Not long ago, I discovered a list of ten questions among my preacher father’s papers. They were written in his own youthful handwriting. I don’t know the origin of the ten questions. I don’t know whether my father wrote them himself or copied them from elsewhere.
They included the following:
Do I give way to anger when my motives are questioned?
Do I always speak well of those who speak evil of me?
Do I let hard feelings interfere with my Christian experience?
The list, its language and its approach reminded me of the church climate in which I was brought up - fairly heavy on self-criticism and self-examination! Beneath and behind these questions lay a larger question about whether I was ‘improving’. The climate was informed, I believe, by a misinterpretation of Jesus’ words, ‘Be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48)
Born the first son into a pastor’s home in the early 1920’s, my father relished the sort of challenge these questions represent. He was aspiring and idealistic. He believed in ministry and discipleship as a ‘high calling’. And in our early lives, he passed on that vision to us. It’s a vision of God and the Christian life, I continue to cherish and be grateful for. But life has taught me that all ideals have dark sides. And the dark side of spiritual idealism can be a failure to recognise not only one’s own humanity but the humanity of other people. Idealism has been responsible for by-products like judgmentalism rather than compassion and forgiveness.
Perhaps that explains why I approach the business of New Year’s Resolutions with some caution. I am still a true believer in self-examination. I think the business of growing self-awareness is crucial for life today. It would be my number one gift to some politicians and church leaders. Many problems of relationship can be solved by both participants asking together, ‘Is it me?’
Most of us are experienced and successful at finding ‘good reasons’ for what we are doing – or what we want to do. I have a friend who talks about ‘the good reason’ for doing things – and ‘the real reason’. A time of reflection sometimes helps us to recognise the ‘real reasons’ – and they are not always what we hoped they would be. It’s important to seek ‘truth in the inward parts’.
And yet…and yet…there is an important truth that my father and so many of his generation and mine have had to learn the hard way. Too much emphasis on ideals that are too high and too much self-examination can lead to discouragement and a sense of failure. I believe that many sincere people forsake the life of discipleship because of discouragement from preachers of idealism without compassion. It is in a personal experience of the patience, the love, the generosity and the forgiveness of God and other people that the basis for growth is to be found. It’s all about getting the experiences in the right order. With apologies to Richard Rohr: God does not love you if and when you change. When you truly believe that God loves you - you can and do change!
So – if I have a New Year’s Resolution, it’s more of a daily resolution – to focus on the patience, the compassion, and the love of God insofar as I can know it. And to do my best to receive it and share it!
We wish all our readers a Happy New Year!