Sunday, 26 October 2014

My spirituality doesn't fit

It frustrates me, sometimes, that there seems to be forms of spirituality that are considered "acceptable". In particular, the forms that involve being quiet or silent, often in the countryside - or at least, separated from the business of life outside. It is a monastic sort of spirituality.

I should point out that I fully accept that for many people, this is a way in which they can engage with God, grow and develop themselves spiritually. I have no argument that, for some people, this is really empowering and nurturing. I really hope that they find the places that enable them to commune with God.

Its just that I find such times drive me to distraction. I was on a silent retreat as I was training to be a reader, and I find it did my head in - I had to find the places to talk, to read, to engage with others to help me absorb the material we were being led in.

"Ah you are a classic extrovert then!" Well, actually, no. When I did MBTI tests, I normally came out as Introvert, although I was very close to the middle on most indicators, including the I/E one*. In fact, I do appreciate times alone, without other people around me. In no way would anyone who knows me call me a "classic Extrovert" - I have met @changingworship, and there is a classic extrovert.

I did, for a while, find real strength in times of meditation that were not "silent" but were "wordless" - I deliberately eliminated all words from my environment, and would quietly meditate - eventually driving the words out on my mind too. It was very powerful (and worth a try, if you struggle with silence), but not silent. The sounds around me were part of the meditation, and there was nothing to stop me coughing or drumming my fingers. There was something to stop me reading a paper, which I have known someone to do on a silent retreat. And yes, it helped. It is remarkably hard to avoid words, but also very helpful - and can give us an insight into what it must be like if you cannot read.

But for me, I don't find God in this escapism - which it is, but not meant in a completely dismissive way - I find God in other people, in the hustle and bustle of life. In fact, at the time I did the silent retreat, I was far happier to return to work in The City (London), where I found it much easier to experience and engage with God. In fact, I did get angry, because, I argued, if I cannot find God in daily life - if I have to escape to the country to find God - what is the point? I cannot often escape away, but I need a God who is there and present in my working day, wherever that is. I need a God I can recognise in a city street, not just in a country retreat. I need a God I can recognise and engage with watching television, not just being silent and "spiritual".

So my spirituality does not fit in. I have had a sense from the church that if I want to be "properly spiritual", then I need to meet God in silence. I have also had a sense from other churches that to be properly spiritual, I need to meet with God at New Wine - an evangelical version of the monastic retreat.

These days, it bothers me less that I don't fit. As I am writing this, I am listening to Opeth - a death-metal-turned-prog-rock band. For me, that is part of how I engage with God, how I enable my f*cked up self to reach with the ultimate perfection of the numinous, how I am able to see that God is so much more involved in everything that I can imagine.

Somewhere in that, the fact that I - exactly as I am, messed up, broken and dying - can touch the divine blows my mind.

* In case you are interested, INFJ. I am borderline on I,F and J, and totally and completely off the scale on N.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Emotions Conference review

On October 11th this year, I went to the Emotions conference, hosted by Premier Mind and Spirit. I think there are some important reflections on this that are worth making.

Firstly, I did find that the theological position reflected throughout the day was most definitely not one that suited me. from the worship in the morning (which, of course, meant music and singing) through the format of the day (lectures or talks, not workshops, which would have been very productive), through the positivity about the church and Christian faith that came across - I will mention this again later.

But I can cut through this, and find some positives in the day. Not all of the talks resonated with me, but that is pretty much what I might expect - I have some areas of interest and others that are not for me. Of course, that is why workshops, where I could choose the areas that interest me, would suit me better. But there were some very good, very engaging talks.

One of the best talks for me was Will van der Hart, talking about "perfectionism". It was summed up by the comment that perfectionism is not about excellence, and it is not a positive in any circumstances. In fact, it is about constant dissatisfaction with everything - because nothing is "perfect", and even if we spiritualise it, we are aiming at something impossible. The dissatisfaction at the present is not spiritual, it is psychotic, and it is dangerous, because perfectionists can never be satisfied with the good. Never mind the bad, which covers everyone.

The best part of the day for me was one of the stars of the mental health and faith world, Katherine Welby-Roberts. She talked about the problems she has with her faith and her illness, and how they do not always live in harmony with each other. She always has an honesty and openness about her, not sugar coating the problems, but also being honest about her journey. She remained positive, and it was clear that her illness, while impacting her life all the time, does not mean that she is miserable and gloomy - she is cheerful and smiling, and that shone through more than anything.

There is one more message that I remember, that is significant. It actually relates to my current earworm/favorite song, which is Ripples by Genesis. the message of the song is that you cannot change your past, you just have to live with it, like ripples in the water, you have had your impact, and have to live with it and move on.

Jonathan Clark was talking about worry, and made a similar point, that if we worry about things in the past, we cannot change them, so our worry is pointless. He made more points, but this one stood out for me - he explained how worrying is rarely productive. He also discussed a worry box, where you write anything you want to worry about on a piece of paper and put it in the box. One day a week, you take the pieces of paper out and can then worry about them. What he found was that, most of them, he no longer needed to worry about.

So there was some good material from the day, and it was useful. I did, however, feel that one vital area was missed, which is how to deal with situations where the church, or other Christians, are the ones exacerbating your mental illness. That is, where your faith (or the expression of it) was making your mental health worse. I am aware that there are many churches where those with mental health problems are welcomed and find a helpful community to work out their faith in. However there are also very many people with mental health issues for whom the church (in whatever form) is an abusive and dangerous place. Now, in truth, I would not expect a conference with this particular theological bent to be addressing this matter - the acknowledgement of it seems to be seen as a challenge to their core theology. But as Mind and Spirit is the only organisation I know of looking at faith and mental health together, this means that one of the issues I hear of again and again is swept under the carpet, and ignored.

So that is my sadness and disappointment. What was there was good, but there were gaps, blind spots, and it seems that these are the same blind spots I see so often. So where is the place that these topics - the ones that will disturb people - can be discussed?

Friday, 10 October 2014


The worst system of government possible, except for all of the other ones that have been tried - according to Winston Churchill. I am not sure I entirely agree.

Of course, democracy is the touchstone for Western imperialism across the world, the establishment of a "democratically elected government" being the indication of an acceptable, reasonable and stable regime. Which is why the west like to deal with non-democratic regimes across the world, because they are far more corruptible.

The problem is that in the UK - and the US, although I understand their system very little, so I will not comment on it - we do not have a democratic system. The other problem is that I am not convinced that rule by committee is actually the best solution.

So why do I say that the UK is not democratic, given that we are often seen as the heart of modern democracy? The problem is, we have a FPTP voting system, which means that a government can govern without the majority of the population having voted for them (in fact, it is possible to form a government without the majority of the voters having voted for them). It means that targeting can make a difference, because not every vote is worth the same.

It means that if I vote and my selected candidate does not get the most votes, my votes are irrelevant, they are not being represented. Even if my chosen candidate does get elected, if their party does not get the most MPs, my vote will not count in terms of government. Of course, all of the parties are aware of this, and so they manipulate their resources towards achieving target constituencies, towards those few votes that can make a difference.

The other reason that we are not democratic is that for true democracy - for everyone to have their say - there needs to be a wide spread of representative views. At the moment, we don't have this - the two main parties are both right wing (or centre right I would concede for Labour). Because of the FPTP system, the minor parties do not have a chance of power, meaning that those of us who are of a socialist leaning do not have anyone to vote for. I do support the Green party, who are (in my opinion) the only viable socialist choice, but the systems we have - the undemocratic systems - mean that my views - and the many others who support the Greens - cannot get our views represented.

If my views are not represented - and the 7% or so of others who support the Greens - then we are not democratic. It is not that my views are not represented (if I hold very radical views, it might be that they shouldn't be represented) - it is that the many who share my views do not have representation. If these are shared by a significant proportion of the population - and 7% is a significant proportion - they should be represented.

As I am writing this, UKIP have just achieved their first MP. This is being hailed as a significant achievement by them, and the media is full of this. It was significant that when the Greens achieved their first MP at the last general election (general elections are harder than by-elections), there was nothing like the same media coverage. This is not a gripe about media coverage of the Greens, it is a reflection of the piteous state of democracy today, where MP can win elections because of media manipulation and the personable nature of Nigel Farage (and likewise with David Cameron, but not Ed Milliband). That is the problem with the form of democracy we have today.

But why do I argue that "democracy" might not be the best solution? That seems like a very radical position to take. The thing is, the nature of the democracy we have means that those elected can enjoy their time in power, and not actually have to take responsibility for whether they do a good job or not. It is more about how the party does nationally, what the resources that are put into the constituency is and a whole lot of other causes that have little to do with how well they do.

I want to question whether a benign dictatorship might not be a better option. Now this is quite shocking, because "dictatorship" is a bad word. In truth, most of the dictatorships we ever hear about (in fact, most of them whether we hear about them or not) are not that benign, and when they have complete power, but are not answerable to their people, they can be (and usually are) very dangerous. In truth, a single person in power, is liable to be corrupted. Of course, our MPs are liable to be corrupted, and have shown themselves to be corrupt in many cases.

But this sort of absolute dictator, imposing their own views on the people, is not what I have in mind. It is someone who has the power to put into place their policies, but who also has to take responsibility for them, because they will be in power long enough to have to deal with any problems caused by their decisions. They should be working for the good of their people - all of their people. They should be paid well enough, and not be allowed to take any other job, either while in power or after. Their term should be long, but not unlimited, and their successor should be elected (democratically!) without them having any involvement in this.

OK,. this is not a full or perfect system. How you ensure that they remain benign? How you manage abuse of power - if they are responsible to a group, how do you appoint the group? And keep them accountable? In fact, the truth is, there might be a better option. But I do think that we need to have this discussion, because at the moment, our version of democracy is not working. I can envision a benign dictatorship that would be better, and the UKIP victory makes me even more convinced that out current system does not work.

In the end, the cradle of democracy is behaving more like a teenager. And it is not pretty. In fact, it stinks like a teenagers bedroom.

Monday, 6 October 2014

My holiday

I have had an "interesting" holiday this year. We went to Cornwall, not least, to offer support to a community that was hit appalling by the winter storms last year, and to prove that it was still open and as beautiful as always.

We had, however, a few problems. We had 5 of us and our dog - the dog seemed to survive unscathed this year, which is a change from some years. All the rest of us were struck by an unpleasant gut bug, one at a time, although I did survive until we returned home. One member of the party managed to be ill 3 times. We lost - and found - one phone, missed one train, exploded one computer tablet.

On the plus side, some of us at least visited St Mawes and Pendennis castles, which are fascinating historical places, with a history reaching right up to the 1950s. We visited the Eden project (again), and it is wonderful to see how it has grown and developed, and it is still a fascinating place.

We went to the most southerly cafe in Britain, and saw a steampunk, all-female version of Dracula at the amazing Minack theatre, which is both - and for the same reasons - the most ridiculous and most superb location for a theatre.

The question is, which of these is the right perspective on our holiday? As a natural pessimist, I tend to look at the bad side, except this time, I don't. I view it as an enjoyable holiday, with a few problems.

Now I would admit that, when I had my head down a toilet bowl expelling what was left in my guts shortly after I had been pooping water down there, I was not looking at things in a positive light. At that point, it was pretty rubbish. But that was not the whole picture - the negative aspects don't rule out the positives. Of course, the positives don't negate the negatives either - the holiday was a good one, but with problems.

So often, especially within religious groups, we like to look at the good or the bad, rather more exclusively. There is a tendency to see world events in a negative light, even when that is not the only way to see them. there is a tendency to see spiritual matters in a positive light, even when that is not the only way to see them.

But everything is both good and bad. nothing is simple black and white. It was not a relaxing holiday, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to write. But to focus on the negatives is to miss the wonder of the place we were in. As so often, to focus on the downsides is to miss the wonder, to miss the real delights of the situation.

So as a person that finds it very easy to see the negative, the downside, I was surprised at my own experience in seeing it positively. But it made me think how easily we see the negative - especially religious people. There is a tendency to see the ideal, the image we are given of perfection, as "acceptable", and anything that falls short of this as "unacceptable", or at least "in need of redemption" (a subtle phrase that indicates "unacceptable, but I quite like it").

The truth, as I see it, is that nothing is perfect, but similarly nothing is without redeeming features. The world we live in is broken, damaged, imperfect, but we have to live in it, see the good, and work for more good. We need to see where God is working in the world. So it was a good holiday. We saw some of the beautiful Cornish sights, we chilled and relaxed. I make a choice to focus on that, because that was also true.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

What if I am wrong?

As someone who questions my faith and the systems around it, and challenges others on it, there is one question that I must continually ask:

What if I am wrong? What if some of those I criticise are right?

I should point out that I fully accept the possibility that I might be wrong on some matters. In fact, I would state categorically that I am wrong on some matters that I believe, some aspects of my faith. The problem is, I don't at this point know which.

The question is more poignant is I turn it round and ask, what if others are right? What if some of those I criticise are right, and hearing the word of God, and I have got it wrong? I have to consider that possibility, and I want to in two specific contexts.

Firstly, what if groups like WBC are right, and they are the only ones hearing Gods work for the nation and the world correctly? It doesn't need to be them specifically, there are plenty of other similar groups, but I will take Westboro as a particularly extreme example.

My response there is that if they are right about the nature of God, then I don't want to know their God. An eternity separated from a God like theirs seems like a far more pleasant experience than an eternity in his presence. If they are correct, then I am condemned to hell for all eternity, and that is life, but I will have done more to help and support other people in this life, more to help others see some form of light that WBC ever will. It may be wrong, but I would rather live a life outside their particular version of salvation. My life, and that of those I encounter will be better than the life of those within WBC, and I am content that I will therefore have made a positive difference to people.

A God who is in the image of the WBC crowd is not one I would give half a minute to. If he is real, then a capricious God like that doesn't deserve me. There is nothing I could do to earn salvation under a God that vile, hate-filled and dualism (in the sense of rejecting the physical world in favor of the spiritual). That is not a God I could worship, so I will not. If they are right - and this applies to a wide range of hate-filled forms of Christianity - then I am not interested.

The second question is, what if the churches I have rejected are right, that I should not bother my head about stuff, just sit in the congregation and be a good boy? This could be the right answer for me, and my rebellion in leaving the church is wrong, is going against Gods will.I find this a more difficult problem to consider, because I cannot simply dismiss them in the same way. I have been part of those congregations, and so cannot simply argue that their presentation of Christianity is anathema to me. It isn't - theologically, I find a lot of common ground.

And yet the same concept does influence me. The thing is, a church group where someone with my skills and experience cannot find a proper place is one that is broken. I would accept that I am not the easiest person to work with - but then the church is full of "challenging" people. I have found places in churches before, so I can be fitted in. So if I cannot be fitted in, maybe there is something wrong with the church?

I think I come to the conclusion that if a church congregation cannot find the right place for me, then it is not the right group for me. I don't think I believe in a God who wants troublesome people like me to conform. So, in the end, if I am wrong in this, and their God would have me sit in quiet acceptance, then I think I would have problems with that God.

The difference here is that I don't think they believe in this sort of God. I think, in the end, it is just that I don't fit, that I cannot find spiritual fulfillment in this sort of organisation.

So what if I am wrong? It is quite possible, and I should accept that, but if God is one for whom my wrongness is a problem, or if God is of the sort that insists on my being in a church congregation or believing the hatred of the fundamentalists, then this sort of rigid, conformist God is not one that I can accept is the creator of the universe, the maker of the wonder and beauty that I see around me.

That is not a God I could worship.