Sunday, 31 October 2010

non-Biblical witness

Yesterday in the park an Enthusiastic Evangelist approached me and started to chat.

He was moderately polite, but took great pains to explain to me at some length that if I believe that God's love is unconditional, I believe in a made-up-in-my-head God, contrived based on my own desire for comfort. He quoted the Bible at me to try to prove that Jesus believed in hell and judgment, that anyone who fails is eternally damned.

I tried to explain something I've tried to explain before: that if Christ will draw all people to himself, then any hell that exists cannot be eternal, and hope must prevail. He wasn't having any of it.

We went our separate ways. I didn't get into discussions about scriptural literalism, and I didn't get drawn into prooftexting, and the whole thing bothered me a lot less than it might have three or four years ago.

I've been thinking about it, though, about how my beliefs and convictions differ from those of this young man so doggedly determined to save, to convert, by discussion and reference to scripture.

Maybe that works for some people.

My understanding of Christianity is certainly informed by scripture -- it would be difficult for it not to be given my background and upbringing -- but I do not believe in God's love for all humanity because the Bible declares it, or because people preach it. I do not believe in God's love for us because I have been told it exists.

I believe in God's love for us because I have been shown, in a hundred thousand little ways. I believe Christ died on the cross and rose again because a hundred thousand actions have pointed to that.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in the mother worrying over her sick child.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in the teacher who risks missing her train home in order to spend another five minutes reassuring a nervous student.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in the counselor who responds promptly to a last-ditch-effort e-mail from a girl suffering from depression and supports her through the years of upheaval that follow.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in the woman whose greatest concern on holiday seems to be that she can't keep in touch with friends who need her prayers and support.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in the churches who operate a Floating Shelter because local council provision for the homeless obviously isn't enough.

I have seen Christ crucified and risen in a vicar who says "God loves us to bits" and means it, in a woman who cares for her ailing husband without complaint despite the toll on her own fragile health, in an online community where all are welcome, in the very oak leaves that fall dancing from the tree and go on to form soil.

It is not only the grain that, in order to live, must fall to the earth and perish. Sometimes I am the leaf, sometimes I am the tree, sometimes I am the grass growing in the soil of the sacrifice of others. And always, Emmanuel -- God-with-us. I don't believe this because I have read it. I don't need to read what I have lived.

That doesn't mean I don't have any use for canon, for scripture, for the Bible. But I don't believe the things I believe because they are written down in words somewhere. I believe them because they are inscribed on the hearts of the faithful and acted out day after day after day.

And these same things are inscribed on the hearts of those whose faith is known to God alone, those who acknowledge no higher power, those for whom talk of a personal God is nonsense but who work tirelessly to heal the sick, comfort those who mourn, help and encourage one another in what is good, bring justice to the poor.

Theism is not a dealbreaker.

Philosophy is not a dealbreaker. Political affiliation is not a dealbreaker. Sexual orientation is not a dealbreaker. Race is not a dealbreaker. Achievement is not a dealbreaker. Competence is not a dealbreaker. Income is not a dealbreaker. Social class is not a dealbreaker. Health is not a dealbreaker.

Sin is not a dealbreaker.

There are no dealbreakers in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thanks be to God! There is nothing that cannot be forgiven by a God of infinite love.

May my thoughts and words and actions reveal this as truth.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


I took a few days and went to visit a friend in another city. It was wonderful to be easy walking distance from the cathedral where I went to Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

The idea was to rest, read, maybe get to work on a Mass setting I'm supposed to be composing. It wasn't a problem that my friend was at work all day; being on my own without a squillion things to do was the whole point, though it was good to catch up in the evenings.

I mostly rested. I didn't even start the Mass setting. I'm feeling very okay about that.

The next time I get more than one day off in a row will probably be after Candlemas...

Now the only problem is when I'm going to manage to actually write this music.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

cutting the Kingdom to shreds

I'm feeling sick at heart over the UK budget cuts.

These are going to hit the poorest hardest. The big corporations that have evaded tax won't be touched; neither will the banks that got such a huge bail-out of taxpayer money.

People are angry, and hurt, and confused. More than that, I think, a lot of people are frightened. Money is power in this society, and it just got more powerful. Of course we're frightened; we're terrified that might will prevail. It all seems so incredibly stupid.

What I'm struggling with is trying to get a mental picture of how much of the wealth I enjoy has really been "borrowed" from my future, or from people who have less economic clout than I have. I've been saying for a while that we live too well for it to last, but completely turning away from a broken economic system isn't something I've had the guts to do.

I think I do practise right livelihood, mostly: my actual work as a teacher and musician doesn't exploit others much. If anything I need to charge a little more, be a little less principled, because right now I still don't earn enough to break even and that means I am reliant on my partner for some of my living expenses. His work is perhaps less salutary. But then, so is the work of the parents of many of the students I teach; even without doing work that is damaging, I collude in a damaging system.

I also try to spend reasonably responsibly, and here I am less successful... my best intentions will not do the paperwork to change banks, or get me to the point where I do sew my own clothes rather than buying ready-made ones (Fairly Traded clothing that fits me and is appropriate for some of my work is almost impossible to find). I waste huge amounts of resources every winter because the house where I live doesn't have adequate insulation; as I can't afford to buy a house or flat and my landlord has no incentive to change anything, my options are to put up with what I can rent or to give up having a roof over my head. I don't think the latter would be constructive.

By removing myself from the monetary economy I would essentially remove myself from the information stream. If the number of people turning away from what's broken is small, they won't be missed. I recognise that there is a case for hermits, for prophets, for people who turn drastically away from broken societal structures to show that a different life is possible. They are necessary and I am glad they exist. But if the choice is black and white -- either sticking with the current structures or rejecting them completely -- most people will find the choice too hard, the current structures will continue, those who leave will be considered insane and nothing is achieved.

Rather, I think that it is important for me to continue to engage with the current structures, and contribute, if I can, to creative solutions to problems. I can't live perfectly, but I can take the money I'm paid and spend it on FairTrade rather than non-FT products. I can act with kindness toward people even if there is no obvious gain to me for doing so. I can try to improve my balance, living more independently of the broken system in some places, colluding where I have no other choice, and -- and this is important -- staying in contact, encouraging others to find out for themselves that life can be done differently, that win-win situations do happen. I can work with others to find creative solutions for the problems of injustice and poverty.

The UK government may have just made all that a bit harder, but all that means is that it's even more important that I do what I can.

Oddly, this is pretty much my stance on church participation, too. The C of E General Synod is pasted all over the Anglican blogosphere at the moment, so that even someone like me with hardly any time to read can't help but notice that there's an awful lot of dirty politics flying around. My fear is that the women bishops stuff will eclipse the Anglican Covenant stuff and we'll end up with no women bishops AND a stupid governing document that we don't need. But I don't think I can leave over this... because the reason I've become tangled up in the Church Hesitant of England in the first place is because people have shown me that there is another way. If General Synod doesn't have the outcomes I think would be best, that's just a stronger argument for me to stay, get involved, keep showing people that there is another way -- even if it means that what goes on at parish level and what goes on at institutional level get even further apart.

The thing is, the changes in information tech make both of these things more easily possible. Seriously, the potential for functional "shadow" economies is HUGE with tools like Twitter, and the stronger those get the more irrelevant government provision will seem. Look at things like Kickstarter and FundBreak, which are private start-up funding for projects; look at Kiva which allows private lending, and initiatives like WorldBike (which might seem a bit conventional compared to the other examples, but is actually an example of what is possible with better communication).

Don't get me wrong -- I believe we're an extremely long way from being able to provide a crowdsourced NHS, for example. I know the budget cuts announced yesterday will harm a lot of people before we can get to that point, and I think the danger of reverting to depression is very real. And I know human beings well enough to know that the Church As An Institution is going to be around for a while. These things won't change overnight and we are all going to be wounded.

But this is my hope: to build up what is good rather than tear down what is destructive, to help others where I can, to put my money (what little of it there is) where my mouth is and let every action, every word, every breath point to the values of the Kingdom of God.

Who's coming with me, then?

Saturday, 9 October 2010


Not everything is glumness; not everything is grey.

Last year I found an orchid in a pot sitting beside a rubbish bin.

I brought it home, put it on a sunny windowsill and watered it intermittently.

Our days are but as grass; •
we flourish as a flower of the field;
(from Psalm 103)

Oh, but what a flower!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Fit for purpose?

Morning Prayer -- 5 days out of 5 this week. No, it isn't about the numbers... but setting a time, having a structure, seems to be helpful. Structured prayer doesn't confine my prayer to the limits of the structure but it does ensure that some prayer happens.

In addition to the thinking I've been doing about vocation or purpose, I'm struggling a little with a general mental malaise or low mood. I don't think it's a reaction to the things I've been thinking about or coming to recognise, though of course it could be; it doesn't feel like that kind of emotional response. I think it's much simpler. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and some years it's worse than others. I'm using my lightbox, and that's helping, but I still feel low.

As anyone who's had a major mental illness would be, I'm rather frightened that this mild low patch will develop into full-blown, whimpering-under-the-duvet depression.

I know that I have much better external support now than I did last time.

I know that I have much better mental tools now than I did last time.

I know that over three years of therapy did help heal a lot of the things that made my previous experience so debilitating.

I know that I don't react badly to some of the dried frog pills and that medication, though inconvenient, is an option.

I know that I'm aware of this and in a much better position to do something about it than I once was.

And I know that there is a chance that even if I do all I can, I will still get very ill.

And that's scary, because even the work I'm doing now -- which I love -- will fall apart if I get too sick to do it.

So I find my prayer this week sliding from "Please tell me what You want me to do" to "Please let me remain well enough to do it..."

I keep using the lightbox, I keep practising, I try not to sweat the small mistakes while allowing myself to focus on the small pleasures. I ask friends, loved ones, for help and company, I try to pace myself in terms of what I take on, and I reframe, reframe, reframe every all-or-nothing, black-and-white condemnation of myself or the world that my maladapted lizard brain tries to throw at me, trying always to turn toward what is good, turn toward what is God, the ground of all being, wanting to believe that love is stronger than this greyness.

Turn us again, O God of hosts; •
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

from Psalm 80

Sunday, 3 October 2010


So here's my little plan...

I will go to Nearest Church Mon-Thurs and say/sing Morning Prayer at (or near to) 8.30am. I won't tell anyone there that I'm doing this; I'll just do it. I never see anyone about at that time of morning when I go there to practise, and with the foreboding mornings getting darker and darker I don't think that's going to change anytime soon.

If it is working well for me after a few months I will talk to Gentle Vicar and see if he (or someone else there) wants to join me or put it in the pew sheet or whatever. If it doesn't work I'll try something else.

Fridays I'll try and get to Long Walk Church.

The Other Stuff... I need to sit with it for a while.

I met two lovely people on Friday, strangers, new friends. Without knowing me, without knowing how deeply they were scratching, they said some things about vocation which made me think. One was in the context of lay chaplaincy one of them had done, about what a privilege it was. The other was that anyone who finds a vocation to ordained ministry is an easy thing, a thing they say they've always been totally sure of, probably shouldn't be trusted.

I realised that "not ordained ministry" now holds the same slot in my brain as "not Christianity" once did.

I have a friend or two that I sometimes talk to about sermons as they're in the process of writing them. I realised only last night that, er, I really enjoy those chats. I find joy in reading the text, finding the truth in it, finding the love in it, finding God in it, and figuring out how to try and portray that. Something in doing this strengthens me just as much as making a meal for beloved friends does (and yes, I'm aware of the Eucharistic implications of that).

So, the "you really ought to be ordained at some point" comments from friends are not new, not new at all. I don't know exactly when they started. I know last summer, sitting at the piano playing Bach, I imagined it as a possibility -- and quickly discounted it, frightened at the upheaval. This week there has been lots of reinforcement, and I'm noticing or accepting that there may be something there after all. Or maybe not.

But mostly right now I need to wait. I have other work to do right now, and a huge pile of complications which cannot be written off as trivial.

Philippians 4:4-9 this morning at Nearst Church; a favourite of mine, I think, though something I don't do so well at practical aspects of it. Maybe that's another thing to work on while I wait.

Goodnight, beloved.