It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Off to Greenbelt…

Mud greenbelt 2012

(Hope we do not get a repeat of last years conditions!)

Will and I are going down to Greenbelt Festival on our own this year- Michaela and Emily are simply too busy with other things. In fact, it was a late call to decide to go down, partly because Will was desperate to go, and also because I get the chance to meet up with some old friends. Oh- and my mate Andy had some spare tickets!

This year we are going as punters- no responsibilities, no installations to set up/services to lead. I have strangely mixed feelings about this however. Greenbelt has provided for me a sense of loose ‘belonging’ to a wider ‘church’, and I am not sure that it will be quite the same experience without actually contributing something to the festival. It will certainly be a lot less stressful however!

I watched a DVD last night called Greenbelt/40, the journey so far. It was full of the music of my youth- trips to the festival in the early 80s. It was a slightly surreal experience- like watching your life pass away into the distance. It did leave me wanting to look forward, not backwards however….

May there be sunshine, good conversation, great music and new ideas…

Church, in photographs…

church service

 

Check out this lovely collection of photographs sent in to the Guardian Witness Assignment entitled ‘Your Church Congregation’. It rather dispels the stories of the death of Church as the pictures of full of life and humanity- real people meeting and trying to share good life in the name of Jesus. I found looking at the pictures quite emotional, despite my journey away from established religion.

There is life in the old girl yet…

Here is one of my own congregation;

Andrew upside down

Leadership, networking and the trajectory of pioneering groups…

network

 

I am part of a small ‘missional’ group. We had ‘emerging church‘ conversations, flirted with ‘new monasticism‘. We found the old ‘paradigms’ restrictive and so wanted to do a new thing, using new ‘alternative worship‘ styles.

There you go; I have established my credentials- the badges and trendy buzz words that have allowed me to find a groove to travel in, no matter how shallow and indistinct.

The reality is that this language has often felt contrived and pompous, and the journey of our group has been one of ordinary people trying to get along, whilst searching for a way to live out faith that has some integrity and authenticity. Groups like ours are not unusual, even if they are ephemeral, fragile.

Many small groups like ours set out with pioneering passion- they have this idea of the purity of community releasing a power in them to achieve something special. Often they are right- but very soon it will get messy. The enforced intimacy of small community will crack things open quickly- there is no place to hide at times.

Then there is the inevitable reduction in passion that comes over time; things that were exciting always feel stale with repetition. How do you refresh, revitalise and renew. How do you avoid creating a new narrow liturgy that ensnares every bit as much as the ones we gratefully left behind?

This is the trajectory of most small groups- excited start, success, stagnation, crisis, reinvention (or destruction.)

If we are to be sustainable, if we are to make the longer journeys together, then we will probably need some help in the form of some external connections- we will need to speak to people who understand, who have made some of the same mistakes and dreamed the same dreams. Sometimes we may need others to listen to our pain or laugh with our small absurdity.

Groups like ours are inoculated against organised booted-and-suited religion for the most part. However I remember some interesting research from my old group work days within social work.  I nforget the references (I will try to add them later) but it goes something like this;

The success of a group depends to a large extent on the external context it is embedded within. An example of this might be an encounter group within a hospital or a prison. If the group lacks the support of the establishment this might be a plus at first- people feel embattled and react against their context – but it is simply less likely to be successful in the longer term. However, a little external validation seems to go a long way. So if the staff in the wider hospital speak positively of the group, see it as valuable and helpful, the group absorbs it all, and thrives.

Of course, the links to groups like ours is rather tenuous, but it is no surprise to me that many of the pioneers of missional groups that I know arrived at their adventure after many years of established churching. Despite their maturity, experience and a degree of reaction-formation against the context they escaped from, many of them still look back. Some return.

And this is no bad thing.

In Englandshire, there are good supportive links now for ephemeral groups- there is a wider recognition of the value of micro church through movements like CMS and Fresh Expressions. This is much less the case north of the Border in Scotland.

Last night (and this morning) I had a long discussion with David from Garioch Church, around this kind of stuff. We talked about the possibility of a new kind of network- an old theme for me. 5 years ago we tried to start such a network (see here and here for example) but things did not work out for various reasons.

So here is a question to people north of the border who find themselves on the ragged edge of organised church- where do you find your connections, and is it time to try this networking thing again?

Transcendence…

Light obscured

Not in the ‘other worldly’ sense, the God who is removed and distant. For me, Transcendence means something hyper-real, something that saturates the ordinary, but which somehow connects us with the divine.

in a previous post I tried to define it like this;

… I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.

Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.

They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.

They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.

They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.

They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.

I have been thinking about what all this might mean to us again, and wrote this;

.

Unpregnant

.

In the corner of my gaze something moved

I blinked

Reminded of almost imperceptible stars

Sky all black like bruises

Pricked with harsher things

.

Did I form you out of some ancient river bed?

Did I raise you up on poles?

Are you just déjà vu

For the deluded last few

Will science yet prove us all fools?

.

Then the night whispers

Like an unknown breath on puckered skin

Like the scent of sea to a sailor

Like a poem whose words are not yet spoken

Like an unpainted painting

Or a song still yet to be sung

Like a reed still yet to be fluted

Or a string that was never strung

Like the silence when echoes have faded

Like an unpregnant womb

Still waiting

A few more reflections on our wilderness retreat…

Looking down on our camp site

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the things I really love to do is to immerse myself in wild places and for many years (along with some old friends) I have been taking time each year to make what we call ‘wilderness retreats’.  These usually involve camping on small uninhabited islands and following a deliberate rhythm of silence and community- with a lot of laughter in between.

Increasingly we have enjoyed being hosts and have been joined by friends, friends of friends and contacts from the assortment of church contacts and networks we are connected to.

This year, Crawford (a friend who has been coming for a few years now ans our go-to source for all things avian) described how it was usually only quite a while after we had left the island that its full impact was felt- almost as if we take a little of it away with us.

This year I felt very privileged to take some people who had never camped before and certainly never managed to get out to a wild west island. I always worry about the shock to the system that camping wild can be to those who have never done it before- particularly when (as happened this year) the weather is bad. It requires a methodical stoicism and can result in real lows as well as highs.

Half way through for example, I was convinced that my mate Graham was in some kind of stupour induced by wet waterproofs and fear of the poo-trowel. I would have taken odds on him chalking all of this camping in the wild stuff to experience and deciding that, if he were to survive, it was an experience he would never repeat.

Graham- "What have I done?"

Which just goes to show how wrong  I can be.

Graham is a blogger too, and his blog has had a series of reflections on the retreat- the last of which is here.  I loved this;

What I loved about retreat on that island was trying to discover a male spirituality that did not rely on dominance and aggression but had a measure of strength and vulnerability. It was ok to pray, share deeply, lose the mask of invulnerability and at the same time banter, fart, make toilet jokes, swear and build fires. Realising you are male, a Jesus follower and you don’t have to pretend/assume false piety is a very powerful thing.

I don’t claim to have discovered ‘a model’: there isn’t one, but the route of honesty is good for the journey…

It occured to me again that one of the most important spiritual disciplines is the attitude of vulnerability. We normally armour ourselves against this in a thousand ways, but in wilderness, on a tiny island, in silence, this armour falls away. For those like Graham who experience this for the first time, it falls with a loud clang.

There have been a couple of other lovely things that have been inspired by the retreat which I wanted to mention here- firstly Andrew wrote a lovely poem on his blog- which is here. A quick excerpt- but please go and read the whole thing;

Steel grey skies darken,
Hidden rock spires, deep depths, whirling, roaring tides and waves.
Wind and waves grow,
Deck lurching side to side,
Uncertainty,
Hope,
A rocky shore, but his plan, not ours.
Safe upon a new shore, an unknown glen, not known for generations passed.
Rocks, prayers,
The rough-hewn blackness sinking into waves,
Rocks, prayers,
Held, carried, prayed over
Are you there?
Finally, Andy- who has been a friend of mine for about 25 years, and a companion on many of these trips, wrote a song. More than that, he recorded the song, and made a video using clips and photos taken on quite a few of our trips- I recognised Scarba (x2) Jura, Coll, Eilleach an Naiomh, The McCormaigs and man more. It is quite lovely, and so here it is;

Paulo Coelho on Jesus…

Paulo Coelho

Great article in The Guardian today- an interview with author Paulo Coelho. Here he is, taking about Jesus;

The Jesus of the gospels was, Coelho argues, similarly contradictory. “Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know?” says Coelho, his brown eyes sparkling. “If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity. So Jesus says: ‘Turn the other face,’ and then he can get a whip and go woosh! The same man who says: ‘Respect your father and mother’ says: ‘Who is my mother?’ So this is what I love – he is a man for all seasons.”

Like Jesus, he’s not expressing a coherent doctrine that can be applied to life like a blueprint? “You can’t have a blueprint for life. This is the problem if you’re religious today. I am Catholic myself, I go to the mass. But I see you can have faith and be a coward. Sometimes people renounce living in the name of a faith which is a killer faith. I like this expression – killer faith.”

Coelho proposes a faith based on joy. “The more in harmony with yourself you are, the more joyful you are, and the more faithful you are. Faith is not to disconnect you from reality, it connects you to reality.”

In this view, he thinks he has Jesus on his side. “They [those who model their sacrifice on Christ’s] remember three days in the life of Jesus when he was crucified. They forget that Jesus was politically incorrect from beginning to end. He was a bon vivant – travelling, drinking, socialising all his life. His first miracle was not to heal a poor blind person. It was changing water into wine and not wine into water.”