Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe 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: an introspection and an ecstasy

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.

So that was 2013

A year of consequences. The main event, obviously, was this, which overshadowed a lot of other things.

Some highlights:
- 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.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Religion, politics, comedians and fools

Look at that comedian Russell Brand, he must be having a laugh. Who is he to think he can talk about politics? Doesn’t he know that you have to be qualified in order to have a political opinion? You need to be a professional politician, otherwise your views are illegitimate. Get back in your box and go back to amusing the masses – leave the political issues to your wise masters. Everything is fine. Go back to sleep…

It has been fascinating watching the reaction to Russell Brand’s recent political interventions – his editing of an edition of the New Statesman, his interview with Jeremy Paxman. Clearly he has struck a nerve; something that comes from having the nerve and keeping his nerve I guess. I have particularly enjoyed his emphasis upon the spiritual side of politics. Consider this: “Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot.” Yes, me too. In other words, it is the interplay of the spiritual and the political that most commands attention, and it is the rigid separation between the two that has blighted both.

The nature of the crises that we face – the loss of democratic legitimacy, the collapse of faith in the political process, especially amongst the young, the collapsing ecology driving the collapsing economy – these things cannot be addressed effectively unless they are considered from a wholly human point of view. By ‘wholly human’ I mean one that draws upon an analysis grounded in a full humanity – not one that simply sees us as interchangeable fleshly cogs within the military-industrial complex. There is more to being human than simply being a convenient source of purchasing power, provisioning the onward march of industrialism.

We need to have the revolution of values about which Brand talks, one which actually places us within a wider human and ecological context, and where the virtues of personal freedom and the free market are deployed in order to serve the wider human interest. This can be done; indeed, for much of human history, it was done. Sadly, we are at the tail end of many decades of ideologically driven institutional change which has turned much of our rich human ecology and culture into an ashy wasteland. It is only in this context that the fool can come and speak the truth, because his foolishness is what enables him to slip past the established guardians of acceptable political opinion.

What, after all, is the principal role of the fool? The court jester, the one who is given unique powers of truth-telling, the one person who can speak truth unto power – the antidote to the sycophancy and closed-loop thinking processes which so deform any institution that has remained static for too long; and, surely, that is a description that applies to our political process.

We are in very interesting times. The governing narratives that have dominated our political and cultural life for nearly three centuries have exhausted themselves and no longer have the moral capital to command our assent or our energies. We are in a period that is post-secular, for the rejection of the divine bankrupted itself long ago. We are in a period that is post-growth, for the abundant and cheap supplies of energy and other resources on which such growth depended have now been drawn down. We are in a period that is post-modern, for the assumptions about progress and an ever-improving path of development have been shown to be simply bad theology in fashionable dress.

We simply will not be able to understand our world or improve our condition unless we re-integrate our spirituality and our politics. We will not be able to assess the worth of any particular political project – or any particular politician come to that – unless we have some standard or reference against which that assessment can be made. What is that standard or reference? Well, that is the conversation that we need to be having. Is it the case that we still believe a constant search for economic growth is the answer to our problems? I doubt that many people believe that to be so, but I really wish that someone would tell that to our political masters so that they don’t spend quite so much time with their ritual incantations about a ‘return to economic growth’ which actually end up making people more miserable, not to mention the impact upon the wider ecology on which we all, ultimately, depend for our lives let alone our livelihoods.

The separation of the political and the religious is, in fact, a particular quirk of North-Western European Protestant culture. In any other society the idea that these things can be separated would be ridiculed for the folly that it is, yet in our society it remains the default assumption of “common sense”. There are particular reasons for this – principally the way in which the supposedly religious wreaked great violence upon each other in our civil war – yet the root issue is that one particular political grouping excluded the religious from the political sphere in order to more thoroughly establish their own powers, to make our world safe for the corporation. This is why, in this country, it is seen as not quite the done thing for the religious to speak out on political matters; why there is still a frisson when the Archbishop criticises Wonga, for example.

Yet it is because the Archbishop is being true to his own vocation that he has to speak out. Even the most random reading of the Bible will reveal some of the thousands of verses dedicated to social justice. It is simply not possible to be a Christian and not to have a political concern. That is not to determine what form that political concern takes – that was the mistake of those who slaughtered in our civil war – but it is to insist that the religious and the political cannot be separated, that these spheres interact with each other and cannot be coherently understood on their own. The time for that separation has passed, and it now falls to this generation to work out a new understanding, and a new pattern of life. That, at least, is my belief, and my passion, and what I shall seek to be continually and foolishly true to.


2013-10-10 09.54.20
I like the fact that I can be in the midst of my busyness and then be startled by a reminder of where I am, of where I have come from. Rootedness, and Peterson’s “there are some forms of ministry that only become possible when you have been in a place for a long time”.

An update from Rector Sam

(This is going in the new parish newsletter; thought it would make sense to put it on here too.)

Many of you will be aware that it has been something of an eventful year for me. It may help if I simply list a few key developments:

- I was away on sick leave for three months this summer, the result of exhaustion brought on by sustained stress. I am hoping that whilst the fundamental structural problems relating to my workload (the responsibility of the Diocese) have not been addressed, I am now in a better position to cope with the consequences of that inaction;
- sadly, Rolanda and I have now divorced. We are on good terms, and the children are sharing their time between the Rectory and Rolanda’s new home in The Lane;
- I have stepped down from all of my non-parish responsibilities in the hope that I can sustain my changed family commitments. This means that I am no longer the Area Warden of Ordinands; the Area Healing and Deliverance Advisor; nor a member of the Deanery Pastoral and Standing committee. In addition my day off has reverted back to Friday, and I shall only be working alternate Saturdays;
- I have agreed with Bishop Stephen that I shall be staying in my present post for the foreseeable future.

I am very grateful for all of the love and support that I have received these last few months. I am particularly grateful to the ministry team for stepping in to the gaps thrown up by my absence. As I’m sure you will appreciate, mine and my family’s lives have been through a great upheaval, but things do now look to be settling down and I believe that we can look forward to a more stable future.

With my thanks for our partnership in the gospel…

Some of my favourite thinkers…

There are a good number of writers and thinkers who have had an identifiable impact upon the way that I think. Here are three:

Martha Nussbaum, specifically her ‘Fragility of Goodness’, and even more specifically her arguments about Aristotle and contemplation;

Mary Midgley, especially her ‘Science as Salvation;

Janet Radcliffe Richards, her book ‘The Sceptical Feminist’ which, amongst other things, cured me of any naive use of ‘natural’ as a justification for anything.

I think Susan Haack might yet be added to their number, but I haven’t got to grips with her ‘Passionate Moderate’ stuff yet.

Why am I writing all this? Because I read this article. Which is incredibly sad in all sorts of different ways.

I want to live alone

A song I’m particularly enjoying at the moment – let the reader understand – but if you think you know why I like it, or even who it references for me, I guarantee that you will be wrong… (grin)

From their third album ”Tonight: Franz Ferdinand” 2009 – new album out soon This is quite a good version, with vocals from a particular goddess :)

I wanna live alone
Because the greatest love is always ruined by the bickering
The argument of living
I wanna live alone
I could be happy on my own
Live the rest of my life
With the vaguest of feeling

Wherever you are, Whoever is there
You’ll know that I’ll be here, I’ll be here
Wishing I could be there

So I’m gonna live alone
I’m not saying that our love is the greatest
But I’m in love with you
Wanna stay in love with you
So I’m gonna live alone
Yeah, I’ll be happy on my own
Live the rest of my life
With the vaguest of feeling

Wherever you are, Whoever is there
You’ll know that I’ll be here, I’ll be here
Wishing I could be there

The joy of good, live theatre

Courier article
Well, after an enjoyable cameo role in the panto I’ve managed to get myself a substantial part in the next Mersea Island Players production at the MICA. I’m acting as the director of a small amateur dramatic society, who at one point is rehearsing a part acting as a vicar, so I’m definitely cast against type.

In amidst all the enjoyable strains of learning lines and rehearsing I’ve been thinking about the nature of the theatre, and why ‘good, live theatre’ is an irreplaceable experience. I say that despite being something of a movie addict myself, who hardly ever goes to watch live performances any more. So why do I think theatre is irreplaceable? Well, it’s similar to the difference between work which is done by craft and that which is manufactured.

With live theatre, the emphasis is upon the particular moment. There is something happening in this place and at this time – there are real human beings watching and being watched – and, of course, there is the ever-present risk of something going wrong, whether that be forgetting lines or having an accident or lighting failure and so on. In other words, there is something unique about live theatre as an event. Contrast this with a movie, especially a modern blockbuster. The very essence of what is happening is that it is both manufactured and repeatable. Rather than a direct human interaction between performer and audience, the actors are often recorded in front of a ‘green screen’ on which all the special effects will later be portrayed. This is a fascinating process, and the results range from the awful (Star Wars prequels) to the groundbreaking (the Matrix) yet even when the results are good, it is a very different experience to watch a movie rather than a play.

There is something undeniably primitive about watching another human being act out a story. Small children know and enjoy this intuitively, and will happily play dress-up and act out stories for hours on end. Adults often have that sense of excited wonder drained out of them by all the vicissitudes of life – and the wonderful thing about ‘good, live theatre’ is that is provides a context in which that sense of wonder and engagement can be resurrected. It’s not an accident that I’m using religious language there, for there is an ancient link between theatre and religious ritual – indeed, there is an ongoing academic debate about which emerged from the other. Was it that religious ritual was a particular form of theatre, or that theatre was a particular form of ritual? Whichever is the case, the nature of being able to share in a common experience, journeying through a common story and being changed by that process – this is right at the heart of what makes theatre so special.

This was well known to the ancient Greeks, from whom much of our understanding of theatre descends. They talked about something called ‘theōria’ – a word that has come down to us as ‘theory’ but, as is so often the case, that ‘coming down to us’ is a descent in more ways than one. For the Greeks, theōria was something immensely practical. Aristotle argued that theōria, the philosophical consideration of the nature of things, is the highest and most enjoyable activity there can be, it is the central purpose of the best possible human life. To our ears, this sounds like something very abstract and almost passive. In translations of Aristotle, theōria is normally rendered as ‘contemplation’ which suggests a single, steady gaze held on a single impressive object, like a telescope focused on the peak of a high mountain. This is very much not what Aristotle had in mind. On the contrary, what Aristotle had in mind was something called “sacralized spectating” – the sort of very vigorous and engaged communal experience that comes from a community watching something like the Olympic Games together (either then or now) – or, of course, watching a tragedy in the theatre at Athens. In other words, to participate by watching is at the heart of what the greatest thinkers in antiquity felt was the best sort of life. Our modern media gives us many ways in which to do this – and a dark movie theatre is a very good way in which to do this – yet there is something irreplaceable about ‘good, live theatre’. It is unique, it is profoundly engaging, and it is chthonically human.

Which is why we on Mersea are so extremely fortunate to have the MICA centre available for such productions, and if my view of how the coming years are likely to unfold has any merit, I believe that we will be making much more use of such community resources in the future. To have a neutral community space that can be adapted for such a purpose is a great blessing – long may it last. So please do come along! There are two one-act plays being performed each night on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th May at 7.30pm. They contain adult content (theme and language) and even though I’m partisan, I do think that the scripts are hilarious – the plays have been performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh festival for example. I just hope that we actors can do justice to the lines…