Archive for May, 2010

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Atheism and religion – the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.

May 22, 2010

‘Ultimately our gift to the world around us is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. It is what we all need – hope that comes not from going around suffering but from going through it. I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties. By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay.’

Central to reclaiming creation and being a resurrection community is the affirmation that when God made the world, God said it was “good”. And it still is.

Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’

Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell, page 170, 171

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Friday night!

Actually, Saturday morning…

Nearly 1 am and I’m sat at my desk with my laptop and the diffuse light of my desk lamp creating a cosy corner in the dark, still room, contemplating the world and how it should be…at least how I believe it should be. I have an interview on Monday for an inspiring role at a church and I’m thinking about what to say. I have been asked to make a short presentation to the interview panel on how I would host a group of people who are unfamiliar with the church and possibly, somewhat skeptical of its value and  ‘good intentions’. It’s a good task to set candidates. I feel challenged and enthused, but I ask myself – Can I really answer that question faithfully?

Faithfully, in two ways. Two different motivations and yet not entirely unrelated.

One, first and foremost, being faithful to the good people I know and love who, in my eyes are quite entitled to doubt  the existence of God in the Universe. Moreover, who question the Church’s sometimes dubious achievements in representing God and/or Jesus to the world. Skeptical, even antagonistic atheists have in many ways made a powerful case for arguing that progress in human rights, freedom, civilisation and democracy have often come from sources outside the religious establishment. Even worse than this, such reforms have often been actively opposed by the Church. I struggle within the keenness of such arguments, but I recognise their basis in fact and history, and my need, I believe, to accept those criticisms face on as bitter, yet necessary medicine.

Two, I want to be faithful to my God, my saviour Jesus of Nazareth. According to the ancient documents we call the Gospels, Jesus was a historical figure of passionate, religious fervour. Few would doubt this. Yet, at the same time his zeal for high ethical and moral standards was balanced by a wide and embracing grace and forgiveness for those who aspire and try to live a moral life, but fail. Jesus cared for those who found themselves tripping and falling on the very, lofty steps they had set themselves to climb. When I use the word climb, I am not suggesting that Christians believe people have to somehow climb up to God, by their own efforts.  Rather, Christianity teaches that God in the man, Jesus, descended from heaven to us, to earth. Jesus lived our life and lived with us – Emmanuel –  which means – God with us. When I refer to climbing, I am imagining our human predicament. The personal daily, neverending, trial of endeavouring to climb our own standards. The challenge of living an ethical and good life, authentic to ourselves and caring for our fellow human beings and creatures, inhabitants of this world. Jesus somehow held this balance and paradoxical tension lightly. High moral ethical standards in our individual and common lives, but mercy and generosity, not judgement for those who failed to meet those standards. Probably this was because Jesus himself, as a young man had grown up in the brutish hardship of ancient Palestinian life, and was aware of how frail, as well as how galant, the human frame and soul could be. Mercy, not judgement, he lived and preached.

So how might one answer the interview question faithfully, both to skeptics outside or on the margins of the religious frame of reference and to the source of religion itself – God and his/her teachings.

Firstly, listen. Listen, to the antagonists and iconoclasts who decry the self-serving delusions of religion.

There are a number of good, thoughtful voices who express eloquently these viewpoints in popular literature and media. A.C. Grayling, love him or hate him, has put forward a strong case to argue that much of  the freedoms, rights and privileges, as well as modern, technological breakthrough we take for granted, both religious and atheists, have originated in developments from the atheistic philosophical and scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. He is an atheist and his arguments, are not always waterproof. Yet, in a real way, I believe, he is right. Much of the benefits of modern society have been hard-won for humanity by non-believing pioneers working in science, philosophy, politics and social welfare.

To argue this, as Grayling does ably and articulately, is not in itself proof against the existence of God. However, it does present a healthy and sober challenge to the claims of institutional religion and personal religious conviction to represent a benevolent deity that has humanity’s best interests at heart. It also pours cold water, on religious confidence – I am thinking of Christianity in particular – that faith in God represents purely a revolutionary force for social justice and human welfare. Grayling and popular authors, such as Philip Pullman (See his recently published – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ), argue that in fact religion and Christianity, in particular, has often been an anti-progressive force in history.

Ok… point taken. A sharp incision is made in the bubble of  benevolent, religious self-illusion by these intelligent and thoughtful authors.

Secondly, embrace. Embrace the refreshing source of  original ethical behaviour in religious terms – God himself, the Ultimate, the Eternal Spirit. And do so by remembering your history. Return to the stories of old. Rediscover, the lives of the great figures of the past, who did act faithfully – true to the incandescent, dynamic divine message of love. Love one another, love your neighbour, care for the oppressed, even love your enemy.

 It is true that looking back in history there have been great social reformers, philanthropists, artists and benefactors who have been inspired and passionate Christians – William Wilberforce, Joseph Rowntree, John Cadbury, Sir Titus Salt, Thomas John Barnado, Florence Nightingale, Chad Varah, Martin Luther King Jr, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Charles Dickens. These figures and many others have made seismic shifts in society by improving the quality of life for poor, disadvantaged and marginalised people. 

It can be a depressing place to be standing face to face with the critics of religion. It is, I believe, a healthy practice to remember the good which many religious followers have accomplished by practically serving others. A lifestyle many of them claimed to be at the call of God. Both believers and non-believers can find inspiration and encouragement at the selfless, kind and noble acts of others who took faith in God as a vocation to help others.

So, we do two things. We listen to our critics and we embrace the stories of heroines and heroes of the faith of old. We don’t deny the voices of either. But how can we reconcile these two opposing accounts of history and the nature of the world and universe? Well, here I return to the original quote by Rob Bell. Perhaps, at one level the purely rational there is no easy or even adequate answer to these contradictory histories, to affirm one is to suppress the other, to silence another’s view, is to diminish the strength and authenticity of one’s own assertion. Perhaps, rather than operating purely rationally, as if in battle at the debating hall, we might meet over the dinner table. Rather than fighting to assert one’s case and defeat our opponents we could raise our glasses to life in all it’s fullness and variety. We could toast and celebrate our company, as long-lost friends, fellow travellers on the journey of life, in the search for truth, wisdom, companionship, belonging and love.

There will still be ample time to discuss and listen to our differences, but at another level we might just find more in common with each other than we previously expected. We are all subject to the same plethora of difficulties and troubles. Most of us still delight in the same joys and hidden exultancies of life. Music, food, drink, dancing, crying and laughing…Maybe this way as Rob bell so eloquently puts it in his book Velvet Elvis:

‘I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties.  By this I don’t necessarily mean balloons and confetti and clowns who paint faces. I mean backyards and basements and porches. It is in the flow of real life, in the places we live and move with the people we’re on the journey with, that we are reminded it is God’s world and we’re going to be okay…Food and music and art and friends and stories and rivers and lakes and oceans and laughter and…did I mention food? God has given us life, and God’s desire is that we live it.’

 

 

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Late spring evening in Sherwood Forest

May 19, 2010
Field of rapeseed flowers in foreground with trees on horizon (18-5-2010)

A field of rapeseed flowers, resplendent in yellow (18-5-2010)

Rapeseed flower close-up (18-5-2010)

Sunset, seen through the forest trees (18-5-2010)

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Just a dandelion flower

May 17, 2010

A simple dandelion flower amongst the grass - May15th 2010

 

I saw this dandelion flower standing alone in the grass last saturday. It just struck me as particularly splendid in a simple kind of way. I’m often taken aback when I suddenly become aware of a visage like this, even if it’s in the microscopic world of the undergrowth. I find it amazing that we live in a world where even the weeds of the earth look so beautiful.

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Wrestling failure – slowly coming to understand its treasures

May 16, 2010

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability. It takes away our power; we lose control. The light of our eyes can see nothing. Now it is only the inner light in the eye of the soul that can help you to travel this sudden, foreign landscape. Here we slowly come to a new understanding of failure. We do not like to fail. We are uncomfortable in looking back on our old failures. Yet failure is often the place where suffering has left the most precious gifts.’

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue

Having dusted off, John O’Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes and written some about it a couple of days ago, I was leafing through it again today. There is such a wealth of wisdom in this book some thoughts are sad, others joyful, most are a result of deep reflection and compassionate, sensitive articulation. The above quotation caught my eye, among others, and I thought I’d cite it for little more reason than I think it’s beautiful and maybe someone who is questioning the value of their life will read it and feel encouraged. A kind of internet message in a bottle.

I like the first words of the citation especially:

‘Suffering makes us deeply aware of our own inability.’

This is such a hard lesson to come to terms with never mind embrace, but it is an absolutely necessary one and precious gift if we can accept it and receive it in the spirit it has been offered to us by ultimate reality. Suffering is that valuable reminder that we are not eternal, at least not in the sense that the Divine is. God may have ‘placed eternity in our hearts’ and there may be an eternal element of our souls, even our redeemed and future resurrected bodies…but, unlike God eternity is not for us the natural state of our existence.

Rather, we are finite.

We are mortal.

We will come to an end.

Grappling with this element of our vocation, an aspect that is common to all human life, indeed all physical life, has been one of the great battles of human history, of political, artistic and religious life. Yet, if we can not just grapple with this spiritual messenger, like Jacob and the angel at Peniel, in the book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 32: 22-32), but actually receive it into our lives, then its painful lesson can sweeten our existence.  The wounding, yet paradoxically healing message the struggle brings will help our lives to be transformed. We will receive a new start, a new identity. In the terminology of ancient cultures we will be given a new name. Not merely any name, but rather a better name – a name that reflects and sparkles with our true nature and inspires our highest achievement.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Lutte_de_Jacob_avec_l%27Ange.jpg

 

The ancient texts of the Bible discuss this paradoxical relationship with suffering in many places and yet, perhaps non is so vivid in its physical and poetic imagery than the story of Jacob. In the Biblical story, Jacob whose name means ‘deceiver’ (literally ‘he who grasps the heal’) had earlier in his youth stolen his brother’s birthright, when he tricked his father into blessing him (Jacob) rather than the rightful heir in tribal law the eldest son, Esau. Later in the narrative, Jacob is an older, more mature man, one who has personally experienced suffering, deceit and trickery himself at the hands of others, mostly in the employment of his cunning uncle Laban. In chapter 32 of the story, Jacob is now wealthy with two wives children, servants and cattle. It is at this point that he has to come terms with the real consequences of his youthful betrayal of his brother, as Esau and his band of warriors ride towards Jacob and his family’s caravan.

Aware of the wrong he committed as a young man, Jacob internally faces death as he contemplates what will happen when he meets his long-lost brother. It is in these circumstances: of contemplating his guilt and shameful failure of character with the prospect of ultimate punishment looming ever closer, as well as considering the harm that might be done to his family too, the innocent ones whom he loves, that Jacob comes face to face with God in a most intimate encounter. They literally wrestle each other.

The Bible tells the story this way:

Genesis 32:22-32 (NIV): Jacob Wrestles With God

 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” 
 But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
      “Jacob,” he answered.

 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

  Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” 
 But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

Jacob – the deceiver – like many of us fights God’s presence in his life, difficult, uncomfortable and afflicting, like physical combat with a wrestler, until he is wounded at the hip and faces his ultimate inability to overcome God. He has been, however, tenacious and utterly determined to win, to literally earn a blessing this time from the Divine messanger…and he does. He becomes Israel, ‘He who wrestles with God’. The stigmatizing label of deceiver(Jacob) is removed and a brand new, sparkling identity of a God Wrestler is stamped into his spirit and soul.

Yet, lest Israel forget the difficult process that led to this new name and new level of vocation, he is physically wounded. His hip is dislocated. From now on, he, Jacob, Israel will walk with a limp. It is this limp, I believe, this reminder of  hard-won successes and their intertwining with personal failures that characterise the mature disciple of Christ. It is also the sign of the weathered, seasoned, spiritual pilgrim of whatever tradition she or he may be a part of. The great  nineteenth century theologian and scholar of religion, Frederich Schleiermacher, (sometimes frowned upon in Evangelical circles), described religion as a sense of ultimate dependency on the Infinite. Perhaps, it is only through suffering and the persistent physical putting into practice of the desire to seek the Divine face and blessing, that we can truly become aware of our own ultimate inability…and thus… our need for… and dependency on God.

 

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Celtic Spirituality in Robin Hood Country

May 14, 2010

Mountain biking in the woods - a spiritual discipline?

I took these pictures last sunday 9th May 2010 while cycling in woods in North Nottinghamshire, which in medieval times used to be part of Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame. The pictures reflect different aspects of these woods – the sun dappling the ground through the leafy canope of trees; the sandy, mulchy, humus rich soil of this part of the world; the fresh, verdancy of new leaves and the winsome, tender splendour of wild flowers. They also reflect part of my life story. Riding in the woods on Sunday reminded me of a writer and how his eloquent words helped my healing and recovery from a period of illness over five years ago. 

In the spring of 2005, I began to take my first breaths of newness and to taste life afresh while emerging from a season of quite bleak alienation and personal pain. Later that year in the summer, I happened to visit a local bookshop and glimpsed the spine of a book with an intriguing title – Eternal Echoes – Exploring Our Hunger to Belong. I picked it up and began carefully leafing through it. I read with interest the gentle, peaceful words which described the enchanting landscape of Ireland and a perspective on Christianity that I had never really met before – Irish Celtic Christianity. Yet, John O’Donohue was clearly not writing a history book, but a sensitive, welcoming invitation to modern people to participate in an ancient spirituality of harmony with nature and land. I felt calmed and refreshed just flicking through it…I bought it and took it home.   

Several months later I was on holiday in Greece, staying in a splendid, small self-catering resort and enveloped in the sunny warmth, sandy beaches, warm, clean swimming pools and salty sea of the Peloponnese. At that time, I had been working for nearly five years in a brute, physical job at a warehouse and I was growing increasingly weary in body and soul of the grueling labour and repetition. My holiday in Greece was a blissful interlude, refreshing, spellbindingly beautiful, richly sensuous and a perfect opportunity to rest from activity and delve into this mysterious book.  

In Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue made alive the temperate climes of the Irish countryside and coast – grassy mountains, blue lakes and moss-covered, weathered stones half-buried, half-exposed in the green hills. He described the echoes of the wind in the hills. He suggested that we busy, stressed, media and consumption driven modern people needed to rediscover, listen and hear for ourselves an echo from Beyond. A voice of transcendence that whispered to human souls through the ancient, natural landscapes. I was enthralled. Reading O’Donohue my own alienation and isolation from the natural world became apparent to me. I sensed the Spirit of God desiring to speak to me through nature. A feeling of release gradually welled up inside me. In those ‘sacred’ moments, the writer and his book Eternal Echoes, gently prized me free from the shackles of my suffocating, industrialised, technological and consumerist lifestyle.  

One short chapter spoke to me at the time that reminded me of the woods that I frequent so often now. That have become for me a natural sanctuary. John O’Donohue writes of ‘Our Longing for Nature’:  

‘Celtic spirituality reminds us that we do not live simply in our thoughts, feelings or relationships. We belong to the earth. The rhythm of the clay and its seasons sings within our hearts. The sun warms the clay and fosters life. The moon blesses the night. In the uncluttered world of Celtic spirituality there is a clear view of the sacrament of nature as it brings forth visible presence.’  

'We belong to the earth' John O' Donohue

 ‘The Celts worshipped in groves in nature and attended to the silent divinity of wild places. Certain wells, trees, animals and birds were sacred to them. Where and what a people worship always offers a clue to where they understand the source of life to be. Most of our experience of religion happens within the walled frame of a church or temple. Our God is approached through thought, word and ritual. The Celts had no walls around their worship. Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence. Nature was the theatre of the diverse dramaturgies of the Divine Imagination.’  

Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue, Pages 19-20  

I love those words:  

‘We belong to the earth.’  

‘The Celts had no walls around their worship.’ 

‘ Being in nature was already to be in the Divine Presence.’

 

Sweet chestnut leaves burst into life - 9th May 2010, North Notts, England

Riding my bike at the weekend, I remembered John O’Donohue’s words and how they inspired me to get out my bike again and venture out into the woods. For many years I lived a divided life. Now I feel that I can live a much more holistic life. I enjoy and revere the sense of Beyond  and receive the life-giving generosity of the Universe wherever I may be. Quietly drinking in the spiritual balance of nature in the woods. Celebrating the vibrancy and plurality of human cultural expressions in the city. It’s good to be whole again.  

'See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.' ( Pictured - Bluebells, North Notts, 9th May 2010)

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Cold Desert – raw, lonely, pure, beautiful

May 6, 2010

Cold Desert lyrics
Songwriters: Followill, Caleb; Followill, Jared; Followill, Matthew; Followill, Nathan;

I’m on the corner waiting for a light to come on
That’s when I know that you’re alone
It’s cold in the desert, water never sees the ground
Special unspoken without sound

Told me you love me, that I’d never die alone
Hand over your heart, let’s go home
Everyone noticed, everyone has seen the signs
I’ve always been known to cross lines

I never ever cried when I was feeling down
I’ve always been scared of the sound
Jesus don’t love me, no one ever carried my load
I’m too young to feel this old

Here’s to you, here’s to me
On to us, nobody knows
Nobody sees, nobody but me

Just listening to the Kings of Leon album Only By the Night on the CD player in the car. I love this album, which I would rate as one of my all time favourites. The whole album has a dark, moody and raw emotional feel to it. It’s the kind of new postmodern rock  that just permeates your skin and bones and seems to speak directly to your heart, only after it has reached the black inner chamber of your secret emotions does it resurface to enter your mind and stimulate ones thoughts and imagination. There are loads of good songs on the album, including Sex on fire, Use Somebody, Crawl, Revelry, Be Somebody and the final track on the album is the one I have quoted and tagged above Cold Desert.

 

I don’t know what the artists mean – the song writers and musicians – at least not specifically regarding the details of the events and lives that inspired the creation of this beautiful and haunting piece of music. For me it’s just one of those songs that catches me unawares when it comes on the CD player in the car. It works like a ‘magic’ key that opens the door to my soul for a few moments. Like a charm, the song opens up the dark recesses of my heart and says to my hidden emotions – “You may be unwelcome in the light and that’s why you have been shut away in the darkness, but right now…you are part of something larger, more humane. You are a amongst a kind of community, where the pain, anguish, confusion, disillusionment, abandonment and grief are all welcome to come out the cellar and feel the warmth of shared human love and lament, as expressed through music.”

Yeah, thanks, that’s how I feel sometimes. Bless you.

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The Power of Less – Blogging, living and monasticism

May 6, 2010

I have recently spent a lot of time considering what I want to do with my life and perhaps, more importantly how I should go about it. One of the recent developments in my life that has inspired and encouraged me to find work in this field has been writing this blog. I have always enjoyed communicating in general and writing specifically. It’s also something where people at different times in my life have told me that I have a knack for using words. It’s pretty fortunate that I have this ‘knack’ as my other skills can often seem somewhat limited!

Yet writing my blog has become a challenge in itself. Attempting to write interesting, thought-provoking, useful and stimulating posts sometimes comes naturally, but at other times it feels like a punishing drag – each letter of each word being engraved seemingly individually into the granite hard ether of web space – destined (possibly!)to be ignored or at best casually flipped upon and quickly dismissed.  Moreover, this sense of being gunged up as a writer can feel seemingly exagerated by the lack of  verbal response from readers.  Even a short, but heartfelt and relevant comment can make a big difference to an aspiring writer!

Still the greatest challenges I feel are inward, not external ones. One dissident of the former Romanian Communist regime, who had suffered many years of incarceration in prison and persecution during the brutal years of Communist rule, was once asked shortly before his death, with respect to his difficult life experiences whether he had any enemies? To which he replied, ” No, I don’t. I have no enemies…only myself.”

This insight seems as true about the writing life as it is about the spiritual pilgrimmage…our greatest and most persistent adversary is usually our self.

File:Russian Orthodox Monastery in Hebron.jpg

Abraham's Oak Russian Holy Trinity Monastery (Photo courtesy of CopperKettle licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons)

One of the themes of Dark Nights White Soul that keeps cropping up in my thinking, feeling and writing is the simplicity of the contemplative and monastic life. I feel increasingly drawn, not to sexual celibacy, but to the quietude and purity of this spiritual tradition. It offers, perhaps especially to post-modern people soaked in a hyper technological world, an existence that provides firm, yet flexible, natural boundaries. Monasticism offers limitations not as obstacles to pleasure, but as the real pathway to true happiness, personal peace and joy. Such simple and ‘holy’ practices encourage me to make important choices today about what I will do with my life, both in the macroscopic ideals of my career and vocation in the future, but also to the microscopic details of practical, everyday living in the present.

I lay down this evening to read and pray feeling frustrated and burdened by the multiplicity of tasks I have made myself and my lack of concrete progress in achieving any one of them. As I lay quietly in my room reflecting a book came to mind that I picked up a few months ago from Waterstones called  The Power of Less – The 6 Essential Productivity Principles that will change your life by Leo Babauta.

I’m just going to quote a couple of lines from his opening introductory chapter:

‘…the simplicity I seek in my life is simplicity in what I do.

Do less, not more, but achieve more because of the choices I make.

Simplicity boils down to two steps:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.’

The Power of Less, Leo Babauta, page IX