Friday, 27 February 2009

Weekend post

It's been a busy week for me with academic work: a few more months of busy weeks like this and then I'll be finished the degree, God willing.

That doesn't stop me pondering and searching, though.

Margaret writes of Fear being the first sin. I think she may be right, and said as much in a comment there; I also mentioned something I'm starting to believe more strongly than I once did, that love is stronger than fear. Since then I've been thinking that a lot of scripture tells us to fear God, and a lot of scripture tells us not to be afraid, and I tend to interpret these two things very differently. It would be good to look into the context and translation in more depth at some point.

The Exegesis Fairy posted about Agenda and the Great Commission. I think what she was saying is similar to the sermon I heard on Sunday night. Another reader has a different interpretation of scripture and so I waded in... as much to understand my own beliefs as to understand his. Result? I'm still confused, but I'm slightly more clear what it is that I'm confused about. Some of the discussion there is the good old knotty tangle of scripture and truth and interpretation, which is not too bad if you decide the Bible is a source of inspiration and narrative truth but gets to be problematic very fast if you start trying to say that some bits are factual or literally directive--how do you tell which bits? And if it's all factual then we've got some serious problems. Some of the discussion is more a discussion of salvation. It won't surprise most of you who've read my posts so far that I'm not very comfortable with the idea of God's unconditional, unlimited love resulting in a quite narrow, restrictive and conditional salvation. I have a suspicion that humans made this part up. (The Exegesis Fairy is not online as much as usual at the moment, so it might be sensible to comment here rather than there.)

I also liked A Sermon for the Future, particularly this bit: So what is it to say Christ is Risen? It is to say that one can and will live within a renewed vision of hope, that the world can be ethically remade, that we will serve one another and seek the common good... I too have difficulty with scientifically implausible concepts like physical resurrection. Understanding some of the anthropological, humanist aspects of this story makes me feel more comfortable with it, to relate to it differently. Not, I think, comfortable enough to say the Apostle's Creed or receive the Eucharist, but I think I have a better understanding of why others do.

Today in a discount bookshop I spied a single copy of Work and Prayer, compiled by Chris Keating. I bought it. I think I will continue to use Morning Prayer (Common Worship) from the C of E website as the anchor to my morning, but I like the idea of having a short liturgy I can use at other times of day. It isn't that there is anything wrong with my rather more spontaneous, unstructured prayers, but borrowing words seems to be useful and meaningful. I do like that the morning and evening prayers have hymns in them in this book but alas, no notes, though I guess with only seven weekdays I can find the hymns and memorize them, easily enough.

I'm not entirely sure why I'm feeling drawn to more structured prayer in my life recently. It may be that I'm trying to find some ballast to balance the chaos of my academic and work commitments (I have a different schedule every weekday, and no two weeks are the same). It may be part of a more general yearning for a feeling of closeness to God. I'm trying not to worry about it too much, and just see where the journey takes me. But I do have some idea where I might be going.

I think I may eventually end up regularly attending Morning Prayer at a church (probably after my degree is done, for practical timing reasons if nothing else). This will be a bit strange as I normally sing the psalms, to whatever tune comes out; I may eventually get a psalter to use, but for now I see nothing wrong with improvisation. But I think most parish churches probably have spoken Morning Prayer.

I can also see myself compiling bits of liturgical material and ending up with a sort of prayer book of my own. I'd like to get the Summary of Law in there, and the prayer of St Francis. I prefer hymnody when I have the musical dots to look at, and I might like some sort of short list of prayers for various occasions, a bit like the Jewish bracha books with all the blessings in them. The big difficulty with that plan is a lack of portability; my work teaching and performing means I am out and about quite a lot, and while I can usually pray first thing in the morning at home, other times of day are not so easy. It may take me a while to settle on which material to include, and temporary bindings (ring binders and the like) tend to be bulky. So for now I'll be keeping things simple, using books other people have written or compiled.

What would you include in your own personal prayer book? What prayers do you have memorised?

or is that crocii?

Spring in London always feels a little early to me, because we don't have the winters here that I learned to love on the Canadian prairies.

The prairies have crocuses, too, though I remember them as pinker and more hairy than the ones I find here.

From Randomness

These started blooming on Wednesday, and to me it feels like even the flowers have put on Lenten colours. They're a lot more purple in real life than on screen!

Monday, 23 February 2009

And after the fire

Evensong on Sunday was wonderful. Not just because I got to see Deacon Friend, which always makes me pretty happy, but because the sermon she gave seemed so relevant. I hadn't heard her preach before, and didn't realise she was going to be speaking last night. I'm very glad I made the journey to Leafy Suburb Church, even though it meant I got home late.

That marks six weeks and counting of going to church every Sunday. A year ago you'd never have convinced me this would happen, even if most of the services have been Evensong. I've changed such a lot in a year. It's appropriate, then, that the subject of the sermon was transformation.

A few things stood out for me. One was the acknowledgment that being open to God and to the possibility of transformation can be a frightening thing; changes in ourselves and in others can be scary, especially when we don't yet understand what's going on. I've certainly felt that in my own life and I don't really know how to deal with it, though I think I'm improving in some respects.

Fear is a very powerful thing, perhaps the closest thing to evil that I can bring myself to believe in. Much of my depression, I think, was related to how I responded to fear. I allowed it to rule my life. My comfort zones got smaller and smaller as I shied away from any discomfort or uncertainty, and the fear only got bigger. Eventually I was so tired of being scared that it just wasn't worth it to try any more. Retreat and withdrawal seemed like the only options.

I still get scared. I've always been cautious, easily frightened, perhaps more sensitive than I should be to life's lack of stability and consistency. I can't say what changed, exactly, and I can't point to all of how it changed, but my response to fear is different now than it used to be. Oh, I still have days where I hide under the duvet, unwilling to cope with life, but I choose them strategically now, and they don't spiral out of control. I still get discouraged, but somewhere along the line I learned to hope that tomorrow will be better, to let myself believe that things might improve. I still get frightened, especially when my mental state has been patchy for a while, but having experienced recovery once I know it's possible to experience it again, and that helps a lot. I haven't become an optimist, exactly, but I'm a lot less likely now to write off the world just because it is sometimes terrifying.

That's a pretty powerful transformation, at least from my perspective, and I don't really know how it happened. I can point to lots of little things, but adding them up doesn't seem to balance with the sort of change I've felt.

Which brings me to another point from last night's sermon: that transformation can happen on many levels. Sometimes learning a new perspective sheds new light on a subject and our thinking is transformed. I am blessed to see this in my teaching work: a student understands something and the light goes on, and in that instant they are transformed by delight. Other times transformation can be more profound: someone who has recovered from a serious illness or addiction can seem like a completely different person afterward. That sort of caterpillar-into-butterfly metamorphosis can be frightening to watch and frightening to undergo because it is so far-reaching. It has the potential to be extremely disruptive. But it can be a wonderful, inspiring thing to witness.

DF said in her sermon that the transformation Christians seek is to become more Christ-like: more loving, more merciful, more just, more compassionate, more encouraging, more faithful. If that's what Christianity is all about then sign me up! I'm not sure that isn't what most religion is about, though. I think Karen Armstrong might point out that increasing compassion is a major component of at least the three Abrahamic faiths as they are today, as well as that of several Eastern religions. But I digress. The point was that the sort of transformation Christians seek is to become more Christ-like, and that can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, frightening, disruptive. It changes lives.

And it's contagious. In loving others more fully, in forgiving those who harm us, in seeking to meet the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves, in encouraging those who struggle, in consoling the unhappy and fighting for the justice of the oppressed, what we do is teach people, by powerful example, that they are loved, they are worthwhile, they are valued. When they learn this they will often turn around and try to do the same for others. When they see that it is through God's grace that kindness has been done to them, they will seek God's grace themselves. And we don't have to say a word about it, we don't have to tell them how it's done, we don't have to push them to accept anything that's hard for them to believe, we just have to take loving, kind action. That's my understanding of what she was saying, anyway.

That has certainly been my experience with a number of people. Appropriately, DF is one example of someone who has been hugely influential in my own spiritual searching, despite--or perhaps because of--her complete acceptance of where I am now and her steadfast refusal to push her own belief system on anyone else. She helped me, a lot, when I most needed it and when she could have just walked away. I've seen her do the same or similar for many other people. Her capacity for loving, kind action astounds me. It has long been clear to me that her kindness to others is a result of her own relationship with God. I see the way she treats others, her commitment to the wellbeing of everyone she meets, and I am inspired. I want to live that way. And if her way of life is a result of a relationship with God, then I need to cultivate a relationship with God. And so here I am, cultivating that relationship with the aim of augmenting compassion, in the ways that I know how: reading scripture, praying daily, going to church of all things, and she didn't have to say a word. She didn't bother telling me the word, she just got on with living it as best she could.

That leads to the third point of her sermon, one that is perhaps most difficult for me. It was a suggestion of silence as a valuable means of seeking such transformation. I don't doubt that it's useful. I don't doubt that most of us, in this busy, noisy world, need more time for contemplation, more silence and stillness in our lives. But stillness and silence have never come easily to me. The closest I come to having a mind free of scampering, skittering thoughts is when I am playing or singing music, which is hardly something that counts as silence. My head is full of words and sounds and pictures, and all my efforts to clear it have failed; the best I seem to be able to do is to fill it with words, sounds and pictures that inspire and encourage me rather than cause me to feel desolation and despair. I don't know if silent contemplation or meditation would be transformative for me: I never get that far. The closest I get is in song.

So which hymn did we sing? This one, of course:

Jesus, these eyes have never seen
that radiant form of thine;
the veil of sense hangs dark between
thy blessèd face and mine.

I see thee not, I hear thee not,
yet art thou oft with me;
and earth hath ne'er so dear a spot
as where I meet with thee.

Yet, though I have not see, and still
must rest in faith alone;
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will,
unseen but not unknown.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,
and still this throbbing heart,
the rending veil shall thee reveal
all glorious as thou art.

The veil of sense hangs dark between thy blessed face and mine. That sounds about right for my incessant attempts to make logical sense of something I actually believe to be ineffable. I really want to understand this... I really want to understand how Jesus fits into this world, this life, my life. It's proving difficult. The Trinity is not an easy concept for a rationalist like myself, and all I get from reading everyone from Tom Wright to Paul M Collins to Karen Armstrong is that some very influential Christians also don't think it's an easy concept... but while it doesn't make sense to me, thinking about God in Trinitarian terms gets in the way of thinking about God in terms of what I should do next. Veil of sense indeed! At the moment the only time I believe in a triune God is when I'm singing about it. The rest of the time, my concept of God is one of overwhelming unity and interconnectedness, of infinite wholeness.

I will give more thought to silence. I will keep trying. But in the meantime, I'm going to keep singing.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

My trip up to Leicester to visit with Sweetie and his father went very well. I've been fed and watered most excellently, stayed up far too late on Friday night discussing philosophy and (to an extent) theology, and we've made some plans for when the weather gets a little warmer: a sort of picnic tour of some of the old rural churches of Leicestershire, a church crawl if you will. We drove straight by Tilton Church but didn't have time to stop and look, you see, and that got us talking. So sometime this summer I'll go on a church crawl with an atheist and an agnostic, both of whom know more about history and architecture than I do.

One of the things we discussed Friday night was whether we live by any "-isms". Sweetie's dear father claims he doesn't. I'm not so sure. I listed some of my own beliefs and Sweetie quickly catalogued them for me. My conviction that what I do in the world actually matters is idealism. My hope that my mistakes will be forgiven, that trying to improve things (with care and discernment) is better than not trying, is optimism. I'm not sure I agree with the classifications, but it was good to talk. Sweetie doesn't share my yearning for religious ritual and fellowship and as far as spiritual journeys are concerned he'd rather stay home in the warm and dry, but he does share my ethics and morals and, I think, more of my beliefs than he might like to admit.

I was able to read a bit while I was away, but not to post.

The ABofC visiting the USofA (whee, more alphabet soup!) mostly made me think, "Well, maybe he'll learn something." Which probably just shows how naive I am at the political side of this all this church stuff, or possibly about people in general.

The Sunday Sermon over at Faith in Community made me think. I certainly know that feeling, that "I'm going to stick with you, I would follow you anywhere, PLEASE DON'T GO" feeling that is somewhere between love and desperation. I think I used to have it of my parents, a long time ago. Now, I most closely associate it with people in whom I find it easier to see the Divine, people I perceive as working and living within the Spirit... I don't really have the language to explain this, because it isn't only those who are actively or openly religious who appear that way to me.

I feel a bit like this sometimes, the bit where Good In Parts describes a very busy time of life, spinning the hamster wheel as fast as possible. I'm studying, teaching, trying to fit as much into this life as I can, and sometimes it feels like I've lost track of what's important.

I still believe a "Glory to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" when I sing it, and can't quite understand well enough to believe it when I say it, but something is shifting. I'd like to believe it as easily as I believe in the existence of God. I'd like the idea that God loves us and forgives us to be as accessible to me, as automatically part of who I am, as the idea that he exists and created us. Right now those are still very much in an embryonic form of 'maybe' when I think in terms of "us" or humanity and quite a bit less than that when I think in terms of "me" or the person that I am. For a lot of people that seems to be tied up with an understanding of or relationship with Jesus... something that I find difficult at best. I can deal with the Father. I can cope with the Holy Spirit. I'm really, really not sure about the Son.

Maybe that just means I need to sing more.

This evening I'm hoping to go to Evensong in Leafy South London Suburb to see Deacon Friend. I will have to see how I'm feeling: I am very tired after my travels yesterday, and finding something closer to home might be wise. This morning, I'm teaching, though some of my students are still away for half-term so I'm starting at the scandalously late hour of 9am and will be finished by 2.30pm. Bliss! But I don't live in the area where I teach, so I have to leave pretty soon, especially as the Tube is not running to my local station today.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pre-weekend post

Friday evening I'm off to Leicester to visit Sweetie's father. I look forward to good food and better company; I'll be back Saturday night in time to teach on Sunday. I'm not sure how much useful internet access I'll have while I'm gone.

Some people and situations I'm praying for, in no particular order:

From MadPriest:

A certain Ostrich is having a hard time, in a way I can relate to on levels I'd rather not.

There are so many from MadPriest, he's put them into list.

MadPriest himself is mustering courage for a worthwhile but somewhat daunting risk.

From Grandmère Mimi:

Roseann is very much in need of prayers for healing.

Lance had a run-in with a table saw.

If these people aren't my enemies I don't know who is, and I don't even really know how to pray for my enemies. But I pray that they'll find some peace and stop making trouble for the rest of us, and I give thanks they've not been allowed to come here.

From my own more immediate circle, alphabet soup so as to protect their identities (and mine):

I pray for strength for C, a friend of mine, and healing for her brother P, who is currently in hospital. Today I learned that this is a situation which will require ongoing prayer, rather than just the acute medical crisis of which I'd been told and which I'd already been praying about.

I pray for A whose beloved Nana broke her hip this week.

I pray for K who bought a house today. May it become a home for her.

I pray for E who today found out about the death of a friend and mentor in a skiing accident.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

It's been an interesting few days. I'm busy with academic work, and getting to the end of every day not having finished as much as I'd hoped and intended... that's about normal for this stage of the degree, I think.

Want to see something beautiful? Have a look at this video footage of narwhales.

One thing I didn't anticipate, deciding to start blogging here myself rather than just passively lurking, is that suddenly all the prayer requests seem quite a bit more compelling. I haven't replied to all of them but I have prayed in response to all of the ones I've seen. I've not previously been in the habit of keeping a written list of people or situations to pray about, but I think I might like to start one soon. I don't want to miss anyone out. On the other hand, I'm always going to forget someone or something even if I do keep a list, so maybe a simple "and anyone in need of help" tacked onto the end makes more sense.

It's a little odd, because I still don't really know most of you at all and you don't really know me, but even small niceties like online comments build a sort of connection, a sort of bridge between souls if you like, even if it's tenuous. Jan writes I believe love is a prayer, so we all are joining God's prayer when we love, whether we know it or not. I like that view of prayer.

I wonder how this relates to being kind to the stranger, especially when the help required is more material than prayer or kind words. I think we're all a little more likely to give money or food or shelter to someone we know than someone we don't, even if we find a way to do so anonymously. I can't help everyone without becoming an ascetic myself (and even then, it wouldn't be enough) so maybe that sort of community-within-the-world is as good a method as any to decide where to send help, but there are some obvious flaws: the world is a very interconnected place and just because I'm not directly involved in a community (even on a marginal basis) does not mean there is no need for help, no obligation to help.

I've been thinking more about music and liturgy and worship, but in a different context: that of hospital chaplaincy.

When my grandmother was in hospital I used to visit her with my dad. She had Parkinson's disease, and her body gradually became more and more a prison. Sometimes we would sit and talk, or read poetry that she had written or that we knew she loved. Often we would go to the hospital cafeteria and eat together. Always, we would take her wheelchair to an open area of the building that had a piano in it, and I would play for her. Long after she lost the ability to speak or even vocalise in response to conversations, she could sing along with the music.

Music is a very important part of worship for me, and if I were in hospital and facing a crisis, I think it would be in music that I would find the most comfort and solace. Some things just can't be put into words, and I think I would want to sing, or if I couldn't sing, to be sung to. Some things just can't be put into words. But many hospital chaplains may not be musicians, and I imagine that most hospitals, at least in the UK, are lucky if they have a piano at all. Also chaplaincy as I understand it very often means dealing with people from very diverse backgrounds and (I am generalising madly here) musical traditions in worship tend to be less rigidly standardised than, say, spoken prayers: there may be strict guidelines on what sort of music is appropriate in a given tradition, but in my experience there are almost always various different tunes that can be used for different prayer texts. Very often the musical part of a service is the part that is most variable. So to incorporate music effectively into the pastoral care of hospital chaplaincy would require working knowledge of a huge range of traditions and access to several libraries. The Hospital Chaplaincy Gateway has a link to the Oremus Hymnal, which is a wonderful resource, but it has limits. (And then there is another problem: someone hums something at you, you don't recognise it, they don't remember the words or title: how do you search for it? I understand Google is working on some sort of melody-based audio search but this is extremely non-trivial.)

I'm not done thinking about this, but I'm already starting to wonder whether this is something I should pursue as a volunteer activity, when I've finished this academic degree. I don't know whether I'd want to help compile more extensive online resources, or get involved in the practical side of things; I suspect I would learn more from the latter. But for now I really do have to file this under 'neat ideas to explore when I have time'.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Modes of Worship

I posted this over in the comments at OCICBW after reading some of the comments on MP's Thought for the Day, which dealt with the Latin Mass and the present pope destroying something which was beautiful. Some commenters described their experiences of Latin Mass as very moving, others had experienced it as moving rather too quickly to be seemly or meaningful. I'm not sure of the etiquette here, in re-posting a comment that I made elsewhere, but wanted to have it for future reference.


It's interesting reading about differing approaches to the Latin Mass from the perspective of having participated in Jewish services of the Orthodox variety. These are all in Hebrew, for similar reasons to the Mass being in Latin. It was certainly a useful thing to be able to go to any service and encounter familiar words, even if they were in a language that I never did manage to learn properly.

Perhaps because of the nature of the liturgy, which has a written text but tunes which are passed on through oral tradition, there was a rich variety of music in worship in the synagogue and at home. I experienced both approaches in different circumstances: sometimes, yes, the prayers would be gabbled, rushed through. Other times there was a real appreciation of the music of the prayers, not always solemn, but meaningful.

I think both approaches can have a place. I know that saying the grace after meals there were times when we were going too fast for me to really keep up with the Hebrew in any sensible way and I just had to give up and let the syllables wash over me, pronounce the sounds without thinking about the meaning in anything other than a very general way. I found that this can be an almost meditative experience, as if saying the words distracts that part of my brain that gets caught up in such things and leaves me free to experience something deeper. The danger, of course, is that quickly gabbled prayers said on autopilot can also free up part of my brain to think about what I might want to do with the leftovers from the meal, or what I might wear tomorrow, or how hideous that cabbage casserole was!

I'm a musician, and beautifully performed music speaks to me on a level that I've been unable to explain in words. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences have been in the context of singing at a high level of competency with good direction and excellently-crafted music. But there are dangers there, too, I feel: it is entirely possible to get so caught up in technical aspects of good musical performance, perhaps even getting competitive about it, that one loses the true intent of the liturgy.

This is often a problem in non-liturgical musical settings, too! I think one of the differences between a very good musician and an astounding one is the ability to communicate in some sort of transcendent manner on a consistent and regular basis. Of course, if there are technical problems--if the music is just too hard--that will distract the listener, which is why musicians spend so much time and effort trying to get the technical details right. But at the end of the day the technical details are only the technical details, and a perfectly-executed technical performance can still fall flat.

The issue of language is a knotty one. The Latin I have sung has always been beautiful text in and of itself, and it is a language that often lends itself to singing rather better than English does. Singing is such an important part of worship for me that given a choice between beautifully-sung Latin and badly-sung vernacular I would probably choose the Latin and go learn what it means. Hebrew is a lot harder to learn (I studied French at school, which makes Latin a little easier, and Hebrew goes the other direction and has a different set of characters!) but if I had stayed longer in Judaism I'm sure I would understand a lot more of it by now. But someone who doesn't learn languages as well as I do, or who isn't affected as much by music, or who has a higher need for immediate literal understanding of liturgy, might choose differently. The needs of someone who cannot hear at all will be different again.

A perfectly-executed technical performance of the Latin Mass could be a thing of sublime, transcendent beauty, or it could be utterly alienating. It depends on who is singing and it depends on who is listening.

With that in mind, I think there is a place for the Latin Mass in modern worship, but I'm not sure what it is. I guess ideally there would be a variety of worship styles available regardless of doctrine or dogma, and people could feel free to attend or participate in whatever services they found most meaningful. But that might be a little forward-thinking, given the current state of the world.

Happy Monday... and how I got from there to here.

Yesterday was a long day: teaching, Evensong, and then to the pub to collect my laundry from Sweetie (who took a load of it to his flat when the washing machine Chez Song packed up: dedication or what?).

Where had I got to? About a year ago.

About a year ago I was starting to really notice the effects of not being quite so depressed. My capacity to do work increased, first in fits and starts and then more dramatically. I set about getting my life in some semblance of order, although I didn't look at it that way at the time... I just tried to do what I could, one day at a time, as I always have. I started thinking and talking about spiritual issues a bit more, but didn't get very far with them.

Time passed, as it has the habit of doing, and I got as far as Pesach, and... well. I basically spent that first day of Passover crying, wishing I knew where I fit.

Things got a little easier after that. I started reading books, which I'll list another time. I started asking people questions about what I might look into that would fit with my schedule (I work on Sundays, and during the week my time belongs to finishing my degree). I found out a mentor and friend of mine was training to be ordained in the Church of England. I bought a hymnal, on a whim, and started getting back in touch with the form of worship which had always worked so well for me before: singing.

At the end of the summer I had some time off from teaching on Sundays, so I went to a few Unitarian services. These were useful. I went to a church service with a friend, the first Christian service I'd attended in eight years of living in London. Things picked up a bit in the autumn. I attended my friend's ordination as deacon, and an Evensong service in her new parish. I joined a choir that sings mostly liturgical music, albeit not as most of us today know it. I started attending poetry evenings at the Unitarian church. I read more, and more, and more. I found that I rather liked these Evensong services at my friend's new parish and have been to one nearly every month (despite the travel being tiresome: London is huge and it is a two hour door-to-door journey from my flat to her church). I started looking at liturgy, wanting to have structured daily prayer, and eventually settled on the online resources at Oremus and then, when that didn't work well for me (I think because of timezone issues), the offerings of the C of E website.

And that's about where I am now. Five weeks ago I went to Evensong at my friend's parish. Four weeks ago, on a rare Sunday off, I went to a morning service at a church affiliated with my place of study. The last three weeks running (including yesterday) I've gone to Evensong at a different parish church, near where I work... I won't be able to do it every week as it depends on my teaching schedule but I'll probably be able to get there two weeks in three, which isn't bad going.

A year ago, you would not have convinced me that I'd feel comfortable in a Christian church, let alone that I'd attend some sort of service for five weeks in a row. So what happened?

I can think of several factors.

One is very much on the level of personal relationships. I know several Christians of varying stripes, but some of them are truly inspiring. The mentor and friend I mentioned earlier is one example. I see how she lives, and I sense that at least some of it comes from her relationship with God, and I want to live that way if I can. I think her beliefs and mine differ in doctrinal details, but I have never known someone so relentlessly accepting, so fiercely compassionate. She isn't pushy about her faith, but she lives it in such a way that I can't ignore it. That's a very powerful thing, and I am blessed to have a handful of other friends who happen to be Christian who are similarly inspiring.

On a wider level, I feel drawn to corporate worship, to prayer and praise with other people, but I don't tend to be someone who fits into social groups easily. One of the problems in Judaism, for me, was that the community was small enough that simply moving to another part of the city could leave me fairly cut off. I suspect this will also be a problem with the Unitarians (who, in any case, are sometimes not theist enough for my taste). If I can find a myself theologically tolerable place among Christians, I'm less likely to have this problem, at least while I live in England: if it doesn't seem like a Christian country sometimes, try observing a different set of holidays for a while.

Of course, there's also the fact that I was raised as a family member of Christian clergy. That was a very difficult relationship for me for a number of reasons, but now that I've dealt with some of the trauma, I find some of the familiar patterns of worship from my childhood are comforting. Hymnody is perhaps the most important of these. I'm not likely to encounter the hymns I know and love anywhere other than Christianity (and Unitarian attempts at modifying the words have made me wince), and as I mentioned previously, I'm very comfortable singing things that I do not think I could bring myself to say.

I don't want to focus on what beliefs I hold in common with Christianity (and particularly Anglican theology, insofar as that can be defined; I'm not sure why I feel drawn to the C of E in particular but I suspect it is partly to do with personal relationships, and partly because nobody from that tradition has pushed me) so much that I ignore what are some very serious questions. If the Nicene Creed is the sufficient statement of faith then I've got a long way to go, and these things won't be forced. I have a fairly high requirement for things to make sense on an intellectual level and I suspect that means I'll have to figure things out first, or at least figure out a way that that they could conceivably be true, before getting to a point where I believe them. Ignoring my intellectual objections in the past has led me to be unhappy. I think I need an integrity between my beliefs, my understanding and my actions in order to move closer to God.

I don't want to focus only on those questions, those objections, either. I don't want to be resistant to Christianity out of pride, turning my back just because I don't want to do a U-turn and say, "okay, yeah, I think I get it now" about things I've never been able to relate to before and have insisted I can't relate to. I'm not interested in getting stuck or standing still.

So I'm interested in Christianity, but I'm interested in it as one way that I might be able to find meaningful worship and a community of broadly like-minded people. I need to make sense of it, not in a "this is the only way" sort of context, but at least on a level of possibilities. I want to find out if the story of the life of Christ can speak to me in a way it hasn't before. I want to find out if the Bible can inspire me on a level that it hasn't before, even though I think it's far from infallible. I'm open to the possibility that this might change my life, but I want to be careful that any of this makes me a more compassionate person, a more loving person, in accordance with the Summary of Law.

And I guess I'm blogging it because I think better when I can put things into words, and I like a bit of company when I'm on a journey.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Good morning, and further background.

I have a bit of extra time this morning, and I'm still feeling carried along by the enthusiasm of starting a new project and by the warm acceptance I've found here.

It's been reassuring to find out there are so many of you who are, like me, struggling with some aspects of belief, whether specifically Christian or more general. And it has been interesting to see some of the varied (but not conflicting) advice I've had from different people!

A bit more background is probably in order. This might get a bit long, and I might have to split it into parts because I have to go and teach this morning.

I was baptised as a baby, so I don't remember it. That would have been in the United Church of Canada.

I was confirmed when I was around ten or eleven years old. That was also United Church of Canada. Oddly, I remember very little of the confirmation classes I went to beforehand. I remember being asked to memorise the order of the books of the Bible, which doesn't seem like a whole lot of use now. I don't remember anything else even though most of my memories of education from around that time are quite vivid. There must have been more to it than that! In any case, for a number of reasons I don't think I was in a position at the time to ask the sort of questions I needed to ask, or to make the sort of commitment that I associate with confirmation. I don't know where that leaves me now, morally. Confirmation is something that seems to be interpreted very widely within the church.

I can't remember not believing in God. As far as I can tell, I've always believed that the world is/was created, though I've had to modify the details over time. (Conversely, I can't remember ever believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy: these were always Games To Play With Grown-Ups. I may have wanted to believe they were real, but I knew they weren't.)

I always had trouble relating to the concept of Jesus as God. This may date back to when I was three years old and thought, when I heard, "This is my body, broken for you," that they actually had a guy up on the altar and we were going to eat him, seemed a bit gruesome at the time. It may be because I have a very difficult time with things that don't make logical sense, and the whole Three-In-One thing never really took. It may be because I believe all people are divine in the sense of all being part of God's creation, and the idea of Jesus being more Godly than the rest of us just doesn't seem fair. It may be because all the arguments for the divinity of Jesus seem to be based on a text that I don't necessarily accept as the true and unsullied Word of God. I'm not sure. I'm just very aware that while I agree with some of the things Jesus allegedly taught, I remain unconvinced that Jesus was God Incarnate.

I also struggle hugely to see the Bible as being somehow specially divine, specially holy, compared to other books. Part of this is a tendency, on my part, to try to hold it to rational post-Enlightenment standards, when (I now think) it was written as a narrative... inspirational material rather than dictatorial, in most cases. So much of what everyone told me was right and true boiled down to "because the Bible said so," and that just doesn't wash with me. Doing something because the Bible tells me to is a bit like doing something because the moon tells me to. I'm sure both can be sources of inspiration, I know both are beautiful in their way, but why one and not the other? Why this particular set of books?

I struggled with these things throughout my teenage years but didn't find any answers on my own and wasn't in a position where I felt I could ask anyone else about them. I was also quite depressed for much of this time.

Judaism seemed like a good logical next step. The story of the Exodus was always one that spoke to me, one with which I somehow felt I could identify. When I moved to London, I moved into an Orthodox Jewish household. I had started keeping kosher already, but now I modified my dress and started keeping Shabbat, right down to light-switches and not carrying things (and there was no eruv back then), and attending Jewish services. Judaism is principally a religion of things done or undone, not a religion of belief, so I figured my beliefs didn't matter so much. I thought maybe the structure of religious observance could keep me away from the worst of depression. I stayed involved in the community for a few years and fully intended to undergo Orthodox conversion... this meant I did a fair amount of conforming for the sake of conforming, for the road of gerut is not an easy one in the Orthodox world. But first, I wanted to go away to university.

What I found soon after going away to uni is that Judaism doesn't work very well in a vacuum. The small institution I attend doesn't have a Jewish society and I wasn't going to start one. The area I was now living in didn't have a Jewish community I could get to on foot. I was working all day on Sundays, teaching my (mostly Jewish) students in their homes, and doing some performance work during the week as well as my classes, and still struggling with depression. I got to every Friday night absolutely exhausted, far too exhausted to cook the elaborate Friday night dinners I had used to make for friends, far too exhausted to do much more than collapse into bed with a book. Without a community around me for communal worship my prayer life fell in on itself until I wasn't really praying at all. Gradually, it all began to slip, and I realised it was silly to keep these laws, silly to live this life, based on a book that I do not acknowledge as infallibly true.

It took a few years to disentangle myself from Judaism. Eventually, I got help for the depression. I also was diagnosed with some other medical problems, some of which will affect me for the rest of my life and some of which we're not quite sure about. I started dressing more like I always have, started doing things on Saturdays again, eventually even stopped keeping kosher. But living a secular life wasn't enough. Now I had two sets of holidays where I felt bereft and alone, the Christian ones and the Jewish ones, and nothing that I could really quite call my own. I was finally breaking free of depression, finally coming to terms with other medical issues, finally starting to live life instead of just surviving it, but I had a very strong sense that this was not enough, would not be enough, and that if I ignored my spiritual yearnings everything would fall in on me again. I did start to pray again at some point, albeit mostly in a very unstructured way.

I'm out of time now, but that takes me to about a year ago. I've changed a lot since this time last year.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A Warm Welcome

Well, I've been here about twelve hours. Over the last six my thoughts have ranged from, "How lovely that people are so welcoming," to "Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?" to "Oh, looks like I have to do some hand-washing tonight." The latter is because the washing machine here at Chez Song is having some trouble and I didn't realise until after it had wet an entire load of laundry, but the others are reactions to the response of the community here.

I'm touched by the friendliness and acceptance I've been shown. Thank you all so much. I was going to wait until the morning to post anything but at this rate I'll have too many comments to read before I have to leave for work.

Off to finish washing my socks.

Introductory post

The Collect of the Day from today's Morning Prayer (Common Worship) runs thus:

Lord of all,
who gave to your servants Cyril and Methodius
the gift of tongues to proclaim the gospel to the Slavs:
make your whole Church one as you are one
that all Christians may honour one another,
and east and west acknowledge
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,

and you, the God and Father of all;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Emphasis mine. Would that the various Primates might take this to heart.

Perhaps the start of the General Synod wasn't an ideal time to start reading various Christian blogs, many of them Anglican. I have to start somewhere, though. And the calls to unity and compassion that I've seen in the online community make a wonderful counterbalance to what I might think if I relied on more traditional media reports.

A bit about me, and this blog, and what it's for:

I'm a Canadian, living in London for some years now. I was raised in a Christian (United Church of Canada) household, left Christianity for doctrinal reasons, seriously considered Judaism but realised I had some of the same objections. I have a strong belief in God and feel drawn to corporate worship and structured private prayer, but have difficulty finding communities where I can find a sense of fellowship without tripping over intellectual problems.

I was baptized and confirmed, but I do not currently consider myself Christian. I have major intellectual objections to the Trinity and the Incarnation. Nevertheless, in recent months I've felt drawn toward Christianity. My ideas for further spiritual study tend strongly toward Christianity, and toward taking the bits of it that I do understand or relate to on some level and expanding or augmenting them. Finding common ground and adding to it, basically.

I attend Christian services when I can (and more Christian services than any other sort), but I will not receive the Eucharist or say the Apostles' Creed at this point in my journey: it would feel dishonest.

My private prayer is more regular. At the moment I pray Morning Prayer (Common Worship) every morning. I sing the Psalms and sometimes the various canticles (more on this in a later post) and read everything else in an undertone. I skip over bits I really can't believe; I figure if God is merciful, where I am is okay, and if God is not merciful I'm screwed anyway.

I'm quite in agreement with what Jesus said regarding the Summary of the Law. I'd like to work that into my structured daily prayer, more, but I'm not sure where it fits.

My unstructured prayer varies more, from lengthy diatribes to the very simple internal "Help!" or "Thanks!" in response to a challenge or a gift.

One of the things I've noticed is that when I sing liturgical material rather than just saying it, something changes internally. I'm able to sing about the Trinity and believe it, in some sense; a said doxology bothers me but a sung one is actually a comfort. I've even sung settings of the Nicene Creed and been able to believe them while I'm singing... the belief disappears, or becomes somehow less accessible, when I stop. I don't know how this works, but I want to explore it more: where in the continuum of speech to chant to song does this change? Do I experience it only with Christian texts, or do other traditions also have material with this ability to get past the logical radar as soon as I start singing? What about material that I find actively repulsive rather than just incomprehensible? Will singing enable me to relate to it in a different context? I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think singing is always going to be an important part of my spiritual life, so it seemed sensible to involve it in the blog name.

That's enough for now, I think.