I want to let you into a bit of a struggle I have, and I hope it speaks to those of you who are seeking to be some kind of prophetic voice in your own context.
If you’ve read the welcome page on this site you’ll know that I believe my role is to speak out about the ways we’re missing it as church today, but I’m also aware that attempting to be any kind of voice which challenges the institutions needs to be paired with some wisdom and grace, otherwise it will just be ignored. I have to somehow ride a line between speaking so abrasively that what I say is just destructive, and speaking so gently that what I say is just ignored.
It’s a tricky business.
But I suppose this is the tension with any kind of prophetic role: where and how do you best deliver your challenge; one that will actually move the right things in the right direction?
You see there are, broadly speaking, two types of people on the spiritual journey. The first are those who are still ‘building their containers’, and the second are those who have reached the stage where it’s time to ‘discharge their loyal soldier’.
The latter need the challenge I have to offer, while the former should be left in peace, for now.
Let me explain.
(I’m reading a great book by Richard Rohr at the moment called ‘Falling Upward’ which has given me the language for a lot of this, so credit where credit’s due.)
1. Building your Container:
Rohr suggests that we all start in life by ‘building containers’. These containers are made up of rules about life and God which help us make sense of the world as we grow up. We basically all begin our journeys as conservatives who need the hard drawn boundaries in order to feel safe enough to grow. And this stage is good. In fact it should be done properly and not skipped over, because it can cause issues later if it’s not lived to the hilt.
Someone like myself really needs to remember this because I can be fairly sniffy about conservatives.
I remember this stage for myself clearly (for those who’ve read the book it’s around the ‘Becoming a Pharisee’ chapter). Not only did I build very rigid rules for myself, I imposed those rules on others, and judged people harshly who didn’t hold to the same. In my mind this is who God was and how life worked, and no one could tell me otherwise. During this phase I took in no new information from the world at large, but built a veritable cocoon for myself filled with voices of those who already agreed with me.
And it was safe in there.
It was the place where my faith could slowly grow and take shape, within the confines of a tradition which held answers to my many questions. It provided me with content.
It’s where faith begins for most of us.
“The first-half-of-life container, nevertheless, is constructed through impulse controls; traditions; group symbols; family loyalties; basic respect for authority; civil and church laws; and a sense of goodness, value and special importance of your country, ethnicity, and religion. To quote Archimedes, you must have both “a level and a place to stand” before you can move the world.”
And then we post a ‘loyal soldier’ to protect our construction.
I have felt the wrath of many people’s ‘loyal soldiers’ as I have sat over coffee tables with them, and knew it wasn’t yet time to challenge. At the last church I worked at there was one particular girl who would take me for coffee almost every week after I had preached on the Sunday. Something I said had suggested that her container didn’t hold all the answers, and her loyal soldier was cross about that. So we would sit for a couple of hours while I tried to convince her that I wasn’t trying to mess with what she had built.
But… in some cases, it’s high time he were discharged.
2. Discharging your Loyal Soldier:
Rohr suggests that at some point in all our lives we will hit crisis. It will often be circumstances which call into question our simple views and have us wondering whether we may need to expand our understanding of life, the universe and everything beyond the confines of our container. This is hard because you were comfortable with your self imposed confines, and all your friends in your tradition buy what’s in the container hook, line and sinker. It takes a great deal of courage to step outside… which is why many don’t.
Many people hit crisis, ask the tough questions, but end up just retreating back into their container, even though it has been shown lacking. They repost their ‘loyal soldier’ and ask him to protect the borders for the rest of their days.
I was reading a fascinating story recently about Lt Hiroo Onoda. He was sent to the Island of Lubang in the Philippines in 1944 as part of the Japenese attempt to repel the American advance through Indonesia during the 2nd World War. At some point he was given a cell of 3 men and told to head into the jungle and prepare for guerrilla warfare with the enemy.
He trudged off into the trees with his troop and waited.
Thing is, the war ended .
But no one told Lt Hiroo.
The last instructions he received read:
“You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.”
When the war ended in October 1945, planes flew over the islands of the Pacific dropping pamphlets to let the guerrilla fighters of the Japenese army know that they could come out, but Hiroo believed the pamphlets to be a propaganda trick to lure them out. So for many years he, and his cell ‘fought’ on. With no Americans to kill they ended up turning on the island populace believing them to be spies. They killed 30 of the locals and wounded over a hundred. After years of fighting his companions were eventually killed and he was left to fend for himself against the enemy he was sure was out there. As the Japanese began rebuilding after the war someone realized that Hiroo and his men were still unaccounted for. They sent search parties to the jungles of Lubang to locate him, but he would hide, believing them to be scouts from an enemy platoon.
29 years he was out there in total, believing he was fighting in a war which no longer existed.
He became a thing of legend. Most assumed he was long dead until a student set himself the mission of locating him on a holiday to the island. He succeeded. And so it wasn’t until 1974 that he was finally found and coaxed back into the real world.
And I feel this way about a lot Christians.
At some point they could see that the fight for a small, safe, conservative view point was useless… but they returned anyway. For some reason they cannot discharge their loyal soldier. There have been many signs that they can abandon the struggle, but they think they’re being tricked somehow. They believe that ‘loyalty to God’ is ‘loyalty to the container’ and so they blindly fight on for the remainder of their days, maybe because the alternative is too hard to face.
These are the people who I want to read this blog; to pick up a copy of my book.
I want to speak to those who sense the ‘fight’ in them for their narrow tradition is dwindling, because they are beginning to understand that ‘defending their container’ and ‘defending God’ are actually two very different things.
I want to speak to those who are ready to give in, open up, and step from, as Paul would say, Law to Freedom.
I realize though that I can’t do this with a shotgun.
Like I said, some are still building their containers, and that’s good. If I expose them to my message I may ruin some very healthy and necessary growth which is still taking place as they construct their fledgling faith.
So I have to target the ones who need to ‘discharge their loyal soldier’ more deliberately.
I need to remember when I speak to a room full of people that some aren’t ready and shouldn’t be bullied into giving up their containers just yet.
I need to be more aware when I sit over a coffee table with someone that they may just be starting out, and I need to bite my tongue.
I have even begun to look into publishing my book wider, but I have concerns about making this message so available for fear of doing damage to those who are in the early days of their journey.
It’s the balancing act of the prophets; they never went into the Temple to bully the general populace, but they targeted the leaders and challenged those who should know better.
Jesus did the same with His message.
I have to remind myself of this constantly in order to be true to this calling.
Maybe you do too.