In the wilderness, but its not so bad:4

In the theological tradition that I was formed in, cognitive knowledge and right belief were very important: did you believe the right things, was a church ‘sound’ etc etc. I remember a conversation a few years back with someone who owned and lived in 3 homes about how they were not going to a particular church as they though that the teaching was not ‘sound’; I wish I’d said something to them about how they defined ‘sound’…

A few years ago I can remember becoming bored with most Bible studies: they seemed to be an exercise in keeping others at a distance and emotions in check. Yes it has some importance to know why a passage in John’s gospel has 153 fish in it, but arguing over why exactly it is there? I’d sooner be down the pub: the conversation can be more honest and revealing.

I’ve found that this wilderness place has a good deal more honesty and openness to it. Give me my once a year weekend on an uninhabited island with a theme of ‘how is your soul?’ (alongside copious swearing, prayer, whisky and crudity), visits to a spiritual director and conversations where the light breaks in and the moment becomes full of space and I’m broadly content. People; fellow dwellers of the wilderness, have been vital. I no longer have to get people to do jobs or fill offices in a church; it is easier to see the glory and wonder in an individual human soul.

Most theological arguments really don’t matter after all: sound and fury, they signify nothing apart from a desire to spar; real human connection seems too threatening.

There is wonder here.

On sparring with a ‘racist’.

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I used to be silent when people shared ‘Britain First’ etc posts; we all want a quiet life and it is hard to put your head above the parapet. If you don’t believe me, watch your ‘likes’ on Facebook go from a good double figures for a picture of your cat wearing a trilby (and I don’t have a cat) to the digital equivalent of tumbleweed when you share an anti racist post. Most people are just scared.

In recent months I’ve stopped shrugging my shoulders and bemoaning the badness and started posting replies (the one post that really gets my ghost is the one that goes something like ‘Ex servicemen get £26 per month, old people less than that, whilst a family of immigrants get £80k a year, a yacht and a new house’…but I digress) ; particularly to those people who are so stupid/unwitting as to repost things that fuel hate. I hope those replies are graceful and irenic, but I’m not sure; I have little tolerance for the ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ kind of post.

Alongside that, I’ve been trying to keep following people on Twitter with whom I would not necessarily agree with; I’m getting tired of virtue signalling and living in a silo- social media seems to encourage this. My urge to ‘flame’ at targets grows. however. It happened last week: a photoshopped picture of a woman in a hijab and some asinine comment and I was off.

I thought no more about it until the person got back to me and he wasn’t complementary. I was just about to repost something equally vitriolic when I paused: I’d never met this person before and I didn’t know what they were like. I posted a more measured reply and a hope that the person had a nice day. He posted back that he hoped I didn’t so I posted again saying that was a genuine wish, posted something ‘fly’ about his football team and hoped he had a lovely evening.

A dialogue of sorts began; he opened up a bit more and a human story began to emerge about why he posted what he did (which I still disagree with). I think I learned the following:-

-Virtue signalling in your own silo is a waste of energy; it persuades no one of anything and largely confirms your own prejudices.

-Calling someone a ‘racist’ does not initiate a dialogue and stops you seeing the other as a human being (don’t call me a ‘snowflake’ a ‘Remainer’ etc etc: I am so much more and it just annoys): it mostly just makes you feel better.

-Sharing posts that just demonise or stereotype your opponents does little to move anyone forward. I struggle with this (Particularly with Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt etc), but I’ve tried to stop sharing posts which do this.

-Life is too short: disagree with the issues by all means, but your opponent will live, love, struggle, laugh and eventually die- just like you.

In short, just being angry or disrespectful about your opponents makes your feed monotonous and joyless: never forget that the sun still shines, nature is still glorious and there are plenty of good things as well.

 

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad: part 3

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You were used to running a church. It was never ‘my church’ and you’ve often avoided those who talk in that way of a group of people as their own possession.

Yet all the same, you remember the feeling of never quite being ‘off duty’ and somehow your faith was symbiotically linked to yours in a way that just being part of a church ever was.

And then that goes: you no longer have a church/churches and you are ‘free’. Some in your role rarely if ever go back: the scars hurt too much, but eventually and haltingly you do.

I confess; I went through a few months when I hardly went to church. I liked the space and the bruises (not from the people in the churches that I once led) from the organisation still caused me to wince. Besides, it was lovely to be able to watch my children play cricket and to be around them without feeling that my time was not fully my own. To put it more crudely, the wife of a minister once said to me ‘Other people’s husbands have the right to be a dick: mine doesn’t’.

A new minister came to the church I once led: he was ‘whole’- he didn’t seem to need to display his ego in a destructive way when he stood in front of people and he seemed to have emotional honesty. We got involved again; I was asked to take part in things, but never to the extent that I felt ‘used’. I got to see just how lovely those people in the church were, when I wasn’t in charge, and we fell into going again.

But this new pattern is different; it is not regular. We try to get there every week and we don’t always manage it….but just being there…among people (mainly elderly) and seeing their faith is often enough. The question ‘Is your church a good church?’ has increasingly piqued me: as long as people pray, lean on each other, try and apply sacred truths to life as it is lived, isn’t that ‘good’ enough? Plus; it really helps if they are the people in your community that you normally see; church isn’t a place that you commute to.

For now anyway; one of the many things that this time is teaching me is that nothing is fixed or definite and nothing lasts forever.

On venerating your child

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Our youngest child was selected for the Cleveland Schools’ cricket squad in the last week. In addition he is coming to the end of his second close season spell with Yorkshire Pathways Bronze level; that puts him in the top 80-100 children of his age group at cricket in this county. He bowls leg break & googly (if you don’t know what that is, look it up! The picture above, of England’s Adil Rashid, gives some idea of the contortions neccesary) , which is the ‘holy grail’ of bowling; at one time it was as rare as hen’s teeth. It is notoriously difficult to master and when he is on song, it is a beautiful thing to watch as the ball swings one way through the air, pitches and then moves the other way. At times I have watched him in the nets & seen good batsmen frequently flailing at thin air in frustration as they cannot ‘read’ him.

Of course, with sport, it could all end at any time. Teenage years kick in, injuries happen,the selections get tighter and someone doesn’t ‘make’ it, academic pressures become more intense etc etc, but at the moment, both children have a combination of academic ability, opportunity) and sporting gifts that I never had.

I could go on for longer; naturally I am proud, but at the same time something in me doesn’t feel right to talk in this way. In the same way, when our oldest child did better at GCSEs than we expected- in fact did really well- I did not post the full details on social media; it doesn’t feel right to crow in this way.

I’ve had this passage underlined in a book for a long time:-

‘The problem for someone like me who desires that his children lead successful, competent lives, is knowing that the cost of this may at times be insensitivity to others, that in urging them to do well I may be urging them to be inconsiderate, lacking in thoughtfulness about others. In other words the Christian values of community and equality are not the easiest standards to hold up when you’re also interested in perpetuating your privileged situation in society through your children and your own behaviour’. (Robert Coles in Hirsch & Hirsch  (2010) p163)

There is a temptation in those of us who have faith to live lives of ‘practical atheism’; as long as you do your ‘religious duty’ the rest of your life is your own business. I exaggerate of course, but when I hear discussions among middle class believers about finding a ‘good church’ (which is what exactly?) the words of an old Divine Comedy song come back to mind:-

‘The cars in the car park were shiny and German,

Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon’

which puts the point rather more succinctly.

No answers at the moment, apart from trying to avoid the ‘competitive dad’ huddles as parents jockey for position, teaching your children to be proud, yet not to crow,  look down on others or be envious of those who have more gifts,being a bit more thankful when you are tempted to whinge at life and realising that all of this is temporary and could grow or cease at any time and lots of good, wholesome things like that. etc etc

Yet at the same time thoughts dog you; is this enough? Have you got it right? Or are you really doing anything differently to anyone else?

…maybe not…

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad: part 2

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Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

I’m sure I used to be more certain; or at least I think I was (That works on several different levels)

I ‘knew’ what it was to be a Christian. I ‘knew’ what was ‘sound’ and what was not. I like to think that I was not so aggressively certain as others were, but I’m not so sure; age has a wonderful way of smoothing down uncomfortable memories.

As you get older and become more aware of things that don’t work or fit any system, prayers that are not apparently answered or new and uncomfortable insights, you are faced with hard choices. There are a whole lot of options, such as:-

-Not to believe; you really want to, but can’t see any connection with any reality.

-You can also- frightened- go further inside the Christian ghetto, becoming more remote from life as it is lived and more aggressive towards those who are not like you or who break ‘safe’ boundaries.

-Faith never really fits, so it is waved as a lucky rabbit’s foot when nothing else will do.

I’m sure I’ve used all of those approaches (still do from time to time- sadly large parts of the evangelical world seem stuck in the middle one at the moment) but I’ve come to realise that I know, but yet I do not know….and that certainty/uncertainty is normal. At best, it leads to a humility when faced with something new: what do I know against the vastness of the universe? At worse it leads to an arrogant judgementalism against those who appear ‘certain’ and fixed.

I know….I know…and yet I don’t know…

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad part 1.

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My good friend Ian has two podcasts out on how he moved from Christianity to atheism. It is powerful and honest stuff (find it here http://voicesofdeconversion.com/home/  . His name is Ian Redfearn and the podcasts are 34 and 35- I get a lovely tribute at around 31:30 on number 35).

My friendship with him has often caused me to question things that I believe. I can often hear his voice in my head if I preach or prepare to preach. I can hear him if I slip into ‘Christianese’ or get too far into the Christian ghetto.

I was listening to his story and reflected that although lots of his friends sent him books when he ‘deconverted’ or tried to argue him out of it, I don’t think I ever did. I’m not always good at this, but I try to keep at the forefront of my mind something that a minister once wrote (I’ve slightly adapted this) ‘You tell me your beautiful names for God/Life and I’ll tell you mine’. It removes the alpha male aggression from apologetics and it is really lovely to experience. Also influential to me is the idea that you listen to someone so closely that you run the risk of being won over by them.

It has got me thinking, because there are parallels between his story and mine of leaving and loss; what still sustains me and how could I talk about it in a way that anyone could read (I’ve read enough angry Christian blogs or ones that just preach to the crowd)?

One thing in particular struck me when I heard him talk (and these are my words, not his); he referred to that sense of panic when he had left organised religion: how do I live and what do I do as I can’t see any models for where I am. I experienced something of the same sense myself: how do I live- what do I do?

What I’m hoping to do for a while is talk about some of the stuff that keeps me going in this new place that I find myself.

To be continued…

 

Christian music (or why some music is plastic)

I was listening to an old Horace Andy album a few days ago and this popped up:-

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I was immediately captivated by the simplicity of the tune and the honesty of how he sang it: it moved me, in much the same way that Stormzy ‘Blinded by your grace’ did. I have almost no knowledge of Horace Andy (although I’ve seen him with Massive Attack), but I believe that he is a Rastafarian.

It spoke to me as it seems so unforced; in the middle of what you normally do in your profession, you sing about your faith/view of the world as it is natural to do so. In other songs it might be hinted at, but it is not dominated by it, because you sing and make music because that is what you do.

I have a blind spot when it comes to ‘Christian music’; mainly because when as a young Christian I was introduced to it, it seemed, well ‘not real’: overproduced, simplistic lyrics, pale pastiche of established style that was just ‘borrowed’ without any feeling and just…bland. At that point I wanted to yell ‘The king has got no clothes on’.

That feeling has never left me. From time to time, I’ve tried out the latest Christian ‘big thing’ and have usually been disappointed for much the same reasons. I’ve often wondered about the artistic discrimination of those who uncritically consume such music or whose only foray into ‘secular’ music venues is for the ‘safety’ of a Christian experience (mind you, I’ve also wondered what this says about the theology of mission there, but that is another story). I think it was the record producer T.Bone Burnett who said something like if you were a bricklayer who was a Christian and make a poor job building something, merely spray painting the word ‘Christian’ on it doesn’t make it any good.

I will continue to look; I can’t write anything off, but I’m not hopeful: leave me with those artists who are out there in the normal market place and whose faith breaks through like rain on a sunny day (Cash, Sufjan Stevens, U2, Damien Jurado et etc), but save me from those who have the sun turned up to 11 and any doubt or nuance tip-exed out.

Sticking wings on angels

I had one of those rare days recently when I managed to do some of the niggly jobs that always seem to get left in many households (we also took a walk; the view above is around 200 yards from where we live). I spent a happy 20 minutes or so repairing ornaments that had gotten damaged; mainly from having two large and growing teenagers in the house whose first priority isn’t necessarily looking after said house.

Two of those repairs involved sticking wings on angel ornaments; generally having ornaments fielding at short square leg isn’t a good idea. As I was repairing them, it struck me that we have rather a lot of ornaments in the house that are angels. I don’t subscribe to the belief that you have a ‘guardian angel’ or that angels are chubby cheeked infants fluttering around with wings, but I do like the idea of ‘messengers’; unlooked for or surprising people who help unexpectedly. Having a lot of angels about the place is therefore encouraging; or at least I find it to be so.

I could of course throw these ornaments away (actually, there is a case for throwing every ornament away until children have reached a mature age- such as around 35...) and get new ones. We haven’t; some have sentimental value and remind us of a person or a place and with finances pressing, replacing things that you can otherwise mend is not really an option. But there is another, deeper reason; most angels I have met have not been shiny and complete, but somehow marred or broken. In fact; I have rarely been helped by people who believe themselves shiny or complete: most often they don’t really want to bleed with you, but to ‘fix’ you.

This might have led me to a deeply theological musing, nonetheless I hope that I don’t have to fix many more ornaments…