As if it Matters

(My photo. NewYork skyline in cloud. Lower West Side. September 2018)

I was planning to follow up on a recent post in which I wrote:

“I’m going to be blunt and say that more than a few churches in western societies are not worthy of the name ‘church’. I’m going to be even more blunt and say that the message they have for the world is not a Christian message. Instead it has been domesticated, diluted, compromised, and emasculated to the extent that it now bears little resemblance to the life transforming Gospel of the early church.”

I think that while it is provocative, what I wrote is true, but sadly though, it’s a tough ask to defend it in a short(ish) blog post. Better to focus on a bite sized chunk and leave the rest for another time.

Pretty much of what I am about to write is my personal opinion. My theology is a bit thin, and my academic skills were never much to write home about. Isn’t that what blogs are about though? Personal opinion?

I’ll draw on a wide range of stuff I’ve read and thought about over a long period. I won’t deliberately steal anyone else’s ideas, but neither will I be referencing them properly.

That’s the disclaimer. What could possibly go wrong?

What actually is the Christian message? Does anyone know?

If I were to ask that of passers by in any shopping mall, I would not expect many (any) coherent replies. Mothers would pull their children closer and walk quicker; I might get a few pieces of pithy advice about where I should travel; perhaps a couple of reminders about hypocrites and child abusers in the church. Most people, I suspect, would walk by without changing pace; their eyes fixed on some point in the distance. Sooner or later a nice security person would approach me and invite me to leave quietly.

If I were to ask family or friends, I would expect some embarassed shuffling and evasive replies. The best I could hope for might be something like:

“Do unto others etc.”

The conversation would pause awkwardly, before changing direction. At least I probably wouldn’t be asked to leave (hopefully).

My local woodworking club has a good cross section of people and opinions. I’ve not broached the question there, but I’ve been treated to the wit and wisdom of more than one old timer who has volunteered their disgust and contempt for anything ‘religious’. It seems in this club, at least, it is ok to bag ‘religion’ without holding back, but completely out of order to mention anything positive about it. ‘Keep religion out of the public sphere’ seems to be the watchword here, but not if you are denegrating it.

I guess the club will not be a good place to pursue any survey about the Christian message.

Social media is another impeccable source of information and I’ve done my own informal research on various platforms. I’m not going to release my primary data, but suffice it to say that the bulk of views on the Christian brand name are not all that positive. I’m not hopeful of getting any clearer understanding on social media than that the Christian message is something about following the Ten Commandments – not (I suspect) that many of my research subjects would be able to list more than 3 or 4 of them.

Where to turn then?

Surely my own local Christian congregation would be a fount of information about what the Christian message actually is!

Now, I admit I haven’t done any surveys there. I’m in enough trouble already for asking inconvenient questions and (as I’ve been told) speaking out inappropriately. I have had many, many conversations with other church members though, and inevitably, the Christian message features now and then. Generally, in my experience, church members are not as reticent as the general population seem to be in discussing what the Christian message is. That will surprise no one I guess. They also, in my experience, have a more sophisticated theological vocabulary and a deeper understanding of Christian stuff.

Are you still with me? I know none of this will be a revelation.

Church members (at my local church) will readily talk about things like the undeserved grace and mercy of God in the light of our own brokenness, and the responsibility we all have to love our neighbour and work for peace in our families and neighbourhoods, as the central truths of the Christian message. All of which, in my opinion, are indeed good elements of the Christian message.

The problem, for me, is that actions speak loudly and drown out words, no matter how beautifully those words are expressed. There was a time when the Christian message was powerful and subversive. People who heard it changed their lives around and often lost them, so deeply changed were they. The Christian message made sense to them at the deepest level, in a way that nothing else in their lives ever had done. They turned away from lives of obligation, ritual, power imbalances, materialism, and exploitation, and considered themselves free to be who they were meant to be.

In contrast, in our western culture, we have tamed and emasculated the Christian message. We have made it to serve us and our convenience, and in the process, lost sight of its significance.

Those of us who are regular church attenders console ourselves that we follow Jesus, and many of us make a fair fist of it. We follow the traditions of the church year: Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas. We pray. We sing songs. No one from my local church has lost their life because of their faith, to the best of my knowledge.

We value our friendships in the church, but are too busy to socialise with others who are lonely. We raise money for the poor, but have no time to spend with the poor. We decry poverty, crime, alienation and injustice, but do little about those things. We struggle to balance the church budget without letting it affect our own holidays, cars and toys. How often do we sacrifice our own comfort and luxuries to help others? When was the last time we church members came together to serve our local community; to argue or demonstrate for an end to things like homelessness, injustice, and the countless ways that people are routinely stripped of their humanity?

We have made Christian faith comfortable. We have domesticated it. We who speak a lot about the Christian message do least about it. Our lives, by and large, are indistinguishable from those of the rest of the population. We do not touch our culture or influence it. Instead we have allowed it to touch and influence us. In return for an easy life, we do not involve ourselves in politics. We are great supporters of the status quo. It’s just that I’m quite doubtful that the status quo was ever on Jesus’ list of priorities.

As a result we have nothing to say of much value to those outside the church, and we should not be surprised that few are listening.

There was a time that the Christian message changed people’s lives. It spoke to the surrounding culture, unsettling it, shaming it, and intriguing it. People were attracted to that message and many embraced it at considerable cost. Today we no longer speak to our society. It is we who are unsettled and ashamed.

The Christian message is still there. It is just as subversive, unsettling and ultimately attractive as it ever was. It speaks to our culture in ways the prevailing powers and idols can never do.

I write the following words with trepidation. Nothing I write will ever do justice to the Christian message, but I felt I should at least try. So many people think they have heard the message, yet they haven’t. So many people think they are living the Christian message, but they aren’t.

No doubt there are things below that should be expressed differently and also no doubt what I write will make me a heretic in someone’s eyes. So be it. Here is my best shot on this January afternoon:

You are not God. The idols in your life are not God. Your wealth, intelligence, power and influence are not God. All attempts to make yourself the centre will ultimately lead you nowhere. You are a created being and therefore have innate inalienable worth. You were created for relationship with God and your fellow creatures. However, although you are created by God, you are also innately flawed by sin.

Jesus Christ is the only way to see and know and experience God. He has transformed creation through his death and resurrection, so even though you are sinful, you are now reconciled with God.

God is not keeping a record of your sins. That is not a license to do what you like, but permission not to be weighed down doing things that you think will earn you favour.

The powers of this world are not in charge. Whether or not they are aware of it, they operate under God’s dominion. You do not need to fear them, even though they can kill you. Death no longer has any power over you, just as it ultimately had no power over Jesus. Jesus shows a new revolutionary way to deal with evil; very different from the way the world teaches us.

You will find your purpose in serving and caring for the rest of creation, rather than yourself. Nothing you have done or can ever do will make you more deserving of God’s love, so do not try to earn it. Live as who you are created to be: a fearless and gentle child of God.

I recommend “Simply Good News” by N.T. Wright if you want to investigate further. It is available on Kindle.

I have written this humbly and with due respect for my fellow church members, many (most) of whom want as I do, to live as if the Christian message matters to them.

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Wood Gallery

The new woodturning year has begun. These pieces are all I have to show for my free time this month. I am improving, and still have all my fingers intact! Quite enjoying it really.

Free form vase. Eucalyptus wood. Partially turned and hand and disc sanded.

Lidded trinket box. Jacaranda wood.

Bowl. Cypress Pine wood. Partially complete.

These are not for sale, but are made for family and friends.

Do Western Christians really need ‘Religious Freedom’?

(Church in Vilnius, Lithuania. My photo. August 2017)

(No. And why its not even important.)

Close the gates! Circle the wagons! The barbarians are coming!

It seems Christians are feeling the pressure. They’re called names; demonised and ostracised on social media; and are living with the repeal of laws and customs that saw Christianity sitting comfortably at the centre of public life for so long. Their beliefs are ridiculed, leaders discredited, traditions trashed, and for good measure, it seems as if the very ground they stand on is being eroded.

I haven’t done any formal opinion surveys but I don’t think I’m too wide of the mark. I am one of them after all.

Many of us have felt intimidated by the in-your-face, raised-middle-finger atheism of Richard Dawkins and his disciples. We’ve recoiled in disgust at the craven responses of our leaders to sexual abuse scandals. Changes to traditional marriage have seen spouses replaced by partners. The concept that life is a sacred gift, once widely held, has largely disappeared from statutes and from public discourse. The transcendental has given way to the utilitarian; the sacred to the profane; self denial to self indulgence, or so it seems.

I could go on ( . . . and on). I really only wanted to illustrate why many Christians might be feeling a little on the outer these days. After a millenium and a half of cosying up to government and the establishment, the Church finds itself, in the space of a couple of generations, no longer listened to, and subject to challenges that would until recently have been unthinkable. The changes are huge, especially for a Church and its people grown fat and comfortable thinking Christianity was synonymous with social conservatism. It was, and is, nothing of the sort of course. The Christian message is deeply subversive and revolutionary.

So ‘Is Religious Freedom Necessary?’

It depends on where you’re coming from. So maybe I can cut to the chase by just say in plain words what I think most Christians mean when they talk about it?

I think they mean ‘leave us alone in peace to continue as we’ve always done’.

I have a problem with this. I think it is lazy and misconceived. It may be attractive to people, like me, who have grown used to a comfortable religious observance that doesn’t challenge the status quo, mainly because it has arisen from within that status quo! Comfortable and secure it may have been, but it is no longer reality for western Christians, and has never been reality for our sisters and brothers in non western countries.

Crying out for legal protection in the current circumstances is pathetic. It is born of a sense of entitlement and betrays a perverted view of Christian faith; one that is domesticated, diluted, and stunted. One that has ceded its authority and is willing to live on the coat tails of the secular state’s benevolence, because it has forgotten its real reason for being.

I don’t think Christians should be asking for religious freedom. Still less should they be asking for it on the terms the secular authorities are willing to grant it. We answer to a higher authority and do not need secular permission to be who we are. We are called to be salt and light in the world, not to conform ourselves to the world.

Just do it.

Christians managed to change the world and turn it on its head very effectively in the early years of the Church by remaining outside the status quo, on the fringes of society. The early church had no privileges extended to it and certainly did not rely on the state for its existence. Why does it think it needs these things today?

Early Christians just went out and did it, sucessfully, in the face of violent and cruel repression. They would laugh at what we think are our problems.

Christian agitation for religious freedom laws is, in my opinion, a reaction to having had the lolly jar taken away. We have grown fat and comfortable in a privileged position for so long. We are Christ followers. As we go about our Lord’s work, we do not need anyone’s permission, or laws drafted to protect our status. Secular laws and privileges are a distraction. They are not and never will be the main game for Christians. It’s time we remembered that.

Is there an Alternative?

We could decide to try being seriously radical and live what we say we believe.

We could try being living examples of Christian love in the world, rather than crying for special laws in a vain attempt to protect the unearned privileges we have become all too accustomed to.

Wouldn’t that be good news to our sisters and brothers who live without hope and love?

(Hill of Crosses, Lithuania. My photo. August 2017)

Running on Empty

(Dawn at Grand Canyon. Arizona, U.S.A. September 2018. My photo)

I have been a church attender for the past 24 years. That may be about to change.

Overall, it’s been a positive experience, attending church. There is something about regular church attendance. It’s brought me many friends and the company of people I am at ease with. It’s also over the years brought me spiritual growth and a degree of maturity.

In my teens and twenties I flirted with religion on and off – but mostly off. I danced around on the periphery of Christian youth groups, charismatic renewal gatherings, and even attended a local church for a short while. Most of that earlier life I was aware of a spiritual dimension in a detached sense. There were times when I wasn’t taking much notice, but now and again I experienced it powerfully and intimately. After major personal upheavals I came back into the fold as a regular church goer at the tender age of 41.

The years before I came back to ‘religion’ were a mix of highs and lows; chasing mirages and pointless ambitions. In contrast, the 24 years since have been kinder ones mostly, even if I am becoming less and less inspired by weekly worship and more and more troubled by the attitudes I encounter in my church.

It’s been tempting to compare my church attending period with that which preceeded it, and to draw the conclusion that ‘religion’ has been the saving grace of my life. I might have expressed it that way once, and there is more than a grain of truth in it, but now I think that would be to confuse religion with faith; and to misunderstand both.

The Christian religion has been, and continues to be for me, a vehicle helping me to understand things, and get to places I might never have gone, let alone known they existed. With the emphasis on the word ‘religion’, I recognise it has been a means to help me get there, rather than being the destination itself.

(Fashion inspired by Catholicism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. My photo)

Religion is, at its heart, about power and control. It concerns itself with who is an insider and who is not; with positions and titles; and with budgets and business plans. It is a hollow shell when it neglects its central reason for being.

I no longer consider ‘religion’ the saving grace of my life. Instead, I realise with a humbling clarity that it is the person of Jesus Christ who has been that saving grace.

As a result of recent experiences, I have a strong sense of calling to be a truth teller. ‘The truth’ is a theme that continues to tug at me these days. I do not mean that I want to go out and proclaim the truth of the Gospel on street corners. We introverts find that very unappealing. I am talking about Christian authenticity, and the mess Christian communities get themselves into when they lose focus on that.

It occurs to me that so much of the spiritual desert in which the Christian church has found itself, has been caused by its failure, institutional and local, to provide authentic leadership; to name and face the truth. We have mired ourselves in platitudes, rather than engage with the Gospel. We worship tradition, and have opted for comfort rather than confrontation. We have sacrificed truth to protect reputations, and sometimes egos. We also do not like our truth tellers.

The collective leadership of my institutional church appears more interested in maintaining the status quo than in being bearers of good news. My own congregation puts far more energy into fund raising and balancing its budget than into being the hands and feet of Jesus. I am deeply disappointed by and disillusioned with what passes for pastoral leadership at all levels in my church. Leaders often are timid, lack passion and authenticity, and are ineffectual.

That, in a kernel, is why I am no longer a guaranteed regular church attender.

I look forward to my imperfect church demonstrating that reputation and power of themselves mean nothing. I would like to see its leaders actually lead. Now that would impress me!

I still have my faith, and haven’t given up on organized religion; just tired of egos and reputations taking precedence over authenticity . . . really tired of it.

In Jesus’ own words, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Poems New and Recycled

(Scottsdale, Arizona. September 2018. My photo)

Apologies for the versing. The software won’t let me insert paragraph breaks for some reason.

After the Funeral

Samurai or butterfly?

Razor edged, transient,

enduring, fleeting.

Impermanent.

Stuttering fingers of flame;

flashes of colour over grey.

Shopping Centre orchids to bloom once and only;

delicate, temporary, wonder patterns

always, we’ll be.

Tomorrow, yesterday’s love.

We don’t ask why.

Should you?

Should I?

. . . Maybe.

(Southport, Queensland. October 2018. My photo)

Summer Storm

Hot day. Bright sun. Saturated, lifeless air.

Sweat oozes and trickles, even in the shade.

Eyes scan upwards and hope for relief

which mercifully appears on cue.

The clear blue of a summer sky gone in minutes;

clouds building as they move in from the west.

Light suddenly softer,

shadows fade and colours bloom

Heads turn to the sky and nod.

Dark, deepening cloud banks boil

above the summer heat.

Close the doors and windows.

Stand and watch the gathering storm.

Childhood returns

as zephyrs twirl leaves and cool your face.

Temperatures plummet.

Half forgotten memories emerge

of faces pressed to windows,

little bodies shivering but safe as bright flashes

announce booming smashing thunder crashes.

You expect the noise but always jump, just a little;

as you did when you were five.

The first few raindrops are released

from ominously pregnant clouds

and they begin to tap tentatively,

experimentally even, increasing in tempo and confidence.

Rain begins to rattle on a sloping metal roof.

A flash is followed closely by an enormous bang

and you think ‘that was close’.

Too soon, the sound of the rain softens,

and allows you to hear downpipes run.

The thunder claps become distant rumbles;

like the victory roars of a departing giant,

gone on to other battles over the horizon.

The sound of car tyres on wet bitumen,

retreating raindrops,

chirping birds,

announce the obvious:

Life resumes.

(Haight Ashbury district, San Francisco September 2018. My photo)

Mingle

Somehow different, not sure why;

just don’t get it.

small talk looks so easy,

natural as the day

for them;

an unclimbable cliff for me.

social chit chat;

guts twist at the prospect

of drinks at 6:

stand awkward

eyes darting

dry mouth.

small talk exhausted in two or three sentences.

look around

seek an avenue of escape;

and scurry to a corner

where I can pretend

not to be isolate.

people in circles excluding me

backs of heads

everywhere nodding and shaking,

lips smiling and moving;

complicit in a secret

I cannot be part of.

I have come to seek and save the lost, you said.

Dear Lord, you must have seen me

standing there with desperate eyes.

(Boston waterfront. September 2018. My photo)

Dysfunction Named

The problem unspoken

remains unbroken.

What mustn’t be uttered

tiptoes and flutters

behind closed shutters.

Rules are changed,

deflecting blame.

We step aside

for someone else to name

the obscenity behind the game.

From selective blindness

we limp to paralysis,

papering veneer

and hiding substance

in euphemism and lie.

The truth too hard,

too raw to face;

we trade it for a quiet space;

but the elephant remains

in such a stubborn tiny room.

Something Bigger

“Why would someone do that?”

The question was posed more than once as we stood there in the morning light, sourced somewhere between incredulity and admiration.

The Crazy Horse memorial is a short drive from the better known U.S. presidential heads carved out of Mt Rushmore in South Dakota. Much larger and more ambitious, the head of Crazy Horse is now freed from its granite mountain after 70 years of constant work. A monument to the culture and history of Native Americans, the project is privately funded, and unlikely to be completed in the lifetime of anyone viewing it today. Reportedly the children and grandchildren of the original sculptor continue to work there.

“Why would someone do that.”

A whole career spent blasting, quarrying and shaping a granite monolith, with no hope of living to see the finished product. The question seemed reasonable enough, and I began to wonder. Why would a person tie themselves to such an intergenerational project?

Does it make any more sense to spend a whole career selling real estate? Would years spent in a classroom, or behind a shop counter, in customer service, on building sites, in an office somewhere, driving a bus, running a small business, playing music or writing poetry be better spent?

Isn’t that what most of us end up doing? Expending our lives without awareness of where our contribution fits, or of our worth?

“How are you going to spend your life, daughter/son?”

“Spend it on a project larger than yourself? Something that has a deep meaning for your people and their history?”

“No, I’ll just bum around, and see what turns up”.

(Prairie Dog pondering his options)

How many of us live life as a spectator? How many live life as a consumer? How many as a victim? How many of us just scratch their heads and wonder what happened? How many of us see ourselves as part of a larger story? How many of us know that our lives have made a difference?

It occurs to me there’s nothing wrong with being a spectator, or a consumer, or selling real estate, or whatever, as long as we don’t become preoccupied, and permit our lives to slip away unnoticed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get to the end of my life, scratching my head wondering what happened.

Maybe those workers on the Crazy Horse project are on to something after all. There are answers for each one of us in the great narrative. It’s just that some of us never get around to asking the questions.

Finally, an image that kind of, sort of, contributes to my line of thought. Its beauty is a bonus.

(Somewhere in Wyoming. Taken from a bus window)

Truth Tellers and Boundary Crossers

(My photo Caucusus Mountains, Georgia, 2015)

What use are truth tellers?

In a culture that says life is without meaning?

Where the ‘I’ is more important than the ‘we’?

Where we distract ourselves, chasing possessions, fun and excitement while our lives ebb away?

Where the unborn have value only if they are convenient?

Where we tell the old and those with chronic pain they are a burden?

Where politicians are led by opinion polls and the media?

Where 51% of us reshape laws to confirm our truth at the expense of the rest?

Where church leaders destroy their credibility, choosing reputation over morality?

Where violence is an acceptable tool for those who think they own the truth?

Where its ok to deplatform those with unacceptable ideas?

Where we need safe places to protect us from such ideas?

(My photo taken in Armenia 2015)

First a little about truth.

People who speak the truth are generally nuisances. Their message is inconvenient, sometimes embarassing, always unwelcome. Our culture does not run on truth. The group we identify with determines our truth. What matters is whether we belong, or are an outsider. We are pushed to conform with the zeitgeist, by laws and through social pressure. Those who would control and manipulate us have learned this well. It is comfortable to fit in and be accepted; to have the right opinions. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a social media pile on will no doubt agree.

Could it be that our opinions are shaped by fear? Fear of not fitting in? Of not belonging?

I don’t agree that truth is whatever we want it to be. If you and I part company on that point, so be it. I understand that different people have sincerely held opinions different from mine on a range of topics. We could each be partly correct or we could all be wrong. What we cannot be, if we make incompatible truth claims, is all simultaneously correct.

Also I don’t believe I alone own the truth. There; I’ve said it. But I don’t fall in either with the view that one person’s truth is as valid as anyone else’s. Apart from giving us a warm inner glow, that just leads us nowhere, except in ever decreasing circles.

If there is such a thing as truth, and I believe there is, then even if unpopular or unfashionable, it is worth discovering. How sad it would be if we lived our whole lives in a comfortable delusion, and then we died.

What’s the use of truth tellers? Maybe because we all need to have our ideas challenged now and then. Whether or not they are telling the truth, or are just deluded, if truth tellers make us wrinkle our brows or prick our consciences, in a world where we are shaped by and conform to ideas outside ourselves, that’s not such a bad thing.

Boundary Crossers?

(One boundary I did not feel comfortable crossing across a deep gorge in Armenia 2015)

Our culture, and the whole world has a lot of boundaries. I don’t mean geographical borders. Boundaries separate people in more ways than that.

Think about:

Insiders/outsiders

Strong/weak

Included/excluded

Members/non members

Religious believers/non believers

Young/old

Able/disabled

Self/others

Loved/unloved

Hopeful/despairing

Rich/poor

Settled/refugees

Progressive/conservative

It seems to me that quite a few of these boundaries are calling out for people to reach across them. Maybe a qualification would be useful: Some boundaries are there for our protection, but others keep us from being fully human. National borders and refugee policies are there to keep us safe. I know some disagree and would have free, uninhibited movement of people across borders.

In general, I don’t think it does us good to put up walls to keep out those who are different. However, when a lack of border control places public order in jeopardy, we need to remember why all countries try to control their borders.

The boundaries that need to be crossed are those that exclude and alienate us from each other. I don’t think we will see the boundaries themselves disappear any time soon. What we are seeing is individuals, like you and I, choosing to cross some of them.

It can be risky for an insider to reach across to an outsider. It can be threatening to stop and really listen to someone with whom we disagree politically. It can seem like a waste of time to give an unlovable person the time of day.

Boundary crossing is certainly not for the faint hearted. Nor is it for those who are wrapped up in their own concerns. Our culture encourages us to erect boundaries rather than to reach across them. I believe our culture has it wrong. Crossing boundaries just may be the only way for us to become fully human.

Think about that.

Truth tellers and boundary crossers. There are not nearly enough of them. Could you be one?

(Below: Feeding the homeless at a Sikh temple in New Delhi 2016)

Two Poems

(Stream in Glen Coe, Scotland. My photograph)

Lost Opportunity

You tumbled into being

as you began to walk your life.

I walked sleeping, unaware,

as I became a father twice.

The boy/man, pretending.

His grief not understood,

tried to paper over

stuff his father never could.

How badly I was drifting,

when I left you, thinking

you wouldn’t miss me.

Surprising stupidity.

Persuaded you were resilient,

I minimised and rationalised

my selfishness,

until I looked, and you were far away.

I would hug the child

in the photo in front of me.

But you’re not three now,

and never again will be.

(A valley in Glen Coe Scotland. My photograph)

Dysfunction Named

A problem unspoken

remains unbroken.

What mustn’t be uttered

tiptoes and flutters

behind closed shutters

Rules are changed,

deflecting blame.

Conspire together

waiting for someone else to name

the obscenity behind the game.

Collectively mindless,

and with selective blindness,

Sacrificing truth for a quiet life;

all hoping someone else

will step up and name it.

Wondering why,

they limp to paralysis,

papering veneer

and hiding the substance

behind euphemism and lie.

The truth though hard

must be uncovered,

owned and faced.

Elephants leave little space

when they occupy a room.

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