15 Jul 2016

How to keep on: be your self {but beware} & when it's wrong to live for others /

Please, be -- your.self -- but do read carefully what I mean by it.

My book Shed Those Leaves asserted boldly, "emerge to be your true self..". When the publisher showed me the finished product and it was classified as 'self-help'; I wanted to weep.

This is a world about helping yourself to all the Turkish delights*, the possibilities, the dreams, the passions. So powerful is this notion that even God is said to help those who help themselves. And of course we see how destructive it can be; that our default self-mode is perniciously self-ish.

Yet here I am again, asking you to be  your.self.

It is a dangerous thing to call people to. I asked myself: isn't this the privilege of the rich, first-world, high up Maslow's hierarchy, the reserve of those who have arrived; the creme de la creme of society? It is a luxury; or is it?

Here's a hint of the answer: our accouterments and achievements often conceal more than reveal who we are. I have found the poor to be more at ease with themselves and often their raw, rough edges are far more lively than the culturally smoothed ones of the respectable.

Also, we preach a gospel of a personal love, of each made uniquely in the Image. How can we then refuse to witness to the diversity and variety? How can you relate to God except by being who you are? Wouldn't we be impoverished if you and I refuse the courage to be who God made us?

But what does it mean? How do we become our selves?

Recently I wrote an old professor friend who was my pastor for the few critical years when I was training for ministry to update him about a missionary who had left her family and chosen to come out and to pursue a new relationship. She leaves in her wake broken families; biological and spiritual. People are angry, bewildered, troubled, burdened. I was astounded that in reply, he told me of others he knows personally and through contacts; many older, who have done just the same. These people have all gone off to be their "true selves".

We read such stories and easily mock them for being foolish, selfish, willful and even  treacherous. Some speculate if they really knew God. Sure, there are instances that may be so (but it isn't up to us to conclude). I am not going to say I have the answers. But I do not take these stories lightly. Such drastic departures, a disruption, a whole different trajectory isn't a walk in the park. To come to a day when you feel like your life is fraudulent is a terrifying thing. It is to have everything from under your feet snatched away. There is a crumbling of the soul and an intense void and vulnerability that happens. Like a distracted sheep, a person asking such deep questions about their lives, desperate for answers -- can become easy prey.

It reminds me of teens - those bewildering, frustrating creatures who are undergoing a process of identity formation in earnest. The teen years are tumultuous years. In a way; individuals who suddenly question their lives at the most fundamental levels are not in mid-life crisis as they are returning to a teen phase. Perhaps, there is a deep need in us to journey well, with integrity though every phase of our lives; and for some of us, a failure to do so catches up on us. 

I notice something else. The stories I am getting have come mostly from people who have "lived for others" - pastors, missionaries, church planters etc. I wonder about the connection.

Each of us, have been raised to feel the eyes of others on us 24/7 - to varying degrees. But the spiritual person, a spiritual leader, often feels a responsibility to live well, to shine for Jesus, to be a good witness more so than the average Joe. And I have seen so many unwilling, unhappy ones.

As a teenager, I used to think it must be so boring that all Christians turned out to be like Jesus! I remember going to God to tell him I wasn't so keen on the idea that I had to be his ambassador - not just because I lacked confidence, but because it felt like I would be curbed somehow. 

I had a serious choice to make. [notice the teen negotiation going on]. I would say this, it is an ongoing choice. Following Christ is a daily affair as much as there are significant moments of decisive action.

But what happens when we are pressurized to make a choice? What happens when we don't really dare to look into our hearts to see if we really want the choice; and it is the inexorable pace of life that sends us moving along? What then? Such a person is a trapped soul. He wakes up one day and wonders how he got to where he is.

Despite all appearances, the trapped soul is also one who never really takes sides. He is forever sitting on the fence of trying to please others and fearing for one's bite of the pie, reputation, comfort, status quo (that works).

The trapped soul is not free to really enter into community with others, and also never really enjoys solitude where facing one's true state can be deeply unsettling.

At some point, the teenager realises that he must hack a path and learn to manage this thing called a paradox: having one's way doesn't mean backing away from others.

Jesus taught powerfully on the paradox:

Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a seed... - John 12v24

All potential in the seed will never be realized if the seed refuses to die. What seems contradictory is what works sometimes! 

Jesus modelled this amazing truth for us ultimately: the victory of the Resurrection came through the torment of a most cruel and unjust death, where all seems lost.

This need to be our selves while being deeply engaged in community - where there is a great deal of pressure to conform - is a hard act. Both ends are tough; yet it is this paradoxical way of life - modelled by Jesus - that brings out who we truly are and gives us a measure of freedom on this side of heaven.

Now think how hard it is for those who live in missionary situations and those in leadership.

Do they have a cell group to hang out with come Friday night?
Do people relate to them as persons and not for the roles they play and the stuff they do?
Do they get some latitude to lose their cool, to drink one more beer, to seemingly idle?

It can be unnatural, unreal, and untrue.

I think we need to stop expecting of others what we are unwilling to do.

Many years ago, my church sent a couple of us to visit a single lady missionary in Africa. I was at the end of my first year in seminary and excited about such a trip. The importance of the trip slowly dawned on me months after I returned. Besides the impact of seeing what drastic cultural adjustments she had to go through; a poignant moment was when I spoke to her in a Chinese dialect, whereupon she burst into tears. "So long, so long, I haven't heard Cantonese" she muttered apologetically.

We all need safe places to be ourselves - works in progress. In my last post, I urged us to be a bother to our brothers and sisters. Articulating our need for others to pray, to care for our soul, to offer practical support is being human. It is being real. It is what builds community - that sense that we belong together and need each other.

But we also need to be given the space to pull away from community because the discovery of who you are as God made you and sees you to be is very much a journey taken with God alone. Only God knows who we are. We are His children who carry His name and His 'DNA' and even Saint Paul considered that he could only see dimly.

We need divine revelation, guidance, and encouragement to find out who we truly are.

Too many of us allow the following to tell us who we are:


All of these are but indicators. Only One can decode them rightly for us.

Jesus once responded to the religious elite about the Sabbath. He told the story of David, famously described by no less that Holy Writ as a man after God's heart, eating the bread in the temple coz he and his men were hungry. That's right; Jesus was saying, "David, he broke the law. But he did it not in contempt of the law; but because he got what the law was about. " Then Jesus said, "Don't condemn the guiltless". {Matthew 12}.

The religious elite wanted to keep the law, conform to what they thought were rules that would ensure their salvation. They never got to the heart of things. They mistook the indicators for the message that lay behind them.

What is God trying to say to you through your

Discontent -
Anger -
Sadness -
Loss -

All of us labour under the weight of mutual expectations, which are in turn ladened with the added pressure of past experiences. It therefore takes both courage and discipline to see the state of our soul, bare it before God and perhaps a mature spiritual director/pastor, and learn to do this:

I waited patiently for the LORD
And he inclined to me and heard my cry {what a lovely picture right here}
HE brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay
And he set my feet upon a rock
Making my footsteps firm.
He put a NEW song in my mouth,
A song of praise to our God;
Many will see and fear
And will trust in the LORD - Psalm 40v1-3

Do you see the process?

Did you get that lovely picture of God's tenderness - bending down to hear you?

Do you want God to give you the stability?

Do you desire firm footsteps, a song to sing, and many hearts to bless?

I worried when writing Shed that I would be read as advocating self-cent redness. It was a distinct possibility when readers with evangelical sensibilities read words like 'self'. It was hard work trying to make the message clear, and honestly I feel now that the book could do with more polish. But I also needed to trust and rest in the truth to assert itself to those who would read with an open mind and heart.

We need as God's people to grow up by being the community we need each other to be.

We need as God's child to grow up to be who God made us.

This means that we need to figure out for our lives how to develop a healthy rhythm of being by ourselves with God and being with others.

It means that church needs to teach and guide people towards this rhythm.
It means we must be less busy.
It means we need safe places and people to talk with.
It means we must value and treasure ourselves rightly, and more.
It means we must dig deeper into Scripture, prayer and history to find out what selfhood and personhood means or get hijacked and confused by popular notions.

What else does it mean….for you?

We need to learn how to live with paradox.

The paradox that we need both solitude and community, action and rest, one and many. The paradox that the self is a bold declaration of God's Creative wonders but also a shy and slow emergence. The paradox that we can be so much more and yet on this side of heaven, never quite get the full picture. The paradox that we will find ourselves so different (being like Jesus) and yet still so much the same.

The servant-King.

The Lion-lamb.

The dead-Resurrected Saviour.

 It's a bit of a tight rope - and I hear that tight rope walkers make it across safely because of two things: they keep their eyes on the end, and they carry a little burden - an umbrella, a pole - that weighs them down a bit.

More food for thought.

*the candied yumminess that made young Edward lose his bearings and play into the White witch's game (Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis)

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