Sunday, August 29, 2004

escape the machine

In the UK, as I'm sure is the case in many other countries, students are made to feel like they are on an unstoppable from early adolescence to a nine to five job, via the route of exams and university. This incessant graduate production line is very dangerous, in my opinion. We are making our choices in education while ever mindful of the knock-on effect our choices have on our careers. With such constant attention paid to the future, we are in danger of losing the joy of learning for learning's sake alone.

It is becoming an increasing trend however for people to want to escape from this treadmill. The huge increase in people who take gap years before or after university has increased massively, as has the number of people who find themselves walking out of well-paid jobs in their twenties and thirties to experience life outside the office. Of course, a high-profile example of this has come recently from the former Archbishop of York, David Hope, who left his post as the second most important man in the Church of England to return to the life of a parish priest.

I'm not sure Jesus would have been too thrilled at the notion of planning your entire life out from the age of 16 onwards. In fact, I recently had to complete a form which asked me for my life ambition. I simply wrote "please see Matthew 6:34". It is also the idea that some people give up their dreams because of job security. I am determined not to fall into the treadmill trap. This week I decided to give myself a headstart, and I have cut down my hours at work to rehearse for a play with some friends. Sure that'll mean I'll have less cash for Fresher's Week at uni, but then this is an important lesson in doing what you love vs. doing what makes you money. We're performing The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (of A Streetcar Named Desire fame). Heck, I figure if I can't quit my job to become an artist now then I definately won't have the guts to do it in the future...

Oh, and the site has a bit of a new look. I thought the dark blue was a little difficult to read, and was probably hurting the eyes of my readers!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

prayer again

I have been learning a great deal recently. When I was in India earlier this year, I felt that my faith had become as strong as an oak tree, yet as happy to change with the spiritual landscape as the ivy that grows around it. Inevitably, my return to the oh-so-secular land of Great Britain has been a step down from India, where faith is lived and breathed everywhere from the local bus to the grandest temple. However, being at home has given me the opportunity to totally rely on God for my faith, and he has been teaching me how to give myself over to him a little bit more each day. I mentioned meditation and prayer recently, and these two devotional practices are becoming the pillars of my faith. By setting time aside for them regardless of anything else, I am understanding more and more what it means to abandon yourself to God. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not gloating - I am still a long way off no matter how many times I pray 'thy will be done', but I know that by God's grace, I am getting much closer than ever before.

I've also been reading a bit of Meister Eckhart recently, and although he gets a bad rap for being heretical and amorally mystical, I have to say that his teachings so far have been fundamentally orthodox and yet also challenging and radical within the boundaries of his own Christian tradition. What Eckhart has a very strong sense of is the idea of surrendering ourselves to God, and making sure that no 'thing' can stop us from doing that. He tells us repeatedly that this calls for spiritual perserverence. Much of this perserverence comes through prayer.

With this in mind, I punched 'prayer' into Google, and found at least two places of interest on the first page. The Irish Jesuits run a very popular site called Sacred Space, which leads you in a different prayer and reading each day. You click through different stages as the prayer unfolds. My second site is the World Prayers Project. A fantastic collection of prayers, poetry and quotations from around the world, ranging from a child's grace at the dinner table to the verses of Native American priests. Both these sites are well worth a look if you need some inspiration.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

nature notes

A rose, in my garden...

I have just spent a weekend in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside with a friend of mine who is in "training" to become a Druid Priestess. Living in suburban Surrey, I don't often get the chance to appreciate the natural beauty of the British Isles as much as I'd like. It seems I have marvelled more at Argentine mountains and Bolivian salt flats this year than I have at the wonders of God's creation in my own backyard. What's more, how many of us (those of us who aren't Druids) take the time to simply be with nature? How often do we step away from the hustle and bustle of the world to sit and look at the clouds and trees? I think it can be worse sometimes for the religious. All spiritual traditions are, to some extent, guilty of forcing us to look away from the natural world. In the west monotheisms we're all waiting for heaven, and in the east, the world is simply an illusion or maya. I think Christians can be especially bad at relecting on the natural world. In a futuristic episode of The Simpsons, chronicling Lisa's ill-fated wedding, Reverend Lovejoy reacts to the cancellation of the ceremony (which is outside in a marquee) with the words:
"uh, this is very sad news, and it wouldnt've never happened if the wedding would've been inside the church with God, instead of out here in the cheap showiness of nature."
Didn't St Paul arrive at Rome and declare "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands" (Acts 17:24)? But how often have Christians constructed churches and cathedrals in which to house God? Not that there is anything wrong with religious architecture; one only has to look at Gaudi's Temple of the Holy Family in Barcelona, the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, India or Stonehenge (even the Druids have their man made structures!) to see that man's search for the Divine has inspired some of the greatest buildings in the world. However, I reckon we all need a bit of time to remember the importance of Creation...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

the power of prayer...

I often have moments when I feel alienated from God. Sometimes this is due to apathy, doubt, sin or just becoming too preocuppied with trivial things. At this stage it is all too easy for me to step further away. I take my hand from the plough and look back, finding myself, like Lot's wife, hardened into a listless pillar. Fortunately, Jesus reveals to us a God who is happy to receive his wayward children time after time. The only requirement? That we return to God asking for re-acceptance and forgiveness just as the prodigal son asked his father for forgiveness. We do this, of course, through prayer.

I regularly marvel at the power of prayer, but I can forget this amazing gift with just as much frequency. Today, I had decided to remove myself from a temporary pillar state and sat down to pray for the first time in a few days. I believe my prayer found acceptance. At once, my alienation from God was lifted. Not by a superficial feeling or 'buzz', but simply by remembering that God is both infinitely forgiving and infinitely able to renew our spirits. All by a short crude prayer.

We often forget the incredible concept of prayer. Jesus taught us that with a few simple words we can connect with the very Source of Creation, the One Divine Truth that is God. Of course, our connection does not end when we stop praying, indeed our lives should be prayer. For if prayer is so helpful, so rejuvenating, so full of strength, then St Paul is correct when he advises the Thessalonians to 'pray continually'. But what does it mean to 'pray continually'? One man took it literally, he actually said a spoken prayer over and over again all day. Monks and nuns have seen their entire existence as a big prayer, perhaps following St Paul's advice again. Christian meditators (see below) have found that after a time, their mantra begins repeating itself silently even outside of the meditation period: a continual prayer. Leave your comments on how you try to 'pray continually'.

Although we are often disappointed by unanswered prayer, I find that when we stop asking God for things, and just let ourselves receive what he is prepared to give us, the power of prayer never fails to give me strength.

"Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays." - Søren Kierkegaard

Sunday, August 15, 2004

be still...

Lago Gutierrez, Bariloche, Argentina

I've started practicing meditation recently. I discovered its role in the life of a Christian contemplative largely via my stay at the Shantivanam ashram in India, and the subsequent discovery of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Meditation is not, contrary to what a lot of people think, a time spent in deep pious thought, instead it is the opposite. Meditation aims to banish all thought, and just be.

Many people see this as some new age type of practice that has been stolen from Buddhists and Hindus. But what is not often known is that Christian meditative prayer goes all the way back to early desert monks and nuns in the first century CE. Jesus may not have specifically taught meditation, but the method practiced by monks today satisfies his teachings on prayer remarkably well. We spend time alone with God, with few words, an open ear and simple humility. I firmly believe that God is not something to be thought out with our minds, but rather experienced through faith and love. Yet for me this is hard, I find that I am most stimulated by theological discussion and find prayer rather a struggle, so I took up meditation to help me out.

What I didn't realise is that it is actually very very difficult. Trying to turn off your thoughts and sit in silence is akin to stopping the tide. Contemplatives advise channeling your thoughts into one word, nowadays referred to as a mantra (from Sanskrit). A mantra is a prayer word that you repeat mentally in your head for the entire meditation session. For Christians, the WCCM recommends the word maranatha, an Aramiac word meaning 'Come Lord Jesus'. You 'say' the word as four syllables of equal length; I like to say MA-RA as I breath in, and NA-THA as the breath goes out again.

The idea is that your brain will be occupied so much with this one word, that other thoughts will subside. Of course, this is just the idea, and in reality you will find yourself swamped with trivial thought. Everything from what you will eat for supper, to the book you've been reading to the meaning of existence itself will flood into your mind. The key is to turn from these thoughts and go back to the silent repetition of the mantra in your mind. But it isn't easy. It is a chore, and one that I most often do not enjoy doing.

I try to take twenty minutes before breakfast, and the same again before supper. I have made a special CD that plays a Taizé song, then there is a twenty minute silence, before another Taizé song begins to signal the end of the session. If you fancy having a go yourself, I can heartily recommend this page for some good introductory material. But be warned, it is difficult for everyone who starts meditation, and can be very discouraging when you realise that the entire session was spent thinking about where you left your sunglasses and when the doctor's appointment is. Sometimes, of course, you just don't want to do it! But I'm told that with perserverence, it is a good way to open yourself up to God without worrying about doctrine or creeds or any other religious anxieties.

Friday, August 13, 2004

golden clouds

Near Alangulam, Tamil Nadu, India

It's Friday, so you can all have a picture, instead of a post. I took this out the side of a bus in India. Everybody loves a sunset, and I like to see them as the abstract expressionism of God.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

pulling down the fences

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of meeting some of the wonderful Christians who inhabit my favourite internet forum, 24-7 Talkback. I like to think we are a church, of sorts, but unlike many churches, we sometimes find it difficult to stand up and say the same creed together. Our ranks are made up of Christians of every theological persuasion, from evangelicals to semi-Buddhists. This is why I love it. So, meeting these guys last night got me thinking on the nature of our relationship with God. We might all be his children but we each have our own way of approaching the Father.

Lots of people draw lines between religions like barbed wire across warzones. Even within the Body of Christ, the fence posts are set up. This becomes profoundly sad when we see Southern Baptists who won't even talk to other Southern Baptists. Perhaps one day the perimeter fences will get smaller, eventually encircling every church in the southern United States. Then one half of a congregation will be divided against the other, until each church-goer starts setting up the boundaries around his own feet. When we reach that point, maybe then we will discover a profound truth. The truth that in reality there are as many religions as there are people.

Jesus may have been talking about the forces of Satan, but his point that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" applies equally to the children of God. Happily, ecumenical movements and inter-faith dialogues are becoming more common these days, but sadly there are still some who don't realise the importance of Jesus' prayer in St John's gospel:
"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" - John 17:20, 21
At the very least, this calls for unity among all Christian believers, but in today's plural age, we might extend this hand of unity towards our sisters and brothers in other faiths.

In a previous post here, I have been comparing Jesus' teachings on a personal level and the level of wider society, with the friendliest horticulture student I know. In my view, I think the teachings of Jesus are not destined primarily for the social level. His teachings, and I think, the teachings of the most important teachers, are destined for the individual. I was raised in an unchurched background, and perhaps consequently I have always held a belief that faith must be a personal matter.

Of course, faith doesn't stop with the individual. When I became a Christian, the importance of spiritual community suddenly became apparent to me. I think that our individual faith is the starting point for community, and the community faith comes out of the collective faith of individuals rather than the other way around. Why? Because ultimately we all see things slightly differently. In recognising this, perhaps then we can begin to work out what this unity business means. It doesn't imply the assimilation of individual faith into a big melting pot of syncretism. Nor does it imply that we must all be handed out the same creed. Finally, unity doesn't mean tolerance. Unity means a seeking to understand, a desire to share, a willingness to listen and the strength to be a humble witness.

Easier said than done though, ain't it?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

it's a conspiracy!

Is anyone else getting mighty sick of The DaVinci Code? This is the best-selling novel by Dan Brown that claims "DaVinci" (more commonly and correctly called by his name, Leonardo) knew of a huge conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the true identity of Christ, his marriage to Mary Magdalene and the son that was born of this marriage. I keep seeing this novel being read on trains and in parks, people are constantly praising it, telling me how it 'gripped' them, and 'challenged' their beliefs. My dad has read it, and keeps recommending it. Yet, I have no desire to read this book.

Why? Well, firstly I am aware of the poor scholarship in the book. It has received criticism from Christian and non-Christian scholars alike for mistakes, and even if I did want to read about the Opus Dei or the supposed 'goddess' spirituality of Mary Magdalene, I would purchase an academic book, not a novel. Secondly, I can't stand airport novels of any description, and I think it is safe to say that Brown's book is indeed one of them. The few parts I have read weren't even vaguely well written. It plays off the conspiracy theories that excite people disaffected with jaded instituitions, such as the monarchy or the Catholic Church. The title is an obvious nod to The Bible Code, another piece of sensationalist conspiracy theory-paranoia designed to make a quick buck. Despite the continual suggestions from my dad, I won't be rushing out to read this novel - there are simply too many other books to read first! It can join the bottom of my list, below Harry Potter. When I have exhausted the canons of literature, I'll consider them.

However, I think it sad the 'facts' presented by Brown's book are taken in my so many people who have had no exposure to this sort of history before. Not surprisingly, it has been condemned by Catholics as 'undermining people's faith'. It seems that you either love this book or love Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. Why are we deprived a healthy middle ground opinion?

See more at Times Online.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

living and loving the life of christ

I don't usually look around, as I find the site as almost the pluralistic equivalent of some sort of evangelical mega-site, with ad banners everywhere, loads of strategically placed shopping options and the like. However I did stumble across this today, which is an interview with a Former Trappist monk of the same abbey as Thomas Merton. He has a good little nugget of wisdom on how we see the life of Christ, which might help us with our thoughts on historical Jesuses and how we read the gospels:

"For the Christian mystics, they didn't see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a story dualistically other than their life; rather they saw it as a story that revealed the deepest reality of their life. And we enter into this reality, which is at once God's life and our own, in the silent simplicity of meditation."

I thought that would tie in rather nicely with what has been said about divine nature and human nature, and how Jesus calls us to follow in his footsteps.

jesus and the divine human

In discussion with my good friend Post Liberal, I started thinking about what implications the incarnation has on our view of human nature. I came up with this....

I don't think we can really call ourselves Christians unless we acknowledge the essential divine nature of all human beings. This was already hinted at in the Old Testament when God breathes into Adam's nostrils; the Hebrew word for breath, I believe, is the same one used for 'spirit'. But Jesus took this even further. He is different to other incarnations. He isn't a divine stranger from heaven, he is a man. He shows us that man is divine. He invites us to share his divine sonship, he calls us to become the light of the world as he is. But we needed Jesus to show us this. Jesus revealed the Christ nature in all of us, just as Gautama revealed the Buddha nature.

In the links that RobertB posted on the previous post, Geza Vermes (although he would heavily disagree with all the stuff I have just written) mentions that Jesus is essentially a teacher for the individual. He isn't interested in social reform on a grand scale, but rather our inner transformation, our personal relationship with God, the discovery of the kingdom within. Throughout Christian history, we have had to remind ourselves of the deeply personal implications of the message of Jesus. I imagine that even Vermes feels a distinct relationship with Jesus. This goes back to what we were saying about portraits of Christ. The fact that the Jesus of Luke's gospel differs from that of John's or that of St Paul is now acceptable. We all have to find Christ for ourselves, and not someone else's Christ. As Post Liberal has stated on his blog, that requires a constant re-evaluation of Christ and of ourselves. It is little wonder that Jesus liked to ask the question 'And who do you say I am?'

Oh, and here is that quotation from Dom Laurence that I promised!

"In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey strode sacrilegiously into the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem to find out what was at the heart of the Jewish religion that was causing him so much trouble. He expected to find a statue or a cult object, some kind of visible mystery. He found nothing at all, merely a small empty room and left astounded and contemptuous. To invade the gospels with that kind of insensitivity will breed the same kind of insensitivity."

- Jesus the Teacher Within, Laurence Freeman

Friday, August 06, 2004

a couple of days ago....

Crucifixion - Emil Nolde

A couple of days ago, on my lunch break, I had a strong inclination to go down to the local Oxfam bookshop. I was glad I did, because I was able to pick up a nearly new copy of Geza Vermes' The Changing Faces of Jesus. I have barely had a chance to look at it, although I can tell you that Vermes is a former Catholic who converted back to the faith of his Jewish ancestry, before taking the helm as the most renown Jewish scholar in the search for the historical Jesus. His work comes highly recommended by many, and this small volume seems to be a very good introduction to his thinking - more commonly contained in large expensive hardbacks!

I mentioned yesterday that the discovery of historical Jesuses distinct from the Jesus of faith was very disconcerting at first. I'm sure it is for most Christians. However, when you run away from these things, you aren't being true to God. For God (as Gandhi often said) was at the very simplest level Truth. God is Truth, Truth is God. If something seems true, you had best investigate it, for God lies wherever Truth is found. Last year, I can remember being worried by other religions; I saw them as a threat to my faith in Christ. However, since then, I have learnt to embrace them, I have sought to understand them and I have been rewarded by learning much from them, and yet I still remain a Christian. I believe it to be a timeless truth that often what frightens you today, you will embrace tomorrow. The other thing to remember is what I said about the many voices. Vermes is only one. Marcus Borg and NT Wright are two of the other big players in the historical Jesus field, and they are both Christians. Borg is more liberal, whereas Wright is more traditional.

I've put off this historical Jesus stuff for far too long, and will report back on Vermes' book once I get to the end of Ralph Ellison's novel, The Invisible Man. Yet let me just say one thing about the historical approach. It is a fact contested by sages and saints up and down the course of religious history that God cannot be approached by reason alone. That isn't to say we should become mindless believers, far from it, but we must recognise the limits of human reason. This, I believe goes for the search for Jesus just as much. Seek history, and you'll find history, but precious little else. Seek God as well, and you might just find Christ. I have good quotation on this subject by Dom Laurence Freeman, but that will have to wait for tomorrow...!

Thursday, August 05, 2004

the historical jesus

I have been thinking a bit more about this historical Jesus lark recently. You see, my decision to start calling myself a Christian was entirely based on the belief that Jesus was who the Bible said he was. I gained this belief having read a rather biased book on the subject; then, once I had turned the last page, assumed that any person with a historical brain would be able to figure out that Jesus was the miracle-working Son of God, who died on the cross and was raised from death on the third day. However, I was more than a little dismayed when I later found out that there were in fact many more historical Jesuses floating about and most of them didn't resemble the Jesus of faith.

Let me first say that I have never flushed the Jesus of faith down the plug hole completely. You see, even in my darkest night of doubt, God has remained a truth for me, indeed, he is the Only Truth. Call me naive for assuming this, but I can't help but feel that if Jesus never even existed (as some people cheerfully contend) then God has really let us down. You see, Jesus, whoever he was, is not only important to the world's largest faith, Christianity, but also to the world's second largest faith, Islam. In Islam, Jesus takes the slot of second most important prophet, after Mohammed. He isn't divine, but he is certainly revered. Then you have the Bahá'ís, who hold Jesus as a 'Manifestation of God', not quite an incarnation, but certainly a decent signpost. Some Jews are beginning to see the implications Jesus has as a rabbi, and attempting to reclaim him as a prophet and healer. Finally, Jesus finds his way into the conciousness of Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism. He is possibly the world's most iconic religious teacher, followed closely by the Buddha. Atheists will think my reasoning is ridiculous, perhaps even an insult to reasoning, to say that his fame is proof of his historical existence. However, the importance of Jesus to so many people makes me very reluctant to entertain the prospect that he was little more than an empty mythological figure.

However, even if we presume the existence of Jesus, then we still find ourselves with many voices calling from all directions, each one carrying the spirit of a different Jesus of Nazareth. I will continue tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

shift up

Okay - time to get this blog into gear. Now that I've joined the ever-increasing swarm of people who want to share their thoughts daily with the rest of the world, I had better make my ramblings stand out from the crowd.

What you will get here is a blend of random thoughts on art, literature, movies and the meaning of life. On this last one, I am more than a little bit religious. So if you can't stand people who speak of something beyond our realm of existence, then I suggest you get out now. For the rest of you, I warn you that I am a Christian, but by no means a very orthodox one. Sure, I generally hang around the more popular church creeds as a starting point, but I'm not afraid to stand up for the equality of all faiths. In fact, I believe that in today's multi-everything society, we can hardly do justice to our spiritual life without endeavouring to understand the paths of others, and that may even include atheists.

Just for the record (and to get it out of the way early) I do not believe that the Bible is Life's Users' Manual written by God. I like to see it as it is, a mixture of letters, laws, fables, poetry, a love song, some history, a bit of biography and some uber-scary apocalyptic-type stuff that no one really understands. I also have the habit of reading other holy scriptures, my current favourite being the famous Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.

If this sounds good to you, then stick around. For those who were hoping for more of my adventures with South West Trains, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

I'm sorry to announce....

I took the piss yesterday and suggested that people only write trivial things in diaries such as how they missed the train. Today, I am going to complain about just that. Or rather, not just that because today my train never even showed up. Apparently there was a flood somewhere, and then someone got hit by lightning, which meant the trains were the latest I have ever seen them ever. If, like me, you live in the UK, you will be familiar with those irritating pre-recorded announcements that apologise for the tardiness of the train. They go something like "I'm sorry to announce that the - four - forty-five - South West Trains service - to - London Waterloo - has been - delayed - by approximately - nine - minutes. I'm sorry for the delay to this service".

He can't possibly be sorry - 'he' is a recorded message.

Anyway, the announcements get progressively more and more apologetic. Today, when the train was delayed by over an hour and a half, our friend with the stilted speech had the courtesy to say that he was 'extremely sorry for the severe delay to this service'. Too right.

People of Great Britain! Why do we put up with this? We wouldn't just sit there shaking our heads if our TV told us the ten o'clock news would be shown at midnight due to 'the late arrival of another programme'. Nor if our microwave suddenly informed us that 'this meal has been - delayed - by approximately - eight - minutes'. Ridiculous.

Man! See what I mean about how boring diaries are? Hopefully these are just teething problems, and I will get my butt in gear to write about something more interesting very very soon.

Monday, August 02, 2004

pushing up the diaries

What a waste of time, eh? Sitting down daily to write a page about what you had for breakfast, how late the bus was and why you thought that you are getting closer to the work colleague you have a crush on. What is with that? I mean, think about all the orang-utans and cockatoos that you are evicting from their rainforest homes as you mercilessly trail off your life story on what was once their living room.

Of course, this whole blog thing changes all that. I mean - it is like a diary, but it isn't like a diary. First of all, your ecological conscience won't be riled, because now all your trivial and unimportant musings are stored in the computerised ether we call the internet. Secondly, it isn't private. Well, at least it isn't supposed to be. People read other people's blogs. How wierd is that? Fine, if you know them; but suppose they are some unknown stranger from the other side of the world (as I may well be in relation to you, the reader right now) - why do you want to read their thoughts? Well, there lies another attraction of the ethereal world of the web. You can engage with strangers and wierdos and may be even those orang-utans (who have probably moved to the city by now).

Let me just say, that I abhor diaries, and have never been able to keep one, no matter how hard I tried. The closest I got was a "travel journal", but even that bit the dust half-way through. This means that the odds of me actually continuing this ridiculous thing called a blog are quite low, but I will promise to make a good effort.

Welcome to the blue chicken.