A resounding hallelujah ended the Easter singing marathon I’d promised myself. As I staggered out exhausted into the night, I was musing over what had arisen in me.
No question, there was great joy through being immersed in music. Quickly followed by deadening despair because the restorative Easter story remains locked in the isolation of church buildings, usually devoid of imaginative, contemporary or feminine touches. Lacking rigorous community engagement, literal interpretations run rife, stripping the mythology of its transformative power. No wonder people think it’s irrelevant, should they even give it a second glance.
The customers at the bar down the road where my mate and I landed certainly seemed oblivious to any relevance in the annual rising and dying narrative, apart from their drinking habits being curtailed by our peculiar Easter trading laws. Truth told, they probably had their sights set on the upcoming ANZAC services that have overtaken the sacrificial lamb story and harnessed it to patriotism. A potentially dangerous combination.
‘Why don’t you just walk away?’ asked my mate, swirling a rather good Otago pinot noir, Devil’s Staircase to be precise. Thousands have walked away and got on with perfectly fulfilling lives with no reference to church or religion and how that intersects with, and influences community life. So, if walking away is difficult, it could be argued that I’m still, in some way or another, captured by the institution. That’s reasonable and I tangle with the idea most days, particularly when I’m singing in a church, side on to the altar. It’s uncomfortable.
But what matters most for me, and maybe for others, is not the adherence to any particular spiritual viewpoint but the exploration and expression of my religious and spiritual sensibilities. Diving into God-consciousness if you like; the instinctual drive towards the More, Source, All That Is or however you might describe it.
None of this happens without creativity, allowing what rises within each person to become apparent in its own time and with its own unique qualities. Neither does it happen without the creation and maintenance of safe spaces where mature exploration and spiritual development can occur. Spaces that are entered through supportive doorways held open by people of spiritual wisdom, steeped in traditions but not bound by them.
We need those centuries of exploration to help inform what comes next but what often gets in the way in Christianity is embedded and systemic patriarchal control, the focus on single stories, lack of imagination and creativity, rejection of the feminine and unintegrated sexuality, along with dogmatic approaches to meaning making.
‘I repeat the question,’ said my mate, relentless in his pursuit of this particular truth.
‘It’s something to do with faith,’ I stuttered, ‘in our ability in Aotearoa to make something distinctive in the spiritual space.’ He smiled encouragingly but remained silent.
‘But it will only happen by breaking down walls that divide so we can draw from our varied sets of stories to create something very different that feeds us all.’
‘You really believe that, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I do but I don’t know how to make it happen.’
‘But sitting in the discomfort helps?’
‘In a perverse way. Letting the irritation of unknowing create its own kind of resurrection.’
‘Then this is entirely the right drop to be drinking,’ he said as he poured another.
Aotearoa has been broken open and shocked beyond belief through the devastation of the Christchurch earthquakes and the massacre at Al Noor Mosque. Walls that previously divided have crumbled and unexplored prejudices that blinded us to the religious and spiritual riches of others have been challenged. That’s unique space and time, not to be rushed past, instead an opportunity to be valued, sat with and pondered, holding it in tension with the drive to fix and mend and forget the pain.
As the spiritual festivals keep coming; Ramadan with its focus on spiritual renewal, Matariki heralding the need to hunker down for winter hibernation and the Easter story continues to unfold towards the emergence of the Spirit at Pentecost, I keep dreaming about what our emerging Aotearoa soulfulness could look and how, together, we can bring it to life.
So, whilst I loved John Lennon’s Imagine, I part company with his intended outcome because I see the need for more religion, not less. But religion that delights in supporting a broad continuum of understandings, beliefs and practices in every community. Who encourage all of us, not just the members of the group, to experience a sense of awe and wonder, compassion for self and others, promoting an ability to listen deeply to what matters, facilitating imagination, creativity, music and art that evokes mystery and diverse perspectives on what it is to be human in our time and place.
My friend looked at me long and hard. ‘You’re a dreamer,’ he finally intoned.
‘Yeah, but I’m not the only one,’ I replied, wanting desperately for there to be others who share this strangely discomforting but hope filled passion.