Friday, 12 July 2019

A Subtle Shift

I don't know what I think.

I've sat down to write but don't know why, nor do I know exactly what it is I want to process in this writing. I could let loose a stream of consciousness on the screen and stand back afterward to see what unfolded (another blog sat in 'draft' stage forever perhaps?). Or I could try and say something. But sometimes 'saying something' feels contrived and my mind doesn't think as freely as it otherwise would. I can set out to write sometimes and appear as though I'm exploring and musing and 'fellow travelling' but when I do this, I know all along where I'm heading; and so the journey isn't as free and loose as I'd like it to be.

I've returned home from another evening's discussion in which a diverse group of people expressed a diverse range of beliefs on a (you guessed it) diverse range of themes. I've come home trying to filter through what I've heard and I'm now trying work out what I think about it all. Nothing I've heard unearthed any evidence that Jesus isn't alive and that the Christian gospel isn't the fullest version of truth we have, but a lot of what I've heard has unsettled me. Confident, strident naturalism that has a lot of emotional and moral force to it always creates a level of revision in me and often I stand at my fireplace and stare into the middle distance (long enough that Amy asks what on earth I'm doing - to which the answer is often 'wondering what I'm on earth to do!'). 

As I pulled out my laptop with a sense of 'I must write something' not knowing at all what I ought to write, the title of this blog came to me. It came to me because of some work I've recently done in the room I'm sat. I laid laminate flooring where there was previously carpet. Sat here, at the table on this laminate floor, I am still aware now (a week on) of the feeling I first had upon completing it; that of being 'higher up'. The room feels different to be in because I'm higher up than I was before. Things look different, I see them differently and that is very noticeable. In real terms I am higher than I was before, but since it's is less than a centimetre's difference I'm surprised by how long lasting the  feeling of height is.

Wrestling with what I am tonight after the night's discussion I've had, it's this thought that gripped me as I sat down to write: new ideas raise us up to see things differently, and that takes getting used to. The size of the impact on us is directly related to the challenge it forces upon the foundations of a particular way of seeing the world. Whether that's good or bad of course depends entirely on whether you like the new perspective on the world you've been given, on whether you think we're meant to live in the mountains or make our peace with the valleys.

I am also left with an awareness that the world needs (and the church does too), more saints who are able to grapple with the same ideas and things the world does and at the same level that many of the professionals and academics that the world does. The world needs to see a church that isn't happy in its stupidity but is instead able to show that Christianity is not incompatible or unable to engage thoughtfully with the issues it raises. It needs also to present to the world a group of rationally very rich but also spiritually and experientially and philanthropically very deep people as well.

That's all for now.

God, send us those men and women and enable us to release them to equip the saints and give an answer to the world. Amen. 

Friday, 5 July 2019

It's Personal


Ultimate reality is personal.

That idea if true, has huge implications for life. The works and lectures of Ellis Potter are having a big impact on me at the moment and this statement is from his book on knowledge. Ellis was a Zen-Buddhist monk for ten years (many years ago) and is now a Christian lecturer, thinker, pastor and writer.

Ultimate reality is not mechanical, it's personal.

It is perhaps, in our society, more natural to think of ultimate reality as being mechanistic. We have broken the world down into its smallest parts, convinced as we are that a thing is best understood by isolating and understanding its smallest details. Having uncoupled the world from its goal and purpose and having done away with 'big-picture' meaning and objective absolutes we examined the world from that starting point and found it follows mechanical processes.

Tick follows tock follows tick follows tock.

The natural laws in the universe appear to be constant (we're not sure why but that doesn't seem to matter much) and so the universe is predictable, mechanical, repeatable, empirical. Drilling this down and asking the question 'what's at the bottom?' the answer comes 'it's turtles, turtles all the way down' or more specifically 'it's entirely mechanical and predictable.' This is a 'bottom up' natural theology, a philosophy that extrapolates from the data we've preoccupied ourselves with. The implications of this of course is that life, relationships, art, love and beauty (and any other things belonging to the personal aspects of living) are by-products of the process. They are useful, and sometimes necessary by-products, but they are the tip of the iceberg, the point above the water's surface, the actual reality underneath is not personal or interested in anything it may produce, it is blind, unfeeling and mute. This idea (that the world can be fully known by examining its component parts) has moulded our economy, industry, education and (increasingly) our ideas and politics. Utility and usefulness for society are commonly the measure of a things value. Not useful enough? Then make way for something that is, and wait your turn until the universe respawns you into something more useful than you were before.

But what if the personal and artistic and beautiful and musical elements of life were the thing that is most real, and the mechanisms we examine were the surface-level reality? What if, underneath, it wasn't turtles but persons and love? Sound romantic doesn't it? But that doesn't make it wrong, in fact it may be just the opposite.

The more I observe about human life the more it becomes clear to me that what we need and enjoy most in life, what we value above all are the deep relationships in our lives that make us feel so significant; not accepting the egomaniacs and narcissists (who are the exceptions that prove the rule).  You see, the Bible also does a natural theology, but it takes as its starting point something else. Rather than examining the world bottom up the Bible takes a 'top down' approach. It opens our minds to consider that maybe, just maybe, the things we find most commendable about human life are the thing that is most real and most true and then sees everything else as an extension and distortion of that.

The Bible reveals a universe that celebrates love, sacrifice, heart, character, intention and beauty and dares to suggest that the reason for this is because the Origin of everything knows and appreciates and revels in, those things as well. We love Love because ultimate reality, God, is Love. The Being that gave birth to everything we see and feel is a personal, multi-personal Being who created the cosmos as an extension and overflow of his communion.

What that means is that everything we see around us, the mechanisms and processes is an extension of that Being. What that means is that the wonder-full sciences are much richer than we first thought they were. We may know how a thing operates, but it doesn't originate in those 'hows'; rather it originates in the 'whys' the thing is. And the 'why' a thing is, is found in the origin of everything, the God who is Love, the Being who is personal.

What this means is that fate isn't blind, chaos isn't ultimately chaotic, and a thing cannot be fully known until we understand the 'why' it does what it does, and not just the how it does it.

That's why we love, that's why we long for loved ones and that's ultimately why we miss people. Why we long for the father and mother we never knew and agonise over wanting to be liked and known comes from the grains of Reality we sense in the world. That's why we fear loneliness and exclusion and why we spend £100 on a pair of shoes we don't need. The reason, ultimately, is because it's personal - everything is.

Don't buy the fatalistic 'switch me off when I'm too old to be of use' and 'I can't help it I'm hardwired that way' sort of thinking. Don't swallow it, but instead spit it out and replace it with the truth that Personhood, relationships and love matters most. Spit it out because, ultimately, it's a poisonous pill and creates a very different community, society and world than the one we flourish best in.


Monday, 27 May 2019

The Fragile Self

'Such and important message!'

'So beautiful, and so so needed!'

'It's so wonderful to see such empowerment on display!'

Accolade after accolade followed their performance, and deservedly so for a fantastic and important, oh so important message.

I watched the performance of the all girl dance group The Khronos Girls in the semi-final of BGT and echoed many of the sentiments shared by the judges above. I shared them but for different reasons. It is a needed message but I fear so few can hear it. Their dance depicted the struggle of teenage girls everywhere to match up to others' expectations of themselves and their fight for self-acceptance in a world that makes them feel constantly like they don't measure up.

It was heartbreaking to see such a clear presentation of one of the main problems with our psychological age, and baffling that so few people see the huge fissures that seem to be opening up beneath our feet. Fissures evidenced by the terrifying rise in mental health disorders, the suicide rate and the traction that the message of The Khronos Girls gains.

Our self-expressive and individualistic age has surely created one of the most vulnerable and likely to shatter versions of the self I can imagine there ever existed.

People have commented that World War I and its awful sequel, together with its holocausts killed dead the widespread story of modernity, namely that the human race is an ever improving species destined for moral beauty and greatness. Yes, believe it or not, that story is dead (although due to our shared amnesia over recent history many people still insist on parading it through the streets). What has arisen in its place is not a grand story of our species' potential along with its big vision of what we can achieve together, but the rise of the individual demi-gods. We have transferred our optimism over the potential of the group and have instead put that hope onto the individual. We have put all the weight of hope and longing onto the shoulders of each one of us.

Every one of us is now meant to the be the star of the most impressive and meaningful display of human virtue and rags-to-riches story there can be.

What the dance act portrayed was the struggle faced by every teenage girl to accept who they are, but what lies underneath it is the cultural narrative of why that pain exists in the first place.

It is frankly a crushing weight to grow up under. Be brilliant. Be smart, be beautiful. Be yourself.

The dance ended with the battle cry 'we are all beautiful' (or something similar) at which point surely, for those who are willing to hear it, could be heard the desperate longing of a sick soul, longing to be enough hoping to high heaven that it is enough, praying, dear god let me be enough. It was the noise of a soul struggling under a weight it cannot bear, and our society won't see how impossible it is to realise its expectations.

The longing is real, the angst is real, the crushing weight placed on the individual is real and the need for our symptoms to be treated by something other than the earnest plea to 'just be yourself' and 'you are enough!' is real as well.

The reality that those pleas don't often break through and don't provide us with the foundation we need to actually live on them needs to be acknowledged. They don't do what we want them to because deep down we know that we're not enough, we're not beautiful or amazing or incredible; at least not truly/fully; not enough. And the reason those statements don't cut it is because - we each know what we're really like, deep down. We know what we're like when we're alone.

What's needed is an encouragement to see ourselves for who we really are, to stare the cold hard truth in the mirror and see our lack and our insignificance for what it really is. The angst we feel about ourselves is meant to be there in order to help us sober up, and the reason we need sobering up is because we're drunk on our potential and our self-importance.

I dare you to stare at and allow your vulnerability to over power you; dare you to feel the terror of reality that you'll never be enough, you'll never be the hero you want to be. I dare you to stare at it because there in the light of cold hard truth surrounded by your nakedness and your fragility, in the dust and dirt of life, stands (or rather hangs) a true demi-god if you can see him. There you'll see a saviour who sees you for who you are and who calls you out on it.

Jesus sees your brokenness and fragility and impurity and wickedness. He sees it and he calls it what it is. It is only once we see it and bring it to him that he is able to replace it with something far richer and thicker than anything our image obsessed, individualistic age could ever offer us hope to get by with.

It is then that we see perhaps what the Bible writer meant when he said: My life is hidden with Christ in God. Christ is your life. All other ground is sinking sand.

Only Jesus offers you a self that won't be crushed under the weight of our self-expressive and individualistic society.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Beauty from violence

On the earth's creation.

'When I first saw the Earth from space I thought about how something so incredibly beautiful came from something so violent and destructive.' - Astronaut Nicole Stott

Watching a documentary on the creation of planet Earth I was struck by those concluding comments.

Throughout the episode there was a regular repetition and emphasis placed on the violence and chaos that surrounded the creation of our planet. Rocks 'smashed' into each other 'collision upon collision'. The narrator described our planet as a tiny droplet of calm in a massive surging 'storm', 'raging' all around us.

It made me think of the creation myths from antiquity. Unfamiliar with the details of any particular story I'm told that in almost all creation stories, the world is created amidst a battle between the gods, with war and violence as their themes.

Increasingly I'm interested by the process by which many of our early human ancestors created those stories, and I have come to believe that they arrived at them in large part simply by observing a lot about the universe and the way it functions. If careful, meditative and lived experience of the world was all you had to go on one would expect theories of monism and dualism to emerge; they seem in keeping with our observation of things.

It is the Bible's creation account that needs an explanation, not the others.

Referring back to the concluding comments of the documentary there seems perhaps to be an insight for Christian living and a hint of a fuller and thicker reality in the universe, a reality that can only be gleaned either from hindsight over billions of years and the latest in scientific research, or through some sort of revelation given by some being from outside the system.

This indeed is the message that Jesus' life, death and resurrection offers us and it is the message that offers comfort to believers all over the world. The storm is not our friend if the storm is all there is but as with the creation of our planet, so with the story of our lives; if God is at work in the storm to bring out incredible beauty, it can indeed be our friend. This is what the apostle Paul sees when he writes: and we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purposes. What's he doing when he says that? Where does he get that idea from? From heaven? No, I think he's merely extrapolating out from Genesis's creation account and from the profound activity of God in the gospel. In doing so he arrives at a conclusion that is not only comforting but also full of hope and beauty. It is something with far reaching implications for our lives. As Christians it would seem that this, and not the modern prosperity and comfort gospel, is our proper modus operandum.

Charles Spurgeon was right when he wrote:
Happy storm—that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! 
O blessed hurricane—that drives the soul to God and God alone! When a man is so burdened with troubles, so poor, so friendless, so helpless that he has nowhere else to turn—he flies into his Father’s arms, and is blessedly clasped therein! Oh, tempest-tossed believer—it is a happy trouble which drives you to your Father! 
Or as the documentary concluded:

'The storm has been our friend,'

Yes it has and it can continue to be only because it isn't the product of random forces (or warring gods) but of the guiding hand of a loving and awe inspiring heavenly Father. A Being who brings beautiful things from the dust and rubbish heaps of life.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Solitude: a journey of listening


I am listening God.

Silence. Then, like a stampede of elephants my thoughts crowd and crush through my mind demanding I attend to urgent matters and trivial ones. Holding the mind still enough for long enough to listen is hard. As external processors perhaps it is only in the engaging of our thoughts that we can hold and develop them. The thoughts come one at a time in this way, the next only appearing once the first has been captured. 

In my mind is this image, that as the stampede passes there is left behind in the elephant's path a small creature, shy and unassertive standing and waiting; ready to be listened to but not demanding. Lean in and listen.

Do I need ask questions or require answers? How will it know what to say?

A voice comes. It doesn't come from the creature but it can only be heard when I lean in to the thing. The voice comes out of the air in between the air, around the creature. The voice fills the room yet it isn't loud. It is thick and near, full even but not loud. Once I'm close enough to hear it there is no unhearing it or even avoiding it. It says simply: "I am the speaking one."

"I am the speaking the one," it says again "are you a listening one?"

"I am," I say

"Then. Listen."

And implicit in the word 'listen' is the multitude of ways I am to listen; the air, the earth, the word, the Spirit, the saints. It's as though it says 'listen, listen to them all and hear me'. I breathe in deeply and hear only my breath, I listen to the life force in my body, the energy that is distinct from my brain and heart and blood. There is a peace and a strength that is heard in my stillness but yet is also distinct from it, the source of it perhaps. Yahweh. In the stillness I hear; Yahweh is there. He is God and he is speaking.

The creature in the room suddenly springs into life. It leaps against the wall and then onto the ceiling and to the other side of the room. It continues doing this over and over and gradually it gets faster and faster until it is a blur or movement. I am fixated on it, following its every moment, focusing so precisely that I barely notice my surroundings change.
Now I am above the earth but not alone. The Speaking One is with me, I sense his strength. All around me is black and stars with the great blue planet below, and it is then that I see, then that I understand. The atmosphere around me seems charged with energy but as I lean in I notice the air particles or atoms or I don't know what, begin to move. It is the space between the spaces, the veil perhaps between our space and His. The movement is a stream and a ribbon of what can only be described as words and sentences. Constantly moving like a roll of film tapering around and down and back and forth to the earth, from the earth, into space and back. Back, all of it back and forth, from some unseen centre and source.

"I am the speaking One" I hear again, "Are you a listening one? Are you, therefore a seeing one? Listen, and in listening see. Hear and see my work in the the world. Know I am near and present."

--
I am back panting on my knees in a heap in the old room of my mind. There is calm. I will be a listening one and I will speak for and about the Speaking One.

This is the reparative work of solitude. We withdraw; in order to return. 

x

Friday, 1 March 2019

Life in Ruins: Constructing Truth

I had a fascinating discussion this evening with a detective inspector who trains people in suspect interrogation. The thing that most stood out to me was his comment that when a person constructs a lie they always create a linear narrative a then b then c then d, everything is causal. The interrogator's role is to try and question various parts of the story to try and make their story break down.

It got me thinking. Do we work to spot and create causal relationships between things when we are trying to defend our positions? Are these types of cognitive distortions that aren't easily noticeable? Is that what a person does to construct a meaning and bring themselves comfort? Do we lie to ourselves in order to convince ourselves we're ok because the confusion and pain we'll cause ourselves by waking from the delusion is too much to bear? On a macro level is that what a worldview is, a post-hoc construction of component parts assembled into an order that 'makes sense' to us, that is a coherent way of seeing things?

This needn't be done cynically (as in the case of a criminal; that I am trying to convince myself or others of something I know not to be true). It can just as well be the way in which we carry out our lives. We start from a position and work our way backwards to find the source of or cause of our position. If I am in Victoria Station and I don't know how or why I got there I will understandably be very distressed. If I can remember the steps I took to purchase the ticket and the seat I sat in on the train to get here, I will be comforted. I will be even better off, however, if I remember why I took those steps in the first place, that it was to attend a conference.

The steps to determine mental wellbeing: who am I? Where am I? What time is it? need to be answered to prevent us falling into a state of blind panic or confusion.

Being alert, honest and self-aware with every decision I make is perhaps one of the best ways of avoiding the danger of constructing a simplistic linear lie that can be shot at. Inauthenticity and superficiality are vulnerable to attacks 'from the side' in the same way a lie is shot through in an interrogation.

I know where I am now in life and what's more I know the conscious decisions I took to bring me here.

I know that the decision to live as a Christian and pursue the world as Christianity defines it was a conscious decision that I have made repeatedly. It may be, and undoubtedly people will say this, that I made those decisions each time out of cowardice to face the facts of a cold and purposeless reality.

That may be the case.

It may be the case that reality is cold and purposeless at a meta level, but I knew that the usefulness of Christianity became a backstop in my mind that kept me embracing it. The truth is that yes the gospel and the sensed internal ecstasy at its truthfulness was incredibly beautiful and desirable for my mind. But it is also the truth that I chose to walk toward it in spite of an awareness that it may not be true (out of an awareness that it is a belief that requires an obvious amount of trust in a number of different sources; history being the main one). I still chose to pursue it because I loved the enchantment it endowed the world with, but also because that enchantment was more plausible than not. It seems to me that wonder and awe, and gratitude and expectation is a much more appropriate response on a daily basis to this world than is familiarity and boredom. I agree with an opponent who says it is also more childish. Maybe I am more childish than adult, that wouldn't be the first time anyone said that to me. But if 'adult' is here used to mean disenchanted or familiar then I suggest it is a mistake to call that grown up at all. It is better to call it arrogant and pompous and the manifestation of bratishness.

The world hums with possibility and wonder and it is that that is more true on a natural and biological level than complacency. Enthusiasm and gratitude is a much more appropriate response to reality than mere acceptance. When I engaged with the gospel I saw that the gospel 'played' into that response of the world and that gave the gospel a degree of acceptance to my inner person than the plain reasonableness of the thing alone. Very few decisions are made at the level of reason alone and indeed reason is rarely alone at all. It is that I expected the world to be the sort of world where magic might exist that when I heard about a living, breathing magic in the form of Christ's people on the earth I was drawn to it. Now of course this may well all be and explanation 'post-hoc', an explanation only after I've decided on the conclusion I want the argument to take. Of course, but we all reason from where we are rather than from where we might have been. No, the fact of the matter is that I am here (a Christian) and not there (an open minded and spiritually minded non-Christian) and so I must try to show how, and why I arrived here.

The point I am driving toward is that for all the conviction I felt on an emotional level when I engaged with the claims of the gospel it was the felt and perceived usefulness of the gospel and not a knowledge of its iron-clad truthfulness that enabled me to embrace it wholeheartedly. I couldn't have been sure about whether it was 'iron-clad' in its claims at the time. I couldn't be sure, but then I didn't mind either. All I knew was the exhilaration I felt as its explanatory power opened up the world around me. It became like the theory of gravity. It became useful but not exhaustive. I still had to learn about the laws of thermo-dynamics, of thrust and lift and drag before I could fly. I had a scaffold that allowed the structure that is my life to go up. The gospel is my plumb line and standard, the tether I've tied myself to. Learning why and how fascinates me, but I never want to step outside it to explore it for too long. Like leaving the strength and hospitality of the shuttle to go on a space walk, I don't want to live in the space without atmosphere for long. I have found life and joy and direction in the gospel and, for all my fascination with how I got it, I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Does that close off objectivity to me? Yes, but then I think that's a thing closed off to everyone.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

My Heart's Darkness

I get discouraged by other people's success. That's how truly ugly my heart is. I find it hard to listen to other people preaching who are what I consider to be 'better' than me. I go to team meetings in another church and when they share that some people became Christians recently, I celebrate outwardly but die a little inwardly. I feel a surge of emotion and an instinct to fight when someone dares to challenge a decision I've made. I say things to my kids loud enough that my wife overhears and thinks I'm a better man than I am. I care less about whether the students I teach have learnt something and more about whether I've performed well or am loved by them. I wilt unless others pat me on the back or tell me I've done well. I want to sit around and indulge in my own emotions and thoughts and I expect and desire everyone else to bow down and acknowledge my greatness.

I could go on but these announcements are not incidental or trivial, they're soul destroying. My heart is black and rotten. I'd like to think I'm not alone, and I'm sure in fact that I'm not alone and that others too are like this but the trouble is that I expect better of myself. The presence of this reality is not only terrible because it's true, it's terrible because it's true of the one person I want it not to be true of. The truthfulness of these statements reveals the even worse reality that I will never be like the image and reputation of the great men I admire and want to emulate. It means I have to accept my station. What's worse is that a lot of those things are so instinctive and normal for me, some of them so physiological and chemical that I don't have much expectation of them changing even over time.

I am a rod of iron that the gospel has done its work on, had its softening effect on but still it remains bent out of shape.

Who is the authentic me? Is this me? Are these things things that define me? They sure feel as though they do. What is an integrated self, an identity that possesses integrity and what does it look like for me? The presence of high extroversion and nigh negative emotions like mine I'm told makes it harder for me to keep long term commitments and navigate a single path through life. That worries me since I believe that success is earned through faithfulness and stubborn obedience over the long term.

I'm not in a place or position to try and resolve these thoughts and ideas, instead I want for them to settle and land. I don't have easy answers to pick me up and in many ways I want to keep staring at this mirror, this medusa. Will I turn to stone? Maybe that's what's best. Maybe it's better long term for the church for me to step aside and to stop pretending I can hold it together. I always hoped I'd be a better pastor than this. I felt called, I'm clearly competent at preaching but ugh I am ugly of heart, bent and spiritually cold.

Father come and help me. Help me deliver on what you've called me to deliver on. I'm a desert soul, you are able to make me live again.

--

Here's a funny thing about how God works. Immediately after writing this I walked into the kitchen where someone of my students were starting to prepare tonight's dinner. One of the lads said something encouraging to me and I replied with 'You're a nice guy,'
'I try to be' he said
Rather tongue in cheek I replied 'Do you try to be or are you naturally a nice guy?'
'I've tried for long enough that it's now become natural.'  He said
Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

There's a lot of truth in what he said. Truth that I needed to hear at that specific time.

--

Later in the same evening I felt the Lord impress on me Paul's exhortation from 2 Cor. 12:9:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.