Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam

Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are never made like me
– The Vaselines

I’ve always wondered why the Jesus narrative is so compelling. Why is Jesus the focus of so much cultural reference. Why, for instance, is the name Jesus Christ considered an expletive whereas Buddha is not? I guess in Christianised societies it may have to do with a rejection of the past. People consciously going against the “not allowed”. But is there more to it than that?

The song by The Vaselines, covered by Nirvana, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam always hits me when I hear it. It is somehow a tragic song. The simple lyrics seem to hang heavy with pain. And perhaps that’s the reason why so many people relate to the song. Because they feel the pain of not being perfect. Or not being perfect enough, after having been told their whole lives that they needed to be a “sunbeam for Jesus”.

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Tragic figures seem to be drawn to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus is a tragic figure himself and I think subconsciously, a lot of people see themselves in Jesus as he hangs alone on the cross. But there is also something repulsive about the murder of an innocent, the injustice of Christ’s death, which I think affects people deeply.

Why did Kurt Cobain cover this song? Obviously I can only speculate but to me this song is a prayer. A truly honest prayer. It’s something like the tax collector at the back of the temple.

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Luke 18:9-14

There is an element of fatalism in both this song and the tax collector’s prayer. The tax collector’s job was considered “sinful” by many Jews at that time as he would have collected tax for the Roman oppressor. There is no indication he plans on changing his job and it would probably have been quite difficult to do so, but he acknowledges honestly, in front of God, that he is imperfect, and lives in an imperfect world, in an imperfect situation.

The song does something similar. “Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam, sunbeams are never made like me”.   Playing off the children’s hymn, I’ll Be Your Sunbeam, it seems to be saying, “I’m not perfect, and I can’t be”. However, the song’s most tragic element is its ultimate rejection of Jesus – “don’t ever ask your love of me”. Despite the catchy tune and tempo, that is an emphatically angry line! And I suspect that, although the addressee of the song is Jesus, it is actually addressed to the Church.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

This anger at the idea that we are born sinful, that we enter the world already damned and need to be fixed is an understandable anger. And to question that idea is a sound theological question which brings you to the table with the likes of St. Paul, Augustine, Origen, and Justin Martyr, just for starters! It can be a damaging idea – which I am not putting forward my own views on here (maybe in a future post) – but it is an idea which seeks to explain suffering in the world. An attempt to answer the question: Why is there evil?

The reason I call it a tragic song is because although this sort of rejection of Christianity is usually equated with liberation from the “shackles of religion”, this song doesn’t hold that feeling – It feels like a goodbye song; a break up song. There is a real sense of loss and disappointment. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

If I could take away a message from this song, and from the prevalence of Jesus in modern culture despite its seeming rejection of religion, it would be that people know they are broken, hurt and wounded. People see the pain and suffering in the world and they direct their anger at the one institution which was supposed to take it all away but, ultimately, ended up adding to it. It is anger against hypocrisy.

I feel that this anger, while justified, is short sighted because the Church did not create Jesus, Jesus created the Church… and we are the Church – and so we need to ask what does Jesus really want me for? Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam, that is completely right – He wants me to, first of all, love and forgive myself, and second, to do the same for others. Forgiveness implies a conscious decision to love a person who you know is imperfect and you know will possibly hurt you again – and this applies to yourself too.

“Don’t ever ask your love of me”. Is the singer telling Jesus he won’t ever love him, or that he can’t accept Jesus’ love for himself? It is difficult to love ourselves and we often forget that the golden rule, “Love your neighbour” also includes “as you love yourself”. A rewording of this rule for our time might hold more weight: Accept your neighbour as you accept yourself.

Do I accept myself?

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments…”

“Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him,

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

10:17-31

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The Oblivion of Being

This piece originally appeared in The Voice, KU Leuven student magazine. 

Thoughts on climbing an abandoned tower

pigeon

Do you hear that? That’s the world around you. Right now, as you read this, life is.

There are moments, perhaps you can relate, when looking up at the spring sky and noticing the warmth of the sun gently falling in the chill of the air, that I feel okay. Things are okay. Amidst the confusion and pain, the love lost, the quiet forgetfulness of friendships, despite all of it, I am me, here, now.

Heidegger writes about Dasein, a “being-there”. For him, to be is not some esoteric concept but is the flesh and blood reality of being in this world, this life, right now; Part of a whole.

fisheye

Interestingly, it is often when we are alone that we encounter these sorts of moments. Our solitude reminds us of our finitude and, in turn, of our Dasein. In some sense, to flourish is to acknowledge our smallness, to look into oblivion and be okay with it, because whether you appreciate it or not, the fact that you are, in the immensity of all things, is, in itself, remarkable.

Recently I explored an abandoned building in the Vaartkom, which is in the north of Leuven. I think it was an old Stella factory. I climbed in through a broken window, over a rusted handrail and into the eerie, dusty silence of a place long forgotten. Cautiously, at first, I clambered my way up creaky staircases, through corridors with leering holes in the floor. I climbed over machinery that had long since lost its purpose and up rickety ladders, under the curious gaze of roosting pigeons who cooed gently as I disturbed their rest. It doesn’t take long for our own constructions to turn against us, for shelters to become inhospitable and alien. Bushes had found cracks to grow in, moss had engulfed walls and ceilings, and slowly, nature had reclaimed its right to be there. It was precisely the abandoned emptiness of this old building that had enabled life to flourish once more.

I emerged from a small hatch in the roof, after forcing myself to climb a wrought iron ladder which, had its fastenings failed, would have sent me plummeting to my death. I had reached the top and, around me Leuven lived. A strange surprise greeted me here: my name, spray painted onto the side of the wall. It was as if I had encountered myself in that broken and wasted place, as if I had been waiting for me. It was a surreal moment. But it was also a moment that gives me hope; for life, for the world. In our daily battles, life is there, we are there but we forget this. We enter into the constructs and concepts that surround us but if we were to abandon them, even if just for a moment, we would find that we are larger than the systems that we follow and the roles we assume. We’ll find we were there all along, waiting for ourselves to brave the climb, to face our own smallness in the immensity of everything that is and be.

holeinwall

 

How Can I Believe?

God? Gods? A God? Goddess?

If you are anything like me, you’ve probably seriously questioned how on earth you can believe in any form of supernatural being. Or perhaps you wonder how you can believe in any of the world religions which seem to be a quagmire of complicated doctrines that people argue over incessantly to no avail.

I’m sorry, I can’t help you! Because it is hard.

A vast majority of the human population professes some form of faith. Some form of belief in a higher power. This in itself raises an interesting question. Is our desire for “religion” innate; Part of our makeup somehow? An evolutionary failsafe developed to placate our growing self-awareness? Or is there something to it?

I’ve been taking a course in the history of Western Philosophy this semester and what strikes me is how many philosophers have argued for the existence of God. In some ways, it seems to have been one of the primary discourses of philosophy up until the modern period.
One particular writer who I have found interesting is Anselm of Canterbury, an Italian bishop who lived in the 11th Century and was considered one of the greatest minds of his time. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury (in Catholic England) and is considered a saint in the Catholic and Anglican Church.

His idea that God is “that of which a greater cannot be thought” can at times seem like a ridiculously stupid argument and at others, pure genius.
His basic argument being that if you don’t believe in God, you must concede that you can think of the idea of God and understand the idea of God as something that transcends all other things. i.e. the greatest thing that can be thought.
But then he says, if you are thinking of something which nothing greater can be thought, then it must exist, because if it doesn’t, then it isn’t something which nothing greater can be thought! Because any existing thing would by default be greater by the mere fact that it exists!

There is obviously more to his arguments (see Proslogion) but my point is to show that the intellectual discussion and reasoning that went into many philosophers’ discussions about God was remarkable. This is in stark contrast to how people perceive “believers” today.

But perhaps the hardest thing to wrap our heads around is why there is suffering in this world. In light of the terrible conflicts and terror attacks around the world recently, you can be forgiven for questioning whether a divine being exists and if it does exist, what is its nature that it leaves us to suffer? There are of course arguments and discussions around this topic, but much of that rhetoric falls flat in the face of the reality of human suffering. You cannot spout philosophy or apologetics to a mother who has lost her child.

I remain, however, positively biased towards God’s existence. I mean this in the sense that even though I may doubt, I have not written off the possibility of a God and I have not written off the possibility that I can know something about this God; that relationship is possible. How we achieve this relationship? That is a question of faith!

The last few months have been quite a rollercoaster ride for me personally. Living in Leuven is amazing and I love my course immensely (despite the stresses!). I’ve learnt a lot about myself too, about my strengths, my faults and how to approach both of these things. I’ve enjoyed intimacy and I’ve hurt people, I’ve been reckless and I’ve been too cautious, I’ve been joyful and I’ve been terribly sad. And this is where, perhaps, philosophy falls short because what is logical about emotion and life and pain and joy? And this is where, perhaps, theology steps in and says, “I am not sure either, but I have some ideas.” And finally, faith steps in and says quietly, “I’m here.”

Lord my God, teach my heart
where and how to seek You, where and how to find You. If You
are not here, 0 Lord, where shall I seek You who are absent? But
if You are everywhere, why do I not behold You as present? But
surely You dwell in light inaccessible. Yet, where is light inaccessible?
Or how shall I approach unto light inaccessible? Or who will
lead me to and into this light so that in it I may behold You?
– Anselm of Canterbury

To Whom Shall We Go?

To whom indeed?

For what if Peter had turned to face the Lord only to discover He wasn’t even there? Who had he been following all this time? Crestfallen and alone, would he have gone back to his boat and cast out into the deep hoping to pull Baptismsomething up? Anything… His endless net never emerging from the dark waters no matter how much he pulled and struggled and cursed and screamed, it was
pointless.

Would he stare down into the depths, noting its emptiness, its continuous descent? Recalling, perhaps, a dream of walking on water?

Simon, did you hear? Did you hear a voice saying, “Follow me”? Were you sitting by the shore mending your nets, arguing with Andrew about the weather and tides? Did He pass you by?

Did you love Him?

Who? Did you ever know Him?

How do we proceed from these shores, once the wind has stopped and the view is clear? As we warm ourselves by the fire, which way do we choose when all ways are open; yet somehow all unappealing?

But sometimes…

Maybe…

Perhaps…

…in that silhouette on the horizon, a flicker in someone’s eyes, the breaking of bread there is a whisper. Faint. Soft. Like a passing wind high above.

Where were you, Peter? Where was I?

When the foundations were laid? I cannot tell you as I don’t know so much.

For now, all I can do is to sit on the still lake and wait, watching the shore for a familiar face.

Seagulls over Lac Leman

Belief in the Questions

Castle
There are questions…  But God is in the questions.

I am about to embark on a new adventure in my life. Today I begin my Bachelor in Theology and Religious Studies here in Leuven, Belgium. This blog will still remain NOT a Theology class!

Interestingly, although I am about to start studying Theology, sometimes I don’t know whether I really do believe in God.
But then I realise that I do believe in the questions.
Perhaps this state of questioning and doubt is the right place to start a Theological exploration from.

The questions are existential ones and they seem to pursue me rather than the other way around. It would be impossible for me to ignore them without numbing myself in some way or another. And their pursuit ultimately means I must turn and face them.
They are ancient questions, they are the questions.

My hope as I start this new phase of life is to wade through the centuries of minds who have also been pursued by this existential angst. I don’t necessarily believe the questions have answers but I do think they will help me grow and learn.

“Let us never forget that this simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith”
Br.Roger of Taizé

Thoughts on Holiness

Seagulls over Lac Leman
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his
heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

These are ideas I’m still fleshing out but humour me for a bit.

I’ve found, as a Christian, a tendency to conflate the word chastity and the word holiness.

Consider a situation where a believing Christian (i.e – someone who accepts the main concepts of the Christian creed) is also sexually active and okay with it. There are many Christians who might view said Christian’s behaviour as sinful or wrong. And there could be many theological arguments as to why it is or isn’t wrong ranging from “the Bible says so!” to “pre-marital sex is contrary to the natural order.”

Therefore this Christian cannot be “holy” while they continue living in such a way. But say you are this Christian, and you are living a sexually active life but you still believe in social justice and caring for the marginalized in society; Mirroring Christ in compassion and the bravery to stand up against injustice. With “fornication” as the measuring stick for holiness removed, the places where you are really not practicing are highlighted. Sex is often the Christian strawman. If I’m not doing it before marriage, I’m okay! It is somehow the “prime achievement”.

Now I think chastity gets a bad rap. As it is often misconstrued, it is not the same thing as celibacy.
Chastity as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” CCC2337
It goes on to say “Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.” CCC2344

It is essentially the calling of humankind to become less selfish, less attached to material things, less sexually irresponsible and more self-aware.
To be chaste is then a part of holiness but to narrow chastity to mean “no sex before marriage” is to simplify its meaning.

I don’t think holiness is something we can see. It’s something I’ve thought about many times in Mass while I am kneeling or bowing down to pray. I’m torn between being able to worship with my body, to pray through my posture and with the concern with what others may be thinking. Whether positive or negative.

I shouldn’t care what other people are thinking but whether I choose to stand and kneel as required or bow before receiving the Eucharist, there is an internal monologue worrying what people might assume about me based on how I participate. Which is very silly – And why it is silly to look at other people in Mass and make assumptions about their participation. We can’t see holiness.

Cross in Wilderness

I believe holiness is brought about by an internal disposition of being open to our own insecurity and fallibility. Which is why someone like a drug addict who steals in order to support his habit could still be holier than a pious church goer; If he acknowledges his actions are wrong and admits he can’t beat his addiction and knows he is unlikely to stop stealing and lays this before God consciously or not, I believe God’s love and mercy are extended to that man incalculably! i.e. He is made Holy.

Holiness is a gift. Grace is an undeserved favour. And when it comes to faith working in love (what we do as Christians), we are accountable to God and to no one else. He knows our situations, our circumstances and our hearts.

There is no need to prove our holiness to others, and their view of our commitment or zeal is irrelevant. Whether we choose to pray standing up, on our heads or quietly in the corner, it has no bearing on our holiness whatsoever.
I’m not saying we can do what we want but that morality is complex and we are all flawed. We cannot make assumptions about other people’s relationship with God.

The way I see it is we should take care of each other, and God will take care of our holiness.

To Be Remembered

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Taizé, France - Sebastian TemlettIt’s saddening and humbling that all things are transitory. All our human endeavours: Architectural masterpieces, great works of art, cultures, beliefs – all of these things pass away.

Being in Europe this year has in some ways emphasised this reality to me. The beauty of medieval castles, an ancient monument or Roman ruins – They inspire a sense of awe at what has been.
But they will be gone one day. As will everything else. We see it in our modern cities now: things needing a lick of paint, cracks in the side walk, once grand office buildings of the 80’s now derelict and run down, rusty hand rails and sign posts; All things decay.

Is this something to lament? It strikes me that nature also decays but it does it in a way that replenishes itself. How is it that human beings, although a part of nature, cannot do this effectively?
In the building of monuments and amazing structures, ancient civilizations were trying to establish their primacy at the time but also, I suppose, they wanted to leave a legacy – to be remembered. And as I find inspiration in those amazing structures and breath taking pieces of art, perhaps that is the replenishment I’m talking about.

Notre Dame, Paris - Sebastian Temlett

This desire to be immortalised, is it good or bad? If we detached ourselves from it, we’d be able to be present to the now and enjoy the time we have. But in some sense, in doing that we would lose much of what drives us to create. To create is, to a certain extent, to put a piece of your soul into the world and leave it there for others to see. The desire is for people to be affected by your work, and for that to happen you want to be good at what you do in order to be recognised. And “recognition” comes from the Latin root recognoscere ‘know again, recall to mind’ – To be remembered. You gain a small sliver of immortality.

We want to be remembered, to feel as though our life was worth something; the implication being that if it was worth something, we’d have had an effect on many people in a positive way. But perhaps “to be remembered” is not what we should strive for but rather to be a force for good. It would be better, in my mind, for no one to ever know who you were but to have made a positive change in the world. In a way that is true heroism, true selflessness.

All of these thoughts spawned from a rusted handrail and cracked staircase baking in the midday sun. That decay was compost for my creativity. So perhaps it is good that all things fade; It means there is always call for something new, for creativity to continue, growing from the sediment of old ideas.

And one thing is certain, although all things fade, our very presence on earth has in some way altered the outcome of the future. Every person you encounter, even for a moment, has been changed in some way, however small that change may be, it is irreversible!
Which is a little scary… and a little awesome.

Doubting Faith

Rural Eastern Cape, South Africa (Transkei)

I doubt a lot. Sometimes I feel that instead of having faith and some doubts, I have doubt and some faith.

But, I am aware of a deep desire within me to know God. Something inside knows I cannot be satisfied by anything in this world.

As I write this, I am sitting next to a rural home in the Transkei, looking out at green hills that rise and fall into the ocean. A sheep bleats and a strong offshore wind rattles a piece of corrugated metal lying against a chicken wire fence. The thought comes to mind that I cannot force faith. Faith is a gentle surrender to God’s presence within me and all around me.

Christianity is not about proselytizing moral values, nor is it about intellectual pursuit. It is not about being good and it certainly is not about being guilty or feeling ashamed. For me, the starting point of Christianity is the crazy idea that God, the God who created everything from the cosmos to the smallest particle, chose to become a man; Fully man. Not a superman but a flesh and blood human being with likes and dislikes, friends and family, hopes and ideas about what his life should be. Yet, he was also fully God. This is the mystery of Christianity.

Jesus’ life convicts me to be more, to do more for the outcasts of society. He himself was an outcast. It brings me comfort to know that he comes into my life as it is. He doesn’t ask me to move aside my mess, he comes into the mess. He is the friend who sits with you quietly as you weep; he the friend who knows that words aren’t always necessary; he is the friend who thinks you’re great as you are.

The last few days in this rural village have been peaceful and restful. At night, the stars gently astound. And in my doubts and in my faith I become aware of these moments when nothing else can explain this small life form, self-aware, marveling at creation. In a vast universe, my insignificance makes me realise how incredible my existence actually is. Life is too beautiful to be accidental.

The God Confusion

God is…

God is what?

There is a saying that if you can understand God then that’s not God. Nonetheless, I wrestle with this elusive being frequently and more so over the last few months.

Christians believe in a God who has revealed himself to humankind and as such it follows, to a certain extent, that he can be known; Through nature, other people, the scriptures and ultimately a personal relationship with Jesus.Jesus is seen as God made flesh and he reveals to us a loving, self-sacrificing God.

This is all well and good but it is based on the premise that God can in fact be known. We might say it is obvious through the beauty of nature that there is a God but nature can be brutal, violent and harsh. Most Christians will attest to experiencing God through scripture. This based on the belief that scripture is God inspired. But that in itself is not self-authenticating. Scripture cannot authenticate itself.

So how can we know that the God we know is the God to know? Ultimately, there will always be a step of faith required and that is something which cannot be quantified and, I suppose, that’s a step many an agnostic or atheist just can’t take.

But for me, doubt as I may, I always get to a point where I cannot explain away a God. And that is the beginning.

If we stop for a moment and become aware of this moment right now, the mere fact that our consciousness continues and everything around us stays where it is, holding itself in a position according to the laws of nature; that there is order instead of chaos, something instead of nothing; these are facts that are just as mind boggling and unfathomable as any idea about God. And I believe they fall into the same sphere.
Because there isn’t nothing. We need to understand that nothing really is nothing. We can’t imagine it because if we could then it would be something.

But there is something and the question remains. How and why? The only rational conclusion I can come to is that there had to be a creator. Any other explanation falls short. As for who this creator is, your guess is as good as mine!

But something that occurs to me and is worth pondering is this…

If there is a creator and this creator is capable of creating all we see around us from the vastness of the galaxies to the intricacies of cells and molecules, then why did He/She/It create us and why did He/She/It give us our self-awareness?

Perhaps these are the first questions toward figuring out the nature of this creator and I suppose in a sense, if we try to answer these questions, we can begin to know who He/She/It might be.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it is okay to believe in God. Maybe it is not as crazy as people think. On the contrary it may be the most rational explanation for this… all of this.

And so, for now, I am happy with saying

God is.

Seagulls over Lac Leman“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” The Book of Job 38, verse 4

Helplessy Hoping

Wordlessly watching he waits by the window and wonders
At the empty place inside – Crosby, Stills & Nash
Taize

The last few weeks have been quite a special and important time for me.
But if I could underline one main feeling that has threaded its way through this time it would be empty longing.
Faith is a bit like this for me. I’m walking through a desert and every now and then I find a small pool of crystal clear water. Pure and cool, it soothes my parched tongue. But I have to move on and I stagger onward through the shimmering heat.
But always I long for the next pool, the next place of revival. They are always unexpected. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever reach another one and sometimes I doubt if I did in fact actually find one.
Often I feel foolish for entering this desert, frustrated and angry. Sometimes I want to stop, or maybe turn back but somehow I know that I must keep walking and somehow I do.

This longing for that cool water, this desire to be filled, to be content to me speaks of a deep human desire for God. I believe everyone can relate to the feeling of not ever really being completely satisfied. We’ll never have travelled enough, seen enough, done enough, made enough or received enough likes on Facebook.
But why do we have this desire in the first place? How can we desire a perfect contentment if we have never experienced it? How can I crave the water if I have never seen or tasted it? I was created to drink water. I need it to survive. So, I can conclude that I was created for perfect contentment too.

Water in Taizé

If we distract ourselves enough we can fool ourselves into thinking that desire is not there but in the loneliness of a dark night, we know.

Coming back to my empty longing, this can sound quite bleak at first but this empty longing is paradoxically a feeling of closeness to God. In the very fact that I desire God to be with me and within me and the frustration at the feeling that He hasn’t satiated that desire is a closeness and peace.

I spent a week in The Taizé Community in France at the start of December. In the people I met, in the chants we sung, in the quiet presence of the brothers I was drawn into a stillness and calm. There was no lightning bolt moment or emotional outburst but just a contentment with my discontent.
Perhaps this is what joy is. An underlying “okayness” despite exterior circumstances or feelings.

This empty longing has underscored my experience of Advent this year. It wasn’t conscious. Advent is traditionally a time of waiting, waiting for the birth of a saviour, but also for the ultimate fulfilment of our longing for God. But I didn’t try very hard to enter into this waiting, the waiting came to me.
This Advent has placed Christmas in its proper place, the pinnacle of this waiting. The point I can stop and realise that although I am walking through a desert, God is walking next to me.

Happy Christmas!