Daily Reflection – Promises

As a Christian I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heroes, except for Jesus of course, and the “heroes of the faith.” Well I had an earlier life in which I picked up a few heroes, and one of them, for better or worse, was Frank Sinatra.

Yesterday evening one of his lesser known albums came to mind, and this morning I lay in bed and listened to it. I just want to talk about it, so I’m not sure exactly where this will go.

The album is “A Man Alone”. It’s quite extraordinary, and if all you know of Sinatra is the Rat Pack, Las Vegas or the Bobby-soxers, it should challenge some of your assumptions about his work. Its subtitle is “The words & music of McKuen” referring to the poet Rod McKuen. It’s a gentle album of songs and poetry reflecting on a life free from the encumbrance of a lasting relationship.

When I discovered the album, as a man alone in my early twenties, it spoke to me on two levels. First I would fantasise about being the protagonist in songs such as “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The Beautiful Strangers”. I would imagine that in thirty years time I would be able to sing those songs having lived that life.

And I would contrast this with my own life at that time, perfectly exemplified in a poem/song such as “Empty Is.” Sinatra and McKuen were telling me they understood where I am, but hang in there because they also knew where I was going, and it would be a great ride.

As I listened this morning I heard something subtly but profoundly different. I heard the story of a man who had started his adult life with high hopes but who had been let down by broken promises. As a result of this he made a decision not to rely on anyone but himself. He would be kind and loving to others but he would always protect himself from hurt. He would enjoy the freedom of singleness to the full, and not allow himself to fall for promises or commitments that could too easily be broken.

And yes, he enjoyed his life, liaising with different women in different cities. Not tied down, he could live his life on his own terms.

But the good times were not fulfilling. They were a shallow façade, and not far under the surface was an emptiness that would come to haunt him in his solitary times. The man is looking back with a mixture of appreciation and regret. I feel that he’s trying to justify his decisions while in his heart he knows that he missed out on something deeply special because he couldn’t trust another promise.

He makes the distinction between being “alone” and “lonely” more than once. It’s true that they are not the same thing, but it’s clear from the narrative of the album that one has led to the other.

“A Man Alone” was recorded one year before I was born, when Sinatra was just a few years older than I am now. His voice has started to lose its power, and the fragility of his singing at times accentuates the poignancy of the message. At the same time, as an Academy Award winning actor, he brings real emotion and clarity to the spoken passages.

One of the tracks that persisted in my mind yesterday was the poem “From Promise to Promise.” A short piece, which as I’ve suggested, triggers a fateful decision by the narrator, it got me pondering the nature of promises.

As usual, there is far more to be considered than I can write here. Maybe that’s good, as you can take these thoughts and apply them to your own experiences, rather than getting too entangled in mine. My thoughts, my questions, are

  • Who has hurt me most with broken promises?
  • Was it their fault, or did circumstances get in the way?
  • Did I respond with grace?
  • Which promises have I broken over the years?
  • What would I promise now, or in the future, and which promises would I avoid making?
  • How will I respond to the promises of others from now on?
  • What promises have I made to myself, and how many have I broken?
  • What has God promised me?

From Promise to Promise

I sometimes wonder why people make promises they never intend to keep
Not in big things, like love or elections, but in the things that count –
The newspaper boy who says he will save an extra paper, and doesn’t
The laundry that tells you your suit will be ready on Thursday and it isn’t
Love, well yes, but like everything else, we go from day to day
We move from promise to promise
I’ve had a good many promises now, so I can wait for the harvest
And some of them, they come about

Rod McKuen

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Daily Reflection – Attachment

For my holiday I’m staying at a hostel for the first time in my life, in a six-bed dorm. As I’ve always struggled in social situations this has been a huge challenge, but I’m glad I took the risk, as I’ve survived – so far!

The population of the room changes from day to day, different people, of different ages, genders and nationalities. Some are just passing through for one night, others stay for longer. Some are friendly, others more reserved.

It’s really like a microcosm of life in the ‘real’ world, and there are a lot of observations, lessons and reflections that I could take from this model. The most obvious one is that all of us, with our many differences of background, have a common purpose, a common humanity, and a mutual respect. We are vulnerable to each other but no one takes advantage of that vulnerability. Instead we just get on with life, organising and coordinating our daily tasks without a problem. All right, maybe it’s actually a microcosm of Utopia.

But what has struck me deepest about this environment is the coming and going of individuals. Some will stay longer than others, but all will eventually leave, as I will too. And of course that is a reflection of life. Some friends, family and acquaintances will be with you for most or all of your journey, while others are only with you for a season.

As I look back on my life – and I couldn’t have done this without the guidance of a good therapist – I can see that I’ve always had problems with attachment. I don’t completely understand them, but some things are starting to make sense.

Maybe I was aware of these comings and goings from an early age. I didn’t make many close friends at school – not close enough to see them during holidays – so in some sense the end of each term was a mass separation event. That’s just one theory. But for whatever reason, I seemed to learn early not to get close to people because they would always go away.

And then, as I travelled through my teenage years I came to realise how important that closeness was. Not the closeness of family, which is natural and in our blood, but the closeness of someone who chooses to bond with you, who connects with you in a different way.

And as this was so important – probably the most important thing in my life from the age of 15 onwards – I would cling when I saw the possibility of such a bond. When it came to attachment I was literally all or nothing. I’ve no doubt this caused confusion and discomfort for some of those around me, and as for myself it led to loneliness and misery.

Thirty or so years later I’m beginning to understand some of this, and trying to break patterns of thought and behaviour that have kept me isolated, kept me from growing emotionally. It takes time, effort and courage. A week in a six-bed dorm is one step on the journey.

But I mustn’t lose sight of something else – the One who will never leave or forsake me. Christ is the One who I don’t need to be apprehensive about attaching to. He’s been there from the beginning and will be there at the end. I was searching for Him through my twenties and thirties, but didn’t really know until we found each other when I was 38. This doesn’t mean I don’t need human companionship – see my 14 February post for my thoughts on that – but He strengthens me and it’s in the light of my relationship with Him that I can learn to build healthy relationships with others.

Daily Reflection – Observation

You’ve just woken up. Your eyes are shut. You don’t know what time it is or how light it is. You haven’t really entered the day yet. You decide to open one eye to see what the world looks like today. Which eye do you open.

I open my left eye.

I think I always open my left eye unless I consciously choose the right. I think I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years but this morning I noticed, I observed, and I experimented. When I realised my left eye was open I closed it and opened my right eye. It was difficult, felt unnatural. I’ve since repeated the experiment several times in different orders, at different levels of wakefulness. It’s always easier to open my left eye.

This has made me aware that there must be many similar quirks of my body that I’ve just grown up with and not questioned. There must be others that have developed slowly over the years until they’ve become a part of who I am.

And my mind is the same. Because I’ve grown up with it I never questioned, or even perhaps noticed, the quirky way it works in certain circumstances.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong. I have no concerns about the functioning of my right eyelid. But if you don’t observe, don’t question, how would you ever become aware of a problem before it’s grown into something serious?

And if you aren’t completely in tune with the workings of your body and your mind, aren’t you somehow separated from them? Are you whole if you don’t wholly understand yourself? Can you truly relate to others when you aren’t totally self-aware?

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Psalm 139:14 NIVUK

Daily Reflection – Trust

I met with a group of strangers yesterday evening. Well, they all knew each other while I was the new kid in town.

This has always been one of my worst nightmares. I’ve had a complete lack of self-confidence when it comes to meeting new people. I have so many fears. I’ll make a fool of myself. They won’t like me. I’ll say the wrong thing. I’ll offend them. They’ll think I’m stupid. They’ll think I’m weird. And so on.

Those fears would lead me to avoid such situations completely if I could, leading to greater isolation which would in itself feed my fear. Or where I had no choice but to meet people, for example to earn a living, I would say the bare minimum for the sake of politeness. But of course this could be interpreted in any number of ways by others, many of them negative.

I would say, and I still do, that it takes me a long time to trust people. There’s some truth in that. But the biggest factor, which I’m only now coming to realise, is that it takes me a long time to trust myself with others.

And that’s part of a bigger truth. That I have never fully trusted myself at all. I’ve achieved a lot of good, even great, things in my life. I’ve had a positive impact on many people. But I’ve always focused on the times I’ve stumbled. To err is human, but I’ve defined myself by my errors. To forgive is divine, but I’ve been unable to forgive myself for my mistakes.

Those fears I listed earlier:

I’ll make a fool of myself. (I’m a fool)
They won’t like me. (I’m unlikeable)
I’ll say the wrong thing. (I’m wrong)
I’ll offend them. (I’m offensive)
They’ll think I’m stupid. (I’m stupid)
They’ll think I’m weird. (I’m weird)
And so on.

I’ve been projecting my false, negative view of myself onto everyone I interact with. No wonder I’ve struggled! I need to challenge the lies and replace them with truths that I can believe and trust.

I’m a fool? No, I’m intelligent.
I’m unlikeable? No, I’m lovable, and I am loved.
I’m wrong? Maybe. We’re all wrong sometimes, but that’s ok.
I’m offensive? No. I’m kind and considerate with good intentions. If I unintentionally cause offence, I can apologise and learn.
I’m stupid? No. Remember? I’m intelligent.
I’m weird? No. I’m unique and valuable.

I met with a group of strangers yesterday evening. I was nervous but decided to trust myself. I smiled and talked and joked with them. I had a long, fascinating, deep conversation with one of them. And when, three hours later I said I had to go, I heard a couple of disappointed groans before we agreed to see each other again soon.

I made some friends yesterday evening.

Daily Reflection – Identity

“You’ve changed.”

When I recall hearing those words, admittedly mostly on screen, I can only ever recall them being delivered in a negative context. An accusation. A disappointment. A betrayal.

It’s a cliché, but very true, that many of us are fearful of change. There’s a reason why we need to push ourselves outside our “comfort zone.”

And God forbid that we should change our minds about anything. That we should be so weak-minded. A turncoat. Fickle and unreliable.

Change has so many negative connotations, and yet it is the most natural, and most vital thing that there is. From the moment we are conceived until our bodies crumble into dust, we are changing, every second of every day.

Changing our minds. Such a complex notion. We go to school to have our minds changed in the most overt fashion. We are taught facts, and techniques, and disciplines. But before, during and after that we are also being moulded by the people around us, especially in our family. These are people who in turn were moulded by the people around them.

We come to a point where we settle into our moulded minds. “This is me.” This is the music I like. These are my political ideas. These are my desires for my life. This is my worldview. At different moments we unconsciously arrive at our conclusions on these and other matters, so that we can be confident for the rest of our lives that “this is who I am.”

And when these views are challenged it can sometimes be a painful experience, depending on how fundamental we feel they are to our identity. It’s easy to become defensive, or alternatively to go on the attack. Why is it so difficult sometimes to just accept that we have each been moulded in different ways? It’s far too early in the morning for me to go down that road.

So we find ourselves in the world, moulded by the world, and to some extent conformed to the world. And then we hear:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2 NIVUK

So challenging. So difficult. And even when we take it to heart, we will spend the rest of our lives reaching for, but never attaining, that concept of God’s perfect will.

I mentioned a word earlier. A very important word. Identity. I’ve come to realise that my own view of my identity may be wrong. That it has been clouded and distorted through my life experiences. When people tell me the good qualities they see in me, I struggle to receive their words, because I don’t recognise those qualities in myself. I don’t see myself as others do, and I always thought it’s because I’m right and they’re wrong. I thought no one could ever understand me like I understand myself.

I’m finally starting to realise that I was wrong, and that is a painful, terribly sad realisation, because my false view of my identity has affected the way I’ve treated myself and others, mainly myself, over many, many years, and as a result I’ve lived a life far away from the abundant one that Christ came to give me.

I didn’t see myself as others saw me. I didn’t see myself as God saw me. I didn’t value myself. I didn’t love myself. In fact, I thought that to love myself was selfish, and I resisted the temptation to do so. Instead I searched for that love in other places, in other people. And while some of them could give me a part of what I needed, none could fulfil my needs in the way that I could myself, if I just trusted that God knew what He was doing when He made me.

Now I’m in the process of learning to accept, value and love myself. It’s a frightening process at times, because my old idea of my identity still feels comfortable and right, even though it did me so much harm. But in a very real sense, this is the best time of my life.

I’m changing.

Alone

According to Wikipedia St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with romantic love around the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, in the early fourteenth century. I was planning on making some cynical comments about what it’s become since then, but that’s not the purpose of this message. If you have a partner, and if you want to share romantic moments with your loved one today, go for it, and God bless you.

But my thoughts today are for people like me, who are alone, and who don’t like it. I’m alone. Often it gets me down. Sometimes it’s hard to bear.

Some people, and I’m thinking particularly of Christians, will tell you it’s all right to be alone. They might even say that it’s good, because you don’t have to dedicate time to your partner and your family, so you can dedicate even more time to God. For some, that’s true, I’m sure.

And some people will extend that argument and tell you how great it is that without the shackles of a relationship you are free to do good works for God and for people. You can devote yourself to mission work and great Kingdom causes. For some, that’s true too.

Some people will tell you not to obsess over finding ‘the one’, not to turn that search into your mission, and not to turn the object of your search into an idol. Wise words, certainly.

You will often be told that ‘relationship’ is not just about the romance that leads to marriage, that you should treasure your family and friends, your church family and wider community. You will be told that these relationships are where you can offer, and experience, real love. Yes, yes, we know that love has many forms of expression, and yes, we want to love our neighbours, and our enemies, of course we do.

And then comes the killer blow: “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”

Wow. Just wow.

Don’t get me wrong, singleness is right for some people. And there will most likely be seasons of life when it’s right for each of us. Paul, a single man, has a lot to say about singleness (and marriage) in 1 Corinthians 7, and he touches on several of the arguments I’ve just listed. But he isn’t entirely dogmatic about it. Indeed he says in verse 7, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

If, like me, you don’t believe your singleness is a gift from God, then it can be difficult to hear some of the (usually) well-meaning platitudes like those mentioned above. I want to reassure you that you’re not the only one who feels like this. And I have responses to those statements.

First, is it good to be alone? God doesn’t think so.

The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

It’s the first time in the story of creation that something is not good. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘helper’ and think that somehow God just wants people to help each other out, to be friends, and somehow this will make things good. No, Genesis continues to describe the union between Adam and Eve, the first marriage, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 19, and thus held up as an example by church leaders ever since. If singleness suits you, good for you, but if it doesn’t then know that God understands your pain.

What about the work you can do for God as a single person? Yes, you can do much, but consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He talks about the qualifications and character of those who lead the church, and a faithful marriage is mentioned several times, not as an instruction that elders and deacons must be married, but certainly confirming that marriage is no bar to such a position. And there is no pattern anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God’s work was done better, or more often, by single men and women. Couples can certainly do mission together, and the support they can offer each other will be invaluable. If they are blessed with children, then their priorities will change, but raising children is precious work in itself.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9)

To make an idol of anything, including the search for a partner, is clearly a big mistake. I would never argue otherwise. I would just say this – to honestly desire something that is good is not to idolise it. So don’t unquestioningly accept such an assertion from others, especially others who have that one thing that you lack, and who don’t necessarily understand, or remember, what that lack feels like. Instead, guard your heart (Proverbs 4), bringing your needs to God and trusting Him through the hard times. You can find a helpful article about guarding your heart here

Your life will be richer if you can enjoy all kinds of relationships. That’s undeniable. Friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, fellow believers, they all have something great to offer, and you have something great to offer them too. But equally undeniable is that there is another kind of relationship, one that Paul describes as a kind of reflection of that between Christ and His church in Ephesians 5. Think about it. What would the church be without Christ? Doesn’t that tell you something about the power and the value of this most intimate of relationships?

But isn’t Jesus enough? Isn’t that actually a God-shaped hole that you’re trying to fill?

Go back again to Genesis, when the man was alone. This was the time when, as described in Genesis 3, the Lord would walk in the Garden in the cool of the day. Whether or not you take Genesis literally, it’s clear that in God’s eyes, even His own immediate presence is not enough to satisfy our desires in this world. Complete intimacy with another human being, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” is a basic human need, like food and shelter. If you are without food or shelter do you just ignore that want? Do you tell yourself that your cold and hunger aren’t important because Jesus is enough? No! You trust in the Lord to provide, but you also do your part to make it happen.

Some people might say there’s a difference, that human intimacy doesn’t have the same immediate priority as protecting your physical well-being. But we are starting to understand the weakness of that argument. We are starting to see that emotional well-being is just as important, and its deprivation can be just as deadly as physical damage.

And if you have any doubt about how important the church considers intimate relationships, just think of the amount of time and energy it spends arguing with society and within itself about the rights and wrongs of all aspects of marriage and sexuality.

So this is my message to you, if you’re alone, and like me, you’re not ok with that. My message is that it’s ok to not be ok with that. I pray that you’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that you will be able to patiently endure the loneliness while you trust for God’s provision.

If you feel blessed to be single, then you are, and that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, then don’t feel guilty for desiring, and seeking, a partner. And take comfort in the knowledge that, in one respect at least, you are not alone.

Private Lives

I was browsing through some notes I’d written over the years, looking for some inspiration for a post, and I came across a document titled “Private Lives”. It turned out to be a complete article which I thought I must have posted here previously, but then I noticed that it had been written on 22 May 2011, predating my blog by nearly a year. So I thought I’d share it with you now. I haven’t edited it. There are a couple of lines I would probably change if I was writing it now, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of rewriting history, so what follows is what flowed from my mind on that day…

Private Lives

I’m troubled by the Twitter/super-injunction drama being played out before our eyes.

It seems that some Twitter users feel that they have a right to total anonymity (privacy) at the same time that they are denying celebrities that same privilege.

Let’s look first at the legal side of this. Rightly or wrongly a court has ordered that the real identity of “CTB” should not be published. Contempt of court is a serious matter.

Twitter’s terms of service clearly state “We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request…”

So the seeming uproar among the Twitter community at the news that CTB is seeking – through the courts – the name of the individual who has broken the injunction, is unjustified.

But there are even more important issues at stake here than privacy or freedom of speech. Read this well-known passage from John’s gospel.

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Behind the headlines there is a broken family. There are hurting people. A sin has been committed, and sin has consequences. That is God’s way, and it is right. But the world’s way is to hound, ridicule, judge and condemn the sinner more than they would any ordinary person, because he is a celebrity. I don’t condone the adultery, of course not, but I don’t blame him for wanting to try and keep the details between the parties involved. All of us have sinned many times in our lives, and whether those sins were greater or lesser than CTB’s, who of us would want the details broadcast around the world? And what benefit has this pantomime been to any of us? A few cheap jokes, a few more newspaper sales or website hits. That’s all. Is it worth trying to destroy a family for that?

No, we should be praying for healing, and for restoration. We should hope and pray that CTB repents for what he has done, and that he can restore good, loving relationships with his wife and children. We should remember that in all likelihood it was for their sake as much as, or more than his, that he took out the super-injunction in the first place.

As I said, CTB has to face the consequences of his actions, but remember before you speak, write or act, there are consequences to everything you do too.