Archive for February, 2010

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Glory

February 27, 2010

 From upon his prominent mount of humiliating public display and execution… from within his ripped and torn, raw, bloodied flesh  -dehydrated and suffocating from his own fluids – the soul of the historic man Jesus of Nazareth cried out in agony :

“I thirst!”

To mention this utterly barren, comfortless and tortured cry of a revolutionary, religious genius without a deep sense of awe and respect seems, to me at least, profane. To go further and compare it the cravings of an overfed, over caffeinated, comfortable 36 year old man sitting in an arm chair in Star Bucks, risks being dangerously banal, self-delusional and idolatrous, at the very least.

Yet, I think about that cry as I sit here in this familiar cafe. This afternoon I have wandered around the bookshops I haunt in my home town, searching for a morsel of tender healing words; having spent all my spare money on books that offer some  fragments of ‘status quo-piercing’ prose or shards of illuminatory poetry…I feel inside a driveness… an unsatiated hunger: “I thirst, I crave, I hurt!”

What do I ‘hurt’ for? What could I possibly be craving for in a life of such idle, leisure and luxury? What is the source of these cravings: I want …I want… more…

But if I pause…if I wait, and just sit, become aware of my existence… my cramped breath.. The taste in my mouth…the warmth and softness of my clothes…the tightness of my jeans around my waist line and the quietly bustling conversations of strangers that go on around me… If I pay attention for a moment to the strange, yet familiar cover recordings of popular music from the past decades …and begin to breathe slowly, enjoy the well worn splendour and richness of the environment around me…I gain a sense of a yearning…not for coffee or sugar or sex or affection or respect, status and privilege…but a thirst for the sublime. I hunger for something beyond…an energy that reaches out and is not commoditised like the quid pro quo monotonous pay-backs of the normal, routine, everyday life. This is something else…something More.

“I thirst…I hunger…I long …for More…More, Lord”

“More of You”

Is this God’s glory? I wonder whether anyone in the cafe I sit with could care about the idea of something as ephemeral and abstract as: ‘The Glory of God’. How pompous and quite possibly deluded to speak of …THE GLORY OF GOD!!!  Who could care I guess, if they haven’t been bitten by this particular ‘monster’…if the notion of God doesn’t really enter into the everyday vocabulary of their active and productive lives. I don’t know. There are years, 16 years that separate me from the days when I was a ‘care-free’ student frequenting the pubs in Central London with big-hearted friends and enthralled by my girlfriend’s enrapturing perfume, the latest cut of her hair and how darn good she looked in that short black skirt. In those days, worry free days, I rarely thought about God, let alone God’s Glory! Yet even then, there were moments when a deeper call tugged on my heart  – the grubby poverty of the homeless man or woman on the street…hungry and cold…in the same metropolis of London, where designer handbags, shoes and watches were displayed and sold, for £100s, £1,000s to  those who routinely travelled by luxury, sports car or limousine. Those moments of pity for a young or old person, who I felt could so easily be me…had I not been loved…had I not been ordained to be born into a loving, caring middle class family…well, I realised that could me be…so easily it could have been me.

But apart from such memories, I can’t remember thinking too much about God, let alone HIS Glory. Yet, this sublime power, this energy that showers from the very givenness of material life…that sometimes simmers in the background or in other moment’s bursts forth from within the nature and culture of life…what is it? It permeates our every cell, every molecule of water within our bodies and upon the earth, every atom alive…every dream of the subconscious, every connection between synapses, every cognitive process, every visual perception, every taste, every smell  or audio frequency…every vibration in the air. Our lives , we live in this world saturated with energy and light…could this be the Glory of God, amongst us?  Beauty abounds. Only sin…that old religious word for an in turned, inward growing malignant self-centredness at the expense of others…perverts, degrades, defaces, denies the abundance, the superabundance of beauty that shines on this earth; vibrating through the damaged, yet splendid physicality we live in.

Glory (Part 2)

I first became a Christian in the great city of London in 1995, during the same heady student days I mentioned before, when the glisten of the drinking and the socialising and the relationship began to darken and turn into a chaotic and nightmarish whirlpool of broken-love and burgeoning mental illness. When that happened, I was as they say ‘but a child’. I was a naive, self-centred and ignorant young man …finding God. In those quite disturbing days, discovering ‘The Faith’ was like opening a door into a new world of God powered magic. I was quickly, and disorientatingly, introduced into a new world of  charismatic religious meetings…African drums … loud soft-rock and passionate incantations,  in makeshift sanctuaries in small, badly lit, untidy community centres or primary school halls…as well of course as traditional hymns that hadn’t changed since I was a kid. Prayers and supplications were made to a schizoid God in my mind who I knew was both all-loving, but also feared was capable of great violence and damnation for those who fell outside the carefully defined parameters of THE will of God. I was at once suddenly and overwhelmingly in love with this amazing new encounter with a supernatural being and deeply fearful of invoking its wrath by failing to pedantically keep his rules…at best, in moments of clearness, I feared God would only begrudgingly forgive me.

During those first days, my spiritual birth was much like the experience of a child born in foetal distress. My entry into this new ‘glorious’ spiritual world of light, out of the darkened world of the physical passions, was distressing. I used to pray repeatedly with mixed success to this new God to remove the darkness that terrorized my heart, soul and mind.

At that time, faith in God spoke of a heavenly ‘glory’ – a majestic radiance beyond the skies – ineffable – above even the transient beauty of the ever changing clouds, which hydrated with white vapours the perfect blue of the sky. God’s glory was beyond and outside this world. However, as the specially initiated ‘believers in God’…we Christians could have access to this supernatural glory. That is, if we were persistent enough – in self-denial, in the manipulation of carefully chosen Scriptural words to entreat the Almighty.

I don’t want to disparage such well meant and sincere practices. To be honest, in a less obsessive way I still use them myself today. They have their own intrinsic value and beauty as religious customs, which can at times achieve uncanny results. But as a young Christian and a young man swaying under the blustering winds and waves of emotional and mental breakdown this perspective on the Glory of God did not always help. In a real way, it led to a ‘divided life’ – a schizoid relationship with the Divinity of Heaven and the material world of earth – Britain in the 1990s. It was an existence where I was never one hundred percent sure whether I was on the right side of God…or not. Occasional moments of self-forgetfulness, tranquillity in nature or heightened emotion, could cast burning light onto a heart and mind dominated by the cold, darkness of fear. Fears of stirring the wrath of this capricious God would intemittently fade…but these moments were not lasting and I could never be quite sure.

I hated this fear. It terrorized me at times and hour by hour weighed me heavily down – groaning under the bulging sack of distrust, fear, self-condemnation and hate. And yet, during the same period there were also recurrent moments of tenderness …a gentle, but tearful submission.  I felt at times an incredible sense of peaceful warmth and release of fear that emanated from my experiences of prayer and study of the stories of Jesus, this in-credible character who didn’t fit the box of my fears or notions of a dictatorial God. I eagerly, but not uncritically, listened to talks and discussion about this man. I devoured books about him (William Barclay’s The Daily Bible Study were favourites) and I sang songs to magnify him, to ‘glorify’ in my conception his name amongst the World. So, in spite of the at times terrorizing anxiety and condemnation, I carried on believing, searching, finding and exploring.

Today, much of that fear has gone…

At the same time, my early days of religious conformity have also disappeared. I have fallen outside of the systems of traditional religion. After many years of faithful service, I was rejected by my home church as a spokesman and teacher of the faith. I stand outside the city gates…not within the temple with those ‘happy’ (but perhaps, numbed and waning crowds) singing choruses to the ‘glory’ of God. I am an outsider. Yet, here after all that time I find my peace. I find my vocation…outside on the edges…together with the lost and the lonely. And it is here that this energy, the so-called ‘glory’ of God seems so much more present…so much more tangible and in every moment…in every morsel of life. Here there is no rigid divide between religious and secular, even the secular can glow with the sacred.

The potential for revelation…the discreet unveiling of manifestations of a boundlessly generous energy – the love of a God we can only know through being loved, being forgiven and encouraged. Living not in a minute by minute fear of crossing the line from good to bad in the trip-wired matrix of Divine rules. Instead, living with a sense of  set-apart reverence and awe at the potential for each of us to grasp the glorious giftedness of life. To pursue the thirst for the sublime, for the ‘glory’, to the exclusion of hurting others. So that, we become ever more aware and sensitive to the beauty, the intense and radiant value of each and every living creature…especially our fellow human beings. The brothers and sisters…who according to the ancient writings are made in the image of God. ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’, said Saint Ireneaus.

Hallelujah! Yes, yes and even more than that.

‘The Heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ Psalm 19:1

‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’ Psalm 8: 4

“My cup over flows” Psalm 23:5

 

 

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La Noche Oscura – Why?

February 25, 2010

 

January 12th  2010 – Sheffield, England, UK

It is New Year’s Day 2010 and I sit in the warm comfortable environment of my brother and sister-in-law’s conservatory. Snow falls outside and we are surrounded by the black of a winter’s evening, softly illuminated by the diffused artificial light of carefully placed table lamps.  The scene is a model of thoughtful interior design and modern good taste, I sit across from my laid back brother on the same contemporary, soft olive green sofa. As we talk, I lean forward with a earnest attempt to raise an important issue, perched on the edge of the couch. He lies back into the enveloping cushions thoughtful, engaged in the discussion with his older brother, but reserved. He is dressed in the subtle, casual, relaxed dress of our peers – a pale yellow sweat top – with designer logo – I don’t know who the designer is – smart, but casual jeans and no-doubt another designer t-shirt underneath. I admire and in a discreet way envy the way he wears his material wealth at ease. He is not ostentatious or pretentious, simply, very tastefully and stylishly adorned. I don’t resent my brother’s wealth. I am happy for him, but as a Christian it presents me with a problem. In the face of someone who has done so deservedly well within his career and industry without religious faith, the question arises in my mind and no doubt his too – why does he need faith in God? The cherished golden prize of Evangelical faith – a personal relationship with Jesus – why would someone so clearly accomplished, thoughtful, sensitive and emotionally well balanced need anything else. I quickly feel an internal and disquieting sense of self-doubt and incongruence as I attempt to engage my beloved brother, my best and very closest friend on the topic of religion and faith in God. I sense I am on the losing side of the battle and quickly feel myself sliding backwards, sucked, uncontrollably into a swirling pit of religious eccentricism together with all those hundreds of spiritually partially-sited Christians I have known over the past who have made me feel ashamed, not proud to call myself a Christian. Internally, I martial my energies, I swallow my impulsive reactions to speak out the Truth as I as a devote believer have been educated to believe are the dogmatic and formulaic answers to my brother’s resistance. At least in this respect I have grown up since my early days as a Christian and have learnt a little manners, a morsel of gentleness and tolerance when in conversation with those to whom my religious beliefs are no more reasonable than the Vulcan culture of the inimitable Mr Spock from the sixties and seventies TV series Star Trek.

I am quiet and I try to listen, to empathise, to make sense of my brother’s world. He is so precious to me, so thoughtful, so kind and generous. In many ways he embodies so many of those characteristics which Christians associate with the maturing disciple of Jesus – patience, love, gentleness – virtues I myself after nearly fifteen years of involvement in the Church still struggle to embody. I am also aware of how so many convicted religious believers have hurt me in the past, how they have talked to me as if what was central in our friendship or relationship was a mental agreement and verbal assent to a specific position on some periphery doctrine of the Church – the theory of Creation, the significance of adult baptism over child christening, the importance of viewing all religions as of equal value in ‘saving the human soul’; or contrariwise the insistence that all religions including many Christian traditions be rejected as having salvific value and the repeating of only a narrow doctrinal position being of value. The arguments have been many in number and depressingly unoriginal or insightful to the core problems with which I and so many people fundamentally face each day – essentially – how can I survive and prosper in this earthly situation while living a moral life and caring for my fellow human beings?

I stay quiet – I know how easily I could put pressure on my brother to ‘believe’ my religious point of view. I know that I am far from the loving and caring friend and brother, my brother needs. I try at least to appear on the surface that I love him without condition – wouldn’t Jesus do the same? My mind rattles off a thousand theological answers, but in the pit of my stomach and in the depths of my heart – isn’t that where the Jewish people believed was the centre of a human’s being? – I feel it is better to lose the argument than win it and alienate one of the few close friends I have in my otherwise quite lonely life.

We reach a crescendo – Jonathan leans forward, takes his hands from behind his head and half raises them in front of him. He looks at me with the kind of seriousness of someone who cares about you, but feels that you are somehow blind to the point – the central issue at stake. In a soft, but exasperated tone he says to me:

“David, why when I don’t have time in my life after work to do the six things that I really want to do with my life:

Look after my wife,

Ride my bike,

Manage my house

Go windsurfing

Do some photography

And play on my computer…

…would I want to go to somewhere once a week to be with people I have nothing in common with?”

The question penetrates my otherwise protective religious shield and enters into my soul. In my heart, I feel great sadness and in my mind I have at least ten good, solid Christian answers to give to that question, not least because: you need God, you are a sinner, you need forgiveness, you are selfish and the world does not rotate around you and your fulfilment of your wants…because you will go to hell after you die, if you do not accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. I know the Truth of the Christian message, in my own haphazard way I am an expert apologist for the Christian faith, but I don’t say any of these things…I say nothing and let the question hang in the air…and in spite of this giant block between us – two people, two brothers as close as can be, but otherwise on opposite sides of a chiasmic religious divide – I feel a warmth of mutual understanding being given birth in the cosy and aesthetic shelter of my bro’s conservatory. I stay quiet and give in. I know the religious reasons why a person should attend Church and I am deeply invested in them, but as Jonathan’s passionate presence permeates my thick Evangelical leather hide…I consent. Why indeed? Why indeed would you want to go to a place once a week where you have nothing (apparently) in common with the people there? Yes, I agree, why?

And in my own soul a kind of spiritual/chemical metamorphism takes place within me – I picture myself in half a dozen churches I have attended over the last few years and think of my own alienated often dysfunctional relationships with the Church as an institution and I ask myself the elephant in the room question that my brother so insightfully put – why do I go? Why would anyone go of my age or younger?

The heading for this post is: La Noche Oscura – Why? In a way the above reflections have been an attempt of mine to obliquely answer the question of why set up another religious organisation or write another journal?  I think after many rewarding, but often painfully difficult years of trying to be a faithful, thoughtful and passionate Christian in contemporary society, I feel that the question my brother articulated so incisively is the central question that the contemporary church and modern-day Christians need to robustly answer. I believe they need to answer this question for themselves as religious followers of an ancient historic figure who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. I believe the church needs to answer it for the integrity and health of it’s innermost being – lest it become a archaic, irrelevant, corpse of an institution having lost sight of its ultimate scope and become attractive on the outside, but essentially ill, sick and diseased – yes, rotten and decomposing on the inside. Was it not after all Jesus who compared the religious leaders of his day to a beautiful, graveyard – appealing from the outside, but within a tomb for dead peoples’ bones. Yet, I also believe that this is a question that needs to be answered by Christians and the Church for the benefit of those good, normal people who live by and large in a secular society who very simply do not understand the relevance and significance of religious faith – in particular, in this case Christian religious faith – for their every day, practical lives. My deepest fear as a Christian is that I might invest my life in a religious tradition that preoccupies itself like a emotionally and psychologically stunted child with its own obsessions and neuroses while the rest of the world have to get on with the demanding pressures of the world without access to the great rivers of love and wisdom that the spiritual traditions of the past can teach us about. I fear that many people do not reject God, but do not understand God, and therefore leave religion well alone in search of more accessible ways of making sense of life and alleviating existential pain.  This is contrary to what  much contemporary religious teaching would espouse that people don’t get involved with religion because they are inherently selfish and ‘sinful’. It is also contrary to the view of popular neo-atheists who claim that belief in God is nonsense and useless and should be avoided all together.

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Night Thoughts

February 21, 2010

Night, twilight, darkness, the depth of umbra and fading light that intermingles to create a world of hidden beauty and secrets.

I have grown accustomed to welcoming the evening as the first wave of night that brings to our busy illuminated lives the healing arts of concealment and rest from activity. So much knowledge in every day, ordinary lives the drive to succeed to make an impression on the earth on society, to make it in the world. Such activity, and compulsion, the attempt at a kind of self-assured competence, such frenetic doing…Unintentionally, I have become lost to that world and estranged from the success and ambition of society. I pray to ‘be’… simply ‘be’…quietly, happily in the nocturnal shadows.

The darkness falls gently upon us, while the chiffon-like vale of sunlight – shimmering particles of energy recedes over the horizon, casting lengthening shadows onto the earth, about to rise in flaming majesty on some other dome of the globe. When I was younger darkness was a threat – sometimes it caused a cold shiver on the skin; other times an exciting pulse, a tempting invitation to as yet unknown hedonism. Now the darkness covers me like a warm cloak, wrapping me up in its nocturnal embrace and comforting my wounded soul like a mother, like a gentle, caring wife. You’re alright, friend. You’re ok here. You are welcome here, in the peaceful world of the night.

It’s strange because for so long, so many years, I have yearned, battled and fought, struggled for illumination. Now I sit here in the black peacefulness of the night and I want to ‘die to the world’, to be released to go back, home into the night of God’s love…to disappear, to become unknown…yet free. Free to be no-one, no-one in particular, just set free to worship God in the beauty of His holiness – released into the eternal darkness. I am ‘no-one’ and how happy I feel to be that no-one – peace, quietness of soul, relinquish of self, blessed release.

I am ‘no-one’, a ghost merely that inhabits the world at night…searching, longing for the Beloved -the lover of my soul.

Quiet night…still night…calm night…peaceful death-to-self and rebirth into life by God – so let it be.