This blog is a revisiting of one I wrote when I was away. One I wrote that I subsequently lost due to a random click on the computer by me. Yes, I did that awful thing of editing what I had written because I wanted to split the blog into two and then saving without renaming, and ended up losing the original, ouch!
Anyway I would still like to revisit the disappeared one, so here it is, reconstituted.
This blog is inspired in part by a guy called Rob Bell, a favourite of mine in so many ways. He started out as a leader in the evangelical movement in the US, in charge of a mega church with thousands of people, a darling of the religious right. Then he had an epiphany, and realised that what he was preaching about Christianity, about heaven and hell, and who was going where, just didn’t fit with the message of Jesus. So he left his mega church, renounced the trappings of his position, the power and the popularity and the money, wrote a book called “Love Wins” and started a journey to a more open exploring faith. In the process he went from the darling of the evangelical movement to its enemy, and you only have to look on facebook to see how much they now attack him for being a traitor to the cause.
While being an author, Rob Bell also does podcasts, where he interviews a wide selection of people, from varied faith traditions to explore what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century. Recently one of those podcasts caught my attention in a big way! Just before I left I listened to Rob interview a guy called Peter Rollins, a philosopher and theologian from Belfast, with a wonderful accent, a dry sense of humour and an incredible and deep interest in the “God “question.
Rob Bell and Peter Rollins did 4 podcasts together, where they talked about God and of course about Christianity and about spirituality in our world and time. They were great, but the third one in particular made me sit up and take notice. It was on the absurdity of faith and in particular the absurdity of the Christian faith. It really struck a chord.
Of course faith seems totally absurd in our modern, scientific world where everything is measured and what can’t be measured can’t be true. But somehow Jesus is the ultimate absurdity, even after 2,000. Traditionally the people of the first century were expecting a Messiah, a messenger from God, to come and rescue them, to put things right, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, and turn around the world. To renew creation by power and might.
And what did they get?
What they got was a humble, peasant carpenter, quite possibly illiterate, but who could teach and tell stories and parables, who revealed the creative presence of God in the world and showed those who listened how to bring light rather than darkness and despair, who called for community, equity and justice, and who died a horrible death on a cross.
What, that can’t be right! Where is the power and might?
Jesus, in his life, in his words and deeds, represented the powerless, not powerful, and called for forgiveness over retribution, peace over violence and most essentially love over hate. The reason Jesus was killed is quite simple really, but we complicate it with rules and beliefs that exclude and divide, and he would be probably horrified. He challenged those with power and those in power responded by getting rid of this radical, scandalous messenger.
Or so they thought!
Before Jesus died he called his listeners to join in and follow him.
And that’s the amazing thing! They did and still do.
Regardless of what you think about the resurrection, literal, spiritual, or something else, Jesus’s life and teachings still resonate with people today, as they have done for centuries. The call is still there! Changing people’s lives, and the lives of those around them, inspiring them to give up things to make the world or their little bit of the world better. His message still has the power to speak to people today and completely transform them. Jesus revealed and continues to reveal life’s hidden mystery. Of God’s renewing power and presence within each one of us that can make a difference, and when we enter the stream of that mystery we can live lives of freedom and joy. We become better more complete people.
This may sound absurd today when what we hear mostly is that money and possession or jobs define us. But that’s not really true. What defines us best is how we love one another, and that includes ourselves, and what we contribute. And we have an urge within each one of us to do this if we listen to this persistant inner voice. Which is why Jesus’s message, while absurd to many modern ears, strikes a chord to others. But it’s not about getting to heaven, it’s about living the best way we can here and now.
Rob Bell realised that the type of Christianity he was presenting, that you have to believe and act a certain way to be in the group, otherwise you were definitely out, and not just out but lost forever, seemed horrible and out of step with its founder. In fact it seemed more in step with modern society that says the things which divide us are greater than those that connect us. So he left. To become a Jesus follower, to preach the Jesus way. An absurd decision and one in which he had to give up a lot.
As for little old me, I could be following the standard route as a scientist but I have chosen to follow a slightly crazy path, serving a small Uniting church congregation in Wembley Downs while combining it with secular employment. Recently I have had the opportunity to break away, giving up the church work altogether to do a Phd in Anatomy and Human Biology and finally be a proper scientist! Mmm, tempting!
Yet somehow that is not what my heart is saying.
Like Rob Bell, it seems totally absurd but I am about to commit for another 3 years to this small, but very active congregation, as long as they will have me, and leave thoughts of Phds behind. Certainly scientific ones. As one friend said, I will have to be a Dr in a parallel universe! Thoughts of Dr Who!
But it opens up a new path, which feels exciting and really quite freeing.
After walking the Camino again, a great time for reflection, I realise I want to show those that will listen that all things in life are not clear and measureable. That the path or journey of faith is one worth following. And that the way and teachings of Jesus gives us a glimpse of that path. Even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is what I have been waiting for all my life!
Absurd as it seems!
We are nearing the end of our adventure, and I thought I should do one last blog. Those of you on facebook have been inundated with photos from the Camino, then wonderful Portugal and finally southern Spain. Hope you have enjoyed them as much as we have enjoyed sharing them.
So what to write in my last blog? Well I have decided to write about churches, yep, that’s right, just a few of the churches and cathedrals we have visited, or more aptly that I have dragged Matt into. After all, both Spain and Portugal are Catholic countries and revere their traditions and religious history greatly.
But this is not going to be just a travelogue. Because the one thing I do want to say, is that more and more I became rather disillusioned by what we were seeing. Not so much on the Camino where the churches were simple and humble, in keeping with the inspiration behind the Christian faith, a humble, peasant carpenter. Often these small churches were kept open by congregational members, and tended lovingly as a centre of village life. But as we moved centuries the churches became more grandiose and spectacular, until I feel Jesus and his message was left behind.
So let’s start with the cathedral at the end of the Camino. While this time we did a section between Astorga and Sarria, and so did not walk into Santiago, we still went to the cathedral when we got into town. And it is still a wonderful experience. As pilgrims having walked some of the Camino, and it doesn’t matter to anyone how much and just how, whether walking, bike riding or even riding a horse, the pilgrims service is very meaningful, as the names of the countries from where we have all come are read out. Of course as Australia starts with an A we were read first, but there were so many people there from all over the world. The service is spoken in many of the main languages and it is surprisingly moving considering that they still allow tourists to roams around during it. We were hoping to see the large botafumeiro or incense burner swing, but these days they only do it on festival days, or if someone pays!
But the cathedral is very grand, and a great deal of gold and glitter can be found not only in the main alter but also in the side chapels. It seems to contrast sharply with the dusty, dirty pilgrims, many who go straight to the cathedral to see St James and touch the statue
Gold and glitter seemed to be the order of the day in churches, monasteries and cathedrals, particularly from the 15-16th century onwards. Churches became more ornate, more elaborate as we went along, until we saw the ultimate. The Church of St Francis in Porto! A church with so much gold and glitter it was breathtaking and sickening all at once. It was seen as so precious we couldn’t take photos, but every conceivable surface was covered. I am not sure about St Frances but I think Jesus would be horrified. Maybe that’s why it does not operate any services any more.
Then an example of this contrast between a church building and the message of Jesus came to us by surprise as we drove down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. We stopped in Tomar, a lovely town, which also had an incredible Knights Templar Convento de Cristo or monastery. Within the monastery we found an amazing 16 sided church, an imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Really an amazing church which we admired greatly, until we looked a bit closer. It had in the middle a circular structure made with high columns, with various images within it. Jesus was there, on the cross, which was wooden, simple and profound, but surrounding him were representatives of the church fathers, dressed in gold and fine clothes.
What! They were surrounded by glitter, Jesus by dust. A striking contrast. Even taking into account the Knights Templar were not the most favoured by the King or Pope and disappeared after the 13 century. But even they seemed to miss the point.
Somehow one just had to almost laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Somehow the idea that Jesus’s message turns things upside down, that the poor will inherit the earth, that we should love our enemies, that we should forgive those that wrong us, that we should be inclusive and hospitable and generous, and that we should not seek the worlds power, but the power that comes through love, seems to have gone a bit haywire.
As the ages went by, it seems that many churches and cathedrals became the home of all the power, both monetary and intellectual and social. Not to say they aren’t beautiful, they are, and the books they lovingly recreated are amazing, but again somehow the message seems to have become muddied. It’s as though Jesus is being worshipped with the very material he despised in life!
So we head to Lisbon, and although I still love going into churches and cathedrals, my heart is not quite in it anymore. Particularly when at every door to every cathedral there is a beggar or two or three. Somehow it seemed even more absurd.
But then it was Matt’s turn to take me to something I had not thought about going to see. A religious thing, rather than a pub (just kidding!). And we were both blown away by it. I am talking about the Christo Rei, a statue of Christ, which is found on a hill over the river in a place called Cacilhas. A bit like the statue in Rio.
The statue is named Christ the King, or Christo Rei, overlooks Lisbon and was erected as a gift to the city and to all of Portugal after WW2 which Portugal survived, even though they did not enter the war. While normally the title, Christ the King, raises the idea of a king who will defeat his enemies with power and might, this has a different message. It is an image of peace, and the statue itself while absolutely amazing is not the whole picture. Artists have created images of Jesus’s life around the base of the statue and in a chapel below. The chapel itself celebrates and calls for love and peace among all nations, and is a place for quiet reflection and meditation, as well as a place of faith. No gold and glitter here! The images on the walls were beautiful as was the simple design.
Somehow both the statue and the chapel and the images captured something for both of us, that none of the cathedrals had. And it was very profound. For me it captured the call from Jesus to join the revolution. The revolution of love. For no matter the time in history somehow Jesus’s message still seems to speak to people and transform them in ways that are mysterious and amazing. As the sign said, in many different languages, God is love, and without love we are nothing.
Or the words of Pope John Paul, which are outside,
“How wonderful is this king who renounces all signs of power over the instruments of domination and wishes only to reign with the power of truth and love.”
While we can admire our traditions and history, it seems to me that this is what we need to remember when we are working out how to live our lives.