Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Love/Hate religion

My faith - as anyone who's read any of my posts has probably gathered - is very important to me.

I grew up in a Christian family and have been in various evangelical churches and it's thanks to my family and the churches I grew up in that I was first introduced to Jesus. [pause for intake of breath]. It hasn't all been good though.

Church can be a confusing place sometimes because it's populated by people, and people are neither all bad nor all good. Even the good ones are not always good and can sometimes affect you badly. Also - not everything you learn in church is true or helpful! I think that might be - at least for some people - one of the most important things you can learn about church! Of course, this goes for most things in life, which of course includes this blog - but some people don't seem to realise it applies to church and some churches actively discourage people from thinking like this.

I seem to have spent an awful lot of my life trying to sort out the good stuff from the bad. I'm not sure why this is. I think certain circumstances or character traits can make us more susceptible to absorbing the bad stuff and sometimes our natural defences become weakened or compromised, or perhaps just don't develop as they should. Similarly we can often become defensive against the wrong things - i.e. the things that would otherwise help us or do us good.

Because there is good and bad in every situation, and because of our different make-ups, different people can sometimes go through similar circumstances and fare very differently. I once heard an analogy put something like this:

There were 2 donkeys carrying a load into town. One of them was loaded up with salt, and the other with bales of unprocessed cotton. The donkeys had a river to cross.

It wasn't a swiftly flowing river and the donkeys were sure-footed and could swim, but it was so deep that both of their loads were all but submerged as they crossed.

When they got to the other side, one of the donkeys - the one carrying the salt - found that his load had all but disappeared. As he wasn't a commercially-minded donkey he was delighted to be rid of the weight he'd been carrying!

The other donkey however - the one carrying the cotton - found that his load had become massively heavy, to the point where it was now a huge struggle for him, simply to walk.

Just a small example of how the same situation can have a very different effect on you, depending on what type of baggage you happen to be carrying!

So I've carried some baggage, and absorbed a lot of bad stuff, and sometimes I've found it difficult to sort out. But I've absorbed a lot of good stuff which has done me a lot of good as well. I've known many Christians who have given up on their faith over the years, and at times I've felt tempted to do the same. In the end though, I found something at the heart of it all that is more precious than anything I'd care to trade it in for.

This poem is intended to portray something of my struggle:

Getting to the heart of things

For the longest time...

Too much truth
Too many lies
Too hard to separate
Too well disguised

Innocence with subtle thorns
That dig deep into soul and heart
Brain confused by tainted truths
That pull the mind apart

Word of life
That chains my soul
Come set me free
And make me whole

Promised life - restrictive cage
That keeps safe from doom and dark
Love's veneer but hiding fear
A shadow on the heart

Word of peace
Come settle me
Unbind these chains
And make me free

Food for thought and heart and soul
Wrapped about with poisonous barbs
I take my fill, it tears me still
I eat this or I starve

Word of hope
You speak to me
Your breath brings life
I start to see.

While I look on, the thorns die back
Fresh growth brings hope and life
I feel Your peace, it brings release
And calms my angry strife

Word of truth
I honour you
Re-work in me
As you would do

And in my hands a rarer fruit
Deep purged of wound and pain
But not quite free - still rimmed with thorns...
...until that promised day

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Unfulfilled Life

My wife and I spent last weekend at the Greenbelt festival. It's a wonderful hotch-potch of music, arts and comedy, along with speakers on various topics, mostly related to the Christian faith and/or social justice. It is held at the Cheltenham Race Course and as far as I can work out, attracts about 20,000 people or so each year. There's always some speakers, and some views expressed, that I disagree with, sometimes quite strongly, but one of the things I like about the festival is the variety of perspectives that are represented and the freedom - often absent in other Christian contexts - to challenge established and generally accepted ways of thinking about things.

I've been going every year for the last 6 years now - excepting 2010 - and I always like listening to Pete Rollins. He's one of the speakers who sometimes comes out with stuff I strongly disagree with, although it does take me a while sometimes to figure out whether I agree with him or not! For those (probably most of my readers) who've never heard of him, he's a kind of mad Irish philosopher type with a brilliant mind who is extremely animated and entertaining to listen to. He can also be pretty difficult to keep up with, but for me that's part of the fun and the challenge of hearing him speak! Rollins specialises in deconstructing standard Christian ways of thinking and turning them on their heads - often exposing the hypocrisy and double-mindedness that can sometimes be hidden within our standard "spiritualised" approaches to things. Jesus sometimes took a very similar approach towards the religious practises and practitioners of his day.

This year, Rollins was speaking about fulfilment. He started off by explaining how a baby, in its first few weeks of life, has no concept of itself as an entity which is separate from the rest of the world. All its needs are instantly provided for - usually by its mother - and so from its point of view it is the centre of its own private universe and its mother is simply an extension of itself.

There comes a point though, pretty early in the child's life, when it realises it can't have everything it wants whenever it wants it and that its mother is actually a separate person with needs and desires of her own. At this point - according to Rollins - the child feels an overwhelming sense of loss. It has become separate from its mother in a way that it wasn't - or at least didn't feel itself to be - up until that point. All of us - Rollins believes - go through life with this sense of loss deep within ourselves and come up with all sorts of different ways of trying to plug this perceived "gap". Much advertising for example, is aimed at trying to convince us that this product is the thing that will make everything all right and will finally make us feel fulfilled. People search for fulfilment in all sorts of ways - for example through relationships, perhaps by searching for the perfect partner, or through possessions, or by chasing success in various forms. Rollins used the example of Looney Tunes cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, who spends his whole life trying (unsuccessfully) to catch the Road Runner. He also made reference to this cartoon (not made by Looney Tunes) in which Wile E. finally succeeds and then has an identity crisis because he no longer has anything to live for. He didn't mention the punch line though, which is especially poignant in the light of the rest of his talk!

Rollins argues that the way in which Christians often present the gospel is just an extension of the thinking above. "Come to Jesus", the message goes, and He will fill that hole inside of you. He will make you feel complete. He will satisfy that need. But many Christians find that after the initial excitement of discovering God, that need hasn't actually gone away and they then have to search for other ways of satisfying it. If I pray more, read my Bible more, or whatever, perhaps God will approve of me more and the gap will be filled! According to Rollins though, we shouldn't be trying to fill this gap at all because this isn't what the Christian faith is all about. Rollins cites the example of Mother Teresa who for nearly 50 years had no tangible experience of the presence of God and suffered agonising doubt as a result, yet continued in faithful service to God and to others, encountering Jesus instead in the lives of the poor to whom she ministered. Living the Christian life then, shouldn't be about searching for personal fulfilment, but should rather be about giving up that search, recognising and accepting our brokenness, and reaching outwards to others in love. It is as we do this that we truly encounter God, who is love in His very essence.

I find that I agree with Rollins - and disagree with him - at the same time. I feel that it's natural and appropriate to crave one-ness with God. The Bible presents God as a father who cares deeply about His children and is accessible to them. While I deeply admire Mother Teresa for her faithfulness, I feel very grateful not to be in her position! Mother Teresa is one of many good examples of Christian faithfulness, but at the other end of the spectrum are those like Brother Lawrence, who from his own account spent the last few decades of his life almost perpetually enveloped in God's presence. Given the option, I would far rather be in his position! I do agree with Rollins though, that the desire for personal fulfilment is not the primary goal and does need to be surrendered.

I do believe that God is the ultimate answer to all our craving and that one day that craving will be fulfilled. I also believe it's possible to encounter God now in anticipation of that time - I have done so and can think of no other more deeply fulfilling experience. For me though such experiences have always been temporary and in between I still have to live with my own brokenness and the normal struggles of day to day life. I also have to accept the fact that deep down I still feel unfulfilled. I've chased fulfilment in many things - including spiritual experiences - and as yet I haven't ultimately found it. Rollins has exposed for me the selfishness that often lies at the heart of this search and reminded me that true discipleship is about laying myself down and accepting my lack for the sake of others, in anticipation of that day when all of our wounds will finally be healed.