Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

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Greenbelt Festival – August Bank Holiday Weekend, 2010

August 31, 2010
Welcome to Greenbelt 2010

  

I have just returned from an inspiring and really encouraging weekend at this year’s Greenbelt festival at Cheltenham racecourse. It’s been for me a truly wonderful time, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love Greenbelt because there’s the chance for just a few days of the year to be able to soak up the eclectic carnival atmosphere of thousands and thousands of people from  many different traditions and viewpoints gathering together for a celebration of art, music, poetry, politics and God in one large event. The shere variety of people from dribbling and chortling babies to children, to adolescents and young adults, to the worldly worn middle-aged and the open-minded mature and elderly – the sections of society represented at Greenbelt don’t fit the picture of normal church congregations – here is a much more varied and encouragingly multicoloured spectrum of people.   

Beauty in arts, craft and good conversation

Secondly, there’s the great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends or to catch up with family, old friends and colleagues in a uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, open spirited and celebratory environment. I have met numerous people this year – particular leaders who made a lastingly good impression on you at a time of growth and exploration in your life and faith; good friends you once worked closely  with on experimental projects who you have since lost contact with after you and they have moved to different parts of the country. There have also been those serendipitous meetings with people who were complete strangers, but over the course of the weekend and several coffees, wine and beer in disposable paper cups and some great conversations have become like soul friends and kindred spirits. As a Christian, an event like Greenbelt is so stimulating because there are so many possibilities – opportunities for gift, grace, humour, heart-felt emotion, tears and laughter. 

Colourful flags decorate the Cheltenham race course grandstand

A rainbow coloured celebration - people from all walks of life participate in Greenbelt

Perhaps, equally important to all the opportunities to catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and if not more significant than seeing the wide variety of people who find help, grace and a sense of deep belonging through relationship with God and Jesus, are the occasions of divine ‘eruption’ that break into our ordinary lives through great speakers and artistic, musical events centred on giving worth and valuing God. For me personally, there were a number of occasions where I felt I met not just with a well crafted and intelligent, thoughtful talk, but experienced an encounter with  the Living God – the Divine power, presence and personalities that created the whole of our awe-inspiring and breathtaking universe.   

At 9am on saturday morning, bleary eyed and un-caffienated I managed to drag myself from my tent to find an unoccupied space of green grass in the  Big Top to listen to the harmonious vocals and melodic acoustic guitars of Andy Flanagan and friends leading singing and worship of God.   

I wonder if someone who isn’t a Christian, or a believer in some kind of God, can understand the special moments that take place when beautiful, aesthetically pleasing music combines with an internal knowledge and realisation that you are singing not just into the air and expressing the deep-seated feelings and aspirations of one’s soul, but also communicating – intimately, gently, in a kind of perfect child-like innocence with a Divine Presence that is Love. I know from before I was a Christian that good music and art can bring people to such emotional heights as an artist expresses great truth or beauty in an aesthetic medium that does not bypass reason, but transcends it a brings a person into the realm of the sublime. But somehow…true worship…good worship is MORE than this. It is all of the above, yet it is also unadulterated, raw communication with the Holy teased out and enwrapped in the tenderest perfect love. One experiences not just the deep-seated longing and desires for a true and just and forgiving life and universe. One experiences, a simple, quiet, gentle voice whispering love songs back to you. Affirming in the deepest most emotionally tangible way and yet physically and visibly illusive a voice saying, “Yes, you are loved. All of you. Even with those parts of you that you feel you cannot show the rest of the world – you are loved…and yes, those hopes you had as a child to be a princess in a happy ending fairy tale or those dreams you longed to fulfil to be a knight in shinning armour defeating the enemies of justice and oppressors of the poor, and rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress….They were NOT fantasy. They were REAL. They were You and they were Me trying to teach you…help you to understand your role in all of this in language and images you – a child – could understand. I AFFIRM your desires for love, for justice, for peace, for acceptance, for forgiveness. I AFFIRM YOU, whatever the world or church or christians or priests or ministers or congregations think of you. I…GOD…affirm YOU. YOU ARE LOVED.”   

It’s difficult to explain, but that’s how worship can feel – like a beautiful, intimate, tender dialogue – simplified perhaps as God saying: “You are loved.”   

I had that experience participating in the worship on saturday morning as Andy Flanagan, a small group of musicians and a talented young actress brought together a superb musical and dramatised journey through the story of Mary of Bethany’s love of Jesus, loss of her brother Lazarus and gratitude to Jesus for bringing him back to life. A very touching experience.   

Vibrant colours and flags flowing in the wind of the Spirit represent the variety of humanity and the movement of God's Spirit at Greenbelt

Mark Yaconelli – Our Desires, the Prodigal Son and a God of Compassion

Listening to mature and wise writers and speakers like Richard Rohr, Simon Parke and Lawrence Freeman speak on matters from the importance of holistic worldview to the tortured lives of mystical geniuses such as Van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy and Meister Eckart or on how to practise contemplative prayer were among the highlights of this year’s festival for me. However, the great spiritual breakthroughs for me this weekend came hearing North American author and youth specialist Mark Yaconelli speak on the true nature of our ‘desires’ and on the nature of God in Jesus of Nazareth as a God of weakness and vulnerability, rather than conceived of as an abstract all-powerful, all-controlling and dictatorial Deity ‘up’ in heaven.   

  

 I have never heard Mark speak before, yet listening to him this weekend communicate so passionately and inspirationally the Love of God for human beings – all people – represented for me, two of the highlights of my religious journey and human life. Some of the ideas I had encountered before, yet others were original and new to me. However, what struck me in particular was the bringing together of the ideas with moving real life, true stories. One idea that I had never met before was the notion that the Father in the Prodigal Son story approves generously of the prodigal son’s ‘desire’ to escape the Father’s House and find himself/express himself in the world. I had always thought that the Father (and therefore by implication God) only reluctantly and regretfully releases his younger child into the big, open world. Mark turned this action of releasing around, into a Father who longs to see his child venture out, experiment and express their desires for creativity and self-fulfilment in the wider world. For me this was a new and poignant revelation, made all the more moving by the personal testimonies Mark told which made us laugh out loud and quietly cry at the irony of the passions of adolescent and young people’s desires managing to find expression in spite of the stifling repression in traditional and conservative religion. Thanks Mark, for all your patient work with young people and for not losing hope in a God who is vulnerable and weak, a God who rejoices, not resents when people discover their true desires in their hearts and have the courage to live them out. Thanks also for believing in the God who can redeem and heal all of us. Both those people, like the Prodigal, who are themselves wounded and living in an injured world fall into the trap of abusing their desires and hurting others in the process AND those who out of a desire to do the right thing bury their feelings and passions and end up trapped in dutiful lives, feeling unappreciated and unloved by parental figures and God and feel resentful toward their wasteful and self-indulgent peers.   

Mark Yaconelli’s talks can be bought and downloaded from the Greenbelt website.  

  

More flags at Greenbelt, Bank Holiday Weekend August 2010

 

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Spiritual Temperaments: Contemplative (8of9)

May 2, 2010

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

 

Contemplatives follow in this ancient tradition of spending time at the ‘feet of God’ (so to speak) listening to the whispers and intimations of the voice of divine wisdom. In the story from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, the two sisters of Mary and Martha are contrasted in their responses to the presence of Jesus in their home. One sister, Martha, takes on the typical role of Jewish matriarch and hostess energetically using her time to prepare a meal for her honoured guest – the teacher and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who, according to the gospel accounts of his life, had become something of a prominent celebrity in their region of Israel at that time.

 The other sister, Mary, takes upon herself not the role of hostess, but that of devotee or disciple. She sits at the teacher’s feet, perhaps gazing into his face, listening to his words. As I understand it, Mary’s actions were quite controversial at the time as the place of sitting at a Rabbi’s feet was usually reserved only for disciples of that teacher and disciples would be men not women. Yet here in this early gospel text, the author describes a woman paying focused attention not on Jesus’ practical needs of food and drink, but to his words. Words that we might imagine could have been delivered softly, gently, seriously, thoughtfully, humourously as in intimate conversation, in contrast to Jesus’ usual preaching voice shouting out to the  gathered crowds.

This short passage illustrates in many ways the contemplative’s heartfelt desire and longing for communion with God – intimacy, relationship, time, devotion, prayer, listening. The contemplative is almost driven to put aside the business of daily life and find time and space to set aside to contemplating the wonder, and majesty, tenderness and love of the Divinity. Usually in the history of world religions the contemplative vocation has been considered a ‘high’ one. Yet, to be a contemplative is in some ways an anti-social, rejection of ordinary life. In stead it is a choice to find the insights of transcendence in solitude, quiet and inactivity (although this should not be confused with passivity, as contemplation is an active engagement with the mysteries of God and the Universe).

One famous modern writer who explored in-depth the contemplative lifestyle was Thomas Merton (31 January 1915 – 10 December 1968). His writings have been very popular with thoughtful, prayerful people from many walks of life. They can be difficult to read and somewhat densely written, but they contain many gems of insight and wisdom into the life of simplicity, prayer and social action for modern people, both women and men.  I have found a picture of Merton in colour below, dressed in simple denim clothes and posed sitting on a bare stool with the trees of his beloved forest arround him. I have also found some quotes by Merton at http://www.octanecreative.com/merton/quotes.html.

  • What do you think about Merton’s words written in the nineteen fifties and sixties do they still speak to us today?
  • Do you resonate with the place of Mary in the gospel story at the home of Martha and Mary? Or do you relate more to Martha – the diligent, active and caring  hostess?
  • It is worth noting that Jesus did not criticise Martha’s active behaviour, which of course practically helps to create a hospitable atmosphere for her no doubt hungry and thirsty guests. However, he refuses to ‘take away’ from Mary – the contemplative – what she has chosen in those precious moments of closeness with an extraordinary teacher. She chooses simple stillness, devotion and loving attention to the presence and words of a unique divine messenger. She shows herself to be a contemplative at heart.

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’”

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

 

“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded. At best, we will receive a scrambled and partial message, one that will deceive and confuse us. We will never be fully real until we let ourselves fall in love – either with another human person or with God.” Love and Living, Thomas Merton

 

“If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have social order without saints, mystics, and prophets.” A Thomas Merton Reader

“What we are asked to do is to love; and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbor worthy if anything can. Indeed, that is one of the most significant things about the power of love. There is no way under the sun to make a man worthy of love except by loving him. As soon as he realizes himself loved – if he is not so weak that he can no longer bear to be loved – he will feel himself instantly becoming worthy of love. He will respond by drawing a mysterious spiritual value out of his own depths, a new identity called into being by the love that is addressed to him.”  Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton

“There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all.There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning?

There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from the dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill.”  No Man is an Island

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‘We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying’ – Spiritual Temperaments (6 of 9): Caring for the poor and marginalised

April 23, 2010

“Caregivers serve God by serving others. They often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people. Such (people) may find the devotional lives of contemplatives and enthusiasts as selfish. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas, Page 27

I have been wondering about how to write this section on spiritual temperaments as I personally struggle with giving physical care to others in need, although I find prayer, contemplation, sensuous worship and being out in nature, natural, spiritual responses for me. I do care about the poor and needy though and when I can, I attempt to chat and listen to homeless people who are selling magazines such as The Big Issue ( a magazine started in the late 80s/early 90s in Britain to help homeless people provide for themselves). Still such random, small acts of humanity seem like crumbs compared to the banquets real care-givers provide for the weak, poor and marginalised.

Since being a teenager, I have always liked the earthy, salty and fiery common sense teachings of the writer of the Book of James in the New Testament. I always love the following phrase which is set in the context of not just listening to the ‘word’ (or new teaching of Jesus), but doing it. James seems to encapsulate the heart of the Christian message, as do so many caregivers:

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

Those words inspire me:

27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…

Oh yes, let it be so!

Thomas uses the example of Mother Teresa in his book – a supreme model of self-giving and caring for the oppressed and poverty-stricken ordinary people of India, whose example has led to the setting up of convents and missionary works to minister to the poor across the globe. An extraordinary woman and an extraordinary Christian, whose work today is carried out by many more beautiful and humble servants of God and of suffering people.

 

However, the people who come to my mind are still alive today and have established an amazing ministry in Mozambique, with influence across the world. They have experienced many signs, wonders, visions and miracles while working with some of the poorest most unfortunate and weakest of society – abandoned children and orphans – in a country which was and still is, I believe, one of the poorest in the whole world.

How have they done it? Well, to be honest I really don’t know how to describe their work adequately in words, but you can read more about their mission and work in Mozambique at the following web-address:

http://www.irismin.org/p/background.php

I also wholeheartedly commend the book There is Always Enough The Story of Rolland and Heidi Baker’s miraculous ministry among the poor by Rolland and Heidi Baker, Sovereign World Ltd. I think it may have been republished simply as Always Enough.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/There-Always-Enough-Miraculous-Mozambique/dp/1852402873/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272051122&sr=1-1

The Bakers’ story is heartbreaking and awe inspiring in the wonderful progress they have made and continue to make with the poor children and people of Mozambique. A lot of it is difficult to believe that such good things could be done by ‘ordinary’ human beings with the help of God. The testimonies, however, are breathtaking and heart warming as the weak are touched in the kindest ways by the  love of God, are healed and transformed. It’s a wonderful read and a wonderful example of what practical caring for the poor, as well as powerful intimacy and worship of God through Jesus can do in this broken, but beautiful world.

I would like to finish with just a few quotations from Always Enough :

‘There still wasn’t much at Chihango (this was the state orphanage taken over temporarily by the Bakers on arriving in Mozambique) for the children. Their rooms were bare, picked clean by thieves. They slept on the cement floor with no sheets, pillows or even mats. There was absolutely nothing in their rooms. They had no extra clothes other than those on their backs. They had no possessions of any kind. Many of them needed medical attention. Some were missing limbs from land mine explosions.

I bought the children their first cups and plates. For years they had eaten out of troughs and drunk under faucets. we brought toothbrushes. We repaired a bakery that had been built years ago at Chihango and started baking seven hundred loaves a day, for us and for sale in town. We cleaned the septic tanks, installed wiring and painted walls. We hauled beans and rice from South Africa in a used army trailer. We assumed total responsibility for the centre’s administration and funding. It had been treated as a correctional institution for problem street children, but we turned it into a gospel centre for desperate and unwanted children of any kind. We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying.’

There is Always Enough, Rolland and Heidi Baker, page 41

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Spiritual Temperaments – Experiencing the Divine through the Senses (2 of 9)

April 14, 2010
 
 
‘Sensate(s)…want to be lost in the awe, beauty, and splendour of God. They are drawn particularly to the liturgical, the majestic, the grand. When sensate people worship, they want to be filled with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm them. Incense, intricate architecture, classical music, and formal language send their hearts soaring.’
 Sacred Pathways – Gary Thomas, P.23
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A Mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator (Creator of All) from the Hagia Sopia Constantinople

 

 Thomas’ second group of people  are ‘sensates’.  These people find it first and foremost easiest to relate to the transcendent through the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Religious Traditions across the world have used practices which communicate through all of the senses, a vivid example being Hindu worship of Indian deities, which often involves fire, water, food, flowers, pictures and incense. Western culture, however, especially in Northern Europe has over the centuries  turned its back on sensuous practices for a more austere and bland kind of religion.  This development was firstly influenced by the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of Roman Catholic rituals and iconography in the sixteenth century, in favour of a religion based solely on the ‘Word of God’, i.e.  the preaching and singing of the Bible. Furthermore, it was also shaped by the industrial revolution and a modernistic emphasis on proving the rightness of ideas purely through rational argument. Even today many non-Conformist church buildings and services are very minimalistic and with little decoration. 

Yet, a very sensuous kind of worship in European culture has always been evident in the Eastern Orthodox church,where ornate architecture and vivid, stylised icons, combine with ritualistic liturgies and practices such as the burning of incense, lighting of candles, kissing of icons and annointing with oil.

 

Lighting a candle can be a special form of prayer

 

The above photograph depicts a scene from a Bulgarian Orthodox church, but it reminds me of my years spent liiving, studying and working in Romania. In every Orthodox church I visited in Romania there is a place to remember friends, family and hurting people by lighting a candle. When I was far away from home it felt to me like a powerful and touching way of praying for my distant relatives and friends. Sometimes when it was difficult to pray in long sentences, the gesture of lighting a candle in the darkness seemed to speak much more clearly and profoundly to God and to my soul than I could with mere words.

 

Thomas writes in his book Sacred Pathways (pages 51-61) that he percieves Dutch Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen to be a sensate Christian. He is struck by Nouwen’s description of his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – described in his book by the same title. Nouwen writes how he was visiting a friend after a busy and exhausting lecture tour. While sitting in his friend’s office he was taken aback by a poster of  Rembrandt’s painting on the wall. Nouwen describes how at that point in time the painting communicated to him deeply exactly what he felt that he needed. Simply, to kneel in front of a Father God and be embraced. Moved by the encounter with the picture, Nouwen then set about trying to arrange a visit to Moscow, where The Return of the Prodigal Son is exhibited, to see the painting at first hand.

 

For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' Luke 15:24

 

Rembrandt’s painting has a very sensuous presence. Painted in rich colours, subtle tones and hues, with dim lighting surrounded by deep shadows. A blood red robed elderly Father gently envelopes the destitute son barely covered in rags, as other characters from the story and the Gospels look on. As viewers we might take in some of the senses involved in this picture. Touch especially, is winsomely communicated. The softness of the Father’s luxurious clothing, the human, non-threatening warmth of  both Father and Son’s  reunion embrace. Perhaps, we might also imagine the scene effecting our sense of smell as the woody fragrant spices the Father is wearing and the unpleasant reeking of the son -unwashed and unclean, having worked in a farm feeding pigs, blend together in a very human scene of  a wealthy father welcoming a poor son. At the same time sight is obviously involved. The lighting is intimate, bathing the scene of familial reconciliation in gentle amber light while all around is in darkness and shadow.

If a painting such as the one above and traditional religious devotion inspires you then you may well be a Sensate. Thomas asks the following questions (page 66). Marking each question 1 to 5, with five being very true and one being not true at all.

  1. I feel closest to God when I’m in a church that allows my senses to come alive – when I can see, smell, hear and almost taste his majesty.
  2. I enjoy attending a “high church” service with incense and formal Communion or Eucharist.
  3. I’d have a difficult time worshipping in a church building that is plain and lacks a sense of awe or majesty. Beauty is very important to me, and I have a difficult time worshipping though second-rate Christian art or music.
  4. The words sesnsuous, colourful and aromatic are very appealing to me.
  5. I would find a book called Beauty and the Transcendent interesting to read.
  6. I would like to explore prayer through drawing, art and music.

 A high score between 15 and 30 would indicate that you have a disposition oriented towards experiencing the world and God through the five senses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Easter – One Spring for all, One Resurrection for all

April 6, 2010

  10Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no-one else can share its joy. 

Proverbs 14:10 (NIV) 

Some times it is just a word or two, from a great text, such as the Bible, that can open up a person’s heart to the deeper feelings locked inside. 

For me the above quote from the book of Proverbs, is one that speaks to me today. If you weren’t aware of their existence, they might be difficult to find in the ample writings of the Bible. Sometimes there are sayings that seem so timeless and poignant to the human situation, one is amazed that they were written so many thousands of years ago. Finding them too, as with many books from the Bible can be quite difficult for the unexperienced reader, they are like pearls stuck in the mud of the author’s preaching about morality, foolishness and wisdom.  Looking at the whole you can get one message, looking at the words in detail selectively brings another. 

Still, this is what Proverbs 14:10 states: 

10Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no-one else can share its joy. 

These words resonate with me deeply this Easter, an Easter I have consciously chosen to celebrate alone, and with my faithful and loving parents and ailing grandmother. I guess at the outset it is important to say that – I am so very, very fortunate to be in the situation I am with such loving and caring family living close by, as well as money in my pocket, a nice place to live, in a peaceful and stable democratic country such as England in the United Kingdom. 

I feel it is worth stating at the outset that compared to most people in the world today, I live in paradise. It is so easy to forget this when we compare our successes and failures to our neighbours and peers or media stereotypes and expectations. So, I thank God for how lucky I am. I am very fortunate. 

At the same time, this year’s Easter celebrations have been difficult and challenging. It has been difficult to be stood in the gap between the World and the Church, trying to be faithful to God and at the same time staying aware of the great hidden and secret pains so many people have outside of the Church. People that all, my Bible reading since I was a child, tells me that God dearly, dearly cares about even though for many it must seem God is a bitter illusion and a sick joke amidst their pain and suffering. Yet, not always so. 

This Easter, I have to admit I have felt the Resurrection very much absent in my life in my limited engagement with the Church and the people of the church, save for a few often marginalised followers who feel deeply the world’s gaping alienation and God’s desire to tend to those wounded scars on the souls of every day people. 

Bare winter woods feel the first taste of Spring sun

Resurrection has been present to me through the beauty, new birth and light of Spring. A blessing that has struck me particularly this year as a completely Universal phenomenon. There is only one glorious spring for all people, regardless of their values, beliefs or behaviours. There isn’t one spring for Christians, another for Muslims, another for atheists (or perhaps they really don’t deserve a spring at all?!), another for Jews, Buddhists or Hindus.

I mean: “Is there?!”

There’s just one wonderful, warm, vibrant new season where grass bursts into growth and buds appear in trees, and the sun shines through the branches of the trees or through the gaps in the sky line.

One Spring. 

One Resurrection? 

This year, I felt a profound sense of how the Resurrection of Jesus which Christians generally celebrate at least in the Northern hemisphere, in the season of Spring. Is and was always meant to be a new start for humanity or even for all creation. I don’t think it was ever meant to be the birth of another religion or sect. I’m pretty sure it was meant to be God intervening in history through Jesus, to wipe the debts of people free, and give the opportunity for a new divinely infused life – combining in nature and human beings, a new kind of heaven and earth combination. 

New green shoots burst through the dead leaves of winter

Heaven and earth renewed together. A new gift, a new start for all of life to begin again, actually not trapped in the power systems of religious or political elites or social stigmas. 

As Christians, over the centuries have spoken about this New Life, as being ‘Born Again’. Not I would argue to become a new kind of religious fundamentalist of whatever colour – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Sectarian. But rather just a new start at life, with a new relationship with the Divine that is based completely on God’s acceptance and forgiveness of us as human beings – NOT ANGER, JUDGEMENT, CAPRICIOUS, VINDICTIVE PUNISHMENT… 

No, this Resurrection thing is about new birth, and the human person being in a mutual relationship with the Creator, the Divine, like a Mother and Child, like a Father cooing over his baby. 

And just like Spring, it’s meant for ALL of us. God doesn’t distinguish between the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent when the earth turns closer to the Sun and warms under its fire and light. Nor, I believe is Easter and the Resurrection meant to be an invitation to become religious or a cog in the religious establishment, which so many people find difficult to agree with. 

It’s simply New Life for everyone through Jesus. A complete cancellation of debts and a $100 million dollars in the bank, if you like. 

All the rest of it, the religious side if you like is simply meant to be about how we can learn and grow to make the best of this wonderful new start and gift. Anything else is an encroaching attempt by misguided people to try to impose conditions and requirements, fences and boundaries around what God has supplied and provided for so freely. So that certain human beings and certain organisations set an agenda for how and what, and whom and when people can receive this blessing. 

For me this behaviour which is common to all religions and all societies and all traditions is the opposite of the Resurrection, even though it might be widely dressed up and decorated as such, to speak plainly, it is not. In a way it’s Anti-Resurrection. It’s a return to rules and regulations and conditions and approval/disapproval by established ‘authorities’ – the exact thing the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, came to do away with. 

I guess this kind of institutionalisation and regulated administration of a Divinely, freely given gift is part of my pain in my heart…and without going into very personal details, “No one understands it”. It has been a lesson taught through experience (what better teacher?) and unless you have experienced it at first hand, you would find it difficult to believe. 

I finish for today on this note: roughly 7% of the population attended church on EAster sunday to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, (it could be more possibly 9 or 10%). On the other hand, approximately 100% of the population are experiencing the new life of Spring in these weeks in one way or another. Would it be unreasonable to assume that: if there is a Creator God, who fashioned the seasons of nature for peoples’ and the earth’s benefit, and if this Creator God is also the same God that raised Jesus from the dead, then maybe this God doesn’t want only a fraction of the population to experience the benefits of the Resurrection this year or any year? Perhaps, the Resurrection was really not meant to be the beginning of a new sect administered by priests, bishops, authorities and councils, traditions and rituals, but simply a new season of life and peace with God for humanity and all of nature.

What do you think?

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Easter – Some personal thoughts

April 4, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel

I write this on Easter sunday morning. It’s 8.52 am. 

The following  words are not exegesis of the Biblical text, but are simply a few personal reflections,  informed by my experience of depression, abandonment and the Dark Night of the Soul. 

It’s funny, as in funny strange, but today is perhaps the first time in about 13 years when I wont be attending Church on Easter sunday with other Christians to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and return from the dead. 

I feel like I have been enclosed in tomb like darkness for a good two years. But recently, a little like the picture above I am beginning to walk out into the light – the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Truly, its been a long time coming. 

I looked through my Bible today, in vain, to see if there is any description in there of what actually happened that day, when Jesus woke up Easter morning, returned from the dead. The Bible is absolutely silent on that matter. We can only speculate and imagine. But I wager that it was an ‘unbelievable’ experience for the young man from Nazareth, who after experiencing so much of life on earth as a human being, suddenly was awoken to a different kind of existence. Heaven infusing the body of a man. “Hallelujah!” He must have thought. 

Hallelujah indeed. 

For me the Resurrection in my life is not yet complete. It is only partial. I am only now re-emerging out of the darkness. Welcoming gladly the new warmth and light. 

I won’t be attending Church this morning, simply because I haven’t got a Church family to belong to. Certainly, not one with community, close friends and with leaders I can trust.  So this Easter morning, I celebrate the new birth of the Resurrection alone and with you. After all these years, and all this struggle I have reached the end of the black tunnel. I am sure that I will be revisited by darkness again sometimes, but for now Light bathes my eyes. Spring sunlight warms my face. 

 Thank God, I think. 

 Hallelujah! Hallelujah indeed! 

‘Christ is risen today! 

Hallelujah, he is risen indeed!’