How I found freedom from the prison of ego

iPhone July 2011 005 - Copy

As a thirteen year old I dug the garden on a Saturday afternoon to earn a little extra pocket money to go and see Delirious (at that point transitioning from being known as Cutting Edge). I joined the masses queuing outside my church and then packed into the hall to hear the big new thing in the Christian world. A few years before in what was know as the Toronto Blessing I had stood awed in meetings and fallen prostrate. There was undoubtedly a little of me mimicking what those to my left and right were doing, but that was not the entirety.

Being ahead of Christian culture was what mattered.

When I got to university and people would go on about Delirious I would roll my eyes, it was no longer cool to be into them. When someone had the great idea to do a 24-7 prayer room, I said I could do that in my sleep.

I’d flippantly pontificate on whether DJ led worship was really suitable for a congregation. But also make sure people knew I’d done break dancing sessions in a disused and refashioned train station in Germany. When cell groups, small groups, D groups, life groups, connect groups, were being discussed I’d have a couple of handy mnemonics or aphorisms up my sleeve; I’d find a way to segue in that I’d done a seminar on cell group multiplication. I’d be one of those people who wouldn’t clap, or stand, or raise my hands, when the host or worship leader said to, because, you know, worship is about us choosing to worship.

I got Christian culture and I thought I was better than it. I would raise my eyes and sneeringly remark at the queues of people waiting to get a photo with Tim Hughes. Until someone else noted my own remark was designed to draw attention to myself. Continue reading

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Behind the blog title: explaining broken cameras & gustav klimt

Upper_Belvedere,_Vienna

 

For more than two and a half years I’ve been writing in this space with the label Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt above my posts. And I’ve probably not done enough to explain it. I’ve roamed around the topics inspired by it, and thought one day I would offer an eloquent explanation. This is not that day, but perhaps an explanation of any sort is overdue.

The questions often come, enquiring what it’s about, what informed it. Whether there’s a reason behind the cryptic title.

The truth is a combination of the spontaneous and the profound.

The spontaneous is that on an early August evening in 2011 I decided to start a blog. I was annoyed about something someone had written on the internet – a trait that has become far too common in my blogging experience. And I wanted to write something in response. I had no platform, no place to put my words, my concerns, my disagreement. So I set up a blog and the following morning posted for the first time.

The title was what immediately came to mind. I put it in the wordpress title field and have stuck with it.

But the reason I plucked for this obscure combination of words has a longer history. To a week and a half spent in Alpine Europe a few years before.

I went away, I took some time out, I travelled, visiting 5 cities in 10 days. And I wrote. I wrote a lot, from the first evening I arrived under a lamp while sat on a park bench in Salzburg, to coffee shops and McDonalds and a hostel in Geneva while watching Million Dollar Baby.

I got home with pages scribbled, then put onto a computer and the word count clocked in at something a little over 12 000. And the title I gave to that compilation was Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

I’ve played with those words since, toyed with whether there might be something more to them, or if they were potentially part of something bigger. But mostly they were a wrestling of faith. Of finding words to explore what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing. Words to give voice to my hope and my dreams and my fears and my hesitations.

And two motifs came to the fore to describe the way I experience my faith coming to life and bringing life. A broken camera and the work of Gustav Klimt.

On only the second day of my trip I broke my camera. In fact it wasn’t even mine, it was my parents, borrowed for the trip, to take photos of the places I was visiting, the architecture, the cathedrals, the castles, the beautiful rivers winding through ancient cities. But I broke it.

I spent that afternoon in a melancholy mood in Vienna. I was disappointed, that something could go wrong so quickly. I had put so much hope in having a great trip and my way of recording it and giving witness to it to other people, was dealt a brutal blow. I walked through a grand park to the north of the city centre and I reflected on things going wrong.

I have sometimes had this arrogance that I could do anything if I set my mind to it. I could be who I wanted, achieve what I wanted. And then things began to go wrong. I didn’t get the job I wanted, I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was doing. And I broke a camera.

Sounds ridiculous. It was.

But if God can speak to Balaam through a donkey he can speak to me through a broken camera.

Things go wrong, that is part of life. And as much as our faith is about following Jesus and growing in likeness, it is also doing this in a context where things go wrong. Living out faith in a broken world.

The last day I was in Vienna Gustav Klimt got me thinking about beauty. Before I went away I had been chastised for never having visited an art gallery. I was not particularly bothered about this, I had never been very interested in art. But as I sat in the garden of the Belvedere Palace, quietly miffed it was an art gallery and not a museum, I realised I would be in for even more of a scolding if I only did not go somewhere because it was an art gallery. So I walked through the doors.

From the little I know of art, I knew I liked Gustav Klimt’s paintings. As I looked at ‘The Kiss’ I tried to work out why this was such a magnificent piece. It is one of his most famous, and from the case it was housed in, most expensive paintings. But it shouldn’t be any good. It does not provide a likeness, the colours are all wrong; I couldn’t even find any deep symbolic value. Yet somehow this chaotic collage of gold leaf, silver and oil creates something quite incredible.

Some time ago Portsmouth University advertised its courses with the slogan: “What comes after the Internet?” unfortunately the answer does not lie in any of their courses, or those of any other university. Innovation cannot be taught only inspired and encouraged. Likewise, beauty is not located on a map, there is no guidebook, no x marks the spot. Beauty may be captured but it cannot be controlled. Something truly brilliant and beautiful, existing on the very brink of chaos, is so finely tuned the faintest shift can lead to disruption and failure.

Beauty exists on the edge of chaos, in places that don’t make sense.

Faith is worked out in a broken world.

Hence Broken Cameras & Gustav Klimt.

Living a story while losing the plot

I hoped that one day I would write a piece of such heart achingly brilliant prose which would adroitly encapsulate my distorted emotions. I hoped it would help me see clearly through the mists of fear and doubt.

I thought I could write myself into a solution.

I thought if I wrote enough, if I wrote with enough passion. If I used clever plays on words. Wrote short sentences for effect.

Or longer ones. I thought that if I gained enough of a following, if I garnered enough affirmation for the quality of my writing and the wisdom of my words. I thought that then everything would be all right.

But I was writing about nothing. I was a phantom without a cause. I was a writer in need of a following and in search of people to tell me I was good enough.

But it’s not enough.

I sit awkwardly under compliments that I receive and frustratingly hit refresh as no one reads the posts into which I have poured the most of me. I think this is going to be one of those.

For the last two weeks I’ve realised that underneath the labels I wear I feel increasingly hollow inside. Almost as though I have been running on empty for a while but only just spluttering towards a halt.

I assess my life and wonder what it would be like to leave it all behind and walk into another scene.

To pack up my bags and do something completely different. If I were to accept that things haven’t really worked out how I thought they would.

But I never really had any hope for how things would be: I’m not even sure what those things are.

I hoped that would become clear. I hoped I would discover some overriding passion, a cause to fight for. Maybe micro-credit in southAsia, or sanitation in west Africa, or human trafficking on our doorstep. A story that I could jump into head first and would become the defining feature of my life.

Instead I flit from this to that, using skills but not passion. Bringing craft to words but not with purpose. Always dreaming that somewhere down the line I would stumble into the answer. I hid my lack of purpose with elegant prose; I obfuscated with metaphors and alliteration as my vices of choice. I even wrote about writing, the last recourse of one without a cause. 

But life is not like that, very rarely do answers fall out of the sky.

I wanted a story to tell as long as it wasn’t my own. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself in order to abdicate my need to address who I am. I wanted a story I could write myself out of.

I live in the hypocritical paradox of both craving approval and seeking anonymity. I cannot even move towards either of these maleficent ends with any conviction.

I am lost.

In my arrogance I think that the world needs to hear what I have to say. Whatever that might be.

In my weakness I know that no one cares.

And in between I try to find a way of living. In part it is a charade, and in part it is an act of faith. It is the grappling with what to do when I don’t know what to do. It is the search for who I am when that seems out of reach.

It is the longing of a heart that wants to do the right thing and it is the cry of despair at not knowing what that is.

It is the strength to see failure as something I must embrace, but the weakness that fears what this might look like.

And through it all I long for God to intervene, but I do not allow him to get too close; or me too close to him. I think I fear I will let him down: that whatever he asks of me will be too much and I will be too little.

I shy away from committing with everything I have because I worry about the cost of it not working out. I avoid opining about quite how frail I have become in case anyone realises just how true it is.

To strip away any pretence: I do not know what I am doing, and I do not know why I am doing whatever it is that I am doing.

But sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes that is the way things go. When mists surround and fog envelopes and doubt is all you know as true. At least it is somewhere to start. It is an authentic emotion where for so long they have felt manufactured. It is an accurate picture of where I am, and it is from where I am that I must start. 

I know this is not a place to linger, or a place where I can find solace. It is not a refuge but a launch pad. On to what, I do not know.

Alpine Disruption

© Museum der Moderne

As I stared across the night-time vista of Salzburg and gazed between the spires and domes of a plethora of churches to find the turrets and parapets of castles and fortresses, my eyes fixed on a rather large white box. The garish sign blazoned across its entrance reminded me of an out of town sportswear supermarket. That it is not, it is the Museum of Modern Art.

Before you get worried I am not about to embark on a rant against planning decisions, or provide a comprehensive review of Salzburg’s architecture. Instead this was something that got me thinking. It disrupted my thoughts and sent them on an entirely different track.

Perhaps I should set the scene. I had gone away on holiday on my own with a train pass purchased and a return flight booked from nearly 1000 miles away. The first stop on my tour was Salzburg in Austria and I had only allocated 22 hours before moving onto Vienna.

I started off determined to do everything that there was to do in Salzburg, yet by mid afternoon, my flight had only landed at 10.45, I was a little worried that I would run out of places to visit. Being a tourist isn’t just about doing things, it is about enjoying the ambience of a place, breathing the air that the locals breathe and other such nonsense.

So my slightly revised action plan kicked into gear. I decided to enjoy some wheat beer while sat in a tavern in Fortress Hohensalzburg, and in the evening went into the 300 year old Cafe Tomaselli to savour some cake and coffee while watching the world go by. Oh, and I read a book. I like to read.

As I visit different places and am not numbed by familiarity, thoughts that had previously been dry and academic come to life. Sometimes it is self-reflection, probably a bit too much of that, and at other times the things around me. I have found God in some of the most unusual places, and other times I long to have something profound to say and nothing comes. Yet I see God at work all over the place. And that most unusual place, well that’s me. The fact that God chooses to work in my life astounds me.

This is the start of me trying to explain what Broken Cameras and Gustav Klimt is, it’s going to take a while, I’ll pop in and out, and hopefully you’ll start to get the picture. Some of the examples from my life you may find just down right quirky. I may have some explaining to do to a few people. But in at least some I hope the lessons are universal.

Anyway, back to Salzburg. Before I went back to the Youth Hostel I thought there was plenty of time left for a little more sightseeing. I wandered along a magnificent little street where the houses on one side are built into the cliff face. Actually, I walked along it one and a half times as I realised I had joined halfway along so went back to the start to do it from the beginning.

The final item on that day’s itinerary (Yes, I had made itineraries for each of the eleven days I was to be away.) was a walk up a hill on the opposite side of town to a convent to catch a night-time panorama of Salzburg. It was when I reached the summit and sat on a convenient park bench on a specially located viewing platform that I was confronted with this glaring floodlight white building.

It had struck me as I was walking (for the second time) down this quaint street and up the hill that you just cannot ‘do’ ambience. And when you try, annoying little things like modern architecture shatter the pretence. Something can seem real enough but really it is just a show.

In the same way that you cannot just do ambience, can we ‘do’ God?

I don’t think you can. And when you try, you generally sell either yourself or God short, and usually both.

Because God is not something that can be summed up in a whistle stop visit or captured on a postcard. There is no one-hour audio guide available in ten different languages with special versions for children in German, Italian and English.

God is not sanitised, convenient, or marketed to the masses.