This retreat will use a familliar format to ones that I have led before. To spend time in the wild beauty of an uninhabited deserted island in spring is a truly magnificent experience, but retreats are much more than tourism. They are about delberately going deeper, beyond the surface of things. If there is a language for this kind of journey, it is poetry.
They say that everything that ever was
Is with us still and that we are all
Our DNA, or so they say,
Contains some manta ray
Along with pterodactyl
Every leaf and every tree
Grows in you and grows in me
Every fish and every bird
Listens close to our every word
For everything belongs to everything
And we are all
It is my intention to read poetry together and to encourage one another to write. We will have some activities ready that may help, but the island is our main tutor.
This retreat will of course follow a long tradition of pilgrimmage to these islands. It will remember some of our Celtic ancestors, and the journeys they made.
By the way, Ute Amann-Seidel (who set up and runs Wild at Art) was on radio Scotland last week, talking about her other project, Fire and Rain, which grew out of her loss and bereavement. You can find out more about this by following this link.
Last Sunday was our anniversary. 29 years ago, I married a rather wonderful person. I did not know just how wonderful she was back then – my own woundedness made me myopic in that regard – but the time in between has left me in absoutely no doubt.
As evidence of this, she was quite happy to let me go and play cricket on our anniversary- choosing to travel up to Balmoral Castle (yes, THAT one, home of the queen, who was in residence. We saw her twice, but she was busy so did not linger, not even for cricket.)
In the light of all this, I think I must now confess. I forgot about our anniversary, resulting in the terrible message that cricket is more important than she.
Before you quite rightfully arrange for my incarceration, or worse, I would say that I had ordered her a present, but had just got confused over dates- a combination of dyslexia and being self employed, both of which can detatch me from the world… but not from Michaela.
We had an adventure together, driving back over the high hills in the gathering dark with less fuel in the tank than we were comfortable with. I could choose no better companion.
A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth
Open your FB feed. Finger your way up and down Twitter. Open any newspaper. What will you see? I guarantee you that bookending all the cat videos and other people’s holiday making the dominant message you will encounter will be this one;
We will be titillated by a sense of threat and almost-panic, which will leave us nursing a constant, debilitating, border-line anxiety.
I know this because I play that game too. I contrbute to it. I share posts railing against climate change denial and the bloody awful Univeral Credit system in the UK. I do this because what else can I do but piss into the digital wind? At least raising the issues might do some good, right?
Or perhaps not. After all, these posts almost certainly only reach people who already agree with them. They achieve nothing, change nothing. All they do is stoke the sense of crisis and anxiety.
Perhaps it might be even worse and that this anxiety is debilitating and undermining our ability to actually change anything. After all, there is something about how we consume our social media that then consumes us, rendering us impotent and useless as a force for change. The end result is a feed back loop that traps us, nullifying any energy that might be left for actual activism.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to declare an emergency, in order to stimulate an emergency response. Real change often requires a crisis to pitch us into action. But when this crisis is framed in a way to make meaningful indiviual response seem impossible, it becomes a problem.
What can we do about it? I think it is time that even an old cynic like me has to start looking for stories of change that can inspre and unite local response. These are the stories that need to clog our FB feed- not just the virtue signalling ‘aren’t I cool’ thing, but in terms of celebrating the things done by others.
There also seems to me to be an impotant mind-shift in challenging what philospher Timothy Morton called Hyperobjects- terms that might represent something real, but are no longer useful terms because they are too big to get into our heads; black holes, the internet and of course global warming. Hyperobjects overwhelm us and render us powerless before them, like the approach of juggernauts. We have to find ways to break down hyperobjects so they become meaningful again.
We have to find ways back to hope.
It is a small thing, but this is one of the reasons I read and write poetry, so here goes again;
We are not helpless here
Thundering juggernauts will shudder to a halt
Inches from our upraised hands
We have made a stand
We are not victims here
Each injustice is remembered, not to avenge
But as the tender wounds of our becoming
Back when we made a stand
We are not broken here
Our bodies embrace their beautiful imperfections
And here, in our many shapes and colours
We make our stand
We are not defeated here There is much to do but we are many, and Whole worlds are reshaped by loving So right here, we will stand
This is the fourth in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.
For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;
A look at the old paradigm.
A look at the new.
Finally, a ‘statement of faith’
There is a long tradition of apologetics in Western theology, which is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse- as if it might be possible to cancel out any doubt or heresy by a convincing debate. That is not my point here. I have no interest in defending one narrow definition of faith because I think that this might miss the point of faith entirely. Let me say more.
What if the point of the faith that grew amongst those who called themselves followers of Jesus was NEVER about the defintion and codification of correct belief?
What if the point of faith was only ever the degree to which it set us free to live lives of love and service?
What if the depth of our spirituality is measured not in terms of the clarity and depth of our personal knowledge and enlightenment (despite all of the lovely ego rewards that would surely bring) but rather by the way that spirituality works out in our actions.
To put it another way, love is verb, describing an action. It is not an abstract concept that can be detatched from the messy business of shared humanity. Love has relevance for everything we do or say, or it has no relevance at all.
Or I could put it this way; Christian faith, divorced from active, engaged, sacrificial love has almost certainly lost it’s way.
…a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.
It is religion reduced to ‘feeling good’ and ‘personal success’; faith that fits neatly into a lifestyle that values most the attainment of a life full of ‘me’ experiences, ‘me’ relationships. God is employed as a talisman, or a life coach for our attainment and to develop our consuming power. Casey suggests that it is this kind of faith that American teenagers are learning from church and from the Christian families that they grow up in.
Does it sound familliar? If we look below the surface of our own experience of Christianity in the UK, might an impartial observer not draw similar conclusions? But then this too is incomplete. There are many examples of people whose faith has driven them to acts of radical engagement; people who have placed themselves alongside the most needy, or made them seek careers of service.
Nevertheless, it is a constant matter of amazement to me that a religion that grew from followers of the poverty stricken prophet who gave the Sermon on the Mount could co-exist so comfortably with imperialism and capitalism- not just in the sense of religion turning a blind eye, but rather in providing the very philospohical and spiritual underpinnings for both. It is this that seems incredible. How ever did it come to this? It is as if Christianity has be co-opted to act as justification for a thousand acts of conquest and consumption; even genocides.
Take slavery as a case in point, and remember how the words of the Bible were used to justify the fact that black slaves working in cotton fields or sugar plantations were doing so because of the will of God. Author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that this tradition remains strong within American Evangelical Christianity. In his book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, he describes it like this;
“After the South lost the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but slaveholder religion never went away,” he says. “It never repented. And it is with us still.”
…another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be “too political.” So we also have to face the silence of white moderates as a vestige of slaveholder religion. It’s not just the Trump defenders who got us here. It’s also all the good Christian people who did nothing when a man who was endorsed by the KKK became a candidate for president.
To return to the question asked at the head of this piece, what is faith for? Despite the important cricitsms above, in my experience growing up in charismatic and evangelical protestantism, the point of our religion was clear. It was to save souls from eternal damnation in hell.All other activities were then measured according to the degree to which they facilliatated this goal.
What happened to us when we had been saved (although I always had trouble believing that I actually was) was never well defined in this evengelical mono-focus. Of course, we knew that we had to save others, but understanding what living a good Christian life looked like was more problematic. What were we to atually do with ourselves?
The world was essentially divided in two- the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’. Salvation was so important that we were taught to be deeply suspicious of eerything from ‘the world’, which had been given over to Satan. This included art, music, science and partiularly other religions which were all deceptions of the devil. Service to the poor and needy was all well and good but unless it resulted in saved souls, it was a distraction.
What was left for Christians to do (when they hd been saved) was something called ‘worship’. We were to tell God how great he is, repeatedly, mostly in the key of G. I got very good at it, spending most of my spare time playing worship music. What else was a good Christian to do? Along with the rest of our faith, our worship reinforced our seperate-ness. It was an exclusive thing that took place in church buildings. We might have talked about seeing God in sunsets and rainbows, but we talked about it in church. Faith was validated and lived out through the public act of worship, and the correct study of the Word of God which was the climactic event of every gatheirng.
It was a faith that often over-employed its activist followers – to the point of absolute burn-out and beyond – in the support of the institution. I have heard it described as an elaborate wedding ceremony in which the same couple get married at the same time each and every Sunday. We did this because we thought it was a good thing to do. WE thought it served God. We thought it was the only way to live out our Chrsitian lives, short of going off into ‘the mission field’, which was only for a hallowed few.
Perhaps some of you will think this harsh. Perhaps you are right. Churches up and down the land are running food banks, night shelters, AA meetings, debt counselling, mother and toddler groups, even inter-faith dialogue meetings.
Things are never that simple; there is not good and bad, rather there are varying degrees of both/and. God was always willing to work with us in our incompleteness and imperfection- whilst drawing us forward into new encounter. I can testify to my personal similtaneous experience of both.
But Jesus never told us to worship him, he told us to FOLLOW him
Think about that for a moment. Can it be true?
As Richard Rohr puts it;
“Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything” (see the full context of the quote here)
The God Jesus incarnates and embodies is not a distant God that must be placated. Jesus’ God is not sitting on some throne demanding worship and throwing down thunderbolts like Zeus. Jesus never said, “Worship me”; he said, “Follow me.” He asks us to imitate him in his own journey of full incarnation. To do so, he gives us the two great commandments: 1) Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that our “neighbor” even includes our “enemy” (Luke 10:29-37).
So how do we love God? Most of us seem to have concluded we love God by attending church services. For some reason, we thought that made God happy. I’m not sure why. That idea probably has more to do with clergy job security! Jesus never talked about attending services, although church can be a good container to start with, and we do tend to become like the folks we hang out with. The prophets often portray God’s disdain for self-serving church services. “The sanctuary, the sanctuary, the sanctuary” is all we care about, Jeremiah shouts (7:4). “I hold my nose at your incense. What I want you to do is love the widow and the orphan,” say both Isaiah and Amos (Isaiah 1:11-17, Amos 5:21-24), as do Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Micah, and Zechariah in different ways. The prophetic message is absolutely clear, yet we went right back to loving church services instead of Reality. I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives. There is Sunday morning, and then there is real life.
The only way I know how to teach anyone to love God, and how I myself can love God, is tolove what God loves, which is everything and everyone, including you and including me! “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “If we love one another, God remains in us, and [God’s] love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12). Then we love with an infinite love that can always flow through us. We then are able to love things in their “thisness” as John Duns Scotus says—for themselves and in themselves—and not for what they do for us. (This from here.)
What I (and I think Richard Rohr) am proposing is not that we ‘set worship at war with works’ rather that we do the absolute opposite. We make them the same. They always were the same anyway We just forgot. Faith without action is… utterly pointless.
We forgot that the point of faith was never about our need for personal validation and security. It is not even about inspiring our our own moral correctness. It was certainly never about empire or the conquest of other countries for private profit.
What about all the saving of souls? Those of us brought up in the evangelical tradition will find it almost impossible to concieve of a Christian faith devorced from what we would regard as ‘the Great Commission’. It is our job to convert the world, right?
Or is it? This is something else that many of us have found our thinking undergoing a remarkable transition on. The Great Commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel says absolutely nothing about saving souls from hell. This is what it actually says;
God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.
Who is Jesus talking to here? Certainly to his disciples, probably extendable to us. He was telling them/us that what he had shown them and taught them was the way forward. He had set them free from narrow religion and reminded them that there is a better way, characterised by grace and love. He had planted hope in the gutter and showed us that our focus should always be on the poorest and most needy. He radically included the outsiders and those whose his own society excluded and hopes we will do the sae.
Jesus called this new way of living out life ‘The New Kingdom’. (Yes, the idea of a New Kingdom had other implications too, but we’ll get to these later.) The point of the Great ommission was to send out agents of the new kingdom, not to make converts to a religion called ‘Christianity’. This distinction may seem subtle, but it it not.
My point here is to ask again about this saving-souls-through-getting-them-to-say-the sinners-prayer stuff that many of us grew up with – what if this was a gross distortion of the message of Jesus? What if salvation is here-and-now thing, not just something reserved for the hereafter?
What if salvation is a intended as a kind of reconnection and restoration of the whole world, not just the chosen few?
I would go further still. What if many of the agents of this new kingdom are not ‘Christians’ at all? What if Christ ‘...plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his‘ as the magnificent Hopkins poem would have it?
What if some of those eyes and limbs are attached to people of other faiths, or none? I am afraid I no longer doubt this. Quite simply nothing else makes sense. Wherever love and grace are, there is God because S/he is the source of all love and grace.
What if Christ is another name for everything, so is in fact the world we are sent to love? Surely then it is our job to recognise him and join him there. It is not difficult to imagine that the Living God would be the breath in all living things and the electric spark that holds every atom in tension. It might be even more special than that though because this is where science and faith become one. What if that force that is the breath of all things and the spark that holds atoms in tension and the energy that sent the galaxies expanding outwards in to unimaginable vastness could actually be called by another name?
I think that name is love.
I believe that Christianity, if it is to be a religion at all, must be one that sends out, rather than only gathers in. It must be the place where agents of the kingdom of the living God are inspired, enabled and commissioned. These agents have a mission that arises from the very stones and soil on which we stand; they are called to find ever more creative ways to love the world. They might do this through missions of peace and justice, or missions of healing and restoration of relationship Because Christ is another name for everything, the mission might also call us to the ends of the earth, to every last species of animal, tree or spider.
A reworking of an old poem. I was thinking again about our redemption naratives, and how far they have travelled from love. Was the cross not ultimately about love? If not, what else? It was ALWAYS political, so I make no apology for associating this poem from the redemption story below it.