“I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Isaiah 45:3
Have just returned from the annual Greenbelt festival this year held at the Cheltenham racecourse. For four days about 20,000 people gathered to hear talks, music, poetry, stories, see art in all it’s glorious splendour; film, performance, dance (yes even zumba!), sculpture etc. All of this from a perspective of Christianity but not necessarily with the contributors or attenders being ‘Christian’ in name tag. Muslims would dialogue with confessed atheists, musicians that advocate justice would play alongside those that simply entertain. Everything taking place with the realisation that God truly is in and through all things. You will find no Hillsongs but you will find Claire Balding (a confessed Lesbian who works in the media, including on Radio 2’s religious broadcast.). There are no healing evangelists and self titled apostles but you will find healing for the weary soul in times of silence and contemplation. I have made the pilgrimage for about 15 years now (not all in one run), and each time get challenged, stretched and find God in so many ways communicating with me. It is the only remotely ‘Christian’ event I would touch now. And that is because it is remote. It embraces the marginalised and allows space for journey outside the walls, whether that be as individuals or corporate. But hey enough of boring you with an introduction…
Running from the Darkness.
When I think of parts of my Spiritual journey I find that I have had some very unusual dirt tracks that I have travelled down. As a young man of 14 I was part of a youth group of an Assemblies of God church. Still undecided about stuff but venturing on a road that would allow me to discover God for myself. Nothing strange there you may say. No, but this youth group would meet on a Friday night at the youth leaders house to watch the early horror movies. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Poltergeist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc. Today this would be described as irresponsible and the promotion of evil, but in our innocence we would enjoy touching on the dark things of life. Maybe growing up in a street that had a cemetery the other side of the road helped with this. Because we lived near an American air force base we would also find ourselves annually going trick or treating. To us it was the treasure of gaining a bag full of sweets, it was never about witches and dark forces. Dressing up as mummies and vampires seemed like a fun thing to do. Looking back at that small group not one of us became a Wiccan or a hell raiser. As far as I am aware from those that I am still in touch with everyone is living ordinary lives being partners, parents and workers. Cannot speak for their walks with God but I think many of them still remember their grounding in the God stuff. Then we have to grow up, banish the dark things, see the demons in the dark. Light = God, dark = devil. What was something of fantasy and childlike fun becomes a serious something that effects families lives, sends people insane, causes you to murder and take drugs, now demons live in every tree that you pass. For a long time the darkness became an enemy, something to avoid, and if I ever found myself going through dark times it was a place to escape as soon as possible. Walking in faith would mean God would rescue me out of this pretty sharpish. It was a place where fear would reside and lack of faith and rebellion. A place where we could say rock music was evil and going to the movies was an uncomfortable place to sit. Pubs and clubs were scorned upon, and anything remotely gothic was devil influenced. The dark was a place to flee from with all of your might.
This is all great when you find a position to live victorious Christian living. When you get a pay-rise, have a healthy baby, find love, enjoy the best of lives, discover a happy clappy church to be a part of where everyone lives in the blessing of the Lord. But I am discovering that good stuff happening is only half of life experiences. It has nothing to do with blessings and curses, it just is life stuff. Death and loss happen to believers and unbelievers. It is just as believers we can find this false world where we should not and do not know anything of grieving, because they have gone to a better place. That may be the case but not allowing the process of grief to work in us works as some sort of denial. Losing jobs, redundancy, struggling with debt, long term unemployment, these things happen to good people. Advising and praying for finances to be released through faith just excuses us from redistributing our own wealth as we have a new widescreen telly to buy. Marriage break up, divorce, struggling with sexuality, loss, all issues not dealt with very well by positive thinking evangelicals. When people walk into depression and anxiety issues we pray for quick exits while encouraging them to continue to take the pills. Life can often appear to be cursed when you have the blinkers of a life of only light, victory, breakthrough. I have realised our theology of Charismatic life in the Spirit is so shallow as it gives no space at all for struggle and darkness and dark nights of the soul. Dark matter are of the enemy and should therefore be avoided at all costs. If prayer does not break someone free in a short space of time we often walk away thinking these people do not really want to be free, or they are not open to God helping them. In my own personal dark hour I had no belief system to help me through it, and nobody else did either and I was left as if dead to the church.
Embracing the Dark.
What has this to do with Greenbelt? It is a place where it is okay to doubt and struggle and have no answers. It is a place where a theology of life and death and embraced in equal measure, not a rounded theology where a cheap answer is given with five step guides, but open unwritten pages are given with the only remit that we are free to journey even if we think that means the absence of God. Barbara Brown Taylor spoke on embracing the dark and it was a powerful session. That the darkness was the only place that Abraham could have counted the stars, that the darkness was the only place for Jacob to dream and get revelation of Bethel, Moses met God in the dark cloud. Peter Rollins encouraged us to embrace the ghosts in our lives. That although God felt absent at times and we want to see Him as the escape He is actually the one in the midst. He encouraged everyone who speaks to be honest about doubt and uncertainty and worship leaders to write break up songs. Then it struck me the greatest love songs of all times are not the one’s that express our success in relationship, but the one’s that sing of heart ache. Maybe many have left houses of faith because they cannot find the expression of ache and hurt. Greenbelt often has great music and this year was no exception. The stuff I enjoyed was of the darker origin. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club dressed in black with very dark lighting effects and with their dark droning guitar rock influenced by years of dark expressions in rock they played a set full of songs of pain, death, hurt, and yet hope. Light just about touched your senses through the noise and cry. It touched me deeply. Duke Special is an amazing artists and song writer. Expressions of hurt, misunderstanding and despair run through his lyrics. And yet so does comedy and the Divine. When he sang Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart it caused me to cry. That song touched something that no worship song had done in years. It was allowed to flow into almost ‘prophetic spontaneous’ worship, and for that moment it was God, deep crying out to deep, doing something in me as I embraced the darkness. King Kool, She Was War, others that had a gothic, grungy, indie angst edge to them. Embracing the darkness instead of running from it was creating a place for something to happen in my life. Does this mean I had a depressing time? Far from it. I have come home invigorated. As a man of the night hours the darkness is often a place where I dwell. I live at times seeing very little light because of my shift patterns. Does this make me an evil person? Does it because I question the questions and even sometimes the shallow answers we give like always saying Jesus is the answer? What happens when He is the question? The dark night of the soul was not a place to flee for our fathers in the faith but a place to embrace. Our victory living, success dominated, blessing as sign of approval Christianity has no space for dark places. Greenbelt does. As Barbara Brown Taylor said ‘light is only 50% of life. When it gets dark does God disappear? He is in my darkness. He dwells in the dark places. He must do because I am still here to tell the tale. And if we allowed others to know that then I think many others would still be standing here too. It is only because we have no room for the dark that we banish the millions who find themselves in that place because we want to escape to sing another clap along song. It is time for a reality check. Time to live in reality.
Final Dark Sayings.
Sorry this has not been more about this is what happened at Greenbelt, this is more about this is what happened in me, but hey that was my story of the weekend. I’m sure other moments will be shared in the days ahead, but I was deeply, deeply moved in deep crying out to deep ways. The gothic rock man inside me was stirred deeply. For me it was time to redeem the dark places in my life. Not to run out of them but in embracing them, and the me in them, I would begin to discover a God who truly is not afraid of the dark in my life and neither should I be.