Day 32. Puncture Marks

This week I realised that as well as complaining about the world out there, a lot of the negative, critical thoughts that have gone (mostly) unvoiced in my mind since I gave up complaining for Lent are actually about me. Things done or not done, said or not said. And it’s a tricky balance for a Christian because we are all aware, or should be, that we are sinners who mess up; the reason God had to make a rescue plan in the first place. So yes of course I’m rubbish at keeping it together. I wouldn’t need God otherwise. But I have been stuck in front of my own flawed reflection, and it’s not healthy.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made, according to Psalm 139, and God knows all about me and loves me anyway, whether I’ve got it together or not.

It’s been difficult hearing my inner moaner revealing some awkward attitudes and expectations of life, God and the people around me. However, this past week has been more about hearing what’s wrong with me than anything else. Yes I’ve just repeated myself. Just one of the things I’ve been noticing and criticising more and more of late.

I have 8 days to go, I think. Who knows what cheery revelations they will bring. I can hardly wait. But  – hold on, I seem to be complaining, don’t I. About complaining about I. See where this stuff can take you?

So I am resolved now to bring an end to this hitherto unnoticed habit of finding fault with myself. Of harping on my defects, and all the reasons I can’t do things. When I say this habit has gone unnoticed, that’s perhaps not strictly true. Others have noticed. My parents. My husband. My friends. Almost everyone who gets to know me, in fact. But I have not believed them before this week. Because I could not hear myself. This week it has been loud and clear. And, at times, very hard to bear. I realised that what may have started life as false modesty or shyness had grown into a deep valley of distrust of my own abilities. I need to climb out, but how?

This week has been one the most difficult yet. But I am grateful for it, even though I had no idea where to start my recovery until this afternoon. At my kids’ school assembly, a class of 1st-Graders shared what they were good at. These accomplishments covered diverse skills like bike riding, singing, playing Minecraft, hiding in small spaces (loved that) and making friends. And I thought, what a great exercise. Instead of finding fault with myself I can try listing the things I’m good at. Some days the list may be shorter than others. It doesn’t matter. Beats stabbing myself with a fork.

 

 

Virtue

A quaint word, perhaps an outdated concept. It means something like moral excellence, or goodness. And who wants to be good, when everything we watch or read tells us to be clever, or successful, or rich, or thin instead. All these other goals are shiny. All these other ambitions are cool. Goodness? Not cool.

Well, I disagree. Maybe it’s another symptom of the ageing process, like using slang that’s 20 years old, and reading at arm’s length, and being surprised that middle-aged people are the same age as me. But I think that virtues like kindness and gentleness and self-control, yes even that one, are cool. Great assets for building a life with meaning and depth.

The Bible is full of lists of virtues that Christians are encouraged to cultivate. Recently I came across a relatively short list of these in a letter Paul wrote to one of the early groups of believers.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3 v 12 )

A more famous example, often quoted at Christian weddings and at my own, is the passage on love, which Paul describes as the greatest virtue to cultivate because

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ( 1 Corinthians 13 v 4-8)

These are beautiful characteristics and I frankly would love them to become part of my nature. But they can seem so far away that perhaps it’s easier to simply forget about them. What puts them within reach for me is Jesus, who by the holy spirit changes believers like me from onlookers admiring these qualities like paintings in a gallery, to people who gradually achieve a greater degree of them and display them in their lives. Of course I haven’t got there. But I’m having a go and God is helping me, very patiently, to learn to practise these disciplines.

History is full of the positive, lasting achievements of people of great character. Of course I’m not just talking about Christians here – Christians have no monopoly on virtue. Jesus himself tells a story about a good Samaritan – the equivalent to a contemporary Christian audience of the good Muslim – whose character generated a compassionate and loving response to the victim of a vicious mugging.

Virtue doesn’t always look great, draw applause or even raise a smile. Sometimes it is despised, ignored or criticised. Patience can be seen as weakness, gentleness as naivety, kindness and compassion can raise suspicion and  even offend; humility is often seen as lack of self-esteem. But these are strong virtues that will help me towards the kind of life I want to live. It means listening more than talking, caring more than needing to be right, taking time to understand and to dignify others, and yes, it’s how I also want to be treated.

The Bible has many, many lists of virtues to be cultivated and vices to be got rid of. It is surely impossible to do any of that on my own. And it’s a daunting prospect. But with God all things are possible. It’s not what I do for God that counts; it’s not about chalking up a load of achievements, but it’s about letting my character be shaped by the company I keep. So I’m trying to stay close to Jesus, the virtuous one, to learn how to live a virtuous life by studying his life. And I’m trying to listen to the prompts and reminders and encouragements of the holy spirit, who keeps pointing me towards the virtuous life of God and away from myself and my nonsense.

Holiness

When I was a kid, I tried to look at the sun. I couldn’t, of course. No-one can. The normal human eye can only take so much light at a time before it begins to hurt. Before we have to look away. Holiness can be like that. Blinding like the moment of discovering God; painful like the exposure of things concealed. Either way, we shy away. When I was a kid, I tried to fit in. Belong to some group. I didn’t, though. Like many, I found myself outside, pretending not to care.

Holiness means being set apart, separate, not belonging to the group. Dedicated for a specific purpose. It wasn’t a state I would naturally embrace, not even after becoming a Christian.

And God is holy. He lives in unapproachable light, according to Paul in his first letter to an early church leader called Timothy (1 Tim 6:16). And Christians are meant to live as children of the light. But what does that look like? Being good? Gliding past the unholy with a raised eyebrow even though their hearts are no doubt purer and their caring less self-satisfied than mine? Does it mean putting on a pious face and refusing fun, flavour and friendship in the name of God?

I take comfort, great comfort, in Jesus. Who was holy and human. The ultimate paradox. He hung out with the ungodly, the socially and the morally dubious. But he was not tainted by his contact with the world. He touched people who his pious contemporaries found contemptible. Literally and figuratively.

Holiness often means haughtiness when it should mean the opposite. To be holy is to be aware of God, living in that awareness. What could be more humbling? In Isaiah God says ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.’ He tells us he is up there, out there, beyond our own reach but also down here within our grasp. Within hearing of our sighs and our cries.

Holiness is linked in origin to wholeness, which makes Jesus make sense. Dedicated for a specific purpose, to serving God and presenting him as Father to the Jewish community he was born into, Jesus was whole. Complete. He didn’t need the drug of popularity; he didn’t whip the crowds into a frenzy; he knew when to rest, when to withdraw to spend time alone with God. And as a follower of Jesus I too have the capacity (though not always the desire) to be whole as he was, because in some mysterious way, He lives on in me. He is teaching me how not to run after popularity, how to stay focused, how to take rest when I need to. How to withdraw and pray.

Holiness is about separation for a sacred purpose. Holiness is about being whole. And it is about belonging. Not to my family, or my work, or the news cycle,  or to my ambition, or my blog, or to facebook, or to fashion, (there’s a relief) or my husband, or even myself. But belonging to God. Dedicated to Him. Answering ultimately only to Him. To the one who, though far beyond, comes close even as his light exposes the ugly truths about me and transforms me from the child on the edge of the crowd to the one embraced and understood by her Father.