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.

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Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

I hired a car for a few days over Christmas. It was the first time I’d driven in a year, and on the quiet holiday roads it was a truly pleasurable experience.

At some point I parked and noticed the car showed me a display of my “eco-credentials”. I wish I’d taken a picture at the time, because it gave me a score in the 90s, and my acceleration and anticipation marks were perfect. Sadly, later in the evening I took a long drive down a dark country lane which took the edge off my scores, so when the inspiration for this post came to me and I took the picture below, it was not as impressive as I’d hoped.

IMG_20181226_205022

Over the years I’ve learned to drive steadily, because doing otherwise serves no purpose. So I’m not surprised that my statistics remained quite good in the main. The interesting part of the display was my gear change score, which started relatively poor and didn’t improve.

Like many modern vehicles my car gave me a visual clue – a flashing gear stick icon – on the dashboard when it ‘wanted’ me to change gear. I didn’t notice very often because my eyes tended to stay on the road. But when it did attract my attention I became aware of what was going on, and what was hurting my gear score when I was convinced that I was driving smoothly.

When I learned to drive, about twenty years ago, my instructor taught me to listen to the engine, and said that the car would tell me when to change gear, either up or down, by the sound it was making. I found that the changing up spot would come between 2000 and 2500 rpm – usually towards the lower end of that range. This satisfied my instructor, and also got me through my test and my first nineteen years of driving.

But this Christmas, I found that my car was flashing its icon at me between 1500 and 2000 rpm, well before it sounded right for me to change up, and it would also tell me to change down when my senses and experience were telling me the engine was fine where it was. I tried to adjust, but it wasn’t easy unless I let my eyes linger on the dashboard much longer than felt safe. I expect it would take a few weeks for me to adapt my driving style to this new paradigm.

This got me thinking, asking myself why I was getting this simple task so wrong after all these years. Advanced motorists among you may have an immediate answer, but I was very interested in the range of possible explanations that occurred to me. They were:

  • Did I misunderstand the original instructions, but ‘got away with it’ when I was learning and being tested?
  • Am I remembering my instructions wrongly? My memory isn’t my greatest asset.
  • Was the instructor wrong?
  • Have cars changed over the last twenty years? Undoubtedly they have, so have improvements to engine design and efficiency changed the way they should be driven? And do different ‘rules’ apply to different cars?
  • Am I really just driving by ‘muscle memory’, through habits formed over years of experience, for better or worse?

Speculation about my driving technique is one thing, but as I thought about those questions it brought to mind another kind of instruction I’ve been receiving over the last ten years, which is of course Christian instruction – from reading the Bible or other books and articles, from Sunday messages, from small group discussions, and so on.

In the last decade I’ve moved home a few times, and as a result moved church as well. I’ve been a member of three different churches over those years. At each one there have been occasions where I was taught things that I was uncomfortable with at the time, or which I have come to doubt since.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the questions I asked myself about my driving are also pertinent to these teachings:

  • Did I misunderstand what I was being taught?
  • Have I misremembered what I was taught?
  • Was the teaching wrong? Even the best of us is human, and fallible. I’d love to believe that everything spoken from the pulpit is right and good, but I’m sure that mistakes are made. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in primary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very young! A teacher asked us what “USSR” stood for, and being rather too well-informed for my years I stuck my hand up and said “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which the teacher promptly shot down and corrected me, informing the class that it actually stood for “United States of Soviet Russia.”
  • God doesn’t change, but the world does, and people do. I do. Does this affect what I was taught, or how it should be applied?
  • Has my experience of life, faith and God changed my perspective, beliefs and practices – or habits – for better or worse?

I think it is vital for all of us to consider these questions whenever something troubles us, either in our own understanding, or in what we learn from others, because not one of us has all the answers. We are all “looking through a glass, darkly,” we should all be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” which is an ongoing, life-long process. There are some tenets of faith that are fundamentally true, while we can sometimes hold on to others that merely make us fundamentalists in the worst sense.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One of the wonderful, amazing things about people is their variety. God has created us with different personalities and placed us into different environments, with different people surrounding and influencing us. He has given us unique stories to shape us as we grow in Him.

It’s no wonder that we have such different tastes and preferences, and this variety truly is the spice of life. But it comes at a cost. As Christians, we worship one God, accept one Lord and Saviour of our lives, but we have so many different ways of expressing our love for Him that to the outsider – and maybe to the insider too – it can sometimes seem like our beliefs are totally different too.

Do you prefer to worship just with voices? With timbrel and harp? With a pipe organ? An acoustic guitar? A rock band? Do you like your service to follow a set format, even a standardised liturgy? Or should it be free to follow the movement of the Holy Spirit?

And what do you want from your sermon? How do you want to be preached to? Again there are many forms and styles, and I’ve heard a few of them. The truth is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of sermon, just as there is no ‘best’ way to worship, or to organise a Sunday service.

If you’ve been asking yourself questions about life, and what it’s all about, and if this has led you to a church, but you haven’t felt comfortable, don’t assume that this means Christianity isn’t for you. Please believe me when I say that Jesus does love you, and wants a relationship with you. Is there anyone in the world who could honestly say they don’t like music? I think not. If someone who had been deprived of music all their life was introduced to The Beatles and told “this is music – how do you like it?” How would they react? Of course we don’t know, because it might touch them deeply, or it might just sound like a cacophony to them. But would they be right to dismiss all music as a result? No, they could try a different style – many different styles – and I’m sure they would find several that fit just perfectly to their taste and sensibilities. So if you’re uncomfortable in one church, find another with a different style. And if that one isn’t right, try another. Eventually you’ll find one that really connects you to Jesus, and that will be an awesome day!

If you were brought up in church and you’re heartily sick of it, does that mean you’ve ‘outgrown’ Christianity? Does it mean it was never meant for you in the first place? No it doesn’t. How many of us have the same musical tastes as our parents? There may be a little crossover, but probably not much. Through our early years we have no choice but to listen to what our parents play, and when we get a chance to rebel against it, we usually do; but by cutting music out of our lives? I don’t think so! Nor do we have to cut Jesus out of our lives if the way He has been introduced to us doesn’t feel relevant anymore. No, look for a church with a different angle, a different style, one that fits you – and that church is out there.

If you have been attending a church for some time, and found it fulfilling, but now it feels stale, or just wrong for some other reason, then it’s maybe not wise to jump ship so quickly. Here is an article that provides good food for thought in those circumstances: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/07/23/good-reasons-for-moving-on/. Ultimately though, I would say this is a time for prayer and contemplating the will of God in your life. Any reason to move on is right if it is God’s reason.

I want to add one caveat to everything I’ve just said. I’ve spoken a lot about what is basically finding a church that fits you. I think this is very different to finding a religion/faith/worldview that fits you. The former is vital for your spiritual growth, pursuing the latter could be disastrous.

Although I believed in God, creator of the universe, for as long as I can remember, it took me a long time to find my life in Christ. I spent many years in a wilderness looking for a religion that fitted me. That was of course a doomed project. The only way to succeed would be to create my own religion and fill it with my own truth. It’s been done before, and it’s almost becoming a desirable goal in today’s relativistic, secular society. See this excellent article for a discussion of the problem: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/february/dear-rihanna-your-truth-wont-set-you-free.html?paging=off.

When I opened my mind and heart to listen to Jesus I didn’t understand everything I was hearing from Him. And when I gave my life to Him I didn’t like everything He asked me to do. Being a Christian isn’t about God fitting around your will, it’s about you fitting around God’s will, or as the apostle Paul said far more eloquently: “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)

Don’t expect any church to make you feel great and comfortable and righteous all the time. If it does then there’s something seriously wrong. A good church, like the indwelling Holy Spirit, is also there to make you uncomfortable sometimes, to convict you when your imperfect will contradicts God’s. But a good church will be one that helps you connect with Christ at the times when you feel disconnected, and one that draws you deeper into Him at all times, because its style fits yours and you don’t get distracted by the wrong type of music or the wrong kind of preaching.

A final thought. Your church may change, and you certainly should change, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

Paganism Declawed

Yesterday was Valentine’s day, and amongst the hearts, flowers and chocolates adorning my Facebook wall was this post:

Valentine’s Day is pagan. Nimrod who you may know as Cupid was the first valentine. Nimrod had sexual relations with his mother. His mother would sleep with him and cause the other women around to do so also.

I believe that in Ancient Rome valentines day was a festival spread over 14 days called LUPERCALIA where the young girls would put their name in a box and the boys would pick a name and choose a random sexual partner each year for the festival.

Look it up for your self. Children of God we should not partake in these things. Romans 12:2 “And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” NO TIME FOR COMPROMISE. #Pagan

I see similar posts at Easter (the festival of Eostre, the goddess of spring), and especially at Christmas (the Roman festival of Saturnus, the god of agriculture, is just one of many that were celebrated at midwinter). Some Christians see pagan symbolism in almost every aspect of daily life, but focus even more on what they see of it in festivals and celebrations. I find it very frustrating, and in the heat of that frustration I have to bite my tongue (or in this case restrain my fingers) so that I don’t come across as judgmental towards someone who I know has a heart for Jesus.

Why do I get frustrated? Because what I see is at best a distraction, and at worst Satan’s double-bluff mind games twisting Christians into doing his bidding.

I’m not particularly interested in Valentine’s Day, so I’m not here to defend it as an institution. I have mixed feelings about Christmas, as it becomes more secularised over the years. I grow more deeply fond of Easter as my appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf also grows. So that is where I stand on these particular occasions. And here are my general thoughts on the subject raised in the Facebook post.

1 – A true witness delivers souls, but a deceitful witness speaks lies (Proverbs 14:25)

Myth, conjecture and hearsay are too often mixed up with grains of truth and presented as facts. In this case there is no firm evidence that Valentine’s Day has any connection to Lupercalia, and furthermore neither Valentine’s Day or Lupercalia have anything to do with Nimrod. As for Nimrod being Cupid, I don’t have any idea where this connection comes from. The myths about Cupid are just that – Roman myths, and although we’ve returned to Roman times in the chain, there is no link between Cupid and Lupercalia, so we are just left with a handful of unconnected characters and stories which have been spun into a narrative to suit the argument the writer wants to make. Anyone who researches these topics will see deceit, and this is not going to help bring people to Christ – it might even push them away.

2 – For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7)

Whether or not it is what the writer intends, I sense an undercurrent of fear-mongering in Christianity vs Paganism arguments. If the reader continues to celebrate Valentine’s Day with their loved one after reading the post above, they are celebrating false gods and by implication denying the one true God. By sending a Valentine’s card they are associating themselves with incest. Fear of this guilt by association should be enough to stop the reader from practising these heathen rituals. There are often implications that by embracing celebrations with “pagan roots” you will unleash demonic spirits into your life. I’m sorry but this argument isn’t going to persuade me. See my next point too, because ultimately whatever festivals I choose to observe or ignore, I will do it based on my love for God and for people, according to the leading of the Holy Spirit within me. I put my trust in Christ, and in His power over evil.

3 – He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6)

It is often argued – correctly – that there is no mandate from the Bible to observe Christmas, Easter, or any other special day or event. Is it impertinent of me to mention that the people arguing this will often drive cars, use deodorant, or even preach through microphones, none of which are mandated by the Bible? But the serious point is that there are good reasons why people might wish to celebrate any or all of the festivals mentioned, be it God’s gift to us in the form of His Son, or Christ’s gift to us in the form of His death and resurrection, or the gift of love that we are all at liberty to share with each other. If anyone, for their own reasons, wishes not to celebrate any or all of them, that is perfectly reasonable and acceptable too. This is the Biblical mandate – that whatever we do or not do, it should be to the Lord.

4 – Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another (Romans 14:19)

My advice is simple. Don’t confuse non-Christians or new Christians with talk of paganism, or even pique their curiosity and thereby direct them towards researching practices and beliefs that they are not yet equipped to deal with in the full strength of Christ. There is a place for discussions on these subjects where they can be given proper and prayerful consideration, but a Facebook status is not it. Also, however sincere you are in your belief on these matters, it is clearly not the prevailing belief within the wider body of Christ, and disagreements with fellow Christians are almost inevitable – public disagreements that display disunity in the family of God, rather than the edifying and peace-making discussions that we need.

It is my opinion that whatever our personal views are on the validity of any celebration, any public comment we make should be used in a positive way to proclaim and promote the Gospel of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on our behalf.