Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality’

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Open up the Sky – Deluge

September 16, 2010

I love this song! I had never heard of this band or heard of this song until I bought a compilation of worship songs on CD recently, but I love it. Pure unadulterated worship of the Divine. A beautiful, wasteful, exuberant, gracious pouring out of love for the Loving God. 

I love the lyrics:

 Open up the sky
Fall down like rain
We don’t want blessings
We want you

‘We don’t want blessings….we want YOU!’

I don’t know if people can relate to that, but these lyrics express a wonderful idea in the history of religions that people would pursue God, not because of what favours or blessings he can do in their lives (as good and important as this is), but because they want…they hunger…they desire…INTIMACY with the Divine. It’s really a holy idea. A sublime concept that us…broken…frustrated…foolish and sometimes self-indulgent human beings would use our faculties, our human capacities to cry out to God:

“Put aside the blessings, Lord!

Let’s forget the good things you give us!

Can we just have closeness to YOU?

Can we just be close…united even to you?”

In the Bible stories, Moses cried out to God in the desert on Mount Sinai:

“Let me see your face?!”

This is the spirit of this song…a desire for intimacy with the Holy One…a longing for  a purity of love….a longing to perceive the expressive, healing countenance of the Invisible One.

 Let it be so on earth as it is in heaven! Thank you for this song…for the great music and beautiful lyrics.
Here are the lyrics below:

 Open up the sky by Deluge

Our beloved Father
Please come down and meet us
We are waiting on Your touch
Open up the heavens
Shower down Your presence
We respond to Your great love

We won’t be satisfied with anything ordinary
We won’t be satisfied at all

Open up the sky
Fall down like rain
We don’t want blessings
We want you
Open up the sky
Fall down like fire
We don’t want anything but you

Our beloved Jesus
We just want to see
You In the glory of Your light
Earthly things don’t matter
They just fade and shatter
When were touched by love divine

Here we go let’s go to the throne
The place that we belong
Right into His arms

Music and lyrics by Deluge

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Come, Holy Spirit

September 9, 2010

An Invocation to the Holy Spirit

Come, true light.

Come, life eternal.

Come, hidden mystery.

Come, treasure without name.

Come, reality beyond all words.

Come, person beyond all understanding.

Come, rejoicing without end.

Come, light that knows no evening.

Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.

Come, raising of the fallen.

Come, resurrection of the dead.

Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly you create, refashion and change all things by your will alone.

Come, invisible whom none may touch and handle.

Come, for you continue always unmoved, yet at every instant you are wholly in movement; you draw near to us who lie in hell, yet you remain higher than the heavens.

Come, for your name fills our hearts with longing and is ever on our lips; yet who you are and what your nature is, we cannot say or know.

Come, Alone to the alone.

Come, for you are yourself the desire that is within me.

Come, my breath and my life.

Come, the consolation of my humble soul.

Come, my joy, my glory, my endless delight.

St Symeon the New Theologian

(Quoted in The Orthodox Way, by Bishop Kallistos Ware, Pg.136-7)

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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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Sunlight through a kitchen window…

August 23, 2010

The simple, yet exquisite beauty of natural light falling through a kitchen window at sunset

  

 Thoughts. Observations. Reflections on summer 2010. 

It’s been a lonely walk the last month or two. Feeling aware that something was missing I have turned again to my much neglected blog and decided that I needed to return my mind, hands and body to the tap-tap-tap of the laptop key-board. 

Life has been good, but hard in a subtly abrasive way, like the feeling of stumbling into a concrete wall, whatever our needs or feelings – the concrete does not shift. It stays resolutely hard and it is our bodies, feelings and souls that must compress and change shape to adjust to the solidity of the obstacle we encounter. A concrete wall – plain, grey, cold, hard or in this case the circumstances of life, even in a ‘promised’ land remain unforgiving and unmoved. 

As a man who sees himself as taking part in a spiritual journey, one might think that I have extra resources from which to find comfort in such hard and dull circumstances…and you’d be right. I do have access to spiritual traditions, disciplines and wonders that are usually able to shine light on life during a period of struggle or difficulty. Yet, once again this summer when religious resources have been widely available, I find myself saturated by their sweetness. Somehow they taste too sweet. They do not satisfy. Christian conferences, church attendance and activities, Christian books they seem to contribute to the sense of alienation, not alleviate it. 

So, what does one do in such circumstances? 

In my case I think I take care and time to appreciate the ‘details’ of life. The subtle, easily ignored, particles of beauty, splendour that permeate even the most ‘ordinary’ circumstances. There is beauty everywhere, if you have eyes to see. Just like the Kingdom the ancient Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth spoke about – it is within us or near us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

I took the picture above because the  translucent and shadowy scene in my humble rented accommodation struck me as special in a unique way. I sensed that it may not last or that I may never see such a scene of earthly beauty quite like it gain. I chose to pay attention to the details of my physical life in those moments, and paradoxically what was revealed was a kind of  spiritual epiphany. 

In my experience it is rare to hear a Christian seminar on discovering the beauty of God through the precise falling of particles of light through a kitchen window, across a sink full of cups and plates and cutlery ready to be washed. Rather, we rush ahead see if we can harness the spiritual powers of the Bible or in the name of the God of the Bible to accelerate the growth of ‘our’ church. In the back of our minds are targets and financial goals and plans, we lose sight of the graces of each day – light, shadow, thin curtains flowing in the breezes. 

I wonder if true spirituality will take place on earth if we set down our plans and just praise the God of Creation for the wonder of the Universe and thank the God of History for the chance to be alive…and free…and fed…and watered…with clothes and shelter, that we might be still for a moment and notice, watch the changes in light across a first floor flats rooms. Maybe in these transient whispers of the material world are the trails of glory from the other heavenly world.

Summer breeze moves the voile curtains and evening sun lights up the kitchen window

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Tread Softly…

July 14, 2010
 

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

by William Butler Yeats

 
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 
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Two weeks into a new leadership role in a new church, it feels like the circumstances of life are combining together to exorcise some of the poisonous spiritual ‘puss’ of my life…and it is quite a humbling, yet necessary process. A series of events, most of them minor, yet seemingly carrying significant spiritual freight have come to undermine my sense of ‘self’ assured-ness in my ‘own’ holiness. I now feel quite in need of spiritual favour from God.
  1. First of all, there has been the momentous transition to living in a totally new and different part of the country. It is a move that I am very happy with and generally have really enjoyed, yet it is also destabilising and disorienting as the conditions and people of a new environment swirl around you. Even positive and enjoyable experiences can become intoxicating if gulped down all at once.
  2. Secondly, there has been the breaking of my spectacles – an achiles heal like weakness that can bring down even the most sturdy of giants. I am reminded so powerfully as I try to live with slightly out of focus vision, how frail human life really is. Our health can be taken away from us in a moment – mind or body. Good health is certainly an unearned gift, rarely appreciated until it is taken away in some form, no matter how slight it might be, like a couple of days without glasses.
  3. Thirdly, the breaking of my glasses provided the ‘sharp shard of broken glass’ in my mind to awaken me to the danger of using people as instruments for one’s own pleasure or plans and how subtle, but powerful a temptation this can be when you are a single person living alone. Perhaps, to protect the soul from experiencing the full weight of existential angst the mind plays little tricks with us, small, seemingly innocuous self-agrandising delusions that cushion us from feeling our true isolated state. Yesterday, I became freshly aware of my need for companionship – a loving and faithful spouse with whom we might shelter each other from the full brunt of the cold bitter winds while sailing single-handed the turbulent ocean of existence on this planet. For a Christian, indeed many religious believers would say that God himself/herself is with the individual soul on their travels across the sea of life, and I would certainly agree. Yet, even God must allow us to brave the existential winds alone sometimes, lest we become convinced that the securities of civilisation, money, pleasure, food and drink are more solidly eternal than fleetingly ephemeral. I remembered yesterday of how blessed I am and how God’s good gifts are not to be taken for granted as part of a self-centred hedonism (even if it be a spiritual or religious hedonism), but rather are kind mercies to help us remember that life could be much harder and indeed for many on this planet it IS much harder. Therefore, we should live soberly, thankfully and reverently. Yes, each day, even each breath is a gift. Thank you God for your kindness to us. Help me to live kindly to others too.
 
And hence, ultimately, the quotation from Keats – “Tread softly…”
 
Oh yes.
Yes, Lord, may it be so in my life!
May I tread gently on the dreams of others.
 May these tender and sacred sentiments expressed in verse be my prayer too.
  
 
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
 
 
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Being spiritual, yet remembering to be physical

July 13, 2010

It’s been weeks since I have posted on Dark Nights White Soul, mostly because I have had been given the great opportunity to start a new job  – namely, working as a leader in a small Fresh Expression of church in the East Midlands of England. I have suddenly – almost over night – been given the job of my hopes, prayers and dreams the chance to encourage others to grow in their spiritual journey with God (or without God some might argue). It’s an amazing privilege. One that has been hard-won over many years of frustration with institutional church; mostly in that I have felt institutional religion has often frustrated the Church’s mission to help ordinary people experience the love and forgiveness of God. All of a sudden, I have been given a formative role within a relatively young church, less than twenty years old. It feels like all my birthdays have come at once! It is a refreshing change to the bleakness of desert and night spirituality.

Ok, so understandably as a new church leader much of my role is to be a spiritual conduit to others, in this case, to be a channel of God’s love and wisdom to a vibrant, yet in some ways tender young Christian community. So why the need to ‘remember to be physical’? Aren’t we always physical any way? Don’t we need to forget our physicality and become more spiritual? more prayerful?

It’s perhaps a contradiction, but in the Christian and Judaic tradition spirituality or prayer and engagement with Holiness is not so much an escape from physicality, but rather a heightening of one’s appreciation of the physical worth of creation. Unlike some Eastern traditions or the western mediterranean cult of gnosticism Judaism and Christianity were intended to be deeply rooted in the earth, the soil of matter, the materiality of nature. For Judaism in particular, but also reflected in Orthodox Christianity, men and women were kings and queens of the created order – importantly there were also priests, priestesses in a sacramental tradition that described God as entrusting to humanity – men and women – the role of representing God to nature and nature to God. According to Judaism and Christianity humanity was therefore an intermediary (for Jews, the people of Israel were exquisitely so) between the material world of planet Earth and the esoteric spiritual God of the Heavens.

In spite of a rich religio-cultural tradition in Judaism especially, but also in the Gospels of people being encouraged by the writers of Scripture to deeply value Creation, there has always been a tendency at least in Western Christendom to drift away from sanctifying nature and the material world through prayer and Godly intention to trying to escape the limits and confines of the physical world to enter into some premature experience of spiritual bliss. Church history is certainly repleet with examples of where this has happened overtly or subtly and detrimentally to personal, societal and environmental health.

I think in recent days I have found myself slipping into this inconspicuous trap. I think the real danger is that religion, in my case the Christian faith, becomes a shortcut and highway to personal or corporate success (even if this success is defined in  spiritual terms). Perniciously religion then becomes a container of programmes or principles for new churches and for conventional religious establishments, rules and regulations, classes and classifications. In short, religion loses sight of the people and the planet it is meant to represent one moment at a time, one person at a time, one face at a time. That  is to say, it loses that engaged relationship with the material other, who happens to be our sister or brother – animal or human, plant or flesh and blood. With the intention of rapidly reaching spiritual highs of personal feelings or popular acclaim, we loosen the tie to humanity, to nature, to the elements – water, fire, wind, earth.

I caught myself doing that today. Forgetting that the people I meet are human – physical and yes, spiritual, but part of a physical history of place, persons and stories. Each prone to feelings of hurt, vulnerability, pain. Everyone needing regular food and drink, fresh air and clothes, physical touch and affection, gentle encouragement and kind humour. I forgot that each person I encounter every day of my life is a masterpiece, perhaps a flawed work of art, yes, but nevertheless a mystery of eternal as well as earthly proportions. I’m sorry people that I didn’t treat you right. I should have shown you more care, a little more awareness to your story and background, as well as your physical needs. I’ll try to be better next time, so help me God, I pray.

Don’t forget we are physical too. We’re only human even if we can sometimes appear to be almost angelic, we are a mixture of earth and breath. It’s unwise to separate the two.

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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.’