Article in Stretton Focus, December 2012
Psst . . Crosswords, both cryptic and quick, are part of our household relaxation. One of the recent clues was ‘Secret whispers’(4) and the solution turned out to be ‘psst’! I doubted if it would be in the Oxford English Dictionary, but I was wrong!
Psst . . would you like to know the secret of Christmas? The word ‘secret’ was widely used by the early church, in reference to what they believed was the meaning and purpose of the life of Jesus. Paul, in his letters, often talks about ‘the secret that God wants to make known to all people’. Paul wrote in Greek and the word translated as secret (musterion) can be better understood as ‘mystery’ (which is where we get that word from anyway). Christianity is really a mystery religion, for there is mystery at the heart of our relationship with God; how could it be otherwise? But it’s a mystery we can enter into.
Psst . . would you like to know the secret of this mystery religion? Well, if you listen closely, there are whisperings of it in the Christmas story. Christmas is not about ‘believing half a dozen impossible things before breakfast’ – it’s about knowing a secret. And Paul tells us what the secret is – “The secret is this – Christ in you, the hope of a glory yet to come” (Colossians 1: 27) It’s about recognising yourself as a child of God just as Jesus was, and just as everyone is – and then living in the light of that knowledge.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2012
Faith and Doubt
I usually listen to Thought for the Day on Radio 4 in the hope of picking up a few ideas for my own preaching. One day the speaker boldly said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty! That set me thinking.
Faith is trusting and hoping that what you are committed to will finally be vindicated. If you knew it for certain, there would be no room for faith. Being certain cancels out the need for faith. Faith will always leave room for doubt, which can actually be an enhancement of faith
We live in an imperfect world, where faith is also never perfect. Our faith needs to grow and develop as we reach for perfection; and doubt can be an agent or catalyst for that purpose.
Those who claim to be certain about their religious beliefs are treading a dangerous path: they are already half way to fanaticism. If they are certain of what they believe, they can never change their minds: they are always right, and their only purpose in life is to convert others.
Billy Graham used to say that people who have that kind of certainty (which included himself) should be willing to crawl over broken glass to get their message across, in the hope of saving people from eternal damnation.
Sadly, the world knows to its cost, what other lengths some extremists are prepared to go to. A few doubts would help to keep us all more humble and tolerant of differing points of view.
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2012
It begins to appear . . .
R.S. Thomas has a poem entitled ‘Emerging’, which is a poet’s word for the more scientific concept of ‘evolution’. Whether you’re a poet or a scientist, we all live in this one world where evolution is the basis of everything. Religion itself is part of ‘everything’, and so it too is in the process of evolving. We have only got ‘three-score years and ten’ (give or take a few) in which to do our evolving. We have to emerge from childhood into maturity; and this involves what the Bible calls ‘putting away childish things’.
Enlightenment is another word for this same process. In the light of growing knowledge and experience, ‘it begins to appear’ that what we once thought and believed, is no longer credible. We have to let it go, if we want to hold on to our intellectual integrity.
For R.S.Thomas, it begins to appear that his concept of God and prayer is no longer convincing, and he is looking for a new understanding. God is no longer ‘somebody somewhere’ who is watching us and waiting to answer prayer. Prayer is not pleading with God to get what you want, and so …
“It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference, the consciousness of myself in You, and You in me”.
Poets can be today’s prophets, moving us on in the evolution of our understanding of God, as we gradually emerge from darkness into light.
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2012
The Way to God
There are many ways to God. In fact there are as many ways as there are people looking to find a way. Every person is a unique and individual creation: therefore we need to be true to ourselves if we are going to find some way of relating to our Creator.
Religions generally have offered a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of relating to God. This created the religions that we are now familiar with: but by not respecting people’s basic need for personal freedom, the cost has been too high. Many people today are not willing to pay that price, and so they have given religion a wide berth.
Religions need to start putting people first. If it is true that the Creator’s image and likeness is in every human being, then it will be as we seek to become fully human that the way to God will be found.
We could begin to find a way by recognising that the word GOD is closely connected with the word GOOD. In fact, GOD is GOOD with nothing (0) left out. So any concept of God that is not good by human standards should be rejected as a false god.
We should look for the deepest and the highest in our humanity. The deeper we look into ourselves, beyond our mere flesh and blood, the more we will discover our inner being, which is best described as spirit – and God is Spirit!
The highest claim that can be made upon us is to be loving towards one another – and God is Love! So the way to God is open to us. Find some way of looking deeper into yourself, and you will discover your true, spiritual nature: then, inspired by that spirit, reach out in love to those around you – and you will have found the way to God.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, August 2012
Focus on Faith – the logo
I designed the logo above for this column in 1988 on my new Apple Macintosh computer. Information technology has been behind a lot of change in the last 25 years and has helped Stretton Focus evolve into a radically different magazine from its early incarnation. The graphic capability of my new Macintosh opened up interesting opportunities – the logo was one result. Focus has used it for nearly 25 years so I thought it was time to reflect on how well it works.
I drew a church in a box. The lettering “Focus on Faith” is a computer font, lacking individuality, but with soft curves which draw the reader to the image of the church. The church drawing is quite primitive. Like all 2-dimensional icons the meaning of what readers see is based on their own experience. But this church has a hidden characteristic – like the text, the walls and roof are drawn by prescribed formulae in the computer software. The final element of the logo is the box itself, separating the title and icon from the important words which lie outside the box.
The mediaeval church used boxes and prescribed formulae to define faith. Thinking outside the box was heretical, and could endanger one’s life. The term ‘heresy’ is still used by some to label ideas outside their church’s box. Repression never discouraged liberal thinking however, exemplified perhaps by the non-conformist founders of today’s United Reformed Church. The growth of diverse churches around the world is one result of liberal thinking about faith but churches, old or new, all have their own boxes.
A side-effect of social change in our better educated society is the appearance of more independent thinking about faith which does not reflect established dogma. Even so such ideas are not as widely debated as many of us would hope, despite technology making repression impossible. This Stretton Focus column has worked well over the years, debating issues and fresh ideas which help us think about our faith. So the graphic remains relevant. It is a quiet reminder that faith has a framework, but that we should also be open to the challenge of thinking outside our boxes.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2012
Who are you?
In answer to the above question, you could give your name and address, and maybe produce a birth certificate. It all depends on who is asking the question. You could be asking it of yourself – who am I? That is the most profound question anyone can ask of themselves: but where do we look for an answer?
You could look to your family tree and find out your line of descent. This would trace your ancestry back as far as you can go. Not many would be able to go back as far as Adam and Eve: but even then, who are they? Where do they come from?
Going back to some imagined beginning of life, you enter the realm of mystery and myth. Religions would say that we are the children of God. That’s as far back as you can go, because it’s not possible to say where God comes from.
God just is. God is our word for the fact of existence. God does not exist like we do, as an objective being. God is the Ground of all Being – and those of us who do exist, can try to work out our relationship with the Ground of our being. Various world religions have their different ways of doing this: and people are free (or should be) to choose whichever appeals to them.
There is a secular alternative, wherein you can see yourself as ‘a child of the Universe’. The Universe has given you birth, just as it has given life to all people and to all living things.
We can see ourselves as part of the Universe (are we not stardust, and made of the same basic ‘stuff’ as everything else?).
Where the Universe comes from, or is going to we don’t know: but if we are part of it, we could commit ourselves to it, in the faith and hope that all will be well?
The religious way and the secular way are not all that different. They are dealing with the same mystery that confronts us all – who are we? What is the meaning and purpose of life? How best should we live our lives?
If you choose the religious option, you will certainly be challenged to aim for the highest and best that you are capable of being. You are a child of God: God is love, and in God lies the fulfilment of who you are.
Even if you choose the secular option, you can still have the same aim of being your best and highest self, and look for you resources wherever you can find them.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2012
A Wild Goose Chase
Thank God for books! And especially for those books, and their authors, which say clearly and precisely what you have been wrestling with and struggling to express for years. For me, one such book is ‘A History of God’ by Karen Armstrong. Another fine writer, A N Wilson, believes that Karen Armstrong is simply ‘a genius’: but he also says of the book in question (being an atheist himself) that “the quest for God is the biggest wild goose chase in history”.
It seems that wild geese are very difficult to catch, and so a ‘wild goose chase’ refers to any useless or absurd enterprise. But it all depends on what you mean by the word ‘God’.
Another author to whom I am very grateful, Paul F Knitter, recently said that the word ‘God’ is not a noun, but rather a verb. And those who, like me, went to school in the 1950s will know that a verb is a ‘doing word’.
So God is not somebody, living somewhere out there (in heaven?). God is a word suggesting action, movement, energy and vitality. The word ‘God’ does not refer to some thing or somebody you say you believe in: rather it refers to the life (vitality) you have, and the way you live that life.
The Iona community, which is committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel in today’s world, has a publishing arm called ‘Wild Goose Publications’. It is so named because in Celtic spirituality the wild goose is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
That spirit cannot be caught (the wind blows where it will) but it can catch you; and it will lead you a merry dance. But as you follow, it will become for you the dance of life (dance then wherever you may be).
You can be ‘caught up’ in the dance, as your own spirit responds to the Divine Spirit; and you will be delighted to learn that the ‘doing word’ is LOVE.
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2012
An Exciting Adventure
I have been reading a book called ‘Finding Your Hidden Treasure’. It’s written by Benignus O’Rourke, who is an Augustinian friar. I was glad to hear him say that the Christian life can be an exciting adventure – because I agree! Although I’m just sorry that nobody ever told me this when I first joined the Church.
I had to discover it for myself many years later. This I did by loosening the grip of a rigid, doctrinal approach to God, and embracing the dawning realisation that God is greater than any religion.
Religions are only useful if they introduce you to the spiritual dimension of life, and invite you to explore it. This indeed can be exciting, because it turns out to be a personal search for your ‘self’; that is, your true self, which all religions tell us is “made in the image and likeness of God”.
Having made this discovery, which essentially means learning how to be happily and healthily related to your ‘self’ (or in other words how to become a fully integrated person), the adventure continues as you explore your relationship with other people, and with the world you live in.
In doing this, you become aware of your relationship with God, who is the Oneness of all things; in whom all things exist and have their being. You don’t have to travel far in this exploration, for it is the treasure hidden in the soul (or self) of everybody. You don’t have to look ‘far’, but you have to look ‘long’, for even one lifetime may not be enough to discover the breadth and length and height and depth of this sacred mystery in which we exist, and which religions call God.
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2012
The Elephant in the Room
You may have heard people referring to ‘the elephant in the room’, and, like me, wondered what it meant. So I’ve given it some thought. If there was an elephant in your room, it would be fairly obvious, wouldn’t it!
But the phrase is used to refer to something which, while obvious to everybody, is also ignored by them. Even more, there is a general agreement that the ‘elephant’ is not there, and doesn’t really exist.
It’s one of the ‘games people play’ and it’s a variation of the theme ‘don’t rock the boat’. Another version of it is the story of the King’s marvellous suit of clothes. Everybody knows that the King is naked, but it’s safer to play the game than admit the truth, and have to face up to the consequences.
The ‘elephant in the room’ is always a matter that needs questioning, but nobody dares to ask the necessary question.
Today there is an elephant in the Church, and indeed in all places of religious worship. There are questions that need to be asked about the God we claim to be worshipping. But people who ask questions are rocking the boat. The ark of salvation might be in danger of sinking if too many questions are asked.
So for some people it’s better to play the game; just keep repeating the ancient creeds; singing the Victorian hymns; and reinforcing the unquestionable doctrine.
But for us, questions need to be asked, about what the word GOD actually means; does it make any sense in the kind of world and universe we live in today?
That question remains a ‘large elephant’ blocking the way into the Church for many people; and those of us who are on the inside need to stop pretending the elephant isn’t there, and start asking some radical questions.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, in Stretton Focus, April 2012
Is God Nowhere or Now Here?
The evolution of Homo sapiens in an evolving universe is the context in which we find ourselves. This is where we live and ensure the survival of our species. Humans have developed brain power and self consciousness, which has given an added dimension to our lives. We now have a sense of responsibility for the physical world, and for the well being of all who live in it.
We can also raise questions about the meaning and purpose of life: and that’s where the idea of God has come from. Our forebears looked into the sky, believing that a god or gods lived up there. These gods occasionally came down for reasons of their own, but usually for a liaison with attractive earthly females (see Genesis 6:2).
Today these sky gods are nowhere to be found (ask Yuri Gagarin). They were merely a projection of life on earth into the heavens. Clearly, we need to be looking elsewhere for the meaning and purpose of life (which is the closest we can get to any credible concept of God).
Using all our faculties, we will have to look into our humanity, which in any case is as deep and complex as the heavens are immeasurably vast and mysterious. Today the old sky gods are ‘nowhere’; but the search for the meaning and purpose of life is ‘now here’, with us and among us. Who am I? And what am I here for? That’s the question we should be asking: it’s the search we should be engaged in.
Whatever answer we come up with, that will be our God, the meaning and purpose of our lives, to which we feel compelled to be committed. It will always be an ongoing search, but an exciting one. It’s really a spiritual quest where you only ‘find’ when you yourself ‘are found’.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2012
The Poet, the Poem and the Poetry
A poet is someone who puts words together with a creative imagination. Words are assembled in a way that is designed to stimulate the thoughts and stir up the emotions of any reader.
The names of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning will spring to mind as being poets whose words were learned in school and still remembered. What they wrote, we called poems. Many and varied are the ways these poems are put together.
Some are written using a fixed metre and with rhyming couplets, which make them easier to remember. There are fourteen line English sonnets; seventeen syllable Japanese haiku; and some readers may even know what a ‘clerihew’ is.
There is blank verse, and irregular verse in many forms – but where is the poetry?
Of course, it’s in the poem! But not in any visible or objective way. You could say that it is the ‘spiritual essence’ of the poem, which only appears when the reader makes a personal response to what they have read.
When the spirit of the reader is ‘activated’ by the spirit of the poem, that is when the poetry comes into being, with a life and energy of its own. The reader can be inspired by the poetry, getting absorbed in it; uplifted and ‘carried away’; and even experiencing a sense of ‘oneness’ with it.
And for any who are struggling to understand the concept of God, here is a useful analogy. God is in the world, like poetry is in the poem; and with the same invitation to discover, and become ‘one’.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2012
“Then t’was the Roman . .”
Those who know their ‘Shropshire Lad’ will recognise the words in my title. They are from the poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’ where Housman is looking back to the times of the Roman occupation. He was saying “Once the Romans were here, and now I am; they are now ‘ashes under Uricon’ and I’ll soon be on my last journey to the crematorium”.
Houseman’s pessimistic outlook informs most of his poetry. In this case, he raises for us the question of an after-life. Will there be an after-life? And if so, what will it be like? It is inconceivable that any final answer can be given, but this has not prevented religions from doing so, and there are different varieties on offer. Inevitably, they are all projections of life on earth, but in a more idyllic form. The after-life has been pictured as a paradise, where all suffering is over; a realm of joy and peace; a heavenly city with gates of pearl and streets of gold. A favourite Christmas Carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, looks forward to being “dressed in white and waiting around” – which is not a prospect I find very attractive!
Just as the Church’s theology has had to adapt to the scientific discoveries of the likes of Galileo, Darwin, Freud and Einstein, so today we have to see life in the context of an ever expanding universe, and our place in it. There is an energy or force that has been creating the universe for billions of years until the present time; and will continue to do so without end (who could possibly conceive of an end to ‘creation’?).
We are the self-conscious product of that Creative Force, and on our physical death, our self-consciousness (or spirit or soul), could return to its source and be involved in the ongoing evolution of whatever it is the Creative Self-Consciousness has in mind. That sounds exciting to me, and something I could look forward to.
Article in Stretton Focus, December 2011
Christmas comes but once a year
. . . . . . and when it comes, it always brings the usual headaches. What do you buy for people who already have more than enough? Will it be turkey again or shall we have roast beef, or even go vegetarian? Shall I actually read all those family newsletters, or just do what I normally do with them? Did I eat and drink too much last year? I probably did so I must be more careful this year. And is it time to admit to the children what they probably already know – that there is no Father Christmas?
And what about the Christmas story itself? Is it not time to admit what most of us already know, that the Christmas story is just that – a story? The details of the story, about angel visitations, virgin birth in a cattle stall, wise men bearing gifts, slaughter of innocents and flight to Egypt are not to be taken literally.
They are like the wrapping paper of a Christmas present. The present itself is the ‘meaning’ of the story, which people have to work out for themselves. This will need to be done in the light of today’s knowledge about the world and the universe we live in and how we understand our own place in it.
But with a bit of imagination, we can enter into the meaning of this story about the birth of Jesus. We can regard ourselves as being of divine origin, “…trailing clouds of glory do we come, from God who is our home” (William Wordsworth), and we can respond to the challenge of Jesus’ life and teaching, by living up to our own birthright, as He did.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, November 2011
Focus on Faith
If we’re going to focus on faith, we’d better know what faith is. Some would say that faith is the same as belief. But that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake the church has made, along with other religions. It led to a situation where belief became a test of faith; and there were dire consequences for those who failed the test by not believing the right things. They were subjected to the cruellest torture, and then consigned to eternal damnation if they didn’t change their minds.
This conflation of faith and belief has caused religious chaos across the whole world. It resulted in pogroms, crusades and many forms of religious extremism, including the latest manifestation of suicide bombers.
So faith needs to be seen as much more than just belief. Belief is an intellectual activity of the mind: faith is a commitment of the heart. Faith is better understood in terms of TRUST; and so there will always be an element of risk about it, rather than certainty.
If you have faith in someone, you don’t just believe in their existence, you trust them. You trust that they will be true to themselves, and live up to the highest claims their own conscience makes upon them.
Faith is a creative energy or power. It creates relationships. First of all, it invites you into a relationship with yourself (or rather with your Better Self). Faith will encourage you to believe in yourself and trust yourself; and even to love yourself, because love is the highest form of this relationship.
Having found a healthy and wholesome relationship with yourself, you will then want to reach out to include others: and this will eventually lead you into the experience of being embraced by the love of the universal Other, that we call God.
Faith is not saying that you believe in the existence of someone called God (as if that would make any difference!). Nor is it saying that you believe in any so-called ‘statements of faith’.
Faith is not a statement: it’s a commitment – trusting that in spite of all, life has meaning and purpose. Faith means taking a risk, and living in the light of it; loving yourself and loving others; and as a result, experiencing the love of God who, it seems, is also trusting us to be true to ourselves.