God is…

God is… what?

God is personal to me. He is not the same for me as he is for you, or my husband, or my parents, or my children, or my neighbours.

God is a teacher. Not in the whole “this stuff is really painful so it must be teaching me something” way. But like the best teachers, He wants to stretch me, test me, make me want to push a bit further. Just when we think we have understood something, there’s that voice whispering in our ear, saying ‘But what if we did this? What would happen if…?’

God is an architect. God is a builder. He designed and built planets, stars, solar systems. He created an infrastructure that supports millions of species.

God is a scientist. He invented life.

God is a woman. She is always right.

God is a man. He invented hormones.

God is a magician. He turns tadpoles into frogs, caterpillars into butterflies, dinosaurs into fossils and apes into humans.

God is an artist. Look around.

God is an adult. He gave us wisdom, experience and the ability and freedom to make choices.

God is a child. He gave us imagination.

God is a parent who wants to protect us, a friend who wants to walk with us.

God is a judge who created justice then used the only loophole in His system to save us.

God is a philosopher. He gave us brains and wants us to ask questions.

God is a rebel. He doesn’t want us to just do as we’re told but to do what’s right.To not just believe what we’re told but to seek truth.

God is love. What, did you not listen to anything I just said?


Peace & Action

The search for God and meaning in the world is probably one of the most commonly shared experiences we have as humans. There is often an emptiness and a hunger to find out about the possibility of something bigger than us. And for many, it can consume a great deal of our lives both in the quest for meaning and in what we do once we have started to find some answers. One of the really important, even crucial, lessons I’ve found lately though is that you never find THE answers. You can never know, for certain, whether there is a God or not and what form He takes; and that is the whole and entire point of faith. And having faith, rather than dogma, means that inevitably there will be a lifelong exploration of issues and opinions will and should change with experience and insight.

I would like, in this post, to very briefly highlight where my spiritual journey has been taking me lately. I have gone through a Roman Catholic upbringing to a period of adolescent questioning and uncertainty to a too-certain Evangelical Christianity. But a group that has interested me for many years that I am now learning about more seriously is the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers.

I’m writing this post because a few things over the past few weeks made me realise that many people don’t know much about Quakers beyond fairly superficial facts, and I think if more people knew something about them, they might discover some of their own personal answers there, an answer to a need which I am encountering more and more.

Today’s world is troubled in so many ways. Social injustice, economic inequality, an inherent and ever more apparent selfishness in society; war, famine, poverty; the destruction of the earth’s natural resources. Quakers are led through peace into action on these and so many other things.

You may think that Quakers just sit in silence, praying or meditating. If my recent learning is anything to go by, they are listening to the Light. The Light is how you might describe God – that something Other. And Quakers believe that there is Light in everyone, and they try to look for it and to act on it. For over 350 years this has led them to deep and meaningful actions, such as resisting conflict, speaking truth to power, leading lives based on truth and equality which if adopted by society as a whole would effectively solve almost all of the world’s problems. I don’t think I’m overstating that – I really think that if everybody lived their lives based on these principles (which, believe me I know, is easier said than done) then we could put an end tomorrow to poverty and injustice and with justice comes peace.

There is a book which Quakers use in regular life called Advices and Queries. A small, thin red book which contains 41 questions or suggestions and gives a useful introduction to Quakerism in practice. It’s not a sacred text such as the Bible or Qu’ran; it is help for the Quaker going about their daily life. I’m going to give a couple of these now.

33. Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society’s conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

This I think is important as much for what it leaves unsaid. People who are discriminated against for who or what they are – poor, old, disabled, of different origin, gay, women… And bearing witness to the humanity of all people – what other way is there to eradicate inequality or injustice?

The following two extracts speak to me very deeply and I find them very inspirational:

27 Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak. 

17. Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you try to sense where they have come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken (emphasis mine).

What a brilliant and clear call for tolerance and humility, which we could all do well to practice more – myself at the top of the list.

I would urge anyone who has questions about the Big Stuff to let yourself ask them – don’t be put off by past negative experiences. But I’d highly recommend asking them to Quakers sooner rather than later, and through practising peace be led into action.

For more information on Quakers in Britain, see here. I’d also recommend reading Harvey Gillman’s book A Light That Is Shining which I read as my first introduction to Quakerism; and there is a new book by Geoffrey Durham called Being A Quaker which I want to read soon. You can also read Quaker Faith and Practice (a book of discipline which includes Advices and Queries) online here.

I am not a Quaker but I am finding out about them, so any Quakers reading this who can put me right on anything, feel free!

The Straw and the Camel

I have been quietly simmering for the last few days, and other than a few comments on Twitter I have kept silent. But Polly Toynbee’s article in the Guardian here today has finally broken this camel’s back.

There are many, many attacks on various churches and faiths at the moment, and it seems that Christians among many other faiths are being reviled. That is, when we are not being ridiculed and dismissed as deluded fanatics in various stages of hysteria. Or angry, hellfire-spouting, self-righteous hypocrites. None of these are particularly flattering, now are they?

I would like to take a few moments to refute some of the assertions made in Toynbee’s article. You are free, as is your human right, to read no further, but please do. It may surprise you, and I will welcome arguments with open arms in the comments.

Women’s bodies are the common battleground, symbols of all religions’ authority and identity. Cover them up with veil or burka, keep them from the altar, shave their heads, give them ritual baths, church them, make them walk a step behind, subject them to men’s authority, keep priests celibately free of women, unclean and unworthy. Eve is the cause of all temptation in Abrahamic faiths. Only by suppressing women can priests and imams hold down the power of sex, the flesh and the devil. The Church of England is on the point of schism over gay priests, women bishops and African homophobia. The secular world looks on in utter perplexity.

Women have long been subjected, with or without religion. If anyone is interested in the Biblical point of view, a Godly marriage is a partnership where both man and woman have rights and responsibilities towards each other. Perhaps people quick to point out the subjection of women should ask themselves whether this repression is carried out with a religious basis or a human, power-hungry one? And Eve is NOT the cause of all temptation. The Devil is. Jesus never discriminated against women; one of the greatest Judges in the Bible is a woman, as is one of the most moving stories of leadership under Queen Esther.

About sex, by the way: WHAT is the obsession with sex in this article? It’s a common misconception that ‘religions’, and Catholics in particular, are grim joykillers who use sex purely for ‘procreating’ – rubbish! People of faith acknowledge sex as one of God’s great gifts, BUT when enjoyed in the context He designed – marriage. Otherwise, like another great gift such as food, people misuse it, glut on it and it loses its inherent beauty. Saying religions oppress sex is a cheap and easy shot without any real thought. There are those who look down on it – ‘prudes’ – but there are as many prudes without faith in God as with.

Sex is a big issue, yes. I personally believe that sex is for marriage, and I come from both sides of the matter here, having lived with my husband for several years before we got married. I would personally prefer ‘our’ version of being ‘obsessed with sex’, in that we stress the importance of keeping it special and reserved for marriage, to the secular version wherein billboards for strip clubs cover the sides of tall office blocks, newspapers have pictures of topless girls as an integral feature, and sex is a casual or even essential part of life among teenagers and even pre-teens. Maybe a higher regard for it would lead to a healthier society? Just a thought.

The Catholic church stance on contraception – yes, this is a more difficult issue, particularly in the light of HIV epidemics and poor families who struggle with many children, and I know this is the tip of the iceberg. But on the other side, is it worth considering the context of this ban on contraception? As in the ideal society wherein sex is reserved for marriage and therefore STDs are not an issue, and a mutual society which cares for its members and tries to prevent poverty so that the number of children you have is not an issue either? Yes, this is an idealistic vision which bears little resemblance to the world. But does that make it less valuable? Should we not picture our ideal society in case it never happens, and should we not try to make it happen? I don’t know on this one. Doubtless the Church should do more against HIV. But it is not a lack of contraceptive that spreads HIV, it is Man’s actions. I am painfully aware I am speaking from my armchair on this one, so I will say no more for now.

Trying to deny the primal life force has led to centuries of persecution, suffering, secrecy and breathtaking hypocrisy. Wherever male cultural leaders hold absolute and unscrutinised power, women and children will be abused. In western secular life this has at last been recognised: in schools, prisons, care homes and within families, wherever the powerless are unseen and unheard, horrors will happen without checks and transparency. Abusers gravitate towards closed organisations, and absolute power turns people into abusers. But the Vatican still talks of a few bad apples requiring internal discipline, the pope refusing to hand rapists over to secular law. Imams, gurus, priests, all hold sway over the vulnerable. As secretive madrasas and new religious “free” schools multiply while officials nervously respect their cultural independence, expect more abuse as bad as the Belgian Catholic cases now emerging.

Abuse is wrong, full stop. It is the more tragic when it is carried out by people of authority, in positions of trust, and these are even more emotive when God enters the question. But it is important to remember that, actually, God is not entering the question. Nowhere does God say His priests can abuse anyone, let alone children. Children are infinitely precious to God. These abusers were taking advantage of their position, which could have been that of a priest, a teacher or a family member. And abuse is more common by a family member than anyone else – talk about a position of trust and authority. These situations were badly handled but demonising all priests and believers is not the way to go. And pre-empting abuse as in the passage above is just, frankly, silly and hysterical.

The other dominion the religions control is death. Were it not for the faiths with their grip on hospices and palliative care, the law on assisted dying would be reformed

Yikes! So is Toynbee advocating a free-for-all? Perhaps someone SHOULD have a grip on hospices? In fact, if we’re on the question of hospices, perhaps we should be grateful that faiths have such a care for the dying that they provide hospices at all? I do not see the government trying desperately to provide palliative care but prevented by the grip of those darned faiths.

In a week when, on the wilder fringes, a Florida pastor’s threat to burn200 copies of the Qur’an risked igniting holy war among equally extreme battalions of Islamist fundamentalists, while hate-filled Christians try to stop the building of a Muslim centre in a New York that is remembering the jihadist attack victims, nobody needs reminding of the incendiary dangers of religion. But just when democracies should determinedly separate religion from state, the British state appeases, most alarmingly in new segregated schools. Why invite the pope on a “state” visit costing millions in a time of cutbacks?

The threat to burn the Qu’ran did not risk igniting holy war. Muslims were, quite naturally, offended by some insensitive fool threatening to destroy their holy book. I would be rather offended if people said they were going to burn the Bible, although I expect to see it any day now. The stated warnings from the US and UK governments that the burning would endanger the troops in Afghanistan was ridiculous. The troops are an Invasion force occupying a foreign country with little justification, spending millions in the process. They are already under threat. The key to their safety lies in the hands of the governments keeping them there.

And, by the way, a ‘”state” visit’? The Pope is a Head of State, so like it or not, his visit is a State visit. What he does on his visit is another matter. Yes, he will celebrate Mass. Are you seriously proposing that the Pope does NOT celebrate Mass? Would you ask a Muslim leader to not carry out his daily prayers while on a visit somewhere? And should he not advocate his views and opinions? Where would his moral stance be then? He would be quite rightly criticised as a hypocrite for keeping quiet merely to avoid rocking the boat. Kind of a lose-lose situation there I think.

All atheists now tend to be called “militant”, yet we seek to silence none, to burn no books, to stop no masses or Friday prayers, impose no laws, asking only free choice over sex and death. Religion deserves its say, but only proportional to its numbers. No privileges, no special protection against feeling offended.

No, militant atheists are called militant. At the risk of generalising as badly as Toynbee does here, atheists may not seek to silence any by force, but I have too often lately seen ridicule, humiliation and laughing dismissal of faith to doubt that there is silencing by emotional means. We are often seen as deluded and retrogressive. God? Who believes in that old chestnut any more? Why believe in a Creator when we’ve nearly discovered the God Particle? Excuse me, but where did the God Particle come from? Am I missing something here? And one more question here – why shouldn’t there be any special protection against feeling offended? Surely everyone should be protected from feeling offended – no matter their beliefs. I have the greatest respect for atheists, provided they treat me with the same, and do not offer lazy, trite arguments without any knowledge of my faith which they are dismissing without any interest in hearing my side of things.

The director of pastoral affairs in the Westminster diocese, Edmund Adamus, says Britain has become a “selfish hedonistic wasteland” of sex and secularism. He echoes the supreme arrogance of all the religious who claim there is no morality without God. Nonsense, but unlike the religious the godless claim no moral superiority. Wise humanists know that good and bad are pretty evenly distributed. Humanity has an innate moral sense, without threats of divine wrath and reward. Good and bad works are done by both the secular and the religious. But wherever the institutions of religion wield real power, they prove a force for cruelty and hypocrisy.

‘Nonsense’? In the very sentence after declaiming the ‘supreme arrogance’ of religion? Ha! But seriously, the ‘religious’ do not see themselves as morally superior. We are aware of our failings and faults, acutely aware, but we have the joy and hope of salvation. Unlike the non-religious, those of ‘faith’ do not claim that our worth comes from us ourselves, our own merits. Any merits we have we know to be the gift of God and an echo of Him in ourselves. Our soul is our part of God that we carry with us, and any good in me is entirely down to how much I let God work through me. I have often, lately, been given the great compliment of being a good listener and a caring person. I would say to those people, that this is entirely due to my blossoming confidence in my own worth as a woman of God. That there is One who loves me no matter what, so I want, need, to extend this unconditional love to those I care about. And in case you are thinking, “Yes, but those will be other Christians”, no, actually, they’re not. The ones I am particularly thinking of as I type are staunchly atheist. But then again, you cannot trust what I say, because I am a “hate-filled Christian” (from the article quoted here). Huh.

Can I really let the last sentence of this section pass without comment? That the institutions of religion prove a force for cruelty and hypocrisy? That no other institutions do the same? Can I really not point out that bodies such as the Quakers fought the hardest against slavery? That Jesuits provided education that would only have been the purlieu of the rich? The problem is not that God is in the equation, but that His name is, and is being used as a cover. Humankind in any institution or force has again and again proven a force for cruelty and hypocrisy.

Atheists are good haters, they claim, but feeble compared with the religious sects. Atheists have dried-up souls, without spiritual or visionary transcendentalism. To which we say: the human imagination is all we need to hold in awe. Live in optimism without fear of judgment and death. There is enough purpose and meaning in life, love and leaving a good legacy. Oppose the danger of religious zealotry with the liberating belief that life on earth is precious because this here and now is all there is, and our destiny is in our own hands.

Do atheists have souls? I mean, by their own arguments? This is a genuine question. If so, why, if this is all there is? Life on earth is no less precious because of a hope in the hereafter- it is more so. I mentioned before that we have the hope of salvation – if this is deluded, then I am glad to be deluded because I do have hope, I have a reason for my existence greater than being a mere chance, I have knowledge of myself as a child of God and a wondrous creation, not just a random assortment of molecules. I have witnessed a love greater than I can describe, and while articles that denigrate that love rile me, I know that God can transcend that, without my pitiful blog post in His defence.

My belief does not oppress me – it liberates me far more than I could ever have imagined.

To err is human…

…to forgive divine. Alexander Pope

I’ve been thinking a bit about this quote lately. Taking it literally, it works out well for me. Especially since most people focus on the first part and use it as justification for something they’ve done. Or not done. Or said, or not said. You get the message.

“Well, I know I shouldn’t have done x, y, z, but you know, to err is human and all that.” Uh-huh, and at this point the other person is supposed to be divine and forgive, just like that. That’s not going to happen, realistically. So it’s a win-win situation – I can err, because I’m human, and that’s what humans do, and I don’t have to forgive because that’s God’s job.

The problem is, I’m not let off the hook that easily. First off, forgiveness is important. I think that’s a fairly unarguable statement, whether you believe in God or not. If you know you’ve done something wrong, you like to know that the person you’ve hurt has forgiven you. If you’ve been the victim, you need to get some closure from the hurt, and draw a line under that chapter of your life. That’s basically forgiveness – letting go of the offence so it can’t hurt you any more.

If you do believe in God, forgiveness is taken to a whole new level. There’s the ultimate forgiveness, for all human sin. Yes, to err is human. Sin is essentially turning away from God, choosing self over God, and humans do that on a spectacular scale. We all have free will, and the best of us uses it at some point to do what we want to do, not what God wants. There has only ever been one perfect man who unfailingly chose to put God’s will over his own free will, and that was Jesus. And let’s be honest, we should pay for that. We are hurting God every time we sin, in the same way that we are hurt when people betray us or let us down. If we need forgiveness from each other, how much more do we need it from God? But God does not have to forgive us – He does not have to do anything. Which makes it even more amazing that He does. There is a whole other discussion here on sin, redemption and salvation, but I’ll save that for another time. The relevant point today is that God forgives us  – and, by the way, that means for the bitching x did about y last week, as well as the pack of cigarettes z nicked from the corner shop last week, as well as the countless innocents killed by wars, and the wife killed by her husband for not cooking the dinner properly. God’s forgiveness does not have criteria or a cut off point, it is there for all sins, even if we personally think they are unforgiveable. In His eyes sins are not graded, they are all equally bad, so it’s a good job it is up to Him to forgive them, not us.

But on the other side of that, He is also calling on the part of Him in each of us to forgive each other. This is hard. To forgive is divine, and since we are made in His image it is a standard we are asked to aspire to. Forgiveness may be important, as I said earlier, but not necessarily imperative until you bring God into the equation. He directly commands us to forgive when He gives us the perfect prayer to use:

Our Father in Heaven,

hallowed be Your Name,

Your Kingdom come,

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

As we have also forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matthew 6:9-13 NIV). Most people know these two lines as ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. It’s hit-you-over-the-head clear that forgiveness is not optional, and it ties in with the rest of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbours.

Now, confession time. I find forgiveness a real struggle. Even as I am writing this, I am painfully aware of offences against me both long-term and recent, and I am bitter and hurt. It’s the reason I wrote this post – I know what I need to do, I know what God calls me to do, and I do struggle. I take things very personally and very deeply. I invest a lot in relationships and when those relationships let me down I grieve for a long time. It’s not so bad when people apologise – I can move on. But there is no sub-clause saying “as we have also forgiven our debtors [*as long as they’re really, really sorry]”. Jesus says, again unequivocally, that you have to love your enemies. Forgive anyone who has wronged you. And this is one of the many places where I fall down. I’m naturally clumsy, and never more so than on the road to God. But I have to learn, slowly and painfully, that I cannot have the whole-hearted, joyous relationship with God that I want while I am carrying this burden. It is a real, heavy burden, that twists your heart and colours everyday life with bitterness. I suspect there are thousands, maybe millions of people under similar burdens, of varying shapes and sizes. Luckily, Jesus knows we are human, with failings, and He’s got a lifebelt for us.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28)

If we call on Him, He will help us. The only way I will get rid of my burden is to offload it onto Him. I need to pray for the strength to leave old wounds behind and look ahead. And when I’ve done that, I can have hope that my own sins (against God and others) are also forgiven.

On God, #1

This post is a bit of a new direction for me, but I felt it was something I should write.

At the risk of putting off some readers, I have to say I am a practising Christian.

Wow, writing that felt like I was confessing to some heinous crime.

When I say I am a ‘practising’ Christian, I know that can be taken in a number of ways. I am practising in the sense that I go to Church most weeks, I pray, I read the Bible, I have faith in a living God and His Son who bought our salvation by His death. On the other hand, I am not a practising Christian, in the sense that I know certain truths and values to be priorities for Christians and I constantly fall short of this. I have yet to fit the Christian part of me comfortably into the external projection of myself, so that when I am with people who do not believe in God, I hide my own faith until directly confronted with a question, but when with other Christians, I am uncomfortably aware of my lack of continuity and commitment. I guess in a third sense, I am practising in an endeavour to improve!

I would also like to make a distinction at this point between myself and some who do claim, rather loudly, to be Christians and to represent Christianity. There are those who take passages from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and (I believe) distort them to justify acts of violence, discrimination and hate. I believe that the God I am coming to know more and more has a deep love of people, and is saddened by these acts. I don’t want to go into particular details here, each issue is a discussion in itself, but the fact is that Christianity is based on God loving the world (not just one sector of society) so much that He sent His only Son to die for it. That kind of love just does not match up with the kind of things some people are saying and doing in the name of God or Christ.

Jesus made it very clear that God is about love. His teachings in the Gospel emphasise that people need to show love for each other in every aspect of their lives and use this as a base for their actions – Matthew 22:37 – 40 reads “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” On the basis of this, we are told not to judge others until we have judged ourselves. Specifically: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged…Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt 7:1 – 3). This passage is often overlooked by those who are quick to condemn (either verbally or more violently) others for things they do, and I know that I am also guilty of this.

The good news is, it’s not just one way. We have to show love for God and for each other, but we get it back from God in bucketloads. I often find myself trying to sort things that go wrong out on my own, instead of praying about it or asking for help. When I do turn back to God, I feel His love almost as a physical sensation. It’s a wonderful feeling that cannot be described. There are hard times, times when I need to learn a lesson, but I am reminded constantly that God is not abandoning me during those times, any more than I abandon my son when I stop him having a biscuit or sticking his fingers into an electric socket. When I don’t feel God with me, it’s because I am shutting Him out and trying to go it alone. God wants to be allowed to love me, I just have to let Him.