Pause for thought: Re-imagining the Opportunities
Our fourth chancellor, our second monarch, and possibly our third prime minister this year? Our economy receiving international censure, Covid rearing its ugly head again, not to mention geopolitical instability. Our instinct may well be to make up ground by working harder. Yet that’s hardly easy to do when already exhausted.
We probably feel like a boxer whose been floored on the third round with another nine to go. While this image of a boxer might rouse members of an ultra-right-wing group, and acknowledging that militaristic language has been used by Christians to good effect (e.g. Church Army, The Salvation Army), we might find a more gentle image preferable.
Last weekend, I greatly enjoyed an all-black casting of The Importance of Being Earnest in our local theatre. I came away inspired and enriched, even renewed. But imagine instead that, for whatever reason, the safety curtain had been unable to rise, preventing us from enjoying the stage set, let alone the actors. Imagine we’d paid £50 to sit for over two hours staring at the curtain. I might have felt angry, powerless, and disheartened.
These are the characteristics of learned helplessness that the psychologist Seligman first explored in the seventies. More recent researchers have reported physiological changes in disaster survivors. Those whose mood is flattened or who live with depression quite literally have more black and white vision; their hearing attunes to threats. Their whole emotional apparatus evidences stress and previously learnt responses prevail over more flexible options.
The very physiological response so well adapted for escaping a predator serves us badly when we find ourselves repeatedly thwarted, repeatedly cut off from that which we find lifegiving. While two hours staring at a safety curtain would arguably be no more than a ‘first world problem’, we’ve all experienced existential threats for over two years. We may reasonably cut ourselves some slack if we find ourselves evidencing symptoms of learned helplessness.
There’s every likelihood our safety curtain is down, protecting our exhausted selves from all manner of possible threats. However, this safety curtain may simultaneously be preventing us from all the life-giving zestful opportunities and keeping us in a kind of zombie state. It’s small wonder that this image of the curtain was used by Jesus to such good effect when he declared that he had torn down the curtain and given us access to God.
Let’s ponder to what extent our earlier learning is equipping us for the present, connecting us to life beyond the curtain – or not. Might it be time for us to lift the curtain afresh and encounter the life behind it, to return to those spiritual disciplines the early church found so valuable and reflect on what new solutions God may be inviting us to today?
Another experience in the same theatre reminds me of how God transforms our understanding of what is possible. We were watching Sheridan’s Rivals when the smoke alarms went off. The theatre was evacuated; both players and audience found themselves in the street. What happened could hardly have been anticipated. The actors, in Restoration dress, became the latest selfie-attraction for the city’s scantily clad Friday night revellers.
I’m not venturing that this was God’s work but the contrast could not have been more contrasted with an audience staring at the safety curtain. The question is which image better describes us and our churches? We need to touch base with that which is lifegiving – both culturally and spiritually – and lead others into new possibilities, towards unimagined opportunities, for surely the God of Psalm 23 is our shepherd.
Revd Dr Julian Raffay