to help you discover the God you already know

Month: September 2017


Some years ago, in 2011,  I read an article in the summer edition of the National Trust Magazine, by the philosopher A. C. Grayling, on Beauty. He was writing primarily about the natural beauty, but went on to say that “There is beauty in ideas, in the effects of sound (think of music, laughter, falling rain) and light (think of stars at night, sunlight among trees, lamps glowing along wet streets); there is beauty in the objects made by high skill, from pottery to buildings; there is beauty in a lichen-covered tree trunk and a distant range of mountains; there is beauty in the movements of a dancer and the power of an athlete. As this suggests, we find beauty mainly in things we see and hear, but stories and actions can be beautiful, too, and in these cases we experience it in our emotions.”


Beauty intrigues me. What is it?  I don’t find it easy to define. I sought a dictionary definition and found: ‘A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.’  That may be right, but for me there is something missing. It doesn’t capture what I think of as the energy and power of beauty, and the way that it moves me.


Grayling went on to say: “One reason why we are so refreshed and uplifted by natural beauty is that we feel, even if obscurely, our connection with the great scheme of life on our planet and its deep imperatives. This is proved not just by the majesty of great tropical forests and the mighty oceans, not just by rolling green countryside and gardens blossoming with flowers. Every crack in a tarmac road has a plant forcing its way up to the light; every derelict building is swathed in ivy and moss, with buddleia sprouting triumphantly from the eaves. This insistence of nature is proof of life, and we find life beautiful and meaningful.”


I’m not sure that we do necessarily ‘find life beautiful and meaningful’ but I certainly agree that beauty goes a long way to making it so, and it’s not alone in doing that. For me beauty stands in line with other ‘eternal verities’ like truth, peace, hospitality, friendship, justice, and many others, which seem to share certain common characteristics. They are not easy to define other than in ways that often seems to suck the very energy out of them; yet there is general agreement about what constitutes them; we reckon that we’d recognise them when we saw them; and while expressions of them may vary, knowledge of them seems to be common across all cultures.  Now why should this be so?  And why do they make life seem beautiful and meaningful’?  That is what has been puzzling me.


When I sit in my shed and look out of the windows I see the beautiful garden that Sylvia, my wife, has created. It is stunning, and full of things that appear beautiful to me, by virtue of their shape, colour and juxtaposition. And I wonder to myself if perhaps ‘Beauty’ exists in its own right, independent of these flowers and shrubs: if there might be an independent objective thing ‘Beauty’. Rationally I don’t see how I can answer that question. But perhaps I can ask the question in another way?   ‘Suppose that it is true that Beauty does exist in its own right, and that what you see are simply expressions of it, incarnations of it even. What difference would that make?  Would life be more meaningful and rich or less?  And I have found that life is richer and more meaningful. Not least because I notice Beauty more often.


I walked slowly down the lane to church this morning, and I was aware of Beauty manifesting itself in the brown ploughed field, the body of a white horse, the emerald green of another field, and the little brightly coloured flowers in the churchyard. The congregation was tiny in number but each person present was beautiful in their own way, and together, hospitable. On the pillar next to where I usually sit I encountered Beauty in some of the stone work, as I did in the words of the liturgy and the music played on the organ. I was surrounded by Beauty on all sides and the experience was Beauty-full: God felt very present. My morning was unquestionably richer and more meaningful as a consequence, and I am therefore inclined to take the idea of Beauty seriously.


Were others in the congregation aware of Beauty being present? Quite possibly not. So you might conclude that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, its something I conferred on what I saw. But I think otherwise: that Beauty was present and that I was blessed by being able to see and name it. Another day I wont be able to do so.


I think that I can say much the same about each of the other ‘eternal verities’ that I named: giving them each a capital letter and asking myself if doing so makes life more or less meaningful, elicits the same answer.  It’s a bit like turning the lights on and seeing the world in colour rather than black and white. Its like entering ‘another world’, which is there always, mostly un-noticed, but a source of wonder.

I don’t think that this is saying anything very different from what A. C. Grayling was writing about.


But I want to go further and suggest that if these are Eternal Verities then they must be characteristics of God inevitably imprinted upon God’s Creation. And if we humans have the ability to recognise and respond to them, then I sense that that’s because we have memories of them from the time in the beginning, long before our births, when we were with God, and that this ability thus forms part of God’s image in each of us..


An ‘other world’ 2

I had a synchronistic moment in a bookshop in Sheffield this summer. I had a book token and was browsing. I noticed a book by an author I’d recently enjoyed and thought I’d get it, but continued browsing and having picked up a couple of other books went back to the one that had first caught my eye and picked that up too. It was only after I’d left the shop that I realised I’d actually picked up a different book!  One that had also caught my eye but not the one I’d intended.


I’ve done this sort of thing often enough over the years, and have learnt to take seriously what others might consider a silly mistake. I don’t pretend to know quite how this works but I’ve learnt that it does and that, not to my surprise, the book I’d actually picked up was exactly the one I needed to read at that moment and had been looking for without knowing quite what it was that I wanted.


It’s entitled ‘The Path: what Chinese Philosophers can teach us about the good life’, and its by Professor Michael Puett of Harvard University. I warmly commend it. It begins with some practical ideas of Confucius. One of them is the importance of often quite simple, ritual actions. For Confucius “rituals are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered. For a brief moment, we are living in an “as if” world…[having] entered an alternative reality in which [we] imagine different sides of [our]selves.”


‘As if’ moments may be very brief encounters. A handshake implying a level of equality in a relationship; an offer of tea or coffee to a visitor suggesting a degree of welcome; a hug or a smile, the catching of an eye with a complete stranger, communicating a recognition and connection that can lift the spirits.


But its quite easy to think of more substantial examples. When we go on holiday or visit somewhere unfamiliar, we are free of our usual constraints and behave differently. The circumstances allow sides of our character which don’t usually get much space, to appear and to blossom: for a time we are slightly, sometimes very, different people. The key is for us to know that we are in a way pretending, that we this is not how things are in our normal everyday world and that it is just a temporary arrangement which will not last. But it’s a safe enough place for us to relax and behave differently.  Watch the way adults behave when they accompany their children to a play area, or a theme park and revert to being children again for a while.


Children, of course, do this sort of thing without batting an eyelid. When they play at killing each other they are fully aware that this is pretend, and by pretending they are able to step outside how they usually are & experience who they might be; they learn to manage fears & anxieties or play the role of rescuer and hero, all in a safe environment of their own making. Adults do something similar in the games we play or are spectators at. We all do it when we watch a play or a film or read a novel.


Liturgy does this too: taking us into a different world where different assumptions apply. We are invited to act ‘as if’ we are in God’s Kingdom and do all manner of things we’d otherwise never dream of doing: to act ‘as if’ we know that we are all forgiven, loved and equal;: to sing together, pray together, pretend there are no serious animosities between us, exchange peaceful greetings, and kneel to be fed of exactly the same food and drink.  Once we have left the building the camaraderie may fade, but if we go regularly we may slowly find ourselves and our attitudes changing.


Spiritual direction, or any therapeutic encounter needs to take place within a ritual ‘as if’ space. It has to feel like a safe enough space for people to be real and honest, knowing that they will be accepted and not judged, and if we go there regularly, we may find that the person we can be when we are there, becomes stronger and more self confident, and is able to appear outside of that ‘as if’ environment.


Prayer can do much the same thing, indeed that’s its very purpose: to take us into a space where we can be naked and wholly honestly ourselves before God and know that we are accepted and loved just as we are.


These ‘as if’ moments are both more common than we might have thought, and have the capacity to change the way we behave. Used discerningly they can help us to become happier and more contented, fulfilled human beings: to release the ‘image of God’ in us.


But I suspect that there is more to it than that. My experience walking along the towpath which I described in ‘an ‘other’ world ’ is of a piece with many of my other ‘as if’ experiences, and is certainly of a piece with what I sometimes experience in prayer. If I put them all together they seem to suggest the existence of a parallel world in which I find myself from time to time, and which I can consciously seek to be a part of as often as I want. A parallel world in which I feel most truly alive and myself. A parallel world that seems more real than the world I inhabit the rest of the time, although paradoxically, its not wholly apart from it.


An ‘other’ world 1

A friend of mine is embarking upon a sabbatical, I say ‘embarking’ quite deliberately as he is taking his sabbatical on his narrowboat, sailing the rivers and canals of England. I went into Worcester yesterday evening to see him and to wish him well as he prepared to set off.  I left my car in a car park in the middle of the town, and went down an alleyway at the bottom of which I turned left, went down some steps and onto the canal towpath. Immediately I was in another world. A world without traffic and its attendant noise, instead just the slow silent moving of the water; hardly any people other than the occasional jogger; and while I was still in the middle of the city a towpath lined with trees. It was a green, silent, slow moving world. One running hidden and parallel to the one above which I had only just left, but running at a different pace and to a different rhythm. I recognised it:  some years ago I spent a few days with another friend on his narrowboat: that was in the midst of the countryside, and we moved slowly through fields not a city, but it was nevertheless, recognisably the same world.


It was a strange feeling, pleasurable, peaceful and safe, and while I initially felt an alien in it, that soon passed. It was as if I had passed through a portal into another world: one that I recognised and knew, and yet was other than the one I usually inhabited. It seemed like a wise choice for a sabbatical.


I found my friend’s dog, his boat and the man himself, in that order, and we set off to find a pub he knew, to get ourselves something to eat and drink. That meant we left the towpath and went back up into the city, albeit narrow, back streets, not the main thoroughfares. And the strange thing was that the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ came with us: it was as if we stayed in that ‘other’ world while walking the streets of the more usual one. He took me to a wonderful old pub, full of history; feeling just like pubs used to feel: lots of wood and nooks and crannies. The pies were both filling and tasty, the beer great. And the talk was good too. And then we walked back to his boat and his dog, where we lit our pipes, had a second small beer and continued talking. And it was as if the whole experience took place is this ‘otherworld’ that I had stumbled upon


He talked of what had been happening for him since last we met, and I told him of what a full and stimulating summer I’d enjoyed. In particular I mentioned my fascination with the subject of ‘consciousness’.  He and I were sat there in the confined space of his boat. I looked at him and he looked at me. I could see him, the clothes he was wearing, and what he was doing [not very much] but I had little or no knowledge of what was going on in his head. Any more than he would know what was going on in mine. I was focused on what we were saying, but simultaneously my mind was taking in all sorts of other information: what his dog was up to, the sounds from outside, what I could see within the boat, plus all the various feelings that I was aware of within me, some of them current, some that I had brought with me, together with memories that suddenly burst onto the scene unannounced. This inner world is what I think of as the real me, and its invariably more significant to me than what I’m wearing, where I am and what I’m doing: but it is this outer world that others see as the real me: indeed they have nothing else to go on.


My friend is a good friend: we know each other quite well. We often meet for a few beers, and maybe a whisky, and we drink and talk and smoke together usually till quite late. The ‘crack’ is frequently very good, and when it is, it is as if we are then also in this ‘otherworld’.


I think that I have always known that it is as if this ordinary world has another, hidden dimension: an ‘otherworld’ in which I often find myself, much to my surprise, and which I recognise. But I have no conscious control over entry. Finding myself there is always a gift. Children I fancy frequently go there, finding it seems easier for them, and they seem very at home in it. But there are things I can do, places I can be, which sometimes offer access to this otherworld, if I am fortunate.  The canal and its towpath is clearly one such. Use of the imagination, and the temporary suspension of the rational mind, are key, I sense, and our culture doesn’t on the surface, give much credence to such matters. But I suspect that you will know what I’m talking about. When I tried not very coherently to say something about it last night my friend seemed to recognise what I was on about straight away.


I sense that is a first shot at a target that has been preoccupying me for some time, and to which I shall almost certainly return. There are plenty of loose ends here, and other adjacent and inter-connected paths to be explored too. So if you resonate with what I’m trying to articulate it would be good to hear from you.




‘Which Jesus’ : a further thought

I have mostly found the idea of The Trinity quite easy to understand. As I think of it, it contains three aspects of the same thing. This is not an unfamiliar concept: I am one person, but everybody who encounters me will encounter a slightly different face, and some quite different faces. The baby boy my mother held at my birth, is different from the priest who preaches a sermon or celebrates the eucharist, who is different again from the man on the edge of his seat when Spurs are playing. Yet it is the same person, manifesting in different ways. All are equally me. There is no competition.


So it is with God: there is God: the transcendent mystery beyond all our knowing; there is the Spirit of God which enlivens all of creation; and there is Jesus: God in human form. Each manifesting the divine in different ways. All equally God, and again, no competition.


As I look back over my life I am aware that a different member of the Trinity has been of primary importance to me at different stages of my life. When I was a young man a friend suggested to me that I was a Christian ‘because I couldn’t get Jesus out of my hair’ and they were right.  Editing a community newspaper in inner-city south London in my late twenties I quickly learnt that there were people whose behaviour and commitment was such that I could not but see the activity of the Spirit of God in who and how they were, although they professed no Christian faith and attended no church. My role as editor, as I saw it, was the support the activity of the Spirit of God wherever I encountered it in that community as best I could. As I got older the more reflective, contemplative side of me grew stronger, and I found deep satisfaction in the silence and stillness of a mysterious God beyond my comprehension.


With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I have been aware of all three members of the Trinity throughout my life, but it has usually been the case that at any particular time, one of them has seemed more important than the others. As I have listened to people tell me their stories over the years, I have noticed that this insight seems to be true for many of them also.


I have had no conscious control over which member of the Trinity was pre-eminent at any particular time, nor have I had any conscious control over when the pre-eminent member changed. It just seemed to happen, and is therefore nothing for me to worry about. But what I have also learnt is that when one member seems to be paramount, then its important not to forget the other two. For example, if Jesus seems most important to me now, then I must make space in my awareness for the activity of the Spirit of God and the unknowable mystery of God too, acting as a sort of counter- balance. This feels to me to be healthy.


The same insight applies to the question of ‘which Jesus’. At any one time one of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Jesus the Christ’, and the ‘Cosmic Christ’ will seem more important, more significant, in my life, and that is fine. But it is important that I never forget the other two, but rather make space for my awareness of them to balance me in my relationship with ‘Jesus’.


And this holds true for the church as well. Most churches will have a named or un-named bias toward one of the manifestations of ‘Jesus’. That is fine. But if the church is to be healthy then it needs to do one of two things:

either, make space for, and discriminate in favour of, the other ‘Jesus’ manifestations. A pentecostal church with an active programme of social engagement with its local community, and a contemplative prayer group, for example.  And, be open to ‘the pre-eminent Jesus manifestation’ changing over time and to be willing to embrace that and not see it as some sort of failure.

or, encourage groups of local churches emphasising different ‘Jesus’ manifestations to come together in ways that make it possible and indeed desirable for people to be able to move naturally and with everyones blessing, from one church to another as their spirituality grows and changes, without anybody feeling threatened by that.


What is true at a local level should also be true at a national and international level. A healthy church will honour and serve each and all of the manifestations of the ‘Jesus Trinity’, and see it as its task to live at harmony with all of them: much as we believe happens within The Trinity. There is no competition.

Which Jesus?

People in church circles often talk about Jesus as if it’s perfectly obvious who they are referring to, but increasingly I find myself wanting to ask ‘which Jesus are you talking about?’  I know that my question will baffle them: ‘there’s only one Jesus’ they will reply, and of course in one sense they are perfectly correct, but in another they are not.  Jesus is known in at last three, distinguishable manifestations. There is a sort of ‘trinity’ of Jesus.

First there is Jesus the first century Jew who came from Nazareth, and who lived and taught in Palestine before being crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities.

Secondly, there is the risen, resurrected Jesus, the Christ who made himself known to his friends and followers in the days and weeks after his death, and to whom they continued to pray, confident in the knowledge that He was still with them and would continue to guide them.  The guidance that He gave was in significant ways other than that offered by Jesus the Palestinian Jew: for example he called Paul to take his Gospel to non-Jews, and in a vision to Peter, exempted them from commitment to the keeping of the Jewish Law.

His earliest friends and followers who had personally known the physical Jesus of Nazareth made no distinction between that figure and the Christ who continued to guide them after his death: for them he was obviously one and the same. So in the Gospels which tell of the story of Jesus the Christ they were not concerned to distinguish between words uttered by Jesus of Nazareth and those spoken later by Jesus the Christ.  Such a distinction would have seemed meaningless to them. But for the future generations of followers, who had not known the physical Jesus of Nazareth, but who certainly felt they knew the Risen Christ, the distinction became increasingly important. Not least because the Risen Christ continued to lead his followers into ‘all truth’ as he had promised, and that frequently meant going beyond the letter of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught, while remaining consistent with its spirit. We call it interpreting ‘Jesus for today’s world.’ So the church has opposed slavery, embraced the equality of women, and will soon acknowledge the equality of gay and transgender men and women. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t do any of these things specifically, they weren’t live issues in his time and culture, but they all follow from his Gospel of ‘love one another.’

Thirdly, in addition to the physical Jesus of Nazareth, and the Risen Christ experienced by millions since, there is the Cosmic Christ Who is described as having metaphorically ascended into heaven there to sit at God’s right hand in glory. It is this Cosmic Christ of Whom John speaks in the first chapter of his gospel where John describes Him as the Word of God Who ‘was with God at the beginning, and through Whom all things came to be; without Him no created being came into being. In Him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it.’  This Cosmic Christ has existed from the very beginning of everything, has been involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every single human person who ever was and ever will be, both here on earth and beyond. This is quite a leap from the physical Jesus of Nazareth, although less of one from the Risen Christ.

So when people speak of Jesus I need to ask which member of the ‘Jesus Trinity’ they are talking about? The physical Jesus of Nazareth, who partakes of our humanity by being born into a particular culture at a particular time, with all the limitations of that time and culture? The Risen Christ, Who transcends death and is our hope and intimation of life beyond death, and Who guides those who seek His guidance in this earthly life? Or the Cosmic Christ pre-existent from the beginning, intimately involved in all creation, and Who indwells, and is known by, all human beings, even those who don’t name Him as such, whether living or dead?

I need to ask my question, of them and indeed of myself, because the answer will greatly influence what is said. For example should we be telling non-Christians about Jesus of Nazareth about whom they may know very little or nothing?  Or should we be inviting them to articulate and trust their religious experience, with the assumption that it may be the voice of the Risen Christ speaking to them? Or should we rather be assuming that the Cosmic Christ will have made Him/Herself known to them already, and our task is to acknowledge and affirm the Cosmic Christ in them, and learn from Her/Him?

Three very different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, approaches. One of the supplementary challenges is to find a way of holding these three different approaches in a creative tension, which does justice to each of them while affirming all of them. To be true to the principles for which Jesus of Nazareth lived and died; under the guidance of the Risen Christ in the context of the time and culture in which we find ourselves; as we allow ourselves to be drawn into the greater vision offered us by the Cosmic Christ.

Love is the glue which will hold these three together in creative tension, so much attention needs to be given to the task of building loving mutually tolerant communities of which we seek to be loving, mutually tolerant members. Jesus of Nazareth commanded us to love one another, not to agree about everything, or to know all the answers !

This of course is pretty much what we have to try to do anyway with a traditional view of The Trinity, but for me it sharpens and clarifies the task.

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