The Spurgeon Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle dominates London's Elephant & Castle. It is said to draw a large crowd.
They kindly dropped an explanatory note through my letterbox this week. It's about this C19 pandemic thing. Apparently its from God:
"THESE are momentous days when we find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide 'discipline' or warning from God, calling us to acknowledge and seek Him. And although we shrink from the thought, this is the reason for all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires. The Bible says these things will come more often in the 'last days', when atheism abounds and people generally have no thought or prayer to their Creator. A warning from God is not like the last judgement, because it is an expression of God's love, urging people to turn to Him, whereas the last judgement will finally close the door of mercy...."
I've heard this line of Christian thinking many times before. Who hasn't? It is easy to make fun of it because it is in fact rather silly. For those susceptible to this kind of distorted theology it is also rather dangerous: it can do harm.
It's hard to know where to start. First, such a framework simply does not fit within my faith-as-a-working-hypothesis-to-live-by understanding of the Christian God. Not even a bit. God, we are told, is love and such love is not reflected in endless, subtle, multiform 'disciplining'. Love has better methods at its disposal. Second, such a view paints God as a rather poor communicator, doesn't it? If "all unexpected catastrophes, whether epidemics, floods or vast fires" are warning from God intended to 'discipline us' its a bit of a scatter-gun approach. Can't God do better?
Those who elevate the entire canon of scripture into a coherent, God-dictated set of certain facts and instructions naturally approve of this kind of disciplinarian interpretation. Those who are drawn into the mystery of God as made known in and through the short life of the Nazarene and who seek understanding from a canvas far wider than the words of scripture (human experience and understanding, the material unearthed by an adventurous and curious life, reason, beauty) will see it for what it is: a narrow theology of sin and salvation free of wisdom and heart.
Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. This refreshing claim I found as part of The Manifesto of The Dark Mountain Project. ("The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself").
Christians have a special difficulty with this claim, the story being that God made humankind for a special and superior purpose, and that all creation is in subservience to them. A good deal of harm seems to have followed.
Spotted on the Old Kent Road this week. 'The Light of the World' Church, currently neither receiving nor transmitting much light because of building works. That points to good and sensible stewardship of their building. Even so, the irony of it made me chuckle. It also made me think of the various ways in which the Church in many of its denominational forms* can blur the message of the Gospel by things architectural. I understand why some churches are big and tall, 'pointing to God in majesty' as I've heard it said, yet sometimes they seem only to make mere mortals feel small, and not in a good or necessary way. Others appear solidly unwelcoming and fortified.
*Quaker Meeting Houses and comparable Non Conformist places of Worship are sometimes exceptions, the buildings appearing both modest and inviting
Many things appearing in my email inbox depress me (please, Asian Babes, give it a break) though among the most unwelcome is the dreaded subject line "XX has sent you a Jacquie Lawson ecard". These combine sentimentality with convenience: an especially toxic combination in my book.
Jacquie Lawson may sense this, and so offers the hapless recipient the opportunity to "skip to end".
Should we be worried when risky behaviour seems cosy? My friend Fr John Rowe felt that church life - unintentionally - ran the risk of 'trivialisation by repetition' in making the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Mass) so common a feature of its liturgical life.
Repetition can be a good thing, or at least carry good effect, and my own regular celebration of the Eucharist, and participation in it, has had many good, habit-forming effects (I believe). But I see his point, and it is one I share and like occasionally to highlight, by commenting, when asked, that I celebrated the Eucharist and 'no-one was hurt'.
I don't want anyone to be hurt. Of course not. But I want us to be changed by it; even shocked and shaken (or if not shaken, stirred). And that's, surely, the danger of too much repetition of this central liturgical happening of Christian life: the weight-carrying, meaning-carrying message and narrative which the Eucharist embodies and asserts ought not become 'just a thing'.
I have sometimes heard other clergy speak in emotive and disturbingly cosy terms of celebrating the Eucharist "and encountering Jesus there" and of finding such daily liturgical adventures to be essential to life. I am uneasy with this kind of perspective. Encounters with the Risen Christ are not confined to liturgy (there's surely a case for saying the Risen Christ might be far more interested in speaking to us in the ordinary business of living). And liturgy should shake us up from time to time. Hard hats on.
I'm indebted to my friend David P for introducing me to this magic poem/insight by Les Murray
The Meaning of Existence
Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.
Les Murray from Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002
"A Reason To Stop Worrying - Watch This Whenever You're Stressed Or Anxious"
On the 0832 from Paddington to West Ealing. Various announcements, including an interesting variant on the now all-too-common ‘if you see anything suspicious call the Transport Police: See it. Say it. Sorted’. This is usually said over the London Underground's PA system in a bit of a ‘cor blimey’ voice. Today, on the overground service from Paddington, it was more Hyacinth Bucket. And it was slightly different in detail: If you see something you not happy about, contact the…’. I was looking out of the window at the time, at a c1970s brutalist sky-grabbing tower block, feeling sympathetic to the poor sods living in it. I was not happy about it. Taking the good woman at her word, I got on the blower….
For some years I have played with the idea of SSM (unpaid/volunteer) clergy and their stipendiary (paid clergy) friends meeting from time-to-time in the upper room of a pub where we might experiment with – learn to hold – conversations. The working title for this gathering was to be ‘Chapter & Verse’. It would be an Undergroud Seminary of sorts. There’d be none of the popular ‘theological expert’ speaker stuff followed by questions; instead we’d seek new ways of sharing knowledge, learning from one another, caring for one another, seeking God and reading the signs of the times. We’d aim to retake theology back from the academy and the ‘experts’ (or at least from its specialised annexation from our lived lives) and seek to learn afresh what it means to be stewards of the mysteries of God as Paul rather invitingly puts it [1 Cor 4:1].
Can I attempt a summary? I love so much about life and the world. I am often moved by responses within me which can be captured by the words awe, compassion, reverence and wonder. In equal measure I experience horror, shame, fear and contempt. I can be very patient in some settings, very impatient in others. I know moments of wonderful peace, and moments of an internal rage. I am largely unmoved by many plays, novels and popular drama, finding them all less interesting than the drama I experience life to be.
Mission and Vision Statements are a boil on humanity's backside. I keep meaning to collect some of the more ridiculous examples often sighted on vans, letterheads and websites. Churches have fallen prey to them, too. But new to me are post-dated offerings. Spotted one today, from a church in the UK: "Our vision statement: We believe that in five years time, God is calling St [X]’s to be a vibrant, welcoming presence seeking justice and serving the community by offering friendship, hospitality and worship." One shouldn't rush these things.
I've been re-reading some of William Stringfellow; always a provocation and inspiration. One such text: "I continue to be haunted by the ironic impression that I may have to renounce being a lawyer, the better to be an advocate" (1) What shakes me rather about this is its closeness to something I have said several times to friends and which I have far more often thought to myself over the years: that for some church people there may come a time when it may be necessary to distance oneself from the institution the better to apprehend the Gospel. Put more simply still: necessary to leave the institution the better to follow the Nazarene. I suspect this sense, dilemma even, is more common than we might think, and might especially afflict professional Christians (clergy, monks and nuns; who knows, even bishops). It can be a lonely position to be in.
When I have said this, some hearers look highly nonplussed. Such is the correlation in our minds of church and Gospel. Others are interested in the underlying assumptions. Some understand exactly. And 'church' here means the institutional form, not the status of being part of the church by virtue of baptism.
(1) William Stringfellow, "A Lawyer's Work", Christian Legal Society Quarterly 3, No 3 (1982)
'Ageing is a privilege, not a predicament' (Attributed to Martin Firrell). Too many friends have died in the last year or so, and it has depleted me. Some of them were 'getting on' as they say: John was in his 80s, another John his 90s, Dick and Bill were up there too. Joe went early, in his 70s and soon after retirement. Colette in her 50s. The death of those we know and care for takes a toll. It is not just the loss of access to them, of their being there. More chilling is the ferocity of the question that arises by the fact that they no longer exist. For how is that to be lived with? We usually do, of course. But it remains: how could that astonishing composite of a unique and loved person no longer exist?
Come, ye thankful people, come, / Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, / Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide / For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God's own temple, come; / Raise the song of harvest home!
I was driving to the next village for the paper and some provisions when BBC R4 started its Harvest Festival Sunday Worship. I've always had a sense that the broadcasting of church services does not really work. To say its like overhearing other people having sex isn't quite the thing, but has a hint of it. In both cases, I'm happy for them, but don't wish to be an aural partner to the proceedings. And whereas the latter don't (usually) want you to hear, and are not addressing you as an attendant third party, the church gig is addressed to you. They are polite and welcoming, as if you were visiting their house.
Church services are alien events to the majority. The players in broadcast services tend to be keen to talk of welcome (fair enough of course) and also of the ever-present God with whom they are on intimate terms. A common ploy, I've noticed, is to talk of their church buildings as where 'prayer is valid' (cf. T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding) and where the very walls are saturated with it. The implied message is that God appears to be domiciled in churches, and one is left with the impression may not often venture out. But the Gospel is not concerned with what happens inside churches, but what one makes of life in light of the claims and accounts of the man Jesus. And when did you last hear a church service broadcast that featured intelligent, sharp accounts from faithful lay Christians about being the church beyond the building?
Looking back, I'm astonished how little I was taught about money. Of course, I remember the stuff about compound interest but otherwise my formal education (and informal for that matter) was silent about things like debt (and the cost of debt) and the options for reaching financial independence at the earliest opportunity. The expectation was mortgage (30 years+) and gainful employment until retirement age (40 years+). Then a few years ago I stumbled on the so-called FIRE community (Financial Independence Retire Early). Its an amazing source of ordinary wisdom about alternatives to these taken-as-gospel shackles of human existence.
To a large extent I made these discoveries too late (already a 30+ year mortgage, though now paid off). But I have benefited by discovering ways of investing at low cost, and of discovering the often hidden or at least camouflaged fees that the so-called financial services 'industry' siphon off (a modern day scandal).
So go exploring: try Mr Money Mustache's blog (USA), The Escape Artist (UK) and PensionCraft. And more here about other FIRE sites. Don't be put off. Starting early is the great thing. Spread the word.
EPICUREAN 4 FOLD REMEDY The ancients took memorizing maxims very seriously: it was viewed as a first-rate spiritual exercise for moving principles into one’s character. The Epicureans, for instance, boiled down their entire philosophy into the famous fourfold remedy, which students could easily recall whenever they were faced with difficult situations:
The gods are not to be feared,
Death is not to be dreaded,
What is good is easy to acquire,
What is bad is easy to bear.
I knew about Montaigne’s Cat. Now, Murphy (the Dog) teaches me about prayer and living. Strange how these things happen. He lives entirely in the present moment; he never bears a grudge; he is capable of devoting his entire attention to a single phenomenon – a toy, a scent, a breeze, me. We go for a walk and he is light as a feather, free of earthly care. I almost shuffle along, unconsciously carrying with me the accumulated worries, regrets, anxieties of the tangled mind. Combining the walk with the Office of Evening Prayer I silently intone ‘O Lord, open thou my lips..’ but without much joy. Murphy jaunts ahead and every step betokens delight. His gait provides the response ..and our mouths shall proclaim your praise’.
It is simply amazing how organised religion can bugger up prayer. It is not just the often sterile content. The sheer quantity of it is distressing. Endless, endless words.
I am an admirer of the American William Stringfellow (1928-1985). On prayer he writes: “The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance” (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).
And not unrelated, a recently found comment on prayer by A J Heschel: "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods" [my emphasis].
'Committed suicide' or 'took her own life' rather than, plainly and more accurately, 'ended her life'. And 'lost his faith' rather than simply, and again quite possibly more accurately, 'stopped believing', or even 'gained new understanding' or even simply 'changed his mind'. I have an amateur's interest in language and especially turns of phrase, and these examples, in their common form, irritate me, as does 'committed Christian' (rendered useless by association with the fervent end of things) and 'self-confessed this or that'.