Believing impossible things

dalia

Have you ever felt that following Jesus was too hard? Have you ever felt that your faith was making life more complicated than it needed to be? That the gospel they said would set you free had you trapped and you needed to get out?

Jesus said in this world you will have trouble and in this piece of writing we won’t be rushing on to the conclusion of that remark, however reassuring it might be. Cheaply purchased answers are temporary, easy won solutions throw up new worries and concerns. A generation of Christians have become tired of simplified answers to complex questions and have been hurt in places where those questions are all but banned.

But what if we decided to live as if our questions and struggles were as sacred as our moments of spiritual delight? What if we learnt to value and treasure the most troublesome days of our walk with God and speak boldly (not badly) of them as the dear friends that they are?

At the start of my journey towards a healthier spiritual place, a phrase from Alice caught my attention and fuelled my desire for change,

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I had to tell the truth, if only to myself. The Christian things I once held dear were becoming impossible things and the weight of them was breaking me up. I lacked the faith to believe and I lacked the will to pretend. I began to unwind, one impossible thing after another, like a long deep confession. Each new day, I got up, took the children to school, went to the library, cooked dinner, saw friends, passed the time. One day I was sorry for my rebellion, the next indignant. Yet some days, neither sorry or indignant, I felt the Holy Spirit there. He did not separate Himself from this questioning, I almost believed this was His doing and not my own.

What if I dared to believe this process was actually the work of God, the one I had prayed for, many, many times.

In those days I dared to believe Jesus was a good man not a God, that scripture was not without error. I dared to believe that love does not win, that miracles might not be true, that Christians were not the best people on earth, that Jesus is not the only way to God, that the doctrine of the Trinity is ridiculous, that answered prayer is coincidence, that the poor would never inherit the earth and that turning the other cheek was doomed to fail.

It was a quiet and long work. I told few people about it. I didn’t have the words. My only company in those days was books. 2002: I read Brian McClaren, Donald Miller, Dave Tomlinson and I returned to the ancient theologians I had studied as a student, the “Catholic” writers that evangelical pastors had cautioned me against. I shed impossible things like a seabird in eclipse loses feathers. The colours and textures of my faith changed subtly to match the shades of a changing internal landscape.

Many of the abandoned things would return in a different guise. I would turn them carefully in my hands, re-examining a doctrine or a teaching, as if seeing it for the first time.  I found I was free to refuse and free to accept impossible things. I could put it down or I could I could take it with me. I prayed for the sick and saw people healed, my children flourished and my marriage was good. I saw the doctor because I was depressed and then anxious. I had a lingering agoraphobia that made it hard to get out. But God was all new, returning blessings for my un-belief.

When faith unwinds and you are the lost person in the community of the found, know this: you are free to walk away and never return if that is what you choose. But you are also free to stay, just as you are, or in different ways. Go find them, the different ways, if that is what you want. For the God who sends his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous and gives blessing upon blessing to all our unbelief.

 

 

 

 

Spiritual dissonance

advent

Spiritual dissonance happens when we feel estranged from the responses we have been taught to make to God, and we grow separate from an authentic spirituality.

Loving God with all our heart, soul and mind creates an appetite for the authentic, and this is always the resting place of our desire to know Him more.

The gospels tell us to seek so that we will find and those who seek so often find themselves looking beyond their received traditions, teachings and practises to find more of God in something surprising outside of the well defined edges and corners of their current box.

Many seekers find that the words of others who are actively seeking God are a mirror and a map in their journey towards authenticity; a mirror because the words of others can reflect back a clear image of the things they already sensed, a map because they offer a route forwards, directions in the next step of the way.

Poetry is valuable in negotiating the deep and strange places of the soul because poetry uses a concentrated form of words to evoke and recreate experiences of the human heart that are often known and rarely spoken.

Advent brings out the best in poets. More so than Christmas. Christmas is over-burdened with meaning, most of it too sentimental to bear the weight of honest spiritual pursuit and the deep pain of the outside world. Spiritual dissonance at this time of year can be overwhelming and we must take all the help we can get to make a way amongst the clutter of the season.

In this poem by Rowan Williams, the imminent birth of Christ is under shadowed by a knowledge of the torture and suffering He will bear. The movement through the stanzas, leaf fall, to frost, to dark days and finally labour and child birth, does not flinch from the painful realities of our waiting for Christ and yet it capture the wonder and beauty of the whole creation’s relief when he is safely come.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.



He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.



He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.



He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

This poem is featured in a selection of poems for advent and epiphany, by Janet Morely, that I have reviewed in a previous post. 

Archbishop Rowan William’s poem was published in his first poetry collection, After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in the volume, The Poems of Rowan Williams. The poem was set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies in a collection of anthems in honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

 

Burning bushes

photo-1444492696363-332accfd40c0

On my street, there were two trees ablaze with red leafed flames, a Pentecostal anointing in an age of faltering belief.

It’s a blessing to the eyes.

Weeks later I pass this place and the flames glow hot, but the tree is not burnt up. Today they kindle yellow across the dull sky of this more than lovely autumn.

On the ground leaves fallen, smoulder like ash in yesterday’s hearth. The sun burns low, casting gold amongst the thinning hedges and piles of leaves.

Hearing the audible voice of God is rare. In our sceptical age, believing the testimony of those who do is rarer still, but there are burning bushes on every street corner, and ordinary folk who are sure they have heard God speak.

Moses lived the strangest kind of orphaned life. Separated at birth from his Hebrew family and raised in the Pharaoh’s place, he fled leaving matters undone to make an uncertain home for himself, far from the life he had been given. Alone in the desert place, tending another man’s flocks, his eye was drawn to the strangest sight.

A bush flickering hot with flames.

It burned but it was not consumed.

The bush was on fire but it did not burn up and Moses was listening and watching more carefully than before. “I will go over and see this strange sight” he said. The Exodus account tells us that when God saw that Moses had gone over to look – then he spoke to him, calling his name from out of the burning bush, causing him to remove his shoes and hide his face.

The nights are drawing in, calling us home, out of the cold, this creeping stain of darkness, split like ink, daylight saving and so much less light for us to see by. Yet, there are burning bushes on street corners and when God saw us go to look, then he spoke.

How can we not compare the seasons of our calendar to the seasons of the soul? How can we not take comfort in the brilliance of autumn glory as winter falls around us? Why would we not scan our horizon and watch to see a burning bush and hear the voice of God?

It makes for the breaking of a heart, to feel alone in this world, to fear that God is silent, that he does not care for us. And it is truely the condition of being human that we know this loss. But we were made to face this and to grapple with it. There is a clear sighted envisioning beyond our doubt and fear which is why we wrap up warm and go out into the cold, looking for a burning bush in a near-winter landscape.

It will turn the eye, and then the soul,  back towards the blessings of God.