In thinking about contributing something of my story here, I’ll admit to flinching a little when ruminating on the final three words of the Nomad catchphrase, “Stumbling through the post-Christendom wilderness, looking for signs of hope.” Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, a few years of faith deconstruction and a glass half-empty modus operandi, I wondered if I’d have anything hopeful to offer. As such, the timing is poignant – it has forced me to pause, reflect and to uncover signs of hope present here and now.
I expect my early life will not be unfamiliar to many of the readers here; I grew up in a white middle class home with a reasonably functional family unit attending our local Baptist (and moderately conservative) church. My life as a teenager and young adult revolved around church, youth group and being a good Christian kid – making sure not to (with mixed success) cuss, drink alcohol or look at pornography. During these years, my internal world was full of angst, shame and self-loathing as the consequence of an addiction to the physical objectification of people and the external manifestations of this: pornography and masturbation. Time and again I pleaded for God to take away the thorn from my side and time and again I was disappointed when my prayers were left unanswered. The Original Sin narrative; I am inherently broken and bad and in need of saving, was continuously reinforced by this pattern of addictive behaviour. I never felt sure of my salvation, I was fearful that I would never be free from this and consequently I could not move forward in the life that I thought God had for me. I cannot recall ever hearing a message at church or youth group speaking to any of these issues; there was inexplicable silence on a topic that statistics suggested the majority of people at this age were dealing with in one way or another; however I was in no way aware of this at the time – I felt wholly alone in my struggles. God’s love seemed conditional on whether I did x and not y and I felt utterly stuck in a perpetual cycle oscillating between sin, shame, repentance, and forgiveness – wash, rinse, repeat. Questions circled round and round in my mind as to whether I had not been praying the right prayer, not been genuine enough; could God not hear me because of my sin? Was I too far gone?
My image of God was not the classic old white guy with a beard, although I did have a sense of God existing as a being in some sense, having consciousness and a will, and of a God who was all powerful, knowing, and present. I didn’t see a God who was angry with me so much as disappointed. Not until much later would I allow the questions simmering below the surface about God’s character and role in the world to burst forth.
Skipping forward a few years, I married Jaime (also a fellow Beloved Listener) and we moved to a new city, away from the comforts of our home church communities, drifting in and out of churches but never finding meaningful connection. Those experiences led us to explore what true Christian community should or could look like and it was then, around 5 years ago, that we happened upon the first Tom Wright Nomad episode – we had found home. Our journey (mercifully, Jaime and I have been in step with each other) of questioning and deconstructing has seemed to uncannily mirror Nomad’s.
Last week whilst reminiscing over old photos my 7-year-old son saw a photo of himself asleep in his old cot, exclaiming, “that’s when I dreamed that God was gone.” Queue long pause: God. Was. Gone. I was struck then that God as I had known ‘him’ was also gone. Gone was the concept of God as a being of infinite power who orchestrates all and demands perfection – in its place an imprecise and at times nebulous conception of God as the creative, sustaining, and loving divine mystery for which words and concepts otherwise fail me. Amongst other new ways of seeing the world, gone now are the ‘shoulds and should nots’; gone is the concept that I am inherently evil; gone is the cyclical torment of self-loathing. I have instead found compassion and grace for the times when I fail and am less likely to wallow in self-condemnation despite still not fully having a handle on the way I view and objectify others. In short, I can now accept that I am a work in progress, knowing that I will never achieve perfection – and I am OK with this.
In circling back to hope, I recently read a Center for Action and Contemplation daily meditation in which Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault wrote that hope is vital to stave off our human propensity to despair. They distinguish between ordinary and mystical hope where ordinary hope is tied to outcome, an optimistic sense that things will get better in the future. Mystical hope, in contrast, is not tied to the future or having reference to external circumstances but is rather having to do with “the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand” and its fruit is “strength, joy and satisfaction: an unbearable lightness of being.” Richard writes, “the journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the centre, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.” For me, there is a striving towards this mystical hope, I am not there yet but have placed a foot on the path. Given the chance to stop and take stock, particularly in light of COVID-19, I see hope in a number of places: the new connections made with neighbours and connections re-made with friends and family; I see hope in the resurgence of wildlife and reduction in air pollution; I see hope in the way the vulnerable are being prioritised (at least here in New Zealand). In writing this and with the gift of retrospect, I can see how compassion and grace have been worked out in my own life and I am hopeful that we can emerge post-COVID-19 more aware of our interconnectedness, our need for compassion and grace for one another and the environment we inhabit.
– Rhys Parry