Friday, 7 December 2012

True love or just the projection of self?


Philippians 1:3-11
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Knowledge and Love
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? He or she was wonderful, beyond perfect; how could you have ever lived without the object of your love. Every time you thought of them your heart did a little flip-flop and maybe, if you were really lucky, you’d get this warm feeling in the pit of your stomach. All the colours of nature shone more brightly and the world was a wonderful place to exist.

So, how long did that feeling last I wonder?

When I was a teenager I’d “fall in love” like this at the drop of a hat. I’ve always been a romantic at heart, just ask my wife, and so it didn’t take much for my head to be turned and for me to be hopelessly lost in how wonderful the young woman was. Yet it never seemed to last terribly long. Usually after about a month I was realising that this beautiful young object of my affection wasn’t actually the answer to all my prayers.

It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve begun to realise what was actually going on here. Psychologists have a word for it: projection. In every case my teen self was projecting on to the next pretty face all my innermost desires for what my perfect woman would be like. And the thing about projection is that what we’re actually projecting is ourselves.

We are hoping that this new person in our life is actually just like us, and then we get all disillusioned when we discover that they’re not. Phew, thank goodness that we all grow up and stop projecting. Except I don’t think we do, and I think that’s what St. Paul is trying to deal with in this passage from his letter to the Philippian church, which I promise to come to in a minute...

...because exactly this kind of thing happens in churches too. Vicars are especially aware of this when we go to a new parish. Firstly there’s the interview process when you hope that what you’ve achieved is to show people who you really are. Then there’s the arrival process, when you put down markers to your personality as quickly as you can, and the reason for that is that when you arrive in a new parish everyone projects their innermost self on to the new vicar in the hope that they will fulfil all their needs.

This is why there’s often a honeymoon period when the new vicar can do no wrong before people begin to realise who they really are. Then the real work can get started.

The same is also true of people who regularly move from one congregation to the next, looking for the perfect minister. Again the leader at the church which they’ve started attending is absolutely wonderful when they first arrive, but gradually disillusionment sets in as they realise that this church and this minister is not who they thought they were, or more completely, is not the projection of themselves that they were looking for.

All of this adds up to a lot of disheartened and disillusioned people wandering around with broken or bewildered hearts because no one quite meets their expectations, and this is what I think Paul is trying to address when he says these words:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
“That your love may overflow with knowledge”. That is so important. The most successful couples that I meet are almost inevitably people who are happy in their own skins and are therefore not looking for someone else on to whom they can project their desires for another person like them. I know that my relationships only began to mature when I realised that the people I loved were not like me, and should not be expected to be.

For example I know that Alison and I have huge amounts in common, and having got married young we kind of grew up together, but there’s nevertheless a lot we don’t agree on, and that’s ok because she is Alison and I am Paul and we have rather got to know each quite well over twenty four years. And because we keep on talking our love is based on knowledge.

But in a sense that’s rather easy. You see in a covenant relationship like marriage there are only two people. St Paul was writing to an entire church. Yet I think what he was saying still holds very true which was that they should love each other and that the love they had should be based on knowledge, not on projection. In order for love to grow within their community they had to know who each other was.

Take five seconds to think about the people you know. Some maybe you’ve known for years, yet have you ever had a drink together or had supper together? What about the people whose faces you know quite well but whose names completely escape you? Have you ever spoken at any level beyond platitudes?
And horror of horrors, what would happen if you actually plucked up the courage to invite them around for supper and it turned out that you had little in common. What then? Well that’s when the challenges really start. That’s when the rubber really hits the road because in the beginnings of knowledge you still have to go back to what St. Paul said:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
You don’t actually have to like someone to love them. Love is a choice. Love says, “No matter what you do, I will always be here for you and welcome you back.” And it is certainly true that the more we know about some people the harder it can be to love them. Yet still:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
I think that the key word is “insight”. Do you remember that one of the most important commands Jesus ever gave us was that we should not judge each other? I remain confident that the reason he said that was simply because none of us can know the reasons behind the actions that some of us make. But we can have insight into each others’ natures, provided that we learn to love each other in full knowledge of who we are.

But that can never happen if we only treat church as something we just come to on Sundays. In order to grow in knowledge of each other so that our love overflows we actually have to spend time together socially or in homegroups. This is really important. We have to get to know each other and then, in that knowledge of the otherness of the person with whom we share bread, we must allow love to overflow. Knowledge is based on experience.

And that brings me to perhaps the most important part about this, and that is our relationship with the Divine. When you think about God, how do you imagine him to be? Or how do you imagine her to be? Have you ever even contemplated that God may not always engage with us as a male? I know that for some reading this there is nothing knew to the idea of the Divine Feminine, but maybe for others this is a new idea.  God presents both masculine and feminine traits in the Bible and in other traditions leading me to the conclusion that God is not genderless but genderful.

But is that your experience? If your love for God is going to be informed, which St. Paul suggests it should be, then that means you need to take steps to experience what God is like. Don’t just take my word for it, or what the Bible says, or what your own other spiritual path has suggested. I have to say that in my own spiritual journey the reason that this is so vital is because without experience we find ourselves back into the model of projection again.

Is it any wonder that, for example, in the Victorian era where fathers were often thought of as cold and distant, that God was also thought of as distant? And if you had an earthly father who was hard to please, does that affect your understanding of the nature of divinity?

When we spend time in the presence of the Holy One, when we actively put ourselves out to try and experience the nature of God, however we understand that, what we find time and time again is that God breaks through our projections and shows us aspects of God’s nature that are fundamentally different from what we expect.

Look for the sacred places in your lives, maybe in a religious building, maybe out in the wilds, or maybe in the presence of others. And consider making it your prayer that God would reveal Godself to you.

Projection gets in the way of many of our relationships; with lovers, partners, parents, spouses, friends and even God. May we learn to put in the effort to get to know the truth, and then learn to love the reality and not the projection.

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