godisnowhere

thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: October 2013

Finding Meaning

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I first came across this phrase when at an event hosted by the irresponsibly heretical Peter Rollins in Northern Ireland. It comes from a poem written by an insightful Irishman named Pádraig Ó Tuama:

“Then I said, ‘will I ever find meaning’?
and they said, ‘you will find meaning where you given meaning”

When I first heard this, especially in the context of messieurs Rollins and Tuama, I took it to mean that really, there is no meaning. There isn’t some deeper significance to find in reality. There is only what you ascribe to things. There is only what you say there is, and nothing more. But that there is power and value and goodness in the things that you give those to. There is darkness, fear, and evil in that which you ascribe it to.

It made total sense to me at the time.

Recently though I’ve found a different understanding of it. Perhaps it’s more akin to the idea that you can only find the epitomes of reality when you actually invest in an interaction within that reality. Shane Claiborne puts it a lot less loftily than I ever could when he tells stories time and time again about how he felt like he finally found Jesus when he looked into the eyes of the homeless fiends he made on the streets of Philadelphia.

Perhaps we find a deeper sense of self, a belonging, “meaning”, when we are prepared to engage fully with the world around us, rather than experiencing it through our comfort zones and mobile phone screens?

 

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The Wednesday Christian

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How many times have you sat in church and been told that it’s no good being a “Sunday Christian” – turning up to a service once a week and then going home again afterwards and carrying on with your life as though God doesn’t even exist.

I’m not sure how many folks I know are guilty of such things. In evangelical circles that kind of person is harder to find. We’re usually pretty good at doing more than just Sunday church. We go to small groups, listen to Christian CDs, smile at people as we pass them on the street and occasionally even have conversations about God with our workmates. Some of us even live in Christian ‘community’ houses where we are “being church 24/7” (please, feel free to read as much cynical sarcasm as you want into the double quotation marks).

Don’t get me wrong. All of that is better than being a “Sunday Christian”. But the problem is it has given rise to a new thing, the “Wednesday Christian”.

What do I mean by that? Well, the thing is that being a Christian is not just about the two things I have already mentioned (that is, fellowship and acts of worship (church services & Christian gatherings) and evangelism). James says:

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27)

 

The problem is that we’ve actually only mastered not being a “sunday worshipper”. When it comes to the living out of our faith we’ve become Wednesday Christians. We’re quite happy to do ‘our bit’ for ‘social justice’ (the annoying catch-all term for the sort of thing James is talking about). We’ll do a shift at the local homeless shelter once a week.

And then we’ll pat ourselves on the back for doing it. (Me included).

What if it’s not about being a Wednesday Christian? What if we’re actually supposed to shift our lifestyle instead? What if it’s about caring for someone in such a way that it actually does inconvenience us? What if instead of fitting the vulnerable around our busy schedule, we allow their plight to break our hearts to the point where we simply cannot do anything but help them?

Instead we have let the world corrupt us. We have become consumers, seeking gratification from the slightest of unselfish acts and constantly after the next thing, the next phase, the newest idea, the latest fad. We have become just like the world around us, under the guise of needing to be ‘relevant’ we have lost what it is to be different at all. We’re just the same as everyone else. Anyone can volunteer one night a week. Many who aren’t religious do so, in fact.

What’s different is sacrificing our lives for the plight of others. That is, as James puts it in another translation, “true religion”.

 

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The Ten Commandments

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So totally against the flow of things I’d like to take a look at one of the more intricate and subtle differences found in the Bible, rather than theorising over its nature and the usual over-indulent postmodernist musing (not that it’s actually that bad, anyway…).

A friend asked me tonight why there were differences between the 2 times the 10 commandments are stated (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There seem to me to only be two differences. Both are fascinating.

The Sabbath

Deuteronomy contains some extra text that Exodus (the earlier of the two) does not. It says:

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

It’s only been, what, a few months – or years – and the Israelites already need to be reminded that working for 7 days on the trot is shit! You’d think they wouldn’t ever want to work that hard again wouldn’t you! But we are workaholics, often defined by what we do rather than who we are. You were a slave, but now you are saved by God from that slavery!

An easy lesson to forget, especially in our day and age.

Coveting

The other noticeable difference is in the final commandment. It’s simply a swapping of the order – in the first, ‘house’ comes before ‘wife’. In the second (Deuteronomy) the order has reversed. I suppose this could be mere coincidence. But it does make me think – perhaps it is a priorities thing? On the road for so long, with no permanent home yet within their grasp; the Israelites needed to be reminded more not to seek after what they could not have rather than that which they are alien towards.

I wonder if we get our priorities right when we think about temptations. Do we deal with the immediate? Do we rethink our priorities when we are confronted with a change in life, circumstance or desires? Or do we tend to stick to what we know of ourselves? I suppose it’s a good idea to keep check on what we (think we) know causes us to slip up.

 

Little, subtle things. But a fun thing to look into! And a nice short blog post for those of you with a short attention span! If you’re interested in the comparisons I found this page useful: http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Decalogue.htm

 

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Restricted by Orthodoxy?

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Disclaimer : what I’m about to say is incredibly unorthodox and may cause offense to some. I don’t necessarily believe what I write below, it is written in the ‘I am wondering about this’ tense. You have been warned!

Here’s a strange thought: I wonder if orthodoxy limits, rather than empowers, our perception of God. What do I mean by that? Well, I have been thinking a lot today about the progression of humanity throughout the years. It seems to me that perhaps our decision, as Christians (certainly as Protestants), to hold the Bible up as a sort of ‘final authority’ could perhaps be a stumbling block to our faith rather than a help.

Let me unpack that a little bit. I’ll start with Israel. The story of the people of Israel goes right back to Adam and Eve – the first humans. It goes right forward to the Jewish people in our modern day. It is a story of a primitive people evolving, along with all of mankind, into what we know of ourselves today. It is a story of an evolution of morals, ways of being, and primarily an evolution of the conception of God from a deity amongst others with specific remit to the one and only divine being.

The Israelites are taken on a journey from living in a world where you had to make this sacrifice to that God for this purpose. They went from there on to a more rigid, easy-going system designed to slowly remove the need for the system at all. The culmination of this, as I have alluded to in previous blog posts, is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – the Son of God is sacrificed so outdoing, overpowering, and rendering totally useless all other forms of sacrifice.

Yet that’s where the story stops. Which is odd, when you think about it. There is no more evolution. In the words of Jesus, “it is finished”.

But it isn’t, is it? Jesus kick-started a whole new way of being which we are still trying (and frequently failing) to get our heads and hears around (me included). This is not the end. This is the beginning.

We live in a connected, global village. Our ability to communicate with millions of other people across the world with very little effort is an incredible, culture-reshaping thing. We have discovered whole new ways of life – new ways of thinking, of being, of believing.

I find myself immensely drawn to a great deal of Eastern mysticism. Not because Jesus, and the good news within the Bible is insufficient, but because I can see so many parallels and I am intrigued by them (don’t worry, I’m not about to ‘convert’). What I find fascinating is the fracture between the more mystic approaches and the God of the Israelites. The most outstanding fracture seems to me to be personality.

Now I am no expert on eastern religions or philosophies, but there seems to me to be a sense in which the divine would be ‘boxed in’ by giving it/him/her/something things such as a name, a gender, even a personality. I can’t help but wonder if that is something that we can and should learn from. An enlightenment for our culture perhaps long overdue.

“The Bible would say otherwise”. Hmm, well, perhaps. But perhaps it would also stipulate that slavery is OK (it doesn’t outlaw it even in the new testament). We all know that slavery is inherently wrong (or, is it? if the Bible doesn’t say…). No, we know it is wrong. We have moved on since then. Yet we insist on blocking out new ideas, deeper ideas, because of our orthodoxy.

Perhaps it’s just me. Let me give an example. In his DVD ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry’, Rob Bell implies that the Jesus narrative is essentially one of a super-sacrifice (as I allude to above). The logical conclusion from this is that Jesus’ death was not some sort of penal substitution but was instead a symbolic (albeit real and painful) gesture within which God is crying out “Really guys, it’s OK, it’s always been OK, stop trying to make it OK!”

Our orthodoxy stops us short of that. Our orthodoxy tells us that Jesus had to die for our sins and that what happened was so that things could be OK. But what if we’re just missing the point? What if the point is that it was OK all along, and we shouldn’t worry so much about being ‘right’ with some disappointed personality?

Our orthodoxy comes from the Bible – from the gospels and from Paul’s writings to the early church. It is from this that we know the reason for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yet this was written by men in the aftermath of Jesus’ death. Who’s to say that just like the lack of a dismissal of slavery, the early Christian writers were still stuck in the mindset of the need for a sacrifice, rather than recognising there was no need for one at all – and that this was the very point in the sacrifice (so I suppose there is a need, but not the one implied).

The problem is that we are unable to moot these suggestions because it is labelled ‘extra-Biblical’, or worse ‘un-Biblical’. Perhaps these are merely terms invented to keep us in line by those who have a vested interest in the religious status quo?

Just a thought…

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An Encounter with the Divine

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What does it mean to encounter God?

My upbringing and my experience as a student informs me that an encounter with God is something to be had in a large gathering of self-confessed Christians; usually with the backdrop of intense and loud music – to help me to focus on the presence of God – and to then somehow be transformed and changed by this presence.

Six months or even six weeks ago, my cynical self would say that the above description is exactly what is wrong with the Church today (particularly Evangelical or Charismatic parts thereof). I think perhaps the cynicism throws the baby out with the bathwater. I have had genuinely transformative moments – realisations if you will – whilst engaging in sung worship in a large church context. I think it can be all to easy when in a state of perplexity of faith to forget the conveniently simple stories. Sometimes, a bit of power praise (to borrow a phrase from my friend James) is really rather good for the soul.

It can remind me that there is a God and that there is hope. It has worth in its power to get to my emotions, to my spirit, to my thoughts, and to unify them in a sort of rallying cry of the hope that is given to the world in the good news of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

It can also be very, very misleading.

I don’t want to take away from those kinds of experiences. They are to be affirmed as much as any other experience. But the key thing is that previous sentence – there are other kinds of experience, ones which I have only been exposed to because I chose to explore faith and varying expressions of it. Experiences which should be a part of many a Christians life.

I highly recommend that you read Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline. In it, he makes the case for spiritual practices such as fasting, or meditation. I have written previously about the benefits I have found in meditating – stopping and making time for God to be actively present within myself each day has been truly eye opening. For one thing it has made it hard to doubt God as much as I perhaps used to!

So there’s singing, and there’s being.

There’s also loving. I love what people like Shane Claiborne have to say about meeting with Jesus – that we can do it by looking into the eyes of the poor. That doesn’t mean we can just go up to a homeless person and suddenly we will see Christ. There is something deeper than that. When we form relationships with people there is an exchange of love between us. That love is God (God is love) and in serving and loving others, we love them, love God and can find that our inner being is enlightened and more alive.

So there’s singing, and being, and loving.

In recent weeks I have begun attending my local Anglican church more than the other church community that I am a part of, which is more traditionally charismatic. The Anglican church is primarily just traditional! However, I have enjoyed the lack of cheesy songs and long, complex talks and moving emotive films and the like (again, not that they do not have their place nor their captive audience). I have come to really appreciate the power of liturgy. Being able to affirm to myself and in front of others what I believe, why I believe it, and what I am going to do about it.

So there is singing, and being, and loving, and saying.

In my place of work I have found that when I am kind towards others, when I am considerate of the world around me, when I try to steer my business towards ethical ways, things go well and I feel a sense of completeness, of rightness, about things. My soul says ‘amen’ to the way things are. I think that is another experience of God. Work is supposed to be good. It is supposed to be rewarding. It is supposed to make the world a better place. It is mean to help towards the ongoing, unraveling creation and re-creation and re-creation again and again of all things.

So there is singing, being, loving, saying, working and creating.

In each of these things we can encounter God. We can sense the divine at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The good news folks is not that Jesus died on the cross for our sins that we might be forgiven and have eternal life. No, that’s not it. It’s some of it, yes. But the good news is also this:

Jesus came to earth to show us a way of life where we could encounter God in every moment. In our singing, in our stopping and being, in our speaking, in our working, in our making, in our experiences of the world around us as we play and relax and socialise and enjoy life.

The challenge is to live in the fullness we are afforded by God. The way to show people the love of God is not just by loving them but by loving ourselves enough to want to continually know and enjoy the presence of God. The biggest challenge of all is to break out of our Christian sub-culture and realise we don’t need loud flashy music to do it (though let me again state that it is not necessarily a bad thing to worship in that way).

This then is our call: instead of them filing into our one-size-fits-all-lets-all-approach-god-this-way tendencies, we must be more open and more accessible to more people.

And we won’t even need to talk to them about the Alpha course to do it! 😉

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Rest in Peace, Pru

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As many of you know, I bought a VW Camper Van about 3 months ago. I loved her a lot. You see, I’ve wanted one since I was about 14. I used to love the idea of having a van, having long crazy hair, driving down to the beach and surfing all weekend long.

The last year or so has been difficult for a lot of reasons. I’ve had some very difficult situations both in Bristol and with family matters. I spent a lot of energy, especially emotional energy, in trying to support people or deal with those situations – often leaving me feeling exhausted, burnt out, abandoned and generally not knowing where to turn.

So, early July, after a particularly unpleasant June, I decided that enough was enough and that I would look after myself for a bit. After all, Jesus says “love your neighbour as yourself”. And if you don’t love yourself very much, how can you have a good standard by which to love others?

How was I going to do that? Well, 11 years on from the original dream, I finally had the money to buy a camper. I decided on a life policy of making sure I was happy and free from my anxieties. I’ve even started learning to sing and swim (both major confidence issues for me) in recent weeks, and I love it.

But none of my new experiences or skills topped the feeling when I finally arrived at Cardiff Central station and walked up to a chap sat in a lovely 1970’s yellow VW Camper named ‘Pru’, with her hippy curtains, bamboo interior decoration, hand painted aboriginal style inside panels, accelerator shaped like an actual foot, and a decent sound system with an iPod dock… I knew before I even drove her that I was going to buy her!

We had some wonderful times. I took her to a Pub in the Wye valley with my friend Paul. She came out to Burnham-on-Sea for a day trip. We even made it to the heart of Brecon and back. Best of all, she was my bed and breakfast at Greenbelt festival. I’ve never had a more comfy camping experience – so much so I actually wanted to sleep more than I wanted to attend the early morning talks. Not like me at all!

And so one day I decided she should return to her, and my, homeland. A day trip to Barry Island planned, friends picked up, we were just exiting the M4 when the worst happened. She lost power, and in trying to get her going again, Pru’s engine caught fire and to my horror and stunned, saddened self, proceeded to burn up right in front of me. She went out in style, even with a bit of a Michael Caine moment when the fire reached the gas cooker and the side door, well, blew off.

I was gutted. My first reaction was “oh good, yet another thing to go wrong with this year. I have totally, utterly had it with my life at the moment”. Fortunately, I’ve learned to be better than that now. After a brief period of meditation at my dads in the hours following the fire, I became acutely aware that Pru was simply a thing. She was not a person. Moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal, and fuel lines rot and detach – apparently.

I learned a hard lesson that day: it can be really easy to gain our self worth, our enjoyment, and our satisfaction out of objects, out of things. It can also be really easy to feel victimised by life when things aren’t going well. But the reality is a little different. A van is just a van, and insurance means I will probably be able to purchase another one. But the treasure that is the presence of God in my daily life, through contemplation, through loving others, and through simply being aware – now that is never, ever going to burn up.

For where your treasure is, your heart will be also.

Rest in Peace, Pru. We had some wonderful times in those 6 weeks, and you taught me a valuable lesson.

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A Broken System

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I was round a friend’s house last night to use their mobile phone – my day job is making web sites and I needed to test how one looked – and in doing so ended up sidetracked talking about mobile phone contracts. It’s funny isn’t it how we baulk at the idea of a £499 phone but we’re happy to pay £45 a month over 2 years to use it and use the network it is on. That’s £1080.

Given the minute amount of data that we use in comparison with what the system can handle, do we really use £581 of the network’s running costs in 2 years?

Of course not.

What has happened is that the mobile phone companies have found a way to make money out of nothing. They’ve found a way to charge us for something that we didn’t know we could be charged for, and then successfully made it the norm. Very, very few people purchase handsets outright these days.

Pete and I compared this to televisions. Most people don’t buy a new TV every 2 years. Yet the technology in TVs is changing rapidly. You can now buy TVs with integrated internet! Why wouldn’t you want that? And the extra 2 inches of screen space?

We see this time and time again. Instead of buying software outright, we are now encouraged to pay a ‘subscription’ for it – a trend started by the AntiVirus companies. The claim is simple: “There are ongoing costs, so we need monthly fees”. That may have been (vaguely) true for them, then. But it is not true for a lot of software now. Yes, there are some costs – but not as much as we are being forced to part with.

Throughout the last hundred years there has been more and more of this – making money out of nothing. It is what our society thrives on. Loosely (and any economists will take me to task on this next bit I’m sure) it’s called profit.  Profit is when you make more money selling something than it cost you to produce it in the first place.

But there’s a problem with that system: people often go back to the days of bartering to explain how money works: you know – I’ll give you three chickens for your sheep, and all that. But the problem with money is that it isn’t saying that any more. Instead it says “I’ll give you three chickens and then a chicken every month if you supply me with milk”. The exploitation is much more obvious when you take away the abstract (money) and replace it with real objects.

That’s not to say money is evil. The apostle Paul says that it is the love of money which is evil and he is right. But the system has been corrupted by the breaking of one of the most explicit laws in the old testament:

“36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.”

(Leviticus 25)

Ahem… mortgages? Pay-day loans? Pensions? Overdrafts? Bank interest? Stock markets?

Our entire financial system, claiming roots in “Biblical” values (so often said in America) is built against one of the founding principles of Biblical economics.

So what as Christians are we to do about this? In the one sense we are trapped, part of the system. We cannot fully escape it without becoming Amish or removing ourselves entirely from the world around us. Yet to live as a part of the system means to perpetually break this code of conduct laid down before us

And a sensible code of conduct it is, too. Imagine a world where all commodity was traded at intrinsic value rather than arbitrary value driven by demand (the word alone betrays its nature). Perhaps as Christians it is our duty to play the system. Not for personal gain, but for the gain of others. Here are some practical ideas:

  • Give away your interest earned on bank accounts as money to the poor
  • Instead of storing up savings in banks, give it out as interest-free loans via organisations such as Kiva
  • Start a business where you do not intend to make a profit but instead give ridiculously high salaries to your employees or where you give the money to projects that need it
  • Share housing so that you can pay off mortgages really, really quickly, or buy housing outright
  • Use your excess wealth to help others fund some of the ideas above

I could go on making suggestions; but we each need to come up with our own ways to subvert our broken, ungodly system. Perhaps one day someone will find a way to truly escape it without alienating the world from our way of life entirely. Until then I guess we just have to muddle along trying as best we can!

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