file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

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An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

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On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…

 

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In my daily meditations today, I wrote about generosity, and the need to take a regular still point, in order to become aware of our levels of love and compassion. At times we fail to do this, and it leaves us open to drifting through life without cultivating the virtues of love, kindness, peace and good will toward others.

So how do you do this, practically? What does this look like?

One way is through a version of a Jesuit spiritual practice known as the Examen. If you want to know more about the Examen, read up about Ignatius of Loyola, and you will see it is part of his much wider teaching on spiritual practices. He was quite the lad for that sort of stuff.

The morning Examen I set out below is modified, for two reasons: a) I want something that people who do not self identify as Christian/religious/whatever can engage with. b) The purpose of this particular exercise is to become more aware of our attitudes and dispositions, and by becoming aware, to change them for the better.

So here’s my five step Examen:

1) Be grateful.

“What am I grateful for today? What things, people, events, or circumstances can I be grateful for?” Even in the most dire of circumstances, there should be a crack of light that you can be grateful for. Even if it’s just: I’m not dead yet. For most of us though, there are many more things than that, for which we can be thankful.

2) Accept your failings.

Gently reviewing the day gone past, and being really honest with yourself, recognise, and accept your failings. This doesn’t mean beating yourself up, or wallowing in self condemnation, it’s an honest, unflinching, recognition of where we’ve gone wrong.

3) Acknowledge your successes.

Reviewing the day again, consider where you did well, where your attitude was positive, where you were loving and kind. It’s not about bigging yourself up, or thinking about how great your life is. Its about sensing where your attitude was positive, and recognising what led you to put others first.

4) Forgive and be forgiven.

If the review of your day has brought to mind times when people have hurt or upset you, try to forgive them. Recognise that often our hurt springs from how we feel about ourselves as much as anything else, feeling compassion for others is the beginning of the forgiveness process.

Compassion needs to extend to yourself, and you need to accept that you also need forgiveness. There are three ways of looking at this, for those who have a belief in God, they may seek forgiveness from the divine. For those without that belief, they need to forgive themselves. For everyone, there may be a need to gain forgiveness from someone you hurt. This is the change point, the place where we say we’re going to live differently. In the Christian tradition, this is linked to a process called repentance, which effectively means to turn back, to change your ways.

5) Prepare.

Having gone through the first four steps, you’re in a better place to prepare for the day ahead. Spend a few moments considering what you have ahead of you, and who. Recognise where your weaknesses may come under stress, accept them, and make it your intention to address whatever comes your way with an attitude of love, generosity, and humility.

On a daily basis, this needn’t be a lengthy process, but particularly in combination with silent meditation, this is a really helpful and healthy regular practice to develop.

If you want to receive my free daily weekday meditations, sign up here.

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I love the Greenbelt festival, ‘the best festival you’ve never heard of’, I love seeing my friends there every year, I love the way that the programming is consistently adventurous and provocative. I love the way that it tries really hard to do important things, despite limited resources.

Да! We’re bringing Pussy Riot to GreenbeltThis year’s lineup (as of March 2018, there’s plenty more to be announced) is already classic: combining festival regulars like Martyn Joseph, every inch the troubadour, and spoken word comedy music duo Harry & Chris, with inspired choices – particularly this year’s headliners Russian artist activists ‘Pussy Riot’.

Greenbelt has been working hard to ensure that more female voices are heard throughout the festival. Last year’s festival was strong on female representation, including GRRRL – In place of war, who went on to feature in Songlines magazine some months after their Greenbelt appearance, demonstrating the festival’s ability to get ahead of the curve.

The poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy is another ‘big female name’ for 2018, and for some another controversial voice – although not for anyone who is in any way a Greenbelt regular I’d guess.

There are loads of other brilliant names already on the bill: 6music favourites Ibibio Sound Machine, Duke Special, I’m with her, Jack Monroe and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires (who were a brilliant find at Greenbelt 2017) to name but a few.

Still to come, announcements on the spirituality/faith programming which remain a core part of the festival’s identity, as well as much more. But on the strength of the ‘first’ announcements alone, the 45th Greenbelt is shaping up to become a classic. Tier one (discounted) tickets are available until the end of April.

There has ball_lost6een a lot of positive feedback from the Lent reflections I’ve written, and I’ve enjoyed doing them too. To such an extent in fact that I’m now in the the throes of setting up a new project, a daily email sent out Monday – Friday with a reflection or meditation to start your day. If you’ve not spotted the Lent Reflections, and would like to join in, you can still do so. Obviously we’re a few days into Lent already, so you’ve missed a few. But not too many.

You can subscribe to the Weekday Meditations list here, Lent meditations subscribers will NOT be automatically added to that list. If you want to get in on the Lent action, see the previous post to this one.