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Prozac Leadership and The Power of Negative Thinking


Happy Ever After

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 34: “I prayed to the LORD, and he answered me; he freed me from all my fears. The oppressed look to him and are glad; they will never be disappointed.  The helpless call to him, and he answers; he saves them from all their troubles.  His angel guards those who honor the LORD and rescues them from danger.” (vs. 4-7)

My first reading of these verses in preparation for today made me a bit nervous.  It seemed to say, “Pray, and you’ll never have any worries.”  Sometimes the way we worship, and what we say to each other as Christians suggests the same thing: if you’re a Christian, you’ll never have any worries.  And, of course, if you do have worries, then you’re not really a Christian.

No Room for Pain?

As I read this part of the Psalm, I couldn’t help thinking about little April Jones.  I’m not sure if you followed anything of April’s story on Sky News.  Hers is a story repeated all too often in South Africa, without the media coverage April received.  Five-year-old April was abducted from near her home in a little Welsh village last month, while playing with some friends.  She was apparently taken by a man well known to her and to the girls she was playing with at the time.  He is in police custody, charged with her abduction and murder, but, in spite of a massive police search, there has been no sign of April.

I was reminded of the service of support and encouragement held in the local Anglican Church on the first Sunday after April’s abduction.  The community was hurting.  The people were struggling to understand what had happened in their midst.  The police had just decided to add a charge of murder against the man they had in custody, and it suggested to the desperate community that the police had given up on finding April alive.  They were trying to come to terms with that as they gathered in the local church to worship.  Not for anything would I have wanted to be in the shoes of the Anglican priest who led the service, or of the Bishop who gave the sermon.

It was a very beautiful and very moving service, and the Bishop spoke very beautifully into that situation.  Maybe that was exactly what the friends and family needed, but as Jen and I watched the service, I couldn’t help thinking, “There’s something missing.”  I am looking on from a distance and I’m completely out of touch with what was going on, so this is not a criticism at all, but I was surprised that there was no room for questions, no lament, no anguish. Sorrow, yes, an expression of pain, but no anguish, no anger.

I wondered about people in the community who were angry: angry at what had happened, angry with God, angry with themselves, angry with the world.  And I wondered about our own Christian community and churches all over the world. It seems that we expect people to leave their anger and negative thoughts outside the door when they come to church, so that we can worship God with happy thoughts and positive attitudes. 

A Little Perspective?

Perhaps we think that putting our anger and other negative feelings aside while we worship allows us to forget them and we’ll go back into the world feeling happy again.  And sometimes we do just need a little perspective.  As we focus away from ourselves and onto the glory and wonder of God, we come to realise that these things that churn away inside, are not so important after all.  They are insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.  And that is sometimes an important thing to realise.

But some of the things that grab us and shake us and leave us angry or depressed, some of them, are far from insignificant.  They are real; they are beyond our ability to deal with; they deserve our attention.  The disappearance of a little girl from the heart of her community is surely one such.  What then?  

I believe our failure to acknowledge our true feelings in church and among Christians, our silence about these things, encourages the idea that real Christians don’t get angry; good Christians don’t get depressed, and if you’re serious about your Christian faith, getting rid of negative thoughts is top priority. 

But we can’t do that, because all our feelings, positive and negative, are part of who we are, so we split our lives in two: our “good Christian” lives, where we don’t have any negative feelings, and what we call the “real world”, where our real feelings get expressed.

Prozac Leadership

Of course, it’s not just the church that suffers from this denial of the negative.  There’s a whole industry out there.  We live in a “let’s all be positive and happy” world.  Positive Thinking is a massive world-wide industry, powered by motivational speakers, writers and psychologists.  And the pharmaceutical industry merrily manufactures “happy pills” and skips all the way to the bank.

I was interested to read in the Mail & Guardian last week an article called, “Punching a hole in positivity”, which tells of a new movement exploring the upside of negativity.  The article quoted studies that warned against “Prozac leadership” in business, and describes how “it promotes artificial happiness and discourages critical reflection, leaving companies ill-equipped to deal with setbacks”.  It has been suggested that much of the economic meltdown around the world has been caused or exacerbated by such “Prozac leadership”.  Risk takers are not challenged, and whistle blowers are denounced.

Be Happy

In the same way, we silence negative thoughts or uncertainty in our personal lives. Which isn’t really surprising.  Newspapers and magazines (and a plethora of books) encourage us with a daily stream of headlines such as ‘10 ways to happy’ or ‘Five things you can do to get happy’.  And it’s all sold as a “one-size-fits-all cure for every problem.”  Even though each of us is different in the way we experience pain and heartbreak and life itself.

And we in the church do the same thing.  Only, for us, it becomes a moral or spiritual issue as well.  The way we worship, the way we speak to each other, suggests that unhappiness is a lack of faith; anger means you don’t believe in God; depression is a sin.

I’m not encouraging moaning and whining.  Let’s be clear; people who find fault with everyone and everything drain us as they have drained themselves.  There are people who are unsuccessful and blame everyone else but themselves.  There are those who sit around and complain instead of finding ways to make their own and other people’s lives better. 

But we in the church often begin to resemble what someone called “motivational rah-rah speakers.”  The cheerleader-types who say, “Jump up and down, hug your neighbour,” and then they walk away. James warned us in James 2:16: “What good is it to say to fellow Christians who are hungry and without clothes, ‘God bless you!  Stay warm and eat well!’ if we don’t give them the necessities of life.”  He may well have said, “What good is it to say to those in pain, and angry with God, ‘Be happy!  Stay positive!’ if we are not willing to share their pain and hear their anger?

Don’t get me wrong.  Motivation is a good thing, and looking for the positive in things is helpful.  President Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Yes! We can!” was a great idea.  But what if, in this situation, in this person’s life we just…can’t?

I want to say two things as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  It’s a word to those of us who tend towards the “rah-rah” type, and want everyone to smile and be happy all the time, those of us who are uncomfortable with expressions of fear and uncertainty and anger against God.  And it’s a word to those who are struggling with life or with a particular issue, and don’t know how to express it, or feel you’re not allowed to express it, and shouldn’t even feel it.

Read the Psalms

First of all, I want to say, read the Psalms.  Read the Psalms.  You will find in them an expression of all our human emotions, positive and negative.  And you will discover there that God is not shocked; God hears it all.  He loves to hear his people pray from the heart.  And remember the psalmists weren’t mavericks on the edge of society.  These were the hymns that God’s people sang.

There is Psalm 22, a cry of anguish that Jesus himself used in his agony on the cross, and Psalms 35 and 42.  Often beautiful expressions of praise and adoration come at the end of a Psalm that begins with agony and anguish, as in Psalms 28 and 130.  It’s as if the psalmist is saying, work through your agony in openness and honesty with God; tell him how you are feeling, and he will break through.  Even the confidence of Psalm 34 is tinged with the reality of the psalmist’s own pain.

And then there is Psalm 137—a terrible cry, in which there is no hope and no pity; a Psalm so awful that you’ll never hear it all read out in church.  Read the Psalms. 

If you’re tempted to stop people expressing fear and anguish and pain and anger towards God, read the Psalms.  If you are worried that God won’t listen to your fears and anger, read the Psalms.  In them you will discover that God hears his people: happy or sad, high or low, ‘yes we can’ or ‘no we can’t’, God hears his people’s cry.

Bartimaeus

The second thing I want to point out to you is about Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus was blind.  You knew that.  But when Bartimaeus called out to Jesus outside Jericho on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”  No one seems to have said to Jesus, “Him?  But he’s blind!”

And no one went to Bartimaeus and said, “Hey, Jesus is calling you. You’d better stop being blind, so you can go and talk to him.”

They said, “Hey!  Get up; he’s calling you.”

Invitation

The Communion we celebrate tonight is an expression of Jesus’s presence, and of his call to us to receive from him forgiveness, and hope and healing.  He doesn’t say to us, “Stop being blind and angry, stop being afraid and hurt.”  He says “Come.” He invites us as he invited Bartimaeus, blind and dirty from the roadside.  And to those of us who can see he says, “Bring him, bring her.”  Bring those who are hurting and can’t see the way forward. Bring those outside in the community.  But be warned, as we search for ways to reach out into the community around us, those whom we will meet there are hurting, angry and afraid.  Our job isn’t to fix that; it’s simply to meet them, and bring them to Jesus.

There is healing here; there is hope as we gather around this table.  For some, it will be like scales falling from their eyes, as it was for Bartimaeus.  But for most of us who come here, it is the beginning of a journey, as Bartimaeus also discovered.  And if we bring each other to this feast, we will be able to share that journey together.

 A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 28 October 2012
Scripture: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22); Mark 10:46-52

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Why the West Rules—For Now


I am reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules—for Now.  It’s a fascinating look at the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  One reviewer called it, “The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.”

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs and Steel which also looks at why the West has its nose in front or, as he puts it, why we have more “stuff”.  Morris runs through innumerable other such studies that fall very roughly into what he calls “long-term lock-in” or “short-term accident” theories, including the succinctly put summary of British poet and politician, Hilaire Belloc in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Morris is an archaeologist and ancient historian (I presume the “ancient” part refers to his work rather than himself) and his broad sweep (he calls it “chainsaw art”) takes one on an archaeological, geographical, sociological and biological journey from 2.5 million years ago to 2010.  His ability to keep a vast range of material together and keep the reader interested is impressive as is his wide reading.  Morris writes (as one critic put it) “with wit and clarity that will delight the lay reader.” I agree.

His arguments, conclusions and theories do not concern us here.  I was simply challenged by his comments on Christianity.  If he is a man of faith, it doesn’t show; he writes impartially, but sympathetically, about all the major religions, from emperor worship to the “modern” great faiths.

I am also not particularly interested here in how accurate his understanding of the growth of Christianity may be, but in how others view Christians (and our squabbles) from the outside.  Let me quote a rather lengthy passage (slightly edited) from a section dealing with the dramatic growth of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, each from a handful of followers to 100 million or so in about three or four centuries.

Jesus wrote no sacred texts, and as early as the 50s (AD) the apostle Paul was struggling to get Christians to agree on a few core points about what Christianity actually was.  Most followers accepted that they should be baptised, pray to God, renounce other gods, eat together on Sundays, and perform good works, but beyond these basic premises, almost anything was possible.  Some held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was merely the last (and lowest) in a series of prior gods.  Others thought the world was evil and so God the Creator must be wicked too.  Or maybe there were two gods, a malevolent Jewish one and Jesus’ wholly good (but unknowable) father.  Or two Jesuses, a spiritual one who escaped crucifixion and a bodily one who died on the cross.  Maybe Jesus was a woman, some suggested, and maybe women were equal to men.  Maybe new revelations could overrule the old ones.  Maybe Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent, in which case no Christian should have sex; maybe its imminence meant Christians should practice free love; or maybe only people who were martyred in horrible ways would go to heaven.

For Buddhists, multiple paths to nirvana were not a problem.  For Christians, however, getting into heaven depended on knowing who God and Jesus were and doing what they wanted, and so the chaos of interpretations forced believers into a frenzy of self-definition.  In the late second century most came to agree that there should be bishops who would be treated as descendants of the original apostles with the authority to judge what Jesus meant.  Preachers with wilder ideas were damned into oblivion, the New Testament crystalized, and the window on revelations closed.  No one could tinker with the Good Book and no one could hear from the Holy Spirit unless the bishops said so; and no one had to renounce marital sex or be martyred, unless they wanted to.

Morris is writing about Christianity’s first couple of centuries.  Once again, one can argue about the detail, but for “chainsaw art” he is not far off.  What about today?  What would an alien from outer space, or more to the point, what would someone outside of Christianity have to say about our internal squabbles, denominationalist standoffs, conservative-liberal warmongering, and a whole host of divisions fervently defended on all sides.

So much of our faith becomes a hearty defence, even open warfare, against what we do not and will not believe.  What we do believe, what we have to offer the world, is lost in the melee.  The great gift we have, what Jesus called his disciples to on the night before his crucifixion, was not just God’s love, mercy and healing, but God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Jesus didn’t simply talk about these things; he modelled them for his followers in his daily decisions and interactions.  He cared enough to stop and listen and touch; he depended on God enough to get up early and pray; he balanced his prayer and reflection with moving forward into new opportunities for ministry.  Ultimately he demonstrated that God’s love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.

You and I are not likely to reduce or even contain the bitter theological turf wars that deny our faith (although I should only speak for myself; you perhaps have more influence than I).  The real question for every Christian is whether we will allow ourselves to be conduits for peace or for war?  Am I willing to let go of my “turf”, turn from arguments and the building of theological and liturgical castles, and put the practicing of God’s love, mercy and healing first; building others up rather than putting them down? 

I am convinced that relationship is more important than rightness; intimacy more fruitful than rules.

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