Wednesday, 31 October 2007

and then what?

When you feel as though they've really bollocksed up under all known employment procedures and then managed to slide away from it, what do you do? In the words of Phillip Yancey, we're all of us bastards and God loves us anyway. So essentially, then, you forgive them and you love them. But can I do that? Maybe. However, my sense of kinship with and passion for them has been extinguished.

A woman from church asked me this evening whether Fiance and I had moved in together yet. I told her that if we had, I would certainly no longer be allowed to continue in my job. She giggled nervously and replied oh but I was just trying to be open-minded about these things. I didn't tell her that, last week, I was on the verge of walking away from my job and moving right in with him.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Will the real Joyce Meyer please stand up?

So, was it really you who commented on my blog and then signed yourself Chris J?

If so, welcome (and you don't need any more new shoes).

And, if on the off chance you aren't Herself, who are you? You have me most intrigued indeed.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

My mother always said that one day I'd be grateful for having studied Latin

Memory is a strange thing. We went to a service in Latin this morning (ultra Anglo-Catholic, with lots of crossings of oneself and clouds of incense) and I realised I could understand most of it. It was fifteen years ago that I gave up Latin at school, too. I sat there thinking about what I remembered of what I thought about God fifteen years ago. As a teenager, as I remember it, the God I believed in wanted very much for people to love one another. I sat there, looking at the stained glass, thinking about that.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

jesus wept: backstory

A reader emailed to ask me how I've managed to get myself entangled in such a messy situation. I thought I'd reply about it here, instead.

I'd summarise all that follows in just five words: It could have been much worse. The evangelical organisation for which I work is respected, well spoken of, collaborative, only slightly autocratic, right-on with child protection, adequately-paying of its employees and respectful to women. I could be in a really dodgy group.

I got myself involved in a particularly ominous such group at the age of 16. In relation to the demographics and personality types of those alleged to be "at risk" of joining "cults", I was the epitome and the archetye: young, bright, idealistic and a bit mad. Whereas I don't really by into the tabloid concept of "cults" as overly different from any other slightly alternative form of religious group, this was the utter epitome and archetype (minus the sex, my mother may be pleased to read) of a Daily Mail "cult" scare story. We wore skirts to worship and went to the toilet when the Dear Leader told us we needed to. She taught from two lever-arched files labelled Faith and Finances and nobody dared point out that she was saying the same thing every week. The whole group fell apart one evening after the Holy Spirit had told the Dear Leader that we needed to move our place of worship thirty miles north-north-east to preserve God's annointing on us. Seven of us arrived on her doorstep unannounced one evening to "discuss" this. One woman delivered a somewhat forcible sermon on how, if God is everywhere, he would be unlikely to require us to move thirty miles north-north-east and how, if God is a God of families, he would not be asking us to put church attendance thirty miles north-north-easy-away before her son's Sunday rugby matches. Then another woman (well, it was me, but I don't like to boast) said that she'd been reading about the early Church in the Bible and that her impression was of a community in which everyone made decisions together and no Dear Leader had the authority to ruin an woman's attendance at a son's rugby match. Dear Leader stuttered "well everything I teach you is entirely from Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin". I said "we'd rather have the teaching of Christ". And everything fell apart from there. Not that I want to blow my own trumpet. But it did.

A few years later, in my early twenties, I briefly encountered another such group. Although I wasn't so young, I was significantly more mad and was sitting in Costa one icy afternoon, reading the Guardian and crying. Two girls (one of whom I'd been at uni with) came over to ask whether I was alright, and took me back to theirs to convene a prayer group for me and it all began from there. This group, I think, weren't motivated by money or power as much as a strange mix of compassion for the lonely and fear of the outside, theological shortcomings and maybe a fair bit of narcissism. But I knew, even at the outset, that the vision they had for me wasn't going to happen. The idea was that Grace would become a poster-child, a figurehead and a spokesperson for the ex-mad, that God would have tranformed me in a blaze of light and I'd then lead their ministry of healing with such annointing that all the mental hospitals would close. Um, yes. The trouble was, I knew that God wasn't going to transform me in that blaze of light because what they wanted me transformed into was that perfect image of themselves, or rather, Joyce Meyer. I suspected that, instead, God might have a few things to teach me along the way and that he would prefer me to be transformed into his likeness as Grace rather than some televangelist clone-figure. And so, I thanked them for their idea and politely declined.

I found a very nice local church and felt entirely safe, relaxed and un-got-at there for the next however-many years.

So it's a few years on that I'm doing this job. I was sitting online last night, using Google, MySpace and Facebook to track down the women I remembered from both groups. And what I learned was frighteningly consistent: the ones who stayed are the ones who married the sons of the leaders. Invariably, even. Endless blogs and mission reports and photos of six-child families mummied by the exhausted-looking faces I remember as energetic, bright, idealistic and slightly mad teenagers.

They, then, are the ones I worry about.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

the perils of staring at the spam filter as well as the inbox

I received emails

  1. selling viagra
  2. asking me if I wanted instant ***** *** with eighteen year old Latvian girls with tight ****s
  3. selling more viagra
  4. advertising some sort of hydraulic device to ensure instant **** ***s with said Latvians
  5. selling yet more viagra
  6. another suchlike device with a anatomical diagram explaining how the above works, for use with Lithuanians as well as Latvians
  7. selling a bit more viagra again
  8. and then the above-but-one email again with a flash animation, lest I might have misunderstood the diagram, for use with Estonians as well as Lithuanians and Latvians...

OK, so maybe there's a joker out there who thinks it's hilarious to write a program that distributes sick email spam to people with email domains

Or maybe there are more married and respectable upright men with email addresses who might partake of aforementioned Baltic services with viagra and hydraulic assistance? Maybe the person who wrote the programme to target such spam at isn't a sick joker as much as a canny businessman, responding to his market?

We all moan (and occasionally giggle) about it at work. But perhaps we're missing something that abstinence-based, sexually-repressive forms of faith fail to realise they might even be encouraging...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Monday, 22 October 2007

grace. eating again. half-baked post-eucharistic theological ranatings.

Communion again this evening. Cous-cous with chickpeas followed by blackcurrant crumble... I think I risk labouring a point. But maybe the way in which I started getting hungry at the very same moment that I started with an unprecedented intensity to question everything of evangelical Christianity as I'd ever before known it... perhaps in a society in which conformists aspire to size 0 and nice girls don't swallow (yes, I know, excuse the cliches) perhaps that's saying something, too. And so, we shared communion, with custard on the crumble, with old university friends. Friends both with and without all forms of Christian faith and/or scepticism, friends refusing to label themselves into any easy categories.

It suddenly struck Fiance that Christianity is not only bedevelled by division and hierarchy, religion created it. From the Greek hireus-arche=temple-ers (ie priests) at the beginning (ie in power). But why should a belief in God or a god or any god lead people into structures and doctrines that power-trip the some over the many? Ultimately, one can to drift off with Plato or consider the political scariness that generated the divine rights of kings in English history which got Charles beheaded... but it's no different today, merely a bit subtler, simply that the boss has the authority to ignore all employment legislation because God told him (directly and charismatically or traditionally and institutionally) how to handle it better himself. My question then becomes, so why do I need to see God as so majestically separate from us when I'm not sure I even believe in the concept of monarchy, when I've never yet managed to dutifully submit myself to anyone who plays the do-what-I-say-because-God-put-me-in-charge card? And I've suddenly realised (and sorry to increase the font size but I'm getting excited here) that I don't.

Jesus. The Incarnation. Him from Upstairs coming Downstairs and joining us all for bread and fish and curry and naan bread and cous-cous, chickpeas, apple crumble and lots of wine. He's here with us. We're all in it together.

They don't have to bully us any more.

This all, however, raises a rather bleak what-am-I-going-to-do-about-it question. If I'm now to put my fingers where my apple crumble is, I'd currently be typing a letter to resign from my job, on the grounds of conscience. Is that something I dare?

And if so, what else would I be doing with my life?

Sunday, 21 October 2007

what grace maybe means

Returning to my thoughts on bread and wine and community. I'm increasingly struggling with a doctrine that dictates that Fiance, as an Unsaved Person, should not take communion in church with me. Certainly, I understand that communion is essentially about Jesus drawing all of his followers as one into his body. But I think that, for Jesus, the desire to make everyone welcome came before any attempt to define who was or wasn't on his side... after all, he had Judas there beside him at the Last Supper.

I went up to take bread and wine on my own again this morning. Fiance gritted his teeth and buried his face in the church notice sheet.

This evening, though, we had our communion. We (meaning Fiance, the all-rabbits-friends-and-relations of his family and I) had decided earlier in the week to go to my local curry house. The restaurant was at bursting point with a big Punjabi local wedding, but they still managed to squeeze us in. Was it because they recongnised me as that woman from down the road who has worked with their daughters at that religious place they don't know much about? Or was it because we looked hungry, whoever we were?

Echoes of the prophesies and parables of Messianic wedding banquets and feasts. Thinking about the Christian tradition that calls the sharing of bread and wine the eucharist. Eucharist being from the Greek eu-karist-o meaning, literally, "I activate grace rightly" and hence, figuratively, "I celebrate". If grace is taken as meaning what God has given us (and I risk oversimplification here, I know) then celebration can be defined as merely a putting into action of what God has given. A putting into action of what God has given. That sounds very much like this evening's curry house squeezing us in on a makeshift table in the corner and serving us extravagent leftovers from the wedding buffet.

So Fiance and I (and all the family) got our communion together, after all. Garlic naan, dipped in tarka dhal, washed down with mango juice.

fellow travellers

This conversation really did take place at a party I was at last night.

NEW ACQUAINTANCE AT PARTY Good evening, so you're Grace? How do you do? Pleased to meet you!

GRACE (slightly taken aback by NAAP's formality) Hi, yes. And how do you know [name of party host omitted for confidentiality] ?

NAAP We're at church together. And I'm a surgeon like her.

GRACE (noting that NAAP appears of an ethnicity not usually indigenous to the region) So have you come over here for a job with [party host]?

NAAP No, it's a long story. But what do you do for a living?

GRACE [description of job omitted for confidentiality]

NAAP Ah Praise the Lord! Now I will indeed tell you. I have come here for a year out, seeking a Road to Damascus experience!

GRACE (thinking "why would anyone want to come here from halfway across the world to do that?!") Now this isn't a place many choose for that...

NAAP At home, in London even, my family is such that, within my community, I've got so much wealth, status... I'm treated as royalty, I am royalty. I chose here because nobody would know my background, I'd not be treated as special...

GRACE makes impressed and admiring noises. HUSSEIN [that's not his real name, obviously] enters. He is also a surgeon and was granted refugee status from an not-to-be-named Middle Eastern country three years ago.

HUSSEIN Sorry to interrupt. But I heard you were talking about the road to Damascus?

NAAP Yes, I was explaining to Grace that it is something I long to travel, that I'm desperately seeking an encounter with Christ...

HUSSEIN So, er, which road to Damascus would that be? And at which point? I mean, where exactly?

NAAP (oblivious to HUSSEIN's lack of understanding of the imagery she is using) All I want is to meet with God. To have an experience of Christ more personal than I have yet found living in such a privileged faith-filled community as I grew up in.

GRACE Er, perhaps it would be helpful if Hussein explained to you where he's from...

HUSSEIN [specifies country of origin] and after I left there my brother and I spent a few months in hiding in a village just off one of the main roads into Damascus. He was killed there, one night. We still don't know who did it, or why.

GRACE (cringeing heavily) Oh er um, God, I didn't know that (slowly sinks through [party host]'s laminate flooring in embarrassment to reprimand self for insensitivity)


I shouldn't have concluded the way I did yesterday. The aim of this blog is not to engage in cheap Bible-bashing-bashing (ie not to moan about the narrow-mindedness of some evangelicals... because we can all of us be narrow-minded when we choose to be) but simply to think, and to find others with whom I can think.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

why jesus wept

Jesus, I think, had always intended his followers to express their faith through community. That, I think, he made clear at the Last Supper, through using the at-that-time-familiar symbols of bread and wine to initiate a sacrament which explains that we're all in this together.

Given that he'd created a ritual, I think Jesus had the forsight to realise that his followers would have taken the initiative to create several thousand more. I doubt this has ever bothers him. I think Jesus is broad-minded and flexible enough to go along with anything we use to understand, explain or worship him.

What Jesus hadn't intended, I think, was for humanity to create endless structures and hierachies to attempt to dictate to one another how to think and believe. And working in an evangelical setting, it sometimes feels to me that the Church does little else.

Friday, 19 October 2007