Lost Art of Community

We live in a time and place where nothing bad really happens. People can go months, years even decades without experiencing anything closely related to trauma. In fact, I’d wager that there’s no shortage of people out there, in their 20’s and 30’s who’ve never experienced abuse, loss or even death. Sure, bad things happen to everyone, but in our western bubble we’ve manged to insulate our daily lives from suffering.

And at first glance, this might look like a great thing, and at one level it is. Safety, security and a dramatic reduction of danger are all a result of affluence. Today we are far more easily able to collect and accumulate personal possessions and wealth then previous generations. In turn, we are far more individualistic then previous generations.

If our society has perfected the art of buffering individuals and groups from harm, why then is this generation one of the worst affected by mental illness? Why is this generation one of the worst affected with behavioural disorders?  We are witnessing a generation rise up who, despite having every comfort, are for the most part the unhappiest generation ever. It is affected with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic illness in human history. Why, in all our technological advancements in health, security and communication, are we one of the most disconnected and lonely generations of all time? How can we live surrounded in urban environments, some of the densest residential dwellings known to the human race, and yet feel deeply, even dangerously alone?

Maybe, we’ve pursued all these great things and neglected ‘community’ along the way. What if accumulating affluence comes at a cost… What if it decreases our dependence on other people… What if it decreases our motivation to contribute to other people or groups within our society… What if…

What if… humans are built for hardship? What if humans were designed to thrive on it. We live in a time and place where nothing really bad happens. But it comes at the cost of experiencing something of what it means to be human. How do you become a mature adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a mature adult in a culture that doesn’t demand courage?

We are in the midst of a  generation of ‘adults’ who, for the most part have never been required to sacrifice. A generation that doesn’t know what loss or daily hardships are. So when tragedy strikes, (and it strikes everyone), it’s no wonder that a growing number within our society don’t know how to deal with it. It rapidly escalates and becomes overwhelming, pushing people beyond their limits. It would seem that rather than acting as a buffer, the modernisation of our societies has fostered mental health concerns.

One observation I’d made during my time as a medic in the Army, is that very few soldiers suffered mental health concerns ‘during’ their operational deployment. The soldiers I knew, young men and women, had been thrown into hideous circumstances, exposed to all kinds of traumatic situations, and in the moment, they cope exceptionally well. These young adults, to mention a few things, were dealing with life changing injuries, death, killing, murder, racism, religious extremism, prolonged separation from family and the uncertainty of hidden and indiscriminate enemy explosives. Yet, their health and well-being in the midst of this tribulation was almost always good.

Again, from my observation, there were two primary things that held these soldiers together. The first was a deep sense of comradery amongst the ranks. It was a bond that brought men and women together as brothers and sisters. It was a community that was as close as family. When one person struggled, everyone struggled with them. The second was in that environment everyone had a purpose. There was a obligation to contribute to the collective, and permission to lean on the collective when needed. There was a great honour in being strong, but at the same time there was no shame in moments of weakness. Everyone had a role to play and that role, in the community was meaningful.

But skip forward a few years, and the picture is far more grim. We lost 6 soldiers in combat on our operational deployment, and since then, at last count, we’ve lost 6 more to suicide. There are countless more suffering with ongoing mental health problems such as moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and so on. And since returning home, the two things that soldiers relied upon are almost entirely neglected by our affluent society.

Our western culture is highly individualistic. When we get home after work we close the doors and windows and tend to ourselves and our family. The system honours those who work hard and succeed on an individualistic level.

And, as a consequence of heightened individualism, our culture has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary. People are almost always regarded as indispensable. People aren’t required to contribute to a larger group, and people don’t therefore, have permission to lean upon someone else without feeling a sense of shame.

When a soldier is removed from their tribe-like community, they find themselves overwhelmed by the burden of their experiences because they no longer share it with their peers.

I’m not a mental health professional, and I’m certain that many victims of trauma suffer very real and prolific mental illnesses, but what if sometimes it was less about the trauma itself, and more about the way we as a society prepare, and deal with trauma as a community?

From my own experience, as a Christian, my worldview expects suffering to happen. It gives permission for bad things to take place. The way I look at the world legitimises suffering. I have permission to have good days and bad days, permission to feel lonely and sad. But I also have a hope, that being human isn’t limited to my physical experiences. This way, in the bigger picture, traumatic events don’t undo my entire universe. Sure, for a time they suck, but the fabric that my world is constructed on remains in tact. As a Christian, my suffering has a purpose, even if I can’t see it at the time.

I also found that having deep spiritual and familial connections enabled me to better process the trauma that I’ve experienced. There were nights where I couldn’t sleep as I wrestled with deep injustices that had been committed against innocent people. There were moments were overwhelming sadness came upon me as I wrestled with the concepts of life and death. There’s been times I’ve been was torn to shreds over relationship troubles, but I’ve always found comfort in meeting with like-minded people, allowing them to comfort me and knowing that I was a comfort in return. I found comfort and value in community.

Maybe as a result of all this, we need to be less concerned about immunising ourselves from any risk of suffering, and more concerned about learning how to experience it in a healthy way. Maybe we need to give ourselves permission to struggle and do more to accept others as they struggle.

A brief history of Christian Singleness

Marriage is being thrust under the spotlight once again. But where does that leave singles? Any media coverage that is targeted towards single men and women is almost always… ‘Meet Mr. Right’ or ‘How to move on from Mr. Wrong’.

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Our culture shouts at us, teaching us that singleness is a time of transition. You’re either preparing for, or moving away from a relationship. This toxic understanding of singleness suggests that the ideal is always to be in a relationship. In fact, if your single for too long, there’s likely something wrong with you, or so social media tells us. If we have a brief look at the history of singleness we will see where this unhealthy understanding has stemmed from.

The Jewish Perspective

In the Old Testament there was no real place for singles. Everyone, including priests, were encouraged to marry. This was because their was very little teaching on an ‘afterlife’. Unlike today where spiritual people focus on moving toward a heaven or nirvana like experience, the ancient Hebrew culture thought that the hereditary line was most valuable. This is why there is so much emphasis on genealogy in the Old Testament. A man or woman without a family had no means of continuing their family line.

Even in the New Testament period we can see that Jewish teaching were just as strict, if not more so. In the Mishnah suggests that ‘a man without a family is not a man at all.’

The New Testament Perspective

Then, as if we were watching a wrecking ball sweep through the flimsy veil of a Jewish understanding of relationships, along comes Jesus. He entered into the first century culture and broke down the negative stigma of singleness. Jesus taught that marriage and family are not an eternal reality, that it is not supposed to be the centre of one’s life. He taught counter to the Jewish teachings, there is no eternity in bloodlines, but only in the resurrection. Therefore, Christ should be more central than even family. Jesus clearly teaches that people can choose to remain single for the purpose of serving the kingdom of heaven.

Paul then continues this message by saying he wishes ‘people could remain single as he does’ but also understands that it’s not always possible. Alongside Paul it appears that Luke, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, Apollos, Lydia, Dorcas and Pheobe all remained single throughout their ministry.

It was obvious that single men and women had much to contribute to growing the kingdom of God.

The Early Church Perspective

After the wrecking ball shatters the Jewish context it bursts through the debris and swings like a pendulum out the other side. All of a sudden singleness becomes the ‘best practice’ for the ‘most holy’. Examples of spiritual devotion laid out by the apostle Paul inspired his successors to remain celibate in their service to the Lord. Ignatius, Justin Martyr and Origen in the second and third centuries all commended the celibate lifestyle. The ascetic Gnostic influence pushed common religious practice to the extreme, the body was evil and humanity must resist it’s urges at every point in order to remain pure and holy.

Later, people such as Augustine taught that sin was transmitted from generation to generation through sexual intercourse. The best practice was that one would abstain from building families. There were certainly enough heathens to convert in order to grow the kingdom. He taught that while marriage was good, celibacy was even better.

The Reformers Perspective

The 16th century reformation came at a time where the dominate catholic church was rife with not-so-celibate priests. It was common knowledge that Renaissance priests had mistresses and children. Protestant Reformers sought to renew the corrupt church. German reformer, Martin Luther, who had begun his ministry as a monk, new the dangers of forced clerical celibacy. He rooted his argument against the doctrine in the natural order. If men and women are being forced to go against their created natural instincts they are preventing nature from being nature. (I wouldn’t use this argument today).

Likewise, John Calvin the Swiss reformer taught that God not only permitted but commended marriage. He taught that there was still a place for singleness but it is only for those who had been ‘singled out by the divine will of God’.

Where does that leave us today?

With the benefit of hindsight, teaching on singleness has started to find some balance, though emphasis still clearly lays on the family unit. Our churches try and emphasise with single Christians but the feedback is that they have a tendency to come across as condescending. Statements like: ‘It’s alright, your time will come…’ or ‘I know how you feel, I really struggled as a single before I got married at 22…’ or even ‘God has given you the gift of singleness…’. (I think singleness is a gift [1Cor 7:7] but when spoken about as a place of empathy it’s like a gift of bad cologne. ‘Thanks, but I really don’t want it’.

As our culture continues to water down the concept of marriage, sexuality and morals it is obvious that there will be an increasing number of singles within our communities. With a divorce rate of roughly 50%, a homosexual rate of roughly 10%, an aging population increasing the number of widows and widowers, we need to be increasingly aware of the singles within our communities.

Singleness is not always a time of transition. We pray, under God’s sovereignty, that men and women would continue to unite in marriage, however it is unrealistic to expect this to be a reality for all singles. By making this the goal, we marginalise people who haven’t yet obtained it. What if the goal was something else?

The church needs to be clear that one’s relationship status does not primarily define their identity. One’s value does not come from their circumstances. Both singles and marrieds should be actively seeking to place Christ at the centre of their lives.

A truly Christian view of both singleness and marriage will honour both equally without disparaging one or the other. Recovering such a balance is the first step toward a church where singles are valued equally with marrieds.

Keeping Christ at the centre means that regardless of our relationship circumstances Christ gives us value, meaning and purpose. If our relationship circumstances change, and Christ is still centre, then the value, meaning and purpose of our lives in still intact.

[Edit: Thoughts stemmed from chapters 2 and 3 of The Single Issue by Al Hsu.]

Love Revived… How Should Christians Treat the LGBT Community| John Reid

I reblogged this video from John Reid. I found it while reading a blog he wrote titled 6 Ways Christians Can Love Homosexuals Better.

I very much agree with his point of view. It does raise some further questions for me, but overall it’s quite clear and the tone is perfect… It’s an outright apology, and that’s the way it should be.

I too am sorry for ever offending anyone from the LGBT community by not being as loving as I should be. I have little doubt that I have unnecessarily hurt people by trying to share my faith with them. For that, and many other reasons, I am a sinner and in need of God’s grace. If it’s you that I’ve offended, then I want to take you out for a meal and apologise in person.