Dear Donagh,

I look in your website nearly every day and I find it very helpful and encouraging.  There is such a need today for sound advice, the world is going crazy, especially my age-group.  I am a young adult working in [an office], I like the work but sometimes I find the conversation of the others a bit trying, to say the least.  You could say it was verging on the inappropriate at times....  I never take part in the conversation when it turns like that, but then I feel I am putting myself above them like the Pharises.  Can you suggest how I ought to react when the conversation turns frivolous in that way?  I don't want to appear to be judging them, but at the same time I feel uneasy about it.... I want to make sure my life is based on a solid foundation of rock instead of sand.... What advice can you give me...?   Deborah

Dear Deborah,

It’s wonderful of course to be a serious citizen; it’s a strong foundation for a good life, and you will never bring grief to your parents.  I'm sitting here, however, wondering if the foundation is the first thing or the last! 

That sounds odd, I know.  Of course the foundation of a building has to go in first!  And if we use the metaphor of building to describe our life, then of course a solid serious foundation has to go in first. 

But I wonder if that metaphor is the right one.  Our life is not simply something that we build – even though that expression is common.  Christians see it more as a priceless gift of God than a project of our own.  These two points of view don't exclude each other; it’s a question of seeing which is more fundamental. 

If we see our life as an endless gift we are aware that we never come to the bottom of it.  The great English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote in the 14th century, “It is quicker for us and easier to come to the knowledge of God than it is to know our own soul.”  The metaphor that suggests itself here might be excavation, rather than building.  In the case of excavation we come to the foundation last of all. 

Julian continued, “For our soul is so deeply grounded in God and so endlessly treasured that we cannot come to knowledge of it until we first have knowledge of God, who is the Creator to whom it is united.”  In other words, the foundational thing about any of us is not us, but God.  That saintly woman Julian helps us to have a light touch and not to take ourselves too seriously. 

I saw a television programme about Johnny Cash, “the man in black.”  His enduring popularity through a couple of generations is something of an enigma, and it surprised himself as much as anyone.  His appeal seems to have been the fact that he wasn't all light and celebration; he had something of the shadows in him.  “I'd love to wear a rainbow every day / And tell the world that everything's OK,” he sang.  But “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, / Living on the hopeless, hungry side of town.”  I have a feeling that it wasn't only about physical poverty and hunger.  Every person has some shadow – psychological or spiritual poverty and hunger – and Johnny Cash’s own story, as well as the sound of his voice, and his words, gave some sort of acknowledgement to that dark side.  He could therefore be a kind of bridge.  ‘Perfection’ in the ordinary sense is not interesting; it’s too self-contained.  When Jesus told his hearers to be perfect he was not recommending some kind of self-containment.  On the contrary: they were to be like the Father, lavishing goodness on others, whether deserved or not (Matthew 5:48). On another occasion he said to the rich young man that if he wanted to be perfect he should sell all his stuff, give the money away, and join Jesus in his nomadic life.  Perfection, then, is not about being a tidy self-contained package.  It’s about having a huge heart – and perhaps a lot of spatters from being on the road and consorting with all sorts of people. 

So what advice can I give you, Deborah?  From the sound of it, it doesn't seem that your work-companions are terrible people.  Joining in their conversation won't compromise you; you don't have to laugh at anything wicked: in fact your restraint, if it’s non-judgmental, might help them become more aware. Have a big heart, and don't worry about spatters.  Become as interested in people’s shadow side as in their bright side: that’s where grace is working rather than looking at itself. 

Enjoy it all.  You’ll only be young once.


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