I am beautiful…

me, fractured

A title that may well expose me to questioning ridicule- stay with me though.

For most of my life I have been affected by a crippling lack of confidence. I manage to hide it some of the time, even to act as though it is not there, but it never quite goes away. Many of you know just what I am talking about; that feeling that in any given social situation things could go wrong. That the others have more brains, more good looks, more talent, more presence.

This is not just an intellectual understanding- I know that my position is not always logical. I am quite good at some things. I even surprise myself sometimes, so do not hit me with your ‘power of positive thinking’ crap. But all my success is nuanced by the shadow of doubt. If I am not careful I know that these negative thoughts become a black hole that I fall in to.

It is not just a spiritual understanding- I know that I am a child of the Living God. I am even convinced that he likes sinners like me, that he has a skew towards those at the back of the class. My experience is that whilst God may not be my divine therapist, still he has this way of turning negative to positive. So my sensitisation can become a way of being sensitive to others. It can become deeply creative. Nevertheless, sometimes depression hangs on me like darkness and I can create nothing, love nothing.

It is not just a psychological understanding- I have been down those roads; the counselling, the self help, the CBT formulation schematics. I know the root of this in my childhood, the factors in my personality that skew me towards the shadow. I understand them in the same way that a man understands how forces of gravity will mean that it will hurt when he surely falls. I am an onion, with each skin stretched from the same damaged DNA.

It is not about appearance, although I avoid mirrors and dodge the pointed lens. They tend to make an unflattering cartoon of my face.

But enough of this.

It is true and also not true.

For despite all these things, I am beautiful.

So those of you who carry your own wounds- know this- you are more. And although I know these words are trite and shallow (I wrote them after all…)

…you are beautiful too.

The silence of God…

The silence of God


Here I am God

Speaking again into your vast unknown

Straining for resonance in space you left wide open



They say you speak through sunsets

That you voice the throat of sparrows

That I should look for you in the least of these

And that you also speak in silence

They say you are a jealous God

Who calls us from beyond the periphery of our understanding


But I am weary of mixing portents from selective mundanity

I hope for so much more than God-in-abstract

Who is unmoved by weeping


Perhaps the problem is all mine

Some deficiency of listening making holes in my audial spectrum

Perhaps I am too used to snowing my head with white noise

Or maybe my ears are all plugged up with sin-wax


But then again, can this really be a matter of technique?

An accident of genetics gifting some with God-ears?

Do you require some holy smoke-filled sanctuary?

Or a flagellated enlightenment?

Can a loving God be so capricious?


So I decided to stop sending all those wish lists

All the pleadings for success and significance

I will even intercede reluctantly

More out of habitual hope

And a desire to carry the shape of you to others


I mean in this no lack of respect Lord

What rights have I to command your attention?

Neither is this related to my lack of faith

Even when I forget where I planted my mustard seed


It is just honesty

In the face

Of silence


But still I am listening


Honest doubt and fundamentalism…

I have been listening to some of this series on the old wireless during my travels this week- Richard Holloway‘s journey through the emergence of doubt in the wake of faith. Compulsive listening for old pilgrims like me.

For those of us on a quest for honest faith, we have also to be honest about doubt. The two things are intertwined, as I have written about previously. Doubt then is not the opposite of faith, but rather the means through we we engage, wrestle and ultimately it can become the way that we move towards light.

Today the discussion centred around the issue of revelation– the idea of an interventionist God, who reveals himself to his followers through dreams, visions, prophecy, and people ‘hearing his voice’.

Some of these ‘voice hearers’ began to write down these words, and it is these words that we go to most often as we seek fresh revelation.

One little morsel that impacted me today was this one, concerning the writings of Origen

Origen was a hugely influential scholar, theologian and writer of the early church, writing in Alexandria in the second and third Centuries after Christ. His views soon were controversial- he was a universalist and believed in the pre existence of souls. He was condemned later as an apostate- but perhaps we should regard him as a theological adventurer, putting forward ideas and theories for us to chew on.

Today his views on scripture were mentioned. The gospels that were circulating at the time (and there were many more than the 4 we have in our Bible now) had all sorts of areas of disagreement and contradiction. This might be hardly surprising if we read these as eye witness accounts, or scholarly collections of stories.

We might also expect a gospel to bear in some way the perspective, the creativity, the agenda of its particular author- one person might focus on one aspect of the life of Jesus- love for example, anther might be more interested in proving some other theological issue. You could describe this as observer bias.

This is of course not a problem if you understand this as you read- in fact it can be extremely enriching to view the life of Jesus from different perspectives- this is the whole point of us still having 4 gospels in our Bible is it not? However it becomes a problem when you start to treat the text not as revelation through a man, but rather the very ‘Word of God’. Then you have to deal with the contradictions in a whole different kind of way. You have to make it all fit into one homogeneous whole. As we used to hear said- ‘inerrant; without error or contradiction’.

It seems that back in the second and third Centuries there were already disputes about the validity of scripture as the inerrant Word of God. Origen however suggested that God had deliberately allowed these contradictions/disagreements to remain in scripture precisely to remind us that it was not to be taken literally– rather it was to be engaged with, wrestled with, questioned and debated.

In this time of the rise of fundamentalist doctrine, this ancient heretic might well have some more agitation to do for this generation too…

New belief…

Over the past few years, often charted on this blog, the defining codes of faith on which I have sought to live my life has changed considerably.

At first it fragmented. I was no longer sure if I believed at all, let alone had confidence in the traditions I was part of. This was sometimes traumatic. Later however faith began to emerge again less as a set of resounding assertions about the nature of the divine but more as a process of faithful questioning.

In other words, it could be regarded as faith not as the opposite of doubt but rather doubt as an integral part of a living faith journey. I wrote about this before, here.

Along the way, the emphases I place have shifted considerably. I do not think that the correct goal for the life of faith is perfecting our theology- either from the point of view of knowledge, or narrowing down our understanding of ancient text until we have nailed down every errant verse to fit an integrated whole. Rather I think that attempts to do this will always be futile, and distractions from the real business of faith, which is all about how it releases us to live.

This has led me to worry far less about all those ‘questions-in-a-bubble’ theological arguments- the sort that no one really cares about apart from theologians. Such intellectual sparring can be entertaining, but when it is mixed with angry defensiveness or attack in the name of truth I walk away.

But to suggest that what we believe does not matter is foolish.

Our actions are driven in both subtle and obvious ways by the core ideas that we build our lives on. Here is an example from a psychological point of view.

>Core belief;  People are inherently evil and untrustworthy, particularly those who are ‘different’.

>Leading to guiding assumptions; I am at risk, my family needs to be defended, you are a threat, I need to prepare for hostilities.

>Leading to instinctive interactions; Distrust, hostility, defensiveness, aggression, tendency to isolation  and separation.

Everything that Jesus taught us about love is based on the idea that if this becomes the core of everything we believe then our core assumptions about the world and our instinctive reactions to it are all affected. In this way, love is not weak, nebulous and irrational, rather it can change the whole world.

But (unfortunately perhaps) life involves a whole lot of other questions to which we have to at least form working theories, if not absolute conclusions.

So back to the point of this post- the forming of new tenants of faith out of all of the questioning. It is another regular theme on this blog- what to construct after all the deconstruction. There comes a point (or at least there has for me) when I start to feel more comfortable with making tentative statements about what you believe again.

Although as I think about it, as a young man raised in Evangelical/charismatic settings, saying what you believed was not  often necessary- it was obvious as we all kind of knew what was held in common to be ‘true’. The point at which belief was really defined was in the negative- that is when someone (usually outside out immediate group) got it wrong. We could then dissect their incorrect doctrine and discount it and in doing so we could also discount them.

I confess that there is this tendency in me still- I continue to strive towards grace in this as in many things.

What I am starting to construct however, I do not construct alone- everywhere I see a convergence of a new kind of consensus around some basic ways of approaching faith. It seems to me to be cross denominational, but typical of those of us who may have come through all of those ‘posts’ discussions (post modernity, post evangelical, post charismatic, post Christendom.)

So, here are a few of the things that I have come to believe, structured around the ancient Apostles Creed. I expect things to change- I will be carving nothing in stone, nor nailing anything to church doors- these theories are not external, they are made of flesh, some sinew, and even a little muscle.

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I do. I believe that this unfolding universe began in the mind of God, and he let it all out in a burst of creativity. I also believe that we embody this god-quality of creativity as we are made out of the dust of the heavens, in the image of the Creator- and that this imposes deep responsibilities on us in relation to the heaven and the earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

If there is one thing of faith that lives in me, it is the idea, the hope, the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God-with-us, walking in our filth and turning every thing upside down. I believe in the New Kingdom he proclaimed as being here, and near.

And if I believe in Jesus, then what we know of his ways has to be the place that I start from in relation to all other belief. I have to start with the stories and parables he told, and the way he lived his life in relation to everyone around him.

And I have to concede that love is the most important thing- far more important than judgement, or doctrine, so if I am going to make any error, I am going to strive to make it on the side of love and grace. This will inform my relationships to everyone, particularly those who are marginalised or oppressed.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

To be honest, this is not something I think about often- but I rest on the stories I have inherited.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

These stories too live in me and inspire me.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Perhaps Jesus will come again- but I am not going to spend too much time thinking about this as we were not put on this earth just to hope for some kind of swift exit or heavenly Dunkirk. We are here to learn how to love, and how to put this into action.

I believe that we should not fear judgement from a loving God, and that all of us need grace.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

I do- despite all the charlatans and the hype. I believe in the Spirit of God within us.

9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

I want to believe that the collectives of the followers of Jesus might be the conscience, the peace makers, the justice dealers, the healers, the party makers and the gardeners of this world. I hope for communities of people who support one another in this direction, whilst learning to love.

I believe that God is present in these gatherings, but also elsewhere. I believe that he reveals himself to people of other faiths, and none.

10. the forgiveness of sins,

Oh yes.

11. the resurrection of the body,

I was never quite sure what this meant- something to do with a day to come when all our bodies will be raised incorruptible. To be honest, I think this is another one of those that I will just shelve with a bit of a shrug.

12. and life everlasting.

Yes, I have this hope that we might be more than flesh but also Spirit, and that those Spirits that leave before us might yet be waiting for us elsewhere.

Is this ancient creed enough to define the central things of our faith now?

As I read it over, I do not think it is. Firstly, I continue to think that we have over emphasised right belief- even to the point of burning dissenters at the stake. The creed is all about belief, and very little to do with our response to it.

What I am hungry for is to see right ways of living and ideas of how love can be put into action.

So I would add to the list above a few of my own;

13. I believe in love

For those reasons above.

14. I believe that we are called to be active subjects of the Kingdom of God, and to participate with him in acts of creativity, healing, peace making, protesting, lamenting, redeeming and the formation of community.

15. I believe in the mission/adventure/pilgrimage that God releases us on.

16. I believe that my ideas of God are incomplete and imperfect, and that not every question can be answered. And that that is OK.

Doubts and loves dig up the world…

A year ago I wrote a piece about doubting the existence of God. It received quite a bit of traffic for a while as it seemed to hit a chord.

Many of us who have been part of an overly concreted doctrinal system of belief have struggled to acknowledge doubt. It is almost as if any small incorrect belief would form a crack in the whole edifice of faith that might bring the whole thing tumbling down. To avoid this apocalyptic end to everything we have built our lives upon we contort ourselves into all sorts of defensive positions.

In my case, this involved two main strategies-

  1. Do not go there. When you feel the approach of doubt, turn in the other direction. It is better not to ask the difficult questions as the answers might be too much to cope with. Distract yourself with narrower, safer issues.
  2. Dishonesty. Better not to talk about doubt as this might infect others as well as yourself. You also might find yourself ostracised by the fervency and inflexibility of others.

Eventually of course something has to give or we become like stagnant pools, unable to flow, unable to sustain any kind of life. Faith fixed and defended becomes something else called religion. And religion belongs in the text book not in the soul.

I was reminded of this again after listening to this from Giles Fraser;

For my own experience of faith is that belief and unbelief commonly nestle alongside each other. Indeed, I cant make any sense of a faith that doesn’t include unbelief as a powerful element. “My God, why have you forsaken me” is, after all, the cry of Jesus at the very centre of the Christian drama.

As with much that is of the soul rather than the brain, faith and doubt finds voice in poetry. Giles quotes a poem he read that forms part of a memorial for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a religious man because he sought peace.

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 plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai


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

Magnificent ruin


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

A bit more on (un)belief…

Michaela noticed a little article in the Spirited Exchanges newsletter mentioning this book

Mark Vernon, an ex Anglican Priest, concludes that

“both mental health and spiritual flourishing appear to require a skilful toleration of darkness and doubt, which explains why people often prefer to cling to what they claim to know…Certainty sells in science and religion. But as Thomas Aquinas realised, the best we can do when talking about God is to understand what God is not, and be open to what God might be, beyond our comprehension. It’s also known as faith.”

There is also a radio programme which you can listen to here, with Mark Vernon in conversation with David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, Karen Armstrong, Ann Widdecombe and a variety of scientists and philosophers.

I particularly liked the discussion with David Jenkins- whose name I knew in the past as a kind of enemy because of his apparent questioning of many of the things which I was told were essential parts of being a follower of Jesus. “The most Christianity can be” he said, “is a pilgrimage.”

He appears to be the other side of whatever crisis of faith he had- and to be comfortable with doubt.

Which has some interesting parallels to my post here.

Calvin on unbelief…

Quote of the day comes from a most unlikely source- John Calvin. Not my favourite source of inspiration I have to admit-

Here it is- with thanks to Fiona!

“The Godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from the recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death.

This variation arises from the imperfection of faith, since in the course of this present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith.”

John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” book 3, chapter 2, paragraph 18

On standing in a place of (un)belief…

I have been thinking about that old polarity of faith/unbelief recently. This because of a few significant conversations with friends who have been grappling  with their faith, and also because it has long been an issue for me.

The old Evangelical way of understanding faith is all about assurance- we would quote Hebrews 11 v1-  Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Faith was something breathed into us by the Holy Spirit- it was about certainty, security, muscular purposefulness. Without faith it is impossible to please God.

Except it never felt that way. And so I wondered if God could ever be pleased with me.

Over the years I became more open about the  insecurities of my faith- and discovered that I was far from alone. Sure, I know some lovely people who have not a shadow of doubt- they would echo the words from Hebrews. Some seemed to relax into a beautiful kind of faith, which became a deep well of joy in their lives. To be with these people is a great blessing.

But many others, like me, experience faith as a fleeting presence- ebbing and flowing. Sometimes within grasp, at other times a million miles away.

More recently I have discovered that my faith, rather than being the polar opposite of doubt, can actually flourish in the presence of doubt. It is not that doubt cancels out faith- rather that the honest place of uncertainty and not knowing becomes the means through which I seek to humbly approach God. And sometimes, there he is…

I may well carry temperamental characteristics that skew me towards this kind of faith- but I also wonder if some of this (un)believing (a nod to Pete Rollins for this parenthetical trickery) has been fostered by engagement in all of that deconstruction that happened around the Emerging Church Conversation (Capital letters seemed appropriate!) (Perhaps I am overdoing the parenthesis a little now?)

We became very used to unravelling it all- questioning everything, shaking the theological tree right down to its roots. And once you start, everything is up for grabs. Substitutionary atonement? Biblical Authority? Hell? Virgin Birth? Holy Spirit wackyness? An Interventionist God? Everything has a question mark.

I think that those of us that went through this have a faith that in many ways is stronger- but at the same time is far less concrete- far less dogmatic and assured. What Pete Ward described as ‘Liquid Faith’ may well have the capacity to move like water flowing through our postmodern culture- but there is also a danger that it finds a crack and disappears out of sight- at least for a while…

But there comes a time when deconstruction is not enough- we need to start laying down some more big stones on which to place some of our smaller ones. Or if the brick wall analogy does not work for you- time to stop jumping up and down on the theological trampoline and to rest on it’s soft sprung surface.

I think our starting point in this constructing is becoming clearer. In the words of NT Wright-

And how long must it be before we learn that our task as Christians is to be in the front row of constructing the post‐postmodern world? The individual existential angst of the 1960s has become the corporate and cultural angst of the 1990s. What is the Christian answer to it? The Christian answer is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is, of course, love.’

(Sorry forgotten where I got this quote from…)

Others leaders within this debate are increasingly beginning to commit themselves to foundational beliefs- and in some cases getting a bit of a kicking in the process. I am still working on this for myself, but I have been thinking about what might help me navigate within all this creative flow- in my state of (un)belief.

Here are some of the principles that make sense to me-

  • Cynicism– it is almost always a bad thing- corrosive like battery acid. And it is infectious too. I must strive to remain hopeful- which is to say, uncynical.
  • .
  • Choice- despite my resistance (cynicism?) towards the evangelical three card conversion trick, I continue to think that faith is a choice- we choose to believe, even in the presence of unbelief. That is not the same thing as ‘pretending’, it is about putting ourselves in the place of seeking, hoping and yearning for God, and learning to live in his ways.
  • .
  • Open to encounter- It is my continued hope, and sometime my experience, that God is to be found in the most unlikely of places- “Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”  My reaction against the ways I formerly was told to expect to encounter God (primarily through preaching and ecstatic worship) has opened up the possibility of all sorts of other encounters. And I am going to stay open to them as much as I can.
  • .
  • Open to tradition- I strive too to learn from how others have understood God, both in the past, and recently. It is easy to either rely on a narrow, pre-selected set of references- the good guys, the stars of the Greenbelt festival speaking circuit. I must navigate further, and avoid the simplistic romanticisation of older men and women of faith also- the celtic saints also had feet of clay.
  • .
  • Faith encountered through praxis and ritual- Sometimes the shape given to faith by tradition, by ritual and by practice is vital. More than just dead habit, it may become the place in which faith is rediscovered.
  • .
  • Faith in community- sharing common encounters- Can faith ever exist in total isolation? Perhaps- if you are a pillar saint. But Jesus talked about his church. The essence of the followers of Jesus was discovered in the collective- in the sharing of stories and the life of love. In this way faith is tested and sometimes broken- but often shared and strengthened.
  • .
  • Transcendence– there is much that I do not know. Much that my head can not grasp nor make sense of. But there is often this singing in my spirit- there in all sorts of small things- art, small kids, new leaves, the smell of seaweed. These things often seem to transcend my own narrow experience, and open up the possibility of something much bigger, much more eternal. And this brings me again to God.
And may God find his way to us through the cracks of our unbelief.

The Archbishop and the little girl…

Did anyone see this story over the weekend?

It seems that the father of a little girl called Lulu took objection to the teachers at her Scottish Church primary school ‘doing God’. Curiously Lulu was asked to write a letter to God, entitled “To God; how did you get invented?”

Lulu’s Dad, who is not a believer, cheekily forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal church (no reply- sorry Andrew!) the Church of Scotland (no reply) the Catholic church of Scotland (a nice but complex answer) and finally to Lambeth Palace- and received this reply;

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan