is all some people need.

Another principle of connection is to get people involved early: however, it must be recognised that not everyone feels ready to dive into spiritual community, and often simpler, low-commitment connection fosters the trust needed to move forward.  We must not exclude newcomers from joining our teams, but we must remain careful not to demand it from them either.  The goal is to raise people through teams to be team leaders, but then beyond that to leadership which is not just leading a task but spiritually developing the people who serve on the team.  Therefore, there is a word of caution: we should encourage non-Christians to serve as ministers in our church by meeting a need no one is meeting, but we cannot allow them to become until they submit to Christ’s lordship.  Let them serve, and belong before they believe.  Nevertheless, expect that they will believe before they lead.

John Burke tells the story of a group who served together for seven years on the vegetable-chopping task of their food service ministry.  They met to complete the task, but they also met together to pray with each other.  This team became a group of friends who cared for each other and interacted in each other’s lives in prayer and follow-up conversations alongside having fun on the job and out on social dates.  I have always enjoyed the fellowship of the ministry kitchen; the team I worked with at my church in England, Because We Can was becoming such a team toward the end of my time there.  I did not have the social skills to lead it, but I had the vision and the passion and when I stepped aside the community blossomed.  People want to get involved and connect: often jumping into a small group discussion feels too intimidating, but serving and feeling useful can be a great first step of connection with surprising spiritual results.  At Bible Study I would rather help with the dishes and have a 1:1 or 1:1:1 discussion around the sink, than sit and chat over a cuppa in the lounge-room.  Being in the kitchen is one of the places in which I find my belonging.  We should encourage seekers to plug in to community and serve in ways that don’t require spiritual maturity.  Like the famous Hillsong Church London truck, you don’t have to be a Christian to serve but your doubts about Jesus and his church probably won’t survive for long when you’re on team with down-to-earth servant Christians.  If we allow people to belong in this way it can help them to sort through their questions within an authentic community, and encourage them toward a genuine, applied faith.  People long to connect with those to whom they can relate: as I have said before, seekers are looking for people to be like.  Community plays a vital role in encouraging development.

The responsibility of Christians to be active in alleviating social concerns is clearly expressed in scripture in the narrative of Hebrew history.  As C.S. Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world.  Perhaps because of their empathy with others who have been broken by the contemporary world, Generations X, Y and Z care deeply about the needs of the poor, forgotten and marginalised.  A local church that does not engage in acts of compassion could not possibly represent God to postmodern people.  Indeed even for me, I wouldn’t have left Hillsong Church London to return Port Lincoln if it weren’t for the Uniting Church’s particular work with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s ministry in Zambia.   Compassion is an easy way for people to connect with others as they serve together. You don’t have to be a Christian to serve others in need, but by serving alongside Christians, new people in church see a supernatural love and motivation that attracts them to Christ and his community.

For those who have suffered, especially at the hands of “Christians” it is important for them to know that Jesus has always been present in their trouble, but that he can be shut out by the actions of others.  People can decide things about Jesus that have a negative effect on their lives, but that does not mean that God was not present or that God was unaware or is uninterested.  God will not override the freewill of abusive parents to intervene and protect children, because to do so would be a dishonouring of God’s charge to them to raise their children.  However, we remember that God is aware and present; God is always watching, and often weeping.

One of the reasons why sin has such an appeal to our generation is that we don’t know how to enjoy life together as God intended.   The best deterrent to sin is joy, the sense that life with God is so good that I don’t want to do anything to screw it up.  When behave out of a sense that life is good in God’s stream we won’t want to change it.  A key task of God’s family is encouraging each other in enjoying life as God intended.  When we experience more and more enjoyment of life together the last thing we want is to turn away from the source of this new life.  God is a God of immense joy: God’s spirit gives joy and a life overflowing with blessing when God fully has God’s way with us.

If people feel at ease with each other from the outset, opening up to each other in an environment of fun and safety, then connections can be formed that will allow people to develop trusting friendships that will last for years.  There is plenty of time to read the Bible and pray together in a group, but we only get one chance to make a first impression and lay the foundation for creating a sense of family.  If family cannot be created then the group will never become the place of healing and life-giving community that God intends.  The early Church was a group that did life together in food, recreation, and service.

John Burke tells of a man he calls Jim, a man who had travelled with Christian ministries around the globe and had been involved speaking and teaching, a man who Burke describes as feeling isolated and alone, constantly pitching Christian faith like a travelling salesperson. Sadly, Jim was unable to talk openly about personal demons [and] he crashed emotionally.  I can relate to this, yet I know that this must not be.  Unfortunately, it will be the case for many of us unless the Church is able to find and demonstrate ways to be vulnerable in community, a community that believes what it says and acts what it believes about a God of abundant grace and sacrificial love.

Advertisements

Christian Pastoral Support of People with Mental Illness

Four key characteristics typify the presenting features of depressive illnesses: mood, behaviour, physiology and cognition[1].  Depression can be said to affect the whole person; body, mind, emotions, spirit, soul, imagination and relationships.  With specific reference to people of religious faith experiences characterised by feelings of spiritual despair are often followed by periods of a sense of indifference.  Thoughts concerning the things of God follow general thinking into a downward place[2] and God might cease to exist as an extant, relational being for some religious people who experience a depressive illness.  Statistics indicate that the suicide rate for people experiencing depressive illnesses is thirty-six times higher than for the general population, and at least three times higher than for either people experiencing psychotic illnesses[3] or for people misusing alcohol[4].  Suicidal thinking occurs in approximately three in four people experiencing a depressive illness; around one in seven attempts to end their life[5].

Mental illnesses are primarily physiological rather than spiritual in nature and they are not generally “caused by demons”[6].  It is likely that King Saul experienced bipolar disorder and the prophet Jonah speaks of helplessness and darkness distinct from his physical predicament inside a giant fish[7].  The Psalmist[8] variously describes states of anguish and depression.

 

On the Threshold of Eternity

On the Threshold of Eternity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The treatment of depressive disorders in history is associated with the Church’s wider ministry of “soul care” and the mediaeval church used the term accidie, a term akin to sluggishness, to describe staleness in religious practices and in one’s relationship with God, especially among ascetics[9]Accidie can be thought of as depression in association with The Absolute, a “dryness of spirit” that affects the whole being.   As is evidenced better by the Psalmist than the disobedient Saul and Jonah, accidie is primarily a disorder of the faithful religious, not of the spiritually recalcitrant, recidivist, or indifferent.  Depressive illnesses have the capacity to overcome anyone.

In addition to spiritual dryness, the awareness of personal sin is a reality in the thinking of many depressed Christians; therefore pastors must be able to work with people feeling individual guilt or blame behind their feelings of unworthiness.  Glib grace helps no one and leads only to greater isolation[10].   The key theological themes of depressive illnesses are of loneliness and hopelessness and persons who experience most forms of mental disorder are often segregated from their social networks by their emotions and feelings, their symptoms, or by the (sometimes inadvertent) isolating tendencies of these same networks[11].   In this way appropriate pastoral care must take the form of remembering[12], encouragement, and spiritual direction[13], where comfort is offered through listening, attention and presence.  A community approach to pastoral care is vital to overcoming the stigma which might accompany depression in a person of faith.

The fear of encountering those who are different can be overcome through acts of encounter[14], both for providers and consumers of appropriate Christian forms of pastoral care.  One cannot form friendships with someone one has never met and carers and patients must meet before they can begin a relationship.  One reason why pastoral care of people with depressive disorders is a neglected area is because of the significant stress such care places upon individual carers.  Bearing with someone who is expressing his emotions deeply takes a heavy toll on the carer therefore appropriate pastoral responses to persons affected by depressive illnesses must incorporate the care of their carers.  Those within the Church who find themselves afflicted by depressive disorders must seek to understand the depth of pain and social isolation sufferers experience, and seek to reach out to them in appropriate ways to connect them with a fellowship of people who care.  The Christian community must be the initiator of a process of bridge building.

It is worthy of note that for some people the experience of depression can be turned around simply by expressing and discussing their experience with an attuned person; oftentimes the pastoral carer will fill this role through being a patient, supportive, non-judgemental listener[15] even if they are not a mental health professional.  Some people find it helpful to vent their anger and again the pastor can be the sounding board.  But in many cases only being a listener is not enough and the minister must say “okay, but now let’s talk about some action to help you to move on[16].”   This is only appropriate in the case of acute depression; to insist upon rapid change in the case of chronic and endogenous depression is extremely inappropriate.

As one who is both provider and consumer of mental health services I note that pastors must be careful not to expect their clients to provide care to them: that is the job of the pastor’s own family, friends, and carers.  People who are managing their mental health conditions are eminently suitable to be leaders within this ministry, in that they lack the fear of strange behaviours or depth and intensity of negative emotions, but attuned listening should be offered only in one direction in any pastoral relationship.  One reason for this is that care must be tailored to the person herself and not to her perceived needs.  “I know what works for me” is useful, but expecting the recipient to return care based on the carer’s own pastoral needs or wants is not.  It must also be remembered that people managing their own health are still susceptible to low points and the need to withdraw themselves from caring for others in the interests of self-care.

In responding to a person with a depressive disorder the pastoral carer can be said to enter into a tension which cannot be resolved by human effort but only by the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is vital that the role of the pastoral carer does not extend into diagnoses or causes of depression as that is within the remit of the mental health profession.  The primary offering of Christian pastoral carers is the ministry of support; befriending and helping persons cope with living with their mental disorder and sharing the Church’s unique way of supporting people by offering friendship in the name of Christ.  In this way pastoral care focuses on meaning and understanding rather than explanation and treatment[17].

Depression may be an indicator that something is wrong which needs changing, thus it can be of benefit in providing an impetus to change[18]; however any individual with more than a mild depression must be referred to a GP for a thorough check-up to rule out physical or clinical disorders[19].    Ministers and pastoral carers should always work in collaboration with mental health professionals: any case of depression or anxiety in Christian patients should be both/and rather than either/or[20].   Pastoral counselling based on suitable training is an appropriate course of action for people who experience depression, whether they are on medication or not[21], and the pastor’s checklist might include questions concerning difficulties impeding functioning[22], the person’s strengths[23], the nature of the symptoms (behavioural, physiological, cognitive, or affective)[24], and practical first steps, such as looking for positives in life, which might be taken to help turn this depression around[25].

For Christians, disidentification techniques can be useful in challenging negative identities and replacing them with new ones.  “I do not (or “I no longer”) see myself as scum but see myself as Christ sees me,” “I have an emotional life, but I am not my emotions,” and “sometimes I am lonely but I am not loneliness personified” are all worthy mantras[26]. Melancholic individuals have a tendency to see themselves as ineffective therefore it is important to gently assist them in getting active[27]. The pastoral nature of this is vital as many melancholic people don’t wish to be pushed into activity and can become quite resentful at being bullied into “just doing something”[28].   The purpose of such activities should be for the person to be able to make sense out of her existence and to rediscover her sense of meaningfulness in life yet it is also of use in teaching specific social skills to enable her reengagement with community[29].  This should be offered only by a trained counsellor or when explicitly asked for.

In concluding let me address how the specifically religious condition of accidie might be cared for.  Stigma is a barrier to many people engaging in pastoral care and mental health support[30], and the expectations upon Christians that they demonstrate strength in their faith may contribute to such feelings among church attendees.  Do I acknowledge an experience of hope in accidie, or only despair?  Do I believe such despair to be a sin (akin to sloth) or tantamount to a lack of faith?  Is this merely a spiritual dryness which might be treated with prayer and meditation, or is there a physiological undercurrent which requires professional and medical help, a condition which only a doctor can safely diagnose?  The Church must care for its own in how it supports those experiencing dryness to respond to the message of faith, hope and love when they feel distant from God and others, annoyed by their closest friends, and down on themselves.  If this dryness is the experience of the preacher how might the community of faith support the man within accidie to speak of, and re-experience, faith and hope?[31]  For the mystic the relationship with God is changed during the dark night of the soul when God seems absent and life seems empty and uninviting[32].   Not all people of faith who experience depression and anxiety experience spiritual listlessness, especially when their depression and anxiety is physiological in cause, but as a pastoral issue within the local congregation accidie remains noteworthy.  In all things understanding which refuses to ostracise, demonstrates compassion, and offers regular prayer for the person experiencing symptoms, her family and carers, and the pastoral support team is of the essence.

References:

beyondblue, “Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety position statement Draft for Consultation June 2012”, beyondblue, 2012.

Patton, John. Pastoral care in Context: An Introduction to Pastoral Care. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1993.

Stone, H.W. and W.M. Clements. (eds.) Handbook for Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press. 1991.

Swinton, John. Resurrecting The Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press. 2000.


[1] H.W. Stone and W.M. Clements, Handbook for Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1991), 178.

[2] Ibid., 181.

[3] Such as schizophrenia

[4] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 185.

[5] Ibid., 185.

[6] Jesus claimed in Mark 9:29 that manifestations of demons can be seen in people, but this cannot be understood as establishing a theology explaining the causes of all disorders in mental health.

[7] See Jonah 2:2-7. The hope of God’s response is seen in the verses following.

[8] Examples might be found in Psalm 6:6-7 and Psalm 13:1-3.  The hope of God’s response is seen in the verses following.

[9] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 174.

[10] Ibid., 206.

[11] Including, sadly, the local church.

[12] John Patton, Pastoral Care in Context: an introduction to pastoral care (Louisville KY: Westminster. 1993), 15.

[13] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 207.

[14] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person (Nashville TN: Abingdon. 2000), 146.

[15] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 187.

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Swinton, Resurrecting The Person, 150.

[18] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 176.

[19] Ibid., 178.

[20] In this I disagree with Stone’s rule of thumb which sees ministers able to see depressives until a cut-off at “moderate” at which point medical intervention is preferred.   Ibid., 183.

[21] Ibid., 177.

[22] Ibid., 184.

[23] Ibid., 184.

[24] Ibid., 184.

[25] Ibid., 185.

[26] Ibid., 189.

[27] Ibid., 191.

[28] This is certainly true of me: negotiation is the key.

[29] Ibid., 196.

[30] beyondblue “Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety position statement Draft for Consultation June 2012”, (beyondblue, 2012) 1.

[31] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 175.

[32] Ibid., 174.

Belonging: Brokenness

In No Perfect People Allowed (page 44) John Burke wrote nothing poses a greater challenge and opportunity to the church than the overwhelming emotional pains that drive our generation into so many addictive behaviours….If God is going to use his church to reach [this] generation the church must be prepared for these struggles of brokenness….If [we] are going to minister to [this] generation [we] must create a culture where broken people are welcome and healing happens….Broken people are wounded people…they often run from those attempting to help them.  Leaders must create a safe climate, so that the healing work of God can begin in their lives.

Burke (page 206)  goes on to quote an anonymous person who asks if this is fate, if this is all I deserve, why can’t I just accept it?  Why do I keep hoping?   When seekers come to church they usually know something’s broken; but they don’t always know there’s hope for something better.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

The message of our congregation is that God sees all that we endure, and it counts.  (Hebrews 10.)  Even for Christians it might seem sometimes that there is no honour in doing the right thing, yet if God exists then maybe it means something to God.  Sometimes the greatest act of faith is simply hanging in there until, it gets better, and to remember that God knows what we are enduring and that it matters to God.  We all need this hope that despite all our screw-ups and misguided stabs at life we can still become all God intended us to be by relying on God’s protection and God’s wisdom to see us through.

One of the greatest challenges that Christians face today is correcting the misperceptions of the nature and intentions of God that people have so that they can learn to trust God.  Someone might ask how does God handle me getting it second best all the time?  and if they have a wrong idea of God then they will have a wrong answer to that question.  They may even have a negative answer to that question.  Perhaps for them God does not handle me getting it second best all the time.  If the Church does not create a context for hope and healing, and provide opportunities for people to come and receive it, then those in the world will keep acting in sinful ways because of their pain.  The Christian community must become a safe harbour from the storms of life that beat people up and throw their lives upside down.  This problem compounds when suffering people come into our gatherings and rather than hear the predominate message of  hope in Christ; that the Creator of the seas wants them to come on board and navigate them towards life;  they only hear that God is angry with them about the reefs they keep hitting.  People who hear this sort of gospel are not likely to feel encouraged by our invitation to let an angry navigator on board, their lives are miserable enough.  However, as Christians we know that until they do allow God to navigate they will keep running aground, and they will never become all that God intended.

One of the major results of brokenness is addiction.  Addiction is not about having a 24/7 interest in something, it’s actually about being unable to shake the need to return to something that gives us meaning and pleasure.  You might go days or weeks without meeting your need, but when you are feeling broken you will return to the thing that gives you comfort, even if you know it to be wrong or even dangerous because you are trapped.  Addictions drive people into a state of absolute helplessness, a state Jesus referred to as spiritual poverty Matthew 5:3.  Jesus calls it a blessed state to be in because spiritual poverty cracks our shells of denial and our desire to hide away, and forces us to recognise either our deep need or our deep dependence on God. So it is kind of ironic that those close to this so called blessed condition, those in greatest need of grace and truth, are often not welcome in Christian circles.  This is why there is so much hurt around the churches; many who know they need help and that the Church is the right place to get help find themselves mistreated or ignored by Christians.  But as a local church we cannot simply invite the addicted in and hope for healing.  We must be prepared with groups and programmes to welcome people into, or at least try to make ourselves aware of outside resources available to help set people free.  We must help, even if only to act to connect them with better-able agencies.

True healing requires a lengthy process of righting the wrongs and uncovering the lies of the past.  Recovery from brokenness is a lengthy process, you cannot microwave healing

Prayer

At the core of most addictions is cycle of shame.   Shame is the feeling that there is something unacceptable about me at the core, yet I have a desire to put things rights and prove I am acceptable.  As local Christians we need to recognise and teach that shame is healthy because those who feel ashamed have not given up!  If you didn’t care, and if it doesn’t matter, then you won’t feel shame.  But we can’t allow people to stay ashamed, and we must be careful ourselves not to add to their sense of shame.  Shame opens the way to grace, and grace is what we do because as we learned a few weeks back grace is something that only the Church can access.  The world can offer tolerance, but God alone can provide grace and accomplish complete restoration in a broken person’s life.

As a chaplain I can tell you that a person with addictions often finds relief from his pain by acting out in ways that are often extreme.  Yet this acting out brings comfort because he temporarily feels good or alive.  Almost immediately though, feelings of being horrible and unworthy follow.  Once he is out of control the addict tries to regain control again by acting in: compulsively cleaning or dieting or spending longer hours at the office to try to feel better about himself.  But this attempt to do better never relieves the isolation and disconnectedness shame creates so the pain builds and builds.  Like clockwork he will act out again seeking relief, and around and around the cycle of shame he goes.

The underlying cycle of shame only gets broken when grace meets with truth in a person’s life.  When the person learns to take responsibility for her actions only then can she put her life and her will into the care of the God who will love her and give her the power she needs to overcome.  But this act of surrender usually only comes when the pain becomes intense.  Until the pain is severe, she will find it very hard to look honestly at her harmful behaviour patterns, because to her admitting her behaviour is wrong means admitting that she is unacceptable.   This is why as leaders, chaplains, or even as local Christians we must become comfortable letting people go through painful consequences at times.  Pain brings awareness and awareness brings healing.

In all things broken people must be reminded that regardless of what they’ve done in the past it’s not too late to honour God and honour yourself.  We can read Jesus doing this in John 4 where he is speaking to the Samaritan woman.  While he sits and chats casually beside the well Jesus steers his conversation with woman towards the real issue: which is not the sexual and relational mismanagement of her life, but her need to put God first in her heart, soul, and spirit.  Her greatest need was for authentic worship, a vibrant connection with her creator; and Jesus knew that unless she had living water springing up in her soul, flowing out of a right relationship with God, she would forever drink from muddy puddles.  As Christians we must not focus on where these broken people are in their lives, instead we need to encourage them to move on from that place enabled by God’s grace.  We must listen attentively to their stories and then help them to plan the best ways forward.  We must support people in moving toward Christ regardless of their past.  Many addicts have an agenda for what they want God to do when they come to God.  That’s why the first step is to admit that they have no control, over their life or over God or over their addiction.  We can help them with this through our own testimonies of depending and living from grace.

It is important that when we are meeting with people who are coming to terms with their addictions and their brokenness that we provide the help they need.  You would not send a reforming smoker to Alcoholics Anonymous just because “AA works with addictions”, since AA meetings are usually full of people smoking who are trying to give up alcohol.   One of the insights I gained as a prison officer while working alongside RAPt (the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust) in the United Kingdom is that many smokers don’t want to do a 12-Step programme as they don’t want to be viewed as having a problem with drugs.  Work with the broken man or woman; don’t treat an addicted case-study.

The effective local congregations in this generation’s Church have realised that just saying “that’s morally wrong, stop it” isn’t enough to help people to break free.  For example whilst it is true that lust is harmful people need to know that lust and sexual attraction are two different things.  Marriage in and of itself will not cure a man or woman’s addiction to pornography.  But those trapped by lust also need to know that God’s vision for sexual wholeness gets them what they truly want; intimacy, wholeness, belonging, identity; and in a far more satisfying and longer-lasting way.  The best we can do for people struggling in any area is to create a safe place to talk about these struggles.

We must remember that all addictions share a common root and a common solution, regardless of outward expression.   Addiction, like all sin, is an attempt to meet a legitimate need by an illegitimate means.  (It can also be the meeting of an illegitimate need: an unhealthy and unnecessary want.) Broken people in this generation struggle with many addictions and the Church for this generation must be prepared to encounter all types of people if we want to create a culture where healing and release can happen.  The local church needs to become a healing community which ministers to those around us who are consumed and enslaved by addictions. Healing and spiritual growth require support and connection, and in a generation longing for connection but wired to stay isolated and alone the local churches must be places where nobody if left to stand alone.  Our job is to help people connect with the Jesus with skin on.

Bigger on the Inside

Jean Vanier: Essential Writings edited and introduced by Carolyn Whitney-Brown

Essays from the founder of the L’Arche communities 

“Change the world with love, one heart at a time” is the central message of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community.  I had heard of L’Arche and Vanier before reading this book, but I have come to understand them both a good deal more since sitting down with Essential Writings.  Vanier, the son of a former Governor General of Canada, is an ex-serviceman of the Royal Navy who established a community of care for intellectually disabled men.  Today the movement which arose from this includes hundreds of houses and religious communities across France, North and South America and Asia.  This volume is made up of quotes taken from twenty-six of Vanier’s books, published across the last four decades, and was produced to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2008.

Vanier has much to say about the human condition and in living with compassion and dignity among people who are differently abled.  The insights into community, spirituality and peacemaking that make up this book were drawn from Vanier’s lectures to international conferences and councils, small group devotions within L’Arche, as well as his personal journals and correspondence.

This book is best used to dip in and out of, perhaps taking each section to reflect upon rather than to read straight through.  As a chaplain I enjoyed the gentleness with which Vanier addresses suffering, and the personal stories of his work among the poor in health but great in spirit.

Learning to Adore

The Fire of Your Life by Maggie Ross

A mystic’s year of seasonal reflections.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”  That’s a command, not only an invitation.  Jesus took time away from the crowds and the twelve to be alone with his God.  If the Son needed to do this in Roman Judea, then today’s daughters and sons probably do too.

Ross is a professed solitary who nonetheless writes for the practical needs of today’s Christians: be that the need for a taxi in New York, (you pray to the nearest fire hydrant), or the need to understand how chastity works in a world where many people are unmarried, some are homosexual, and all are bombarded by options without guidance.

The fire of my life needed stoking up, and thanks to the wisdom I have read here I had the time and the timber to do just that.  If you need it to I am sure it will reward you too.

 

 

Soul Music

 I Connecting: The Soul’s Quest by Kristina Kaine

People exist as body, soul, and spirit: but we are not fully alive if we don’t understand and nurture all three.

 Apparently it works like this.  “The-I” is my spirit: my spirit is the Artist: my soul is the artwork: my body is the canvas.   My spirit is “the-I” who am when I refer to myself (I/me/ego), it is my real self which is expressed as personality through my soul.   Follow? Hmm.

Kaine argues that if I don’t like who “I” am, then I will try to hide from that.  Addictions and issues with identity arise as I attempt to escape who I am.  In a similar way she sees Autism and the social disconnection of many (young) people in the twenty-first century as loose connections between body and soul.  The spirit is indeed willing, but the rudderless flesh is weak.  To heal ourselves, and our society, we need to reconnect our physical being with our individual souls, and put our unique spirit in charge.  As a school CPS worker I value this insight and the daily exercises for soul restoration in the final chapter; these will spur me to ponder anew the non-physical reasons behind what I daily encounter as a counsellor and chaplain.

This book engages the spiritual seeking of today and acknowledges the activity of the human spirit without reference to religious doctrines or practices.  Kaine embraces a holistic view of humanity, yet she makes no reference to how God acts upon the spirit and soul of a person. It seems that my spirit is what I allow it to be; myself fully alive, and I don’t need supernatural input for that.  I wonder if religion is where “the-I” connects with God: perhaps that’s for the Christian that “I” am to explore.