Sabbatical Musings

Based on reading books by Rowan Williams, Graham Tomlin, Richard Rohr, Susan Cain, and places and people visited.

Much of my sabbatical reading turned out to be connected with issues of power, control, and vulnerability. Not surprising then, that I simply had to take a photo of this massive installation on a wall in the MACBA museum of contemporary art in Barcelona. A lot to chew over in it. You’ll have to click on the picture to see it properly (Apologies, collective MACBA exhibition, I cannot find the name of the artist.)

In the last few months, I have read that, strangely enough, the omnipotent God would seem to be beyond power, at least in the sense that we know it.

It is when Christ is stripped of all worldly accompaniment of power that he reveals who he is. Through his unwillingness to wield power to magic up our idea of a happy ending, he achieves, with this seeming ‘failure’ that leads to resurrection, something more important than power. ‘The recreation of a relationship of trust on the far side of the most extreme of human suffering and death’.* It would seem that the power of God is the power to love to the point of sacrifice.

This thought is inconvenient to us Christians, because we like the idea of surfing on the power of God, (which we equate with BIG IMPRESSIVE STUFF) as if riding to victory holding on to a dolphin’s fin. But the death of Jesus puts paid to the idea that God’s power is like ours only bigger, and that we need to cling to it, since he gave it to us. If it is his kind of power he invites us to seek, it is a counter-cultural gift which we are invited to allow to take its place inside us.

The relationship of trust is important to God. He does not coerce like a dictator. Richard Rohr calls Him ‘The great allower’ and says ‘we need to forgive God for being too generous in freedom’. Often we want God to just MAKE humans behave right. Or even make US behave right, instead of allowing us perplexing choice? Perhaps this reflects our own desire for control over aspects of our lives that escape us, and over other people’s lives, choices and emotions. And how often do we say, ‘If Christianity were true, this or that wouldn‘t be happening’.

So in struggles with idealism, disappointment with areas of failure, I have to remember that God does not impose from the sky, but restores from within. That Jesus takes his stand in the middle of two realities, came to live in our world among chaos and disappointment (Judas was one of his closest friends), and that Christians are called to do the same. We have contradiction at our core but Jesus meets us there, and that is where we need to meet others. The coast at Freswick spoke to me strongly about grace: beauty has emerged in a landscape sculpted by conflict of the elements. ‘The crucifixion tells us that God is not dethroned by any extent of failure’*.

How do we find words to convey the reality of this ‘unconventional triumph’* of Christ? Our vocabulary is smooth, full of short cuts, media soundbites. How is it that the church speaks so often with a vocabulary of power, rather than from a place of vulnerability? And ‘How do we wear our Christian identity ‘?+ Like the badge of a club, we have the power to belong, they do not? ‘The Christian identity can never be a way of separating myself from others, placing myself against the ‘ungodly’ but an identity which invites me to be for them’+.

While at Lee Abbey I was lent Susan Cain’s book ‘The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century, exploring how deeply it has come to permeate our culture and, in one chapter, our churches. A church leader tells her quite frankly that should he receive an application from a pastor who showed up in tests as an introvert (it is illegal to use personality tests in job selection procedures, but that apart) he would reject the application out of hand since Jesus was clearly an extrovert. Really?

The contemporary western church knows the power of extrovert communication, social media, talking up the numbers, and the use of a uniform power-dressed style of music in worship. Is there room for a counter-cultural art that lifts the spirit in a different way? For allowing introverts, and people who have little power, the space to have a voice? How do we account for the power-struggles and spiritual one-upmanship we encounter in our churches? Which way are things happening? The church’s alternative type of power renewing society, or the church being moulded by society’s concept of power?

We have visited Barcelona 3 times, and each time the Monastir de Pedralbes, with its angel on a fountain, singing or conducting into a corner, has moved us. Singing into a corner could actually be not bad, since the sound will bounce back out into the courtyard, but it isn’t guaranteed to give you a great sense of self-worth. Breaking the alabaster flask was also a strange thing to do, a misunderstood gesture of devotion.This Monastery feels like a place in which God has been loved. It would be great to create a musical space, a home, a text, where God has been loved, in which people can wander in a similar way.

There are too many threads that came out of reading and discussion and too many rich experiences to link them all together here. The inexplicably strong sense of God’s love, in the landscape of Scotland. Meals with friends. A comment on the good wine being last, that the later years of a career can produce the best work. That being wholehearted for God does not represent imprisonment and limitation, but the opposite. An impromptu post-dinner rendering of traditional Basque songs. Being asked to represent in clay the story of our lives. We worked out what motivates us, what stresses us out, and where we need to draw some boundaries. We will need help in that, but in the relationship of trust God chooses to build, we ‘dance with a partner’**, not alone.

I found this phrase in the chapel of The Society of Mary and Martha, in Devon.
‘Servant Christ, renew your spirit in our hearts’. Seems like the kind of thing we ought to be praying ….

*Rowan Williams: meeting God in Mark and Baptism, Eucharist and Prayer
+Graham Tomlin: Looking through the Cross
**Richard Rohr: Breathing under water

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