godisnowhere

thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

shame

Such a Shame

This last week I had someone email me referring to a situation that I am heavily involved in – and indeed responsible for – as “a shame in every sense of the word”. I won’t go into the situation itself, mainly for personal reasons but also for sake of confidentiality. But it made me realise something.

I struggle with shame. A lot.

A huge amount of my childhood memories are the kind that bring the rush of blood that comes with the feeling of embarrassment. Often they’re really stupid, little things. Like the time I for no apparent reason refused to ask to be let down from the table at my Aunt’s house and ended up spending ages sat there feeling confused at myself. I look back on it and I think “I have no idea” why I did that. But, well, I was about 6.

Or there’s the time that I repeated a joke from a birthday card to my mum’s friend who was stood chatting to her in Tesco – that I naively didn’t realise was a pun of a very sexual nature. Of course, it dawned on me fairly quickly – but too late to save me from that all too familiar feeling.

The funny thing about those two memories is that while I can to a large extent rationalise the emotions and see myself in a kinder light, I find it hard not to wish I could just go back in time and fix them. I felt this way too about the events of the last week. They’ve left me unable to concentrate, unable to focus well, and generally meant that I’ve felt disappointed in myself and ashamed of my actions.

The upshot of all of this is that my anxiety, which had calmed down hugely, shot through the roof again. And all, ultimately, because of shame.

Guilt?

I think for a long time I’ve confused shame with guilt. My friend Alan, an author and theologian, spoke about this with me in the pub once. There’s quite a subtle difference. Guilt is that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong – or, more accurately, when someone points it out to you. In my particular scenario I had managed to find excuses for why I did what I did. And they were great, until I was called out on them.

But what happened next was that I couldn’t let go of the guilt. I read the email over, and over, and over again. Until it made me hate myself. It was like I wanted to feel guilty, for some reason. But that repeated guilt, that’s shame.

Shame is what happens when we prolong guilt beyond its remit. Guilt is what you feel when you have an affair. Shame is what you feel when you’re reminded of it every day. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that in his encounter with the adulterous woman, and I think it’s a great example of a couple of things:

Firstly, shame is not OK

Shame is not OK. Get that in your head. If you’re anything like me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I quite like being down on myself and beating myself up when I do wrong. It’s an easy way of channeling the emotions. But it’s not good. It leads us to continually regret something that we cannot change. And it leads to us feeling helpless.

The reality, of course, is quite different – we can acknowledge our guilt and then we can go about making amends.

Secondly, it’s not OK to shame someone else

Of course, our making amends might not be received at all. Certainly that’s what has happened in my case. I have started to work on making thing right (not least because the person concerned is not the only beneficiary of what I was doing), but it certainly feels as though the door has already been shut.

The key part of the Jesus story above, for me, is that she knows she has done wrong. And now she’s being publicly humiliated for it in what her society thinks is some kind of just punishment. But Jesus steps in and levels the playing field. He reminds her accusers that not one of them is free from cock-ups themselves. And they all disappear. Because we all know we’re not perfect, and when we’re confronted with that, we usually soften up a bit.

Once and for all

We know that the Christian narrative is one of the removal of guilt, right? I’m less sure that’s true – I think it’s more a removal of shame. Jesus doesn’t suggest at any point that we can become guilt free. As Paul says, “shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? by no means!” We’re not presented with a reality where we can just pray for forgiveness and automatically feel no more guilt. If we can manage that, then we didn’t feel guilty enough in the first place.

Guilt is good. Guilt is what makes us recognise we’ve done wrong. It’s shame that Jesus comes to do away with.

We see this consistently in his life, teaching and crucifixion. In Jesus’ life, he has many encounters with those shamed by society – the woman in the story above, the tax collector, the woman with the perfume, to name just 3 examples. In his teaching, he reminds us to forgive others as we would like to be forgiven. And in his crucifixion, he removes the perceived need to make continual sacrifices for all of our constant wrong-doing.

 

My situation still doesn’t feel great. I find it hard to accept that there’s no need to feel ashamed because I’m constantly hoping for affirmation from the person involved. But I have to move away from that, because no matter how hard I try – they may never change. But I can. We all can. Shame, and its perpetuation, is something I see so much of in my friends and family, yet it is not a welcome part of the Kingdom of God.

I’ve seen far too many Christians, some who are very dear and close to me, perpetuate shame in the name of God, usually in the name of condemning some sort of sin. We forget all to easily that sin condemns itself with its consequences. But we are called to be a people of grace. So let’s lift those consequences a little, shall we?

 

Suspension of belief - a bit like diving off the edge with a rope still attached

Belief, Knowledge & Faith

In today’s post I want to talk about our willingness to hold, suspend and ignore belief in favour of knowledge, facts and truth – and why it doesn’t make much sense to me.

Closed hand, open mind?

I wonder if you have ever come across the concept of “closed hand” and “open hand” theology? The basic idea is that there are some ideas which cannot be negotiated (closed hand) and some which can (open hand). For example, Jesus being the Son of God would be considered “closed hand” by most Christians, but creationism is considered “open hand” by most – in this country anyway. “Open hand” ideas can be held more lightly than “closed hand” ones.

In my years of deconstructing my faith I started to tear down all of the open hand ideas that I had, and followed swiftly with the closed hand ideas – I’m not sure any longer about penal substitution, the existence of the devil, the idea that anybody is condemned to hell, and so on.

I have also found myself increasingly willing to accept scientific and situational explanations for everything. Feeding 5000? sharing food previously kept selfishly. Walking on water? stepping stones. Demon possession? a crude and offensive depiction of epilepsy. Jesus’ death on the cross as atonement? symbolism.

So my closed hand has become smaller and smaller as my mind has become more and more “open” – or so it would seem to a someone both liberal and cerebral.

The thing about belief is that there’s got to be a point to it. Otherwise we’re just creating a fantasy world for the sake of it. Now, questions of truth aside for a moment – let us consider the way in which we believe.

The term “suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a philosopher-poet. Loosely, it refers to the willingness of human beings to pretend something to be true in spite of one’s doubts, for the sake of enjoyment and happiness.

Ever been to a church? sounds familiar doesn’t it. People pushing aside obvious explanations in favour of more convoluted ones used to support their pre-existing idea of God: healing that doesn’t seem miraculous; coincidences that seem like, well, coincidences. That sort of thing. All the while covered under the blanket protection from any kind of critique: “you just don’t have enough faith”.

This kind of approach makes many people, myself included, want to suspend our belief – not our disbelief. We want to explain everything as rational so that it doesn’t seem quite so, well, crazy…

A healthier approach to belief

Whilst I do happen to think that the kind of church context I’ve just described is all-too-common; I think we can end up taking it too far. If we deconstruct everything, we have nothing left to build on.

Let’s say for a minute that, like me, you are inclined to believe in God. But not just God – the God who also sent Jesus to the earth. Jesus then explains to all of his followers that God is love and that fundamentally we must love God, ourselves and one another.

Let’s stop it there. Because after that, it gets complicated, doesn’t it?

I come from an Evangelical background where the “closed hand” extends beyond here into Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the afterlife [and curiously ignores a lot of his social teaching – but that’s for another day]. Yet I now find myself in a Liberal context where each of those things are held as a very much open question.

I want to suggest that there’s a healthy way of discerning between what we choose to explain, and what we choose to believe. I think it comes down to the question of why we want to explain everything away.

For me, the answer to that question is insecurity. What if I am wrong? What if God isn’t real? perhaps if I reduce God down to something lesser – a God who does not perform miracles; a God who does not intervene; a God who does not raise from the dead – perhaps then I don’t have to be so insecure about my beliefs. My doubts will be lessened because there will be less to doubt in the first place.

So back to my earlier thread – let’s say God is real, etc. Why wouldn’t I want to believe that there’s a life to come, that Jesus is coming back, and that he raised from the dead and that we will raise with him? Why wouldn’t I believe that God incarnate could walk on water, heal the sick, fight evil and so on?

Because it’s too hard to believe some of those things in an ever secularized world where I can alienate myself more and more from the stories of faith found in the circles where disbelief has been well and truly suspended. Perhaps, just perhaps, I am throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

After all. I believe in God. I believe that there is something beyond this. This is not all there is. There’s more.

I believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s more than meets the eye to this universe and its stories and tales and myths and legends and science and faith and – all of it. There’s more. Moreover, I believe that this “God” has a way to interact with us and chose very specifically to be a part of the world in Jesus.

Pretty wacky stuff, isn’t it? So, why wouldn’t I go a bit further and believe in heaven, hell, resurrection, and so on?

That’s the question I find I am constantly now asking myself. I have no answer other than to respond by choosing to recognise that I’ve already come this far. So I might as well go that bit further.

There’s always a catch

Of course, there are 2 significant critiques to this that I can’t let be ignored. The first is that this all falls down if we take away the idea that God is the Judeo-Christian God. Of course that’s true. I happen to believe in that God because I believe that God has had an impact on my life; because I have seen patterns; because I have come to believe that it is that God who is talked about in the Bible and that I have had similar experiences.

I cannot prove what I believe. That’s why it is called belief and not knowledge. But I can decide to believe it – that’s my prerogative. You may disagree if you wish!

Secondly, where does this leave our critique of the church and its willful suspension of disbelief? I think there are a couple of things here. Primarily, suspension doesn’t excuse terrible theology. Just because you want to say something is true because it is “written in scripture” and you happen to have a very particular way of seeing it – does not make it true.

I don’t mean to pick on a particular ideology, but if we take the example of creationism: It’s a poem, written as a description of the idea that God made everything on purpose. It’s not meant to be a treatise on the development of species across the globe.

The other upshot of suspension of belief is that it leaves no room for doubt. Doubt is a vital part of our journey of faith. Doubt and faith are not opposites. Faith and knowledge are opposites. Doubt is a sign that our brains have not ceased to engage with a topic. Doubt is a sign that we are open to new ideas and ways of being, to change, to improvement, to a better understanding of the world around us.

Doubt is fundamentally good. And yet it is sidelined and ignored by a great many in the world of Christendom.

And so…

I have come to the conclusion that faith and knowledge need to remain separate – and that doubt is incredibly useful a tool in this. I have also come to the conclusion that if I am not willing to eliminate my belief in the God if Jesus, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, then I ought to consider accepting some of the rest of the story.

Why wouldn’t I want there to be a new earth, where God reconciles all things, where there is no more pain, suffering, poverty, disease, hunger and torture? Why wouldn’t I want to see those who lived all to short a life given life eternal? Why wouldn’t I want to have belief in the idea that the blind could see and the deaf could hear and the mute could talk?

It’s too good a story to not believe in.

 

temple-2012-burn-1

God is dead. And we have killed him.

“Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

The quotation above is from a story of a madman told by Friedrich Nietzsche. Its purpose is to illustrate the notion that we have murdered God in our minds, that we no longer have a place or a need for God in our world.

This Good Friday I want to invite you to imagine something with me. Imagine a world where there is a God. That might even be a difficult first step for some of you reading this; but bear with me.

Imagine a world where there is a God – a God who is unseen yet seen, unheard yet heard, a God who cares about each individual person and loves them without condition. The kind of God you’d want to believe in.

Now I want you to imagine that God as a person. And that person living on this earth and showing others what it looks like to live in harmony with God and with the world around them.

Think about what it would be like to be around them. Perhaps you might even choose to learn from them, to follow their teaching, to subscribe to their news feed, to listen to their podcast, to read their news columns, to go to their events and even, if we were lucky, sit at the meal table with them and enjoy their company.

We know our politicians can’t bring us the hope we want; we don’t trust our religious institutions, we know corporations can’t help us and stuff can’t satisfy us. We know military might and space exploration give us purpose only short lived. We know that none of these things offer true hope of change, of a better world.

But this person – this godperson – they are making their mark and you’ve got this feeling you can’t explain. It’s that thing in your gut that says this, this is different. I can feel it. I believe in them.

How great would that be. To have that feeling. To know that person. How great would that be for you – and not just for you but for those who you know need them so more more than even you, in your darkest moments, do.

Now imagine that a bunch of people who the God-person pissed off had them killed. How much lesser a world? How much worse? How much less hopeful? How much less desirable than the alternative?

Yet this is what we choose to do in our hearts and minds each day. Nietzsche was right. God is dead, and God remains dead. To many of us, most of the time.

You’d expect at this point that I might try and wrap this story up with some kind of happy ending. But I won’t because actually, God is dead to us. And we killed him. We made him unnecessary, unimportant, redundant. And we’re okay with that and I want us to think about why we’re OK with it. And, well, the ending… that’s a story for another day. It’s important to sit in the midst of the darkness, and fully appreciate it.

 

 

Genesis

The Bible is not the “Word of God”

Those of you who have told me you enjoy my writing will be pleased to know that I’ve given up not blogging for lent. I’m going to write a post every 2-3 days, starting with a 10 part series based on what I used to call “The Omega Course”, challenging a series of commonly held orthodoxies in the Christian faith.


 

I wanted to begin by examining one of my least favourite entries in the Christianese dictionary: “The Bible is the Word of God”. It’s a phrase we’re probably all very familiar with; but one which in my opinion has some dangerous connotations.

Let’s begin by looking at what the Bible is. Bear with me if this seems a little basic, but it’s worth going over.

  • Half is a collection of writings from an ancient near eastern culture
  • Half is a collection of writings from a slightly-less-ancient, Hellenized version of that culture
  • A set of stories from a range of people in a range of different situations, each with their own particular contexts, bias, opinion and background.
  • Not something that claims to be handed down word for word by God to man
  • At least half of it is considered to be “scripture” (according to Paul, and indeed Jesus)

Now, most historical sources for anything other than religious belief are taken with a pinch of salt. They are read in context and balanced out by alternative perspectives. Not so with the current way we are taught to read of the Bible.

Myth One: The Bible is Different
Of course, we know that in 2 Timothy, it is written that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. For one thing, this is only referring to the Old Testament anyway, which rules out the idea that the new testament was considered by the writers at the time to be ‘scripture’. Taking the idea that the Old Testament is indeed “scripture”, then we must examine briefly what is meant by that.

The word for “scripture” in the Greek text is (ἡ) γραφή, often occurring in the plural, (τῆς) γραφῆς, which literally means “writing(s).” It would have been considered to have spiritual authority in the context of first century Judaism.

So we can choose, if we wish, to accept that the Old Testament is indeed ‘God-breathed’. The interesting thing about this phrase is what else we know to be God-breathed. Namely, Adam.

The interesting thing about Adam, of course, is that Adam (should he even have existed) is not perfect. He sins. He messes up. And it is through messed up God-breathed people that a God-breathed collection of writings, decided upon as ‘Scripture’ by a council in the 4th Century AD that we are interpreting the history of our faith. Perhaps the time has come to examine this bold assumption.

Myth Two: The Bible is Consistent

Having taken away the idea that the Bible is unlike any other source (i.e. inspired outside of fallible human context) we must investigate the possibility that the Bible is erroneous.

There are two ideas I would like to outline here as examples. Firstly, the Old Testament military victories. Secondly, the Gospels.

The Old Testament:
There are many stories of military victories for the Israelites in the Old Testament. These have been shown in various historical studies to be both false and true, depending on who you believe. That’s not the interesting question. The interesting question lies in the fact that during OT times, it was normal to exaggerate military victories, to tell your side of the story as though God was always on your side. If you didn’t, that was just… well… weird.

So do those stories need to be literal? No.
Do the accounts of Jesus’ need to be literal? Maybe.
Is it okay for some parts of the Bible to be taken ‘literally’ and others not? Of course.

The New Testament Gospels
In the Gospels there are varying accounts of different parts of Jesus’ ministry, some of which are widely believed to be copied by each other.

Is there anything wrong with this?

Do we take Alistair Campbell’s Downing Street Diaries and say that everything in them must be false if it doesn’t add up with Blair’s “A Journey”? No, we use our intellect to deduce what has happened by reading in between the lines. Instead of suspending our beliefs, as fierce loyalists would seek to do, we instead engage with what is presented to us and come to conclusions about what happened.

I submit that we can do the same with the gospels. It doesn’t have to add up, make sense, be in the same order, say the same thing. What matters is the message beneath.

Some Alternatives

The consequence of these myths is that we end up with an idea that the Bible has an authority almost on a par with God himself, and becomes in an almost Douglas Adams-esque fashion, the “fourth person of the trinity”. If we affirm this plausible inerrancy, we reject the need for faith. When we affirm inerrancy ,we ascribe perfection to the creation rather than to the Creator. When we affirm inerrancy, we create an idol fashioned out of the same need for certainty and control that drove Adam and Eve to snatch divinity away from God.

Perhaps then the ‘Word of God’ is something else.
Perhaps it is the words of Jesus, as outlined in the gospels?
Perhaps it is simply Jesus himself, as suggested by the opening of the gospel of John?
Perhaps it is the hands of feet of Jesus, as the Church?
Perhaps it is not verbatim, but instead a sentiment, an idea, an expression of love?

Perhaps we can believe in the Word of God not simply because it is written but because we have seen and experienced it being lived out, and that living out makes so much more sense to us than words on a page. Perhaps then, we are the word of God?

st.paul_sidebar

“In” but not “of”

In the gospel according to John, Jesus says that he is “in the world but not of the world”. Or does he? He actually says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it”. Which is different. But what’s important and interesting is that we’ve let it become something of popular culture to suggest the he said my first quotation.

The reason I think this is interesting is because often as Christians I think we’re more interested in thriving in our own bespoke, specific subculture than we are in existing within the subculutres of the world around us.

What do I mean by that? Well, look at the way that Christianity expresses itself today. At the two “extreme” ends of the spectrum of beliefs and practices are a penchant for tolerance and liberalism that water down Christianity into some nice thoughts and feelings; and at the other end a tendency towards a way of being which is so far removed from non-religious folks it is almost unrecognizable. Take for example high Catholic mass or a laser light and smoke machine church concert/service. Both are really, really weird – even when the latter is trying to be “relevant” and is just totally missing the point.

That’s not to say that Christianity is ever going to feel particularly familiar to those alien to it. Many people I share my faith with do not consider much of my worldview to make much sense. They disagree with various fundamental principles that lay beneath it. What I’m getting at here is that we’ve made it worse for ourselves by spending more time on our subcultures than on learning to connect with those who are different to ourselves.

Of course, you could argue that to try and connect with those around us is to in some way dilute our faith, to compromise our position, to rob ourselves of the holiness of our born-again faith (holy being of course a set-apartness; set apart from the world for God). Yet, Jesus came into this world from a place of absolute holiness and had a body which defecated, urinated, vomited, cried, hurt, injured and ultimately died. So if we’re following Jesus’ lead, we should be prepared to go to places which are uncomfortable and compromising, too.

I’m not saying we should open Christian brothels or start Christian wars (we’ve been there before, and that wasn’t too good was it?) or even find Christian ways to be consumers (CCM, anyone?). I’m saying that we should find a better way forward than the world or the Church as it currently stands.

In the passage quoted above, Jesus is, in my view, saying that we should live our lives fully as humans, recognising that we are in the Earth, we are here, we are a part of this existence. But we should also recognise that there is so much more. There. Is. More. God is Good. God is Love. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and so on.

And so what does a ‘better way forward’ look like? I think it’s something like this: Instead of indulging in our religious practices or spending every night of the week helping out in some “church” capacity or shutting ourselves off from the world and technology, or constantly obsessing about being as ethical as possible (that’s where I’m most guilty), we should prioritize those who aren’t yet familiar with the vast, wonderful love of God. We should be willing to take our faith to culture, not persuade people to drop their culture for our faith.

That means taking “Church” to places we wouldn’t normally want to. That means accepting the best kind of community on an estate might be in the pub. It means enjoying going running on a Sunday morning instead of belting out hymns; because that’s what our friends do. But instead of getting too drunk for our own good or competing the hell out of it, we can simply enjoy a good drink and share in life together; or keep ourselves fit, healthy and focused.

It means instead of shunning technology we can use technology in a healthy way. It means instead of avoiding anything that isn’t carbon neutral or fair trade we can lament the brokenness of neo-liberal trade. It means recognising the vast complexity of the world around us and accepting that narrow religion is never going to show the love that we know God has for us to those who can’t yet see it.

We need to make sure we are well and truly in the world, even if we choose not to follow in all of its’ footsteps.

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Liberal Discipleship

I was having dinner with some friends earlier this week discussing the often judgmental Evangelical culture in America, and one of them – my friend Chris –  remarked that one of the reasons that the church is in such a bad state and has these kinds of views is down to “not discipling people properly for hundreds of years”.

I think he’s right. For a very long time the established “Church” simply told people “this is how things are, this is what you have to do, get on with it, or suffer the consequences”. So people did – and when the printing press and the Reformation arrived, the access to source materials only made things worse.

Another of my friends says that “the greatest heresies come out of home groups”.  I don’t wish to cast judgement on every conversation in every home group ever, but it seems quite plausible that without good accountability, in the absence of good teaching all kinds of ideas could emerge – from the prosperity gospel God who blesses people with riches, to the vending machine God who answers every prayer with a “yes” or a “no”.

Conservative churches have, to their credit, tried to find a solution to the problem: they tend to have fairly solid structures in place for leadership and accountability, and for group discipleship. This means that people learn regularly from one another, from scripture and from their leaders.

The problem is, as anyone who has read this blog before knows, I don’t agree with conservative theology. So having a well established factory for Conservative Evangelical Christians isn’t, in my view, a solution. Not least because I think some of the heresies (I’m accusing orthodoxy of heresy? the shoe truly is on the other foot!) that rot away the core of the Church are embellished in Evangelical subculture.

The “liberal” tradition has the opposite problem – in an effort to remaining open and inclusive to all, it often sidelines discipleship and structure as “restrictive” and “unhelpful”. Yet, as another friend put to me recently – and I couldn’t agree more – Liberalism has more to offer than simply being a “refugee camp for ex-Evangelicals”.

So I want to suggest that there’s a third way. We can be Liberal in our faith and yet learn and grow to be more like Jesus each day. I’m sure many liberals reading this will be saying “Yes, I already do that”. I’m sure many do, and I’m sure some do not – much as with those in Conservative groups. I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is, in my experience, often a lack of accountability and intentionality within the Liberal tradition – and a lack of mysticism and experiential discipleship in the Conservative tradition.

The key in achieving this and remaining liberal is, in my view, teaching people how to know God – not teaching people what to know. And with that firmly in mind, I would argue that we need the following ways of thinking about what discipleship is, in order to grow and thrive as a community of Christians:

  • Accountability structure – having someone that we are are “accountable” to is invaluable. In the conservative tradition this is caricatured as a “telling off” session where sins are confessed and then absolved by prayer with an intention to change. Sound familiar? We haven’t really moved on from ancient Catholicism. What does a more liberal structure look like? I think it involves having someone we can talk with about our struggles, concerns, thoughts, ideas, plans – someone who can remind us what we said last time and ask whether we have moved towards or away from God.
  • Rhythm and routine – I touched on this in my previous post, but to summarise – having a routine helps us to find and make time to listen to, speak to and follow God. I don’t think being “liberal” precludes anyone from not being lazy about their intentions. But it does mean that we can have grace and flexibility in the way we approach this topic!
  • Mystical Discipleship (knowing God well) – often we carry our cultural (heresy!) assumptions about how to interact with God into our faith – we assume things about hands being together to pray, God being in the sky, etc. Yet we can often believe those things aren’t necessary/right/helpful at the same time. I think it’s important that we learn to experience God – whether that’s in song, in silence, in meditation, in doing, in communicating – I don’t think it matters how; as long as it works for you.
  • Theological Discipleship (knowing about God well) – that is, having a good understanding of who the God we are interacting with is. If we do not describe God then we leave God to simply be an experience, an event. In naming God and in explaining God, we give ourselves something to grasp – and something for others to grasp, too.
  • Biblical Discipleship (knowing the Bible well) – In order to know about God well, we need to know the stories of God in the first place.
  • Academic Discipleship (knowing about the Bible well) – of course, this is where I believe the majority of conservative errors creep in. There are a great many assumptions about the truths contained in the Bible that have developed because of a particular course of thinking that has stuck. We need, as liberals, to think well about the Bible and to know well how to understand it – that means understanding the context of its texts. In doing so, we can learn that it really is possible to bring together the concepts of homosexuality, women in leadership, and so on – with sound scriptural knowledge.
  • Personal Discipleship (knowing ourselves well) – this involves taking time to keep check on our own, secret, thought life – and the way in which we behave. Jesus talks about it being what comes out from inside that matters. So, whatever we believe, it is important to know ourselves well. I’ve borrowed this from counseling – the better we know ourselves, the more likely we are to be happy and to be able to change that which we are not happy about.
  • Interpersonal Discipleship (knowing others well) – of course, it is not all about us. Life involves interacting with other people too, and we need to be good at people! Jesus was a people person (and arguably an introvert, too!) and we’re seeking to better understand how to live as he did.

Those are just some starter thoughts – but I do think that those of us who now find ourselves, often as recovering Evangelicals, in the Liberal tradition – can find ourselves feeling without discipleship, and without structure. As I’ve outlined above. I don’t think that needs to be the case. If we begin with Mystical Discipleship, and then help one another to understand what it is we are experiencing, we can build a framework, a way of seeing the world, which is both inclusive to all and helpful in enabling us to grow closer to God.

Bad Habits

I recently finished reading a book called “Voices of Silence”. It’s an incredibly gripping read documenting the experience of the author’s journey getting to know various Trappist monastic communities, mostly in America.

For those of you who don’t know who or what a Trappist is, they are an order of monks. Trappists are big on silence (hence the title) and ceded from the Cistercians some time ago, owing to a desire to be more “orthodox” in their practises and adherence to the monastic way of life. The Cistercians in turn are strict Benedictines, who had similar feelings about their predecessors.

So you’d expect me to be pretty damning about them. Overly religious, obsessed with ritual and rule, boring, detached from the world, pointless, etc. Malice aside, some of those sentiments do indeed have traction. But that’s not what I want to write about today. The book gripped me – its stories staying with me even now two months after finishing the read.

What drew me in was their desire for authenticity. Yes, there were many older monks described in its pages who resisted the most feeble changes and modernisations at every turn, but even they found themselves redeemed in later chapters. Broadly, the monks we meet along the way recognise two key truths about life that I think are invaluable to us all:

  • We cannot force God to meet with us; we cannot demand a voice or an answer to prayer
  • Routine, rhythm and simplicity are not intended to restrict, but to bring to life

What struck me the most about their lives was that they are in a sense no different to yours or mine. They grieved, wept, laughed, cried, conversed, argued, were filled with joy, sadness, fear, loneliness, experienced community, and so on. The ideal of a monk is to leave the distractions of the world behind and to focus on a prayer life with God. From what I could tell, this was no easier a task inside the monastery than outside of it – it turns out that people cause problems and those problems follow you everywhere you go.

They did have a heightened focus on the divine, of course. But that heightened focus often served only to amplify their experiences. To return to my two points above:

We cannot force God – monk, priest or “lay person’ – we have no control over God. We are not here to demand his attendance in our lives. That is up to God. It’s a level playing field, and don’t ever let any Christian tell you otherwise. I don’t care how many times a day they meditate or read their Bible or whatever. Meeting with God requires both sides to take part. You might be struggling with this. I know I have. I forget on a near daily basis to bother to pray. But that doesn’t mean I don’t meet with God in all kinds of ways. Which brings me to…

Routine, rhythm and simplicity are life giving because although we cannot force God to meet with us, we can give ourselves space to meet with God. We can make a choice to avoid where possible the lures of the other masters of this world – the master of money, the master of power, the master of status. We can choose instead to bind ourselves to Yahweh and to recognise that the Kingdom of God is a far greater way of life. Deliberately taking time out on a daily basis to remember this isn’t exactly going to do us harm – not if it is done well. We may never meet with God in doing this, but that’s a risk worth taking, isn’t it?

My girlfriend often jokingly mocks me for my love of monasticism. It is true, I have an immense admiration for men and women who are prepared to sacrifice what the world sees as the more fun aspects of existence, and instead seek to be with God as frequently as possible. I think it’s the wrong approach, but I respect it nonetheless. That said, the rhythmic, ancient traditions it holds dear have been a source of great strength for me.

I have found that in my life, when I make daily space to meet with God, then I appreciate not only those moments, but also the rest of the day – the little things – like when someone smiles back, or a tree looks particularly beautiful – are easier to enjoy and appreciate when one is postured towards God.

I have found that in trying to live a simpler life – both outwardly and inwardly, I have less to worry about, less to think about, and less to distract myself with. Leaving me with two things: more space to meet with God, and more space to love others. Someone once said those were two of the most important elements to life.

 

-1

Co-mission, Omission and Community

On Thursday night I was at a film and discussion event in Sheffield on the subject of human trafficking. I found myself profoundly shocked by some of the things discussed and shown there. It got me thinking about how we’re shocked – more often than not – not by that which we do not know that we discover, but by that which we do know that we like to pretend we do not. When we are confronted with it, almost against our will, we discover the truth really hurts.

We live in a world built on willful ignorance. Thursday night and Friday morning demonstrated this in its most democratic form. There are some who believe Conservative policy is genuinely the best thing for the country; yet there are many more who believe that Conservative policy is the best thing for their wallet. People do not want to hear about the food banks, about the incoming £12bn of welfare cuts, of the effects of the bedroom tax on real lives, and so on. People don’t want to see their factory farmed food killed, cut, diced, processed and packaged. People don’t want to know about the stories of slaves killed in the process of making garments for sale at less than £10 in our supermarkets.

We don’t want to know because we’re comfortable, and we don’t want to see our comfort disturbed. We don’t want to face what we know to be true. Yet the very fact we know it to be true betrays the selfish evil that underlies our conscious choices to take part in these very systems, processes, interactions and relationships.

Those of us that claim to be “Christians” or “follow Jesus” or whatever we want to call it have been called into a way of life that contradicts these harsh, disturbing realities. We have chosen to follow the path of fairness, social justice, equality, freedom from slavery, freedom from loneliness, freedom from poverty. There is little doubt when we look at the teachings of Jesus that he calls us into a world where we can be a part of this change.

So it is worse still for us then that we actively take part in the lifestyle of the world as it is. We do this in the name of being “culturally relevant” (at worst) or “being like those we’re trying to reach” (at best). But neither is reason for compromise. We are simply perpetuating our status as a guilty party in a system which is utterly, utterly broken.

The lifestyle that Jesus calls us into helps us to counter this reality. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be truly free from this charge. But if we follow Jesus’ teaching, if we lay down our selfish lives for the selfless Way, if we live simply, live well and love well in community and to communities, then we achieve three things: firstly we negate vast swathes of our culpability,  secondly we make some difference to the suffering and injustice of the world, and finally we find in our simplified, more worry-free lives that we have the capacity through community to care.

It is the last of these that is crucial to our new Way. Without the support of community we burn out. Without the capacity to care we simply bury the bad news and carry on as normal, willfully ignorant of the injustices of the world. And with this capacity we can find it in ourselves to resist the temptations of the world.

We find ourselves here because we have boxed our faith into Sunday mornings and into salvation. Jesus talks, time and time again (as do I, you may have noticed) about the Kingdom of Heaven. The way things are meant to be, right here, right now, if we choose to take part in that way of life. If we choose to allow our faith to extend to every area of our life; then we will find it starts to look completely different. Being “culturally relevant” will not even be possible, never mind an option.

Because it isn’t about being culturally relevant, is it? And when we enter in to dialogue with people, we find it’s actually okay to say “I don’t want to be controlled by my desire to buy clothes”, “I’d rather not fund international wars”, “Prostitution is damaging because it encourages the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people”. People are, as I have said before, inclined towards the message of Jesus. They often just don’t realise it’s Jesus who is the messenger.

Classical theology talks of “Sins of comission and omission”. Comission being the committing of a sin – such as murder, adultery, and so on. These are the sins we avoid regularly and avoid well; though we often allow the more subtle negative actions we take to slip by un-noticed.

“sins of omission” are those which are done not by doing, but by not doing. We do not feed the poor. We do not care for the widow. We do not help the needy or the oppressed. We do not consider where our clothes or our coffee have come from. We do not think about those who will suffer from the cuts when we vote to increase our savings, (that last one is probably a mixture of both co- and o-) and so forth. More than all of these, omission covers the failure to campaign, the failure to speak up, the failure to stand up and be counted against the damaging, negative ways of this world.

So in practicing the way of Jesus, we must ensure we not only remove ourselves as much as we can from the damaging, negative, anti-Kingdom practices we find the world calls us into on a daily basis. We must also stand up and make the voice of the oppressed heard. We must fight for them and with them for change. And we can do this because of the support of community.

What Jesus does, time and time again, is provide an alternative to many of the lies of our consumerist, selfish world. I hope in the coming posts to explore some of these lies/promises made to us and what we are led towards as an alternative.

csc_0637

God Isn’t Here

Following on from yesterday’s article about finding a way back to wanting to follow Jesus, I have been thinking this morning about the biggest stumbling block that I have in my walk at the moment: community. For reasons I won’t go into here, the ‘community house’ in which I live is disbanding at the end of this month, and I am going to live with friends a couple of streets away and I haven’t been back to the city centre mega-church I used to attend for over a year now. This puts the activities of meeting co-consiprators and doing some conspiring at an all-time low.

That said, I wouldn’t change my journey or where it is heading in the immediate future. I have immensely enjoyed my time in my current house, but it is rightly the time for things to move on from here. I do not regret moving from a city centre faith community to a suburban one and then finally to a locally-minded one; even if it has meant having to get used to the quirks and eccentricities of the Anglican church.

Enough about my immediate journey. What I wanted to talk about this morning was about how the churches that I have been a part of (a Welsh Baptist, independent Charismatic, Assemblies of God Pentecostal, and finally CofE) have all made it enormously difficult to feel as though viewing Jesus as my role model for now can be the central pillar of my faith.

The first question is, is that right?

I mean, is it right to have that as the central pillar of my faith? Well, people come to faith for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways. You’ve only got to read the stories of Jesus to see this; never mind the myriad of reasons people give in modern times, ranging from the overtly miraculous to the coincidental and finally the absurdly rational. My reasons are two-fold.

Firstly, I was born with it. I was taught Jesus was God and that God loved me. So it always made sense to listen to what Jesus had to say. Then when I hit around 21-22, I realised that I had been fed this by my upbringing and set about intellectually burning down every last pillar of Christianity that I could find in my life. I’ve been left with feelings of unease, discomfort and loneliness. It is only recently that I have found a way back to wanting to believe, and that’s what I talked about yesterday. This has been my conversion mechanic.

So on emotional grounds, yes, it is right. On theological grounds? That depends who you ask. The more “orthodox” Christians would argue that what I am presenting is essentially what they might call a “social justice gospel”, which is some kind of distortion of the “real” gospel.

This is (look away now if you don’t like it when I get blunt) total bollocks. The real gospel, the “good news” that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself is time and time and time again concerned with the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the lonely, the prisoner, the rich man too distracted by worldly possessions. Jesus doesn’t walk around saying “pray the prayer and believe I died for you and was resurrected and you’ll get to live forever, isn’t that good news!”. No, instead, Jesus has a focus on the here and now and the way the world is and how it can be so. much. better.

Of course, you counter, it would be absurd for Jesus to say that because they haven’t happened yet. And you would be right – except that he actively tells people they will be with him in paradise, for nothing more than recognising that it all hinges on mercy. The man acknowledges that he is not destined for eternal bliss, and upon pleading with Jesus for mercy, Jesus assures him that mercy is his. So the good news becomes two-fold: There is hope for those who lack and There is mercy for those who have done wrong.

Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross is important. It allows him to become the god of empathy and allows death to be symbolically “defeated” allowing us a future hope that one day all suffering will be rendered powerless. But for me it is not the reason for my faith and I will no longer be ashamed of that! The reason for my faith is that Jesus promises a better way of life here and now and that this is somehow linked with the not yet which I do not fully understand. And I’m fine with that. I’m sure many would disagree and take me to task on this. And you’re welcome to. But moving on…

Church and the Kingdom

I can see more clearly than ever now that the problem lies in the way that church communities are built: invariably around the “Saving power of the Cross” or some other similarly crux-centric salvation mechanic that effectively sidelines the life of Jesus. The Anglicans skip over it in their creed, the Baptists tell you to pray the prayer, and the Charismatics obsess about bringing the “not yet” spiritual wackiness into the “now” and perpetually celebrate their boyfriend status with Jesus in their singing.

I don’t find any of this satisfying. That’s not to say that in each of these churches there hasn’t been a single thing I agree with. Of course there has. But when you look at the dominant narrative it often becomes about me as an individual and my “personal relationship” with God. I find this self-absorbing and unhelpful. I want to meet with people who want to change the world. I want to scheme and dream. I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be a part of the coming of the Way of God on earth today. now. here.

I want to sing songs of revolution. I want to cry out to God for social change – not of opinion on marriage or abortion but social change that allows the poor to have a chance in life, that gives the widowed and the orphaned support. I want to share in communion meals – involving good food and good drink – with people from all kinds of walks of life, not have to stare helplessly at a giant statue of Jesus while I am fed a wafer by a priest, nor to stare at my feet while I consume the shot of Ribena shared out among the congregation.

Why do I want those things? Because I earnestly believe that if we come together as community intent on following Jesus we will quickly find ourselves needing to live more simply (both inside and externally), love more wholeheartedly and care more compassionately. And when we do these things we run the risk of losing our lives; only to find them in God. We won’t need to go back every week to the addictive euphoria of worship gatherings, we won’t need to satisfy our guilt with sweet, strong port. We’ll be too busy getting a sense of meaningful change in the world. Just like the kind Jesus left behind as he walked Palestine two millennia ago. And that really will be sharing the good news.

If we put social justice and compassion here and now at the centre of our faith it doesn’t have to replace the cross. The cross is the signature at the bottom of the contract:

“There is a better way. There is a new world. There is an age to come. All may know it. It is here now. It begins. Join me.”

Let’s.

 

 

emptytomb

God is Nowhere

So, there’s been quite a long silence. It’s because I’ve had nothing to say. I‘ve not felt as though I’ve been on any kind of journey with any kind of god. I have recognised that I want to be on some kind of journey with some kind of god (that’s a whole separate topic to deliver into one day).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to build up a narrative that makes sense – but not just making it up to be how i want; nor simply accepting the way that people talk about their god as though they know their god inside out.

John, one of the biographer’s of Jesus’ life, talks about Jesus’ arrival on earth as a light among the darkness. It makes sense to me that any god worth their salt would be something like that. So the first question is, is there darkness?

The answer is a pretty obvious and resounding ‘yes’, isn’t it? It tells that possibly the number one reason that people claim they cannot believe in Yahweh – the God of Christianity – is because they cannot fathom why Yahweh would allow so much suffering in the world.

People die from horrible cancers. People get raped by soldiers committing genocides. People are acutely lonely. There is a lot of suffering, or “darkness” in the world.

We don’t like the darkness when it happens to us, and we don’t like it when it happens to our family. We also find ourselves feeling empathetic when we come across others who suffer similar plights to ourselves – just look at AA meetings or cancer support charities.

So it stands to reason that we should try to do something to fight the darkness. We cannot eradicate suffering altogether, but we can do our bit. We can stand up for the poor, the oppressed, the widowed, the orphaned, the raped, the families of the murdered.

Yet in our own individual strength we are feeble. It is community which makes us strong. We can be kind to those around us and we can do small acts of kindness. But to fight trafficking, to counter racism, to stop gang violence, to address inequality – that requires communities of people united against these things.

Some would say that every community needs inspirational leaders. People we look to to inspire us towards our goal.

According to John, Jesus is that person. Jesus arrives on the earth and proclaims good news to the poor. Jesus heals the sick, addresses injustice, and declares that there is a newer, better way of doing life. Jesus calls this, “the Kingdom of Heaven” – as opposed to the Kingdom of Caesar. Perhaps today we might call this “the way of God” – early followers called it “the way”, in fact.

Having a leader is dangerous. Leaders are fallible. Jesus counters this on two fronts: he behaves impeccably, irreproachably. And secondly, he makes the Way of God the ideal to follow, rather than himself as the object of perfection. The goal is not to be Jesus. the goal is to have the same goal as Jesus. So in a sense it becomes something to share in as a community.

Ultimately, Jesus claims to be God himself. Jesus claims to be the Messiah – a figure the ancient Jews believed would save them from oppression. In being God and in being separated from God through torture and death and abandonment (Jesus cries out at his death – “my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Jesus becomes a god who is not sympathetic to our plight but instead empathetic. Jesus knows what it means to feel pain.

Finally Jesus defeats death. I have no idea how, and it bugs me regularly. But if I choose to accept that it is true – and I am willing to take that chance, on balance, owing to the integrity and consistency of his teachings and the words written about him – if it is true, then Yahweh offers some kind of ultimate, over-arching solution to suffering.

The question becomes ‘why can’t everything be solved now?’ And that’s a question to which no-one has an answer. And I’m not sure they ever will. But I am willing to be a part of a community of people who have a way to answer the two burning questions that I recycle time and again: “is there a God” and “how can we stop all the suffering”. I’ve never found a better answer than this: Jesus.

Page 1 of 11

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén