Monday, 23 March 2020

Strange

I am finding myself use the word 'strange' a lot to try to describe the way I feel as I, along with everyone else, try to process the Coronavirus pandemic. As a country, our schools closed three days ago and we're all trying to get our heads around the prospect of home educating our children for the next three months.

How do I feel about everything at the moment?

Ans: Strange. 

But strange isn't a feeling, and in fact as a word the more I see it on the page the more the word looks, well strange.

It isn't an emotion, and yet it feels very much like the right word to use. It relays the general disquiet I feel in my soul. I've become quite attached to the word like it 'gets' me, it sums up the mood and manner of the hour. But what's behind it? I resonate with the word for sure, but it isn't good word to communicate actual experience and emotion. It's a word that essentially means 'I don't know' but it's a word that makes honest the fact that 'not knowing' isn't the whole truth; I know enough to know that everything is not ok.

No, what I believe I am feeling (and what others are as well), when I say I feel 'strange' is actually that I am feeling 'afraid'. Fear of the unknown, the myriad of potential worse-case disaster scenarios in my mind and fear of personal redundancy. I have no reason to feel these things, since nothin too obvious has changed in my immediate vicinity; friends and family members are largely healthy, shops are stocked, and yet there exists a foreboding and impending sense of inevitable chaos. It feels, well, strange.

But what I have also noticed is the behaviour my 'strangeness' is leading me toward; which is also pointing to another reality present in my soul. I am finding myself drawn to temptations old and new. I want to binge eat, I want to drink alcohol often, I want to (I feel drawn to) watch things on TV that I know what do be good - essentially pornography.

Why?

Ans: Fear. 

The events of the past week have unsettled me and have therefore created much greater need for comforting. My flesh seeks comfort in the only ways it knows how; by gratifying its desires. It convinces me that this wound of fear and discomfort can be treated with a bar of chocolate or a glass of wine, or the adrenaline of pornography. But these are not good sources of comfort. They hit a spot, but the spot then recovers, moves and grows (and needs another 'hit'). The fruit of the flesh, the result of gratifying the sinful nature, is not life but death. No, the flesh is good only for one thing - to be crucified.

Instead I must recognise that these feelings of fear and the need to be comforted can and must be taken to the Lord in prayer. I must do all the usual things I do to fight my flesh's demands - wrestle it, flee from it, involve friends in the struggle, and I must preach the gospel to myself and throw myself under the shadow of the Most High.

He and he alone is my comfort and the Comforter. In a world of uncertainty and crisis, he and he alone can lead my through it.

Do not gratify the desires of the flesh but rather listen to source of their noise, your need for and desire for comfort. 

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Failure

I'll let you into a secret. Most months I feel like I'm failing. It's true. I live with an expectancy that sooner or later someone somewhere will call me out and point out that everything I've ever done in ministry has been wrong and that I cannot and should not have done all the things I've done. More than that, I'm half expecting it to be true that quite frankly everything I've tried to do over the years has amounted to next to no improvement or advance in anyone's life or the kingdom of God. O how I'd love to know what a better, more prepared, skilled and gifted and experienced person would do with my job; I'll copy them.

I don't say this to elicit cries of 'Oh poor you, that's not true - you're not a failure.' it's just how I feel.

The thing is, I've felt like this the entire time I've been in ministry and in whatever aspect of ministry I've worked in. When I worked with children and ran the Kidz Klub and Sunday children's work it was the same - 'failure'; ill equipped, poorly organised, lacking legacy, failure (standard fair in my mind). When I did youth work, it was the same and now as a pastor of a small church it's still the same - only now I find that the fear actually grows as I become aware of the potential reputational damage to the gospel and the lives of the church members.

These feelings and this reality is interesting to me and is something that's worth thinking more about.

The truth is of course that in some (many?) people's eyes and minds I am a failure. I have not met their expectations, I have not been and am not being what they want me to be. I am not succeeding in spotting and resolving the right tensions and problems in the church. As a leader I am not taking them anywhere fast. 

But how long does a building have to stand for or a community have to exist in relative health for before I/we are willing to say 'maybe it isn't that terrible after all'? Whilst I wouldn't want to take any credit for the health or strength of the community, I may have played a part in it not collapsing or disintegrating into ill-health.

And in that, lies some hint of a way through the latent fears and feelings of failure I have. If I try to answer my anxiety by pointing to success I'll always fall short and stay where I am. For success to offset feelings of failure, success has to be Total. I have to be able to point to every part of everything I've done and everyone who has been affected by it and see health and strength. Then and only then can I say with absolute certainty 'depart from me feelings of failure, for you are a liar.' But Total success like that of course is impossible, but does that mean that the elimination of failure-anxiety is impossible as well? I hope not.

If instead I point to a lack of catastrophe, I may perhaps find that to be a better defence lawyer.

Am I a failure? Not right now.

Will I fail in the future? Maybe. But even then 'failure' is too much a term of identity for me to allow it to be slapped on my head as a label. For even in a potential future where I am shown to have failed on a colossal scale (I mean failed in skill not moral character), I am much more than the sum of my labour.

Will I still be known and loved by God? Yes, definitely.

In which case, I'll ask it again: Am I failure? It doesn't matter. Case closed. The question is the wrong one, and the fear is spectre and I have a life motto on that one: don't waste time fighting ghosts, they don't fight fair.

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