Monday, February 27, 2012

My own personal Jesus

Another week, another Safe Space session. This time we gathered to talk about what or some of us has become a tricky notion: that of 'a personal relationship with Jesus'.

Think about it for a moment. The very notion of a relationship with God is strange, but one that implies intimacy is bizarre. The Bible is clear that God does indeed know us intimately - from the time that we are in the womb, he knows each cell and even before, he imagines us into being. The gospels remind us that God is a loving Father, the one who numbers the hairs on our head and holds us carefully and gently; Isaiah describes him inscribing our names on the palms of his hands. And this God is revealed in Jesus, born of a teenage nobody, the one who walked alongside ordinary men and women, eating their food, sleeping in their beds or in ditches along the way, washing their feet and allowing his own body to be anointed at their hands. What does Jesus have to tell us about the intimacy of relationship sought by God?

And is not an equal relationship. When we say we love, we do not love like him. When we say we know, we know nothing of what he knows.

The very phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus' is extremely recent. There seems to be no such expression before the renewal movements of the 1960s - and indeed, it does smack somewhat of the  seismic shifts in social norms of that era. In many churches that notion is now the norm, such that it is central in our prayers and songs. And that's fine; for many many believers, that is a very genuine expression of their experience. But for some, it's not, and it can leave people feeling that there is something wrong with their version of faith. Is it personal enough, if I don't have a 'very real sense' of God all of the time? Is it 'relationshippy' enough, if I don't consider Jesus to be my 'best friend ever'? Is it Jesus-focussed enough, if I tend to pray through Jesus to God my Father, or if I have a more Trinitarian approach?

The notion of Jesus as my best friend is one that holds considerable bear traps. Is he a best friend like other, human best friends? Because they let me down, yes; but they are also off to a good start, in that they are, intrinsically, like me. Not just human, but holding much in common - probably similar age, background and interests. God is Other. How can we compare our relationship with the Great Other to that of the mate we meet down the pub?

Of course, people use the phrase intending to communicate something of the joy in relationship with God. The relief of being able to approach God knowing that he cares about all of our stuff, and doesn't care if we're not all sorted out to start with. But feelings are unreliable markers of progress; we need to let ourselves off the hook if we don't feel it.

We spent some time thinking about the Biblical images of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd; part of the Trinity; the heart of the Church; the prophetic challenger; liberator; Lord; Teacher; the revelation of God's nature; role model for life;  and Lamb of God. How does that affect how we approach him - as dependant, awe-filled worshipper, looking for Jesus in our common life, speaking out and seeking to deal with injustice, as followers and learners, looking to see God through Jesus, basing our lives upon his example, and establishing an economy of grace. The image we could not fully see in the Bible was that of Best Friend, in an exclusive sense or in a Jesus-is-my-buddy fashion; yet Jesus does call us his friends, establishing the notion that we are not grovelling sinners but followers who mess up, yes, but seek to walk in his footsteps. He is the one that meets us on the beach and offers breakfast - one of the most gentle and real acts of reconciliation, grace in the ordinary fish and charcoal fire after resurrection as much as in the bread and wine of Gethsemane.

The icon at the top is called 'Jesu et son ami' - Jesus and his friend.  Jesus calls us his friends, us all of us, together. Yet each of separately finds a way to make that a reality in our daily lives. We discussed prayer: does it feel too much like R S Thomas's description?

Folk Tale
Prayers like gravel
Flung at the sky's 
window, hoping to attract
the loved one's 
attention, But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
I would
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
The movement of a curtain.

 The goal is surely to interweave our spiritual lives with our earthly patterns, developing an awareness of the God whose essence is community in the everyday; and seeking to follow the Lord who calls us his friends.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

War Horse

Just back from two days in London with the family, including a trip to the New London Theatre to see War Horse. Having deliberately avoided reading the book or seeing the film - despite it being one of daughter no2's favourite stories -I had the joy of watching the tale unfold in front of my eyes, in a way that was both familiar (due to its WW1 setting) and fresh.

In case you've been living under a brick, War Horse is taken from the children's book by Michael Morpurgo, that tells the story of Joey, the beloved horse of teenaged farmer's son Albert. Joey is sold to the army, and so follows a painful history of life in the trenches and at the Front Line for both man and horse. It's not The Faraway Tree, this so-called children's book.

The National Theatre production of War Horse opened in 2007, and quickly won enormous popular and critical acclaim. The horses - and a few birds - were provided by the Handspring Puppet Company. The production went on to win awards for set design and choreography, and was revived in 2008. It has subsequently transferred to the New London Theatre, an appropriately intimate venue.

I was aware that the puppetry was clever and beautiful. What astounded me was how quickly it drew me in, so that within a couple of minutes I had totally bought in to the lie that this flimsy structure of cane and cloth was living and breathing and yearning and loving, right in front of my eyes.

I grew up with the Sooty Show; Lambchop; Emu; later, Spit the Dog. They 'talked' to the puppeteer; there was no effort to make them 'real' animals. They bore no more resemblance to a bear, a sheep, a bird or a dog than did a sock or a piece of fake fur. They were cartoon characters, alter-egos of the puppeteers.

More believable, oddly, were the Muppets. Here were authentic characters that existed as their own beings. No matter that no rat is blue and no pig wears a feather boa; what sells us the characters is their autonomy. But of course these are not real animals, that would convince outside of the construct of the Show.

On seeing the Lion King several years ago I was wowed by the use of masks and puppet. The first shock was seeing the actors faces below the masks, and the puppeteers themselves on stage. The curtain had been swept aside, and the audience could see backstage to all the little tricks of the theatre. It wasn't magic; but it was magical.

In War Horse every effort has been made to study the movement of horses, and replicate that - the way their bodies move, and how their emotional responses translate into tiny movements and subtleties. Joey was real: there, right in front of me. And yet I could also see the three puppeteers it took to bring him to life - two pairs of legs between the horse's legs, and one man standing beside the head. It wasn't a horse and three men I saw, however; all were part of the same whole, a device that was exploited when a horse later died and the puppeteers rolled away, as if the soul was leaving the body.

Morpurgo wrote his book from the point of view of the horse, Joey. For the stage this was necessarily changed, which enables a rounder, fuller tale to be told - one that tells us Albert's story during the time of separation. My daughter still prefers the book version, as she adored the 'voice' of Joey and felt that his version of events played up some characters that were more muted within the stage version. Point of view choices are always interesting, and it is good to see that the stage version embraced the necessity of change so positively and made this tale their own.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

If I should stumble

The Man and I have had a longstanding grumble about a certain road sign that we see as completely pointless. It's the one that tells you there's falling rocks. Really, what are we supposed to do when we see it? Leave the road? Duck? Come back in a tougher vehicle? The point is that, by the time we are on a road where that sign is deemed necessary, it’s already too late. We are at risk, either from rocks raining down upon us or from obstacles in our path. At best it’s an indication we should keep our eyes peeled.
This week at Safe Space we were thinking about stumbling blocks, which may be defined as ‘an obstacle or hindrance to progress, belief or understanding’. In the Bible it is used by Jesus (Matt 18:1-9) and about Jesus (1 Cor 1:18-25). In the former stumbling blocks are seen as inevitable, and in the latter Jesus himself is the stumbling block. Clearly then they are not necessarily bad; conflict in our ideas is to be expected at times, challenging and ultimately moving us on.

  The phrase is used commonly to denote anything that gets in the way of our plans. We trip – over finances, education, job interviews or whatever, and are said to have reached a stumbling block. We trip, but we soon right ourselves, finding a way over or through or round it in true ‘going on a bear hunt’ style. But in matters of faith, are we perhaps more likely to give up altogether? Here stumbling blocks often involve the very people or institutions that should be there to support us through dark times. Rather than staying to work things out, it may seem easier to avoid the issues altogether – to get off the road.
For example: I have tried to list as many stumbling blocks I can think of with which I
have wrestled over the past twenty years.

The Church’s attitude to women
The Church’s attitude to sexuality
The Church’s attitude to the sick
The Church’s attitude to race
The doctrine of penal substitution
The Church’s attitude to poverty and wealth
The Church’s attitude to eternal destiny
The Church’s attitude to issues of morality
The Church’s attitude to mission
The Church’s attitude to prayer
Suffering, both personal and global
The Church’s attitude to science
All of Paul’s letters
The Church’s attitude to single people
The Church’s attitude to the Bible.

I know it’s subtle, but you may just be able to recognise a theme coming through there… And no I’m not talking about any particular church. Sometimes the block has come through one or two people; sometimes through a book, or a preacher; sometimes through an all-pervasive attitude. What scares me is that I am sure no-one set out to become a stumbling block to me; and so it stands to reason that at times I have been that for others.

What happens when I feel ‘blocked’? Sometimes I wrestle, engaging with the subject through reading, discussion and thought; sometimes I put it on the back burner. Sometimes I pray, and maybe get angry with God – for not making things clearer to me or, more likely, to others. The end result is either that I feel drawn towards God, or alienated from him. Fortunately such alienation has always come round in God’s favour, so that now I tend to not worry too much – it’ll sort itself out, given time. I just need to stay receptive to the possibility of that slow shift in a Godward direction, or occasionally, a Eureka moment. One of the most important things to me in my wrestling is to try to grasp at a God's eye view - to appreciate how different the perspective of a divine, all-loving being must be. God doesn't zoom in and out, shifting his attention like some sort of almighty Google Earth; this God, the God that can dance through nebulae, and brush each blade of grass, is in all of it, all of us, simultaneously. The small obstacle that I view as insurmountable may be just a trivial speck to him; but he holds me, even as I hold it, and so wrestles along with me.

Stumbling blocks can be huge obstacles; or they can be small, unseen stones that trip us up and leave us flat on our faces. I read recently a travel journal, in which the writer visited the neolithic burial chamber of Gavrinis in France. At the entrance to the passage tomb there lies a stone embedded in the floor, over which many visitors trip. The guide shared the theory that this stone is placed deliberately, to force visitors to this grave to kneel in respect.

Perhaps stumbling blocks could develop in us a new respect and reverence for the God that sent his own stumbling block, so that we would not boast of any wisdom we had gained on our own merit.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Words fail me

It was left to my husband the philosopher to introduce the subject of language and our approach to God at this week's Safe Space. Having been told not to make it too philosuffy*, he began with a quote from Wittgenstein:
"The limits of your language are the limits of your world."

As someone who loves words, whose private pleasures almost always involve reading, writing, crosswording and so on, I tend to view words as a rich source of enlightenment, rather than as a barrier. But of course, that's just the good words - the words that clarify, or mystify in a helpful fashion. And the words that do it for me are likely to be different from those that do it for you.

The trick when approaching the God who is so much more than we can imagine, or describe in words, is to seek diversity, drawing from the language and traditions of many expressions of the Christian faith. As my philosopher put it: "It's like being given a new 50 colour pencil set for Christmas when you've only had five felt tips to play with before."

But how do we deal with the fact that so many different voices and traditions tend to contradict each other? What about those voices that are speaking pure hogwash? Or, more dangerously, those that are leading one gently up the garden path?

The only test we have is this: can we imagine Jesus saying it? Is the substance of what is being said in keeping with his teachings? WWJS?, if you like.

Without the person of Jesus, we can say little about God of which we can be sure. When Moses asked God for his name, the only answer was 'I am'; and yet throughout the Old Testament there is a cacophony of descriptions and names for God, that betray this silence. He is both a warrior and a peacemaker, friend and judge. He is on high; close by; a strong tower; a mother hen. He is fire and light and deep darkness. He is shining revelation and treasure found in secret places. He is storm clouds and morning dew. All are images: partial, provisional, inspiring but capable of being misused and misunderstood. Treat with caution. 'I Am' will not be named.

Even our basic fall-back words are fraught with danger. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that when we use the word 'love', we think of human love; but even the best of that is a poor comparison for the love of God, which is timeless, infinite and pure.

We spent some time thinking of those words used in worship that help or hinder us, with a particular focus on male and female imagery, and negative descriptions of ourselves as typified by the prayer of humble access.

As a poet I am aware that I am overly fond of certain words when speaking of God. My favourite is 'wild', perhaps in reaction against oversanitisation of our untameable God. It denotes unpredictability; lavish ferocity; a lack of restraint. Qualities that I don't see much in my own, well-ordered, life - perhaps to my own detriment, at times. Focussing on this attribute of God speaks to me of something I want to see more of in my life, as well as speaking of the nature of God. But God's nature is in balance: he is also gentle, wise, measured, careful. Without his restraint we would not be.

In John's gospel we read that 'the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.' Jesus is God's description of himself. The Word that set the planets in motion, living and breathing and walking around Palestine.

Until I can get my head fully around that, I will have to rely on a few other, smaller, words.

*Philosuffy, adj: obscurely full of philosophical references