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The Ambivangelical

The kind of conversation I like is one in which you are prepared to emerge a slightly different person.
[Theodore Zeldin]

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” [Mark 16:15]

I became an adult under the influence of evangelical Christianity. Quite willingly – it was my idea, or at least my assent to someone else’s idea, and it was based on a primal epiphany. And as I re-evaluate my life and my choices, as we all should do, I see good and bad in what I took on.

The key tenants of the church culture I made mine, were those of the evangelical. To quote Wikipedia,

Evangelicalism is a theological perspective, most closely associated with Protestant Christianity, which identifies with the gospel … most adherents consider belief in the need for personal conversion, some expression of the gospel through evangelism, a high regard for Biblical authority, and an emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus to be key characteristics.

Continue reading “The Ambivangelical”

The treasure in the field

Trifari India Maltese CrossThe Dream (“Kingdom”) of G-d is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. [Matthew 13:44 paraphrased]

The simplicity of this account is deceptive:

  • What is the Dream/Kingdom of G-d like, the treasure, the field, or the story of the treasure in the field?
  • Why didn’t he buy the field with the proceeds from the treasure, rather than the proceeds of his possessions?
  • Is the treasure made more valuable by being under the ground rather than mined or extracted?
  • What does the man want to do with the field?
  • Who having found something of great worth, willingly and immediately looses it again?
  • Surely we are taught by many religions that the good is to be held on to, as we struggle against the bad?
  • How is it that his joy leads not towards publication (making public), but away from it and towards increased circumspection?
  • What is the difference between the treasure and the field in which it is hidden?
  • Does true ownership comprise of securing, or relinquishing?
  • Is the story more than good re-investment advice?
  • Is it making a distinction between commodities (precious metals/minerals) and real estate (the field) as types of value?

I wonder.

Shamanism, interview 2: Gavin Marshall

Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall looks a bit like ‘The Dude’ in the Big Lebowsky. He is a musician, a magician and a bit of an explorer when it comes to the mind and spirituality. A former evangelical pastor, he recently attended a guided retreat under the auspices of a Peruvian Shaman.

Tell us about how you moved from being an evangelical pastor to becoming interested in shamanism?
It was a long journey. I grew disillusioned with the church and decided to take a break. The break then became a bit more permanent and I found that I now had the freedom to explore what I really believed. The exploration involved studying different religions, magic, guys like Jung and Joseph Campbell and so-on.

Continue reading “Shamanism, interview 2: Gavin Marshall”

too close for comfort

“in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea … If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” [Paul – 2 Cor 11:26, 30]

Yesterday I spent time exploring some rock pools with my girls and nephews at Betty’s Bay, Western Cape Province. My family left the cove and I stayed behind to watch the waves.

I chose a spot which looked to be as near to the water as I could safely get, and jumped down onto it. The next wave, however, crashed below me and kept on rising. About 2 feet of water swept me backwards into space.

During the surreal journey of falling while gazing skywards, I seemed to have time to ponder on how exactly I was going to land – might it be a backflip, a headfirst crash, or a broken limb?

The landing was hard, but my lower back took the brunt of it. The rest of me hit the water. Straight away, the roiling waters lifted me up and dashed me onto a rock. I couldn’t grip and was sucked out again. The next wave did the same but I managed to hoist myself over the rock. I was taken again on a sickening, scraping, helpless up-down ride but eventually clawed my way above the waterline.

No-one saw my 8-foot fall. If I had been a few inches in any other direction I may well have hit my head and drowned. Legs are bruised, hands cut, my back aches. I am thankful to be alive.

But furthermore, I am thankful to be able to count the cost of being close to nature. This discomfort is for me a blessing of aesthetisation – the opposite of ANaesthetisation – which is the way of our protective culture, with its array of barriers between ourselves and the cosmos, between ourselves and feelings, between ourselves and beauty, and ultimately between the created and the creator.

Punishment

“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat”. [Perry Smith, “Capote”]

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  [Book of Hebrews]

“I want to feel that I have lived my life.” [Gabriella, “As it is in heaven”]

In the last week I have seen two contrasting and strangely related movies.

smith-capote.jpgFirstly, “Capote” starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman in which famous American author Truman Capote writes a brilliant novel, “In cold blood”, based on the senseless murder of a Midwestern family. In which he develops a close relationship to the condemned but is unable to transcend his spectacularly selfish motivations, and leads him into a web of deception where the salvation of a man becomes subject to the needs of an authors ego.

Secondly, “As it is in Heaven” depicts the return of a famous conductor to the village of his birth. He is ill and weary, and seeks involvement with music in such a way as to experience its magic in community, rather than on the grand stages of the world. He becomes involved in the Village Church’s choir and soon finds life erupting in the middle of a stale, brittle, protestant religious subculture. This life is accepted to varying degrees; blessing ensues for the majority, but some attempt to remain outside of the circle of grace. Those who come off worst are either deeply damaged victims or deeply pious, and form the distinct minority.

kills2.jpgAll around us, tabloids bay for “justice”. They create an appetite for the consumption of the punitive spectacle. This allows us to place a divide between ourselves and an evil which is “out there”.

There are 2 kinds of justice, retributive justice and distributive justice-compassion. (For extensive treatment of this theme see Sea Raven’s blog) True justice consists not of what man meets out to man either directly in anger, vengeance or vigilante activity, or institutionally via the justice system (law, law enforcement, courts and jails).

Rather this has to do with Love, whereby the blessing of G-d is distributed, rather than the wrath of God re-tributed. “Tribute“, the common aspect of the words, means something given or returned. In our tributes, do we give out blessing or meet out punishment?

Love is the ultimate punishment. Even if we do not find love, or we reject it in this life, Love will find us. It won’t “hunt us down” as though we will be able to hide, it will inexhorably reel us in. 

Our encounter with Love, once the deceptions of this world (vanity, fear, anger, myopia, materialism) are stripped away, and we “know as we are known”, will purge us. The torment described in the Lazarus tale in Luke’s gospel (which many mistake for God’s punitive condemnation to “hell”) is the torment of hard transformation.

The word for torment in this passage comes from the Greek βάσανοσ which talks of a standard, or touchstone. This is the standard of Love and Truth. The transformation which is forced on the rich man is by radical change of circumstances (such a physical death or traumatic loss), rather than a willing and ongoing co-operation with the transformative spirit. Punishment in the Kingdom of God is a by-product of transformation, not the wrath of some insecure, schitzophrenic deity who delights in “Eternal Love” on the one hand and “Endless Punishment” on the other.

In “Capote”, an opportunity to reveal selfless Love to a desperate and deeply damaged criminal, goes to waste because the one given the chance has chosen to “gain the world”, and thus “looses his soul”, as well as that of the one whom he might have helped.

In “As it is in Heaven”, the village pastor is forced by circumstances away from his illusions of pious grandeur, coming close to killing both himself and the one who channeled life into his world, a great depiction of Hard, and yet incomplete Transformation. As for the majority, they were only too happy to be happy…

How do we view punishment? In determining the answer to this question, surely the chief focus needs to be on the models given us which pertain to mans ultimate destiny, not our more base and short term addictions to retribution? And can we apply all our thoughts about punishment to every case, especially that of ourselves?

Most of us will manage to stay on the right side of the law throughout our lives. But can we see that the punishment all of us will encounter will the the purging fire of Love? The quote from the book of Hebrews is not aimed at the criminal, the sinner or the miscreant, although one might think so based on popular preaching.

Don’t do the mistake of coming to this scripture through the filters of a retributive culture or theology. The uncovering is achieved via consummate love, and its painful or “punitive” elements are only the result of our need to be made whole. The entire process is by grace, not a work of our own righteousness.

Andy Goldsworthy @ YSP

There was something extremely fortuitous about spending Easter at the amazing Yorkshire Sculpture Park (near Sheffield, UK), where Andy Goldsworthy is doing a 30 year retrospective. The park itself is impressive; a huge diversity of sculptures not least of which are several of Henry Moore large brass works. It boasts 5 indoor galleries and a sprawling collection interspersed with sheep, woodland, lakes, and on this past Easter weekend, one of the biggest crowds yet seen.  

Hanging TwigsGoldsworthy’s works fill 4 indoor spaces and many sites outdoors. What is most striking to me is his integration with natural elements, and his sense of stewardship-cooperation rather than dominion-conquest over nature. There is a notable absence of synthetic materials, and his list of tools is mostly low tech, (with the exception of the camera used to capture his ideas) – a trowel for stone, a saw for wood. Indoors, which is not his preferred space; I enjoyed his hanging twigs – thousands of twigs suspended from a high ceiling and held together only with thorns, to make a web like net. A similar piece is shown here. 

In his “walls”, clay is allowed to dry, cracking into fabulous patterns, none of which he has excersised any control over. With the passage of time and natural decay being such a key aspect of his milieu, these sculptures will not last forever, and perhaps not even for the duration of the exhibit (Jan 2008). Sheep hoofs

The largest gallery, the Longside, holds large scale canvasses which were laid underneath a sheep feed. The muddy hoof markings (right) are those of the sheep jockeying for a place at the feeding bin. It makes so much more sense to me than ego-centric Abstract Impressionism, although the outcome is somewhat similar. And they smell quite different to Jackson Pollock too.    

Hanging TreesGoldsworthy works with rather than in opposition to the forces which shape the landscape. An example of this is his series called hanging trees, 3 felled yet intact tree trunks and boughs, embedded in pits of
Yorkshire stone which typifies the area, which form part of the boundary fence of the park.
His “outclosure”, a high circular wall around a pit, subverts the traditional notions of “My Property” or “My View”.  

I was quite prepared to fork out 35 pounds for his beautiful book Time, where the real essence of his vision – the creativity inherent in natural processes, is made clear with extracts from several diaries in which he simply journals his thoughts and responses to the world around him, without the philosophical baggage which typifies most contemporary sculpture and installation. 

For me, Goldsworthy is a prophetic voice whose low-ego vision of the Natural order is as magnificent as that order itself, for it is simply showing us the splendor of what is, rather than dominating, abstracting or attempting to own or control the world.

Bramble

 

Being hit on the head with a pulpit.

Courtesy ShipOfFools.com

Paraphrasing an encounter over the weekend, between me in the back row and one behind a pulpit.

Pulpit – “Those who are seeking a place for their gifts need to submit to Eldership.”
Me – “Yes, I agree that discipleship is very important, but feel that the church easily  misunderstands creative people. Don’t you think that there are problems with the way the church does not reach those with creative gifting?”
“No, I think people need to learn the costly sacrifice of submitting.”
“I speak for all the marginalised, and say the church has a problem with unconditional  acceptance.”
“No, the people with the gifts have the problem.”
(Woman in front row jumps up, turns and practically spits this scripture at me:
Proverbs 18:16 says A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.”

Implication: standing up for the artist is siding with rebellion and selfishness.
Realising the “conversation” has run its course, I withdraw.

I now realise, too late, what the next verse says:
17 The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.

People are afraid,
afraid of silence,
afraid of asking questions,
afraid of their own demons,
afraid of trusting the unknown,
afraid of not being in submission to authority,
afraid of not justifying everything by bible verse,
afraid of the creative.

Afraid of being seen to be afraid, which makes for contradiction.
Afraid of being seen to be contradictory, which results in wrong reasoning.
Afraid of wrong reasoning, which leads to hypocrisy.
Afraid of being hypocritical, which makes for a closed set of truths the outside of which is banishment.

Banishing and not integrating, not circulating as is natural.
Buildup of toxins which are never flushed out by truth.
Toxins which kill, kill enthusiasm, “Godwithinness”, and ultimately, are killing G-d.

Longing and Craving

In arabia it was ... by BidWiya, Dubai

My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning. – Psalm 130:6

Can’t get no, (da da daaa), Satisfaction … – Mick Jagger 

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what was promised – Hebrews 11:39

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope. – Reinhold Niebuhr

It’s a universal human feeling to experience lack. Need, hunger, fullfillment, emptiness, desire; these are the drivers which push life onwards. Whether it is a basic drive like hunger, the persistent emotional pull of needing affirmation, the gnawing of unrequited love, or a lifelong vision for a noble truth such as justice, our lives are shaped by what draws us onwards.

What is the “opposite” of life: is it lack? Most people seem to think so. The prevailing view, at lest that perpetrated by the media and the commercial interests it represents, is that in order to experience “life” you need more. More things, more money, more time, more choice. Craving is specifically created by the materialist establishment.

This is largely via sexual desire, as a world weary Joni Mitchell remarked “Sex sells everything, sex kills”. However to target sexuality as the problem will miss the fact that it is part of an overarching materialist “purpose”. This is the battle waged by the corporate powers for the hearts and minds of consumers. It offers a vision of power, independence and wealth, together with the illusion of sustainability and immortality. It is the battle for short term profit at any cost, the cost, not least, of the Planet, and also dignity, and ultimately our hearts, for “what does it profit to gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”.

I have been moving towards the view, however, that the real opposite of life might just be the lack of lack. Firstly, too much of anything does not give satisfaction, but satiation. Eating too much of a great meal, for example.

And secondly, if we never experience lack, we will not have the space in which to appreciate what we do have, and to understand our drives so as to make choices that will sustain us. The space created by longing is a very pregnant one.

One of the key things to grasp regarding any lack concerns the “time to fulfillment” of that lack. A rule of thumb here is that the shorter the time to fulfillment, the less appropriate, or worthy, that lack is, to life.

To get to the synonyms proposed at the start, short term lack, we can call craving. And long term lack, longing (or yearning). It is no semantic co-incidence that longing describes the long term.

Unititled by Charlotte Sterling

Examples of craving are drink, and food. Other examples include a variety of addictions: alcohol, sex, drugs, television. It is obvious that the cycle between need and fulfillment is short, only a number of hours in some cases.

A satiated society does not yearn, it craves. Over stimulation, over consumption drive out the space inhabited by Spirit.

In Maslow’s well known “Triangle of Needs”, he describes a continuum from the more basic Deficiency needs: Physiological (water, air, food), then Safety (security, health), then Love/Belonging (friendship, intimacy, family), then Esteem (respect and self respect); through to the Growth needs; Self-actualization (the instinctual need of humans to make the most of their unique abilities and to strive to be the best they can be) and Self-Transcendence (Spiritual).

What is clear from this analysis is that the “lower”, or deficiency needs, can be filled quickly, and will appear again just as quickly. The “higher” needs can go unnoticed for most of our lives, and can take our lives to fulfill.

What of longing? Without getting technical by setting up some sort of rule about where craving stops and longing begins, let us rather observe that the longest longing extends beyond death, bringing us into the realm of the eternal. Obviously other longings are intermediate, the dream to start a business, start a family, take on a big project. Maybe they concern becoming a certain type of person, generous, wise, loving, for example.

A long term drive does not however automatically sanctify that drive. Deep feelings of revenge can swallow up ones whole life, and even be passed down from generation to generation. Institutionalized customs are often tied in closely with religion and tribe. Ongoing enmity between Shias and Sunnis, Catholics and Protestants, Hutu and Tutsi, lead to very deep wounds which are near impossible to extricate. These toxic traditions are possibly harder to escape than any short term addiction.

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