Ash Wednesday and going bonkers

If anyone saw us now they would think we were bonkers.’

These words were whispered to me at Cuddesdon theological college by my friend, Big Nick, as we waited in the aisle of the village church, for ashing. He had a point, there we were a group of fresh, and not so fresh-faced ordinands, dressed in white cassock-albs, waiting for a priest to mark our foreheads with ash. When you stop to think about being ashed is not normal; in fact it’s very odd.

Or, at least its odd by the standards of the world. Ash Wednesday, I would want to suggest, sees the church at her most counter-cultural. The words ‘from dust you have come and to dust you shall return,’ are words that stand contrary to the myth of the self-made, independent, destiny deciding, write your own script story, perpetuated in contemporary culture. Ash Wednesday in crucial ways reminds us that we are not ultimately in charge, and worst still that death is the great equalizer, for it is an ultimate and unarguable truth that ‘to dust’ we shall all ‘return.’ Ash Wednesday, far from being bonkers, even though the ritual of ashing looks bonkers, is a call to embrace the ultimate truth; that ‘to dust’ we shall ‘return,’ as equals. To fully accept that we have come from dust and shall return to dust, is, I would want to argue, to be graced by humility.

Humility is the greatest of liberators. If God is in charge, if there is literally nothing that I can do to prevent the reality that one day I will return to dust, then perhaps I can learn to stop striving quite so hard; perhaps you can learn to stop striving so hard? What I am referring to is, of course, the sense that we need to strive to impress, so that we can be well thought of and liked. Wouldn’t it be far better, not only for ourselves, but also for others, if we simply learnt to accept ourselves as we are before God? We would presumably be so much happier? Ash Wednesday and Lent beckon us into the ever deeper levels of humility; the consequence, or fruit, of which is, very possibly, greater levels of contentment and happiness. And, that truly is a counter-cultural thought! The world wants you and me to believe that happiness and contentment are purchased through acquisition, self-development and status, Christianity says, ‘rubbish it starts with humility.’

If it, the journey to contentment and happiness, starts with humility, then it is built through a commitment to holiness. Today’s gospel reading repeatedly makes this point: ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 6) and ‘whenever you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 17-18). To pray silently, alone, before the Father is to exercise holiness. To pray silently and in a spirit of humility has the effect of bringing us closer to the ultimate reality that the only view of us that really counts, at the end of the day, when we are but dust, is God’s. It really doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks we are ‘bonkers,’ for ultimately it is only God’s view that counts.

Surely, whatever the world says, it is this level of knowledge, this depth of knowledge, that is the only true source of happiness and contentment?

Lent is often, and correctly, referred to as a penitential season, but the paradox is this; if engaged with in a spirit of humility, and with a commitment to growth in holiness the consequence could well be increased stocks of liberation, freedom, and, dare I say it, happiness. Let’s go ‘bonkers’ this Lent!

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Speaking of language; spiritual abuse and prayerful consideration

Words and phrases are tricky things. Sometimes we think their meaning is clear and unambiguous, only to find out that it isn’t. That’s part of the beauty of words: their very ambiguity is frequently the space in which meaning is found. That’s the good news. The bad news is that words and phrases are open to spin and manipulation in the hands of the orator or narrator. Words can be beautifully ambiguous, mystical even, but they can also be used politically and ideologically. We tend to use words ideologically, politically and, dare I say it theologically, when we want to impress the legitimacy of our own line of thought, and when we feel defensive and, ‘on the run.’

I have been struck on two occasions over the last week or so when words and phrases have come under the spotlight. The first is in the use of the phrase ‘spiritual abuse’ and the second relates to the term after ‘prayerful consideration,’ 

It would appear obvious to me that the words spiritual and  prayer defy specific and uniform meaning. That’s part of their beauty. Their efficacy rests on their ambiguity: perhaps?  To over-define them would be to de-power them? Again, perhaps.

But here in lies the problem: surely such ambiguous terms can’t be left solely in the hands of the script writer, or in the mouth of the orator, to make of them what they will. Neither can such terms be dismissed or rejected by those who fail to understand the depth of their ambiguity. To dismiss, or seek to de-legitimize their usage, is to seek to retain power and control. The rejection of a particular term or phrase often derives from a sense of fear. Fear itself is often the outcome of a deeper sense of loss of control.

This week the Evangelical Alliance have sought to de-legitimize the use of the phrase spiritual abuse, describing it as ‘vague and incoherent terminology.’ I would agree that the phrase is ambiguous, even in some ways incoherent but, I would also add, that ambiguity or vagueness, cannot be acceptable grounds for the dismissal of a word or phrase. If words or phrases are to be dismissed, or de-legitimized, on the basis of their ambiguity, language will become a very stale old thing. Furthermore the problem, for the Evangelical Alliance, lies not with the word spiritual but with the word abuse.

I am pretty sure that for all its ambiguity and vagueness they would want to preserve the word spiritual. Perhaps, those from a charismatic evangelical tradition would also want to strongly preserve the idea that spirituality is a felt and lived experience; an experience frequently felt during worship; an experience that defies cognitive and intellectual analysis and that, by any objective measure, is ‘incoherent.’  I am pretty sure that there would be a real reluctance to reduce such deep  spiritual experiences to the realm of the emotional or psychological. And, yet in the communique in which they call for a rejection of the phrase spiritual abuse, the Rev’d Dr. David Hilborn suggests that where abuse is concerned there is no need to use the word spiritual:

 ‘We are deeply uneasy about increasing usage of the unhelpful and potentially misleading term “Spiritual Abuse”. We believe the existing legal frameworks of Emotional and Psychological abuse are sufficient and need to be enforced in religious contexts, as in other contexts.’

It seems to me that you can’t really have one side of the equation without the other. If true worship can be physical, cognitive and spiritual, presumably so can abuse? The vagueness of the word isn’t really the issue, at least not for me. It is the reductive desire to define the word spiritual as that which belongs solely in the sphere of the positive, affirmative and worshipful that is the problem.

Those who wish to dismiss the phrase spiritual abuse criticize those who use it for being dogmatic and ideological. The irony is that dogma and ideology drive their own desire to dismiss the term. Spiritual abuse, just like spiritual worship, is a real thing even though it is hard to define. It is a thing that is felt, experienced and known. So let’s keep the term, in spite, or because of, its very ambiguity.

The phrase that has, if you will excuse the colloquialism, got right under my skin is ‘prayerful consideration.’ What does this mean in its invocation? I am of course referring to the decision of the House of Bishops to decline to authorize a new liturgy marking a gender transition following ‘prayerful consideration.’ Now, I need to be clear and upfront, sporting my cynical hat in public, for I believe that after ‘prayerful consideration’ has, in this instance, been deployed politically and, from a place of deep fear.

So here is a question: ‘when a phrase is used in such a way is this in and of itself an abuse of the term?’ I suspect it may well be. Has the term been used, in this case, as a form of churchy comfort blanket? Again, I think it may well have been. Is it too much to suggest that prayer is frequently invoked as a defense mechanism in the vague and ambiguous hope of avoiding upset?  In some ways ‘prayerful consideration’ deflects blame away from us, as moral agents, and onto God. If I am correct then this really is an abuse of the term.

Words are tricky things. And, sometimes we use them to play tricks. When we do so we abuse their power and authority and, we rob them of meaning; spiritual meaning.