Perspectives from "Mum's the word"
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." John 3
I can pinpoint the first time I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me. It was 1 September 2012, during the St Barnabas Alpha Course. We had a weekend away to explore the lesser understood of the Holy Trinity, and I had absolutely no idea or preconception of what would happen.
I feel like this statement needs to come with a disclaimer to appease any cynics who may be reading this. I did not go looking for the Holy Spirit. I am a reasonable, pragmatic person who struggles with blind acceptance or seemingly abstract concepts of things I’ve never experienced and I do not get carried away with the crowd. I’ve never struggled with my belief in God or Jesus as Son of Man, but I really didn’t have a clear idea of what the Spirit was.
I am also very average. I’m not in a wheelchair; I didn’t need healing. I don’t have the gift of tongues; I can only speak English, French at a push. I am not your archetypal person who gets touched at these things. So it was with utter shock when it happened to me. At the time, my husband and I were discussing the possibility of having children; neither of us felt ready and it was quite a big sticking point for us. We were both pretty terrified of taking the leap, but at 35 years old and married for three years already, the (wannabe) grandparents were beginning to get restless and questions were being asked.
Getting back to our Alpha weekend, on the Saturday morning we were given the program, all sounded great apart from the Saturday evening session where we were told people would be speaking in tongues and laying hands on each other. Now, I had a staunch Catholic upbringing, my church was a far cry from charismatic and there was certainly never anyone leaping down the aisles having been moved by their faith. The thought of people talking in tongues and actually interacting with each other filled me with horror. So it was with a heavy heart that I crept into the back row that evening, silently willing no one to lay a hand anywhere near me.
But then a strange thing happened. People who wanted to be prayed for were invited to the front of the group. I didn’t need to be prayed for, nothing was wrong, life was good, I was ticking along, I went to church every week, I believed, what more did I need? So why did I suddenly find myself at the front?
The idea was that the people who had the gift of tongues would come and speak to us while the rest of the group quietly prayed. It was so far removed from my fear. No one was doing somersaults, there was no one shrieking hallelujah from the rafters (although by the end of the evening, if I could’ve gotten up there, it would’ve been me) and no one was put on the spot. I just found myself, head bowed while someone lay his hand on my shoulder and spoke quietly to me in a language I will never ever forget.
His words, alien and unknown to me, suddenly became my own voice unmistakably talking to a baby. The more he spoke, the more I heard my own voice comforting a small child and all I could see was a baby swaddled in pink cradled in my arms. I am not blessed with the words to bring this to life or make it sound any more credible than merely reciting exactly what happened. All I know is that, at that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit inside me telling me I was ready to have a child. I returned to my chair, starry eyed and utterly speechless as my husband pressed me to learn what had happened.
We actually excused ourselves shortly afterwards as I was completely blown away by a feeling of conviction and clarity, and needed to tell him what had happened. I don’t remember much more other than telling him, through a mouthful of tears that I felt ready to become a mother, and I can still see him, teary-eyed nodding vehemently that he too was ready to hand over to the Lord and see what happened. Two weeks later, we were staring, dumbfounded at two little blue stripes on a pregnancy test, testimony that if we open ourselves to God’s Will, great things can happen in mindbogglingly perfect timing!
I heard the sound of the Spirit’s wind loud and clear that weekend. I still don’t know where it came from and I still pray it’ll come back that profoundly again one day, but it is with hand on heart that I will always say, my baby girl was born of the Spirit.
I want to pose a question: how serious should we be in StB about Paul's "become all things ..."?
Try and imagine being a person like this:
You were raised by atheist parents who lived in a strained relationship (or divorced), and were into pleasure and materialism. You were schooled to compete and succeed despite the consequences for others. In your teens you discovered the joys of recreational sex and alcohol, maybe even some drugs for awhile. These freedoms then had to compete with the stress of taking a job, fighting your way up the corporate ladder of success while trying to hold onto the last vestiges of youthful hedonism. Your relationships, bound as they are in self serving desires, are fragile and futile, leaving a trail of hurt. Outwardly you're groomed with all the right accessories. You might be financially stable or you might be in debt, but the world around would never know. Ethics are about what helps you succeed. Ambition is what feeds your soul. Morals are a tool to manipulate others, yet something to espouse around the dinner table as a means of self promotion. Entitlement is a culture that's been bought en masse. Spirituality is about recipes of behavior that may give you momentary patches of peace. Church was for marriages and funerals. God? He's irrational. Values are situationally dependent. Christians are dull and deluded.
This describes many of the people around you. Maybe it describes you? And for every one like this, there are a myriad of other parallel life stories that differ only in the minor details.The question is: how far would you go in order to see things from another angle, from the perspective of someone who does not know God, from the point of view of the contemporary world. Of course seeing someone else's point of view does not mean agreeing with them, but until we can stand in their shoes we'll struggle to understand them, and unless we understand them, it'll be hard to love them.
Now of course we're all used to hearing a conversation that includes “Yes, I understand your point of view, but ...” What is often really being said is “Keep quite and listen to me”.
Becoming what we need to become in order to really communicate is hard work; you have to fight your own preconceived notions, put effort into trying to imagine someone else’s experience, and accept that what’s nonsense for you may actually make sense for someone else. It's also scary, because we have to think about things we don't want to hear, we fear our own doubts. To explore another person's perspective is to expose one's own weaknesses – and in today’s global church of weak intellect Christians, that's always a risk.
Now I know you can read the description of a person above, but can you imagine being such a person? Really? Pause before you answer. Think about it. If you were this person, how would you approach all the situations we each encounter on a daily basis. If you were at the bar and someone invited you home for the night, how would you evaluate that opportunity? When confronted with same sex relationships, skipping time off work, casual one night stands, telling white lies in a report for work, manipulating finances for gain, addiction to the perverse side of an easy-access internet, or longing for the weekends drinking binge – for any of these issues and more, if you were the person described how would you respond, and can you understand why the response would seem natural, logical, and right? Because until we can do that, we'll struggle to talk to them about Jesus.
I met someone recently while I was traveling, he was an aggressive Christian. I think he thought he was doing the right thing, but without understanding anything about me he proceeded with a flow of rhetoric filled with Christian'ese. As a Christian I could understand him, but I wanted to escape as fast as possible. Imagine a non-Christian's reaction, and subsequent perception of Christ.
Sure, this event was an extreme case, but such a failure to understand the other person in order to love them, to reach them for Christ, is a pervasive failure of the global church.
This is what Paul is saying; I will become what I need to become to reach all people for Christ. That means how I strategically go about doing things, and the effort I expend to leave my place of security and step into another persons world. Its how I say things, how I listen, where I go, and so much more.
And for us as a church it means how do we conduct our activities when we meet as a body?
I don't know what the answers are. I think I know what the answer is not: it's probably very unlikely that the answer is to conduct our church life unchanged from yester-year. I think the answer probably needs to include a massive dose of reality check about the world around us, with commensurate effort to understand it, real effort.
It is probably safe to say that most Christian's social circles are often a poor reflection of the surrounding culture – we become so quickly disconnected that Paul's attitude is something we forget; to step into the world-view where the other people live, not waiting or expecting them to find a way through the opaque boundaries of Christian culture. To be in the world but not of the world. And that goes for the church collectively as much as it does for each of us individually.
So my question: how serious should we be about 1 Cor 9:19-23, and where would we start?
Personally, I think it starts with an investment of effort to understand, really understand, the culture around us. Reading about it. Talking about it. Engaging it. Seeing it in the Bible story, and seeing the Bible story in the world around us. Understanding does not mean learning; learning is only the first step – understanding means internalizing what it means for someone else in experience, emotion, and attitudes. Jesus did this. So did Paul.
Voyeur ... the very term conjures up sexual connotations of a sleazy disreputable old man looking through windows or hiding behind bushes as he spies on people.
Indeed that is one definition. However, there is a second definition: a voyeur is "someone who enjoys learning about the private details of other people's lives, especially unpleasant or shocking details"
We have become a society of voyeurs; Christians are no exception, for we all participate.
I'm not arguing against the internet ... I'm a total thoroughbred geek, and I can say the internet has transformed my work for the better. But I also think we should grow into this digital age with our eyes wide open, for there are some disturbing elements that translate even into our very church services, let alone our personal spiritual reality. For the Christian, put on God's spectacles!
Consider: snapchat, vine, instagram, twitter, tumblr, youtube, facebook, tinder, and the thousands of personal blogs. Can you say what their common content is made of? It's largely an unashamed sharing of one's personal life details to all and sundry - and it has entered the permanent public record.
If you look at no other links from here, at least look at this one and consider the stats. If you're a teen or younger, are you aware of the implications? If you're of the 1st digital generation, how cognizant are you of these virtual worlds? If you're a hangover of the pre-internet generation, do you even know what these are?
How much of the social media activity is narcissism, loneliness, or something else? Probably all of these - a response to the mix of twisted values we hold. If nothing else this digital era has opened the floodgates to reduced inhibitions - easy exposure of our personal trivia, all with the apparent safety net of being hidden by the semi-anonymity of a virtual world (as if the lack of face-to-face contact makes any difference). But as some have found (like snapchat's CEO), it comes back to bite. Whatever our motivation, there seems to be a deep seated urge that when the barriers are lowered we put ourselves out there, naked for all to see (are we all masochists at heart?).
That's one side of the coin; this urge to reveal ones inner self, rooted in a fast changing value system where what was once taboo quickly becomes at most embarrassing, before turning into nothing to be ashamed of.
On the other side of the coin we have this insatiable desire for scandal, and the digital age has certainly opened the doors to such revelations. This is nothing new; the temptation for gossip is as old as can be, because scandal makes us feel we're better than the other person. What the digital age so effectively feeds is our desire for the macabre, the bizarre, and the sensational. Its no different to a freak show at the 19th century circus sideshow; only now we're the "freaks" and the internet makes it all only a click away. Consider these examples:
Now, none of this is about the erosion of privacy from nefarious spying, such as facebook tracking your behaviour, or the case where a school supplied laptops with spyware installed that allowed them to activate the laptop webcam and take pictures of the students without them being aware. And that's not even touching on the Snowden revelations about the NSA.
No, this is about our changing sensibilities. Some might argue that we are being desensitized, while others may argue that it's the crowd mentality of the internet (its so easy to get lost in the masses) that causes a diffusion of personal responsibility.
I argue that this is no more than technology lowering the barriers to the deviancies in our innate nature - the digital age makes it easier to access and share, and the relativism of the age lowers the senses of values, of morals, with a resulting numbing of conscience as a positive feedback to strengthen the process. Voyeurism abounds, and there seems to be no shortage of people willing to be the object of attention, seeking self affirmation from the gazes of a virtual world of deviants.
So what then? I'm not arguing for a return to a previous age. I am not saying we should turn back the clock. I'm asking, what is missing from this equation?
The fundamental question must surely be: Where is our reference?
I had dinner with a relativist the other night. He did not like my assertion (but could not deny it) that a relativist can never claim a behaviour pattern to be wrong; all a relativist can say is that an action does or does not fit their personal value system. The most reprehensible person one can think of cannot be "wrong" in any absolute sense; the relativist can only say they do not fit into someone's value system.
The Christian is called to reflect the reference. Yet our Christian practices have aligned themselves with the eroded values of the digital transformation. Individually, collectively, and institutionally we've lost our focus, and lost the capacity to speak into this instagram-type world of self-centered focus. Instead we write blogs ostensibly in the hope these will magically change people (it doesn't - people gravitate to the echo chambers that feed their innate desires, and our blogs are often ego-inflating devices). Likewise, what we post to our social media sites in order to "be a Christian witness" (ignored by the people we supposedly want to reach) is often simply an embarrassing pile of trivia.
What does the internet-age Christian look like? How should a Christian engage this modern world in a way that impacts with value? How do we build a dialogue across the boundaries of our filter bubbles? And where and how do we engage with the culture arising from this pervasive value-neutral technology in the context of our (conflicting) ethics and life styles in the institutional church.
I have yet to find a coherent discussion on this, and instead hear only the platitudes of a bygone era that roll so easily off our Christian-ese tongues.