Just to let you know that my blog has been moved here:
That is where future posts will appear, and if you are an email subscriber you should be moved over automatically.
Just to let you know that my blog has been moved here:
That is where future posts will appear, and if you are an email subscriber you should be moved over automatically.
This is Part 2 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.
< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian
Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >
The Fear of Science
One of the biggest steps towards learning to deal with my own crippling skepticism has been to convince myself that Christianity is not irrational.
Deep down I had always feared that if I thought too deeply or learned too much about science, this faith that brought hope and meaning to my life would eventually be exposed as wishful thinking, no more credible than an ancient myth or fairy tale.
You know what I’m talking about.
That nagging suspicion that if the beliefs at the centre of our faith were examined under a microscope for too long they might disappear into nothing, revealed to be unfounded and delusional.
The fear that science might disprove God.
In its more extreme forms, this fear of science leads some Christians to make absurd claims about the historical and scientific accuracy of Biblical texts. They fear that if even one aspect of their belief system is proved to be false, the whole thing might collapse. In the eyes of these Christians, scientists must be either deluded or evil, deliberately trying to distort the truth.
My fear of science came in subtler forms. For example, it concerned me that spiritual experiences and ‘answers to prayer’ could be explained away by psychology and neuroscience. How could I fully trust the Christian story if science was able to give equally, often more credible explanations?
I wanted proof of God’s existence, and science seemed to be eroding all my evidence. Skepticism was gradually gnawing away at my faith.
The Rise of New Atheism
It’s pretty hard to ignore atheism these days. The atheist voice in our culture is loud, angry and very convincing at times. So much so that belief in God can seem a bit silly, like still believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.
This quote is from the British comedian, Jimmy Carr:
“When I was a kid, I used to have an imaginary friend. I thought he went everywhere with me. I could talk to him and he could hear me, and he could grant me wishes and stuff too. But then I grew up, and stopped going to church.”
Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it?
More and more I found myself wondering if people like Jimmy were right – the whole Christianity thing was one giant hoax, a distraction from reality.
In a discussion between atheists and Christians, I would nearly always find myself siding with the atheists. The thing is, Christians are irrational a lot of the time, and atheists are actually doing important work in exposing the bad side of religion.
I was never really fussed about the finer points of Christian belief. They differ from one denomination to the next, from one church to the next. Heck, for me they can change from one week to the next. I was concerned with the BIG questions. Was the universe designed by a supreme Being? Is there such thing as a spiritual realm? Does life have ultimate purpose and meaning?
(I should mention at this point that I am married to a biologist, who is also a Christian. For him, science and faith are entirely compatible, and atheism is no more rational than Christianity. It is through many lengthy discussions with him, and through reading the work of other like-minded thinkers, that I have been able to come to the following conclusions.)
Science has its limits
Jimmy Carr was brought up Catholic and, like many others, became an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
In this hugely influential book, Dawkins’ argues that:
I actually agree with many of his arguments, and would probably be a convert if it weren’t for the following points:
Science is the study of the natural world. It is very good at showing us how things work. But it cannot comment on the why questions. It can tell us how the universe came to be and how complex life evolved through natural selection, but it is not qualified to make statements about meaning or purpose.
The Christian scientists I have come across tend to all say a similar thing: science tells us how life works, faith gives it meaning. They are not in opposition. Christianity and Rationalism are examples of interpretive frameworks or narratives used to explain what we see in the world around us – science itself doesn’t take sides.
The Very Unsatisfactory Conclusion
I think it’s reasonable to conclude that ultimately, none of us can know the answers to these big questions. If we delve as far as we can into theology, philosophy, science, history and any other discipline we can think of, at the centre we find a deep mystery. A fog. We humans just aren’t capable of grasping ultimate knowledge about divine things.
This is very disappointing news for, well, all of us really. It’s not at all fun being in the fog. We want clarity. We crave answers and neat explanations. We long for the power to understand everything and the ability to prove everyone else wrong. We’ve mastered everything else, why can’t we prove or disprove the existence of God?
Because we’re only human, that’s why. As much as we would like to be, we are not omniscient.
This means that whether I believe in God or not, it’s a choice. It takes faith to believe in God, and it takes faith to believe that there is no God. (Any atheists reading this will have smashed their screens by now). I can’t prove it either way, so I make up my mind as best I can based on the evidence I have.
This is bad news for many atheists, for whom getting rid of the fog means wiping out all religion and holding rationalism as the only form of truth. It’s also bad news for many Christians, for whom getting rid of the fog means proving the existence of God once and for all.
We have to learn to live in the fog, which means admitting that whatever our position, we could be wrong.
I remember having a mini-revelation about all this while walking along the canal in my parents’ village one afternoon in late summer. I was grilling my husband (again) about science and faith issues and how we can know we’re not deluding ourselves… when the most blindingly obvious but soul-stirringly profound thought struck me. That’s what faith is. If we could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith.
I longed so much for proof. I felt sure that if only I could know for certain that God existed, I would find assurance and peace of mind.
I have to tell you, figuring out that there are no absolute answers available to me didn’t do much for my peace of mind. But having confidence that to be a person of faith is just as intellectually valid as being an atheist was a good starting point. It gave me intellectual permission to continue calling myself a Christian, and to seek to deepen my experience of life through faith in an ultimate Source and a deeper meaning. It also gave me intellectual permission to read as many “secular” books as I liked without fearing that they might disprove God.
To conclude, we return to the problem I explored in Part 1 of this series, of faith being primarily about intellectual beliefs held as objective fact. If my faith is based entirely on a solid framework of beliefs, then if any of them are challenged I’m in trouble. (Or I can just put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly). My faith has to be based on more than intellectual reasoning. I simply can’t prove my beliefs rationally to anyone else, so I have to hold onto them lightly, respect the views of others and be genuinely open to changing my mind.
As I said, this was a starting point for me. Part 3 coming soon…
If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email email@example.com.
< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian
Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >
Image via Pixabay
I like Martyn Joseph a lot. My dad has been a fan of his music since the late ’80s, and his songs have meant a lot to us both over the years. ‘The Luxury of Despair’ is a song from his 2015 album ‘Sanctuary‘, and was apparently inspired by a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp:
As the sun rises in my children’s eyes
I don’t have the luxury, the luxury of despair
Until now this seemed a strange concept to me, but today as I was driving along the A38 with my two-year-old in the back and this song playing, something sort of clicked.
For no particular reason my anxiety has spiked a bit in recent weeks, manifesting itself in a number of irrational yet unsettling thought patterns, and mild-to-moderate existential crises. This happens from time to time, and although it’s not easy, I’m learning not to take myself too seriously when my mind is in this over-thinking mode. The unpleasant effect of this particular period of excessive brain activity is that I have been acutely aware of the depth of human suffering and the bleak reality of much of human experience. Heavy stuff.
When you’re tuned into it, suffering and death is everywhere. And the more you notice it, the more it weighs on your heart, and ‘despair’ starts to seem a fitting description.
I think everyone experiences this to some extent, at some point. Whether facing suffering directly or becoming aware of situations in the lives of others, it can so easily become overwhelming. Lots of people lose their faith as a result of being unable to reconcile their understanding of God with the suffering they see in the world.
Stephen Fry expressed this with passion and refreshing candor in a 2015 interview in which he was asked what he would say to God if he had to confront him:
“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us?” Stephen Fry
When faced with so much senseless suffering in our world, I – like many others – can struggle to see a deeper meaning or purpose behind it. Despair can sometimes seem like the only reasonable response.
That is, until I notice all the other stuff.
The light in my daughter’s eyes as she laughs; the exquisite beauty of a sunset over a calm sea; the fierce love of a father fighting for his family; the glorious sound of a community choir singing at full pelt… the incessant and intrinsic goodness in humanity that reveals itself again and again in even the most unlikely of situations. The enduring strength of love.
Because when you’re tuned into it, hope is everywhere.
Faced with so much light and love in our world, I struggle not to see a deeper meaning and purpose behind it. Faith seems like the only reasonable response.
So no, I don’t have the luxury of despair either (if despair can ever be described as luxurious).
These glimmers of light don’t answer my troubling questions. But they do keep the flame of hope burning in my heart. They keep me searching for something more, hungry for a deeper existence. And that in itself is strangely nourishing.
“In…absence there is an icon to presence, in seeking there is evidence of having found, in questioning there is a hint that the answer has been given, and in hunger there is a deep and abiding nourishment. Faith…can thus be described as a wound that heals.”
Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak Of God
Image via Pixabay
This guest post was written by Adam Couchman
If I look through a kaleidoscope, I see all the colours of the rainbow arranged in whatever pattern the plastic of the contraption allows. Many of us had tremendous fun as children, staring through the distortion at the myriad of colour and shapes displayed there.
But how often do we take that into adult life? It seems that as we grow up, our palette of colours becomes smaller and smaller. It feels like society wants us to see in shades of grey, with hints of black and white. How terrible.
And worst of all, those of us who feel like we see in colour often end up on the outside. Or at least feeling like the outcast. What a shame. What small-mindedness that the kaleidoscope viewers are shunned for the easy view of greyscale.
One need barely imagine the simplicity of a world viewed solely in monochrome. Yet that is the world we are told to believe in. Whether it be politically or spiritually. It seems the world of the dreamer is held at arm’s length. Perceived as far too dangerous to integrate. Shunned to the poets’ cafes and art galleries.
But we must stand tall. We do not see the world in a yoked, dualistic way. We see a boundless world of creativity and freedom. Heaven and Hell hold no bond with us because we know that to limit one’s self is to condemn ourselves to a life of limit. We see no walls in the fabric of time because we know we merely drift through. We are not to be bound by the restrictions of perceived normality.
We are often the voiceless, but I urge you all, be the voice you wish to hear. In these seemingly dark times, be the splash of colour on the greyscale.
Be the message of hope, peace and happiness, in whatever shape that takes. The world is saturated in dualistic thinking. Be the colour, be the light. It is who we were born to be.
Adam lives in Southern England with his wife and 2 kids. He is a landscape gardener by day and amateur theologian by night. He is an avid reader, cyclist and walker. Very occasional speaker, preacher and community theatre actor. And he is on a quest to seek wisdom wherever it is found.
2016 hasn’t been the best of years, has it?
At least for those within the same socio-economic-political bubble as me, 2016 has brought blow after depressing blow of bad news. Each time we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. It began to feel like 2016 was doing it on purpose.
Well, I for one have decided not to let 2016 depress me. Allow me to share with you a few thoughts that have brought me out of the pit of despair, into the enlightening conclusion that 2016 probably wasn’t the worst year in history, after all.
There has undoubtedly been a spookily high number of celebrity deaths this year. Bowie, Prince, Muhammed Ali, Ronnie Corbett, Liz Smith, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood, Paul Daniels, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan…the list goes on. It’s been incredibly sad to lose so many of our heroes and icons in such a short space of time – it really does feel like the greatness in the world has been significantly diminished in the last twelve months. Writing that list has made me sad again!
But here’s a thought: whilst remembering and grieving those we’ve lost, could we also harness some of this emotional energy into truly appreciating all the great artists, entertainers and sportspeople who are still alive? Think of all the celebrities who managed to survive 2016…there’s actually quite a few when you think about it! That’s not to mention the people we actually know, love and interact with on a regular basis who are still going strong. Life is short and precious… let’s grab it by the horns and embrace the days we have left! Carpe diem and all that!
Brexit and Trump
If someone had tried to tell me this time last year that in 2016, Britain would vote to leave the European Union and America would elect Donald J. Trump as their next president, I’d have assumed they’d had one too many New Year cocktails.
No-one saw Brexit coming. And most people I know saw Trump as a hilariously offensive distraction, kind of like Ali G… a caricature to laugh disbelievingly at but never for a minute take seriously. Most of us still didn’t take him seriously after Brexit, although there was a growing unease that maybe not everyone in the world thought the same as us. Then on the morning of Nov 9th that final realisation hit us like a freight train – we were wrong. There are an awful lot of people out there who we don’t understand at all, and whom we are now going to be forced to listen to.
But what if that’s a good thing? If the ‘leave’ campaign had failed in Britain and Hillary had won in the US just like we all expected, then we would have merrily carried on as we were, largely unaware of (or deliberately turning a blind eye to) the discontent rumbling amongst a very significant proportion of our respective populations. Whatever problems in society these political developments have highlighted were clearly there already. What if letting these people have a voice could actually take us forward in addressing some of the societal issues that we have previously ignored?
Also, can you remember the last time people, particularly young people, were this interested in politics? If longterm disillusionment and disengagement with the ‘political elite’ has culminated in Brexit and Trump, perhaps Brexit and Trump will be the wake up call that will finally get us off our backsides and motivate us to start changing the world in our own little ways.
The really bad stuff
Most of us would probably agree that even Brexit and Trump have been eclipsed by the dreadful news of war and terrorism this year. The terrorist attacks in the West have been truly horrific and utterly terrifying, but the number of those affected by these attacks pales into insignificance when compared to the horror and scale of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, not to mention the other various conflicts and natural disasters. The human suffering we’ve seen on the news this year has been overwhelming, and it can leave us feeling helplessness and despair in the face of the sheer scale of it all.
Terrorism is terrifying, that’s the point of it, but I have found it incredibly helpful to realise that it is not new. Terrorist attacks have happened fairly regularly around the world for a few decades now, and although it seems like it’s been far worse this year, on a global scale it actually hasn’t. If we believe the false narrative that the threat is forever imminent and deadly, then the terrorist attacks are having their designed effect.
As for the war and other causes of suffering on a vast scale, there are no words to make them less tragic and horrifying. But war and suffering were not introduced in 2016. It feels like everything is getting worse, but it’s actually really not. The world as a whole is safer, more peaceful and more prosperous than it’s ever been. As far as human history goes, 2016 was a really, really great time to be alive. So while it’s important to be outraged and moved to act in aid of those in need, we needn’t feel that everything is spiralling downwards headlong into Armageddon.
News vs. reality
The news assaults us wherever we go these days. I really don’t think we would feel this gloomy about 2016 if, like our grandparents’ generation, we listened to the wireless or read the morning paper over breakfast, then spent the rest of the day concentrating on our own lives. When we read headlines every few minutes in news feeds and on TV screens, of course we become anxious and deeply affected by the stories, and they feel oppressive and urgent in our own lives even if they are happening on the other side of the world. In reality, our own lives are probably not all that bad.
So as I bid farewell to 2016, I’m feeling pretty hopeful, actually. Perspective is a wonderful, wonderful thing!
Here’s to a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to you all – may you be filled with hope for 2017!
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This guest post was written by Katie van Santen
How you think of the Christmas story may not have changed much since you were a child. The beautiful image of a pregnant lady on a donkey and a cosy stable full of smiling people snuggled up in clean hay.
The reality was quite different. The reality was an unplanned teenage pregnancy and a doubting fiancé. The reality was a politically-forced journey at just the wrong time. The reality was a husband who couldn’t provide shelter for his new family. The reality was smelly and dirty and bloody. The reality was mass infanticide and a refugee’s flight. The reality was Mary being told this child would pierce her soul.
It wasn’t nice, it wasn’t sparkly and wonderful… it was awful and squalid and confusing. It was everything going wrong for a couple who had been told this was God’s plan, who trusted Him to look after them.
But God chose weakness and failure to be the birthplace of the Light of the World. He took all that looked like it was going wrong, when it looked like it couldn’t get worse, but did… He used that darkness, that doubt, that fear, to speak the truth that darkness and doubt and fear aren’t failure, but can be the birthplace of the greatest victory.
Later, when Jesus had grown and lived, everything was going wrong for his followers who had been told this was God’s plan, who trusted him for all their hopes and future. God chose another place of weakness and failure to be the Salvation of the World. It all looked like it was going wrong when he was arrested, it looked like it couldn’t get any worse… then it did, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and died.
God used that darkness, that doubt, that fear, to speak the truth that darkness and doubt and fear aren’t failure, but can be the birthplace of the greatest victory.
In the New Year, the Christmas tree at the front of our church will be kept, stripped of its branches, and at Easter will become our cross. The cross will be empty, because a dead man isn’t good news. An empty cross, an empty grave, and a risen Christ proclaims that darkness is not the end of the story.
There is a dawn coming.
Katie van Santen lives in Plymouth with some lego and quite a few books. She has just completed her Certificate of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission. Currently she is not a marine biologist or science teacher due to disability, but keeps herself busy as a volunteer aquarium host, visiting preacher, and Fairy Godmother.
Image via Pixabay
This guest post was written by James Parsons.
Millions of dollars are spent every year on Christian Religious Studies for the sole purpose of learning the art of exegesis and hermeneutics. These are two fancy words that simply mean the analysing of scripture for proper interpretation and how to apply that interpretation. It’s big business for Christian institutions, and in most cases, it’s big trouble.
People skilled at exegesis and hermeneutics do not simply interpret the meaning of an author’s words. They also seek to harmonise two or more opposing, and sometimes contradicting points into a unified theological idea. That is what demonstrates the mastery of their craft.
This all started centuries ago with the Seven Ecumenical Church Councils, whose goal was to unify Christian beliefs. They set out to show that all scripture demonstrated ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, while eliminating conclusions that demonstrated scripture saying ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’. From this position, ‘heretic’ became a dirty word used to describe anyone who opposed these unified beliefs. And so, the process of unifying contradicting statements within the Bible as one singular acceptable expression became the most important part of Christian thought. And the more important it became, the more it became big business to teach exegesis, keeping people within one uniform belief system.
So what would happen if we threw away traditional exegesis and stopped trying to unify contradicting statements from different authors to match those preconceived Biblical teachings from the Church Councils? Instead, what if we learned to take each author as their own spiritual expression and away from the confines of doctrinal unity? How about we move away from this process of starting from an author we agree with, and projecting his thoughts onto another author who actually seems to disagree? In other words, let Paul say what he wants to say and let Mark speak for himself? How would that change our hermeneutics? Would the Bible lose it’s beauty and unity? Would it become less meaningful and more divisive within the community?
I believe this is best demonstrated with the following question:
Do all New Testament authors agree on the nature of Jesus’ divinity?
At the First Council of Nicaea, it was decreed that Jesus was a pre-existent, eternal divine being that became incarnate through the Virgin Mary. But do the authors of the New Testament speak in unity concerning this idea?
1. Pre-literary traditions: Jesus was adopted at the resurrection
Pre-literary traditions are statements in the Bible that scholars believe circulated before the Biblical writings themselves. For example, there are occasional writings from Paul where he seems to be quoting something. If this is correct, then what he is quoting pre-dates Paul’s writings. In the beginning of Romans, Paul writes: “…concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord…”. It’s possible that Paul is reciting an early Christian tradition that believes Jesus was the Messiah by way of King David, and became Son of God at the resurrection. One reason why this is believed to be a quote that pre-dates Paul is that it is inconsistent with Paul’s own view of Jesus as expressed elsewhere.
We see another pre-literary tradition in Acts 13 where the writer mentions that they are preaching a certain message from before the writings of this book: “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers…He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten You.'”
So, it appears that one of the earliest beliefs held by the first followers of Jesus was that he was adopted as God’s Son at the resurrection….NOT that he was eternally divine and became flesh.
2. Paul’s view: Jesus was an angel who humbled himself and was raised up by God
Paul’s views differed from the pre-literary tradition. This can be seen most clearly with the picture he lays out in the Philippians poem:
“Who, being in very form God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul thought Jesus pre-existed as a great angel before becoming human. Angels are described as God-like beings who live in the Heavenly realm of God. In Paul’s view, this is where Christ was presiding. As an angel, Christ did not desire equality with God. Instead, Christ – knowing the heart of God in humility – gave up his seated place in the Heavens and followed God’s example by humbling himself, becoming human to serve others, obedient even to the point of death. In recognition of Christ’s great humility, God raises Christ to the highest level and proclaims that Jesus is the name at which “every knee should bow.” In other words, God is so enamoured by the humility of Jesus that he gives him an equal share in his power.
3. Mark’s view: Jesus was adopted at his baptism
Mark is universally recognised as the earliest written Gospel. A large portion of the Christian tradition held the ‘adoption at resurrection’ view, but the author of Mark seems to think Jesus was adopted instead at his baptism. Scholars believe this is why Mark begins his Gospel at that event, with “immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.'”
4. Matthew and Luke’s View: Jesus didn’t exist until his conception
While Mark begins his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism, Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with the Virgin Mary being told she is to give birth to a son. There is no evidence to suggest that they believed Jesus had always existed; rather that his existence began at the specific moment when God impregnated Mary. This, too, was an early view among Christians that circulated at the same time as the others; although it was only later written down.
5. John’s View of Jesus
The last Gospel written provides yet another view of the nature of Jesus’ divinity. The writer of the Gospel of John believed that Jesus had existed for eternity, and had spoken the universe into existence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The Gospel of John stretches the idea of Jesus far beyond any other thoughts circulating among Christians in the first 100-200 years.
Many great traditional Biblical scholars have used their skills in exegesis to merge these conflicting views into one coherent proclamation, to match the Council of Nicaea decree: that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being that became incarnate through the Virgin Mary. Great effort has been made to provide evidence of scriptural unity and coherence.
I think washing over the differences of opinion about Jesus’ divinity ruins the overarching hermeneutic teaching.
Despite our many differing opinions about specifically what it means to call Jesus the Son of God, we can still come together in unity. Not a forced unity, achieved by insisting that everyone keeps to the same Creed, and throwing out any ideas that do not fit. True unity means working together with one purpose despite differences of opinion. True unity is agreeing to love our enemy as well as our neighbour.
This seems to get lost in the church today whenever “correct doctrine” becomes more important than compassion and humility, as exemplified in the Philippians poem. We seem to lose sight of the goal of loving people despite our differences. We miss the fact that even people in the Bible disagreed about Jesus…and that’s OK. We lose the beauty of stories because we’re more concerned with tying up the contradictions than allowing each book and each author tell us their own story.
Correct doctrine is not the beginning and end of Christian living. We need to learn to accept the differences in people’s views – even views of who God is – and allow our love to unify us.
James Parsons lives in the Oklahoma City, OK area. He is a husband, a father and a Former Evangelical/Fundamentalist turned Christian Universalist. James has two accredited BA Degrees in Behavioural Science and Christian Theology from Mid-American Christian University. James’ current interests are in the early historical records within Christian literature and the philosophical positions that have grown from those perspectives.
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Greenbelt is my happy place.
It is an explosive celebration of humanity; a vibrant patchwork bursting at the seams with colour, creativity and culture.
Where else do silent meditation, soaring harmonies, belly laughs, gravity-defying acrobatics, life drawing, ‘dad-dancing’, poetry, prayer, bhangra and breakdancing come together so naturally?
Where else would you find yourself encountering Jesus in a steamy beer tent amidst hundreds of people in wellies, merrily sloshing plastic pint glasses and belting out ‘Love Divine’ and ‘Lord of the Dance’?
Greenbelt is a refuge for the spiritually homeless; a safe place for for drifters and doubters; worriers and wanderers; the faithful and the faithless.
Greenbelt is defiantly rough at the edges. It is gritty and raw and wonderfully weird.
The myth of a sacred/secular divide is nowhere to be found in the bright fields of Greenbelt. The Divine light radiating through all things is recognised and revered, while the darkness in society, religion and the world is exposed yet not feared.
Greenbelt pierces the illusions and injustices of our world with cutting cultural critique and lament. It is a glorious gathering of people who care more about the things that matter most in our world than individual intellectual beliefs.
Greenbelt is honest and authentic to the core. The Spirit of Jesus pulses through its veins and there is no false piety to be found. It tackles the toughest questions head on, probing the darkest corners of reality in order to bring genuine hope to the most hopeless of situations.
As a ‘millennial’ Christian, pining after the days when faith was easy and exhausted by a constant skepticism and cynicism of anything too “churchy”, Greenbelt comes as a welcome relief. I find it impossible to be cynical at Greenbelt. It embraces all of my questions and doubts, holding them within a greater reality and making me feel comforted, at peace and most assuredly not alone.
Greenbelt rarely offers hyped-up worship experiences, which would inevitably leave me wondering how to recreate that same high every Sunday morning. Instead it allows me to breathe deeply, to sit under the silent stars and to reflect on the things that matter. I leave the grounds of Boughton House feeling like my brain has been rewired, my heart has expanded and my soul has been watered (and not just from over-exposure to rain).
Thanks for another stonking festival, Greenbelt – looking forward to next year.
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In his sermon last Sunday morning, our pastor was highlighting different aspects of modern life that can become “idols” in the Biblical sense – unhealthy distractions, things that we place higher than God on our list of priorities. Like all good sermons it was challenging, unsettling and thought-provoking.
One of these “idols” in particular got me thinking, and I’ve been chewing it over during the week since.
The Idol of Feelings.
I think I know what he was getting at, and in one very significant sense I completely agree. In our culture we are bombarded with an astonishing variety of ways to indulge, to feel good: this sumptuous fruity shampoo, that heavenly soft cheese, this exotic package holiday, that sleek new car with the plush leather interior. We are encouraged to do whatever we feel like doing, to put ourselves first, to make money, to be consumers, to eat, drink, buy, wear whatever makes us feel good, to go wherever we dream of going, to date whoever we feel like dating.
We are told that these things will make us happy, and they often do make us feel pretty good. The trouble is the feeling never lasts, so we are compelled to buy more, eat more, drink more, earn more, spend more. We trade in the old car (or spouse) for a newer model. We are never satisfied so are permanently on the look out for our next fix. It is this rampant consumerism, this addiction to short-term highs that I think Ross was talking about. We are led to believe that if we only had that, went there, dated them, we would be happy. Then we manage to achieve our goals and before long they start to crumble and run through our fingers like sand, and we feel like the goalposts have moved. Our quest for happiness continues.
I believe that if we follow Jesus, living lives of love, sacrifice, service, selflessness and compassion, it can bring us more happiness than a lifetime supply of fruity shampoo, soft cheese and exotic holidays could ever bring. I really think Jesus meant it when he said he had come to bring us life, and life to the full (John 10:10). In the things he said and did he was showing us how to find real and lasting joy and peace – not with easy answers and quick fixes but by walking the narrow and treacherous path, surrendering our own desires for the sake of others, diving all the way down into the depths and in the process discovering what it means to be fully, radiantly human, incandescent with life.
We are all searching for happiness. Of course we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that too often we are earnestly, vehemently searching in all the wrong places.
If only that was the end of the story.
If only it was as simple as choosing to follow Jesus, encountering the Holy Spirit and experiencing Deep Joy for the rest of one’s life and beyond.
Yes, it’s a lot to do with our failing to make the right decisions and choosing to take short cuts through the wide gate and down the easy path (Matt 7:13).
But sometimes we just feel crappy for no good reason. And sometimes the crappy feelings last for a long, long time and prevent us from really living at all.
I’ve had a few run-ins with depression and anxiety, so when I hear the words “feelings” and “happiness”, my ears prick up and my inner Mental Health Awareness warning light starts flashing.
One of the main things I’ve learnt from my various experiences is this:
Feelings are actually really important.
Feelings are our window to the world. They colour our experiences and shape our lives and our relationships.
When I hear the word “happiness”, I don’t picture a constant state of uninterrupted bliss. I think of a healthy mental state in which I am able to be fully present in the moment, to feel the ups and downs of life. A state of inner peace and wellbeing in which I feel secure, grounded, centered. In this state I respond emotionally to things as they happen – I laugh, sing, shout, sigh, weep… I can fully engage with the people around me… I don’t always feel happy and joyful but I do feel alive.
For many fortunate people this is how they experience life most of the time. But for many, many others the state of wellbeing I have just described is a distant dream, a privilege that other people seem to have but they only ever seem to glimpse in occasional, brief moments of sweet relief.
Mental-health-wise I have had it relatively easy in the past few years, but I still get sucked into negative thought patterns on a fairly regular basis that would send me spiralling downwards if I was to take them too seriously and allow them to take over.
I find it helpful to think of those negative thought patterns and associated feelings as a health issue to be dealt with, rather than a happiness issue. It makes sense to treat mental health as we would physical health, and it seems that gradually more people are starting to see it that way.
So is all of this worshipping an ‘idol of feelings’?
I suppose it’s possible, but no more possible than treating a physical illness becoming an act of worship to an ‘idol of health’.
I think Jesus wants us to be healthy, happy and whole. Not in a Prosperity Gospel kind of way, but in a bruised-and-exhausted-and-filthy-and-never-felt-more-alive kind of way.
As St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.
Image via Pixabay
Terrorism has been dominating the news lately. There are terrorist attacks happening daily worldwide which go largely unreported, but the latest brutal string of attacks in France, Germany and Belgium have brought the threat much closer to home.
The British government warns that the threat of a terrorist attack in the UK is currently ‘severe’. (Incidentally, since this alert system was initiated in 2006, the threat has been mostly either ‘severe’ or ‘critical’, and has never been lower than ‘substantial’.)
When bombarded daily with doom-laden headlines and tragic accounts of attacks, the threat seems ominous and imminent and it is very easy to get scared.
Shock, outrage and grief are good responses which move us to address the global issues and show support to those who are suffering. Fear makes us selfish and insular, steals our joy and causes us to make irrational decisions fuelled by a desire to protect ourselves and those close to us.
So let’s step back, take a deep breath and regain a little perspective.
In the past year (28 July 2015-28 July 2016), 217 people were killed in terrorist attacks in France. That’s a horrific and heartbreaking number, although still far lower than many countries in other parts of the world. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Britain was to suffer that same number of fatalities in terrorist attacks over the next year.
There are 65 million people in Britain, so that would make your chances of dying in a terrorist attack 1 in 300,000.*
In other words, even if Britain was hit with the same disastrous level of terror attacks as France, you would still be really, really, really unlikely to die in one.
Let’s put that number into context.
You have approximately a 1 in 398 chance of dying of cancer†, and a 1 in 419 chance of dying of a cardiovascular disease‡ in a given year (not taking into account risk factors such as age and lifestyle).
That means you are 1,467 times more likely to die of a cardiovascular disease or cancer than in a terrorist attack.
You also have approximately a:
So you are 8 times more likely to die in a transport accident than in a terrorist attack.
And you are 3 times more likely to die falling down the stairs.
To add to the morbid list, you also have approximately a:
At some point, it’s fairly safe to say, you will die of something. If the cause of your death is something you feel the need to worry about, there are far more pressing issues to consider than terrorism.
Alternatively, you could focus on the fact that in 2015, 64,470,435 people in Britain managed to avoid death altogether, meaning that in a given year you have more than 99% chance of not dying at all!
Our society is one of the safest and most presperous the world has ever seen. Let’s be grateful for the many privileges we have that so many do not.
Let’s not allow fear to cloud our vision and distract us from the good we can do in the world.
*Rounded up from 299,539
†Based on Cancer Research statistics from 2014
‡Based on BHF statistics from 2015
**Based on transport mortality statistics from 2014
††Based on 2010 mortality statistics
Image via Pixabay