The bowl…

My mate Simon and I went for a pint the other day, which is actually something I do fairly infrequently these days as there is usually something that gets in the way.

The simple act of a pint or two and a table to sit and talk around has been about as close as most of we blokes get to a deep spiritual discussion – although this too seems to be a practice that is dying. Pubs here can not make a living unless they convert to restaurants. As we all know, this is not a sign of people drinking less but is more to do with the availability of cheap booze for consumption in our private spaces.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because Simon and I were talking about our community (Aoradh) during our trip to the pub. We are thinking about offering a session to Greenbelt Festival in the ‘talks’ category under the strapline of something like ‘Don’t do it like us’.

All of these buzz words that have been applied to communities like ours in the wake of what we used to call ’emerging church’- alternative worship community, missional community, new monastic community. They all feel slightly pretentious and self serving to be honest. It feels like these labels belong to others in an urban context – trendy people who have big glasses, sharp haircuts and jeans with a baggy gusset that hangs to the knee.

Yet Aoradh has now been around for almost 6 years. It has developed and changed, stumbled then got up again, and we continue to experiment with a form of faith community fairly rare (as far as we are able to understand) certainly in the Scottish context.

Something that Simon said the other day in the pub has stuck with me. As we tried to map what we were and what we have become, he said something like this;

“We are an unhealed community.”

Simon was thinking about the people in our group who have serious illnesses, and the fact that our life of faith has to contain the awareness of sickness, brokenness and imperfection.

As I have thought about this, it seemed  important. It is not that our group is characterised by sickness – far from it –  but rather that we all have to live with the idea of a God who is real in the ordinary. A God who is not a magic talisman of success, but rather walks with us through the difficult times too.

There is also within this a challenge for faith- because we are  forced to confront the idea of a God-who-does-not-heal. A God who abides within brokenness, and lives within the uneasy question and the honest doubt.

Or even more challenging- a God-who-heals-sometimes, and some people. But not me.

My Michaela had a long term incurable illness (Ulcerative Collitis) that affected her from the age of 14 until 34, when all symptoms abruptly disappeared.  It is an open question and a grateful acceptance all wrapped up together.

All of which leads me to the Bowl.

In the recent winter storms, an old tree at the bottom of our garden was blown down, unfortunately into our neighbours garden;

A friend of ours was borrowing my chainsaw (through our local ‘timebank‘), as he is a wood turner, and I mentioned some pieces of wood from this tree. Some of it was dried already by age and the effect of the ivy that had dried out and hardened the wood. When he heard this he was excited.

Peter took the wood and promised a bowl for us out of it.

Amazingly, later that same day, he turned up, with this-

It is a lovely thing. A tree from our own garden, grown over who knows how many years, then spelted with sickness and disease before finally being broken by a storm.

Transformed by the craftsman.

Not healed or restored, but shaped and made beautiful.

Carved into the shape of service and hospitality.

As good an image for the hopes of community as anything else I can come up with…

A minute or so of Richard Rohr…

Tonight in our houegroup we are going to listen to Richard ROHRRRRRR.

(Get it?)

He does not roar though- there is a gentleness about him which I like.

He follows in the tradition of a kind of spirituality of vulnerability, brokenness and woundedness.

And any other kind of spirituality too quickly gets caught up in power- of the earthly kind.

Positivism, despair and the Cross…

A while ago, I wrote a long piece about my (rather negative!) reaction to the dominance of positive thinking within our culture, and perhaps more particularly within our faith based structures.

My friends will smile. Michaela (sometimes known as Polyanna) is almost universally optimistic in our family- a bit like a cross between Christopher Robin and Tigger, and me- well let’s just say I can be a bit of a donkey! But I suppose that is the point. We live in a life of variety and fluidity. Life has this way of throwing in the unexpected- to bring huge joy, sometimes followed by terrible pain and loss. Our roads are long and there is blessing and holiness in all these things- wherever the journey takes us.

We should beware those voices who push us towards a view of life, and an understanding of God, that is based on relentless positivism. There lies a danger that we live our lives towards a kind of wish-fulfilment- a seductive philosophy/theology of success and power which undermines the core messages of the Gospel… and is very much at odds with the way of Jesus.

Equally we should beware the voices of gloom who counsel us that all is lost and the end is nigh. Too many lives are walled in by defeat and damage done by life- and for these people, the way of Jesus is to seek to be a chain breaker and a freedom maker. Some of this might involve the shift of mind-set towards embracing the possibility of change- that old sleight of hand trick called Cognitive behavioural Therapy that I have practiced in my mental health career. The dominance of this approach to almost every human problem is not without good sound reason- even if the cynic in me might also point to the economics of providing short term, focused, ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of interventions.

I had two reminders of the issues discussed above this week. Firstly, Jonny Baker quoted some lovely writing by Ann Morisy in a discussion paper about mission.

Ann’s take on mission embraces both powerlessness, the eschewing of power AND the power of positive thinking. She cites Seligman, that great doyen of the American ‘self help’ movement. As I read her article I found myself saying YES….yes…(but)…

The YES was to some of these things (my emphasis)-

When we muster an intention to do things like Jesus, i.e. to follow Jesus – even in the most modest of ways – we arrive at the portal into the economy of abundance, where virtuous processes flow and grace cascades; By doing it like Jesus (even just a tad, and even just with the intention – because there is so much grace around) we trigger virtuous processes that gain momentum.

This relevance and transformational power of faith make it urgent to articulate and promote the resources at the heart of faithfulness that lead to human flourishing. And we need others to help us pass the test of public reason – it is not sufficient for our theologians or evangelists to simply assert the virtuous processes that faith sets in train.

The other article that interested me was a post reviewing this book on the Emergent Village blog.

I have not read the book (but it is now on order.)

Root asks the questions as to what a church would look like if it were based upon a theology of despair. He starts with Luther’s theology of the Cross– and suggests the church needs to reclaim a crucial piece of Luther’s insight, which he frames something like this-

God brings life and possibility out of death and impossibility.

I am taken back again to the Cross. To the point of absolute brokenness, failure and despair. To the point where all dreams ended, all hopes vanished and all future was stolen.

In my working life, I have met many people who are in this place. If our call is simply to tell them than in three days, there will be resurrection, and all things will be made new,  then we are in danger of dishonest dealing.

  • because it is not our cross
  • and we are not gifted with foresight
  • and because our voices will not be credible
  • and because those who are broken and in mourning are blessed

Something else that is crucial to me is the possibility that ‘God is to be found in the broken places. That he is made known in nothingness and death’.

Like the Navajo rug perfectly woven apart from one flaw, which allows entry of the Spirit.

And that healing comes most deeply not through a denial of pain- or it’s manipulation into insignificance- but rather through the transformation of discovering God within our difficulties and broken parts.