thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: June 2014

Inspiring Stories

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Recently, I asked Anonymous Agnostic asked me the following question:

Do you think there are stories as/more inspiring as/than the story of Jesus death and resurrection?

Their response included them firing it straight back at me:

“What would you say to that question? I assume you do think it’s the most inspiring, but why?”

Here’s my answer…
The first thing I would say is that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred 2,000 years ago – which is approximately 50,000 years into our history as a species if modern scientific theory is correct, and about 4,000 years after humans first began to communicate. In those 6,000 years we have gone on a journey from primitive understanding of the world around us and of each other to a more complex and nuanced understanding.

This nuanced understanding includes a recognition that the elements do not appear to be “controlled” by a deity whom we need to please. It includes a recognition that women, far from being a weak yet necessary accessory to mankind’s survival, are a vital and wonderful part of the human race.

What I find interesting about the first of those two examples is that while we claim we are more enlightened, we may be surprised to discover that we are not! Whilst we may be convinced that there is no deity causing it to rain when he is happy that we have donated enough crops to him by burning them on an altar, we do find ourselves suffering the consequences of abusing the world in which we live such that it is beginning to take its toll on us and threatens our survival in many parts of the world. Perhaps our arrogance betrays us?

You’re probably wondering where this is going! What I am trying to say is that it can be tempting to value one story ahead of another because it seems more “progressive” and less “barbaric”, and I think we have to consider the inspiration in context. That said, it is impossible to exist totally outside of our current context, and so would be impossible to judge every story in this way.

In your answer, you rightly narrowed down your response to stories about God/gods. I don’t think I explicitly said that had to be the case, but it does beg the question – what is inspiration in a totally godless world? It is possibly a byproduct of my Christian upbringing, but when I think of a truly godless reality I can only reach an existentialist conclusion of there being nothing to be inspired by or for. If there is no purpose beyond “science”, “maths” and “chance”, then I find reality rather unappealing.

All of which brings me to the following question: what kind of God(s) are we talking about?

The God who told the Israelites to commit genocide, and who insisted they follow his ways, for fear of judgement?
The God who told the Muslims they had to obey his every command if they were to have a chance at eternal life?
The Gods who teach you a lesson by reincarnating you as a lesser being if you aren’t good enough in this life?
The Man who taught that your story ended in euphoric bliss when you reached Nirvana – nothingness and total detachment?
The God who allows the murder of his own Son?

Or the God who brought his people out of slavery and to the promised land?
The God who demands only loyalty, peace and devotion in return for eternal bliss?
The Gods who teach that you can make amends for your mistakes, and be rewarded for your good deeds?
The Man who taught that you could move beyond pain and suffering?
The God who says “enough” to the system of sacrifice, and allows any and all to know him with far greater depth than could possibly be imagined?

I think that there is inspiration to be taken from all of the stories of God/gods/great men and women who have been spoken about throughout history. I am suspicious of my own perception of the Christian God because of course I want that god to be the God, the one who matches my liberal, post-modern and progressive values with his inclusive religion. However, as much as I can look into these other religions, they seem to fall back on rules, regulations, actions and consequences – with the possible exception of Buddhism. So being my usual analytical self I want to narrow it down to those three possibilities.

The universe is as it is – there is nothing more out there, but you are the result of thousands of years of evolution, chance, and mutation. That is, in and of itself beautiful.
I cannot, no matter how hard I try, get away from the idea that this leads to pointlessness, existentialism, nihilism and hedonism. None of which are appealing. So for totally emotive and experiential reasons I am going to reject this story!

Which leaves us with Buddhism and Christianity. My knowledge of Buddhism isn’t fantastic, but it seems to me as though there’s a lot of overlap between its teachings and those of Christianity – as you alluded to in your response. What Buddhism doesn’t have is hope.

I think that hope is what gives the resurrection its power. We can argue forever about the death of Christ – was it penal substitution? was it a metaphor? how does it “work”? did Jesus go to “hell”? All of those questions are immaterial if Jesus simply died. Yes, we would have peace with God, but that is all we would have. If we want peace with God and with the world around us, we can get that through meditative practises or through whatever paradigm our context – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other world religion – requires of us to do to achieve this such feeling. That is, I think it is the context which defines the kind of peace that is needed.

Equally we can debate about the life of Christ. Did he mean chop off your hand? Why didn’t he mention homosexuality? Do we really have to sell all of our actual possessions? What if we do deny the Holy Spirit? What does that even mean?

But the fact that Jesus, a man, died, was buried and gone – somehow goes beyond death and comes back to life, in this life with a memory and a body and everything that could be expected of a human being. That gives us the hope that there is more. It validates his teaching and it vindicates his death – even if it is a death of substitutionary atonement! But primarily it gives us hope that there is more. There is a Kingdom of Heaven. There is a life in which the wrongs of this world are put right. There is a chance to experience bliss without detachment, new life without memory loss. There is hope for the one thing that humans have not stopped chasing since our ability to think: eternal, blissful life. I’m not convinced it can possibly get more inspiring than that!

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What if we went local?

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In the last 18 months I have made the transition from the neo-pentecostal church I was a part of when I first moved to Southmead over to the local Anglican church. Largely this has been a positive experience for me. I have enjoyed the contemplative nature of the services, the simplicity of the sermons, the importance placed on Jesus’ sacrifice, reminding me week-in-week-out that it is indeed finished.

But the change I have appreciated the most? This church is full of people who I can count not just as my friends but also as my neighbours. In this church, we are all in it together, and we’re all equal, and we’re a community – not just on a Sunday morning but throughout the week. That simply wasn’t the case for the significant majority of my previous congregation.

Instead of having to travel to a particular area of the city to go and run a project or provide for someone in need, that someone and the people who would be ‘reached’ by these such ‘projects’ are one or more of: my co-worshipers, neighbours and friends.

I don’t love everything about my new church – who does? Of course there are things I would change. Realistically, I would feel much more at home in a medium-sized Baptist church with a larger group of young, single people (beyond myself and my housemate) as well as families and folks of older generations.

But that’s just it. Far too often we go to a church because it’s what we want. We go and we consume (there’s a whole blog post in itself there, really). Instead of doing that, I wonder what it would look like if we actually invested in our local communities? I think two or three key things would happen. And I think they would all be good.

Picture the scenario. Every Christian across the UK (or even, say, across Bristol) decides to attend the church most geographically proximate to them.

The Mega-churches would be empty, and the dying churches filled

Megachurches tend to be situated on commercial or industrial estates, or they tend to be found near the city centre or nearby to university campuses. These areas have extremely low residential population density and certainly aren’t likely to be closer to a housing estate than the local Anglican church (I admit, the Anglicans really do have the upper hand in this whole scenario). One could argue they might even die out.

Conversely, local churches would be filled up again. They wouldn’t be bursting at the seams, but they would be hugely increased in size, proportionally. I’m sure (though I don’t have the numbers to back this) that you would end up with a good 15-20 people attending a significantly high percentage of local churches. In a lot of cases, that’s another 50-100% on top of the existing congregation.

These small-to-medium-sized communities would function similarly to large homegroups, equivalent in size to a medium-sized church’s student group (often called Pastorates). You would know everyone there (or get to know them quickly), you would be close with one another and – crucially – you wouldn’t live far from one another, either.

We would rediscover our sense of localism

Within this environment we would lose one thing and gain another. We would lose the encouragement, excitement, hype and bigness of megachurches. Initially this would be a bad thing. There would be pastoral chaos, as people are forced to be real with one another morseo than in the easy-to-not-engage-with larger gatherings. There would be a lack of consistency and solidity in teaching – there are many great and good celebrity Christians whom I personally admire – and these would find it much harder to gain any sense of prominence under a localised system.

That’s not to say, however, that in time, it wouldn’t be sensible to have regular large gatherings. I think they’re vital to getting a sense of the ‘bigger picture’ of our faith community. I just think they happen a bit too often!

What we would gain is worth that loss. We would gain a sense of localism. Need something? Your neighbour might have it. Need help with something? Your neighbour can probably help. Feeling generous? What do your neighbours need?

These questions are harder when we are not geographically close by. I have had a really hard time lately with depression – yet those who I would speak to about it the most live far away (and by far away, I mean 25 minutes drive, which isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot when you’re feeling crap) which means I’m not inclined to do anything about my situation. If I had close relationships fostered with those who are nearby to me, that would be very different.

Our relationships with those we serve would be radically transformed for the better

The localism doesn’t stop there. The people around us who are homeless/depressed/struggling with addiction/in need of tuition/poor/whatever-it-is-you-care-about-or-is-a-problem-around-you are around us. This means:

  1. We will struggle to ignore them (good!)
  2. We can find more time to help them (great!)
  3. They’ll see us leading our normal lives, away from the pretense of service-provision (ouch)

Number (3) is the most daunting, and yet the most freeing. We have to learn to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, to treat others as friends not as someone on the receiving end of our services such as free food. Much better to have them round for dinner and get to know them as a human being, I think.

To me, that’s the beginning of starting to really look like how the Kingdom of Heaven should look like. Making things more organic, more interpersonal, more interdependent. Instead of perpetuating the system (I am in need of X, someone can provide X so I will use that service becomes I am in need of X and my friend can help me – much healthier).

We would be able to support one another in mission, rather than watching one another burn out

One of the most striking things I have learned in my four(!) years in Southmead is that people burn out. People feel alone, isolated and emotionally exhausted from trying to be missional.

So we have to stop being missonal. (In the sense of deliberate, pointed, mission).

That doesn’t mean we need to stop sharing God’s love, or sharing the good news of God’s love. It means we have to stop trying so damn hard. It means that instead, we should focus our energy on living normal life and letting that life be attractive. We’ll see those whom we are serving at the doctors, at the gym, at the supermarket, around and about.

It also means that in our small-group-churches we can sustain and support one another. No task will be huge because the area of focus will be so small. No more huge events which require volunteers to burn themselves out over a bank holiday weekend. No more isolated families expected to do all the mission work of a congregation – however implicitly – and then find themselves questioning their own faith. No more burnouts. Beautiful.

We would look a lot more attractive

We’d also be a lot more normal. Instead of some pageantry and procession on a large scale, or emulating the latest rock concert vibes (have you seen just how hipster church posters have gotten now? ugh), we can just live life in a way which is attractive.

It’s a lot harder to have orthopraxy, but it’s worth it. It’s genuine. It’s meaningful. And it’s where we’ll actually see change happen. Our best bet? going local.

Of course, this is all a dream scenario. But if you aim for the sky you might at least hit the top of the tree, right?

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May Days

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Feeling thankful for my friends, you know who you are…

Signs the summer might nearly be here
scattered showers, the sun appears
staying inside for over 12 hours
staying awake using force powers
completing the geekiest marathon.

A week later running a real race
ten kilometers and a grimaced face
knowing the red rose on my chest
a good steady pace means a good time
and money raised for a great cause.

Exciting new projects in 9-5
even if that sometimes meant 9-5-9
a new dog means more work and play
new excitement and joy, and great excuse
for pensive, theological beach trips

Down to Devon to see an old friend
beach, barbeque, board games,
banter and beaten (at FIFA)
on a warm sunny weekend
a much needed break from the norm.

Depressing election results
silver linings not silver but green
in a sea of purple polluted poisoned
perplexing water-ed down racism
makes me wish for better days.

A spontaneous catch up leads to
late night post-pub scotch eggs
freshly fried snacks for hungry men
carefully crafted culinary creation
Much better than the usual kebab.

A trip up north west to see a friend wed
Then over to Sheffield to rest my head
a sunday well spent relaxing and thinking
the long drive down south, time to reflect
it’s been a good month, has May, in the end.

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