‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
It’s a classic moment in fairytale lore. The wicked queen asks the question but is horrified by the mirror’s honest answer. Instead of assurance of her own superior beauty, she discovers that Snow White has surpassed her and her response is a jealous rage that spirals, ultimately, into self-destruction.
I wonder if you’ve ever wanted a mirror like the queen’s. I’m not sure I want to be told the unvarnished truth. I do think it’s important, though, for us to reflect - to think carefully about who we are and how we’re living. Søren Kierkegaard reportedly wrote, ‘The irony of life is that it is lived forward, but understood backward.’ It is in the rear view mirror that we learn most about life, discovering vital principles we can apply to our future plans.
Why is the reflective process so important?
When we don’t reflect, our practice is impoverished. At best, when we don’t learn from past experiences, we don’t take the opportunity to make even minor changes that can help us in the future. We miss the chance to take wise counsel and simplify our disordered lives. At worst, we fail to recognise that our behaviour is actually wrong, inconsistent with our own theological convictions. Scripture calls us to something more than this – wise actions that flow from a true understanding of the person of God. Non-reflective action is not honouring to God.
As we face the challenges presented by the pandemic, especially as lockdown eases and we think about the shape church should take in future months, reflection is vital. So, what is it? I define reflection in the context of Christian ministry as follows:
Reflection is active, persistent, prayerful examination of personal experience and beliefs in light of Scripture and Christian tradition in order to learn about oneself and about God and so make plans for greater faithfulness.
Notice the various parts of that definition. Reflection is active – it requires effort, it doesn’t happen naturally. It should be persistent – it should become a habit. It must be prayerful – we aren’t simply seeking our own understanding, but God’s perspective. It looks to Scripture and tradition for insights – it’s like holding up a gem to the light, so that you can see both its beauty and its flaws. It leads to knowledge of self and God, thereby helping us plan for more faithful service in the future. Reflection is a stage in a cyclical process of action, reflection, theorising, planning and further action.
My suggestion in this series is that reflection should come before rebuilding. We need to take time to pause, step back and learn from our experience of church during lockdown. This entails a series of questions.
Reflection begins with remembering what actually happened. Replaying the experience in our minds, often in conversation with others who recollect details we may have missed. Some of what occurred happened to us, while some of it happened because of us. Disentangling the two is not always easy but it’s often helpful. Coronavirus and the government restrictions that came as a result happened to us. However, we also did some things to mitigate them, or in response to them, and we must recognise those too.
How did we react to these events?
What did we feel and think? What were people saying? What emotions surfaced? This pushes beneath the surface of our experience and uncovers our hearts. It’s important to gain a clear understanding of our values, desires, loves and fears. Some things we enjoyed; others we found draining. It’s not enough to stop there, otherwise we end up with unproductive introspection. It’s a starting point from which we can begin to learn about ourselves and God.
Why did we react that way?
What do our emotional and mental responses to the experience tell us about ourselves, about God and our relationship with Him? This is where we push deeper into evaluating our strengths and weaknesses, as well as the discrepancies between what we profess and how we behave. It’s an opportunity to gain genuine self-knowledge that goes behind the masks we wear to impress others and protect our egos. If you enjoyed something during lockdown, why was that? What did your response to the crisis tell you about yourself?
What was God saying?
This is the deepest level of our reflection, as we seek to understand what lessons the Lord has been teaching us. It’s essential to turn to God’s Word, and we should include input from fellow believers who’ve been on a similar journey. The light of other perspectives often reveals things we had not seen.
What should we do now?
Reflection is not complete until we plan for the future. Which things from lockdown are worth holding onto, and which should we jettison? Remember how it was before? How much should be reinstated? Are there some things that should now be brought to a close?
I hope these five questions will help you as you look back on what you have experienced during the past few months. The results of the process should give you thoughts and ideas both for yourself personally and for the church you serve.
I’d like to finish, though, by reiterating one of the points above. Reflection is active. It takes time and effort. I pray that you will be able to take time to do it effectively, and with the support of others. If you would like input from us at Living Leadership, then do give us a shout.