Positivism, despair and the Cross…

A while ago, I wrote a long piece about my (rather negative!) reaction to the dominance of positive thinking within our culture, and perhaps more particularly within our faith based structures.

My friends will smile. Michaela (sometimes known as Polyanna) is almost universally optimistic in our family- a bit like a cross between Christopher Robin and Tigger, and me- well let’s just say I can be a bit of a donkey! But I suppose that is the point. We live in a life of variety and fluidity. Life has this way of throwing in the unexpected- to bring huge joy, sometimes followed by terrible pain and loss. Our roads are long and there is blessing and holiness in all these things- wherever the journey takes us.

We should beware those voices who push us towards a view of life, and an understanding of God, that is based on relentless positivism. There lies a danger that we live our lives towards a kind of wish-fulfilment- a seductive philosophy/theology of success and power which undermines the core messages of the Gospel… and is very much at odds with the way of Jesus.

Equally we should beware the voices of gloom who counsel us that all is lost and the end is nigh. Too many lives are walled in by defeat and damage done by life- and for these people, the way of Jesus is to seek to be a chain breaker and a freedom maker. Some of this might involve the shift of mind-set towards embracing the possibility of change- that old sleight of hand trick called Cognitive behavioural Therapy that I have practiced in my mental health career. The dominance of this approach to almost every human problem is not without good sound reason- even if the cynic in me might also point to the economics of providing short term, focused, ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of interventions.

I had two reminders of the issues discussed above this week. Firstly, Jonny Baker quoted some lovely writing by Ann Morisy in a discussion paper about mission.

Ann’s take on mission embraces both powerlessness, the eschewing of power AND the power of positive thinking. She cites Seligman, that great doyen of the American ‘self help’ movement. As I read her article I found myself saying YES….yes…(but)…

The YES was to some of these things (my emphasis)-

When we muster an intention to do things like Jesus, i.e. to follow Jesus – even in the most modest of ways – we arrive at the portal into the economy of abundance, where virtuous processes flow and grace cascades; By doing it like Jesus (even just a tad, and even just with the intention – because there is so much grace around) we trigger virtuous processes that gain momentum.

This relevance and transformational power of faith make it urgent to articulate and promote the resources at the heart of faithfulness that lead to human flourishing. And we need others to help us pass the test of public reason – it is not sufficient for our theologians or evangelists to simply assert the virtuous processes that faith sets in train.

The other article that interested me was a post reviewing this book on the Emergent Village blog.

I have not read the book (but it is now on order.)

Root asks the questions as to what a church would look like if it were based upon a theology of despair. He starts with Luther’s theology of the Cross– and suggests the church needs to reclaim a crucial piece of Luther’s insight, which he frames something like this-

God brings life and possibility out of death and impossibility.

I am taken back again to the Cross. To the point of absolute brokenness, failure and despair. To the point where all dreams ended, all hopes vanished and all future was stolen.

In my working life, I have met many people who are in this place. If our call is simply to tell them than in three days, there will be resurrection, and all things will be made new,  then we are in danger of dishonest dealing.

  • because it is not our cross
  • and we are not gifted with foresight
  • and because our voices will not be credible
  • and because those who are broken and in mourning are blessed

Something else that is crucial to me is the possibility that ‘God is to be found in the broken places. That he is made known in nothingness and death’.

Like the Navajo rug perfectly woven apart from one flaw, which allows entry of the Spirit.

And that healing comes most deeply not through a denial of pain- or it’s manipulation into insignificance- but rather through the transformation of discovering God within our difficulties and broken parts.

In celebration of Michaela’s health…

Today Michaela went to see her consultant. And he told her that he did not want to see her again.

After 26 years!

Let me explain…

Michaela was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis as a teenager- a disease resulting in ulceration of the colon, leading to severe pain, anemia, loss of blood, weight loss and lots of other things. The impact of an illness like this on a young person also resulted in  all sorts of tough psychological challenges.

The illness typically goes from flare ups (leading to hospital admission, or total bed rest) then periods of relative stability. Treatment is with steroids, or imuno-suppressant medication. In Michaela’s case, this meant never feeling fully well, always lacking energy and sometimes being dangerously ill. She coped well though- most people never knew she was ill- and she was careful to avoid letting it dominate her life fully.

But she was always ill- I was looking at some old photo’s the other day taken when William was a baby. There was Michaela, like a beautiful doll. Skinny and ghost-white with anemia. How she coped with looking after a little baby I am not sure.

I got distracted- looking at all these old photographs… memories…

But anyway- on with the story. We moved to Scotland in 2002, and since then, Michaela has been well. Not just better than she was- but completely symptom free.

The doctors have been doubtful and a little puzzled, constantly asking her in for more tests, which she has increasingly resisted.

Whatever the reason, we are grateful.

And it gives me a chance to celebrate the beautiful woman (inside and out) that married me by digging out some photos.

It must be love….


In her beautiful response to this piece, Aileen reminded me of the following verse

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 8:8-10

Which set me thinking again.

About the God of all things who seems drawn to humble broken people.

There is a danger that we come to be familiar with a certain kind of weakness, and wear it like a badge- we are after all called into a transformative encounter with the Spirit of God.

But still, we only find this encounter in- weakness. When our own ways of coping run out, and we let go the hunger to possess, to overcome, to self actuate.

Listen to me- like I have got this sorted!

Time for a poem I think…


A bruised reed may not break
But still it withers
So it is that sometimes
I fear these wounds
Are terminal
I grasp for the shreds of my own strength
And hunger for soul shrinking success
That comes and yet is never enough
What is this power
Made perfect
In weakness?
Could it be that the mess of me
Might yet be compost
And seeds you sow
Will grow?

Rainbows and the promise of healing…


We have had a full on week- lots of great social stuff- Audrey and Alistair’s birthdays, a bonfire night celebration, an Aoradh planning meeting- as well as the usual family/housegroup/work business.

This morning Emily has some kind of lurgy, and so I am waiting for Michaela to bring some work home in order to allow me to go and do mine.

Which gives me time to reflect a little on the week that was, and the week to come.

As ever, I find my mind drawn to the stuff of friendship and relationships, and how this interacts with the life and call of faith.

Aoradh is at an interesting point in our development. We have been going for a while, and have had some real highlights that we are all proud of. Of course in any such communal enterprise, there is a rich combination of friendship, creativity, energy- along with the usual minor frustrations and tensions that erupt from time to time.

We continue to function with no ‘leader’- and at present, this feels slightly less comfortable, as we are in a process of deliberately reforming and rethinking the what?/whom?/why? questions. There has been a little whiff of storming in the forming, and I think there is likely to be more to come.

One of the tensions has been the issue of COMMUNITY. To me, this is central to everything we do as Christians. To others it is something that requires time- and as such is a pleasant addition to the real business and tasks that we engage in. For others, ‘community’ seems too tame, and the words that fit better are more subversive ones- band of gorilla/pirate/counter-cultural Christians. I think we can be all of these things, but we need to learn to respect one another’s different needs, and affirm one another by constantly re-learning the Jesus way of love.

Written like this- it sounds easy doesn’t it? But of course, this is the harder road to travel. It is a discipline that we learn, and practice imperfectly. Some have greater gifting, but for we followers of Jesus, it is not optional- but commanded.

One of the issues that we spoke about the other day is our differing needs for overt communication of respect/affirmation/assurance of value. We all need this at some level of course, but so much of it depends where we start from- our degree of herited vulnerability perhaps.

One of the interesting issues for anyone who spends time amongst artistic folk, is that many of us exhibit a high level of such vulnerability. The resultant introspection and the drive for artistic expression are sometimes related of course.

There is a beautiful promise on life offered by encounters with the Living God. This promise is for the hope of transformation. Those of us who carry wounds- and lets face it, most of us do- our prayer is for them to be taken away- like some kind of cosmic conjuring trick.

But this has never been my experience. Rather than a magic wand being waved, something altogether more hopeful is possible, that I can only describe in this way- the polarity of the thing subtly changes- from negative, to positive.

What was once a burden can become a place of blessing for others.

Kind of like the promise of the the rainbow- that is after all, only rain, mixed up with light to arc above the moment in something transcendent.

In this way, brokenness leading to social vulnerability (mixed up with light) can become deep sensitivity to others, or wonderful artistic expression.

Or obsessional task centredness (mixed up with light) can become a willingness to help others towards structure and organisation.

Or the instincts that set us on the cynical outside looking in (mixed up with light) can become a way of seeing things in unique and insightful ways.

But how is this promise made possible?

My conviction remains that the hope is to be found in community- and the subordination of all things to a higher principle called- LOVE. This is the Jesus blueprint.

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
John 15:10-12

A time to heal…


There is a time for all things under heaven…

Battle done
Heart still pounding
Damage felt
And also dealt

Some of the layers that make up who I am
Have been scraped back
Revealing the subcutaneous flesh
Naked and raw
And I am unclothed like a baby
Dignity destroyed
Decaying into depression
Like a spreading bruise
Punching into my stomach
Rotting into my brain

Lord Jesus
Find for me a small place
And let it be to me
Your hospital

Find me a dark place
Because at least for now
I can bear no light
Not even yours

There will come a time to come out again
To stand once more in the gap
Between hope
And possibility
Fighting my own demons
And those of others

But now
Is the time
To heal.