thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: March 2014

Jesus Said

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Jesus said,
It’s not OK to be gay.

Jesus said,
Don’t actually sell your possessions.

Jesus said,
Love them on purpose.

Jesus said,
Women shouldn’t lead churches.

Jesus said,
I really, really like loud trendy music –
especially the really soppy stuff.

Jesus said,
There’s a rational explanation
for everything.

Jesus said,
The poor will always be with you –
so don’t worry about helping them.

Jesus said,
everyone should aspire to a mansion,
and a jumbo jet.

Jesus said,
You can be saved,
but only if you pray the prayer.

Jesus said,
the Bible is basically part
of the godhead.

Jesus actually said,
lots of other things
far better than these.

Don’t fall for the lies.

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Llanilltud Fawr

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I haven’t set foot here in seven long old years
everything looks so familiar; yet distant;
the same winding streets have newer faces
and familiar landmarks seem little-aged.

Contrasting spirituality: old, and new
The new found in the old, ancient traditions
The old, still standing on a street corner
Yet it seems dated now. I’ve moved on.

Church posters proclaiming the need for repentance
and signs of “no public right of way”
Irony not lost on this bedraggled cynic,
finding my home now with Illtydd.

A brisk strut to the coast; stopped in my tracks
by memories of times gone by. Happier –
youthful and full of promise; treasured;
times I’ll always remember well.

Waves lapping at my feat I cast my eyes
over the misty spring horizon
My eyes wander over sprawling pebbles
then back to the ocean; forever divine.

You were there alongside me today.
I knew your presence. We walked together,
wept together, smiled together,
laughed together and pondered together.

I discovered You here – all those years ago.
I’m grateful for that today.
Thank you.

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The Problem With “Community Living”

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There’s an old saying in Christian circles to describe the ridiculous nature of the approach some Christians have to interaction with the “outside world” – it talks of “Christians who only drink milk from a Christian cow”.

Of course, we all laugh and sneer at such a ridiculous idea. Until we realise that our lives are on the slippery slope to that very destination. Sure, we may never get there, but we’re still at risk of heading way too far in that direction.

Much is made in the circles in which I operate of “Christian Community”. This more often than not refers not to a geographical area or a parish church; but a large house which is rented out to a significant number of people (usually about 10 or more). The problem with “Living in Community” is that it begins to detract from living in the real world.

Let’s go to the extreme end of the spectrum: Megachurches in the United States of America have entire campuses. Last time I checked, a campus was something universities did. These churches have coffee shops and gyms; so that you never need interact with another non-Christian again! Wonderful!

Now, obviously, this doesn’t compare with simply living in a large shared living environment under one roof. But what it does mean is that it’s much, much easier to have a night in than to go to the local pub, bar, cafe or event. It’s easier to “invite people in” to your house.

“Invite people in”. That sounds familiar. Ah, yes… attractional church. The idea that we should “bring people to us” so that we can show them just how amazing and wonderful God is. In our darkened sheds and smoke machine filled stages we can jazz up the gospel and sell it on as a product to those who need to hear it the most.

We can’t continue to expect people to come to us. And we’re creating more and more bubbles around ourselves. Not content with keeping our faith at arms length from the rest of the world by holding all sorts of convoluted meetings and gatherings with frankly weird music, talks and artistic movies; we move into the realm of the local neighbourhood, creating Christian shops so that we can have Christian cake and Christian coffee and do our washing in the Christian laundrette and buy our clothes in the Christian charity shop.

We don’t need to interact with the outside any near as much world any more.

Let me stress at this point that I think there is nothing wrong with any of these enterprises. I think they are fantastic. The problem is that they are so heavily frequented by Christians! There are plenty of places that we can go and be sent to, without gravitating towards the comfortable, the simple, and the easy.

So back to community. Whatever happened to street parties, to knowing our neighbours, to talking over the fence, to evenings gathered at the table? Surely as Christians in search of better relationship with those around us, we should seek to find ways to interact with those outside of our community rather than continue to create fresh avenues for ourselves to keep to ourselves within it?

Sure, there are many positives to the Community house approach: not least the ability to support, disciple and encourage one another. But are we really so reliant upon these things which keep us afloat being under the same roof? Whatever happened to the idea of living in some houses within walking distance of each other and whilst travelling between them interacting with those around us and creating fresh, new relationships with those who need to know the good news that Jesus came to restore our lives?! It’s really simple to come across other people. We just love finding excuses not to.

When community becomes an end in itself, it stagnates the person, the faith and the mission. When community is formed around the common goal to share the love of God with everyone – when the purpose is external to ourselves – then we find community just happens. Then we won’t need to force it. We can live in the community and drink our normal milk from our normal cow. Then the world won’t look at us and think “weird”. They’ll look at us and think “wow”.

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Dún na nGall

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Over the unmarked bridge
A sense of something new
Returning to a place
I have never been
Yet somehow, coming home.

The path ahead narrows
Bends, twists, curves
Dips, ducks and dives
Toward a grassy valley
‘Tween snow peppered hills.

Past these hills she lies –
Quiet, and unassuming
Besides the river
Old Red Hugh,
Now greener; keeps watch.

Atop the hills, his Castle
there stands; grand
and commanding
O’er the road
Many dine in his name.

His Abbey lies ruined,
Destroyed by invaders,
Graves of men
fill the grounds
Overlooking atlantic waves.

’Twas there I stayed,
and pondered the future,
O’Donnells past
were here once
Now I sit, perched, pondering.

I don’t know who I am,
Where I’m going, or doing,
But I know
In this place
Anseo, tá mé sa bhaile

Written as I reflect on my time in Donegal (Dún na nGall). The O’Donnell clan (my mother’s maiden name) is from here. It’s amazing to get a sense of being in a place where you’ve at some point come from. I must visit Tretheway, soon.

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The Present Moment

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Today after work, I was feeling particularly depressed. Yet for the first time in a good few weeks, I felt more determined than “not at all” to do something to mitigate it. So I decided to go for a walk in the park after work, seeing as it was a nice sunny day.

I’ve injured my back, which has forced me to walk very slowly at first, while it loosens up after a couple of hours sat at the desk. I took my time to wander gently around the park, noticing the hospital being constructed in the distance, the houses over the rolling hills before it, and then ultimately the grass, flowerbeds and hedges immediately in front of and to the side of me.

I thought about the hedges, and how depressing it is that they are fashioned into such boring, rectangular shapes – and yet they cannot express any discontent at this. That is, so to speak, their lot. My mind then wandered to the animals of this world. They sleep, they hunt, they eat, they play, they reproduce. Yet they have no discernible grand purpose, no reason for being.

I often feel anxious about what I am doing with my life, yet don’t enjoy the here and now. something I touched on in a recent post. Today has solidified that thought somewhat. It occurred to me that the animals and plants don’t need a reason to be. They simply are. They take part in the ecosystem that they live within – they simply contribute to something greater than themselves. Are we not meant to do the same, perhaps?

For if we insist on the application of meaning to our lives – if indeed we insist on a life of never ending time – day after day after day – then we will find that, ultimately, we become stuck in an existential crisis and the realisation that all is indeed pointless.

However, embracing the pointlessness of existence can lead to better things. In doing so, I was, in that moment, able to begin to let go of my hopes and dreams. I was able to let go of my desires – both good and bad, and focus instead on the here and now. I’m enjoying the sun, I thought. I’m safe, I’m content, I can feel my back healing, I can enjoy the wonderful sights of nature before my eyes. In this moment I can be positive. I can enjoy life.

For when we let go of the need for meaning and instead pursue the present moment, that is when we find meaningfulness in things. What’s funny is that I then realised that Jesus’ words on presentness and living for now started to make a lot more sense in this context.

Don’t worry, for who by worrying can add a day to their life? If we concern ourselves heavily beyond the present moment, then we will surely not experience it in fullness. As CS Lewis so aptly points out in The Screwtape Letters, if we are not present in the moment; how can we possibly hope to connect with God?

That’s not to say we need to live a life of hedonism and debauchery. To live in the present moment, fully, is to live in such a way as to permeate all of our moments – to be healthy, loving, kind, at peace – these are all momentary things, yet things which extend beyond the moment. To live life to the full as Jesus put it. Eternal life. Not necessarily day after day after day after day, but at least life in all its fullness.

Then I came home and let my mind wander, and thought too much about the past six months. Now I feel crap again!

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Faith and Grief

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There are two systems of thought I have found in recent years, and indeed in recent weeks, particularly interesting. Those are the Kübler-Ross model of Grief and Fowler’s Stages of Faith. As someone who, like most people, has been through both of these things (that is, grief and a faith journey) – I can relate to how they work and largely would affirm them as valuable and indeed accurate assessments of the human psyche.

Something dawned on me earlier today. What if they’re the same thing? What if our journey of faith is simply an overly-complicated (by both the frame of reference we exist within and indeed our own conscience) grieving process – the slow but sure realisiation that perhaps, just maybe, this is all there is – and there is nothing we can do about it.

Let me take you through the stages of faith, briefly. This is lifted verbatim from Wikipedia:

  • Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust with the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.

  • Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. [1] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.

  • Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.

  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.

  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.” The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

And now the KR model of grief:

  1. Denial — As the reality of loss is hard to face, one of the first reactions to follow the loss is Denial. What this means is that the person is trying to shut out the reality or magnitude of their situation, and begin to develop a false, preferable reality.

  1. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
    Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.

  1. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
    The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow undo or avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, they will use any thing valuable as a bargaining chip against another human agency to extend or prolong the life they live. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just do something to buy more time…” People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it is a matter of life or death.

  1. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
    During the fourth stage, the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death. Much like the existential concept of The Void, the idea of living becomes pointless. Things begin to lose meaning to the griever. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and sullen. This process allows the grieving person to disconnect from things of love and affection, possibly in an attempt to avoid further trauma. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation. Often times, this is the ideal path to take, to find closure and make their ways to the fifth step, Acceptance.

  1. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
    In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. This stage varies according to the person’s situation. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief. This typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable mindset.

It seems clear to me now that these are indeed instances of the same thing. Let me propose a new model for us to understand our faith journeys with. An amalgamation of the two models above:

Stage One: Primal, Undifferentiated Faith (aka “Belonging”) 

At this stage in our faith journey, we very quickly pick up a bent towards one way of believing or another. We are surrounded by people who affirm a particular way of seeing the world. Either we come to find extremely high levels of comfort in this, or we find it wanting and reject it. Grief is not yet relevant.

Stage Two: Intuitive-projective faith (aka “Experiencing”) 

At this stage we begin to learn that our faith has depths, complexities, and difficulties associated to it. We experience our faith or lack of (because we are predisposed by stage one to do so either way) in a tangible manner. Grief is not yet relevant here, either.

Stage Three: Mythic-Literal faith and Synthetic-Conventional faith (aka “Denial”) 

This is the first stage at which the two previous models truly meet. There is a strong belief in justice and the reciprocity of the universe. This is the “This isn’t fair, God” stage; or the “that isn’t right” stage. Literalism is often king and the Fundamentalist will live here. Exposed to the real world, the no-longer-infant mind is forced to deny the loss of the concrete world built up around them by their parents and instead chooses to continue on in the fantasy of a religious faith.

As the person grows older, they simply choose to harden their beliefs one way or the other – further spiraling down into the world of denial rather than being capable of embracing the reality around them.

Stage Four: Individuative-Reflective faith (aka “Anger”)

The person at this stage is anxious, struggling, and takes on their beliefs for themselves. In reflecting upon them, they begin to see the cracks in the wall; the fallacies and the problems in what they believe. This often manifests itself as anger – as the denial is unable to continue any further, frustration becomes the primary sentiment. The world around them is changing and it is a deeply unsettling process.

Stage Five: Conjunctive faith (aka “Bargaining” and “Depression”) 

Here, the paradox of reality is acknowledged and conflicts are resolved by a complex understanding of thins -often a paradoxical one or one in which paradox is simply a paradigm by which the universe can be understood; this, in my mind, is a suspension of belief in reality and is an attempt to bargain with that reality – e.g “if I choose to see my faith in this particular way I can still keep it rather than having to let it go altogether”.

The person will move back and forth between the bargaining approach and a depression that things are simply not the way they want them to be.

Stage Six: Universalizing faith (aka “Acceptance”) 

Some would call this “enlightenment”. It is the stage whereby we realize that nobody can have a right answer about faith. If we assume the natural progression of the model then we are left with Acceptance. This sounds like pretty much the same thing! One crucial thing here is the choice that the individual makes at this stage – faced with the uncertainty do they allow this to remain a tension, or do they embrace the abandonment of faith as the full human journey? Arguably the former is in fact a step backwards through the stages to denial.

I don’t know what I make of this. I’m just putting it out there. If you have any thoughts then please add them below!

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Living In The Moment

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I’ve found myself in the last couple of months sliding further and further backwards into what feels like my default state of being: depressed and apathetic. My usual temptation is to try to ‘fix’ my life so that I won’t feel this way: make grand plans about eating well, exercising, going out and meeting new people, finding things of worth to do in my local community so I feel like I am actually contributing, and so on.

The trouble is, these things never materialise. I’m either too low to think about doing them, or I end up finding a distraction (lots of work, a romance, a new project) that means I don’t end up actually sorting out those areas of my life.

To top that off, I find myself feeling guilty because I become ego-centric (some would call it ‘survival mode’) instead of doing what I think I know to be the right thing to do – to love others and to stop caring about / feeling sorry for myself. As I wrote in my last post on living in the moment, I want to say “I did my best to be the best I could be”.

Of course, these two factors only ever result in one thing: feeling more depressed an apathetic than the previous time. I only escape by letting time pass and by numbing the emotion and – surprise, surprise – replacing it with other things temporarily.

So I find myself thinking more and more about what Jesus says, that I shouldn’t worry about tomorrow because “who by worrying can add a day to their life?” and “Each day has enough worries of its own”. I suppose the key thing is to recognise that any level of improvement in mood, however small, is nonetheless an improvement – and that to focus on the big picture is actually a really silly thing to do. Better to focus on the here and now.

People often describe deep depression as “the feeling that comes with the ability to cope being totally outweighed by the things that need to be coped with”. It makes little sense, then, to add to all of this with the need to be or do X,Y or Z. It’s okay to recognise not being strong enough. Instead of worrying about fixing it, it is better to keep things really simple.

When I stop and enjoy the sun beating down on my neck, I am happier.

When I stop and enjoy the natural things around me, I am happier.

When I remember that I have friends who care for me, I am happier.

When I am able to get out of bed, I can be happy with that.

When I am able to smile instead of stare blankly, that can bring me joy too.

I suppose that our relationship with God can be a bit like this. We’re often so busy looking for the big picture that we miss the little things. And yet we believe in a God that communicates through a ‘still, small voice’. How are we supposed to hear that voice if we don’t keep it simple?

I think that, for those of us who suffer from these kind of depressions, it makes sense to keep our theology simple too. I can often find myself worrying about wether or not God exists, wether or not I am ‘saved’, wether or not I need to be, wether or not God cares about me given something I have said or done, or not said, or not done, and so on.

But even if it is as low as 1%, I want to rely upon my belief in God in these times. For it is in these times that I need God the most – real or not. The simplicity is that God loves me, no matter what else. I am appreciated, valued, and cared for. I don’t need to say or do anything. So it’s okay that sometimes, at the moment, I can’t. It’s okay to keep it simple.

Perhaps that’s a good foundation to build on.

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