“Abbatars” they called them, and they were impressive. Abba Voyage is London’s great musical night out and last week we had the joy of seeing the show. By means of much jiggery-pokery and digital magic the septuagenarian super troopers Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha were digitally recreated in life-size three-D splendour to sing the hits, looking just as they were in their glory days of 1979! Imagine that. Presenting yourself to the public, digitally remastered at your prime and peak. It’s quite appealing.

Yet it’s what we all do day by day, albeit on a much less ambitious scale. We present the most appealing version of ourselves. We curate our online image to present a more “windswept and interesting” me. We work frantically to make sure the mask remains in place, and no one peaks behind the curtain to discover that we are not the real deal.

We live in a culture obsessed with keeping up appearances. From politicians consumed with courting popularity with their supporter base to young people so overwhelmed with a negative body image that they fear leaving the house. We live in a society that seems to believe that appearance is more important than reality, image rather than character.

It’s a fundamental frailty of our human condition that we find ourselves enslaved to the expectations and approval of others, even to the detriment of our own souls and God’s will. Fearing rejection and craving affirmation we skim the surface of life afraid to face the truth of what lies beneath. The result? Our true self diminishes, and we simply become an extension of another person’s wishes.

Yet facing the truth is what sets us free. Confronting what lies beneath the mask is the key to growing in spiritual maturity.

As St Augustine so beautifully put it in his “Confessions”

“How can you draw close to God when you’re far from yourself?”

and then prayed:

“Grant Lord that I may know myself, that I may know thee”.

This week we begin to examine pivotal moments in the lives of Old Testament characters and how these contributed to their maturation in God. We kick off with King Saul. His story is a lesson in how a life that is preoccupied with pleasing people ultimately unravels.

Carlo Collodi’s beloved tale of Pinocchio, describes a wooden puppet whose life’s desire is “to be a real boy”. That surely is the spiritual ambition that should encourage all of us “further up and further in” as we seek to become more fully Christlike.

“Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it:

“This goal of becoming more spiritually substantial, more truly real is a lifetime work which requires us to face the shadows of our souls even as we work with the tools of God’s word and Spirit to sculpt and form godliness within.”

I love this description of Christian monks’ development from the appearance of spiritual depth to reality:

Young monks appear holy but are not holy.

Middle Aged monks don’t appear holy and are not holy.

Old monks don’t appear holy but are holy.

So here is the thing. Am I avoidant of the truth of what lies beneath my public image? Am I fearful of welcoming God’s grace and truth to shine a light into the undergrowth of my life? Or do I have faith to believe as
Ruth Haley Barton says in “Sacred Rhythms”?:

“Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. You might think that your woundedness or your sinfulness is the truest thing about you or that your giftedness or your personality type or your job title or your identity as husband or wife, mother or father, somehow defines you. But in reality, it is your desire for God and your capacity to reach for more of God than you have right now that is the deepest essence of who you are.”