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Church, Resurrection and the management of the rising Sun

April 8, 2010

Sun's brilliance more apparent at the horizon

On Tuesday I wrote that I believed that the Christian belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ celebrated at Easter, was intended to be a universal phenomenon. For Christians and the Church through out almost two millenia, the Resurrection has been the belief that although Jesus was killed on a cross, because his life had been lived completely without sin and because he was God’s Son, he came back from death to return to life. A new kind of life, Christians believe, a new humanity both similar to and strange from normal human existence. 

For the European and Middle-Eastern believers in Jesus, this celebration of the Resurrection generally fell during the season of Spring. Consequently, the primal re-birth of nature that occurs during Spring, after the bitter cold death of winter, resonated deeply with symbolism for Christians. As Jesus returned from death, so nature began to blossom and re-emerge in the new primaverial warmth and light.  

This year I celebrated Easter mostly in solitude, with a couple of bike-rides in the woods. I had a profound sense of how universal and indiscriminate was the season of Spring, in comparison to the carefully administered celebrations of Easter Sunday in churches across the country (the United Kingdom). Of course, I didn’t take an empirical survey of every church. So, my comments may seem pre-judgemental or critical of the worthy traditions of  humble and beleaguered institutions like local churches. Certainly, for many Christians Easter is a time of genuine rejoicing. Celebration at the work of salvation they believe was historically achieved by God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is from the beleiver’s perspective, a moving celebration that links modern Christians to the ancient forebears and roots of this great religion. 

So, why critique the church at all? To what end is it aimed? My experience as I have indicated in previous posts stems from an intense and disorienting period of ‘darkness’ and ‘absence’ of God over several years. A time when many aspects of my conventional ‘Christian’ and secular ‘modern’ life were washed away, seemingly as easily as sand castles by the waves. Much of my life was overturned in, what I experienced to be, the turbulent waters of chaos and night. Friends, my wife, my career chances, even my sanity were taken without any respect for the dedicated and I hope ‘moral’ life I had chosen to live for the previous ten years of my life, since becoming a Christian at University. 

Honestly, I don’t see myself, as particularly unlucky in the grand scheme of things. I have beenmore or less blessed for most of my younger life, with some periods of difficulty and illness, but nothing compared to hundreds of millions of people across the world. How many people are inflicted with great pain, sorrow, loss and injustice from the day they were born? What right have I to cry out in pain? Who do I think I am to complain and lament my meagre losses in a world where poverty and oppression is for many people their ‘daily bread’? 

I would answer simply that, “I am no one.” 

At least, I am no one of special importance, just a fortunate, white-middle class English man, who happens to have fallen on a few hard times. Don’t weep for me, or pity me. My loss is no more than many and a lot less than most. 

Still, as a Christian I had embarked on a way of thinking about the world that told me that even though I was merely a ”grain of sand’ on the beach of  the world, I was, however, important to God. Particularly, my God, the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

When what seemed like almost everything of great worth to me had been taken away, I guess there was at the bottom of all this pain a reassurance that actually somebody cared…somebody cared deeply. Not merely my parents, or my psychologist, or my best friend, my brother, but some thing much deeper. A relationship with an invisible ‘God’ (I think that’s the only reasonable word I can use to describe it. For most people ‘God’ can mean different things. I mean a kind sense of the ineffable – invisibly, present, intelligent, caring, personal and immanent. Yet could also be described simply as ‘Being’ – the life energy that is the ground of all life, transcendent, numinous, beyond.), a ‘God’ who cared even about me and my sufferings. 

Yet, in all of the pain and loss, the most unsettling thing that happened to me was the lack of response from the Church.  It was difficult to see how during my crises the organisation that I had been so deeply committed to and had supported with time, energy and money over many years, simply ‘ignored’ the plight that had befallen me. At times, ministers of religion used the fact that suffering had befallen me to discriminate against me and refuse to even consider me for service in the Church – a very bitter blow for somone who was dedicated to and loved the faith, as well as having the kind of attributes necessary for Church ministry. In other respects, my local church was just silent on what was happening. Not the serene silence of inner peace that reverberates in your heart and soul, but a dumb, numbing silencing. It was a refusal to acknowledge another’s distress. Instead there was a seeming deafness to pain and a damned determination to keep things going as they had always been going regardless of what was going on to a fellow human being. 

I say this to give a kind of background to why I feel an uneasy relationship with the role the Church has taken upon itself as chief administrator of the Resurrection. Particularly, the priesthood in the established churches, which operates a kind of eccclesial management of the in-flow and out-flow of the flux of Divine Power. My experience is that many people never come to realise the significance of Easter for their lives, since the Church is a completely alien environment and concept for them. Yet, the Church often exacerbates this by wielding religious authority with an arrogant attitude as if it alone should determine the conditions of divine blessing: 

“If you want to be blessed then you better come to us and mind you, it had better be on our terms that you come…our time, our place, our music, our traditions, our convenience and your obedience!” 

Perhaps, I exagerate? Perhaps not? 

Yet, two years ago when a new vicar arrived in my local congregation with a full stipend (or salary), free newly refurbished accommodation and healthy pension scheme, decided within months to close down a contemporary monthly event for younger adults in their 20s and 30s that I had nurtured and developed into fruition on a voluntary basis, because it was ‘too expensive’, (about £1000/year for 10 services), the rest of the church made barely a murmur. 

When my then wife left me shortly afterwards and I was shocked, disorientated and spiralling into depression, no one… no one…phoned me or visited me to ask how I was or say that they were sorry, that shook me. This from a Church that I had been an active part of for over ten years. I have to admit that such expereinces forced me to question what exactly was the nature of community and Christian love in this  religious organisation – called the Church.

It was hard to accept, but I knew from experience of seeing other people drop out of church unexplainably over the years that the Sunday services would carry on. I think I can say without exageration that no doubt songs of jubilation and victory were heartily sung during those months I was left in devastation. I’m sure the Eucharist was performed, the Gospel resoundly preached, decorative vestments worn and pious prayers said. But it was difficult to acknowledge to myself that no one picked up the phone to find out how I was? Just to mourn a little with me, as I was left in the darkness. 

I’m not writing this merely to publicly air some grievance of yesteryear.  I’m wriitng this because I believe that I’m lucky. I am fortunate. For much of my life, I have had a firm grasp on the way I wanted to live, regardless of what other people thought or did or didn’t do. I am also very priviliged to have a loving and supportive family to see me through the worst, as well as an encouraging and faithful psychologist who has never let me down.  I guess my real concern is for those people who don’t have that kind of support. I wonder and fear for those who haven’t the resistance to carry on alone through the hurt. I suspect that such painful experiences will turn them away not only from church, but from God as well. 

I wonder how many other people have experienced something similar, or how many other people who have not led the typically ‘Christian’ ‘moral’ livestyle will never get close to church to hear about the love God has for them.  I know that the God described in the pages of the Bible is a not a God who is deaf and dumb to people’s cries for help and consolation. But what about his ambassadors on earth? Are they willing to reach out and listen to those same distress calls? God commands humans to love one another, not ignore eachother. 

 I guess this is why I wrote about Spring and the Resurrection earlier in the week. As I rode my bike last saturday and sunday around the woods, everything was bursting back into life. I mean everything! Birds, animals, flowers, trees, buds, grass, insects, people out on bikes or walking the dog or kids.

Why? I wondered. 

Why does nature and humanity burst back into life at this time of the year?Well, although, I’m not a scientist, I guess part of the answer is simply that Northern hemisphere of the earth is turned closer to the sun as it orbits around it. In a sense a cosmological explanation. 

Everyone knows this natural phenomenon. It is an experience which registers deeply with everyone, at physiological, psychological and intellectual levels. Yet, there is no special institution that moderates peoples’ exposure to Spring. No hierarchy of ministers, with special honours and privileges to make sure peoples’ experience of Spring is done in the correct way. Spring just happens, spontaneously. Bursting forth like an eruption of light and warmth over the earth. Casting away dark shadows and long nights. It needs no announcement – you can sense it, feel it first before you acknowledge it intellectually. 

The Christian traditions for centuries have maintained that the Resurrection is also a ‘cosmological’ event. A happening that has significance for the whole cosmos. It’s my argument, as a twenty-first century Christian, that the Resurrection happened on that first Easter morning in a similar way to  the way Spring comes upon us today. It simply broke through the boundaries of death and degradation, like the rising of the Sun on a new day. An eruption of light, an effusion of new life, that broke away the oppressive patterns of existence that had operated in the dark winter years of humanity’s history. As the beginnings of the Church, as told in the Book of Acts and the rest of the Resurrection stories in the Gospel’s tell, there is no setting up of priestly rituals or classes, rules or complicated requirements. There is simply the unstoppable force of a message and experience that one man had died and now he was alive again.  

I have had a phrase going round my head the last couple of days, in relation to the church’s magnified, self-appointed role of chief administrator of the power of God. I thought it was a quote about acting, said by some eloquent, witty, bohemian thespian. It turns out it’s actually a quote from a former British Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She once said this when asked about the nature of power in leadership: 

“Being powerful is like being a lady… If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” 

I can’t help thinking that this description of ‘power’ also applies to the experience of God in the Church.

‘Experience of God in the church, is a bit like being a lady…. If you have to tell people that it is God, then it probably isn’t.’

God’s power doesn’t need dressing up in vestments, ecclesial power structures, buildings or language. If it’s God, then most people will know it. They can sense it has a different quality to it, even if they don’t put the name ‘God’ to it. God like Spring doesn’t need introduction. If a person was dead and then comes back to life again, you don’t need a formula to follow in order to celebrate its miracle. People just go wild with elation, joy and amazement. Such experiences alter a person’s life, irreversibly…with or without organised religion.

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