Some thoughts prompted by reading John Michael Greer here. JMG says, “I’m far from the only person to notice that something very strange has been happening to Christianity for quite a long time now. The liberal denominations that used to be the mainstream capitulated to atheism back in the 1950s — you’ll have to look long and hard to find ministers in any liberal church who actually, literally believe in the objective reality of the God whose weekly worship they’re paid to conduct—and now function mostly as charitable foundations and political-action committees with a sideline in rites of passage.” Then later on he says, “Valerie Flint, in her brilliant book The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, has documented that a core reason Christianity was able to spread so rapidly across Europe, winning support from local warlords and kings, was that Christian monastics and clergy earned a reputation for being better at magic than their Pagan rivals: better, that is, at delivering the goods that religion is supposed to deliver.”
I think there is a very great deal of truth in this (I leave aside the category mistake that JMG makes about ‘God’ and gods).
Specifically, I see the death of the mainstream churches (in the West) as rooted in a surrender to a scientific spirit which – as part and parcel of that spirit – also rejects any acceptance of magic and (what is commonly called) the supernatural.
If the church doesn’t dispense magic – and the most magical elements of Christianity are the sacraments – then it no longer has a spiritual purpose, and JMG’s description is justified.
Magic here must be understood in its proper sense, not Harry Potter-esque action at a distance, but rather as the changing of consciousness in accordance with will. In Christian terms it is about the renewing of our minds.
How many clergy actually take spiritual warfare seriously in their daily lives? I am only beginning to, and I am aware of how far I have to go in developing this, yet I am very conscious that – most especially from the viewpoint of the institution – I am a bizarre outlier. It’s a marker for how far the scientistic spirit has taken root within the church itself.
I am conscious of having written about this in greater depth in my book: “With you is my contention O priest!” I am quite certain that unless we attend to this deep spiritual wound within our common life then everything else we do will be of nothing worth.
Which is another way of saying: the first commandment must come first, and because that is laughed at within the church, this is why we die.
(Perhaps the problem is that different factions within the church claim the right to say what the first commandment means. At least the RC church doesn’t have that problem.)
I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.
I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.
I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.
To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).
I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.
Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.
All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.
This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…
This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.
As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.
Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:
Treaty (pleading honesty with God) I’ve seen you change the water into wine I’ve seen you change it back to water, too I sit at your table every night I try but I just don’t get high with you I wish there was a treaty we could sign I do not care who takes this bloody hill I’m angry and I’m tired all the time I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty Between your love and mine
If it be your will (surrender to God) If it be your will That I speak no more And my voice be still As it was before I will speak no more I shall abide until I am spoken for If it be your will
Show Me The Place (begging for guidance) Show me the place where you want your slave to go Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone Show me the place where the word became a man Show me the place where the suffering began
Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement) I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud. But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud and they’re going to hear from me Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in
Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge) From bitter searching of the heart, Quickened with passion and with pain We rise to play a greater part. This is the faith from which we start: Men shall know commonwealth again From bitter searching of the heart. We loved the easy and the smart, But now, with keener hand and brain, We rise to play a greater part. The lesser loyalties depart, And neither race nor creed remain From bitter searching of the heart. Not steering by the venal chart That tricked the mass for private gain, We rise to play a greater part. Reshaping narrow law and art Whose symbols are the millions slain, From bitter searching of the heart We rise to play a greater part.
Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:
and even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
No matter what happens, we praise God.
From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.
They’re lining up the prisoners And the guards are taking aim I struggled with some demons They were middle class and tame I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim You want it darker Hineni, hineni I’m ready, my lord
Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.
I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings
Tell me again When the filth of the butcher Is washed in the blood of the lamb… Tell me again When I’ve seen through the horror Tell me again Tell me over and over Tell me that you love me then Amen
Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.
In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.
In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.
Amen leads to joy.
You got me singing You got me singing Even tho’ the news is bad You got me singing The only song I ever had You got me singing Ever since the river died You got me thinking Of the places we could hide
You got me singing Even though the world is gone You got me thinking I’d like to carry on You got me singing Even tho’ it all looks grim You got me singing The Hallelujah hymn
This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.
Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.
This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.
I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Cuba, a trip taken with three university friends. Some twenty years ago, soon after graduating, we were sat in the living room of the house that we shared in West London, and recognised that our carefree lives were unlikely to stay that way. We agreed that we would put a small amount of money each into a central pot – beginning with £10 a month – in order that, every ten years, we would have enough funds to take a holiday together, to renew our friendships and remember what life was like before career and family commitments took hold. Our first trip was to Mongolia in 2005; this time round it was the turn of Cuba to host our little “Self-Preservation Society” (and yes, it was after one of our regular viewings of The Italian Job that we came up with the idea).
Cuba is a fascinating country, incredibly warm and welcoming, a happy and musical people set in an incredibly green and lush environment. We started our trip in Havana, which is a remarkable city. The architecture was stunning, and it was clear that the city had been incredibly wealthy in the past. Yet it was equally clear that for most of the last fifty years that money had dwindled to effectively zero, and consequently these amazing buildings were often near-derelict. Thankfully, now that the Cuban economy is embracing tourism more thoroughly, there is a new flow of wealth which is allowing the state to slowly renew and repair the built environment in central Havana.
I said to my friends “There’s a sermon in that” – and yes, the necessary teasing did follow. What I had in mind was simply that I saw a parallel between the architecture in Havana and the church. Like Havana, the church has been immensely ‘wealthy’ in the past, by which I don’t just mean money but also the general affirmation of the faith shared by the community. It was a wonderful building. Yet today it is a pale shadow of what it was – it has suffered from decades of neglect. Just like the buildings in Havana, there has been nothing spent on maintenance, and now there is a desperate need for new investment in order to repair all that has gone wrong. And what does the church need to spend money on, in order to restore the building to its former grandeur? I would say simply: teaching the faith.
Back to Cuba. One of my friends has a medical condition which means that he cannot walk very far, and so he has a collapsible bike that he uses to get around, and which he brought to Cuba. Unfortunately, the day before departure his bike acquired a nasty puncture, and our first morning in Havana was then taken up with trying to find someone who might be able to repair it. After a thorough discussion with our guide, we found a small workshop at the back of garage, who agreed to repair the tyre. My friend (who now lives in Germany) was astonished to watch the craftsmanship with which the mechanic took apart the tyre and manually re-threaded the wires in order to make it robust. My friend exclaimed, “I’m going to take this back to Germany and tell them that this is how you fix things!”
Havana is famous for all the 1950s cars that are still driven there – a snapshot of how things were before the Revolution. What this little experience brought home to us was the way in which all those old cars were kept going by some incredibly creative and imaginative engineering. The Cubans are clearly capable of making the most of anything at hand. I should add, however, that this did not extend to emissions control – the air in Havana was incredibly polluted, and I developed a hacking cough that didn’t leave me until I was back on Mersea. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the cigars…
That Revolution has clearly defined modern Cuba. I had the sense sometimes that there was very little history for the Cuban people to celebrate. What seem quite small things, such as a particular battle in the Revolutionary War, were blown up into major museums, and the people who were involved in that Revolution – most especially Che Guevara – were raised up in quite hagiographic ways, with all their personal effects treasured like Medieval relics. Of course, the tensions with the United States have only recently begun to ease. It was clear that this conflict had gone a long way to form the Cuban character, and the state had consistently reinforced a message of Cuba being an independent communist island facing off against the behemoth of a radically capitalist United States.
One striking way in which this difference manifested itself, in Havana and more widely, was the almost complete absence of advertising. The only form of acceptable advertising seemed to be revolutionary slogans alongside an image of Fidel Castro. This one, for example, has the charming slogan ‘Socialism or Death!’
The state remains overwhelmingly present in Cuba, yet most of the population seemed very happy. In part that must be a result of the excellent health-care for which Cuba is rightly and justly famous. In part it must be a result of everyone having plenty to eat. In addition, all Cubans are educated through a national system and, charmingly, all schools have the same uniform, segregated three ways for the three levels of primary, secondary and tertiary. There were always smartly dressed children to be seen going to and fro.
I could see no trace of any racism whatsoever, and in particular, there seemed to be no sense of ‘shame’ according to different body shapes. I did wonder whether the absence of advertising, coupled with a more general equality, helped to make the Cubans so cheerful. I often saw people who might be regarded in our society as having less than ideal bodies who were clearly very much at home in them, with a strong sense of appropriate style and even ‘swagger’. This was wonderful, and I suspect not having to cope with a constant bombardment of airbrushed-perfect bodies had something to do with it.
Their happiness might also have something to do with the music that was continually present. However small the restaurant it would not be long before along came a few men (with an occasional woman) with guitars and maracas and the familiar ‘Guantanamera’. For the most part we greatly enjoyed these. We had booked in to see the world famous ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ on our last night in Havana, but I have to say that we found them disappointing compared to others, especially a band that performed regularly in the bar just a little way down from our hotel, that had an amazing flautist. Yet – and perhaps this is simply the projection of a tourist – music seemed to be more deeply embedded into the rhythms of Cuban life than it does here in England. We brought several CDs back with us!
After two weeks we flew to Gatwick, having had long discussions with each other about what was going to happen with the Referendum (mine was the sole voice in favour of Brexit). We arrived back on the morning that the result was announced. I felt that whilst we as a country might have many things to learn from Cuba I was nevertheless very grateful to be back. I am as proud of this country as the Cubans are of theirs, and it felt magical to be returning from one independent island to another that had just determined to reclaim its own independence. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” as Che used to say. Thanks to Ian for photos
… Victoria and I had an excellent honeymoon in Vienna, despite missing our outbound flight (that’ll be the subject of a long blog post in due course). Enjoying cocktails in the Loos designed American Bar was a particular highlight.
I now have six children and three dogs.
I also became a great-uncle. Not yet as white as Bulgaria.
Also important was finally implementing a major change in parish responsibilities, bringing my workload back into line with the local average – delighted to have a colleague with common sense!
Actually, I am feeling blessed through all of my colleagues at the moment, especially the local Bish. (Say it quietly, but I’m even becoming a fan of the Archdeacon…)
Had an excellent family holiday camping in July
Had a wonderful Greenbelt in smaller form. I’m more and more persuaded that it is my tribe, despite the fact that I’m probably a complete heretic on several of their shibboleths.
Managed to get some sailing in for the first in many years, including my first off-shore racing which was a fabulous experience – with one downside being the painful discovery that I have arthritis in my knees. They will need to be managed carefully.
Continued to press on with Panto and – influenced a long time ago by Graham – I performed as the dame back in January:
Overwhelmingly the worst thing, though, was the decision by my ex-wife to move to Wales and take two of the four children with her – still fighting that through the courts 🙁 which I’ve discovered to be a seriously incompetent organisation, to the extent of having an apology at the most recent hearing from the judge, as she was so shocked by what had happened. One day it’s a tale to be told.
Second worst thing (just) was the experience of applying for a mortgage with the Nationwide Building Society, for whom I have previously been a loyal customer/member for over seventeen years. Possibly the worst experience I’ve ever had with a bureaucracy – now in the hands of the financial ombudsman (I’ve become much more determined about seeing things to the bitter end these days).
Anyhow, the bad is massively outweighed by the good. Lots of fundamental structures have now been put into place which will allow me – and all of us – to flourish over the long term. I am eager to press on and pursue various specialist ministries in addition to becoming freshly embedded in Mersea church and wider life. We might even get another boat.
Basically, joy has come back into my life. Roll on 2016.
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.
What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?
To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.
I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.
What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.
I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.
What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.
Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.
How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.
To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.
I write this the morning after a very lively and well attended General Election Hustings at West Mersea Parish Church. It was good to be involved and to become better acquainted with what the options are for us here on Mersea. If it happens again I will be much stricter about time-keeping, so that we could have more questions – there were several excellent questions that we didn’t have time to take. The character of the candidates became very clear, however, and this helps people to make their decision on who to vote for. That, after all, is the very purpose of hustings. I am convinced that we need a much greater involvement with politics at all levels of our society. It matters not only how we vote, but much more crucially, it matters that we vote.
Somewhere in one of my boxes at home I have a picture of me at secondary school in 1987 campaigning in a mock school election (confession – I was sporting a blue rosette with “I ♥ Maggie” on it). I have always been fascinated by politics and for a long time I had thought about a political career. After university I joined the Civil Service in Whitehall in order to become more fully acquainted with the political process. The role that I had involved changing jobs each year in order to be exposed to the different parts of the Department – I was in the Department of the Environment – and one of my jobs was ‘Radioactive Substances’. That is, I worked closely on the monitoring of nuclear power stations, and learned a very great deal about the science involved. One particular job I had – in 1993 if memory serves – was running a public consultation about the THORP processing plant in Sellafield, which was, at the time, extremely controversial. We knew that any decision reached by the government would immediately be taken through the judicial review process by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so we had to be note perfect in describing the how and why behind the eventual decision. When it came before Parliament I wrote the briefing for John Major, and I have a very fond memory of his hand-written comments thanking me for a ‘perfect’ preparation (please forgive the boast!). What I came away from the Civil Service with was a full appreciation of how politics is just like making sausages, you don’t really want to get too exposed to the detail of how it is done!
It is possible – perhaps it is inevitable – that a cynicism about politics develops. The nature of the political process is such that it is extremely rare for a clear principle to be argued for and then carried out by someone who has not had to make all sorts of compromises along the way. In order to achieve anything in politics it is important to be alert to what is possible at any particular moment in time. In political theory this is called the ‘Overton window’ which describes the range of policies that the public are willing to accept. An average politician will work within that range and seek to advance his cause in incremental fashion, making deals and agreements along the way. A great politician will seek to change the nature of the window itself; that is, they would seek to ‘change the political weather’ in order that what had previously seemed impossible to implement later becomes accepted wisdom. In my lifetime the only politician who might be classed in that category is Margaret Thatcher, who clearly changed the terms of the political debate in this country. Even Thatcher, however, was very willing to compromise and make deals along the way, making tactical retreats on issues when it served her larger purpose.
So the great majority of politicians are average, and they are obliged by the very structure of our politics to make compromises, to accept that their ideals will have to be watered down if they are to make any progress at all. This is a recipe for cynicism. If you approach politics with a sense of idealism, a feel for how things might conceivably be, then it can seem a very brutal environment. More than this, when people on the ground suffer at the hands of a bureaucratic state, when decisions seem to be made without any respect for the human context – something which happens more and more these days – then it is easy to become disillusioned about the whole process and say ‘to hell with the lot of them’, and then disengage completely.
All that happens at that point is that the Overton window becomes much smaller, and the possibility of significant change recedes even further away. The saying goes, “all that is required for bad men to triumph is that good men do nothing” and that applies even to each of us, as we exercise our right to vote. If those of us who are dreamers and idealists, who are unhappy with the existing state of affairs, who are shocked or disgusted by the shabby compromises of the political class – if we disengage and do not vote then the process will only become worse. On the other hand, if all the dreamers and idealists do turn out and vote, then the political class will see that what is possible in this country is greater than they had realised, and the possibility of genuine progress comes that much closer.
To put that in religious terms, cynicism is a sin. To give in to a cynicism about the political process, to argue along the lines that Russell Brand does and think that voting makes no difference in the end, is to give greater power to the established and vested interests. It simply makes things worse. The answer is to follow the advice ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. In other words, do not be under any illusion about the political process, recognise the nature of the beast – but hold on to idealism, hold on to hope, hold on to the sense that things may change – and let that guide your choice as you vote. Whoever it is that we choose to cast our ballot for, it is important that we each exercise that hard-won right. We’d certainly miss it if it was taken away from us.
We live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.
Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.
The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.
There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.
The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.
Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.
The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.
Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.
We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.
Prayer seems often to be understood as an auditory dialogue. That is, in our minds we forms words and sentences – even paragraphs! – that we then address to God; then, in turn, God responds in the same way.
This, after all, is how things are repeatedly portrayed in the Bible. The Word of the Lord came to so-and-so and said “…”
Whilst I wouldn’t for one moment want to say that this does not happen, I would want to say that this has never been my experience of prayer. Although I am someone who has occasionally had ‘visions’ I do not experience God ‘speaking’ to me in the form of explicit words.
So why am I comfortable with the language of God speaking to people? Of God directing them, of God answering prayers?
I have found two forms of prayer to be satisfying, and when I talk about prayer, this is what I am referring to. (Those who know their Augustine will recognise the shape of what I am describing).
The first is what comes when I start the process of ’emptying’ my own mind and awareness in order to let God speak into it. That can often happen through liturgy and ritual, eg Morning Prayer, but it can also happen just as reliably out of stillness and peace. As the general noise of my own internal monologue quietens down, other thoughts, images and ideas come forward. Some of these have a particular character, a ‘glow’ about them, a ‘smell of something good’ (those are metaphors). I have found that if I dwell with those particular thoughts, they lead me to a place of spiritual growth. I learn more about myself. I learn more about what I am called to do with my life. I find that I become a better person from paying attention to such things. This I experience as the principal means by which God ‘speaks’ to me – it is not about specific words, it is more about recognising a particular pattern of compulsion. Sometimes this compulsion can be utterly overwhelming (and thus: terrifying) but I hope – pray – that such things have passed, and that I can pay more attention to God’s promptings before He has to resort to extreme measures.
The second way relates to being in nature, especially when I am on the beach or, more rarely, when I am in a forest or – best of all – if I am sailing. What happens in these cases is less direct than the introspection that I described above, but is more clearly a form of ecstasy, ie ex – stasis, a ‘taking out of myself’. When I lose myself in the natural world, when my internal monologue is quietened, I often experience two things – one, the sense of ‘divine presence’ and comfort about which our religious tradition so often speaks, a sense of ‘being-at-home-in-the-world-ness’ (surely there is a German word that means exactly that?); second, sometimes there will be a particular idea or thought that leaps as if fully formed into my consciousness, provoking an ‘oh, of course’. Again, there is a particular character to these things, which makes me recognise them as being ‘of God’.
A sceptic atheist might object – this is just a question of accessing your unconscious! Why bring God into it?
To which I would say: what is the benefit of such a redescription? It is no diminishment of God to say that He works through the normal processes of our minds. As Wittgenstein once said, ‘why can’t God work in accordance with a calculation?’
I reject the redescription, not because I see it as false, but because I see it an incomplete, and as cutting off the insight that is possible from integrating our own experience with the experience expressed through a tradition that is thousands of years old and which has vastly more wisdom embedded in it than contemporary secularism could ever dream of.
So that is prayer, for me – an introspection and an ecstasy.
A year of consequences. The main event, obviously, was this, which overshadowed a lot of other things.
– having a lead role in a play put on by the Mersea Island Players, what a lovely bunch of people;
– my best Greenbelt ever;
– spending lots of time with good friends, doing great things, having time to breathe spiritually;
– various long term work issues being resolved, and we’re looking good for some outreach next year;
– coming to some conclusions about writing and the church – see especially this one and this one. I hope to gather some of these threads together in 2014.
Not sure it counts as a ‘highlight’, but making the decision in November to homeschool my two eldest, that felt like a tremendous liberation, a stepping out in faith which I trust that God will prosper, for however long it lasts. I’m very excited by this.
Rather strangely, on a purely personal and selfish level, I would say that this has been a very good year, certainly in comparison to last. My creativity has begun to return, and my energy and joie de vivre also. I am really hoping that I will return to being a ‘fully functioning Sam’ some time in the next several months. I have a lot to look forward to in 2014.
I think my principal conclusion is this: it is not possible for bitterness and happiness to coexist in the same heart. One will devour the other. I choose to strengthen the happiness.