Wednesday 15 December 2010

Melancholy and the finger poke that never was.

Tonight I was listening to the fifteen year old classic that is The Smashing Pumpkin's, Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness. A fantastic album full of themes of rejection and love, of faith and doubt. My love for the album was recently rekindled by Walsh and Keesmaat's discussion of it in Colossians Re:mixed. It is a truly superb and like a fine wine, it has aged really well.

There are so many good songs on the album but tonight I discovered a new one, one I'd never really listened to before; I had heard it, but never listened. Thirty Three. Full to the brim of evocative imagery, superb, slippery descriptions that have an overt religiosity, as well as playing n some key Christian symbols. (Check it out yourself!)
I want to use the song in Discipleship worship next term, it is so utterly beautiful and fragile.

Searching on the web I found so many different websites talking about whether Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins has a faith, or a spiritual belief, or more precisely, "has Billy Corgan made a public declaration of Christian faith?"

Now, I'm not saying that this isn't an important question. I'm pretty conservative with my evangelicalism, but I have to admit, sometimes I think we miss something.

Christians struggle with ambiguity. Christians of all theological persuasions.

In my tradition, at Easter we rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. We have a cross and we have a risen Christ. If you are a protestant you may have the emphasis on the cross, if you are Orthodox, you may have the emphasis on the empty tomb.

Not many folk like to linger in the hushed, tearful and fearful rooms of Easter/Holy Saturday. Not many of us like to hover in such dark and terrifying ambiguity.

At a Church House Party this summer I preached on this theme for a good forty minutes: part of the Gospel we have to share, but too easily forget to share, is that within the salvation Gospel narrative lies a day when heaven and earth are held in something beyond expression. Something speaks powerfully to the broken in this world.

Maybe its because its beyond expression, or maybe it's because we want to preach the cross and resurrection before people get bored, but we rush from Friday to Sunday.

As far as I can tell, Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness sits well on Easter Saturday. Perhaps that's why we don't really get it.

The apostle Thomas, one of the true heroes of John's Gospel, the apostle who isn't afraid to ask Jesus the big questions, is forever semi-slandered, for his daring to doubt.

And to add to Thomas' infamy, in his painting, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio painted Thomas with his finger plunged deep into Jesus' side, as if to make clear that there is no grey area here, no room for doubt, never mind the fact that the Gospel of John doesn't record Thomas pushing his finger into Jesus' side, only asking for proof.

John 20 (NIV) records, (from
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Upon seeing Jesus Thomas proclaims, "My Lord and my God".
Upon seeing Jesus, not on actually putting his hand into Jesus' side.
What Thomas originally says, and what Thomas actually experiences are different.

Why is it that Christians are so scared to admit that questions, and doubts, and grey areas, and Easter Saturday, are all part of a life-long walk with Christ.

Its for this reason that Nickel Creek's song Doubting Thomas, is just about the only decent discussion of what it means to be Thomas.

So this ramble is coming to an end, drawing to a close, perhaps its best that it ends with ambiguity, with questions still to be answered, with half-chewed-over images and analogies.

There is too much going on to want to get straight from A - B.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

An over-simplified poetic rant written in 550 seconds about the nature of mission in a post-christendom society

Here is the church,
But where are the people?
Hiding in shops,
Not sat in pews,
Under the steeple,
Where is the meaning and where is the truth?
In bottles of vodka at 40% proof?
Look to the streets,
And look to the parks,
But keep out of sight,
If you’re out after dark,
Long-lost are the hopes,
We had for our kids,
If they don’t end up on drugs,
We’ll be out of our heads.....,
....With joy,
But who is to blame for this general malaise?
Who took the plug out and turned off the lights?
Too fast, too fast to self blame!
“Maybe it’s the culture,
You see, it’s just not the same,”
Tell that to the church in South Korea,
Of the lack of faith, around churches near here,
Where is the hope of the coming of the Kingdom?
“As long as it happens after the reality show’s final?”
Just hang fire with the wild cultural accusations!
Perhaps the problem,
Is more about us,
By “us”, what I meant,
Was quite plainly “I”,
The European Enlightenment,
And its focus on ‘me’.
That I am an individual,
Look can’t you see?
That I have my wants,
My hopes and my desires,
Because what is important,
Is the way that I’m wired,
But step back, surely history’s not to blame?
“Yeah, but what you’re saying,
Is from your individualistic brain,”
Perhaps it’s our ethics,
Because they truly suck,
If we lived out the words,
That Jesus actually said,
Maybe the church wouldn’t just end up dead.

Sunday 12 December 2010

virtue - without virtue

"Virtue", it is on the move,
There is a growing desire to express,
Something of profound importance,
That has been hidden and dormant,
Forgotten, shut tight,
Lost to the index pages of dank old books,
Whose library catalogue issue numbers have faded,
Buried at the back and beyond of theological journals,
Volume 1, number 5,
Pages held together more by mould than binding glue,

This "virtue" that could so easily liberate,
Could transform the lived life of faith,
Is under threat again,
But this time not from the stagnant despondency,
And lack of loving interest of many a potential imbiber,
Long forgotten and lost,
Not this time,
"Virtue" is under threat,
From gowns and hoods and conferences,
From beards and pens and PCs,
From tweed jackets and commentaries and symposiums,

This targeted 'topic' (sic),
which has the power to break bonds of slavery,
To mental anguish and the perils of flesh and blood,
That offers a new vision of life,
Life in fullness,
Life in togetherness,
Life in growing,
Faces a threat,
So potentially insidious that it will once more be lost,
Lost to silence,
Lost to noise,
Lost to many,
Lost to those hoping for transformation,

And indeed, this very act of typing,
Of laying bare, is open to this same corruption,
Of distortion and reduction,
Deconstruction and re-calculation,
"Do you even mean what you think you mean?"
"Do you even know what you think you know?"
"Can you even define what you think you can define?"
"Where is the solid ground of evidence on which your convictions balance?"
But this dialogue is to be refused,
This dialogue must meet a turned cheek and graceful hope,
Of willingness to sacrifice the wills and wants,
The instincts of snapping back,

For if those instincts are followed,
What is the worth of wondering in the ethereal realm...
And so, to find some conclusion,
We must,
We must take "virtue" and we must unmask it,
We must wipe clean the residues and decaying decadent dusts,
We must start a fresh,
Crack open the original pages of the original book,
And we must be originally formed,
Open and expectant,

We must open our mouths wide and eat the scroll before us,
We must lie on one side 390 days,
and 40 on the other,
We must be open to the Divine inspiration,
Open to service,
Open to the Divine's opulence and power,
We must seek the Spirit's revelation,
We must move away from abstraction,
For abstraction tends to lead to distraction,
And distraction can miss the point,

And so we must save "Virtue" from itself,
We must not discuss it in abstract terms,
We must pray for it in object terms,
We must seek to live lives of utter dependence on the Divine,
We must hope through prayer and reading to be formed,
Into a likeness,
The likeness,
Not for the sake of academy,
Not for the sake of success,
But for the sake of wholeness,
But for the sake of the entirety of creation,

Let us not name "virtue",
Let us not rationalise it,
Let us not try to define it,
Let us not re-brand it - 'faithful following',
Let us not cultural-ise it, - 'sixty-six steps to.....'
Let us not rhetorical-ise it,
Let us not prove it,
Let us not remove it's mystery,
Let us not sell it,

Let us not even seek it,

Instead let us read the word,
Instead let us pray with hopeful hearts,
Instead let us ask for the Divine's insight,
Instead let us live out charity,
Instead let us live out transformation,

Shall we move, 'After After Virtue' to the bargain bin?

"Virtue" is dead!
Long live something indefinable!

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Jonah - a poetic paraphrase


The word of the True Divine came powerfully to Jonah, Amittai’s son. The word shouted to him,
“Jonah, make haste, get up and go, stand before me, then move. Go to Nineveh, that bulging metropolis of sinful wickedness and indecent indulgence, that bolt hole of bilious bad thought. Go there and shout it down, shout out against it for the stink of their sin is too disgusting.”
Instead, Jonah got up and went, but not toward Nineveh, but Tarshish. He began his journey by fleeing from the True Divine’s presence.
Jonah went to Joppa and found a cargo ship heading for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and got on board, to go with the crew to Tarshish; away from the presence of the True Divine.
But the True Divine thrust down on to the waters of the sea a powerful wind, so powerful that the boat began to creak, as if to crack apart. The sailors were terrified and each of them prayed to their own ‘divine’ deity. Yet the storm continued and so their cargo they set to sea. Crates and boxes were thrown down into the waters, so as to make the ship lighter, and more likely not to break up.
Yet Jonah, had left the deck and headed deep, down into the boat, curled up in comfort and fallen into a deep, down sleep.
The captain of the boat found him and shouted out,
“What’s going on with you? How is it that you can get some shut eye in this chaos? Get up and call out to your own ‘divine’ deity. Maybe your ‘divine’ deity will actually hear us and do something to stop us being smashed upon the rocks! Perhaps your ‘divine’ deity will listen and we might live!”
And the sailors all got together in a panic, they shouted,
“Let’s play short straws to show us who’s to blame for this catastrophe.”
They drew straws and the shortest fell to Jonah.
The sailors urgently asked him,
“Tell us, here and now, who are you that this catastrophe has come to us? What is it that you do? Where do you come from? Which country? Where is home? What people are you from?”
Jonah replied, heart in mouth,
“I am a Hebrew, my God is the True Divine, that is who I fear. My God is the True Divine who made the land and the heavens and the deep, down sea.”
Terror go to work in the guts of the sailors and they snarled at Jonah,
“What is with you? What have you done?”
They were full of terror because they knew, from what Jonah had said, that he was running from God, the True Divine, no sham ‘divine’ deity, but the True Divine.
The True Divine.
The sailors turned in terror towards each other and then to Jonah,
“What should we do to you so that the sea would not totally tear us to tatters?”
The sea was growing ever more dangerous and ever more chaotic.
Jonah replied,
“Pick me up and throw me overboard, into the sea. If you do this the sea will soon settle and you will be safe. It’s my fault; it’s on my account that the sea has become this wild, foaming beast.”
But instead the sailors trusting in their own strength and experience began to row towards the land.
But they got nowhere fast, stuck stationary in the sea, battling with the winds and the waves. So the sailors shouted out to God, the True Divine,
“True Divine, no false ‘divine’ deity, don’t let us die for this! Not for Jonah’s life, and don’t make us guilty of spilling an innocent man’s blood! For you, the True Divine have done what you wanted to do.”
With that they picked Jonah up and heartily heaved and hurled him into the foaming face of the deep, down sea.
The sea calmed.
A new fear settled heavily on the sailors.
They offered a sacrifice to the True Divine and made many promises.
And the True Divine gave purpose to a giant fish to scoop Jonah into its mouth and to swallow him whole.
Jonah was in the deep, down belly of the great fish for three full days and three full nights.
Seventy-two hours in the fish, deep, down.

At this Jonah called out in prayer to the True Divine and shouted out,
“At my lowest ebb, in my deepest, deep, down distress I screamed out to the True Divine, and he did not ignore me, but brought an answer. Out of the very pitted, fetid stomach of the deep, down dead, I screamed, and you, you the True Divine above all false idols and ‘divine’ deities, you heard my pitiful, raw and terrorized cry. It was you who plunged me into the deep, down depths of the ocean, to its very core, amid the flood of your waters. Waves broke over me, ripples and currents were over my head.”
“And I called out, “I’ve been pushed away from your presence, from the centre of your focus, but I will, with my eyes, see your temple, in its magnificent glory.” The wild and unending oceans surrounded me on all sides, above and below, as if to push out all the air within me and to leave me dead. Weeds tangled themselves around my weak and weary head, way below the mountains, at the fractious rock roots of their foundations, I descended further to the place of no-dwelling, whose prison bars slammed shut above me, leaving me stuck in the deepest deep, down despair, for all eternity I was to be trapped.”
“But you reached down into the deepest deep, down depths, to the darkest pit, you reached down and pulled me up.”
“The True Divine, I remembered you, when every ounce of me was ready for death, when into a pale, weary and languid slumber my immortal soul was descending, slipping over, I remembered you and you heard my prayer, even in the glorious majesty of your temple my prayer was heard.”
“The people who give all their prime attention to the things of vanity and humanity, to the human-made shiny, tactile pleasures, lose sight of the true hope of never-ending, unconditional, all-surpassing, whole-life encompassing love of the True Divine.”
“But as for me, with a heart full of gratitude I will shout out loud in awesome praise and wonder to you, the True Divine. I will thank you with my words and what I say and with my sacrifices, what I offer to you and what I do.”
“What I have said I will do; I will do.”
“You are the True Divine, the True Divine of all and salvation is in your hands. You are salvation!”
And with that the True Divine whispered into the ear of the mighty fish and it retched and vomited Jonah up, so that he came to rest upon the land, laid out, on dry sand.

The True Divine again spoke to Jonah and said,
“Jonah, get up and go, go to Nineveh, that vast and bulging metropolis, full to the brim of people. Go there and shout out aloud the words I give you to speak.”
So Jonah got up. He got up and made his way to Nineveh, just as the True Divine had told him to. Nineveh was a bustling metropolis, grand in size and population. To take it all in would take days.
As Jonah entered the city he didn’t stop on the periphery of the city, but walked for a full day, into the heart of the city. Once there he, with shout out loud a voice proclaimed,
“Forty days from now and this mighty metropolis, Nineveh, will be brought to downfall.”
When the people of Nineveh heard this prophetic word, they listened and believed the True Divine. The crowds dressed themselves in the sack cloth of repentance and shouted out to all to fast. From the lowest of the low to the mighty and powerful, they all did these things.
The king of Nineveh heard about what was happening in the city and stepped down from his throne, took off his majestic royal robe and dressed himself in sackcloth. He went and sat in a pile of ashes.
While sat in sackcloth and ashes the king spoke a word to be obeyed. His words were spread throughout Nineveh; the message read,
“This law is from the king and his nobles. No human, no animal, no sheep, no bird; is to taste a thing. None are to eat and none are to drink water. But instead all of you, humans and animals, must be dressed up in sackcloth, from head to foot. And all are to shout out aloud to the True Divine.”
“All people are to do a one-eighty degree turn, from evil to good, from the violent intentions in your hands.”
“There is a chance, that the True Divine might show mercy, turn away from his angry show of power so that we all might yet live.”
The True Divine saw the people of Nineveh and their longing for forgiveness, their utter one-eighty degree reverse of behaviour, belief and thoughts. The True Divine saw and showed mercy to the people of Nineveh. The True Divine did not bring the city and its people down.

When Jonah saw this he was furious and frustrated. He turned to the True Divine and prayed out,
“The True Divine, above, beyond, below and behind, isn’t this what I said would happen, back before the fish and the boat, when I was in my own land?”
“That’s why I tried to run away to Tarshish.”
“Because every instinct in my guts told me that you are the True Divine, full to the brim, of grace and mercy. That you, the True Divine don’t get angry quickly and are full to the bursting brim, of ever-present L-O-V-E.”
“That you, the True Divine, won’t lay out disasters. And now, at this point, in this place, I find myself in this position and I ask you to remove my life from my feeble frame. Take it from me. It’s much better that I fall down dirty dead than to live on!”
The True Divine responded,
“And Jonah, how is that anger working out for you?”
Jonah walked away.
He walked for a full day and left the city, that vast sprawling and bustling metropolis of Nineveh.
Beyond the edge of the city, to the east, Jonah sat down and made for himself a place to shelter in and just be.
He sat under it, in shade and gazed back at the bustling metropolis Nineveh. He watched to see what would happen to that vast mass of people and animals and buildings.
The True Divine gave purpose to a plant to grow up and over Jonah’s head to bring shade and to release him from the hot glare of the sun. So Jonah basked gratefully in the dull shade of the plant’s bountiful foliage.
The next morning, at dawn, the True Divine gave purpose to a worm to eat at the plant so that it withered.
As the sun rose high in the sky, the True Divine gave purpose to a molten east wind. The wind blew and the sun shone fiercely onto Jonah’s head so that he felt weak and close to unconsciousness.
And Jonah called out a request for death,
“I’d rather die than live!”
But the True Divine responded to Jonah,
“And Jonah, how is that anger about the plant working out for you?”
Jonah shouted back,
“My anger is working out well enough to be consumed by death!”
And the True Divine spoke to Jonah,
“You have so much consideration, mercy and commiseration for a plant that you did not plant, or cultivate, or nurture, or water. A plant which sprung up one night while you slept. And then died one night while you slept.”
“And with that in your head, why should I, the True Divine, not show mercy to that vast, bulging metropolis, Nineveh?”
“Nineveh, where one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand live among many cattle, rich in possessions, but living without a clue, not knowing right from left and up from down?”