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Journeying in Faith – Alan Jamieson

July 30, 2013

JIFI bought this book after enjoying the author’s `A Churchless Faith.’

He looks at the sort of faith held by people who have left the church, either physically or in their minds. There’s lots of good stuff here and it’s quite orthodox. It’s a pity that preachers and church groups are so afraid of shocking people with exploration in case they lose them. They are losing them anyway, because they are scared of exploration. He recounts a retelling of a famous parable to read that we are too busy looking after our ninety-nine sheep to waste time on the silly one that’s wandered off.

As explains, early on: The third group is those who care and want to support others in the deserts of faith and church. As Mark said, `There is a huge gap when it comes to “being there” for people’ in the midst of their faith struggles, questions and doubts. The following chapters will help people who want to be alongside others. In A Churchless Faith the idea of leaver-sensitive churches — that is, those churches which are open to the concerns and needs of potential church leavers — is explored. I believe there is a huge role for churches and people who will take seriously the faith journeys of the leavers, providing resources, support and companionship as people traverse the difficult places of faith. Philip Richter and Leslie Francis in Gone But Not Forgotten retell one of Jesus’ parables, saying `Which of you, having a hundred sheep, if you have lost one of them, does not say: “We can’t be bothered to look for strays. We’ve got a farm to run here! We can’t risk the ninety-nine for the sake of just one. If the sheep has gone, it’s gone. It’s not our fault sheep are silly! We’ve got other important things to worry about.” The chapters that follow try to give understanding and resources that interested churches could adapt for their own contexts. These resources are for those who recognize that the ones and twos who leave are worth following and that their faith is of primary importance to God and their journeys significant for the future shape of the churches.
Of course this is not the dominant view taken by EPC (evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic) church leaders. Stereotypes and misunderstandings continue to prevail when it comes to people who leave, or consider leaving, church. Sadly, much blame is put on those who leave and often the only option considered open to them is `to repent’ and come back to the church. Because of this it is important to clearly re-state that the aim of this book is not about getting people back to church or keeping them there: that is a peripheral and secondary concern. Rather we are concerned with each person’s faith and how each of us can be `called again’ with authenticity and integrity to the God we, like Mark, once followed with enthusiasm and commitment. Our focus, therefore, will not be `church’ but Christian faith and how that faith is nurtured and developed in the really difficult places. Looking at the book from a church perspective it is for those who leave and those who stay and those who care and want to support others in and through the deserts of Christian faith. This is not an attack on the Church.

Why is it that many Christians don’t know, or don’t heed St. John of the Cross? When someone gets into the dark night of the soul, they try to switch the lights on so as to give artificial comfort; to stop the journey rather than encourage it?

The author quotes someone as saying that paradox is like a battery. If you hold the two poles together you get energy. If you separate them, you get a lifeless spectre. How many churches see their raison d’être as being to hold lifeless specters in their congregations and to shun new life and energy?

I am no fan of C. S. Lewis but liked this story: `Asian, Asian. Dear Asian,’ sobbed Lucy. ‘At last.’
The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.
`Welcome, child,’ he said.
`Asian,’ said Lucy. ‘You’re bigger.’
`That is because you are older, little one,’ answered he. `Not because you are?’
`I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger,’ said Aslan.”
Through this picture C. S. Lewis invites us to see God in new ways. It is this kind of understanding that Brenda came to as she wrestled with her own questions about God, faith, scripture and what it means to follow God in life.
Brenda I still have many questions. But I have discovered something of the beauty of mystery, of things that are ‘too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain’. I feel that my spiritual journey was one that required me to die on the inside in order to truly come alive to God, a God that was a lot bigger than I’d ever imagined, giving me a new understanding of the verse: ‘Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it can bear no fruit.’
And as we wrestle with our own questions, the following words of St John of the Cross may be worth holding on to:
To come to what you know not
You must go by the way where you know not . . . To come to what you are not
You must go by a way where you are not.
Also this, on honesty: Luther would remind us at such times that `the curses of a godless man can sound more pleasant in God’s ears than the hallelujahs of the pious’.

And: Prayer is the language of friendship — the language of love. Prayer, I think, is very much like kissing. On a more humorous level there are the obvious similarities, like being unsure whether to leave our eyes open or shut, whether to go ‘um’ or `mmh’ and make other encouraging noises. In both there is the vexed issue of tongues. Yet on a more serious level they are both languages of love and intimacy. They both signal a special, personal and unique relationship. In both we feel very awkward as we begin — perhaps even embarrassed. Both take a long time for us to learn how to be in tune with our partner. They are both personal and somewhat embarrassing to try to explain at a personal level, and they are both splendidly useless in the sense that they don’t appear to achieve anything. In fact, because they are languages of love, it would be mercenary to suggest that they are entered into as a means/ends equation.
The link between prayer and kissing is not simply humorous or illustrative but also deeply biblical and revelatory. The biblical accounts of kissing are perhaps more extensive and more revealing about our relationship with God than we might first have expected. There are the well-known examples of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss and Mary Magdalene kissing Jesus’ feet. But there are also the less familiar: the father kissing the prodigal son as he returns; Jesus saying to Peter, ‘You never kissed me as she did’, Paul being showered in kisses by the elders at Ephesus, and church members being told to greet each other with a kiss.’ Some clearly followed this instruction to such an extent that Clement of Alexandria complained there was too much of it going on. The biblical use of the image of the kiss is highly revelatory. In Jewish tradition Moses, Enoch and Elijah were taken into heaven by the kiss of God, and eternity itself was seen as the perfect kiss that flows from God. So too, human life was kissed into being as God breathed into humans the breath of life and the Holy Spirit was given to the early Church as Jesus did the same thing, breathing the Holy Spirit into the disciples. Now if the gift of human life, the coming of the Spirit and eternity are seen as the kiss of God, then surely the link between kissing and our relationship with God in prayer is worthy of some greater reflection.
The languages of love, prayer and kissing help us to see the intimacy and personal and loving nature of prayer.
The scriptures begin with a remarkable picture of the relation¬ship between God and the people in the garden. Genesis 3.8 reminds us that the Lord God walked in the garden to meet with

He cites Annie Dillard who: explores this universal human experience, describing the death of a moth in a candle flame and the suffering of a child burned in an aeroplane accident with complete simplicity and vividness as she moves to pose this suffering against the character of God. … Easter, the Christian faith proclaims, is God’s answer to Dillard’s question. That time when the suffering of an agonizing cross, the silence and absence of death and the alleluia of resurrection collide. Easter is the record of God lashing himself as a man to a tree for love. It is the record of the alleluia heard through the agony and absence of cross and tomb. Here suffering, God and worship collide in surprising ways. The story is truncated in the Gospel of Mark. Devoid of resurrection appearances and all but one of the sayings of Jesus on the cross, Mark’s Gospel ends simply with the empty tomb. There are no accounts of Thomas putting his finger into the wounds of the risen Christ, or of grave clothes being neatly stacked. There is no journey on the road to Emmaus or breakfast on the beach with the disciples. But what the Gospel of Mark does is to record the faith of one character who is given no name and bout whom we have absolutely no personal information. He appears twice; each time taking up only one verse. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus, he wasn’t a Jew, he probably never heard Jesus teach or saw him perform a miracle, and he almost certainly never saw the risen Christ. Yet while the creeds record that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the real work — the dirty work — was done by this man, the centurion and the soldiers under his command. While Pilate went to his lunch, a mid-day nap and a long soak in the baths it was this Roman officer who took Jesus’ plight into his hands. He stood at the foot of the cross when the nails were banged into place and the cross raised. He watched as Jesus died. He is an unusual witness, one that Mark had no reason to invent. Yet it is from his lips that the Gospel records the words, `Surely this was the Son of God’.
What did the centurion see? He had surely seen crucifixions many times before. The cross had been widely used across the Empire for hundreds of years. It was something this Roman soldier had been through many times. Sometimes one or two were executed at a time, but there are also records of hundreds, even thousands, being crucified together. On this morning he walked with the three condemned men as he had walked with so many before them. Through the city streets and out of the city gate they walked towards the rubbish dump where the crosses were to be erected. The centurion was there as the soldiers stripped the robe from Jesus’ back. He would have heard the cry as the scabs of congealed blood formed between flesh and cloth were ripped open.
He would have supervised the nailing. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see the agony on Jesus’ face as the cross was dropped into the hole, or the repeated groans as he struggled to raise himself on to the nails in his feet long enough to gasp a breath, only to be overcome by the searing pain of the nails and forced to drop back down again to hang by the nails through his wrists. Up and down, agonizing breath by agonizing breath, his energy was slowly drained away. If this was someone’s first experience of a crucifixion it would no doubt be a horrific experience — but this would not have been true for the centurion. He, like the soldiers squabbling over Jesus’ clothes, had seen it all before.
He may have watched as the flies buzzed around Jesus’ face, over the open flesh where whip and crown had pierced, down his naked body to his legs splattered by blood, dirt and urine. He’d seen it all before. And yet something captured his attention and held this career soldier’s gaze. Was it Jesus’ acceptance of his suffering and death? The way he refused to answer Pilate’s questions? In Mark’s account Jesus only speaks once at Pilate’s trial, responding to Pilate’s question: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ with the words `Yes, it is as you say.’ There is no fighting, no struggling, no bargaining or begging. The centurion observes this acceptance of death and suffering. This willingness to go all the way, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: ‘Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.’
He listened to the one cry from the cross recorded by Mark: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The limit of words possible from one breath as nailed feet punctuated his prayer. This prayer was at once a cry of Christ’s reality, abandonment and alienation wedded to the cry of relationship and faith: ‘My God, my God.’
While listening to his prayer as death approached, a fuller reality dawned on the centurion. Here was suffering: suffering at a depth and intensity he had never seen before. The cup willingly taken from the hand of this man’s God. ‘Surely this was the Son of God,’ he said.
The centurion was not convinced by Jesus’ teaching or miracles, he was not swayed by the empty tomb or resurrection appearances; what captivated his heart and implanted faith was Christ’s suffering. He didn’t need more evidence of Christ’s power; his identification with humanity was what mattered. For in his suffering the authenticity of Christ was shown. This centurion, the very best judge we could have at such a moment, was convinced: ‘This was the Son of God.’
In the midst of our world of suffering and pain this is the conviction we need as well. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned in a Nazi cell awaiting torture and death, wrote repeatedly: ‘Only a suffering God will do.’ In our own sufferings this mantra of Bonhoeffer carries increased weight. Only a God who enters and experiences our suffering will do. It is a plea picked up by Edward Shillito writing from the trenches of World War I: If we have never sought, we seek Thee now; Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars; We must have sight of thorn-marks on Thy brow, We must have Thee, 0 Jesus of the scars.
The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.’
The scriptures say you can’t see the glory of God and live, maybe the suffering of God is his glory and we could not observe this suffering of God and survive.’ If so, this centurion saw enough to know this could only be God. It is what Annie Dillard longs for in Holy the Firm; God identifying with. Not just identifying with; but God shattered and dying. God suffering and pained as we are. God dying, scarred and dirty in every sense but also fully God in every sense. The two in one. Suffering and glory wedded. The universal human reality locked into the reality of God. Holy God yet firm and real, encompassed in suffering and death. This is what the centurion saw. Is this why he drew close and looked carefully, seeing not just another madman, criminal or political activist dying on a cross like so many others he had seen before, but Jesus Christ?
Here, in the midst of Good Friday’s suffering and pain, we see two statements of worship: one from the mouth of Christ and one from the centurion — neither one denying or minimizing the enormity of the suffering and alienation of the moment but in both heartfelt and authentic worship. In one obedience even to a cross with the words ‘My God, my God’. Words full of personal connection and conviction. God exists for Christ even in this moment when his face is hidden and God has abandoned him Christ’s abandonment and God’s absence have not stolen from him the faith that God is. And this God is his God. This is worship in the midst of the storm — ‘My God, my God.’ Like the prayers of Job reduced to a profound simplicity. And then the statement of the centurion, again simple conviction without any gloss: ‘Surely this was the Son of God.’ Here we see the worship of the dark night. The praise of the desert. Faithful suffering when God hides his face. Gone is the exuberance of songs and dancing: the words are direct and simple, yet they carry every ounce of who we are. …
Faith would be that God is self-limited utterly by his creation a contradiction of the scope of his will; that he bound himself to time and its hazards and haps as a man would lash himself to a tree for love . . . That God is helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen. Faith would be that God moved and moves once and for all and ‘down’, so to speak, like a diver, like a man who eternally gathers himself for a dive and eternally is diving, and eternally splitting the spread of the water, and eternally drowned.’

Fowler’s stages of faith development come in for a lot of stick but I get the feeling that the critics are those whose faith is underdeveloped so they become defensive. The author quotes Alan Jones: It seems to be a maxim of the spiritual life that no-one undergoes spiritual or psychological growth and change willingly. We are either dragged into it kicking and screaming, or circumstances force us into the next scene of the human comedy. Ironically the institutional church is often an obstacle to spiritual growth. As we have seen, it has something of an investment in keeping its members in an infantile state.

Scott Peck reckons that twenty per cent of adults are stuck in the literal stage, which belongs to childhood. Indeed, I agree with them, have done some work on this and written about it. Why haven’t they progressed? Is it something to do with their intellect? I don’t think so because there quite a few PhDs in conservative churches who are happy to parrot `The Bible clearly says…’ or `The pastor/Church teaches, which is, at least, some progress towards the adolescent phase where loyalty is key.

The author then goes on to give a very succinct overview of Fowler’s stages. If you are unfamiliar with them you get the gist in a few pages instead of ploughing through much longer works by others.

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