Dear friends, another Christmas is upon us. I offer you a picture I snapped in the summer of the youngest member of my family, asleep on his grandmother’s knee. Another beautiful child who emerged this year into our beautiful world. How we worry about the world they are inheriting.
But today, let us remember that at the centre of everything, there is light.
From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
A few weeks ago, I had one of those
conversations with one of my oldest friends. He had made a comment using Christian
language that I no longer hear often, and I rather flippantly challenged it.
This led to a two hour skype conversation that ranged far and wide over faith,
doubt, the origins of the Bible and the meaning of faith and doubt. Unlike most
of these discussions, my friend kept this one respectful and listened carefully
to what I said, but I honestly think he was shocked be some of it. Perhaps he
should not have been, because I have made no secret of my relationship to the
spiritual discipline of doubt.
A few years ago I wrote about it on this blog. In hindsight, I remember it as a clear choice- I had spent so long fearing the loss of faith. There were so many thing about the tenets (both stated and unstated) of the religion I had known that bothered me, but for years I coped with this by NOT asking questions. It was easier to focus on the ritual, the shared practice, after all I was busy making music and facilitating the religious expression of others. When I moved to Scotland, it eventually became harder and harder to live with the contradictions however, and there came a point when I decided no longer to fear doubt, because if my faith was worth anything, it could survive my clumsy questions. Any faith named after the man who turned over tables in temples should have no sacred cows.
For a while it seemed as though my faith would wither and die- but it did not. If anything, it made me determined that ‘Truth’ would not be my theological straight jacket, rather it would set me free.
Not that we should ever pretend that this will be easy…
Truth is hard to come by Harder than Love
Love is hard to recognise harder than Need
Need is hard to justify Harder than Dreams
Dreams are hard to testify Harder than Hopes
Hopes are hard to simplify Harder than Choice
Choices are hard to live by Hardest of all.
So where has all this doubting taken me? Ten years ago, I started to read voraciously. I discovered other famous doubters, including many who had been grouped together under the (now curiously dated) label of ’emerging church’. Sacred cows started to wander off into distant pastures. We could list them- all those totemic beliefs that we use to define of theological positions. We could display them as sliders and tick of our position on the spectrum of belief (perhaps we started to do this in that conversation with my friend mentioned above) but it would all be a waste of time, because I simply do not think this is the correct way to measure faith.
If faith has value, it has to transcend religion.
Does that make sense? Let me try again.
Religion codifies belief. Think of it as a magnificent cathedral, built from once-molten rock, carved and shaped and rigid. But even though faith might be helped by the shapes and spaces created, faith is not stone.
I stood before this edifice of faith
And it was magnificent –
The curve of the certain arch
The immovable pillars
The knowing eye in all this carving
The soaring ceiling shaped by countless songs of praise
But there was this penetrating drip of doubt
I could ignore it for a little while
Until the swelling laths shed horse hair plaster
And the stalactites point down from on high
The end of everything
Like any fool under falling stone all I could do was move
Out into the sunlight and the gentle rain
Looking backwards to see what might still be standing
Whether it might be anything more than just a
But a ruin holds age with pride
Through the open vault light falls dappled into shadow
And the song of birds blows in on the wind
Some will rightly accuse me of descending into just a post-modern, pick and mix, me-first faith, in which I have shaped God to fit in with my needs, wants and prejudices. I say ‘rightly’ because we ALL do this, myself included.
This is why I must also doubt the God I have created.
This is why I must also set aside the distractions of doctrinal correctness and stop pretending that ‘truth’ is more important than love. I must doubt that kind of truth, particularly when it is mine.
After all, if we read the gospels, is this not the preeminent message of Jesus?
This is not a surrender to unbelief, it is the promotion of a higher mission. One that is much harder.
A time for the sent ones of God
To follow the rough roads
Into the barren broken places
To look for the marks left by Jesus
On the soft tissue
And brittle bones
Of the Imago Dei
The stinking, wretched
Image bearers of the Living God
Time for the revolutionaries of God
To follow the long hard march
Unyoked and with easy burdens
Looking for the soft places where people are
Where freedom flickers
Where hopes soar
And we seek out the Participatio Christi
With weak but willing hands and sore feet
Learning to partake in the labours of love
As advent unfolds, may our walk towards faith be not shadowed by unbelief. Rather may the tread of doubt take us closer towards love.
In that true West of Scotland tradition, I have a few jobs these days. I love the way that these things come together- a conversation in the pub, a meeting in the street. A few hours work and a few quid in the pocket. One of them involves ships and the sea…
Imagine. A lifetime spent working in offices, then suddenly finding yourself hauling heavy ropes attached to floating steel mountains.
There is a NATO oil depot near where I live. The whole hillside above it is honeycombed with massive tanks and there is a constant ebb and flow of ships collecting and delivering oil. Tankers and Fleet auxiliaries mostly, from all sorts of countries. Docking depends on a small vessel collecting mooring lines and towing them to ‘dolphins’, which are anchor points attached to the sea bed. Someone not very bright (me) then carries the line up a ladder and attaches it to bollards.
Sounds easy huh? It is- on a fine day. Quite the loveliest job in the world. But it is not always like that. Yesterday, for example, the wind was gusting to 50 mph and Stuart, the skipper, had to use his considerable skill to fight wind and waves to locate the boat whilst we donkeys timed our leap, ropes over our shoulder. Intrepid me…
It really is not that dramatic, but I keep taking photos with my phone so I thought I would share a few.
Who would have thought- from Social Work Manager to clumsy stevedore.
Dear friends- those of you who still tread the drudgery of work that feels like it is killing you. Another life IS possible, because my work may kill me, but I think I will die happy.
I know. I always get all “Christmas is too commercial” at this time of year. Then I plug a book. Let me explain myself….
A few years ago, I got a call from my mate Si Smith, who had an idea for an Advent collaboration. He brought together photographer Steve Broadway, meditation-maker Ian Adams and poetry from yours truly to make a book entitled We who still wait. The book offers photographs, a poem and a meditation for each day of advent, and is intended to allow us to reflect on the unfolding season.
These blokes should have a bit more of an introduction;
Steve is based down in Bristol. We have never met, despite collaborating on a couple of different things, via ‘tinternet and through mutual friendship with Si. He is a man of huge talents, with both pen and lens. You can see his prodigious daily output on his blog here.
Ian is poet of national reputation, who works to support people developing their own spiritual practices, via a whole range of lovely creative methods. He writes a daily meditation called ‘Morning Bell’, accessed via social media. You can find out about him via his Beloved Life site.
In the end, Si Smith contented himself with curating the book rather than employing his own considerable talents as an artist, illustrator and graphic novelist. Increasingly he seems to spend a lot of time encouraging other artists, making spaces for them, but you really should check out some of Si’s own work here. I would give special mention to the fantastic How to disappear completely.
Exalted company. Male company too- which is strange in my line of work. Most of the creative people I work with are women. I am not sure how this ‘maleness’ shaped the project, but it seems important to me, not for any exclusive paternalism, but because I found myself in the company of men like me. Men whose lives had meandered but continued to be driven by a creative search for something deeper.
Anyway, why am I banging on about this now?
Because Proost have a new edition out. It is now in A4 size, giving much more space for the pictures to come alive. It was a total surprise to me as I only found out about the new edition via twitter, communication not being a Proost strong point. I ordered a copy and it is lovely.
Of course, as I re read poems I wrote quickly a few years ago, there are things I would change, but still the words I wrote move me. This is as much as I can ask. My poetry is rarely technical, it is emotional.
So, in a totally non-commercial kind of way, I wondered if you might like to order your own?
I do so in humility, but at the same time, confident in the company I keep.
May the words, the images and the emotions stay with you as another Christmas approaches.
Baalam’s Ass Numbers 22:21-38
“Look! It’s there! Can’t you see it? Wings like thunderclouds Eyes like searchlights Robes spun from the last rays of the summer sun It is either a fairy pumped up on steroids Or a feckin’ Angel Not an allegorical one either.”
So it was that the living God Sent a mighty Angel To play hide and seek with a Donkey So that a pagan sorcerer Could speak out holy words To confound all Israel.
And a whole sky-choir Of heavenly creatures Chuckled.