My mother came out of hospital recently. Two and a half weeks ago she collapsed on the floor due to a bleed on the brain. The doctors discovered a tumour pressing on her frontal lobe. While visiting my mum in hospital I had the strange sensation of meeting someone intensely familiar yet different at the same time. Her voice was the same, her smile was the same, yet her words were mixed up and her behaviour was somewhat muted. At times she made no sense and at other times her responses were appropriate and sharp. I was certainly relating to my mum, but it was a slightly different version of the mum I had known all my life. She no longer initiated conversation. Her concern for order and detail had vanished. The person in front of me lacked the seam of feistiness and assertiveness that had always been a part of her character. I was obviously glad to see her sitting up and engaged, yet disconcerted by the changes I perceived. This different version was going to be the new normal from now on. How was I to adapt to relating to this version? My experience over these last two and a half weeks has caused me to think about this idea of being “a different version” of ourselves. In particular I’ve been pondering the question of how God might feel relating to a version of ourselves he knows to be different to the person he created us to be.
We are all driven by our self-images if we’re honest. We want to be seen as measuring up to these images: the good parent, the ideal wife, the competent one at work, the wise husband, the popular one, the good friend, the spiritual one, the amusing raconteur. We’ve become highly skilled at presenting a version of ourselves to one another and to God. Now St Teresa of Avila once wrote, ‘It would be absurd to suggest to someone to enter a room that they were already in’. And yet that’s so often precisely what we do. We already have an authentic self, yet we imagine we need to invent a different version of that self to gain acceptability.
We’re already at home in ourself, yet we think we need to appear someone different. Religious people are very good at manufacturing a “Christian false self”. Maybe it’s partly because we think that to be properly holy, we’ll have to be different person. Other Christians, other leaders always seem more perfect. “If only I could lead their life, be as disciplined, have their strategy for coping with this pandemic”, we say to ourselves. Franciscan author Richard Rohr writes that ‘we have to find a way to get beyond our self-images and our ideas about who we are. We have to discover the face we already had before we were born’. In other words, our essential self before the scaffolding of our ego took over. God actually says to us – “You don’t need to be like anyone else except you. Forget the fantasy religious life. Forget being Martin Luther, Mother Theresa or Nicky Gumbel. Allow me to love you as you are.” We don’t have to copy anyone. That’s the liberating truth for all of us. We do not have to become another person in in order to be holy. Church should be a safe space to be not just to be our imagined self or your best self, but our true self.
I think this is really important as we cope with the complex, difficult emotions that come with trying to deal with the prospect of six months more of covid restrictions. God is interested in receiving our authentic responses to this grim reality. We don’t need to be pretending our feelings are more mature and controlled than they really are. We don’t need to put on a brave smile that hides our inner turmoil. A “cult of perfection” shouldn’t have any place in our spirituality. So, your vicar is giving you permission to do a spot of screaming and ranting if you need to! Our God can absorb all the strong emotion we can throw at him. In fact, He would surely think it strange if his children felt they had to be a different version of who they really knew themselves to be at this point in time. I wrote these words on Ash Wednesday two years ago, but on re-reading them they seem very apt for our current situation. They describe the
…God who accepts me, even delights in me, most deeply when I bare to him my broken and vulnerable places. When I dare to believe that I do not have to come to him in the fig leaves of my own goodness and making. But I can trust him to begin to unwind some of my covering bandages, as he shows me my true self, more of those loving parts of me, my honest, truest desires.
My mum doesn’t have a choice about being a slightly different version of herself. The neural pathways in her brain have been damaged. But we do have a choice to be our authentic self and to learn to love ourself: all of ourself (even the parts we wish weren’t there.) We can determine to let ourselves get in touch with our true emotions at this time. No one is going to think any less of us, least of all our Heavenly Father.
Changing tack on another note, I wanted to use the last part of this vicar’s message to encourage you to consider inviting people to join our new online Christianity Explored Course, starting October 6. These sessions will run for just over an hour, on Tuesday evenings during October and November and will take place on Zoom, because of the pandemic. Actually, that’s an exciting development, because it means there are no geographical restrictions on who can attend. This year you can invite a friend or family member, or join in yourself from your sofa or kitchen table, or from anywhere in the world! Derby, London, Edinburgh, Paris, it doesn’t matter!
Each session will involve watching a DVD together which considers some aspect of the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ. This will be followed by an opportunity for discussion and to ask any questions you may have, or just to listen if that is more your style. The first session is a ‘taster’ so that people can check it out.
You can find all the details on the Church website along with an invitation which you can send to friends and family as well. So please do be thinking and praying about who you could invite to come with you!