Saturday, 22 March 2014

The myth of independence: how doing 'fun' online personality quizzes can lead to some pretty deep thinking

I've been at the 'fun' online personality quizzes again. Yep, like that one that told me that I am a 'prematurely old parent'. Thanks to the wonders of interconnective technology, I've learnt a lot about myself recently; I've discovered that I am the secret lovechild of Austin Farrer and Virginia Woolf, that I should actually be living in either Maida Vale, Portland, Oregon or, bizarrely, Milton Keynes, pursuing my career as a writer, having completed my degree in Women's Studies. Oh, and that I am basically Karl Marx. (If you ever wondered what the offspring of Austin Farrer and Virginia Woolf would look like, there's your historically questionable answer.)

Online 'fun' personality quizzes aren't renowned for their subtlety of thought or distinction, but there was one question in the 'How Leftist Are You?' quiz that has made me think a bit. It was this: 'The welfare state creates dependence. True or false?' The instinctive leftie in me rose up; the welfare state doesn't create dependence, I thought, as I clicked 'false', it supports people in time of need and supplies a basic level of material wellbeing so that from that base, people can aspire to achieve more and to make a fuller contribution to society.

It was only afterwards that I remembered this question, banal in its polarisation of 'left' and 'right' though it is, and realised that the question is intended to work on the conscience of the hearer by assuming that 'dependence' is a bad, and avoidable thing, and either that the welfare state either creates this bad thing and therefore must be rejected, or that the welfare state is not the cause of this bad thing, and thus can be supported. Either way, left or right, the implication is that 'dependence' is bad.

You don't have to look far to see that the language of 'dependence' is taken for granted in much political discussion; here and here and here are a few for starters. Funnily enough, the quiz is pretty much of the Zeitgeist in identifying 'dependence' (and its evil twin, 'entitlement') as the bad that must be avoided. The flipside of this is, of course, the approval of 'independence' as a virtue. Again, it's not very difficult to find the word 'independent' more or less used as a synonym for 'admirable.' On of the things I hear repeatedly when visiting bereaved families is 'he was such an independent man', or 'she was always so independent,' always with emotional pride. As a society, we are conditioned to accept that independence is good, and dependence is bad. It's easy, then, to separate out two types of people; the independent (or 'hard-working families' as they are often called), and the dependent (''feckless'  is another useful term to identify these people, and quite satisfying to say out loud). Thus explained, as it is daily in our newspapers,  politics becomes easy; it's simply a task of identifying, identifying oneself with and rewarding the independent, and identifying, distancing oneself from, and condemning the dependent. Job done.

Well, it would be, except that this polarised and polarising way of looking at people isn't all that accurate. If there's one thing that church ministry teaches me over and over again, it's that independence is, at best, an illusory and fleeting thing, and at worst (see, I'm still using those value-laden terms to define independence) a cruel hoax. Maybe I see this more than the average person, because I see the dependence in people. I look at people when I am leading worship or preaching, and I see their dependence on God, and on me. I hear about their hospital appointments, and I see their dependence on a vast, and mostly unseen and unknown cast of people whose work enables their treatment. I hear about how they are getting to their hospital appointments, and I see their dependence on their families and friends.  I see all sorts of things, which I could not and should not share in this blog, and over and over again, I see people coming to terms with their dependence. Maybe church is one of the only places that people can take off the heavy make-up of independence, and been seen in their dependence, and find within themselves and within the love of God an acceptance of them in their dependence. They go out, usually, lightened, lifted, peaced. From that perspective, I'd say that we've got it all wrong; dependence, or at least our admission and acceptance of it, is the good thing; it's the veneer of independence that keeps us struggling away with fear, with overwork, unemployment, loneliness, depression, isolation, and all the other things that stop us from being most fully the people God longs for us to be, and to know life in all its fulness.  

And if we think about this a bit more, it becomes utterly obvious; even people who look the very epitome of independence on the surface are, in reality, dependent on others. Even those of us gainfully employed in paid work are completely dependent on all sorts of people and forces to enable us to find, and keep, our jobs. (Of course, as I'm sure you know, many benefits claimants are in paid work.)We should really have learnt that by now, after several years of recession. If this current economic climate does nothing else for us that is good (and I fully recognise all the pain and poverty it has brought to so many),  I hope that it teaches us something about our inescapable dependence on one another, and our relative abilities to support one another in our mutual dependence and  produces in us a will to honour that dependence and to do what we can to help those whom we recognise are dependent on us. Ultimately, the company director is no more independent than the pensioner in the doctor's waiting room, but the company director is in a position in which she can use her greater relative means to support others. If we were to grasp this in a meaningful way, we'd have to find a new political vocabulary, because we'd see that the crass independent / dependent, hard-working / feckless dichotomy just doesn't mean anything. We'd have to think of a different way of asking the question; maybe something like 'What is it in people that prevents them from achieving their greatest potential and making the fullest contribution they can to society?' is a good start, and a question that needs to be asked over and over in different communities. People on the right still might answer 'receiving benefits', but...well, I'm not sure how high up the list of factors that would come.

As an aside, the one group of people who know this most clearly and embrace it most wholeheartedly are children and young people. They know they are dependent on others. The also know about their potential.  Maybe it's no co-incidence that one of the groups most willing to bring help and relief to those in need are teenagers, as they start to see both their own dependence, and also their potential to support others who are dependent.

So, back to the quiz: asking whether the welfare state is a good or bad thing is a valid political question. But couching it in terms of dependence as an avoidable evil, less so. The welfare state doesn't create dependence. Being human does.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Maybe the good old days really were the good old days

Nostalgia, as the cliche goes, ain't what it used to be. The other week I watched the very charming 2011 Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, in which Gil, an aspiring modern-day novelist finds himself magically transported back to the Paris of his favourite era, the 1920s, and himself befriending, amongst other luminaries,  Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and a beautiful woman, Adriana, at midnight each night. No sooner has he got used to used to the intoxicating exhilaration of his nights in the 20s, than he and Adriana find themselves in her favourite era, the 'belle epoque' of the late nineteenth century. As disillusioned with the 1920s as  Gil is with the early twenty-first century, Adriana's eyes light up at the prospect of staying in the Paris of the Moulin Rouge and post-impressionists.  Gil is less keen: 'Adriana, if you stay here...and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your... You know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying.' 

I won't tell you how the film ends, or when Gil and Adriana end up. The whole point of the film is, of course, that Gil's right: nostalgia is all well and good, but ultimately, meaning and beauty must be found in the present day, not in an imagined or reconstructed past. Days, Philip Larkin says, are where we live.  We cannot get on an aeroplane to another era. 

We can get on an aeroplane to another country, though, and when I've done that, I've seen another variation on the theme. Deep in the jungle villages of eastern Malaysia, watching people harvest rice and dry pepper berries, I was as exotic and exciting to the villagers as they were to me. 'You're from England?' they'd ask. 'Wow. I'd love to go there.' Everyone's home town, it turned out as I travelled around South East Asia, is parochial, and a bit dull, unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying. Everyone else's is exciting, the 'golden place'. 

Of course, there are many people who take great delight in being where and when they are, who relish the lengthening hours of spring and the nervous appearance of bright green buds, but there are many others who look around and say 'it didn't used to be like this round here.'

And what of God in amongst all of this nostalgia? Well, maybe there are lots of things to say, lots more than be squashed into one blog post. But let's start with a few ideas. Maybe the first is that we live in time and space, or 'space-time,' but God doesn't. God is in the early 21st century, the 1920s, the 1890s and every other point of history, all at once. And God is in a jungle village in East Malaysia and here in the Home Counties of England and in every other place on earth. This means that every moment is a 'belle epoque', alive with the presence of the ever-living God, and that every place is holy ground, a tabernacle of meeting with the God of all creation. It means that God, whose very being is life, is constantly 'doing a new thing', as Isaiah puts it. At no moment and in no place can we say that God is less present than at any other moment or in any other place, because to say so is to demote God. 

The second thing to say is that we are not God. We do live in space and time. We get hungry, tired, overworked, unemployed, pained, laid low, distracted, seduced, short-sold, isolated, misguided and all sorts of other things that stop us from perceiving the ever-presence of God all around us.  This should prompt us to ask, as the season of Lent does in humble heart, whether, as Revelation puts it, we have 'fallen from our first love', whether our hearts have grown cold and distant from the God who is ever and always present. We need to face the possibility that, spiritually speaking at least, maybe the good old days really were the good old days. Maybe we were more zealous, more prayerful, more loving, more joyful, and more selfless. Maybe there really was a 'belle epoque' of closeness with God at some point in our lives, and I don't think there's anything at all wring with admitting that and seeking to re-discover the joy and spiritual fulness which may have got lost or squashed or ditched or eroded.  This self-questioning is the start of repentance, of turning from the things which in themselves may not be bad, but which lead us away from our Heavenly Father, and turning to see His face, full of welcome and ever-present love.

As fallen creatures of earth, children of God created for heaven, we are torn between the selfish nature and the God who is Love. This means that true repentance is one of the most radical thing a human can do. It's not just that 'sorry seems to be the hardest word', it's that turning away from all that keeps us from perceiving God's goodness means turning away from much that is within us. It means change, from the very core of our being. Because this is so difficult, we need help and resources, and the paradox is that we find these, inter alia, in remembering our own spiritual 'belle epoque'. As well as encouraging us to perceive the 'new thing' that God is doing, the Bible is full of calls to remember God's presence in previous generations. When we realise that those spiritual  'belle epoques' of old, whether the Exodus, the early church or within our own lives were moments of profoundly perceiving the 'new thing' that God was doing then, it makes it possible to perceive the new thing that God is doing now. So remembering God's presence of old, and perceiving God's presence in the here and now are not opposites but deeply intertwined.  

No, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. But God is what He used to be. And no, maybe it didn't used to be like this round here. But God did used to be like this round here. Maybe it's just that we were better at recognising him in the good old days. And yes, that is a dare.         


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

'Welcome, deare feast of Lent': An Ash Wednesday Sermon

‘Welcome deare feast of Lent’, starts George Herbert’s poem ‘Lent’, written in 1633. Now, Lent might not feel like a ‘dear feast’, to be welcomed, if you’ve chosen to give up some creature comfort. Liane Moriarty’s novel ‘The Husband’s Secret’ describes what might well be a familiar Lenten scenario in your household: ‘Why did she give up wine for Lent? Polly was more sensible. She had given up strawberry jam. Cecilia had never seen Polly show more than a passing interest in strawberry jam, although now, of course, she was always catching her standing at the open fridge, staring at it longingly. The power of denial.” 

This year, it’s taken me a few weeks to decide what to give up for Lent. It’s not that I’ve lacked ideas; I came across a list of 101 ideas for keeping a holy Lent, covering everything from leaving Post-It notes on your family’s bedroom doors thanking them for something, to keeping a little notebook and writing down names of people to pray for during Lent or buying extra food at the shops to donate to foodbanks. As I read these ideas, it struck me that deciding how to keep Lent is in itself a process of coming to know ourselves better. What one for person represents a real sacrifice might be completely meaningless to another.

What might only be an empty gesture by one person could be a true offering of love by another. What matters ultimately is that during this season of penitence and self-denial, of seeking to overcome temptation and recognising our own self-centred human nature, is that in doing so we walk with Christ the way that all Christians are called to go – in the way of the cross. Or, to put it slightly differently, that we put a little bit of our sinful, selfish nature to death, a tiny sharing in Jesus’ being put to death for our sins.

So the question that emerges out of what can sometimes start off as what seems quite a trivial question: what do I give up for Lent? Can become, if we let it, a much deeper and more searching question: how far am I being invited to walk with Christ along the way of the cross? Or what in me that is self-centre and sinful is God asking me to put to death during this time? It might be that God is asking us to die to the part of us that is fearful and anxious, or the part of us that is ill-disciplined and greedy. As we walk the way of the cross with Jesus, if we allow so, these things die in us so that we can enter more fully into the fullness of life which we find in Christ.

In the Sermon on the Mount which we have hard read this evening, we hear a sharp call to die to the part of ourselves that is more concerned about our image and what others think of us than we are about what God sees in us. It’s easy to read this and to put ourselves in the position of Jesus’ disciples; oh no, we think, we are not the hypocrites. They are someone else. I’m not like that at all! The poet Maya Angelou says that whatever humans are capable of, we ourselves are potentially capable of – we can never say of any act, whether courageous and heroic or terrible ‘I could never do that.’ This is part of what it means to acknowledge our own human frailty as we do here today, to say that dust we are, and to dust we shall return.

So Jesus denounces the religious hypocrites whose pious acts are all about crafting an image – they do it in order to be seen, Jesus says.  It’s not that they are doing anything wrong – in fact fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the three acts of Jewish piety – but their hearts are wrong, he says. Their focus is wrong.

Rather than focusing their prayer, fasting and almsgiving on God, their focus is on each other, and on themselves, on a weird religious competitiveness which has nothing to do with true worship. Now we might not disfigure our faces and pray ostentatiously on street corners, but we live in a society in which the temptation to craft an image for ourselves is very strong, to be seen and admired by others.

 It’s one of the main objections to social networking sites like Facebook – that far from being a means of true encounter with others, it makes true encounter impossible by encouraging the crafting of a self-image which means that people never see the true ‘us’, the person we really are. And the worry is that these more superficial and false ways of relating to others by speaking and acting in such a way as to craft an image of the person we think will command the respect or grab the attention of others – these more superficial, false ways of relating will start to define how we are away from the computer screens and in everyday life. Our true selves will be hidden behind the false self we project to the world, ‘stranded in a hall of mirrors,’ as Adrian Plass puts it. Even if we are not Facebook types, the temptation to false, superficial relationships is no less real. How often have we answered the question ‘how are you?‘ with a bright and breezy ‘fine!’ when nothing could be further from the truth?

Ultimately, the real temptation is that this false, superficial way of relating will become how we relate to God in prayer. Don’t do that, Jesus invites his disciples: go, find a quiet place and your father will see you. And the you that your father sees is not the carefully crafted image of piety or success; it’s the real you, the true you, the you that, paradoxically, you will grow more and more deeply into, the longer you walk with Christ along the way of the cross.  Your father will see you, just like Jesus saw Peter and saw in him the rock on whom God would build his church.

I think that this is what it means to be reconciled to God – to be our true selves before God, in humility and sober self-evaluation, to accept God's acceptance of us. It can be painful, to recognise our sins before God, but it is so important that we do, because in doing so, we are walking with Christ the way of the cross, putting to death in us all that is superficial and false so that depth and truth might transform us more fully into the likeness of Jesus.  Lent is a dear feast indeed.

Joel’s vision pictures all peoples, he young and the old, the sick and the well, returning to God with weeping and mourning, but with deep faith in the very great goodness of the God to whom we, our true selves, return with all our hearts, with all that we are.  Herbert’s poem finishes by hinting that it is when we walk some of the way of the cross with Christ, and see ourselves as we really are –the self that our heavenly Father sees when he looks at – it’s when we truly acknowledge our own poverty of soul that we are able to invite the poor soul within us to a wonderful feast. The poem goes on:          

… It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
 Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.

 In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
 That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
 May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
 As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
 And among those his soul.