Personal AND Church Transformation

I often get asked, “Don’t you have to change yourself before you think about changing anyone else — or the church?” Yes, of course. But, on the other hand, we’ll never be good enough or ready — we have to rely on God to actually do the work of change in us and in others and in the church. So how do you know you are  ready enough, transformed enough to be bold enough to take on the role of Change Agent? I think it comes from seeing that both individuals and church communities need to be ‘loved into’ changing by God.

“First we receive love and then we can respond with love. Here we glimpse a glory and a beauty that not only calls us, but empowers us to a different way of life, to daily discipleship.”  This quote is spoken by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in an imaginary monologue created by Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Faith Maps.  It summarizes the relationship between personal and church transformation that I am suggesting. Let me break it down for you.

  • “First we receive love” Everything starts with God’s initiative. Even the fact that you are reading this  is evidence that God has triggered some desire in you out of love. Probably the most quoted Bible verse in America, displayed at many public places and events, is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] That, in a nutshell is what salvation means. God acted so that human beings can have eternal life. Salvation precedes everything and any human initiative.
  • “then we can respond with love” Deep movements in ourselves continually pull us toward God. The Spirit prays for us when we cannot. God inspires and draws us forward. So, our first step in transformation is responding when we perceive these deep movements. Our response can be to change ourselves or help some neighbor or begin to transform our local church. The Spirit’s power is enabling all these responses.
  • “we glimpse a glory and a beauty” When we respond, something happens. We may only feel some ‘shift’ deep within ourselves, or we may actually do something that is good, externally. But our awareness depends on our noticing that something has happened, and noticing happens in prayer. This may during be a special time reserved for prayer or as a gift ‘on the fly’ when the Spirit has prayed that we notice what has happened. These moments in my life are what I call ‘peak experiences.’ I am lifted out of my usual perspective and allowed to see something wonderful. That gift is given to be shared, to build up the sense of the real presence of Jesus among Christians and, indeed, everyone who has ‘ears to hear.’
  • “that not only calls us but empowers us to a different way of life” When we see the reality of what the Spirit is doing in and through us, we experience the desire to do this again and again. This is our ‘call,’ to follow a different way of life, and take seriously our own unique role in Jesus’ mission, even before we know what that is. We begin to discover a different kind of inspiration and power in our life.
  • “to daily discipleship” Finally, we want to follow Jesus, in the world but not solely of the world. We don’t know what this is, of course, and fall short often. Nonetheless, we strive to follow him. This striving, over time, perhaps many years, becomes a ‘24×7’ way of life. Actually, striving is the wrong word, because it is too connected with the common western culture. A better word is ‘floating’ in God’s Spirit. We learn to trust and float, as the Spirit carries us to the “good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10b] And we learn to trust that we will be up to doing these tasks, because it is God’s power in us, not our own self-development that is doing them. That is why salvation is the essential starting point for Christian transformation.

These wonderful things happen to us both when we are alone and when we are in a community of Christians. In fact, for many people, the ordinary experiences in the church community are how they encounter salvation and the lure of discipleship. This being so, we now need to talk about how personal and church transformation are linked.

How personal transformation is linked to church

Is the church necessary? If a personal relationship with Jesus is the essence of salvation, why get involved with church and ‘organized religion’ at all? Primitive man believed that life depended on being part of a tribe; you couldn’t survive alone. After Pentecost, believers didn’t “join” a church or an organized religion, but they became part of a community of Christians. But now, the common culture stresses “individualism” and therefore joining a church seems to mean giving up something, some essential freedom. What I’m saying is that we are all profoundly shaped by the point of view of the common culture, including Christians, and can no longer see the church’s utter necessity as Jesus sees it. Otherwise why would so many Christians see church as optional, or at best something they “need” occasionally, on Sundays or at Easter and Christmas? I want to help you get outside the common culture and see your local church through Jesus’ eyes. Then you will be able to see how your own transformation is inextricably linked to your local church’s.

Why did the Spirit send Peter out to immediately explain to the crowds what had happened to Jesus? What was Jesus saying about “church” in that first speech and the other speeches of the Apostles in the early days of “church? Not simply, look what you’ve done, but also see who I am, and what you ought to do in the light of the ‘last days.’ [Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41]

I believe that the three points made by Peter in his first sermon can lead 21st century Christians to a fresh understanding of how Jesus sees church. Let me expand each point of Peter’s sermon, and relate them to personal transformation and church.

  • What you have done. In a way, Jesus was establishing a ‘burning platform’ at the outset. To the crowds right after the Crucifixion, Peter said, “You are responsible for this. The Romans may have carried out the sentence but all of you are responsible.” Jesus is saying to us, today, “The human race is responsible for the wounds of the world and, because of that, I died. The Romans crucified me in the 1st century but you are responsible, even today, for the wounds that infect mankind.” I’m not preaching old-time fire and brimstone religion; I’m simply pointing out that in Jesus’ mind, what the human race continues to do is an extremely serious matter, which none of us can ignore, especially Christians who ostensibly know what’s going on in the last days.
  • Who I am. The crowd responded when they understood who Jesus is. Peter (in Luke’s telling of the story) led them carefully from what they knew, from Scripture, to who Jesus is. Their recognition was instant; over 3,000 people who heard Peter speak accepted who Jesus was on the spot. We can be certain that recognizing who Jesus is a key part of church. Not that there aren’t debates. Many of these arise from how our culture conditions even Christian thinking. But despite the debates Christians encounter who Jesus is and the fundamental necessity of a relationship with him.
  • What you ought to do. Here Luke uses the language of the early church to describe something that happened probably at least fifty years earlier. The story had been told over and over, but Luke’s purpose was to tell people who weren’t able to directly hear the story in his time and for all time, what they ought to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” were both phrases that developed as Christians considered what had happened in the first days after Pentecost. What these words do not mean is “Go, develop a private relationship with Jesus.” I think that they mean, “Realize something new has arrived in your life and come join the followers of Jesus.” The primary message is that the gift of the Spirit flows, at least in Christians, from accepting, perhaps tentatively at first, and finally fully at the level of conviction, that we are part of the Body of Christ. Church is essential to all Christians, not an add-on or crutch, as the modern culture sees it, for those who aren’t strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Church means being connected to the vine, being part of Jesus’ body, being part of God’s family. So how could any Christian possibly see the church as optional? Today, this happens because we are ‘swimming in a culture’ that has long since decided that life is for ‘rugged individualists’ and that being part of church detracts from our freedom. We accept that view because the church no longer presents a contrary view in any way that makes sense to us. That is another strong reason why local churches must be transformed.

My claim is that being part of a local church is not optional; it is essential to life “in the Spirit” for Christians. Is the Holy Spirit able to operate outside local churches? Of course. “The wind blows where it will.”  But, without a local church, how can any Christian firmly believe that they are part of the body of Christ? Yet, many Christians basically try to live outside any church community today. I think such Christians distance themselves from the reality of church because it is too painful for them to belong. Why? Perhaps because they agree with the common culture that there is something fundamentally wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church.

Local churches ought to begin considering how much they need to be transformed by examining themselves honestly, not by assuming all is well. Jesus gave us a good way to assess ourselves. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A spirit-filled church produces good fruit; one that isn’t spirit-filled produces no fruit or even bad fruit. Spirit-filled churches have spirit-filled people. So, an excellent first step is to ‘soul search’ about whether your church is spirit-filled or not.

Let’s assume that you sense some gap and want to further consider transformation. This then raises a ‘chicken and egg’ question. To transform a local church must you initially transform its members to being spirit-filled, or do you transform a church so that it can help its members become spirit-filled? My answer is a “both-and” answer. However spirit-filled or wounded a local church may be, the members of that local church should begin the transformation process. By helping the church become a better follower and lover of Jesus, it will thereby be better at helping its members become more spirit-filled. And Spirit-filled people can help the church transform itself even more. This is a ‘virtuous circle,’ that starts in the hearts of its members.

Easter 2016

Young woman in Brussels terror attackWhere is the risen Christ?

I look at the terrible faces and destruction in Brussels and ask this question.

Some would say, and I understand their pain, there is no God or Christ. Once again men acting in the name of religion have murdered innocent people. Both love and God are myths.

Others would say, Christ is there in the background in Brussels, giving solace to those in need. This is a common view: a reticent Christ who chooses to do nothing about such hideous crimes except mop up afterwards.

But what of Christ the all Mighty? Does he reserve his power until the end of time, and allow men to freely commit crimes that cry out to heaven? Is there no grace being poured into the awful reality of the Brussels Airport?

I must say that I cannot grasp — nor should I expect to — the diverse and subtle ways that the all Mighty Christ is at work in our world.

This Good Friday, as I puzzle over the incomprehensible power of the Cross, I pray for Christ the all Mighty God to heal the effects of evil in Brussels and across our broken world.

“Reality check”

This post is difficult Gay marriageto write because the debate over Gay marriage is so polarized. How can one disagree with “Equality” — and yet how can a Christian not resist a movement that wants to change something as fundamental as marriage? I have heard a number of Christians say they are for Gay couples having the same legal rights as straight couples — if only they wouldn’t call their union a “marriage.” But that seems to me to attach too much meaning to a single word — and to ignore a deeper issue. What do Christians believe about committed relationships between gays? And, if a large percentage of Christian young people believe that “Equality” extends to every human being, Gays included, what does the Church say to them? The Archbishop of Dublin said this, after the Yes victory on Gay marriage in Ireland: “I think the Church needs to do a reality check right across the board — have we drifted away completely from young people?”

What can a Christian say to a Gay person on this subject?

First of all, we can’t recite the Bible or Catechism to them. They may not be believers and our language puzzles them at best and, at worst gravely offends them. We must meet them where they are, as responsible members of society trying to live out higher ideals of what it means to be human. If there is a meeting ground at all, it must begin with finding agreement of what the concepts equality, freedom and respect mean to both sides. If there are differences, they must lie in differences among well meaning persons of both sides about these concepts.

My sense as a Christian is that both sides agree that to be authentically human one must honour the right of every person to live in a society where such basic concepts are fundamental. Said another way, Christians can not call themselves Christians if they advocate creating a society of inequality or take away a person’s freedom unjustly or don’t respect another person’s uniqueness. Yet, sadly, that is precisely how Christians are perceived by many Gays! That is one good reason why from our standpoint we need to dialogue with Gays; to correct such grievous misunderstandings.

Why should Gays enter a dialogue with Christians?

Remember earlier I said, “such basic concepts as equality, freedom and respect are fundamental.” It is the Christian contention that religious beliefs are also a vital part of human society together with such concepts. There are really only two positions on this claim. Religion is false, bogus, and out-dated and should be excluded– or Religion is, at least in part, valid, honest, and up-to-date and should be included. If a Gay holds the former position, there isn’t much room for dialogue. But I actually haven’t met a Gay who holds that position. They are offended and sceptical but not dismissive.

When a Christian meets a Gay, we are religion to them. Not our words but our actions, especially how we treat that particular Gay person. So, our best argument for why Gays ought to dialogue with us is that we are honest, and have a point of view on an important part of society and life. They can learn from us and we can learn from them. It is inauthentic to claim that either side has all the truth; both Christians and Gays need dialogue. If there is one thing I have learned already from my Gay friends it is they have a strong desire to be authentic. That’s a great starting point for dialogue!




The rising tide and the restless wind

Canute_rebukes_his_courtiersI had a coffee with my friend Father Brendan yesterday. He is from Ireland and is concerned about the national Referendum taking place right now to change the Constitution and legalise gay marriage.  I reminded him of the story of King Cnut, who showed his subjects that the King has no power to stop the tide from coming in. (*) The metaphor seems to say that the world’s power is inexorable, covering everything in time. You can imagine the water rising and even covering churches, their steeples showing above the rising water for a time, then being slowly covered up. Sometimes it seems like that is what is happening in our modern world.

Yet, on this feast of Pentecost, we hear that there is another force even more powerful than the rising tide — the wind of the Holy Spirit. This metaphor says that what seems gentle and hidden is actually powerful. The wind shapes and eventually dries the waters. The wind of the Holy Spirit, despite our fears, is at work in our modern world.

How do these metaphors effect me? I sometimes feel helpless in the very secular world I live in, in Sydney. I am “swimming against the tide” when I try to think of ways to bring my faith into my daily life. At times like this, I need to remember that it’s not me trying to figure out what to do. The Holy Spirit is at work everywhere and my role is to float in the wind and go where I’m taken. That’s way seeds are spread and new life grows.

Happy Pentecost!

(*) The actual story of King Cnut, according to Wikipedia goes as follows: “In Huntingdon’s account, Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'” He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”.”

Labelling and love

good samaritanWalter Brueegemann, one of the most influential contemporary theologians put his finger on a key issue for Christians — labelling others. “To beat each other up with labels like capitalism or communism or socialism is simply a waste of time.”  [I’d add LGBTQ, atheistic humanism and all political labels to that list!] Labels get in the way of what Jesus was trying to get across to us — what Brueegemann calls “neighbourliness.” He wrote “The discussion needs to start with what it means to be made in the image of God. The confession of the Christian faith is that all of God’s human creatures are made in the image of God. That means they are to be treated with dignity, offered maintenance and security, as is necessary. . . The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who are (different than you are).”

 But what if  (the labelled group) is out to subvert my way of life and harm my children and family?

Labelling, which flows out of fear is incompatible with being a neighbour. Suspending your use of labels and taking risks is what it means to love one’s neighbour. That is the essence of Jesus’s parable about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, an outsider and not an accepted religious practitioner, took the risk to rescue and care for the man who had been beaten by robbers even though he didn’t know the man. St Paul summarized the importance of this parable for Christians: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13: 9-10)

There is an epidemic of labelling in the media and on the Internet, which flows into our conversations and even our beliefs. We need to guard against being infected by this. Labelling has no place in the Christian community!

We and they?

emmausI have a friend, a lovely woman who is a self-proclaimed atheist. She is caring, gentle and compassionate. Yet she and I see and experience the world in very different ways. I live in the continual presence of God, who works in my life and is shaping me into what I am (but not yet fully) — a son of God. My friend lives in a human-centric world where everything is determined by how men and women act and treat each other. In her world, you become a better person by striving to improve yourself. She makes a genuine effort to be the best person she can be.

The temptation is to think in “we” versus “they” terms about such people. This doesn’t make sense to me.

What does Easter mean?

If one thing is clear in the Bible, it’s that Christ the God-man died and rose again for all people. As the saying goes, “God didn’t make any second class people.” Every human being is lovingly created by God. So the first point is God loves my friend as much as me, regardless of her beliefs.

Secondly, Jesus went to great pains to associate with the non-religious people of his day: non-Jews, flagrant sinners, everyone. He did this so that all his brothers and sisters who followed him would see absolutely clearly that there is no “we” versus “they” in God’s kingdom. In fact he strongly criticised the strongly exclusive religious people of his day who held such a we/they view.

Lastly, like the two men walking on the road to Emmaus, many of us “religious” people haven’t yet met Jesus. We keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to see him. Our faith tells us Jesus is risen! Jesus is Lord! But he remains largely hidden from us. Are we so very different from people like my friend who haven’t seen God ? (especially in religious people and their churches?)

Easter is the time when our joy in knowing the meaning of the profound truths of the Cross and the empty tomb should lead us to embrace all the people walking along with us. To see that every human being is doing the best they can right now,  hoping (perhaps very incoherently) to encounter the living God. Our joy is what marks us as Easter people. One of my greatest joys is my confidence that Jesus is walking along side of people like my friend, even if she can’t yet recognise him.

In tune

In tuneOccasionally I get an insight into what it means to take God seriously. I encountered this passage in Thomas Merton’s journals.

 “The voice of God is not ‘heard’ at every moment, so part of the work of (prayer and reflection) is attention so that one may not miss any sound of that voice. When we see how little we listen, and how stubborn and gross our hearts are, we realise how important (prayer and reflection) is and how badly prepared we are to do it.”

Remember, Merton is a Trappist monk who most people would say is taking God very seriously. In his Journals, he was writing about himself, not pointing fingers at the rest of the world.  Of course Merton was aiming at a level of intimacy with God that we ordinary people can’t aspire to –or can we?

In tune with God?

My everyday life is ordinary. I interact with my wife, answer my emails (lots of discussions with my son and brother about politics and issues), browse Facebook to catch up with my friends, play bridge, read, watch DVDS (going through West Wing again right now), shop for food and cook dinners. I’m also trying to make a special time to pray each day. I reflect on Merton’s journals for one thing, and try to still my mind to listen to God. Many times I fall asleep as I quiet my mind.

Am I in tune with God? Merton’s phrase ‘how stubborn and gross our hearts are’ certainly applies to me. But my intentions are good, at least they seem to be. I’d like to think I’m in the habit of being in the presence of God when I’m engaged in ordinary life, but I slide into my own preoccupations.

This is what it feels like to be finite in the presence of the infinite. God doesn’t overwhelm us; he knows what it means to be human and have everyday lives. But there are moments when he needs us to listen. Jesus told the rich young man to give everything away and then follow him. That’s what Thomas Merton did. The rest of us just need to listen for his voice and respond in our daily lives. Stay tuned and be in tune.


Daring Greatly

Man-and-universe-278x300My wife Hacy has been recommending a book called Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. Brene Brown the author describes vulnerability as the ability to deal with “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” If we have the psychological capacity to be vulnerable we can live fuller lives. Ms Brown says “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”

I agree with this and much of what she discusses in the book.

Back on page 176 she gets  to spirituality. In this short section she says some true things but avoids the obvious. Let me explain but first, let me quote Ms Brown at length:

“Religion is another example of social contract disengagement. First, disengagement is often the result of leaders not living by the same values they’re preaching. Second, in an uncertain world, we often feel desparate for absolutes. It’s the human response to fear. When religious leaders leverage our fear and need for more certainty by extracting vulnerability from spirituality and turning faith into ‘compliance and consequences,’ rather than teaching and modelling how to wrestle with the unknown and how to embrace mystery, the entire concept of faith is bankrupt on its own terms. Faith minus vulnerability equals politics or worse, extremism. Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, its the product of love, belonging, and vulnerability.”

Being vulnerable, spiritually

I suppose my basic objection is that Ms Brown focuses on bad religion and underwhelms true spirituality. Every one can agree with her statements about bad religion. There is a great deal of that going on in the world. But there is also a great deal of healthy religion, where leaders “live their values” and don’t stress fear-based religion and compliance or you’ll go to Hell. Ms Brown doesn’t say that, and perhaps inadvertently throws the baby out with the bathwater. The real core of her message is the need for vulnerability in order to approach mystery and the unknown when one authentically pursues a genuine spiritual life. I would have liked her to discuss this more, but then she is not a theologian.

Because I’m reading Thomas Merton right now, I see him as modelling the type of vulnerability Ms Brown espouses. Listen to one of his entries in his daily journal, after he had been a Trappist monk for over 20 years:

“This sense of being suspended over nothingness and yet in life, of being a fragile thing, a flame that may blow out and yet burns brightly, adds an inexpressible sweetness to the gift of life, for one sees it entirely and purely as gift.”

I hesitate to add anything to Merton’s statement because he has captured the essence of being a contingent being, at risk of not being anymore except for the love of God who keeps him from dropping into nothingness. My entire life of faltering steps toward God and spirituality has led me to the brink of being able to sense what Merton was experiencing. Thank you God for leading me to this point.

Iron your shirt with care

ZenGraham gave me a copy of a small book written by his Zen Master, who lives in South Africa. It is entitled Stoep Zen: A Zen Life in South Africa. Here is a short excerpt, which struck me as being very wise:

“Seeing clearly leads naturally to compassion. compassion leads naturally to action. And we can only act in this place where we live, among these particular people, in this particular situation. So political involvement is natural and necessary. But the kind of involvement is up to each of us — what is the most helpful thing for me to do? If you are clear enough then you will see what step to take. Maybe you will speak to thousands at a political rally, teach handiwork to street children, enter a monastery. Or just iron your shirt with care.”

My son and my youngest brother and I have been discussing the complex and dangerous problems involved in dealing with Iran (or not) about their building nuclear weapons and their threat to Israel and the rest of the world. They are both convinced that President Obama is making a terrible mistake in his approach. But the question is, what can we do about this? The South Africans also lived in the midst of an extremely complex situation for many years, and must have asked themselves many times, what can we do about this? It seems to me that the answer to such questions is neatly summarized in the quote from Stoep Zen. First you see clearly, then you act out of compassion as best you can, right where you are.

Infinitely interesting

Living-In-The-PresentI’m reading the journals of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. It’s my Lenten task, to reflect on the insights and struggles this extraordinary man recorded over a period of 30 years. Tonight I read this:

“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything or you look at your own life and your own part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest opening out into the infinite further possibility for study and contemplation and interest and praise. Beyond all and in all is God.” (1)

As I grow older, looking back, my failures and weaknesses threaten to outweigh the good things I have done. But that’s living in the past. And, at my age, the future in terms of ticks on a clock or calendar days is shorter and shorter. But the present is still what it has been for everyone forever: the only place to experience life and the “infinitely rich universe.”

Grace and the present

Merton had something to say about the present moment:

“The will of God is not a ‘fate’ to which we submit but a creative act in our life producing something absolutely new . . .” (2)

So I encounter myself becoming “something absolutely new” even now, in my late seventies, in the present. Despite my past failings, my future is being shaped by God’s creative act and grace — but not without my involvement. Zen Buddhists have a saying about being in the present spiritually — “Chop wood and carry water.” Life is not about achievements of any kind but about doing what God wills where we are, at this moment. The hard thing for me is not to be an observer, analysing what’s going on and trying to discern God’s purpose. My challenge is to be constantly aware of possibilities and acting on them. That is what prayer is all about: listening for hints of God’s will in the moment.

(1) (2) The Intimate Merton by Thomas Merton, HarperCollins ebooks


Mercy within mercy within mercy

imageMy bridge partner Tanya has a little Budgie that is old, whom the vet says won’t live very long. I asked her today how he is. “He just wants to lay in my hand. My palm must be warm” she told me. I said I thought it involved more than that. “Your bird knows you love him and wants to be close to you. He’s tired and senses you will keep him safe no matter what happens.”

I then told Tanya that’s how I think of God. We can rest in his hands and be safe. Life isn’t a contest where we have to prove ourself to God. We are wrapped in limitless “mercy within mercy within mercy” as Thomas Merton once said. “As I get older and approach death, this is great comfort to me” I told her.

She isn’t a believer but I think she understood.