Wednesday, July 28, 2010


One of the things that I observe living in an urban context is the degree of instability in people’s lives: the extent to which life is overwhelmed, the extent of family breakdown, of drug misuse, of unemployment, of debt.

Wealth and education do not make you a better person, but they do shield you to a certain extent from the impact of instability, and they also mask the instability in our lives from our neighbours. And so it is not so much that the urban context is more unstable; but rather that the instability is more visible.

I am enjoying watching Rev on the BBC, a sit-com built around an inner-city vicar. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking comedy; its intention is not to offer escapism, but to remind viewers of value where we have neglected to see it – in the broken people. Adam, the vicar, talks to God, and tends to ask very good questions. But he doesn’t get answers, directly. What we learn is that the kingdom of God empowers us to sit with the broken, to live in the midst of instability. And this is true. What we don’t learn is that the kingdom of God empowers us to see the broken put back together, to create colonies of stability in the midst of instability.

It is often said that simple answers are of no use. This is not true. Simplistic answers are of no help to anyone. But simple answers are exactly what are called for. Because simple answers are the only answers we have the capacity to live out. Our problem is not that the answers we need are too complex, but that they are simple but hard, and what is hard is unpalatable to us.

There is an order to the flow of transformation: it originates with God, first does its work within us, and is then manifest in how we relate to the world in general. (That is, the flow of grace is UP-IN-OUT.)

Here, then, and drawing on Benedictine wisdom via my friend Mark Carey, is how we move towards stability in our lives:

It begins with obedient listening. That is, we choose to listen to God, and we choose to believe what he says. That when God says, “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” we accept that to be true, and do not dismiss God on account of our – or someone else – knowing better. The parent, or partner, who tells you that you are worthless.

This is simple, but hard. Hard, because – escalating from Eden on – we are bombarded with so many other voices, so many other opinions, so many deceptions that are pleasing to the eye but ultimately taste bitter in the mouth. You are nothing unless you are size 0.

So, what do you hear God say to you about your identity? Do you dare to believe him?

As we take on the discipline of obedient listening, we will discover that God does a work of conversion of life in us. That is, God calls us to be the person he has created us to be – revealed to us by obedient listening – and begins to change the direction of our lives. We move towards stability by choosing to obediently live out our God-given calling.

What does that look like in practice? This is an internal transformation. We find ourselves, by degree, no longer held captive by a false image of ourselves (expressed in eating disorders, self-harm, addiction); by ungodly values (such as fear, or lust, or the desire for power over others). We choose instead to say no to such things. For example, if we are married we choose to be faithful; we choose to put our marriage before a promotion or other unilateral career decision that will pull us apart. New priorities begin to emerge. This, too, is simple but hard: for these emerging priorities are profoundly counter-cultural. At the same time, we find ourselves growing into the person we were created to be, as certain things are put to death and other things are allowed to flourish.

In what ways can you identify how God has transformed your inner values? What new priorities are emerging?

Through the process of conversion of life, our direction, our values, our priorities change. Through the process, God reveals to us the priorities that will fulfil our vocation, our calling. And stability is made manifest – takes on solid, visible shape – in our lives as we choose to stick to the priorities that will fulfil our vocation.

What does this look like in practice? This is an external transformation. Vocation is a misunderstood word in our culture, narrowly applied to a particular religious vocation, to be a priest or a nun or a monk. But vocation simply refers to who and what God has called each one of us to be and to do. To do something because you recognise that you were ‘made to be’ that thing is to recognise a vocation. We can choose to be a lawyer because we want to earn a lot of money, or because we sense a call to see justice and mercy manifest in our society. We can do a job - any job - because we need to do something, anything; or because we recognise that we were made to do that thing. Society tells us what we ought to aspire to be – for many of the young girls in my immediate context, that is to marry a footballer, and go from shops to spa to party; in other contexts, with ‘wider’ horizons, we are told that we can be whatever we want, often resulting in the paralysis of too much choice. We can drift, or chase one dream after another; or, having heard God’s call, we can set about the priorities that will fulfil our call. If you are called to be a GP in a deprived area, that will call for a certain set of priorities – priorities that will change as we move from school pupil onwards – and you will need to stick with them. The same is true if you are called to be a shop assistant or a plumber or an electrician or a soldier or a stay-at-home mum or a musician or an artist or an athlete. Certain things cannot be allowed to distract us, or replace those priorities. Yet again, this is simple, but hard: society tells us that you can have it all...though the evidence suggests the reality that this is not true, and the more we try to have, the less we end up with.

Can you identify the priorities that will fulfil your vocation? Where are you being distracted at present? What current priorities are false, and need not to be the focus of our attention? Who is holding you accountable to stick to the priorities God is revealing to you?

This UP-IN-OUT process – though not the outcome – is the same whatever our god is. So if our god is pleasure, or financial security, then as we listen to the voice of our god a work of conversion will take place in our lives: our values and priorities will be shaped by what we listen to. But false gods offer false stability: as already noted, education and wealth certainly provide a shield against the impact of instability, under the cover of which instability can continue to work undetected; a colourful mask to hide behind, but no real security.

It is a process that goes on in all our lives, largely unconsciously. The key to helping broken lives be put back together again is to empower people to intentionally engage with the process, flowing from its True source.

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