Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Fictional Jesuses

On Sunday morning, with the worship songs at chapel we sang this cheerful chorus from way back.

It takes St Paul’s words – I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 KJV) – the bit that says ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’, and expands that with the joyous assertion, ‘Jesus is alive in me!’

I apologise if I’m about to ruin a happy song with a caveat, but there’s a thing in this making me uneasy.

I can still remember the jarring jolt at my core when, as a young woman in church on a Sunday morning about three decades ago, I heard the missioner reporting to the congregation on the previous evening’s evangelistic meeting: ‘The Lord was really working for us last night.’ 

What? What?

Well, I (as you know) write fiction. Christian fiction, in fact. I write to bring goodness alive in people’s imaginations, to expound the Gospel, to make biblical texts come real, to enable readers to grasp the heart and soul of New Testament teaching.

When I’m writing (this happens to all novelists), my characters somehow take on a life of their own. I sit down knowing what I mean to write today, and before I know it they’re off on some track of their own, developing a preoccupation I didn’t even know they had. They surprise me. I can hardly keep up. I don’t feel like author and creator, far from it, I feel like a fly on the wall. They seem to have personalities quite independent of what I dreamed up. I even wonder if they do, sometimes, so real do they seem – I wonder if, in the creative process, we tap in to the universal unconscious and actually travel in time and place to other lives, meld with the lived reality of people long ago and far away. Like the thing on Star Trek (what’s it called?) where the people in the space ship could bring up before them the person beamed down to the alien planet, to have a quick chat. A kind of cosmic skype, or something.

So, I don’t know quite what happens in writing fiction, but I do know the characters seem to be real. I can’t even quite bring myself to say they’re not. And what about dreams? Where we so vividly encounter strangers and wander in places we’ve never been – but sometimes do later in life discover. What’s with that?

Our minds with their many layers – conscious, sub-conscious, unconscious; our imaginations; our astral bodies roaming the universe – Shakespeare had it about right: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

Because of this, I think one can easily fall prey to a misconception when speaking about the risen Jesus. There’s an inevitable tendency to muddle up the objective reality of Christ with the projections of my own imagination. When I sing ‘Jesus is alive in me’, it’s easy to slide into mistaking the imagined Jesus, Jesus the character in my unfolding internal story, for the real risen Christ.

From this, it’s a short step to the ‘God is really important in my life’ syndrome. ‘My faith is a big part of who I am.’ The little God and the big Me.

I don’t know how it would be possible to avoid this happening. Human beings make up stories, that’s how they’re made. The stories tend to have one facet or another of ‘Me’ as the central protagonist.

But, look. Jesus may be ‘alive in me’, but he’s alive not-in-me too. He is risen, he is real. He’s not a character, a projection, a personification, a Harry Potter patronus or a Jungian animus.

Jesus is objectively, actually, independently risen and alive.

One reason it’s important to get a handle on this (apart from because it’s true) is that the ‘Jesus is alive in me / God is really important in my life’ mentality leads to other displacements and projections. The subjugation of women by men, beating children, exclusivity, religion, hierarchies, fundraising, pre-eminence of buildings and accoutrements, all kinds of power trips and abuses of trust. The manipulation of community for personal ends. And – and oh, dear me, have I not come across this in the upper echelons of church authority – the projection/displacement onto others of egoistic ambitions in oneself. Because, if ‘Jesus is alive in me’, who could possibly challenge any agenda of mine?

Bottom line: do my habits, my life, my emphases, my choices, look like and accurately reflect those of Jesus in the Gospels? No? Then the Jesus that’s alive in me is a character I made up. No cause for despair – because the real actual Jesus is alive and risen and well capable of leading me out of my own deluded fantasy Christianity into something altogether more solid and workmanlike.

Monday, 4 May 2015

About clothes

Clothes. What is it with clothes? I choose things carefully – online, offline. I can buy cheap, I can buy expensive. I think it through. I think it over. I consider, I draft in cunning reasoning, I’m careful, I’m thoughtful. I imagine the circumstances in which I might wear this garment, I bear in mind the colour-me-beautiful shades my friend identified for me, I take into account the kind of fabric it is, the drape, the weight. I check the measurements – twice, three times, metric, imperial. I check my bank account, bills coming up, can I afford this? Is it suitable for my age group, for my activities? Can I walk in it easily – for more than two miles? And run for the bus in it? Will it wash? Will it shrink? Is this colour something I can sustain in real life? Not something that suits me but I won’t really wear?

And then I decide. It comes in the post, and I try it on before accepting it. Or, in a shop, I try it on before buying it. At least once. I keep it at home with the labels on (if it’s a new garment) for a fortnight. I try it on again. Okay: it’s wonderful. This is just what I’ve always been looking for.

Two months passes. A small, insistent, whining voice starts to say ‘I don’t like it.’ And nothing I can do will change its mind.

I have a few things that have stood the test of time. Oh. Quite a lot actually. Here is what they are:

  • Four ribbed cotton vests (as in, underwear), two grey, one black, one white.
  • A big brown boiled wool winter coat with no buttons and a huge collar
  • Two pairs of fingerless mittens our Alice knitted me – one grey, one black
  • Several pairs of Brora cashmere socks our Rosie gave me as Christmas presents
  • Two pairs of big socks – like slipper-socks or bed-socks – our Alice knitted me; one airforce blue, one green-and-brown striped
  • A pair of sheepskin slippers the Badger bought me
  • A Howies cotton hoodie cardigan (blue) handed on from our Fi
  • Brown Birkenstock sandals
  • Black Ask The Missus ‘Jazz’ shoes (men’s)
  • Gabor footwear – brown winter boots, black winter boots, grey-brown nubuck slides for summer
  • Some big old PJs snitched from my sweetie
  • Orvis longsleeved crew-neck t-shirts, in grey, burgundy
  • Evans t-shirts, one purple, one green
  • Lands End polo necked fleeces, one navy, one black
  • Lands End grey fleeces – one quarter-zip, one shawl collar
  • A waistcoat in Herdwick wool our Alice knitted me, with amber buttons
  • Four pairs of leggings, one brown, one grey, one black, one red.
  • Two pairs of black tights
  • A black dress for funerals
  • A soft, light, big scarf with reindeers on it in grey/green/brown
  • An airforce blue big canvas handbag with tin white polka dots that reminds me of snow falling on a sombre day
  • A handknitted soft lumpy hat in khaki and grey muddly wool
  • Various pairs of earrings made of silver and semiprecious stones – carnelian, labradorite, amethyst, jet, coral, pearl.
  • A very special prayer shawl in myriad colours mainly purples and greens that Rebecca made for me. It has prayers in it and poems, thoughts, philosophy, love, also Quaker silence, birdsong and the air of the woods at Hopewell.
  • Four essential pairs of glasses, for seeing things near to, far away, and in the dusk.
  • Underwear. Obviously.

Right now, I also have three skirts – dark green, charcoal grey, and one in faded browns with a black batik pattern on. I have three trousers – 2 black, one grey. Some grey Gabor loafers. A huge fluffy sweater just returned from a stay with Buzz. A grey fluffy cardigan. 2 black boiled wool jackets I really like and never wear. A blue-green t-shirt I really like, got recently, and so far haven’t worn. A nude/pale apricot scarf that suits me a lot but I’ve never worn. A Harris tweed and leather big handbag. A faux white leather overnight bag. I really hope these will adhere to me and I won’t start the slow commencement of complete aversion.

I also have a quarantine bag of clothes in the attic to raid as an alternative to discontented shopping.

I have a neat and tidy dark grey sweater that looks really nice but I hate it already. And a Lands End polo necked t-shirt that’s very useful but I sort of hate it.

I hope I don’t get fatter or thinner. I hope I manage to keep these things. I hope I don’t drop tinned mackerel in tomato sauce on them, or bleach.

Forever I eschew these stupid paroxysms of desire for florals, for orange, for shorter skirts, for normal blouses.

Let me wrap myself in earth, in moorland, in shadows, in evergreens, in twigs, in clothing of sparrows and doves.

Ooh! I know what else I have! Talking of wrapping. Oh, such a snuggly and easy thing to wear! I have this humungous cardi, a wrap-round woolly about two sizes too big, soft and slightly hairy, in a quiet grey/lilac heathery peaceful colour of fading day. I wear it at night and it keeps me all cosy even when the night is cold.

I have a pair of black Vivobarefoots too. Surely should be a pair of black Vivobarefeet.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Life In a Tiny House ebook by Billy Ulmer

I know some of you who read here are (like me) very interested in small-space and off-grid living.

I can really recommend this book by Billy Ulmer.

It’s an e-book: I don’t know if it will load into a Kindle, but I’ve been reading my copy on my computer because it has lots of photos, so is better on the bigger screen.

The stories are inspiring, full of insight, positivity and hope.

Billy Ulmer (who blogs here) made this book because he noticed that though there are plenty of publications about how to build a tiny house, there aren’t many about actually living in one. There are blogs of course, like Rowdy Kittens, and Dan Price writes about life in his Hobbit Hole. But I certainly welcomed this book by Billy Ulmer; it gave me much food for thought and made me happy.

It costs $20, and you can buy it here.

I should make clear, neither the book nor the author has any connection with me, and I have not been asked to review it; it’s just that I came across it, really liked it, and thought you might too.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Extreme minimalism's chemical interaction with religion

Extreme Minimalism as an idea, a concept and even a force, has been shifting around in my life, touching upon different areas, making me look more deeply into my daily practice.

When I say ‘daily practice’, I am talking about life lived on purpose. The endeavor is to make of my whole life a reverential space; a temple, really. I can visualize it. When I think of that holy space, what I see is not a man-made structure with arches, pillars, windows, seats – but a naturally formed golden sandstone cave, luminous with flooding light from a source I cannot see, simple and bare, with a smooth but naturally shaped flattish rock as an altar in the middle. The temple at the heart of me.

Human beings, as I understand it, are multi-layered – the physical body, the subtle bodies (emotional, psychological, mind, soul, intuitional, instinctual) for thinking and loving and strategizing and worshipping. But not held one within another like the layers of an onion or a Russian nesting doll. Rather, co-existent – a dynamic, primarily non-physical, entity; with boundaries varying according to well-being and circumstance. I know I can draw in my boundaries like a sea anemone closing, and so pass retiredly through a situation – unobtrusive and even, if I do it well, functionally invisible, as though I were not there.

Because a human being (as I understand it; you may see things differently) is thus made up of these different bodies co-existing in the same space, their boundaries enlarging and shrinking, interrelating in a constant active and responsive dynamic life, the temple at the heart of me is at the heart of each of these bodies at the same time – it doesn’t radiate its light out from one to another, its light is central to each one. The temple at the heart of me is my physical body’s light – my earthlight, as well as my soul-light and the light of my heart and mind. It illumines my instincts and intuition, my practical strategizing, my contemplation – the whole lot.

The temple at the heart of me does not belong to me though, because when I was fifteen I gave it away. At that time I gave my life to Jesus, so the temple that illuminates me is his, and the light that illumines it is his; Christlight.

Sorry for long-winded explanation. I realize I do not always think like everyone else, nor operate on the same assumptions, so I thought it best to make clear the basis of my understanding.

The idea of extreme minimalism has been moving through areas of my life, touching upon them, influencing them, and moving on to the next. In relating to it I have tried this and that – got rid of things in response to its force, but then adjusting back and accumulating things (though observing strict limits), according to what seemed practical and workable for my circumstances and personality. Extreme minimalism, moving like an intelligent investigative fog or fragrance, infiltrated my wardrobe and my bookshelf, my electronic gadgetry, my possessions in general, my toiletries and  . . . er . . . I don’t think I’ve got anything else. Then extreme minimalism fogged into my schedule and relationships, bringing me to consider how to prune and clear out, how to diminish and distil; reminiscent of Jesus waking up in the boat and saying ‘Peace – be still,’ to the storm. Calming, quieting, lessening, diminishing; creating space to see, breathe, think, imagine, experience, get well and pray. When I say ‘fogged’, I mean that the force of minimalism has moved through my life like a subtle intelligent entity, infiltrating; but I don’t mean ‘obscuring’ – on the contrary, it has clarified and illuminated.  Extreme minimalism infiltrated into my eating habits, removing (for a while, anyway) processed and concentrated foods (‘refined’ is a very inaccurate description of white sugar and white flour).  

Everything it has touched it has thinned out – including my physical body. Then, as it moved on to the next area, I stopped paying attention and the muddle and clutter of non-minimalism crept in again, bringing its accumulations (and – Toinette Lippe, priceless quote, ‘Problems arise where things accumulate). My beautiful mama observes that the key to success is managing to both maintain and progress, and she really put her finger on it there. Well, I’m not good at that. I progress, then let slip. Sigh. But my next Life Endeavour is to learn how to maintain and progress in the field of Extreme Minimalism. Because my experience suggests that extreme minimalism is conducive to the non-obscuring of the light in the temple at the heart of me, and the non-messing-up of that temple as a simple peaceful beautiful holy space.

Note: this is not me telling you what to do. Life has commonalities but also individuality. For some of you, what I am saying will resonate and speak; for others it may be no use at all. That doesn’t diminish the validity of my way or yours; it’s just the suchness of it – the way we separately and individually are. For many, extreme minimalism appears as a weird, unsustainable fad; for me, it is a key to transformation.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get to what I wanted to say. It’s not that the force of extreme minimalism hasn’t penetrated to the fount of words in me; on the contrary, it has. I find that in the regular course of my days I need more and more time in silence and solitude, and I have less and less to say about more and more. Why I don’t blog so much. Why the book I’m writing just now is so slow and dry and tricksy to bring into view. The thread of words in me in breaking. But I appreciate it may not look like it reading this long post.

But what I’m getting to is this: the latest thing the force of extreme minimalism has fogged into in my life has been religion.

Since childhood, religion has held for me great fascination. Particularly I have been drawn to the monastic world and the Plain people; the Observant Life. Temples, cathedrals, candles, saints, robes, incense, holy Rules, special speech forms, ways of walking, observant dress – these have been my love affair and delight over every decade past the first. And now they’re not. Extreme minimalism has misted through my religiousness and dissolved it. Doctrines and dogma, the definition and separation created by creeds and affiliations, liturgies and rituals of every kind (whether Plain or fancy), no longer do it for me.

Extreme minimalism has dissolved and melted away all the beautiful accretions of the religious life.

What it’s left behind is these things:

  • The all-pervasive presence of God.
  • The illumining and sustaining of the Holy Spirit.
  • The beautiful beloved – warm rugged brave – companionship of Jesus.
  • Certain injunctions from the Bible.
  • A remark made by the Dalai Lama.

The words of the Dalai Lama I am left with are these:
This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’

The words from the Bible I am left with – to practice with for the time being – are these words from Ephesians:

I … beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ch.4:1-3)

There is . . . one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. (Ch 4:6-7)

That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. (Ch4:14-16)

And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another.
Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil. (Ch 4:23-27)

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
(Ch 4:29-32)

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.
(Ch 5:1-2)

For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth)
(Ch 5:8-9)

Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,
Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.
(Ch 5:14-17)

Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
(Ch 5:19-21)

The Bible has, for me, many other teachings to practice with, but the quotation above is what has presently come to the fore.

Now, that’s a long quotation. It’s the expanded version of what I’m practicing with. It’s what the sea anemone looks like when it’s open.

The minimalist version of it looks like this:

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’ (Dalai Lama)

And be ye kind one to another (Ephesians 4:32)

The extreme minimalist version looks like this:
And be ye kind one to another

As a footnote – in the expanded version (if you could be bothered to read all that great long quotation from Ephesians!) there’s an injunction about Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.
‘Speaking to yourselves’ – what an interesting phrase! ‘You’ of course is the plural – it means the whole community (singular, an individual would be ‘speaking to thyself’). But it imports the idea of the community as an entity, a body – like ‘talking to yourself’ – a sort of internal community feedback loop, an infra-structure, a continual edification, a loop of strengthening and nourishment, achieved by singing. How beautiful! A mycelium of melodic reinforcement.

And there’s a song I am practicing with, an old chorus that helps us memorize the long list of the fruit of the Spirit, that St Paul writes in Galatians 5:22-23 –
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – for such there is no law.

This is exciting, because ‘for such there is no law’ means it’s the minimalist form of Christianity – what’s left when the religion has been soaked away and allowed to dissolve. The extreme minimalist version is and be ye kind to one another – but the slightly expanded version is The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control – for such there is no law.

And the reinforcement of it comes in – well, doing it obviously, but staying with it by the application of song.

In parenthesis - kindness, I find, is a plant that has to have space around it. Kindness withers and dies PDQ in a life that is pressured and harassed on every side. Even if one doesn’t lose patience, it does take time, being kind. So even though kindness is essentially interactive, it has to be manured with loads of silence, space, solitude, reflection etc.

In closing, this is the song I’ve been practicing with. Oh. Running it through, I see that ‘gentleness and faithfulness’ get transposed between the first and second sing-through – but hey, that’s because the order doesn’t matter, they’re all equally important (imo).


Thank you for your patience (if you read all this)!!!

And I have no idea why some bits of writing have come out black and others grey