Sounding the Divine

– a sequence of theological poems and reflections

Philosophical

And where do we start? Perhaps, like Barth, with the thundering Word of God; perhaps, like Bultmann, with my personal existential experience; perhaps with a Marxist analysis of injustice. But I think we must start with questions and wonder – why are things the way they are? How did everything come into being? It is not a matter of answering these questions, but they might cause us to stop and think, to stop pursuing the restless hunger of our desires, to begin to confront the perplexities of existence; not as an intellectual exercise but with everything that we are – soul and spirit, mind and body. It is here that theology and poetry embrace – I wonder what the child of their intercourse will be?

Things

Yes, phenomena can be counted

can be described and analyzed

and felt in the magic of thoughts and words and touch

 

But lingering still

like, perhaps, grandma's perfume in her widowed room

is that uncertain question

 

Why?

Why things?

Why things and not just nothing?

God

Traditionally these questions have led us towards God and this is still the case in many parts of the world, but nowadays in the West we often, perhaps normally, treat God as ‘a hypothesis I do not require’. That is we consider God to be something which might restrict my personal freedom and therefore an idea which is best marginalized, stigmatized or even entirely obliterated. In the meantime God and those who take God seriously are useful scapegoats for all the problems of the world ‘we are not the cause of our own suffering but God and all ideas about God’. This is lyrically expressed in John Lennon’s anthem to hopeless naivety ‘Imagine’. Despite this contemporary suspicion, I still find myself returning to God as the best foundation for human life, for in this way I can take responsibility for my own failures and inadequacies (or if you like sinfulness) and still have hope that there is a better way, and that life is ultimately meaningful and worth living. It does not seem to me possible to acquire absolute certainty in these matters, but we can, perhaps, acquire some wisdom and learn a way of life which utilizes scientific insights but also values the deep history of humanity and our own lived experience of daily life. In this way we might be able to walk towards the virtues of goodness, beauty, love and truth even while not always remaining within their gracious ambience.

 

In these meditations I seek to put into words my own sense of God. As someone who seeks to be a Christian and walk in the way of Jesus, the Christian tradition naturally underlies everything which I give voice to here, but I also write instinctively and explore my understanding of the God who enables me to find life beautiful and meaningful. The underlying Christianity is perhaps most obviously expressed in the movement towards love as expressing the fundamental nature of God; in the Christian tradition and in my own experience God can only be meaningfully encountered through and in love. The meditation on God in mystery and wonder must, therefore, move towards a Christian outworking of a life lived in love, for this is the hope and purpose of the life God created.

God is

God is the beginning before the beginning

the end of all endings

the source of being and life and love

 

Out of nothing something burst into being

out of being life evolved

and the purpose of life is to learn how to love

 

The mystery is why loving is so hard

why we turn to death so quickly

in order to solve the paradoxes of love

 

But love, true, earthy love cannot flourish

without a life which is evolving

without a being which is birthed in freedom

 

And therefore love is God’s final gift

for the one who freely began the beginning

must be the one to consummate the ending

 

in the gentle explosion of love

The Nature of God

From this visceral, intuitive sense grounded in the Christian tradition I find myself contemplating the nature of God and the words we use to describe God. These are necessarily metaphorical and allegorical but I think as we push and explore them we can gain some useful insight into the nature of the God whom we are seeking and reaching towards. In particular we encounter the extraordinary insight of Christianity that God is Trinity, that God is relationship: a relationship within God, a relationship with us and a relationship with the whole universe of creation.

Trinity

God

the Creator

who has been known as Father

or better Fatherly-Mother

 

Imagined everything into being

or, if you like, hammered it into existence

or birthed

or caused it to evolve

 

but

(and this is the thing)

not alone

There was the Son who, perhaps, danced

and there was the Spirit who, perhaps, sang

and the Relationship

imagined everything into being

 

I find this understanding of God as Trinity essentially simple. It is not an abstruse calculation by academics, but a simple and deep insight into the fundamental nature of things and I have found myself experiencing it simply and profoundly in the natural world and the ordinary passing of life.

Trinity (drinking up the sun)

I was sitting on the hot rocks

Down by the Mediterranean

Drinking up the Sun

Like Life itself.

 

Beauty all about me:

Sea such a blaze of blue

The island shimmmering like dreams

And no one near me, no one

 

All around just Trinity

God in total unity

Spirit in blue sky

Beneath Creator

And Jesus, just silent - everywhere

 

Down by the hot rocks

Near the blazing sea

Drinking up the Sun

Like Holy Communion Wine.

 

And perhaps we need to keep exploring our images and pictures of God – to push beyond the conventional, to retrieve the forgotten and reimagine God in the images which resonate in new ways within our longing hearts

The God-Mother

If God is not our mother

how can we be born again?

How can we be 'born of the Spirit'

if we do not enter into the womb of the Spirit

if we do not emerge,

screaming,

out of our God-mother

into the dangerous world?

And if we do not feed at the breast

of our God-mother

how are we to be nurtured?

Are we to drink some artificial milk

concocted by men?

Or are we to slurp greedily at the divine breast

huge and brimming with the spiritual milk:

growing healthy and strong

into the men and women

we were born to be?

Encountering God

It is a commonplace of anti-theist discourse that religion and ideas of God are human creations. I find this quite a helpful idea and have little doubt that all our religions are essentially created by men (and it normally is men) for their own purposes. But I do not see this as a negative thing, for my experience is that for all the failures and disappointments of religions they do have the capacity to take us into interesting and necessary places, to be, as it were, a ladder up to heaven or a mine into the treasures of the spirit. That is we reach towards God: lifting up our heads, peering into the deepest ground of our being, stretching out our hands to our brothers and sisters, breathing the sweet air of creation – and it is in doing this that we open ourselves up to the God who is coming towards us with welcoming arms and fiery love. Religion might be an unsatisfactory and sometimes difficult and distasteful thing, but it also puts us in a place where we can encounter God and so reach out into the full possibilities of our humanity

Theology

We make God

Construct a useful being stronger than ourselves

But subject to our prayers and sacrifices

 

Who needs us

To feed and water his theocratic majesty

Or, perhaps, her maternal generosity

 

Until the Prophet,

Our child, nurtured by our ritual

Fed at the shrine of our superstition

 

Guesses the more-than-God

Not just my provincial enforcer

But the beginning-beginning, the beyond-beyond

 

Who remakes my religion

Turns it against me

Makes me question the greed by which we created God

 

Seeing

That if God is good and,

Strange, but electrifying thought, loving

 

Then everything changes.

I touch not my God

But the unimaginable Divine

 

The not-God

The yes-God

The irresistible for which my greed yearned

 

And I find life

The thought beyond thought

The feeling behind feeling

 

As it was once said

I discover the image

In which I was made.

 

 

Or, perhaps, to put it more simply

Stories

We create healing stories

stories of hope

stories of faith

stories of love

Stories which mean

that the world can be known

that there is sense

that love persists

And in the pattern that emerges

in the colours woven

in the lives drawn

discover the great Surprise

that we call

God.

Jesus

For me the question of God always comes back to Jesus. In fact it might have been better to have started this meditation with Jesus rather than more abstruse ideas and feelings, this is certainly where my theology began and became alive. In fact my observation is that a belief or interest in God seldom makes much difference to a person’s life unless it is rooted in an encounter with Jesus or some other coherent religious tradition. Not that Jesus is easy. Despite repeated attempts I have never been able to establish a fixed picture of Jesus in my mind. On first reading the Gospel accounts seem straightforward enough, but the more I read them the more difficult it seems to either picture the character of Jesus or fit him into any particular box whether that be contemplative mystic, revolutionary prophet or eschatological preacher. Nonetheless Jesus is always intriguing and often compelling and if I want to make sense of God or my life I always find myself drawn towards Jesus.

 

doing God

You can do God

uncreated

impassable

all-knowing

or the process in the world

nurturing

creative

fecund

But, in practice, it is better to start with Joshua ben Joseph, better known as Jesus, being

practical

earthy

a human being

who builds a scaffold

to Eternity

 

That is, it is in Jesus that the idea of God begins to make sense for it takes shape as something we can understand – a human being. And this human being takes our most cherished ideas and convictions and reconstructs them into a new vision of what it means to be human

Peace

I did not want peace

for my body wept tears of justice

longing for the wrongs righted

and the meek made strong

 

I did not want peace

I chafed at the cosy contented harness

longing for the sparkling eye of freedom

and the adventure of the turbulent way

 

I did not want peace

having no need for the easy grace

of a gospel which made no demands

as it smoothed my way to heaven

 

But then I saw the tiny infant

and the stamp of his petulant foot,

the eye sparkling with danger

and the long climb to the terrible cross

 

And knew at last the whisper of peace

in my soul, troubled and stormy

Narrating the Passion

So in seeking God I am suggesting that we look towards Jesus, and in the search for a spiritual path I suggest we might explore walking the Way of Jesus. It is the whole teaching and life of Jesus that is important and I believe that official western Christianity has tended to underplay the life of Jesus in its concentration on his crucifixion. And yet I find myself drawn time and again back to the visceral reality of the cross, for as I contemplate it I find myself drawn into an encounter with God – a God whose love is so intense that it needed to be expressed in the flesh of a human body which knew defeat, failure and death

Religion

We realized that there must be a God

That was as clear as sunlight

But God's nature?

But God's name?

But God's gender?

That required construction

And it was found to be useful

Could justify merciless acquisition

Could keep women and children and the lower classes in their place

Could build temples touched with genius

It was all very convenient

Until that God

Artfully constructed

Manicured and idolized

Broke loose and became before our startled eyes

A baby

A child

A human being

Practicing mercy

Distributing grace

Prophesying universal equality

 

Crucifixion was the only answer

 

The crucifixion is, however, not the sole centre of Christianity although Western Christianity has typically constructed its theology in this way. It is not the crucifixion which builds a bridge between humanity and God but the whole life of Jesus that restores creation and unifies the universe

Burial

There was a kindness in the death

After anguish, gentleness

After insult, respect

And placed in a stone tomb:

No pauper's grave, no pit

Only the sweet smells of the garden,

The serenading of bird song.

Yes, in the end, beauty led him to rest

Love wrapped him

Peace bound him

As the tomb swallowed her brief guest

 

That is the crucifixion of Jesus leads into the resurrection. The cruel historical reality of legalized murder by torture leads into the event which entirely changes history. For the resurrection is not just something which might or might not have happened as, for instance, Caesar crossing the Rubicon or the murder of Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian plot but something which changed the nature of reality. No longer is history sliding into inevitable disintegration and disappointment, but it suggests that beyond unavoidable death there is a new life waiting to be born; that there really is hope and that this is a hope which can transform the way we live today

Fear

They had locked the door

A small boy had been posted look-out in the street below

James had fitted two heavy bolts to the thick door:

It might give a few extra minutes when the soldiers called

 

Finally an escape route had been planned:

out of the back window

across the roof of the baker’s

down into the crush of the swirling streets...

 

Many reasonable precautions had been taken

 

But it proved inadequate to in anyway

hinder the arrival of the Lord of Glory

 

However he came gently

 

In a crippled body

With the merest breath of wind

And with peace on his lips

 

For the strange events recorded in the final chapters of the Gospels change everything and make everything much more uncertain. Previously life was a grim but predictable struggle against the reality of death which might be passingly enjoyable but ultimately rather meaningless. The resurrection introduces a new imagination into the world, an imagination which if we embrace it can fill life with joy and wonder

Resurrection

They tried to kill him

suffocate him under scorn

terrorize with scathing words

mock with scandal and derision

crucify

nail

and torture him

but

he would not die

he could not die

or rather died

(buried lifeless in the scarred earth)

and

rose

rebirthed

resurrected

resurrected in flesh

resurrected in lives of loyal friends

resurrected in the imagination of a worried world

 

The story of Jesus’s passion is unsettling. Not everyone, having heard the story, embraces the joy and possibility which it unleashes but the whole world has been unsettled by the appearance of this new imagination which suggests that everything is not as it seems to be

The Leafy Cross

Why is the cross leafy?

Why does out of death, life spring?

Why does the path of wisdom always lie through suffering?

 

Why is the way rocky?

The path steep?

The mountain top radiant with the sunlight and the grass scattered with the miraculous flowers?

 

Why is this the way life is?

And not the ideal city

The beautiful equation

The perfect sphere

Why has it emerged out of the rocks with squirmings and turnings and multiplicity and everything unlikely?

 

Why is the cross leafy?

Why the raising terrible and full of fear? 

Jesus in context

Perhaps it is the very mysteriousness of the life of Jesus that leads me to want to find Jesus in the particularity of whatever context in which I happen to find myself. In these two poems I seek to imagine Jesus in two very different contexts – first that of the urban London where I lived for 25 years and secondly that of the Sussex Downlands in which are to be found my family’s roots.

Urban Christ

I follow

but it is hard to keep the track

Round corners

Down alleys

Always in the most unlikely parts of town

 

On the hills it is easier

I can see him from miles around

 

But here it is always glimpses in the crowd

Decisions at crossroads

Sight lines obscured by buildings

and encroaching buses

 

I follow the Urban Christ

but to the CCTV he is invisible

and of traffic lights he takes no notice

 

But he is at home here

Knows all the one-way streets and dead ends

He is quick as a cat, sharp as light

 

and if I am to follow

I must be patient

waiting

with eyes lit and ears trimmed

Jesus of the Downland

A shabby man walks over the brow of the hill

Stopping briefly, he looks for a moment like a scarecrow, stretched against the sky

Then he strides off into the dark woods

 

People say he used to come here often,

Was a woodsman, hard as iron, but gentle with the children

Used to preach in the old chapel before it was converted

 

Then he took to shambling into the back row of Holy Communion

Silent but neat as a pin.

I met him once, hat pulled down in the wind,

 

He talked to me of the woodcraft,

How they cut a stand and coppiced the young trees;

His hands gnarly and grained, but smile bright and I felt warm in the glow of the old wisdom

 

He was a shepherd too, they said, up on the hill with the sweet grass

Lived in a hut over the summer, knew all the herbs and the folksongs

Kept the sheep safe, taught the young men all he loved

 

And cared for the living things,

That’s what he did, year on year,

Never used a gun, just knew the way life grew

Christianity

Following Jesus often leads into the embrace of Christianity. This is something many are wary of doing nowadays. The critique of the Enlightenment has cut deep and most people do not want to identify themselves too closely, if at all, with a religion that they associate with conflict, bigotry and old-fashioned attitudes. David Bentley Hart in his engaging Atheist Delusions ably demonstrates some of the inaccuracies of the Enlightenment critique and perhaps the time will come, long after my death, when people will look back on the 20th and 21st centuries with shamefaced amusement at its laughably inaccurate portrayal of Christianity. But in the meantime those of us who value the Christian tradition and know that it is better to be part of something than seek the insipid safety of an individualism which denies any kind of corporate identity, need to find some way of articulating the Christian vision which is not defensive and reactive but is able to engage with the challenges posed by a domineering secular capitalism.

On being a Christian

I believe,

So I am told, in fantastical things:

 

aqua-perambulations

tricks with bags of skin and bones

interruptions in terrestrial logic

 

But I have never tried to believe these things

Never practised on the healing of a mild nervous disorder

Before moving on to the more intractable diseases of leprosy and death

 

Rather I have lived inside the story and found that at every twist and squirm of everyday events

 

the old stories made sense

brought contemporary wisdom

shed a satisfying light, as an old lamp might in a power cut

 

And as to the truth of the fantastical stories and archaic myths

They seem true

But concerning their contribution to scientific history and other such modern fads... who knows?

Discipleship

Christianity takes concrete form in what the Evangelicals call discipleship. Having spent some time in that tradition I find the word remains meaningful for me, it seems to draw me back to Galilee when Jesus called a group of young men (and, in their own way, women) to follow him. Here Christian theology starts to get serious as we try to work out what the amazing, beautiful vision of the Christian hope actually means in practice – in the mess and confusions of ordinary life. This begins in the eternal quest for forgiveness – that is acknowledging the hurt I have done to creation, but still finding a way to carry on the journey of being human

Forgive

Forgive me Holy God

For Love I have forsaken

Save me Holy Love

For God I have forgotten

 

Chosen not Love

but my hurt

Living not free

but in dirt

 

Forgive me Loving One

Remake my crumbled heart

 

But Christianity is not primarily concerned with this sinfulness: the failures and disappointments of life, above all it calls us into the challenges of a life lived for the sake of love

If I loved

If I loved

I would be a different person

I would not live the same life

I would change

Not into something perfect

Not into an angel with wings airy and full of grace

Not into a hero magnificent in tragic power

Not into someone who was never angry or never got tired

No, I would still be a human being

It would still be necessary to sneeze and sleep and have some time off

But I would be different

 

The child living on the streets of Kinshasa

Would not be a distant creature far away in an alien land

No!  She would be right here next to me

She would be my sister

She would be my daughter

Yes.  I would treat her in a very different way

I would not ignore her

          or forget her

          or use money to keep her at a distance

Yes it would be very different if I loved

If I could manage, somehow, to be a truly loving person

If I was consumed by love

If love was the fusion of my entire being

If I was like, for instance, Jesus

 

Then, I would be a very different kind of person

I would change

Maybe, you would not recognise me

Maybe I would appear very, very strange.

Spirituality

I have explored my spirituality previously in The Journey. But in this more prosaic work I also find the need to address the issue of spirituality. Spirituality is a much more contemporary word than theology, religion or discipleship and while some people would want to resist any notion of having a spirituality, for many others it is something which they at least aspire to. It is obvious that if Christianity is going to flourish then it must become a more spiritual religion which is genuinely able to help people develop spiritually and become more mature human beings. There are certainly the resources to do this within the tradition and they have been ably brought together by the likes of Olivier Clement in The Origins of Christian Mysticism and Martin Laird in Into the Silent Land. What is perhaps needed is for churches to become places of spiritual guidance, able to lead people into a transformative encounter with God rather than just trying to get them to assent to Christian doctrines. It is to be hoped that in so doing they do not simply get drawn into Western individualism but are able to create genuinely open communities which can embrace the world and work for the common good.

 

Spirituality must, therefore, be open and questing – seeking beyond the safe parameters of what the human mind can control and reaching inwards and outwards for the love which empowers us

The Outer Edge of God

To touch the outer edge of God

To reach beyond the orbit of our measured thought

and loose a satellite to wander in uncharted space

To lose control and safe restraints

To grope after the uncensored thought which dwells within

To touch the hem of his billowing cloak

and feel the kiss of his words

returning love

This is the healing we seek

in the inner breath of God

 

But this seeking must always return to the ground of life, not floating in a remote spiritual realm but part of the ordinary trudge of life

Life

It must always begin

with Life:

this which I taste

but not with mind control

(understand)

just live, and more,

explore

shape

let go, free

into life and more than life

(what I taste, feel, see)

that is...

Eternity

which shapes time

breathes life

enables it to be

seen clearly

heard

(the God

in the midst of everything)

 

And this seeking is always difficult. We are always missing the divine, mistaking emotion for love, seeing what we want to see rather than what is. Every day we fail to see the God who has come close to us.

The Encounter

If I met God one day;

on the street whilst doing my shopping

or on a park bench

or on the top of a wild Welsh Mountain as the wild winds blew

 

I would like to ask him

(although it might, of course, be a she)

politely,

to sort out the Middle East

and why people enjoy killing so much

and, perhaps,

for some help with a few embarrassing personal problems.

 

But I imagine

if I did bump into him on Chatsworth Road

or find a smelly old man sitting next to me

or feel the strength of the wind on my face

I am not sure I would recognized the Lord of all the Infinite Universes

and so might miss the opportunity

 

It has happened before.

The Church in History

Christian discipleship and spirituality, however, are not an individualistic pursuit. If they are about love then they must involve other people and seek to create what has become known as a Church. Church is, perhaps, even more unpopular than religion and even as Christians we seem to find it increasingly difficult to live happily within the confines of a religious community. The services are too boring. The music is not to my taste. The liturgy is too modern, or too old-fashioned. And, above all, the people are so difficult… and why should I waste my time with these hypocrites and people who do not appreciate me!?! This, of course, is the point: Christian spirituality is only of any value when it helps us love these difficult and annoying people, that is when it draws us out of our solipsistic obsessions and enables us to make a contribution to the flourishing of the earth. The many failures of the church to do this creates an endless amount of ammunition for the criticism of Christianity from Tacitus to Dawkins and we should take notice of this criticism as it can be a valuable source for self reflection, even if it often does seem partial and tendentious. As Christendom dies and the church in the West seeks to find a new way of being we need to find fresh ways of understanding who we are, and listening should be an important part of this. Yet caution is also required. There is a perfectionism in contemporary culture which seeks to distance itself from failure and means we find it easier to criticize than live with the impurity and messiness of human community. The consequence is increasing fragmentation and loneliness where everything is mocked and living together in communities and institutions is increasingly difficult. We should resist criticism that stops us taking the risk of doing church.

Churchgoing

Churchgoing

is a slightly disreputable occupation

nowadays

at least among the people who matter

 

For they are all Cathars, you see

pure and holy

untainted

by the irrational preoccupations of a fleshy faith

 

Eternal comedians

they float above the world

unattached

to anything that might sully them

 

And best of all

they can imagine themselves victims of

persecution

by the spectre of the Inquisition

 

But criticism of the church has a more positive aspect. It can, perhaps, be seen as gradually freeing the church from the embrace of worldly power so that it is more able to be the body of Christ rather than the handmaiden of the state

After Dover Beach

For centuries the Christ followers gave themselves for the world

Offered up the Nazareth man for the sake of earthly Kingdoms

Lumbered faith with the weight of absolute truth,

That there might be something, some ballast

To restrain the royal greed

Limit the kingly ambition

Turn conquering eyes to another heaven.

True they received power

True they received wealth

True they received extravagant respect

But in the Christ-economy

In the mathematics of the beatitudes,

The physics of the cross

These are less than baubles

Not even that,

To receive them is the true gift:

A gift of the very soul

Received, that the world might come to know

The deep centrality of love

The essential freedom of each human person and

The trustworthiness of the universe.

Now that the gift has been given

Gratitude recedes like Arnold’s tide

And the Christ-lovers,

The Jesus friends

Are set free on an open sea, liberated into the wilds of the priceless Spirit.

 

But what might this liberated church look like? I think it would be a mistake, often repeated in Christian history, to earnestly pursue a purified church freed of everything I don’t like. We must always live with a complicated and messy church as much as we must live with a complicated and messy world. Nonetheless it is worthwhile remembering that all true reform of the church whether it comes from the old men who escaped into the desert or contemporary beacons of hope such as the L’Arche communities, emerges when serious people gather together in order to pray and learn how to love. It is this rather than campaigns and schemes and reports where the real theology is done.

Church

Not State

Not Institution

Not Established Church

 

Not Corporations

Not Hierarchies

Not Structures of Command

 

These are not the seedbed of the Spirit

 

They may be necessary

May have some capacity to facilitate

May be better, or worse

 

But the Spirit grows here

 

in silence

in smallness

in prayer

 

That is, in the Communities of the Faithful

 

Who, recovering the ancient wisdom of the desert

here, in the mechanized, cosmopolitan world

doggedly

uncertainly

stumble towards love

Worship

The church is a place to worship. I believe this is health giving: as we look beyond ourselves to the author and the creator we are liberated from solipsism and enabled to embrace the world in a living and vivid way. Surrounded as we are by pain and disappointment we can still experience joy and articulate hope.

Praise Song

And God made known the Name in all the earth

The Name of the Creator

The Name of the Sustainer

The Name of the Beginning and the End

 

And every flower bloomed its praise

And all the Epynt raised its praise

And Irfon gushed its rushing praise

And great was the praise of the swooping Raven

 

And great was the praise of the diving Dipper

And intricate was the praising of the spinning spider

And every creature croaked its praise

And every plant and every rock sang its silent song of praise

 

And man emerging raised his head

And every woman gazed

On the cacophony of praise

And knew in their gut the Nameless Name, the Silent God

 

Who was the Silence behind the praising

Who was the meaning

Who was the feeling

Deep in their belly called Love

 

Who began it

And sang it

And called it into life

And never asked but received the praise

 

For in this way the Earth is whole

Hangs together

Holds

And becomes a home for human life

 

In the praising

In the raising

In the silence

And the heart flung open wide

Bible

The Church and its worship is central to Christianity but so, also, is the Bible and, in contemporary culture it has just as uncertain a reputation. For some people, such as the Welsh poet Menna Elfin, it is a cornerstone of their life, a source of constant comfort and guidance but for others it is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. Many Christians fall between these polarities, liking some parts (typically the New Testament) but avoiding other parts (typically the Old Testament). Personally I’ve always liked the untidy, unruly nature of the Bible – inspiring and terrifying, lucid and confusing, stimulating and boring but always a challenge to any simplistic or antiseptic notions of what it means to be alive. I find Walter Brueggeman’s description of the Hebrew Scriptures as a dominant narrative interlaced with contrary opinions and challenges, very helpful in understanding the nature of the Bible. It seems to me that in a very Jewish way the Bible is constantly arguing with itself, proposing different points of view and demonstrating different perspectives, and any attempt to harmonize these different perspectives into a single, simplistic message is dubious and unhelpful. We really begin to understand the Bible when we can hear its polyphony. These poems are a few of my many meditations on the diversities, perplexities and inspirations of Scripture

I eat the Bible

I eat the Bible

I have done so since childhood

 

It is good fare for eating

Less good for:

          Judicial theology

          Basic science

          or prescribing morals

 

Certainly it inspires theology

indicates basic moral necessities in general terms

and, perhaps, encourages the possibility of science

 

But I prefer regular consumption to intellectual dissection

Finding that this method of digestion

          encourages imagination

          indicates fruitful lines of reflection

          and challenges my flaccid praxis

 

The Bible carries the history of God while the people, the temples, the controversies have passed away. Even the body of Jesus has vanished from the earth but in the words of Scripture lovingly transmitted over time the ancient witness is preserved – although, of course, the exact nature of the preservation is hotly disputed!

Tabernacle

The portable presence of God

will leave no sign of its passing

 

No fossil footprint

No stones for archaeologists to survey

No pillars scorched by the desert wind

There will remain no castle walls

No temple precincts

No foundations for the royal palace

You will search in vain for field systems

Or the undulations of earthworks

Even the shadows of postholes will not remain

 

It has passed on into the stories

into the scraps of papyrus leaves,

The craftsman's work

The beaten gold

Transformed into the breath of words.

Legends will multiply

Myths emerge

and the portable presence of God

will whisper through the centuries.

 

One of the problems with having words rather than concrete institutions and artifacts through which to remember the history of God’s love affair with the world, is that we can over spiritualize and over individualize the message of Scripture. It is necessary to remember that it’s message is not one of merely individual salvation but is rooted in practical economics and politics

Manna – wilderness economics

There was no wealth to be had in it

No accumulation

Even the rich had to scrabble on the ground

With the slave trash.

Money could buy nothing

 

You could pay them to gather for you

But the economics didn't work,

There was no technology of preservation

To pull off Joseph's trick:

Predict the futures and rule the world.

 

Nonetheless the Bible is personal. Many of the most engaging parts of it are the individual stories of people who have had an encounter with God

Parenting

She began the adventure

Opened herself to an unknown future

Said 'yes'

When 'no', or 'wait', or 'let me consider my options'

Would have been the wiser course

 

Sometimes she would have regretted her decision

As others berated her for her youthful folly.

He was so unpredictable this first child of her womb

So unfathomable

So impossible to parent

 

And when the end came

And she watched the final grotesque agonies

She must have thought the adventure a terrible mistake

Wishing that everything could be changed

That time could be transformed

 

And a New Reality born

Love, Grace and Wisdom

My theological meditations now plough more deliberately the furrow of human existence as I seek to earth them in the daily practices of religion. Above all this is about exploring what it means to love, for it seems to me that learning how to love is the real core of theology. In the Christian tradition ‘learning how to love’ is rooted in the experience of grace – that is we love because we are loved by God. This is the all determining reality of the Christian life. Out of this experience of grace and its practical out workings in applied love, it is to be hoped that we might begin to make progress in attaining wisdom, which is perhaps the desire and destination of all true theology.

What We All Need (a poem about love)

A simple love

Keen edged

Warm centred

Unaffected

Without deceit

Not secret

But quietly vibrant

Humble

and Gentle

and Valiant

A love for a world wheezing

and Sneezing

Struggling

For breath

Addicted to death

Looking

Seeking

Peeking

Into every strange corner

For an answer

To questions complex

Heterodox

Perplexing

But needing

Something

Simple

Gentle

Humble

Reasonable

but daring

A love

From above

Reaching below

Low

To the ground

Of our being:

Earth round

but also

Heaven bound

A simple sharp love.

 

But it is easy for love to become abstract and theoretical, as a wit once said “I love everyone, it’s just people I can’t stand”. Theology perhaps comes alive when it enables us to love and appreciate this individual who is standing before me and blocking the path of my freedom

You and I

I am not different from you

You is I in different clothing

but still made of the same flesh

 

You is a fresh expression of I

You is a possibility

A beauty I had not dreamt of

 

You is my brother

You is my sister

The same flesh differently configured

 

You is the hero I could be

The shining star, the angel

The aspiration for holy change

 

You is my fear

The I collapsed, denigrated

Driven to a solitary despair

 

You is the possibility of humanity

A shared strength, a compromise

The one flesh in the many, made ours

 

And always there is something beyond the words. Words become tiresome – as you might well have experienced if you have managed to read this far(!), we need and long for something beyond words

Fertility

I am tired, Lord, of the restless mind

of the quickness of thought

of the impatience of ideas

 

I desire a mind mired in wisdom

soaked in the presence of beauty

swamped by the pattern of love

 

And so I wait in this damp place

where the field unexamined

quickly returns to the bog and the reed bed

 

Hoping that here

in the land of the warm rain

and the running river

 

I might find that fertility

of the land loved

and long prayed for

Ecological themes

But theology also needs to reach out beyond the closed circle of humanity and our personal relationship with God. It needs to embrace the whole earth. These poems are not explicitly environmental, but they are rooted in a sense of the earth and seek to understand humanity in our connection with the earth. They are two of my favourite poems and perhaps it is in such an ecological context that God becomes most vividly alive for me. It is necessary for us to understand the specific arena in which God becomes most vivid for us, but without thereby rejecting other insights or experiences. Thus the idea of Jesus dying for my sins and canceling my debt has never resonated with me, but this doesn’t mean I can’t accept that it is part of the tradition and deeply meaningful for many people, and neither does it mean that I shouldn’t question this theology and enter into dialogue with it. My own instinctive sense of the salvation offered in Christ is more rooted in eastern Orthodox practices of restoring the divine image (theosis), probably because this seems to me a better foundation for an ecological theology in which the whole of creation rather than just the human soul is the arena of salvation.

Assumption Day

Mary's day in deep August

The weather's hot

The skin sticky

The trees dark, heavy green

 

The swallow sky filling with clouds:

Heaven's blue slowly smothered

By the rain-bringers

 

For today Mary will not rise lighter than the air

But the mother will stay with us

Heavy, warm, fruitful

Buried in the dark earth

 

An ecological theology tends to become a sacramental theology – in this we are, perhaps, able to move beyond a wordy theology into something simple but profound, something embodied which reaches deep into our flesh and being

Corpus Christi

Here is the word: Receive

receive this all of you

 

The rain in its wettingness

The sun in its shinyness

The serenading of song thrush

The whirling of wind-rush

The cloud in black and gray

A wet Welsh day

 

Receive this, all of this

 

And flesh of the God-man

and blood of the Christ-man

and grace

and the divine face

and food from above

and extravagant love

 

Receive

and swallow

and ruminate

and contemplate

and digest

 

The divine gift

all black and earthy and raw

all white and holy and light

all gift

all love

 

Receive.

Body and illness

As someone who suffers from chronic pain it has become essential for my theology to be contextualized in my body. This continues my concern for a contextualized theology rooted and earthed in actual human experience, only in this way, it seems to me, are we likely to develop a theology which makes any kind of sense. The tediousness of much theology myopically rooted in academic contexts, but unaware of this and using its cultural dominance to impose itself across the world, needs constant challenging by theologies emerging from the depths and margins of human experience.

 

My theology has become deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers. I find their apparently simple sayings speak deeply into my heart in a way which is much more penetrating than most theologies. My theology is, perhaps, an attempt to recover their insights into the nature of the gospel. In particular I have found the insight into the way in which illness can be a path of holiness especially helpful

Anachoresis

There was no choice

no decision

no conversion

The fleeing from the world

came in my body

with anguish

with angst

with wild anger

It flared in skin hostile and taunt

It groaned in muscles tight and trapped

It came... in weariness

in the world-weariness of weak flesh

and I made the leap

not with a mind clipped and clean

not in a heart faint with fear

but here in the gut-self

body and flesh and eyes-weeping

 

A theology rooted in an experience of illness has the particular benefit of rooting it in life rather than ideas, the body rather than the brilliant delusions of the mind

On Chronic Pain

I offer

without words

without interpretations

without or analysis

my body

to his body

stretched on the cross

 

His body

pierced

broken

remade

in the community of saints and sinners

 

I breathe,

I breathe, drink,

I breathe, drink, swallow

the wine of the Spirit

and follow the narrow way

without explanation or solutions

and without any words

 

To conclude this section, a prayer which I use regularly when reflecting on my experience of chronic illness

Illness

Loving God

I am broken

and I come before you in need of love

that love which would lift me up in your eternal arms

and make everything better

 

but it is not so

sometimes you bring healing

sometimes illness is just a passing storm

but it is not so for me

 

So loving God

I pray for these gifts:

Thankfulness in the midst of sorrow

Openness to healing however it might come, and, in due time,

Release into your loving arms

Death

Finally we must confront death. We can know death in life, if we experience a trauma so deep and profound that it overwhelms life. And it is not always possible to heal this trauma. This, perhaps, is one good reason why Christianity does not limit its perspective to this life, it also sees another horizon which like the sun rising after a long night will eventually rise and smother the darkness with its brightness. This is why martyrs are celebrated, their death is not the last word, things grow out of their apparent defeat. And this is why, living in the hope of the resurrection, we do ultimately look beyond death to the final triumph of life and hope and love. Although life can be dark and overwhelming, it is still possible to hope, if we have faith in this final triumph of God. Many feel this is a foolish belief and that hope is worthless, for them all that remains is endurance and the passionate enjoyment of what life happens to bring our way, but the truth experienced by Christians over the centuries is that hope is not only a comfort in times of trouble but something which transforms life here and now. Something which changes what it means to be human.

Death and the maiden[1]

Melangell in the valley

A winding road

Pheasants litter the way

 

The mountains rise

Tree-spread

Here where the saint lay

 

In holy solitude,

And about her feet

The little hares play

 

She from death

The dog's teeth

The huntsman's knife

 

The little creatures saved

And to their throbbing bodies

Gave life

 

Then she returns

To the silent forest

God's wife

 

I come

To this hidden place

Fringed with pine

 

And hold strong and sore

A hidden death

Which is mine

 

Sweet Melangell

I come, perhaps hopeful

to your shrine

 

We can bring our fear of death and our experience of death in life to God, because we worship a crucified God who knows intimately the taste of death. But the sting of death is drawn because it was a death which was not an end but a beginning

Without the death

Without the death there would be no Pentecost

Without the death there would be no Spirit, filling the lungs with every language known to man

Without the death there would be no Spirit, gently holding us in her mother's arms

 

For without the death there would have been

no garden full of Angels

no gardener speaking the word

no Emmaus and the breaking of bread

no Peter pleading 'Yes Lord, you know that I love you!'

 

Without the death they would be no

Paul writing to Romans

there would be no

Christians thrown to the Lions

there would be no

Constantine and his holy empire

there would be no

Francis and his preaching to birds

there would be no

Luther hammering the door

there would be no

Wilberforce stopping the traffic

there would be no

Revival in backstreet churches

there would be no

King denouncing the racists

there would be no

Church on Powerscroft Road [2]

there would be no

Host

there would be no

Feast

there would be no

Funeral with half a thousand people

 

Without the death we would be alone

There would be no Spirit filling our hearts

There would be no songs filling our lungs

There would be nothing but death and the long loneliness.

Without that death on the cross

Who would we be?

 

That is we are returned once again to the life of Jesus where the crucifixion segues into the unsettling, transforming story of the resurrection. And in following the way of Jesus we incorporate this story into our own biography

Exploring eternity

One day this body will decay

Heart fail

Gut split

Cancer grab with malevolent claws

 

One day this breath will stop

Eyes blind

Tongue still

Disease fill me to the brim

 

But I shall still live

God-filled

Life-brimmed

Raised with the Holy One

Words and poetry

Perhaps theology needs ultimately to come to silence, as it is reported happened to the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas – our words are, after all, entirely inadequate to our theme. And yet for both theology and poetry words are our reason for being, our breath and our life and without them there would be no theology and no poetry. We take the risk of using language. I can find the post-Wittgenstinian obsession with language irritating, as if life was only about the words we use to describe it, but nonetheless it is undoubtedly true that everything we are as human beings is mediated through language. We think in language. We act in language. We live and move and breathe in language, and we would, therefore, do well to use it as well as we can. Ultimately theology and poetry make compatible bedfellows because they are both interested in pushing language to the limits and even, perhaps, in speaking of something beyond the limits of language itself. Here indeed is an exciting adventure.

I Meditate on God

I meditate on God

But not in silence;

in a profusion of words,

a polyfest of syllables,

a chattering of consonants,

a river of rhymes

An articulation of human sounds

Startling to life a sweet downpour of images:

 

God's finger plunging raw into the earth's belly

ripping the wet scar of Tanganyika.

Himalaya shuddering to birth:

squeezed to life from the earth's mud.

Outpourings of rain veining the earth with rivers,

the precious tricklings of life and sparklings of water

 

And I feel her presence wrapping me:

the Spirit's gentle kiss, the Mother's love,

And beside me the strong arm of my Brother:

the presence of my blood-friend

All that should have been

drenched in the rain of heaven

Theologian

pray

being what the theologian

thinks

 

see

being what the theologian

acts

 

sing

being what the theologian

writes

 

when theology becomes poetry

it is liberated from words;

when poetry becomes theology

it is, at last, translucent

 

Finally…

A Message to Myself

You ponder what it means

to be human

but the true matter is

doing human

 

it is in action we become

even if action

is only meditating

in a desert cell

 

(for that, in fact,

requires

much practical economics

and a tight network of friends)

 

Doing human

is the challenge:

how to act in the world

with practical love

 

you may have limitations:

a body which doesn’t work

a malfunctioning mind

dire and intractable poverty

 

but the challenge

is still the same

and our response

the measure of our humanity

 

This begins

with worship

and prayer:

the orientation towards Eternity

 

(it is easy as sin

for doing human

to become an exercise in

self-aggrandizement)

 

so we need

to learn humility

and the ability

to let life flow through us

 

rather than

imagining

we are the generators

of our own salvation

 

What you do,

then, is,

as they say,

up to you

 

eco-activism

raising a family

in a household

of hospitality and love

 

theological education

rooted

in reflection

on human experience

 

building beautiful houses

singing songs of hope and courage

caring for the dying

bringing to birth new life

 

these

and many other things

are doing human

So be brave

 

learn the tradition

wait in your cell

choose words prayerfully

and at every opportunity

 

do love

 

© James Ashdown 2015

www.storyman.org.uk



[1] (Melangell was a Welsh saint who living in a remote valley saved a hare from a Prince and was granted the valley as her hermitage)

[2] That is my church in Hackney which had two congregations called Host and Feast, one of whose members died at the age of 40