Shifting Ground

What’s the one unavoidable fact you’re going to come up against sooner or later when attending an event at a church run by the church? Yep: you will be evangelised to.

Once upon a time that would not have bothered me.

I miss a portion of the friendships from my old church, but I can’t stand the preaching anymore. Nor can I honestly sing the songs I used to love to play, either. As a compromise, I thought I’d go to some of the less central events, such as the Men’s Breakfasts that happen every few months. The last one was last weekend. Not being part of the church life anymore has distanced me from the place. This, I knew. But I realized for the first time that being part of the church’s life is what makes the small talk in such meetings work.

As is the normal structure, they have a speaker after everyone has (mostly) eaten enough. The topics can vary wildly. The last one I went to looked at some hokum numerology on the Bible texts. Last week was very evangelical. The pastor of a church they are looking to merge with spoke about his up-bringing. It was a fairly typical drunken-rebellious-teenager-finds-Christ-turns-his-life-around stories. Mike had gone further than most before the big turnaround, though, including petty crime and other things of that ilk.

Since I kind of know the guy, I would have little doubt that the story is true. Nonetheless I was annoyed. Annoyed because I’d tricked myself about it. I don’t want to not go there again, but I will have to check the topic for next time.

You see, the spiritual ground I am walking on has shifted at once subtly and radically in the last month or so.

By the time I realized I was on this journey, I’d been questioning and seeking things about the Bible that the church doesn’t teach at all well, if at all. Then I got permission from Yahweh to go explore outside the church’s walls. That was when I went Wiccan, but always with one eye on Christianity. I had some mad dream to combine the two, as I know others have done. Along the way I joined a Pagan circle and became a regular, opening up to spiritual things I had never contemplated before.

Once or twice Yahweh found me out on my journey.  And every time he was happy I was finding where I should be and in no way wanted me to go back to what the church had built. And just in the last few weeks I truly feel he’s set me free. Free from “churchianity”. Free to leave him behind. Free to not consider myself any sort of Christian anymore.

It is an odd feeling in some ways. Yet it feels right.

It also means I am not at home in the midst of church-based evangelising anymore. They don’t know it probably should be aimed at me, but they’d misunderstand anyway.

My spiritual ground has shifted. Away from the “Church”.

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The Art of being Pagan

Imagine you’re on your way to your regular Sunday morning church service. You rock up, maybe with a family, maybe not, and head inside. You have your art bag and there are still a few places left at the tables.

Wait… art bag? tables? What happened to rows of pews and a church service? Well when was the last time you crafted something new and meaningful with your own hands in a church event? I bet it was when you were last in Sunday School.

One thing that is abundantly clear is that a Christian worship event is actually really rather passive compared to a pagan event. Full moon circles are designed for everyone to participate and to a large extent don’t work if someone sits out. Church services are structured more like a performance with a handful of people shouldering the burden of that. Pagan celebrations will usually involve hand-crafts, Christian celebrations usually do not. It is even an event in itself if items of any sort are even handed out at a church service.

Why is this?

Pagan rituals often require personal effort in a way that praying in a mainstream evangelical church does not. The notion of individualising the work is important and even referred to as magickal and participants will usually value and thus keep the token created, whether they’ve spent two hours or two minutes over it. It is a natural part of the ritual. I’ve been a part of church services where there have been interactive pieces, usually along the lines of writing a response on a slip of paper. These are often not valued afterwards by their participants who rarely know what to do with them.

I sometimes wonder what my church could be like if it picked up some of the art tasks that my pagans do. I know a church would never create rune stones, but there are other Christian symbols they could create with clay. You’d have to solve the problem of children being around and not understanding the exercise, although now that I think about it, it could be an incredible learning experience for them. That does mean the adults would have to take it seriously and reverently. I’ve seen in the churches I’ve been in that that’s difficult.

Another difference in attitude between Christians and pagans, I guess. And one that dabbling in art won’t solve.

 

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I think I have found my tree.

This sounds like such a silly statement. But where things spiritual come in to play, it can be hard to find things that are off limits. I’m kinda sure that the tree I found is what I was supposed to find, but I’m aware that this is – well, not temporary but transitory. The goal wasn’t to have a tree, it was to find a tree. I expect a different instruction in time.

The tree in question is a piece of jewellery, specifically a necklace – and the first I really felt called to wear. It is a symbol of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree out of Norse mythology. And this is oddly significant.

I spent part of last weekend away with some pagan friends celebrating Beltane. (Beltane is the counterpart to Samhain, both of them probably the most important two sabbats in the pagan calendars. Beltane is a solidly Spring event, which is why we celebrate it at this time of the year in the southern hemisphere.) The whole thing was two nights and two days of a variety of activities of a most pagan bent. This group has been doing this for quite some years and do it for both Beltane and Samhain.

The theme for this one was “Viking”, which meant Norse. Dressing up for Saturday night was encouraged and the costuming varied from a handmade kirtle to costumes from eBay to random items from home wardrobes that might qualify (yeah, that was me).

We were also aiming to connect with the earth dragon. This was the focus of most of Saturday. It was a craft exercise of making our own dragon masks.

However, quite what that could entail is actually fairly broad – and that was a little bit of a problem. When you have a spiritual system that has no fixed rule book (or indeed almost no rule book) and an extremely small number of practitioners, there is an awfully large amount of figuring it out yourself and very often on the fly. This is totally different to (for example) Christianity where there is always scads of advice available along with a lot of quite definite ideas.

What the regulars seem to have not realized is that a newbie does sometimes need some extra guidance. One thing I wish I’d known about two weeks earlier is that pictures are around of the masks made previously. Also, I missed some useful group meditation that I didn’t know about, and nearly panicked in the face of everyone being helpfully unhelpful until I realised two things: 1. there was no pressure to finish or even start by any particular time and 2. I needed to do my own meditation to find inspiration. Perils of arriving late.

I kind of know now how to find a place in the nearby bush to find inspiration from the earth dragon. I could not say I would’ve known how to do that six months ago. But this time I did. I found my earth dragon was one of concealment, and yet he had a bright, flamboyant side hiding in there, too. So my mask became one of two halves. Strips of dark leather and dead leaves on one side, leopard print and bright ribbons on the other. It reflects me in a lot of ways. (And yes, I had a very limited range of material to work with.)

It was probably that afternoon that I found the small collection of jewellery one of the others there had on display for sale. There was a range of items, necklaces, earrings and bracelets and a variety of icons. That’s where I saw Yggdrasil. I have other such items; a pentagram, a green man and have been looking for a tri-moon. But the tree sang to me. However, I didn’t buy it then.

Saturday night was the highlight of the weekend. The plan all along was to create our own ritual, complete with custom invocations. The original intention was to call Freyja, Frey and the Valkyries, but in the wake of a hot day a storm cell moved over us. A very violent storm cell: Thor had decided to make his precense known. We decided to call Thor instead of Frey but the lack of anything that could stand in for Mjolnir was mildly annoying. And then I remembered I had a rubber hamer in my car, which looked a lot more like Mjolnir than a claw-hammer would! And that’s how I got asked to write an invocation to Thor. Thor the god of thunder, Thor the mighty warrior, Thor the protector. I definitely need to read up on the Thor of mythology as opposed to the Thor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After the circle was cast, we danced a maypole. This was kinda fun. Remember, it’s only called a “may-pole” because it was danced on May 1. Which is Beltane in Europe.

We were supposed to have a bonfire as well at that point, but due to there being a Total Fire Ban, we had to make do with a small cauldron indoors filled with methylated spirits. Once we were all tired, we went back outside to close the circle. The structured part of the evening over, several people started playing drinking games, which was amusing to watch for a while.

We had one more activity which was what Sunday morning was for: we made our own set of rune stones. I’d seen professionally made rune stones before and was familiar with how runes worked. It had never occurred to me to make my own, though. But I’d spent a lot of my childhood playing with clay because my grandfather was an inveterate artist. He was always sketching or drawing or painting or sculpting. And the latter was with clay. So theoretically I knew what I was doing.

Being a spiritual exercise, though, what came with the crafting instructions were also instructions about how to begin using them for spiritual tasks. The process and benefits of blooding them (yes, putting your own blood on them) was described, and this coupled with the fact that they are hand-crafted can render them powerful. I’m tempted to actually do this with mine.

It was after this that I finally gave in and bought my tree. I’m not sure where to go next with it. The weekend away was pretty much over once we’d cleaned up after the rune-making and had lunch. But there is a regular full-moon circle next Friday which I will be attending.

It feels like I’ve crossed a milestone of some sort. The demands of living in today’s modern world makes this journey into new beliefs and spirituality systems a long journey. And there are pieces of my past life I can’t really leave behind as I must continue to masquerade as a Christian to some.

But I’m not a Christian anymore. Not like I was, anyway.

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An upside-down world.

I got asked a few minutes ago at work if I was dressing up at all for tomorrow. Why tomorrow? Well tomorrow is October 31, and as well it falling on a Friday, it’s also Halloween. Americans seem to love Halloween and we’re owned by an American company. So reasonable question, then?

Yes it is, but that’s actually not my point. For years I lived under the misapprehension of Halloween being a satanic festival when it is nothing of the sort. It is mostly a mangled mimicry of a pagan festival: Samhain. And the other problem is that the consumerist version of it is extremely American.

It was also an interesting opportunity for a discussion on beliefs. One I did not take, I hasten to add, though I admit I was tempted.

Picking up a more pagan belief system inevitably means picking up on the eight sabbats and Samhain is one of the really big important ones. It also means becoming more aware of the seasons and once you do that, it is an inescapable fact in the Southern Hemisphere, Halloween does not co-incide with Samhain like it does north of the equator. Instead, it is Beltane.

 

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The Seeking Of Solace

What do you do when you’re shifting religion and you need a spiritual hug and safe place to fall apart briefly?

Good question.

In time past, one of my coping mechanisms in times of stress was disconnecting from the world and praying to God for peace and calm. Unlike other people who thrive in stressful situations, I don’t: I shatter. Holding it together is only ever a temporary measure until things settle down. Try to hold it together too long and I get stress-sickness. Of course, the real solution is to actually remove the stress. 

In the meantime, finding a quiet place for a pray and a cry does wonders. I’d like to be able to do the Wiccan same – especially as spells are actually really the same thing as a prayer. The other kicker is that I don’t have anything remotely Wiccan here at work. The nearest I can do is a local park.

Maybe this is some good incentive to start carrying one or two Wiccan things with me more often. A lot more often.

 

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The Problem Of Proselytising

There is currently a furore in my country about what instruction – if any – a religious institution should provide to school children in government schools.

When I was in primary school, we used to have what was called “Scripture classes”. We got to find out who the Catholic kids were because they all left for their own lesson elsewhere, plus some years one or two went to the library instead (took me years to figure out why). The rest of us got to hear from someone other than our normal teacher for an hour or so. And it was decidedly Christian in nature.

I’m still a little vague as to quite what Scripture classes were for. I already went to Sunday School and church, and I was an avid reader, so I knew all of the normal bible stories and a lot of less well-known ones, too. And my favourite Scripture classes were of the less well-known stories. I know there were classmates who did not go to church. But I was too young to figure out that Scripture classes was the only place they could hear the Gospel.

This type of instruction is usually called “special religious instruction”. In the part of Australia where I live, it tends to be provided by volunteers from local churches and is part of an arrangement created more than a century ago between the government and the churches. Originally, in the new colony of New South Wales, schooling of children was provided by the churches. Over time, the government took over that job and churches retained access to do their own teaching.

The specific history isn’t important. But what is important is that the religious makeup of this country has changed. A century ago the vast majority of people identified as “Christian” and most probably went to church, too. This is no longer the case and hasn’t been for some decades.

In fact, I’ve changed, too.

I was listening to Background Briefing this morning. This is an investigative journalism radio program that has opened up controversial topics, highlighted problematic behaviors, got wrong-doers in trouble when the authorities could not, and even won awards. But today’s topic was about SRI in government schools in Victoria, specifically the SRI provided by a group called Access Ministries.

Access Ministries was originally created as a centralised group for co-ordinating SRI. This is a good thing. It creates a coherent curriculum across all schools and helps keep a lid on individual scripture teachers who might want to go a bit further than they’re allowed to. After all, one of the big rules is that SRI is not intended for proselytising.

However, in a bit of a “who guards the guards” moment, Access Ministry’s constituent churches has changed recently in favour of more Pentecostal denominations. And this means more fundamentalism. So SRI has become a place for pushing the rules about proselytising.

Once upon a time I would’ve agreed with them. Not now. I can’t imagine the furore if a Muslim organistion insisted on providing Islamic SRI in government schools. I can’t imagine a Pagan organisation even attempting the same.

And yet they almost should try.

None would, of course. Muslims look after their own religious teaching. If they want it in school, they open their own schools. Pagans don’t proselytise at all – and in fact almost always take a “wait until I’m asked” approach. 

But Christians are more evangelical. They’re commanded to. And unfortunately that means that a noticeable number of them will take most any opportunity to try to gain converts. Even special religious instruction in government schools.

Perhaps it’s time for SRI to be abandoned. Comparative morality can (and has been) done with qualified instructors. Comparative religion can be done with qualified instructors. Religous evangelism… leave it outside the government schools.

 

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I am not a deceitful person

But apparently, I seem to be learning how to be one.

The problem is that I am not a member or regular attendee of an church anymore. I was raised going to church. With few exceptions, this is what you do on a Sunday morning and/or evening. And for a lot of my life, I did indeed attend both services.

It does take rather a large chunk out of the weekend, though. When I started attending a Pagan full-moon circle (which is Friday evenings) I soon realized that for the purposes of being spiritually social, I had to treat that like I treated going to a church service. That helped me take my Sunday back for me.

There’s a side-effect of attending church less, though: people eventually notice. For people I’ve been going to church with for years, I am – or was – a fixture. There week-in, week-out. Now I’m not. And most of those, including my parents, assume that if I’m going there less, I’m going to another church instead. The concept of doing just the first is a bit counter-evangelistic.

I’ve not said to many people that I’m going to a pagan full-moon circle. To a few people (most notably my mother) I’ve referred to it as a “church” without giving enough specifics. I’m basically being deceitful. And that’s hard, because I’m not good at it. I am not naturally the sort of person who will do that.

But I have to in this instance because I have to protect myself and to some small extent them, too. My spiritual journey has gone off into some weird directions as far as they would consider, and I already know that if they aren’t on the same journey then they’re not going to understand it. Or worse: they’ll mis-hear it.

 

 

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