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

I’m reading the journals of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk. It’s my Lenten task, toLiving-In-The-Present 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.

 

 

 

Is my religion my hobby?

hobbyI had a coffee today with Graham J. an old friend of mine, who is a believer in Zen Buddhism. He said he recently decided to take his Zen beliefs much more seriously. I asked him if his Zen beliefs were a hobby or a way of life? (Graham knows me quite well  and likes or at least tolerates my habit of asking provocative questions in order to learn more deeply about any subject.)  My hobby is Duplicate Bridge; I take it seriously and my partner and I analyse our performance and try to learn how to play better so we can win more often. But I don’t see Bridge as being very important compared to many other aspects of my life. It isn’t my ‘way of life.’

We discussed this question for awhile. Graham suggested that his desire was to live all aspects of his ordinary life more mindfully. His Zen Master taught him living mindfully required three steps: Clear your mind; Understand the situation; Act.  His way of making Zen his way of life was to practice these three steps diligently, starting with meditating each morning on his day and preparing to live mindfully.

What about me?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In the Catholic Church Lent is a special time to ‘repent’ and think about your life as a Christian. I don’t think that it was accidental that Graham and I had this conversation on the second day of Lent; God arranged it and sent his grace into our conversation to shape it for His purposes. When I asked Graham whether his belief was only his hobby I was actually asking myself that same provocative question. I’d like to say that I was able to quickly say that I treat my Christian belief as a way of life not a hobby but I have an uncomfortable feeling that there’s too much ‘hobby’ in my practice and not enough ‘way of life.’  And my discomfort is grace again working in me.

I won’t do an examination of conscience here in my blog. I do suggest that you ask yourself the question ‘Is my religion my hobby?’ and listen very carefully to what God has to say to you. One good result of this exercise is that you will come to appreciate God’s mercy and forgiveness a whole lot better.

The fault line in our hearts

the_battle_of_viennaToday I experienced an earthquake — in my thinking. What do I believe?

My personal “earthquake” was triggered by a article that a priest friend of mine emailed me: Is terror intrinsic to Islam? by Father James Schall, S.J. [Click here if you’d like to read the entire article.]

Basically Father Schall’s opinion (and he strongly emphasizes that the article is only his opinion) is stated in the first sentence of his article: “The Islamic State and the broader jihadist movements throughout the world that agree with it are, I think, correct in their basic understanding of Islam.” Here are his major points:

  • The purpose of Islam, with the often violent means it can and does use to accomplish it, is to extend its rule, in the name of Allah, to all the world. The world cannot be at “peace” until it is all Muslim.
  • Jihadism, as it were, is a religious movement before it is anything else. (They believe) Allah does grant violence a significant place. It is over the truth of this position, or better the inability to disprove it, that the real controversy lies.
  • It may be possible for some to read Islam as a religion of  “peace.” But its “peace,” in its own terms, means the peace of Allah within its boundaries. With the rest of the outside world, it is at war in order to accomplish a religious purpose, namely, to have all submitted to Allah in the passive way that the Qur’an specifies.
  • In Muslim doctrine, everyone born into the world is a Muslim. No one has any right or reason not to be. Hence, everyone who is not a Muslim is to be converted or eliminated. This is also true of the literary, monumental, and other signs of civilizations or states that are not Muslim. They are destroyed as not authorized by the Qur’an.
  • We are in fact dealing with a religion that claims to be true in insisting that it is carrying out the will of Allah, not its own.
  • It is easy to write this movement off as fanatical and ruthless, which it is. To the outside world, it sounds horrific, but I suspect not to those who believe its truth and see the current revival of Islam with relief. The second or third class ranking of Islam in the modern world is over. But to the degree that we misjudge what is motivating the renewal of Islam, we will never understand why it exists as it does.

As I read this article, I felt a quaking, first of all, as a reaction of “Oh no! This can’t be true.” The quake then spread into thinking about history and the conflict between the West and Islam that has been going on for well over 1000 years. Then I thought of Armageddon in Revelations and the final battle between good and evil.  Could I be living in the early stages of this climatic war?

What is the answer?

Interestingly (and I think it was grace that provided this to me) there was an article in the Sun-Herald today about the reactions to the “rising tension in the community since the terrorism threat level was raised.” A Muslim who was interviewed said, “We just hope it goes back to how it was before . . . we just want to live in this great country.” Non-Muslims have joined in promoting harmony in the community. There is  a  woman’s group called WISH (Women in Solidarity with Hajabis). The Buddhists are organizing a solidarity march “so people can show support for the Muslim community.” 250 mosques around Australia sent a message that the “protection of human life is one of the five basic rights in Islam and as a Muslim we have a duty to protect humanity.”

Each of us need to look at all the evidence and decide which side we come down on. One side is the historical evidence Father Schall points toward, and the other side is the evidence of love and hate in our contemporary society. The future will be born out of each person’s decision and commitment to act according to their belief in this answer.

What happened afterwards?

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son11You know the story well. The Prodigal Son takes his inheritance, goes to a far-off land and wastes it all on riotous living. Starving, he comes home, planning to ask his Father to forgive him and hire him as a servant but when his Father sees him on the road home (he must have watched for him every day) he runs to him and throws his arms around him, welcoming him home as his beloved son, as if he had never left. The older Son, hearing this, becomes very angry with the Father for his generosity but the Father tells him he is loved too but they must welcome back the Prodigal Son. That’s where Jesus stopped the story. The meaning is clear. God the Father loves us as sons, and is merciful to us when we sin and return. He desires that we (the older Sons) treat those who sin against us with  the same mercy.

But what happened afterwards?

After the welcome home party for the younger son, “everyday life” happened in that household. The Father had his two sons at home again but there was very likely a great deal of tension between them. The younger son had wasted his inheritance and likely felt guilty about that. How could he make amends to both his Father and brother? That would be a lifelong task, rebuilding the family’s wealth, half of which he had squandered. And the older son likely felt continuing resentment. You can imagine his smouldering anger. The Father had no way of forcing his sons to understand the implications of his great mercy and what it actually meant to both of them. In human terms, he had to “let them go” to find their own way through the situation which their internal feelings were creating.

I think this story of everyday life is quite realistic. We may experience moments when we encounter God’s grace and mercy but then life goes on, and we experience our own interior life everyday. It’s too easy to say pray or meditate. The habits of our “false selves” continue to cover up the reality of our “true selves.”  As St Paul said, speaking for all of us, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and not do the things I really want to do?” Our life’s task is to handle this conflict and (gradually) come to realise what God’s mercy means for us, whether we are the Prodigal or Older Son. (Most like we are both).

I recently read The Genesee Diary by Henri Neuven. He went to live in a Trappist Monastery for 7 months, to find space to learn how to pray better and live more closely to God. Neuven recorded, in incredibly honest detail what happened everyday during that 7 month stay as he struggled with the conflict between his false and true selves. ( Neuven was a very respected spiritual writer and a priest who, one would have thought, had resolved the issues of “everyday living” long before he went to this monastery, but you would be wrong. His struggles were very familiar to me and mirrored back to me many of my own experiences.)

The interior struggles of everyday life

In my coaching and mentoring work I help my clients become familiar with three different aspects of their interior life — their thinking and acting self, their critical self, and their detached observer self. In everyday life all three are encountered. Much of our life is on ‘autopilot’ with our thinking and acting self in control and following well-known patterns. Occasionally, we become aware of a ‘voice’ critiquing what we are thinking and doing — “Why did you do that?” “That was a mistake you’ll regret” and so on. More rarely we experience a third part of ourselves, seemingly amused by the conflict between the other two parts of us — “That’s interesting. Every time I see a homeless person, I feel guilty and criticize myself” and so on. These three parts of ourselves can be seen in a different frame however: that of our “true” and “false” selves.

Our false self develops during our life time out of our experiences, and adapts to the world in order to maximize our comfort and rewards. Peter Berger the well-known Sociologist wrote of this adaptation in his classic work The Social Construction of Reality. But why is this part of our self called a “false” self? This is a spiritual concept not a sociological or psychological concept. “Jesus, and most other great spiritual teachers make it very clear that there is a self that has to be found and one that has to be let go of or even ‘renounced.'” [from Richard Rohr Immortal Diamond] To be automatically in the thinking and doing self, even critiquing it from our critical self is to be caught in the world and adapting to its demands not God’s way. I believe that our detached observer self is the path toward experiencing our true self and God’s call. Let me explain.

I said that my experience is my observer self is objective and amused by the conflicts between my other two selves. This means that the observer self is open to understanding what it is and how it ought to influence our life. If we are a believer, we sense that our true self looks to God as the source of wisdom about everyday living. Initially, we read and converse with others about God’s wisdom, and attempt to apply it in mediating the conflict between the other two selves in order to live out God’s wisdom. Then, gradually, we begin to see that we don’t have the power to live God’s wisdom by ourselves and we begin to take prayer seriously. At some point, we stop worrying about our ability to live according to God’s wisdom (such worrying is, after all, another manifestation of our critical self) and “let go and let God” carry us through life. I experienced this quite dramatically in my ‘conversion experience’ with God saying to me, “I love you just as you are.” I also experienced it again when I saw that I wasn’t climbing the mountain of God so much as being carried by Jesus (and my friends) up the mountain.

That ‘true’ self is who we are when we realise that we are not so much making ourselves during life as being made by God. It is why we can feel peace in the midst of conflict, because we know God is in our center no matter what, resolving the difficulties of everyday living for our greatest good and his own purposes. Once we realise who our true self is we can exclaim with St Catherine of Genoa, “My deepest me is God!” What happens afterwards, after this realization,  is a life lived differently, not perfectly, but a life lived in search of the deepest truth about our three selves. As Richard Rohr said, “Life is not a matter of creating a name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.” That is what I think happened the next day after the Prodigal Son returned to the love of his Father. And to his older brother as well, once he forgave his younger brother.

 

Those guys are evil!

alqaedaThe ripples from the execution of the American journalist continue in my life.

I was talking on the phone to an American friend the other day and he said, “The Terrorists are evil and so is Islam, their religion.” I told him the head of Australia’s version of the CIA (ASIO) had recently said that such statements are not only wrong but also cause great damage to Australian citizens of Islamic descent, creating a dangerous “we” versus “they” attitude in Australian society. He persisted, telling me of the Sunni / Shai conflict that had been present since the birth of the Moslem religion, which proved (to him at least) that the roots of Islam were tied to war and intolerance. Neither of us actually know very much about Islam so the whole conversation was flawed. Nonetheless, I’m sure such conversations are common these days, hence I’m writing this blog.

What is evil? Who are evil persons?

I instantly called the hooded young man with the knife at the throat of the journalist evil. “He is evil.” Certainly the act of murder of an innocent person is a horrific act. Few of us would debate that. The question I’m raising is what do we mean when we say an individual person is evil (not his act) — and then extrapolate from that person’s evil to the larger group of which he is a member. The syllogism is as follows:

  • That person is evil
  • That person is a Muslim
  • All Muslims are evil

It must be obvious that such reasoning is wrong on many levels.

First of all, as I have already stated, an act can be immoral without the person necessarily being evil himself. I have done some immoral acts in my life, but I don’t consider myself an evil person. I haven’t given myself over to evil completely and intentionally. It was wrong for me to say, “That person is evil.” His act was evil, not necessarily his entire being and purpose.

Secondly, what do we mean when we say “That person is a Muslim?” That he is observed to praying to Allah several times a day? What is in his heart and does it represent the ideals of Islam? What are those ideals when it comes to acts of terrorism? None of us can confidently answer these questions because they involve the condition of a man’s heart and his understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. There are very different views, I sense, about terrorism within the Muslim community.

Thirdly, any statement of the form “All ____ are ____” is wrong in most instances on the face of it. There is simply no way to verify a statement like that and so it is prejudice, pure and simple. (Notice that I did not say all statements like that are always wrong. I would have been making the same mistake.)

But what is evil? Is there a distinction between immorality and evil? Why isn’t the terrorist simply being immoral when he beheads a journalist or flys a plane into the World Trade Tower?

To me immorality seems to have to do with violating the 10 Commandments. Evil is a deeper, nihilistic act, denying even the existence of moral rules and even civilisation itself. Evil wishes to destroy everything ultimately, while immorality wants its own pleasure regardless of the consequences but doesn’t want to destroy everything since it would not longer have the things that give it pleasure. We sense terrorists actually don’t care about anything we care about; they simply hate everything we stand for (and, it seems, even their own religion as well).  In that sense, a person who commits immoral acts is also evil if he has a consuming hatred for mankind and loves death (as terrorists often proclaim).

Notice that I said terrorists not Muslims. It may be possible to sense that a particular terrorist is evil from their statements. It may also be possible to see some external evidence that they are Muslims — but part 3 of the syllogism is simply not supportable. One cannot infer from individual acts or even groups like Al Qaeda that “all Muslims are evil.”

 

“Pure evil”and my true self

Ginger kitten looking in mirror and seeing a lionThis week the world was horrified by photographs of an American journalist about to be beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq. I didn’t watch the video but the picture of an helpless man kneeling with a knife at his throat was more than enough for me. I agreed with whoever called it an act of pure evil, and wanted someone in power to “take out” the people responsible. I’m certain that I was not alone in that reaction.

A few days later I was talking to my 96 year old friend Joe and asked him what he thought. He had an interesting response. “It sure raised a lot of questions, not the least of which is where is God in all of this?” Yes, I thought to myself, if any good can come out of such an act, then raising that question about God’s response (or lack of response) to an act of pure evil will cause many people to reflect on something that they might not ordinarily think about. Is God actually involved in our world? Or does God distance himself from such things and so-to-speak avert his eyes, ashamed of what his greatest creation –man– is capable of.  To find my own answer, I tried to see this terrible event through Jesus’s eyes.

Coincidentally, I have been reading several books about our “true” self and our “false” self. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest says this — “Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.” (1) Rohr also describes the true self using a passage from 2 John 2 – “There is a truth that lives within us that will be with us forever.” Rohr calls this an “immortal diamond . . . something utterly reliable, something loyal and true, something we can always depend on, something unforgettable and shining.” (2) Saint Catherine of Genoa ran through the streets shouting “My deepest me is God!” St Paul in his letter to the Colossians (1:27) also shouted, “The mystery is Christ within you — your hope of glory.” Life is a journey of discovery of our true self.

So, when I try to see this act of pure evil through Jesus’s eyes, I am trying to let go of my false self and allow Jesus’s words and thoughts (my true self) to emerge and put this act into God’s perspective.

My false self’s reactions

In a way, it’s easier to see what isn’t God’s perspective by considering my own normal perspective. If I think about my initial reactions to the pure evil of that beheading — again all completely understandable — I can see my false self’s patterns:

  • My anger was instinctive, triggered by the desire to get even with the terrorists who did this horrible act.
  • Rationalizing why the USA probably couldn’t send in its commandos to find and kill these men.
  • Asking why the media gives these terrorists what they want — publicity, stirring up hatred.

All these reactions came to me in the first 5 minutes after seeing the evening news program with the picture of the poor journalist and his executioner.  They were based on my ideas about “an eye for an eye” justice and how power ought to be used in the modern world to defeat evil men. All these reactions could be easily shared with my friends — they would understand and probably share many of them. It was only my elderly friend Joe who brought the provocative ‘God question ‘into play. (Although, after awhile, before seeing him, I did have hints of my true self’s reactions. More about that later.)

Where do these ‘false’ self reactions come from? Basically I have formed them throughout my life. I love western movies, where the ‘good guys’ march down the dusty street and slay the bad guys. That defines the epitome of a happy ending to a movie for me. “Taking out the bad guys.” I was a Marine in the US Armed Forces as a young man and of course there was a sense of duty and honor connected with being a Marine and defending the innocent with force. In other words, I collaborated with the cultures I lived in to form my false self for most of my life including the present. But for the past 30 years or so I have been aware of another subtle theme playing in the background of my thinking and behavior.

My true self’s reactions

After awhile, when my initial angry reactions to the evening new story about the beheading cooled off, I had another thought. How did that journalist feel at the moment that picture was taken, an instant before his death? I put myself in his shoes and found that his story might have another dimension to it. He had willingly placed himself “in harm’s way” in Syria to tell the story of what was happening and possibly bring the violence to an end. That’s why he was captured by the terrorists in the first place and held for over 2 years. He might have been feeling a sense of peace amidst his fear that he had done his best even though it all ended badly. (I learned today that the journalist may have volunteered to be the one executed, saving the other captives, supporting this view.) Then I thought of Jesus’s thoughts as he hung on the Cross. His entire life had been spent helping others and now, at the end all that was lost. Even his friends had deserted him. Yet, he was faithful to the Father’s will for him. Perhaps Jesus felt some small peace amidst his desolation and fear.

In identifying Jesus and the journalist I was experiencing my true self’s reactions. I was being shown that, no matter what a situation looks like, God is there, sharing in the pain and possibly bringing peace to assuage the terror. Then I thought of everyday life. When I identify with another person’s situation and pain (or joy), that is my true self. When I match that situation against what Jesus experienced, and try to see it through his eyes, that is my true self growing in wisdom. And when I act to be with another in their pain (or joy), that is Jesus acting within me.

I can’t do anything except pray about the terrorists in the world and their victims. But I can let my true self enter these terrible situations — and all the ordinary situations of others in everyday life. I can learn more about the nature of God’s love in everyday situations and tell others about what I experience and understand about life in my true self. That is how one lives in the Kingdom every day.

(1) Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return

(2) Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond

The man from Yemen

christians-muslims_lrgI took a taxi to a doctor’s appointment in Double Bay today. As so often happens in Sydney, the driver had an accent and I asked him where he originally came from. “Yemen, twenty years ago.” We chatted about how great Australia is then I asked him if I could ask him a serious question. “Yes, of course.” I asked him if he experienced prejudice against Muslims here in Sydney. “Sometimes but those people don’t know what they are doing.” He had a forgiving attitude towards people who didn’t wish him well. I told him I was a Christian and that we both worshipped the same God, meaning God the Father. He agreed. When we reached the destination, I tried to tip him and he refused. Pointing at his heart, he said our conversation had been enough gift.

The same God?

Perhaps it shocks you when I say the Muslims and Christians (and Jews for that matter) all worship the same God. Actually I’m just following Jesus’ example when he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” [John 4:21] We Christians believe in the Trinity and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God the Father are one God, and three persons. Jesus / God is including the Samaritan woman (someone outside the boundaries of orthodox religion, Judiasm in this case) in the act of genuine worship. It seems clear to me therefore that Muslims who worship One God are included in Jesus’ prophecy.

Why do we Christians find this so hard to accept? There is a long history of enmity among the three religions who worship the One God. (Just as there is a long history of enmity among the different branches of the Christian religion.)   The Muslims call Christians ‘infidels’ and Christian think of Muslims as people who don’t acknowledge the truth about Jesus. Yet the taxi driver and I both readily admitted we worship the same God. Are we woolly-headed or naive? Is it my duty to convert him so he believes in Jesus? Many Christians say “Absolutely! Otherwise he won’t get to heaven” and base this on biblical verses such as “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” [1 John 5:12]

The man from Yemen and salvation

As a very simple definition, being saved is being found worthy to live with God forever in heaven. God alone decides who will be saved, balancing his justice and mercy. God will decide whether the man from Yemen is saved. To say that God cannot save the man from Yemen is to deny God’s infinite love and power. The church nurtures and sustains the faith of Christians and is our mother and our teacher, for which we must be forever grateful. The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “We believe the church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the church as if she were the author of our salvation.” [Catechism, Article 169] So salvation is a mystery lost in the depths of God and not some automatic entitlement of Christians, who must strive to be saved even though they are members of the church. If we Christians must strive to climb the mountain of God, so must every human being. Which leaves the question about the man from Yemen and salvation.

The most honest answer I can give about his salvation is I don’t know. Only God knows. But I hope the man from Yemen is being carried in God’s hands, and somehow I believe that he is. Years ago I was very worried about a man who was dying and wasn’t a practicing Christian. I was very anxious about what I must do to “save” him. I went to church and heard the story of the Roman Centurian who came to Jesus to get his help for his sick servant. When Jesus turned to go to the Centurian’s home and see the servant, the Centurian said these famous words, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed and said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. . .” [Matthew 8:5-13] After hearing this, I suddenly heard very clearly, “Don’t worry, I have this man in my hands” and was very peaceful after that.

I think that my experience says that if we are meant to be involved in someone else’s salvation, God will let us know and also tell us what we must do. If we feel urgency to save people, we must pray so that we can distinguish our own ideas about what obligations we have as a Christian from what God’s is calling us to do in his plan of salvation. As I talked with the man from Yemen, I felt his faith and peacefulness as a servant of God the Father. Must the man from Yemen be baptized to be saved? The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” [Catechism, Article 1257] In other words, if God called me to bring the man from Yemen to the Christian faith, to “assure his entry into eternal beatitude” [Catechism 1259] I must cooperate with God’s grace to do that. But he is in God’s hands and God can find his own ways to bring him home, if he chooses. I assume for many Muslims and Jews (and other good people without faith in the one God) that is within his merciful and just plan of salvation.

 

 

 

Grace is like a hungry cat

An old man, part of a group of mentally disadvantaged people, sat next to me on a bench as I was waiting for a ferry to take me across Sydney harbor to Mosman. I was eating a chocolate bar and offered him a piece. He held up a shaking hand and took it, hungrily. I ate a piece myself and gave him another. “This is your lucky day” I said to him, meaning the chocolate. But it actually was my lucky day. I was given a profound gift in that chance meeting, which is hard to describe. It was the insight that this small interaction had far more meaning than anything else I would experience that day. That it opened a portal into another dimension of living, one having little to do with my normal life. A far more important dimension, which I hadn’t noticed that day.

Why is grace so insistent?

Grace constantly nuzzles our consciousness, like a hungry cat. The Holy Spirit wants us to notice God’s presence and gifts, but we aren’t paying attention. When my cat Oscar gets tired of nuzzling me, sometimes he stands up on his hind legs and puts his front paws on my lap, or jumps up and puts his nose very close to my face, so I can’t ignor him. Grace is insistent like that, trying different ways, like marketing experts say, to “cut through” the noise and clutter that fills our life and blinds us to what is really happening, right in front of our nose. If we don’t see God’s presence and gifts, how can we fulfill God’s purpose? Our individual contribution to His Plan is critical to God and that’s why grace is so persistent.

 

A. Why Change? — The Gap

“Something spiritual is starting to stir in this country (Australia).” But, wrote Erica Battle in the Sydney Sun-Herald, “On the last published census 64% of Australians nominated adherence to the Christian faith, yet only about 9% attend church weekly.” Why do so many people sense a spiritual dimension in life but do not seem to carry this over into religious commitment? Do they even perceive a gap between their beliefs and actions? There are two perspectives from which we can answer these questions: the human perspective and the God perspective

The human perspective

This perspective uses the social, cultural and religious dimensions of the human situation in the 21st century. It looks at why groups of people hold the beliefs that they do, and what motivates them to behave in certain ways. To net out these findings (from the western, developed world context):

  • People value their individuality, especially their right to make personal choices, much more highly than membership in any group, sometimes even including their own family.
  • Trust in all groups, including religious denominations has eroded significantly.
  • People get their opinions of religion and church from encounters and conversations with others and the media.

Using these three findings it is easy to see why people can say they are Christian but don’t attend church. They weigh up things in their individual consciences  and see no strong reason for faithful membership in a church. The church itself doesn’t provide information about or influence this choice very strongly.

The God perspective

This perspective views each individual human person’s unique situation. It looks at how each person grows and deals with the stresses of life, trying to find meaning and purpose in their life. Let me ‘play God’ and net out my idea about His perspective:

  • I created a deep hunger for knowing God into each person.
  • I love each person and continually communicate myself to them.
  • During their life, each person develops ther own unique ways to avoid this deep hunger and my love, to live as they wish.
  • But there are moments  when they ask questions they can’t answer — “Where is God?” “What is my purpose in life?”

From this God perspective, the gap between people who call themselves Christians and those who attend church makes sense. It happens because many people don’t find the experience of ‘church’ relevant to helping them answer these important questions. How can that be?  Christian churches claim to be able to authoritatively provide these answers, speaking for God, using the Bible. As a movie character once put it so succinctly: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Why is church attendance at your local church too low?

I have given you my theory for why attendance at most Christian churches is declining.  I point the finger at the churches not at individual Christians. People have always acted the way I described in the God perspective. What has changed is the way churches communicate the answers to important questions that people ask. My challenge to each local church is to develop your own theory about declining church attendance and its root causes — and act on your analysis.  If you come up with the same theory as I have, look closely at all the ways you communicate with people, both inside your church and outside. Christian churches have the content but it’s not being heard. Figure out why. This is one good step toward transforming your local church.

Can we know Jesus’s mind?

e6b06feae55279cfb5023848b530e14eI was having a conversation the other day about some “liberal versus conservative” issue when I found myself quoting something Jesus did, as if I knew his mind perfectly. That got me to thinking — how much do I really understand the mind of Jesus? Or better yet, how much can human beings understand the depths of God’s mind and motivations? Some Christians say that the Bible contains what God teaches us about his way of thinking; other Christians add tradition. But both groups imply that, somehow we Christians know the mind of God. Our Jewish ancestors in faith never believed that. So when did we become so well informed about how God thinks?

The simple answer is, by observing Jesus and informed by the Holy Spirit, we have come to understand God’s mind about some aspects of life in God’s presence. Over 2000 years, we have discussed and pondered Jesus’s teachings and example and, since he told us (and Philip) “if you see me, you see the Father” we see God’s actions and understand what they signify for us. That is enough, for now. We are on a journey to full understanding but will never reach that fullness until we are face to face with God in heaven.

Implications

So far so good. We understand the basics but there are mysteries in the depths of God that elude us. What are the implications of this?

  • There are certain things that we can assert that brook very little contradiction. One of these is “God is love.” We may not understand the depths of God’s love but it’s certainly very clear that God commands us to love each other as he loves us. Working that command out in our daily living is certainly connected with what it means to be Christian.
  • There are other things that are mysterious by their very nature. One example is the balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Since God is perfect, his justice must be perfect at the same time that his mercy is perfect. God’s mercy and justice are only concepts until we apply them to people. What about a terrible criminal who repents on the gallows? Worse yet, what about the same criminal if he doesn’t repent? It’s too simple to say, one is saved and the other isn’t. Such dichotomies and judgments are human not divine. In the depths of God and the human soul, no one, not even the criminal himself can be perfectly confident in his understanding of God’s justice and mercy as it will be encountered at the Last Judgment.
  • Then there is how God understands human choices and success/failure.  By our nature we are fallen, inclined to sin. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do yet not do the things I want?” Human freedom and sin and God’s view of human freedom and sin is an unfathomable mystery because God is infinite and our human soul, being God-like, is also beyond our grasp. Yes, each person has a basic sense of right and wrong built in, and there are clear commandments from God. But — and I think every adult has experienced this — when one makes moral choices, the execution often is flawed and falls far short of what we wish we could achieve. I have often said to myself that, if it wasn’t for God’s mercy, I’d give up. My hope that God’s mercy is there to balance his justice is what keeps me going many times.

All this is meant to point to one thing. When we Christians proclaim we know God’s mind in discussions or arguments, we are going a step too far. The other person may have an equally clear (to them) idea about what God is thinking and we may both be wrong. Lesson: It is better to be humble than proud when it comes to understanding God.

 

Leadership on the cutting edge

Mike Baird had just become the Premier of New South Wales — like the Governor of a state for my American readers — and the press struggled to understand how he could be a committed Christian and the leader of all people of all beliefs in his state. In an article in the weekend News Review in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Dangerous Virtue, a Professor at Regent College ( a “small theological school and seminary” that Baird attended) was quoted as saying in a speech to a graduating class, “Be dangerous to those who diminish the importance of the individual person, in the womb or in the twilight years, or in between — to those who trample the individual soul, out of deference to the convenience of other family members, the health of the economy, the good of the state, or the well-being of the planet.” The Herald then made a pointed comment related to Mike Baird — “An Australian listening may be forgiven for thinking that (the professor speaking at the graduation) is calling for his young charges to oppose pretty well everything that marks business as usual on Macquarie Street (the place where Baird presides over the NSW government).”

The newspaper is confronting us and Baird with a question commonly put to Christians in politics — “What exactly does this man believe and is he going to be a fair leader for all people of all beliefs, or a biased pitchman for Christianity?” Baird to his credit doesn’t engage and answers this unasked but obvious question in a way that everyone can support — “I think my time there (at Regent College) taught me in a very deep and significant way to respect everyone . . . I have this very deep sense that every person matters, that is hopefully what I will bring to government.” His answer is an astute politician’s way of avoiding the question. “What do you believe about God and how will you follow His Will in the Kingdom in your job?” That question and its answer is basically asked of every Christian in every role or job in our secular society. There is no question that Christ asks all Christians to be leaders in changing the world and to be counter-cultural. But what does Jesus intend us to do, in real life?

Jesus’ way of leading-

Here are a few points about Christian leadership that we can see in Jesus’ teaching and example:

  • Jesus led by example. He didn’t seek leadership positions and in fact avoided them. He wanted his disciples to keep quiet about who he was, and never asserted his authority even though he could easily have become a widely popular leader and revolutionary.
  • Jesus empowered others. He gathered disciples around him and taught them what they needed to know after he had left them after the Ascension.
  • Jesus ignored the politics and policies of secular rulers and focused on the individuals who were effected by these essentially unjust laws and cultures. He left all politics and power struggles to “Caesar” and focused on advancing God’s Kingdom no matter what the secular system and culture believed or did.
  • Jesus was consumed with loving not doing. He was not results-oriented but relationship-oriented — The relationship between God and man was intimately tied to the relationship between a man and his neighbours.

These points may seem otherworldly and impractical and, in a way they are. Jesus advocated not worrying about what you would eat or wear — God will take care of our human needs. Jesus knew many Christians would end up working for wages to support their families, or even as Premiers or Company Presidents. He simply said, don’t take that part of your life too seriously and lose focus on the much more important aspects of life — your relationships with God and neighbour. Learn how to keep all these things in balance. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Lord, teach me to care and not to care.” Mike Baird seems (from a distance) to be following Jesus’ way of leading.

The tyranny of certainty

CertaintySometimes there are ideas in society that are so prevalent that we cannot see them or their effects. One of these is the modern certainty that human knowledge defines the scope of what can be known. Eric Voegelin in Science, Politics and Gnosticism traces this idea back to the so-called ‘enlightenment.’ He quotes Neitzche and Marx among others to illustrate the origins of our modern refusal to ask questions outside the limits of modern science.

  • Nietzsche speaks of a “fundamental will of the spirit” which wants to feel itself master. The spirit’s will to mastery is served in the first place by “a suddenly erupting resolve for ignorance, for arbitrary occlusion . . . a kind of defensive stand against much that is knowable.” [1]
  • Marx says, in the same vein: “All of so-called world history is nothing but the production of man by human labor. The purpose of this (Marx’s) speculation is to shut off the process of being from transcendent being and have man create himself.”

To simplify, this idea can be summarized as if man can’t understand trancendence or God, it’s useless to speculate about such things. This position, of course, ignors the Greek philosophers as well as Christian theologians and thinkers who started with being as a whole and reasoned based on its existence. Neitzche and Marx and many others threw out the baby with the bathwater (There is no reality other than what science can validate) because it didn’t serve their purposes. As Voegelin says, “There has emerged a phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern societies so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning. . . We are confronted here with persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premises part of their dogma.” This especially apllies to science and its philosophical foundations.

Questioning and indifference

Why do some people refuse to examine their ideas? One reason is that their idea may be wrong; too much in their life would have to be rethought if their idea was shown to be wrong. Another, harder to see reason is that we live today in a ‘culture of indifference’ where one idea is as good as another. So what if my idea is wrong; it’s as good as yours. You can see this in the ideas that some people post on Facebook. Here are a few examples:

  • “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways – Jack Daniels in one hand – chocolate in the other – body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “holy Shit, what a ride!!” [A variation of the epicurean idea “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”]
  • “Be who you really are, do not change for anyone, and always always dream big enough to achieve.” [Life is about dreaming the future that we want for ourselves and then achieving that future.]
  • “Thoughts lead to purposes, purposes go forth in actions, actions form habits, habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny.” [We create ourselves through our thoughts, and that’s it.]

You may feel some of these statements make sense, but try asking, “How does the person who made this statement know it’s true?” Or better yet, “Where is God and his grace in this statement?” Why do people make such statements?

If we don’t have some certainty in our life then the ambiguity becomes intolerable. So we create that certainty for ourselves, alone or as part of a community. Even Christians. We rarely ask, If a person believes that the Bible is not the revealed word of God, what would it mean to be a Christian for such a person?  But Paul raises exactly that point and answers his own question: “What then are we to say about such things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhhold his own Son, but gave him up for all , will he not with him give us everything else?” [Romans 8:31-32] Our faith rests on revelation and our experience of Jesus as God or it rests on nothing. Paul knew we would have such questions because we are human. In fact questions are the usual way our faith is developed. To have no questions is not human. Certainty is not the normal human state and is tyrannical because it leads us nowhere. Jesus anticipated that common human situation and showed us the way forward.

Jesus wished to spark questions

One very obvious thing about Jesus is that his actions were ambiguous. He hid who he was from everyone except his disciples — and even they didn’t clearly understand that Jesus was God until after the resurrection. His life invited questions. “Who do men say that  I am?” Who do you say I am?”  Even when he performed miracles, people were confused, even his disciples. Speaking  of the miracle of feeding 5000 men, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you not yet understand?” — and they didn’t. [Matthew 8:21] Jesus could have easily just told them directly that he was God yet he didn’t. We can speculate why he acted liked this but it is obvious that he wished men to ask questions.

As Christians, when we encounter people who have fixed ideas (certainty) about how life ought to be lived — even other Christians — ought we not to spark some doubt, and a consequent search for new ideas  and a fuller understanding of what life is all about in that person?

 

[1] Voegelin, Eric (2012-03-27). Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Kindle Locations 430-431). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Christ wasn’t merely a human-being.

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The paradox of aging

gpa_sleeping_on_the_sofaI was talking to a friend of mine on Skype other day, about being “older” and its challenges. His name is Rev. Brian McCaffrey and he is very experienced in this topic, being the Chairman at the Northeast Forum on Spirituality & Aging for the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Older Adult Ministry. [Click here to read more about this ministry to older people.] What caught my attention was a statement he made, that we “learn to live with paradox” the older we get. Our maturation process depends on holding life and death together in our minds as we enter the “dying process.” Our opportunity is to “glorify God” by learning to do this process jointly with God.

The dying process

As I get older ideas about death and dying seem more important to me. I have been “doing life” for many years and haven’t really focused on death. Now, it looms just over the horizon, perhaps only a few years away. As I said to Brian on our Skype call, I’m not afraid of what comes after death, just the “process of dying.” He agreed that going to an aged care facility seems like something to be avoided — but then said that he has come to see that many of these seemingly helpless and dependent people are “glorifying God.” Jesus glorified his Father in the death he was to endure on the Cross: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” [John 17:4] It seems clear to me that how we end our work here on earth is important to God, even ‘glorifying’ the Father. What can this mean?

The process of dying certainly involves letting go. First we ‘retire’ and depend on our savings and other sources of income. We let go of certain aspects of our lifestyle. Then we begin to lose our health and depend on others to help us find ways to manage our wellness. Finally, we become so frail that we depend on others to do many things for us. At the end, this even includes bathing us, feeding us, and changing our ‘nappies’ as we become almost infantile. We may or may not keep our mental acuity. So, we must ‘let go’ of many things in life whether we want to or not. But just letting go because we have no other choice does not ‘glorify God.’ Choosing to let go in a particular way is what Jesus means by glorifying God. This is where the paradox of aging comes in.

The paradox of aging

What is the paradox of aging? For me it is the inner conflict between ‘fighting’ and ‘surrender.’ You sometimes hear people say, “She fought hard to stay alive” about a dying person. The will to live is essential; otherwise people just fade away before their time. The desire to continue to live is clearly a good thing. But then we discover that, no matter how hard we strive to live, we eventually come to the point where we (and medicine) can do no more. We must ‘surrender’ and die. In my imagination I can see myself on my death bed doing this, right at the very end. But that isn’t what Jesus did. He entering the process of dying much earlier in his life — he knew his life was inextricably tied to the Cross — and ‘surrendered’ to God’s will. In fact, Jesus’ entire life was one of surrender to God’s will, not ‘fighting for life’ or his own goals. The paradox of aging is we must devote energy to living and we must also learn how to negotiate the process of dying.

So, how do we resolve this paradox? We come to accept that we cannot make the transition from earthly life to eternal life by ourselves — we are completely dependent on God. That is certainly difficult for most of us to swallow. Being independent, achieving our goals, realizing our dreams is what western culture celebrates. Yet, that is not a mature way to view life. Learning to ‘surrender’ and be carried by God — because we cannot carry ourselves — that is a mature view of Christian life. My mother was 96 when she passed away — and she is my personal model of a mature approach to the process of dying and glorifying God. She lived at home, cared for by my sister until the last 3 months of her life. She didn’t want to go to a nursing home but she knew my sister couldn’t care for her anymore so she bravely accepted the transition. I hope I can be as mature as she was, at the end.

Ascending the mountain

Another helpful way to think about the paradox is to use metaphors for the process of dying. We need metaphors to understand things we have never experienced before. They help us imagine new possibilities. Pope Benedict imagined the process of dying this way, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The ascent toward ‘loving to the end’ (cf John 13:1) is the real mountain of God.” If you read the beginning of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, you might initially be surprised, but then when you think about this chapter, Jesus was showing us the way to both live and die. It was the Last Supper and Jesus knew he would die soon. He (the Master and God) washed the feet of his friends. The metaphor of ascent to God is turned on its head. Ascending the mountain isn’t about some heroic demonstration of courage in the face of death, or stoicism in the face of fear and suffering. Jesus unmistakeably demonstrates that it is about serving others.

How do we serve others in the process of dying? Each person discovers their unique situation and tasks as they approach death but Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t look inside yourself for strength in those moments or days. Serve others and trust in the Father for strength. “Let go and let God” as the saying goes. We can’t serve others or reach the top using our own strength. The process of dying is not a letting go of life; we know we are approaching eternal life as we ascend God’s mountain. The process of dying is a letting go  of self, trusting that God holds us in His hands. How do we know we have let go of ourselves? When we focus on others — family, friends, nurses, doctors, other people in the same circumstances. “Loving to the end” is what the process of dying is all about.

 

 

 

St Vincent’s Hospital (7) — Going Home

St V’s has done all it can for me; I sense that. It’s not my decision however. The Neurosurgeon has the magic power to say his work is done; I can go home. He will do another CT scan Monday to look at my head and see if it is normal enough for me to be discharged. I can hear a few of my cynical friends saying, “Jim, normal?”

But the desire to go home is building and, in a way, dealing with the frustrating slow process of discharge is as hard as anything else I have faced. I want to be back in my own place, with Hacy and Oscar. They know exactly what kind of TLC I  require! Not saying the nurses at St V’s aren’t wonderful; it’s just that I am in love in a deeper way that they can’t satisfy. That is the realization I have come too; home is where you are loved most deeply and where your whole being (mind, body and spirit) is nourished. Of course that got me thinking. How does this happen?

The universe is love!

The famous physicist Nikolai Tesla said, “If you want to understand the universe, think of energy, vibrations and frequency.”  With the advent of human understanding that all matter, indeed gravity and space-time itself, is “quantum” in nature, Tesla’s summary is accurate, as far as it goes. But love is left out of physics — and yet obviously love exists. How to relate physics and love?

There are two basic possibilities:

  • Love is a form of some property that physics has already identified — say a particular kind of vibration that travels freely in the universe. “Good vibrations” are spoken of commonly today, meaning “I’m sending my love to you.”
  • Love is beyond physics and its measurements. What ever love is, it acts beyond the limits of physics and  its understanding of the universe. The poets struggle to find metaphors for this transcendent love we all experience. “My love is like a red, red rose” “Love is a many splendored thing.” 

Love is mysterious and impossible to grasp — just like God. So we easily believe that God is love. We don’t need theologians to prove this to us; it is built in to our longings and hope. It is as if we are beings made to love and we experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ when we aren’t embraced in love. So what is the relationship between physics and love?

An analogy that helps me is — Architect (Creator) and Object (that which meets the Architect’s intentions.) If you hire an Architect to design your ideal house, he or she will try to discern your deepest longings and needs, and go beyond mere function. “What do you want your home to be, not just what it looks like?”

God the Architect created the universe (Object) to be a home for human beings, and his most basic intention was that love be the prime ‘force’ energizing everything. Why? Because love is his own nature and he wants us to transform the universe and bring it to him as a gift. He actually entered the universe to help human beings accomplish this. Physics is man’s use of his knowledge to understand this reality but, thus far, physics and metaphysics (Beyond physics) have not found a good way to collaborate, at least in some people’s mind’s. That is a maturity problem which will be resolved in time.

So when I say I want to go home, I’m saying that my home in Sydney, and my fellow Christians at St Peters in Surry Hills, and my worldwide mountain climbing team of family and friends, await me. I need their love to recover and I’m 100% confident that it’s there waiting. This is the way God made the universe. It’s as close to God that I can experience until the day Jesus carries me home to God beyond this universe.

St Vincent’s Hospital (6) — Is-ness, Part 2

You go under a General Aenesthaetic, get operated on, then go to  a recovery area where the nurses wake you up. “Jim, do you know where you are?” There are no preconceptions in the ICU, just the insistent question about whether you are conscious or not. The nurses don’t stop asking you until you reply.

The simplicity and complexity of “is-ness

Where am I? I was conscious but I needed to figure out the answer to this question. Everything seemed fuzzy to me.

My simple logic was there were  only three possible places I could be; and that had to be in the ICU:

  • In the place they told me I would awaken after surgery (in my case I awoke in a place that looked like a complicated hospital room, which I assumed was St V’s ICU)
  • In the place others had told me  I would be, after death (in my case there weren’t any clues of  after-death experiences)
  • Nowhere (I wouldn’t have regained consciousness; there is an end to human “is-ness”)

The complexity of “is-ness” lies in the fact that every individual has a unique mind, and thinks and acts differently. This was brought home to me in the sponge bath I described in a previous post. My experience was very different than the man in the next ICU bay. He was a chatterbox and I just relaxed and enjoyed the sponge bath. He had lots of stories to share with the nurse; I shared the experience with the nurse but it was mainly a body experience, not a mind experience. Very unusual for me.

This says to me that every person experiences the world uniquely, and probably eternal life as well.

The mountain of God’s “is-ness”

Climbing the mountain means, in the simplest terms,  crossing over from this life to the next life, into God’s “is-ness.”  We cannot get there by ourselves; God has to bring us home. Jesus directly told us not to worry; he would do that, in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if that were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me that you may be where I am.”

This is the simplicity of God’s “is-ness” which he desired to share with us. The complexity comes from how we think about this. Each person builds their own ideas and attitudes about this reality, about God’s “is-ness.” What came clear to me in my experiences here in St V’s is that all my knowledge and ideas can’t get me across that gap, from earthly life to life in God’s “is-ness.” I can no longer rely on my own “mountain climbing” prowess or strength, or even that of my team of friends and family. I must rely on Jesus’ promise to take me with him.

That is a great learning and comfort for me.

 

St Vincent’s Hospital (4) — Morning of the operation thoughts

They woke me early so I could have a piece of gluten free toast and jam, and a cup of black coffee. Nothing much to do but wait for the operation, which is number two on the afternoon schedule. I suppose they’ll take me down early; the aenesthetist has her work to do first. I have been through this before; involves a lot of waiting.

I have chosen a really good book on my iPad to keep me entertained during the morning — A Talent for War by Jack McDevitt.  I have read all his books but don’t remember this one. That’s one thing that is good about having a bad memory — I can read books a second time and have only the vaguest familiarity about the plot. This one started off about 11000 years in the future and is about searching for the truth about a man who history has recorded as a coward  in war. Seems I might have read it but McDevitt is so good I’ll enjoy it regardless.

Father Brendan Purcell, my Irish friend who is a Philosophical Anthropologist is saying a Mass for me this morning. My mountain climbing team is praying for me. I’m as ready as I can be.

“You never really know where you are going to come out.”

McDevitt wrote that sentence about the uncertainty of space-warp travel in a distant imaginary future. It’s what it feels like when you waiting for an operation. They ask you to count backward from 100 and then you wake up in the recovery room — but of course you might wake up in eternity. I once began writing a short story about a man who woke up after his operation and found himself all alone, not only in the hospital but on the entire planet. He was a problem-solver like me and tried to figure out ways to verify that he was alone, and what this shocking new reality meant. I never finished writing the story.

It’s actually not possible to imagine what it would be like to ‘wake up’ in eternity. “Eye  not seen what God has prepared for us.” All we know is that God loves us and has prepared something wonderful for us. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in The Great Divorce. So, as I wait for my operation, it’s in God’s hands “where I’m going to come out.” I hope I’m communicating a sense of hope and peace to all my family and friends.

 

St Vincent’s Hospital (3) — I do have a body after all!

imageAnyone who knows me knows that I spend a lot of time in my head, and also pursue the spiritual dimension of reality. Going into a hospital forces you to be aware of your body, whether you want to or not. Here are a few of my experiences:

  • They  are continually measuring my heart. Great technology. A monitor plugged into my chest which transmits from the Neuro ward on the 10th floor to the Cardio ward on the 7th floor, where someone watches my vital signs. Every once in a while, a nurse on the 10th floor will come  say “Is something going on? Your vital signs changed. The 7th floor wonders what happened.” Once a lead came off. Another time, I had gone to the bathroom. I wonder what the response time is, when the two floors try to sort out what’s happening? All I know is they are recording my vital signs and my Cardio doc will examine these before they operate.
  • They take my blood pressure continually here on the 10th floor. One nurse has very cold hands in the middle of the night! I ask them what my BP is: 120 over 80 which is normal for most people but not me. I take BP meds so I have to help the nurses recognize when I shouldn’t take certain meds because it will send my BP down too far.
  • My “intake and output” is also measured. Need to drink more fluids. Need to do solid “output” more frequently. These things take care of themselves automatically  when you’re in everyday life (or do they?).  Maybe I should listen to Hacy when she suggests I drink more water. When you go past a certain age, your body needs attention.  Have to change my habits after I get out of the hospital. That will be a challenge!
  • If you look at the hospital room in the picture, you’ll see a handle hanging above the bed. At home when I want to get out of bed, I roll over and swing my legs down in a fluid motion. After 3 days laying in a bed in the hospital, I’m too weak to do that. How quickly we lose our strength! Lesson: Our body needs to do exercize so we can roll out of bed, walk up and down stairs, etc. Another habit I have to change when I get out of the hospital!

Body, Mind and Spirit

Many of you won’t understand how I think about life. When I say that I mainly live in my mind, disassociated from my body, you will think, “How does he do that? What about his 5 senses? Does he ignore them?”  To imagine my way of living, think back to a time when you were really concentrating on something. Maybe you were listening to music and everything else disappeared. Maybe you were getting a massage and only felt the hands of the therapist on you skin. Maybe you were meditating and all your senses except your mind were absent — no sight, sound, taste, touch or smell. Only awareness of being still.

That’s what it’s like for me much of the time. My mind is aware of my thoughts but barely aware of my surroundings. Imagine living with someone who has to consciously surface their “submarine” in order to connect with the people around them.

This gets me to my challenge as I climb the mountain as I get older. I need to learn to connect to my ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong” team (as Patty Sullivan named it) as we all progress up the mountain together. None of us do it alone! If I ignore my body  and its connections to the many people who share my life with me, I’m letting them down! We are a team, helping each other to learn how to climb the mountain. [If you want to know more about the mountain, read a previous post on Grace Filled World called The Paradox of Aging.]

St Vincent’s Hospital (2) — fellow mountain climbers

imageThis is a view from my room in St V’s looking west toward CBD Sydney, taken when I woke up this morning about 7:30M.  Had a good night’s sleep without all the ‘entertainment’ in the ER the previous 2 nights. Also slept later than I usually do — Oscar normally walks across my chest at 6 AM signalling it’s time to eat. I miss the little guy though.

Yesterday, the afternoon nurse was taking my temperature end I noticed a strange symbol on her wrist. “it’s Ekam Akar which is Sikh for One God.” I said I believed in one god too and she nodded. Made me happy that so many unknown people in their way acknowledge the same reality. She is part of my mountain climbing team.

Climbing a mountain

In a previous post called “The Paradox of Aging’ I used a metaphor of “climbing a mountain” for doing the work of ending your life well. [Go to Recent Posts on the lower righthand side to read that post.] I’m not getting maudlin or particularly worried about dying right now but my situation does make all this more real for me. I hope you’ll read what I write because we 21st century people put the process of the end of our life as far away as we can — and miss some of the richness of life when we do this.

When you unpack the metaphor of climbing a mountain, there are several key features that help you think about the process we all face at the end of our life:

  • The climber (me)
  • The Climbing Team — the people we are linked to as we climb the mountain.  This is a team sport — we are tied to others who help each other with the difficult climb.
  • The mountain — the challenge every human being undertakes as we journey from this life to an unknown life with God.

I have never climbed this mountain, but I have been part of my Father’s and Mother’s Mountain Climbing Team. What I learned from them was being peaceful helps. They were both good climbers and i want to imitate their serenity.

Who is on my Team? Certainly the doctors, nurses and others in St V’s. My wife Hacy, my children and grandchildren, and all my family and friends around the world. Facebook makes it possible for me to sense the links that are helping me up the mountain.

And what are the challenges? Probably, for me right now, it’s mainly  my feeling of uncertainty. What is going to happen? How will I face the challenges? I know I’m not alone and that helps a lot. I’m very grateful to all the people who are on my team helping me.

St Vincent’s Hospital (1) — From theory to practice

Living life isn’t writing about it. Such an obvious statement but one that comes home very quickly when your GP says, “I’m sending you to the hospital.”  It’s a bit complicated but basically I have headaches caused by a bleeding between my skull and the outer lining of the brain.

At the Emergency Room

I arrived at St Vincent’s Emergency room about noon on Wednesday 1 May. it’s now about 1 PM Friday on 3 May. It’s taken me that long to decide to do this blog and get my iPad to work (now in St. V’s Private Hospital in a private room with wifi.) In summary, the experience has been very good up to now.

As a writer I look at everything as material for telling a story, so that’s what I intend to do in this post and others that follow.

At morning changeover as the shifts change at 7:30 in ER, a cluster of people walks around and the man in charge gives a short overview of each case. Today I hear him say “hematoma” about me. They didn’t stay with me long. I suppose that’s good. Either they see lots  of these case or they are boring  cases — or I have been here 2 mornings in a row and  they remember me. Funny how my mind tries to process what’s going on, to get a ‘theory’ about my situation and give me some control.

My heart monitor’s buzzer keeps going off. For a while I just assumed it was my moving in bed that disturbed the cords but I asked the nurse and she said it was my blood pressure was low. That’s unusual for me; mine is normally high. So we had a nice conversation about this and she told me they wouldn’t give me any of my normal blood pressure meds today until my BP came back up. I asked her about an unusual necklace she was wearing and she told me it was to remember her friend back in the UK. She’s from Kent, right near where my ancestors (Thomas Greene) came from. Small world.

Both these experiences make me think more deeply about what a hospital is:
1. It’s a special place with a special language — The various people working here use a shorthand, with latin used frequently, to describe conditions quickly and accurately. I have a “subdural hematoma.” With my basic knowledge of Latin, I can figure out that means a blood (hema) thingy (toma) below (sub) the skull (dural, or enduring). They also need to teach me to communicate about my experience of my condition so they can understand what’s going on that only I know, eg, how bad is my headache so they can give me the correct type and dosage of pain killer. They ask, “On a scale on 1 to 10 how bad is the  pain?” Initially I just guess 5 or 6 — it’s pretty  bad but not terrible. That makes them give me morphine, which doesn’t work  for me; doesn’t adjust  the pain and makes me vomit. When I report this they try codeine which works better for me.  I have now learned a little bit of  hospital language about pain assessment and treatment. They are learning a little about me as well.

2. A hospital is a ‘love factory.” I have been in hospitals before  so I know that it’s how you are treated that is as important as the medicines and procedures. St V’s is a loving place; I know that already in 2 days. The Neurosurgeon was interested in me, not just my condition. Why I came to Australia. How I met my wife. What I did. He had a nice conversational style that put me at ease and made it easier to talk about my treatment options and the potential operation to remove the clot. A night nurse, while I was sleeping, noticed my heart rate was a bit fast, and decided it probably ought to be lower. When she came in at 3 am, she told me she like to add some Magnesium to my intervenous drip to bring  the heart rate down. I  told her about my previous experiences taking Magnesium orally and she assured me it wouldn’t work that way intravenously. She had such a nice manner I knew she cared about me. It’s like that with the other people here at St. Vs. They seem to really  care about me.

3. Of course an inner-city ER is an interesting place. It is located in Darlinghurst, right next to King’s Cross, the infamous nightlife district in Sydney. A man today kept yelling “You f___ers. Let me out of here.” Everyone basically ignored him. Lots of Ambos and policemen coming and going at all hours. They congregate right next to me and keep up a friendy chatter throughout the night. Wherever I wake up there’s entertainmemt. Seems like mostly old people being brought in but that will probably change on the weekend. I won’t see it — I’ve been moved to the high rent district in St. V’s – the 10th floor of the Private Hospital, into a Private room! Woohoo! Seems almost like I’m going on a vacation!

Sent from my iPad

 

 

 

In and beyond time

We live in a century when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technology that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Biblical time

We have become so ‘scientific’ in our view of time that it is very difficult for us to imagine that Biblical time transcends past, present, and future. God is timeless, yet God created time. God entered human history as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit — and gives us hints of a different kind of time.  The Gospel of John says that the Word “was in the beginning with God.” [John 1:2] “The Word became flesh and lived among us” as Jesus. [John 1: 10] And Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not not come to you.” [John 16:7b] Besides the usual time dimensions implied in these references, there is God’s timelessness that exists beyond created past, present and future, which touches us and shapes us. We are already but not yet completely in God’s timelessness because we are transcendent beings. These are difficult ideas to grasp. So what does the “last days” mean in God’s timelessness?

Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people in the last days, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10]  God has performed a second great act of creation, after the first ‘Big Bang’ and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role in God’s time?

In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world.

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”  Many scientists and Psychologists don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe, in their scientific view of time.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. He is the eternal timeless Word and the man Jesus in time. God’s purpose is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state through Jesus and his brothers and sisters — us. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan, both in ordinary space-time and in God’s reality of timelessness.

Extraordinary everyday time

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious distance from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to fly like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafte.” [Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps]

As Chesterton might put it today, there is ‘divine music’ in the world in the last days – and a musician more wonderful than we dare imagine is playing a love song that many in the world cannot hear, as yet. We Christians have not been left alone to teach the world to sing that love song. In the last days, the days of the church, we are learning to sing in harmony; we are ‘one’ as God is one. We have been given the glory that Jesus received, which brightens our singing, and attracts and lures the world into singing God’s love song. All this is what Jesus promised. The critical question is what will we do, right now, here in our local church, in the light of this astounding reality in the last days?

 

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Ultimate Transformation

cosmic ChristPeople use the word ‘transformation’ very loosely today. Corporate change programs are called transformational, even if they leave the company largely the same. People say that they have experiences that ‘transform’ them — and yet they too largely remain the same. But the OED defines transform as “change the form, shape, or appearance of; alter the character or nature of.” The death and resurrection of Jesus is truly transformational because it alters everything about mankind’s relationship with God!

A transformational vision

Listen to Pope Benedict describe Easter, based on his scholarly and faith-filled analysis of both the Old and New Testaments:

  • “[Easter] was an event that surpassed all that could be imagined.”
  • “We could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap’, in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.”
  • “It was an ontological leap, one that touches being as such, opening up a dimension that affects us all, creating for all of us a new space of life, a new space of being in union with God.”
  • [St Paul speaks of the] “cosmic body of Christ, indicating thereby that Christ’s transformed body is also the place where men enter into communion with God and one another and are thus able to live definitively in the fullness of indestructible life.” [1]

I have read many science fiction stories that reach for the “meaning of it all.” The source is generally an ancient race that leaves traces of itself, which future galactic explorers find and are puzzled by. I have never read a single story that is as audacious in its vision as these descriptions of Easter. Furthermore, Benedict asserts that these words are precisely the message of the New Testament! They are truth not imaginative fiction. Therefore, they must evoke some response in us, since we now live with the possibility of that we already (but not yet fully) inhabit a ‘new dimension’ of human life.

Cosmic Man

I suppose it’s easier to imagine that Jesus is a ‘cosmic’ man than it is to imagine that we are also, like him, ‘cosmic men and women’. Christians say the words “body of Christ” quite easily, and imagine that someday we will learn what that really means. There is truth in that future-oriented view but also avoidance. By implying that the real body of Christ only takes affect after our death, we can comfortably say to ourselves, “I have to live a good human life right now” leaving ourselves untransformed in this life. I can understand that. If people really believed they were already transformed and literally part of Christ’s cosmic body, that would make it much more difficult to lead an ‘ordinary life.’

So, what might it mean if we took being a ‘cosmic man or woman’ seriously? Here, I use my own imagination rather than trying to see what scripture tells us. I’ll leave that to experts. My basic premise in Grace Filled World is that we really experience the living presence of God — therefore, we can describe, or at least try to imagine what this means to us.

  • Jesus is active in my life. Looking back, I can see where I had ideas and took paths that weren’t part of any ‘plan’ on my part. To recount these would take a book, which I might someday write. I have already written several books that indirectly recount my experiences; perhaps someday I’ll be more autobiographical.
  • Prayer is being with Jesus, here and now, and also, beyond time, at the right hand of God. Only a few years ago, I couldn’t have written about prayer because I said ‘prayers,’ and didn’t actually imagine that I was entering the presence of God. Even now, I use tricks I picked up from meditation and other sources to help me pray. But Jesus said we must be like little children, innocently entering the presence of God without trying to ‘do it right.’ That’s pretty hard for a person like me who loves complex ideas and tries to find the meaning in everything. Now, when I pray, I am trying to leave all that ‘thinking’ and ‘doing prayer right’ behind and become a child again.
  • When I look at the people in Sydney, I experience a tremendous yearning for them to know what happened with the Resurrection. They don’t seem to care; this day’s experiences and concerns are enough for them. I think that’s how Jesus feels about them, and I’m experiencing what he’s experiencing. And, if he respects their freedom — because he could easily do some spectacular thing on TV or Facebook but doesn’t — then I must too. It’s about learning the difference between power (forcing people) and love (alluring people). My whole life has been immersed in a world of force. Now, in my mid-70s, I begin to see that I need to learn something I have avoided my entire life: being vulnerable enough to love.

I hope you will read this post and let me know how you experience Jesus in your life, as a ‘cosmic man or woman.’

[1] All quotes are from Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Part Two; from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.

 

My 100th post!

100 anniversaryOver the past several years, some of my posts have been viewed or commented on by a number of people. I thought I’d summarize and give you the links to some of my most popular posts to celebrate the milestone of my 100th post.

If you enjoy these posts, I hope you’ll subscribe to my blog, entering your email address and clicking the ‘Subscribe’ button on the right hand side. It’s free and I won’t send you any emails. Subscribing makes sure you receive an email whenever I create a new post. I also hope you’ll comment on my posts as well, to let others share in your ideas.

Seeing with Jesus’ eyes [Click here]

By far this post is my most popular in terms of the number of times it has been viewed. It describes how Jesus sees things by telling the story of the woman caught in adultery.

Grace is like a hungry cat [Click here]

This post describes my personal experience of grace.

A transformational story about God and life [Click here]

One of the major reasons I write my posts is to “wake up” Christians to think more deeply about what they believe. This post has a different perspective on why Christ died on the cross for us.

Why change? We have lost our ‘saltiness’ [Click here]

Another major reason I created my blog Grace Filled World was to help Christians understand why they must take responsibility for changing their parish or local church. This post deals with the danger that our churches have become too much like the secular culture that we are all immersed in.

The white rabbit [Click here]

This is one of my own favorite posts. It describes a friend’s extraordinary experience of grace, and my own encounter as well.

 

The meaning of Easter

Cocoon to butterflyIn the northern half of our planet, Easter comes in early Spring — rebirth and new growth after Winter is obvious and seems to announce the meaning of Easter. But in the southern hemisphere where I now live, it is early Autumn and things are dying rather than growing. This Easter Sunday, after reading Jesus of Nazereth by Pope Benedict XVI during Lent, I can now see more clearly that both dying and rebirth are essential to understanding the true meaning of Easter. Let me explain.

We celebrate transformation on Easter Sunday

One of the most basic ideas about change is that there must be an ending before there can be a new beginning. As a simple example, before you can really engage in a new health and fitness regime, you have to let go of your old “couch potato” habits. The same idea applies to the transformational purpose God has for Easter. Before Jesus’ resurrection, he had to die on the Cross. An ending and a new beginning are necessary to accomplish God’s transformational purpose.

What has God transformed? There are two levels to an answer to this question. At one level, through Jesus’ death and resurrection he has transformed man’s relationship with God. Down through the ages God slowly taught human beings how to relate to him. In the Old Testament period he taught Israel that, rather than the idols everyone else worshiped, God is one and desires that man relate to him as he desires. Israel slowly developed the idea of sacrificing anaimals to atone for their sins against the Law he had given them through Moses and thus be able to please God. But there was also a continuing feeling in Israel that animal sacrifices were not what God desired. [See Psalm 40:6] Even the Gentiles began to question this mode of sacrifice. “The Greek world also sensed more and more acutely the inadequacy of animal sacrifices, which God does not require and in which man does not give God what he might expect from man.” [1]

In Easter, God once and for all ended the old way of man’s relating to him. Rather than the old animal sacrifices, God, through his son Jesus sacrificed himself, once and for all wiping out the sins of mankind. The New Testament is based on a fundamentally different way of relating to God, opened up by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself for us. Why did Jesus need to atone for our sins? Benedict — a German who lived during Hitler’s horrific era — puts it this way: “The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the mage of God — this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering on himself. . . God himself ‘drinks the cup’ of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness. . . The incarnate obedience of Christ is presented as an open space into which we are admitted and through which our own lives find a new context.” In Jesus’ death and resurrection each of us experiences an ending of our own inadequacy and sinfulness so that we can enter into a new relationship with God, confident that we will be received!

But there is also another meaning to Easter. God, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has transformed humanity. As Benedict so clearly puts it: “In Jesus’ Resurrection a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind . . . Christ’s Resurrection is either a universal event or it is nothing, Paul tells us.” [1 Corinthians 15:16, 20] It was not a matter of Jesus’ corpse being resuscitated, like Lazarus (who had to die later on again). No, Jesus was transformed into “an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming but lies beyond it — a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” Jesus made an ending to the old humanity and created the radically new possibility we now experience. This reality exists in the midst of the everyday world in which we live — “a definitive otherness in the midst of the continuing old world . . .” How can this be? “The resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience, something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed.”

We may think at this point, “Well, the apostles experienced this new reality but I don’t.” That is precisely where the church comes into our life. In the years immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, the early Christians pondered what had happened and gradually came to understand that the new dimension of reality was present to them also, not just to the disciples who had actually witnessed Jesus’ new life. They began to understand what Jesus had taught them. [Read the story of the road to Emmaus.] Rather than trying to summarize that for you here, I’d like to end this post with my favorite quote when it comes to experiencing the new reality of God — “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] If you seek God, and wait, he will surely find you and open up your eyes to this new reality.

[1] All the quotes in this post are from Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, Volume 2, From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection

Stretching toward Easter

Easter eggsIn possibly the strangest editorial on Easter ever written, “Nailing the cross to mind and body” Elizabeth Farrelly actually got past the usual bunnies, coloured eggs and cuteness as she stretched her imagination to find the meaning of Easter. [Click here to read her Sydney Morning Herald editorial] While trying to connect biology and worship, Farrelly actually found her way to the essence of the mystery of Easter — the link between our human condition and the divine. Here are a few of the phrases she uses to summarize as she reached beyond her own horizon of understanding:

  • “Here be magic” — Fannelly connects (and feels wonder as she does this) her pet Pygmy Bearded Dragon, a world in danger, a species in need, a philosopher, a ritual practice and an ancient symbol. I’ll let you read her editorial to see how she does this, very skillfully. But she most certainly is pointing toward the mystery which is at the core of reality, which she calls magic. Easter is a celebration of that most profound reality.
  • “Worship is a vertical stretch” — She contrasts her down-dog yoga pose with her pet dragon’s stretching toward the warmth of the sun, and realizes that “worship is not my natural position.” Why? She doesn’t know; her dragon seems to naturally have it right and she doesn’t. I think that summarises why we need Easter: to remind us to stretch toward the unimaginable reality that now surrounds us, as a result of God’s initiative.
  • “The God-stretch” — Here Farrelly stumbles a bit, as most people do, on the meaning of the cross. She sees the cross symbolizing, in its horizontal axis, human compassion and justice. To her, the vertical axis represents human yearning for truth and justice. These are fine thoughts, and apt metaphors but they get the reality of the cross completely wrong. The cross is God stretching towards us, becoming a servant of our needs, even unto death. This reality is literally unimaginable, so we Christians must forgive people when they search for the meaning of the cross and miss it. We miss it ourselves many times  — that’s one reason why the church celebrates Easter, to remind us that we live in the presence of God’s unfathomable mysterious love.

Another person stretching toward Easter

Pope Benedict XVI wrote an entire book about the meaning of the cross and Easter, called Jesus of Nazareth; Holy Week, from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.  Benedict was a noted German theologian and scholar before becoming Pope so you might make the mistake of thinking he would be able to completely describe the meaning of the cross and Easter — plumb the depths of mystery and tell us what he finds there so we ordinary people can understand it. Unlike Farrelly, he bases his description on the entire story-arc of the Old and New Testaments, which are ultimately about what God has done in history before, during and after the cross and Easter. But like Farrelly, Benedict ultimately stands in awe of what God is doing, unable to completely grasp what God’s reality is. Here are his own words about this. “(Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) are intended to point us toward realities that defy description.” He does not try to overstate his scholarship or even his obviously strong faith when describing God’s mysterious actions in human history. He stands mute except for the “gift of insight which he hopes has been granted to him.” Here are a few of Benedict’s descriptions of the cross and Easter, within the larger story-arc of the entire history of man and the cosmos.

  • “It is in Jesus’ downward path, in his abasement even to the cross, that God’s glory is seen, that the Father and, in him, Jesus are glorified.”
  • “In his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus, as it were, brings all the sin of the world deep within the love of God and wipes it away.”
  • “His cross and his exaltation is the Day of Atonement for the world, in which the whole of human history — in the face of all human sin and its destructive consequences — finds its meaning and is aligned with its true purpose and destiny.”
  • “God grants to evil and to evildoers a large measure of freedom — too large, we might think. Even so, history does not slip through his fingers.”
  • “(God is patient and) does not impose upon man anything too hard to understand: God acts like a good schoolteacher or a doctor. He slowly puts an end to certain customs, allows others to continue, and thus leads man forward.”
  • “Ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering.”
  • “The word — which seems almost nothing in comparison to the mighty power of the immeasurable material cosmos, like a fleeting breath against the silent grandeur of the universe — the word is more real and lasting than the entire material world. . . The cosmic elements pass away; the word of Jesus is the true ‘firmament’ beneath which we can stand and remain.”

What is our response?

When I read both Farrelly’s and Benedict’s ideas I immediately ask, what about me? What do I say the cross and Easter means? Somehow I think that both Farrelly and Benedict intended to lead their readers to this question of personal meaning. Reading descriptions of the cross and Easter is not like reading philosophy or history or science. We can stay remote from those areas of knowledge and continue to live our lives satisfactorily in ignorance of how they describe reality. We can’t do that when we encounter the mystery of the cross and Easter. We are involved whether we want to be or not. The sweeping claims about the cross and Easter are universal — we cannot escape their effects, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist.

To me, the cross and Easter confront me everyday as I live in Sydney — in my own (and the great majority of people’s) lack of appreciation for the mystery of this reality. If God yearns to save us so intensely that he became one of us and died a horrific death on the cross willingly, where is my own yearning for him in response? Perhaps humility is the only response anyone can make. “I cannot live as I ought; God help me.” The cross and Easter are just too far beyond our grasp; as Farrelly said “worship is a stretch.” But stretch toward the cross and Easter we must.

 

Reason and belief

faithreasonIn the March 2013 issue of Quadrant, “one of Australia’s leading intellectual magazines,” Michael Giffin made a plea for rationality in his article The Church, Its Enemies, and Child Abuse. He points out that “unfortunately (the media) reports (child abuse) in a way that, in the public mind, links it predominantly with the Catholic Church, as if that’s the principle institution with a case to answer.” Michael Giffin is a priest in the Anglican diocese of Sydney so one can assume that he is not a mindless defender of the Catholic Church. Instead, he is pointing out the dangers in a very complex and emotional discussion. “It’s hard not to feel danger looming, when listening to (ostensibly educated professionals involved in identifying and prosecuting child abuse) as they bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality.”

The source of the danger

My friend Father Brendan Purcell is a respected professor of philosophy. He has examined the source of dangerous irrationality in an article on Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist. He uses another atheist’s own words to convict Dawkins of the very crime that he and the author accuse believers of. Richard Dawkins quotes Sam Harris, another atheist who wrote: “‘We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.'” [1] Father Purcell then uses three quotes from the distinguished modern philospher Wittgenstein to point toward the irrationality in Dawkins and Harris’s own position:

  • It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life remain completely untouched…
  • One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn’t put the question marks deep enough down. [2]

Brendan points out that Dawkins is being at least inconsistent if not irrational in his position. “Would Harris or Dawkins find that there is ‘no rational justification’ for these experiences of Wittgenstein? If there is even a possibility that they might be valid, it does not make sense to call them delusions, with all that word’s connotations both of a serious lack of interest in intellectual inquiry and a fear that such experiences may not in fact be true at all.” [3] Why would educated, even brilliant professionals like Dawkins, or the others that Michael Giffin refers to, “bounce back and forth between rationality and irrationality”? I think my friend Brendan points directly at the source of the issue — “fear” of the consequences of following rational argument wherever it may lead. Dawkins is afraid that there may be a rational case for religious belief. The professionals that Michael Giffen refers to — lawyers, scientists, lobby groups and others engaged in the child abuse issue — are afraid that they might have to admit that as an institution the Catholic Church is no more guilty of child abuse that many other secular organisations.

The quest for authenticity and truth is the antidote for such fear

The basic stance of rationality is that a person should remain open to the implications of the evidence  of his/her experiences. The challenge is ‘remaining open,’ as well as recognising that one may have prejudices and biases like every other human being. Bernard Lonergan calls this situation ‘general bias.’ He writes, “To err is human and common sense is very human . . .Common sense is incapable of analyzing itself.” It takes rigourous self-discipline to examine one’s commonly held beliefs, and to arrive at one’s authentic beliefs. Lonergan describes the journey toward authentic belief as “always precarious, ever a withdrawal from inauthenticity, ever in danger of slipping back toward inauthenticity.” [4]

I think it is clear that authenticity is not a state easily obtained. All human beings must engage in a lifelong quest for truth, which they can genuinely and authentically “bet their life on.” I admire Father Purcell’s gentleness with Richard Dawkins, in surfacing what Dawkins may have great difficulty in admitting to himself — that a belief he has espoused his entire life may not stand the test of reason. Brendan is being a true pastor in his gentleness, encouraging Dawkins to “rethink” his position on God, to be open to a very different possibility and to “bet his life” on the truth of that.

Every Christian must engage in a quest for authenticity. Our beliefs can become ‘common sense,’ especially today when we are surrounded by a culture that holds materialism and success in such high regard. Why not go along with these secular beliefs, at least part way, and achieve a measure of comfort and worldly success? Doing this allows us to provide a safe, secure and comfortable life for ourselves and our family. That can’t be bad. Nonetheless, we must deal with the demands of being a Christian if we are going to be authentic. “Take up your cross and follow me” is a pretty clear invitation from Jesus. (It is no longer seems to be a clear demand of many Christian churches sadly.) Our quest for authenticity must include this aspect of the kingdom; else we have invented a pseudo-Christianity to make ourselves feel good. The quest for authenticity always involves suffering; how do we include that possibility in our lives? To me, the only answer lies in prayer — God forgive me for I am a sinner. Help me to see how to live according to your Holy Will.

 


 [1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, 149e; Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 62e. I owe the suggestion of these Wittgenstein references to Edward Oakes: ‘Edward T. Oakes and His Critics: An Exchange’, First Things 112, April 2001.

[3] Brendan Purcell, Dawkin’s Fear of Reason

[4] Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection

 

Authenticity and Transformation

be-authenticMy previous post raised a question about the meaning of “authenticity” — does it apply to beliefs or the state of an individual holding a belief? And why should anyone care anyway?

The OED defines authenticity as “the quality of being authentic” — and authentic means “Of authority, authoritative, entitled to obedience or respect” in the first place. Further down the list in the OED is the meaning I wish to focus on — “Real, actual, genuine, original, first-hand, really proceeeding from its stated source.” Authenticity is the quality of being genuine in one’s depths.

Each person has first-hand knowledge of whether they are being genuine or not. However, as we all know, many times we are unclear about what is actually going on in our inner depths, so ‘being genuine’ is not something that is easy to be confident about. In fact, in humility, each of us must admit that, sometimes, we don’t know ourselves very well at all — and thus we have what might be called ‘existential doubts’ about our own authenticity. So, we don’t usually say “I’m being authentic.” It is a hypothetical concept that we rarely apply to ourselves. But perhaps we should occasionally think more deeply about our authenticity.

Going deeper

Bernard Lonergan is one of my ‘going deeper’ heros. He wrote an 800 page book called Insight on how we arrive at a true understanding about ourselves or anything. In that book, Lonergan says “adequate self-knowledge can be reached by man only at the summit of a long ascent.” In other words, authenticity results from a process, and is not a quality one claims easily. Ths should set our expectation when it comes to ‘going deeper.’  And the great thinkers, saints and mystics agreed with this — St Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Buddha, to name only three. What awaits us in our depths is not only our authentic self but also an encounter with authentic reality within which we exist. One cannot have an authentic self and a false view of the context in which we live. We must leave behind our false ideas about ourselves and reality, in other words, in order to experience ‘conversion.’ “For Lonergan, [authenticity] is absent in someone who is stubborn or driven by power, for this inner conviction is the fruit of conversion and it is the concrete principle of authentic self-transcendence.” [1]

What is this process of ‘conversion’ which leads to authenticity? “Authentic human existence is, in Lonergan’s terminology, the result of a long-sustained exercise of being attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving.” [2] Conversion and therefore authenticity arises from five human acts:

  • Attentive — Not only being aware but paying attention to and reflecting on what presents itself to us
  • Intelligent — Applying what we have learned, in an open-minded way, to what we become aware of, to encounter what we do not yet know — ‘hitherto unnoticed or unrealized possibilities’ according to Lonergan [3]
  • Reasonable — Using criteria to discern what is true in what we learn, crtieria that goes beyond simple self-referential or self-serving ideas about truth
  • Responsible — Making choices and taking action based on what we conclude is reasonably true
  • Loving — Applying an overriding criteria of love to every choice and action to ensure that it is ultimately responsible

If we conscientiously follow this process — and that may require a very long time, even a lifetime — we may find that we have been transformed. “What will transform us [and the world] is an ability to love the world, ourselves [and God], to see it as good in spite of the wrong. To fall in love is to set up a new principle that has, indeed, its causes, conditions, occasions, but, as long as it lasts, provides the mainspring of one’s desire and fear, hope and despair, joy and sorrow.” [4] This is obviously a much deeper definition of authenticity than one commonly encounters, one that includes the notion of personal and even cosmic transformation. Can ordinary people engaged in the complexity of living in the 21st century actually engage in such a process?

Practical authenticity and transformation

I’m inclined to simply answer this question ‘yes’ and leave it there. After all, people decide to do extraordinarily difficult things, like climb Mount Everest or sail around the world alone. But, unfortunately, in the modern world the pursuit of the deepest levels of authenticity and transformation are even more difficult than such feats. We can get ourselves into physical shape to approach Everest or the Pacific Ocean and people around us support us and applaud our success (or even our failure if we give it a good try). In years gone by, people who wanted to follow the interior path I described withdrew from the world and become monks, hermits or contemplatives. Only a few ‘heros’ managed to do this, like the ones I mentioned before. Now, however, it seems to me that many are being called to follow this path. Ordinary, middle-class men and women, who stay in the world yet, in a way, are called to leave the world. There is a great hunger for authenticity today; you can see it in books like “Eat, Pray, Love” and others.

So, practically speaking, what do you do if you sense this call to undertake the deeper journey of authenticity and transformation? Like any change process, there are steps. Here are three simple starting steps to prepare yourself to engage in this process:

  1. Clarify your intent — This involves being open to the future and the reality of your current situation –telling yourself why you must seek something different, what will happen if you don’t and what you hope to encounter if you do engage in the process. Your intent provides the motivation to make the long, arduous journey
  2. Plan your journey — Probably you can only see a short way ahead; that is what you must focus on. Read about others who have made this journey, and how they started. Then select some things to do and begin the journey. Stay open to what happens and be prepared to adjust your plan.
  3. Seek a support community — For ordinary people who stay in the world, having people to support and guide you through the process is critical. “No man is an island” applies very strongly to ‘middle-class’ adventurers. Only in conversations with people you trust will you be able to learn to be ‘attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible and loving.’

I would like to have a conversation with anyone who wants to learn more about the journey toward deeper authenticity and transformation.

[1] Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2237-2239). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braman, Ibid

[3] Braman, Ibid

[4] Braman, Ibid

 

 

Authenticity, Christianity and Atheism

imagesCAX5FCAVChris Stedman, a “former Christian” and now an atheist and Chaplain at the Harvard humanist community wrote the following in an article posted on Q, Ideas for the Common Good. [Click here to read the full article]

“Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing  we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. As an atheist, I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with other atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. I’m excited by the growth of the interfaith movement—but still, in many ways, we have our work cut out for us. My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.”

Facing one’s opponent

Let me preface my comments by saying that I believe in conversation and not convincing when it comes to discussions between Christians and non-Christians, including atheists. That is one of Chris Stedman’s 6 major points: “Don’t try to “win” the argument.” But, as a matter of fact, there is a chasm between Christian and Atheist beliefs that cannot be bridged. Every person ultimately chooses to be on one one side of the chasm or the other; there is no middle ground. For a Christian, the conversation with an atheist is a matter of life or death. For the Atheist, it’s a matter of getting along and finding common ground so that together we can advance human good. I’m not opposed to that goal; in fact if you read my blog, you’ll know I support finding ways to work with everyone of good will for the common good of humanity.  But I also feel that many Christians don’t make clear distinctions about the consequences of belief and non-belief.

Be clear about this: Christians and Atheists (and atheistic humanists for that matter) are opponents in the realm of belief. If we say that God came to save us from our fate, atheists say that there is no fate to be saved from. They say that we humans are the creators and masters of our fate and that’s that. Of course, that quickly leads to the question of what happens after death. Atheists say nothing happens after death; we say eternal life happens after death. That’s why Christians see conversations with Atheists as a matter of life and death. God gave every person complete freedom to determine their personal eternal future. So, if a brother or sister says that nothing exists after death, that is the future that they may be creating for themself. [I say ‘may’ because we can’t understand the extent of God’s mercy.] Atheists need to understand that if we Christians become excited and argue it’s because we fear for their future. Not a pretty sight in many cases but certainly an honest concern.

To me the question boils down to authenticity. At our deepest level of awareness, we know whether we are being authentic or not. Both Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan have written about this, and see authenticity as a fundamental drive of being human. “Authenticity for Taylor and Lonergan is the experience of a profound transfiguration in one’s being and doing. ‘It is a transformation of our stance towards the world and self, rather than simply the registering of external reality.’” [1] Seen in this way, Atheists take the position that any transformation we might experience in life will be solely our own doing, and will arise out of human understanding of external reality, period. But they have put a boundary around reality and excluded God! The question is, are they making an authentic choice? Whether they are or not is beyond any other person’s knowledge — or power to change. “As for inauthenticity, no amount of dialogue can change those who are irresponsible, unreasonable, inattentive, and obtuse.” [2] So, I can agree with Chris Stedman when he says “Don’t try to “win” the argument.”

So, what can we Christians do? Only this. Understand that when we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are petitioning God to send the power of his kingdom, which is the Holy Spirit, into the situations of our life — including conversations with Atheists or other non-believers. We are literally helpless until God does that. We can train ourselves, pray for people and do everything we might imagine would ‘convert’ some person — but we must let God be God. In the depths of the human soul is where God encounters each person and each person, if they pay attention, knows authentically when something is moving or stirring inside them. That ‘still small voice’ is what we all respond to, believers and non-believers alike. As Chris Stedman also points out in his article, Christians must not get in God’s way.  “For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.”

Read my next post “Authenticity and Transformation”

[1]Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2233-2235). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braham, Ibid.

 

 

Deconstructing belief

elijah on the mountainWarning. This post may upset your accustomed way of thinking about your beliefs. However, in the spirit of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I offer some reflections on the state of belief in the post-postmodern world. In a nutshell, belief is under attack from every direction — but we can also ‘deconstruct’ those attacks as well.

Getting your arms around belief.

I am a voracious and eclectic reader. Not only of what is currently being written but also what was said centuries even thousands of years in the past. I feel sometimes like I’m standing on a small island of belief in a furious ocean of contradictory ideas from reading all these books. But I also sense that it has always been this way, for every thinking person, and there’s some comfort in that. [People who are ‘aggressively non-reflective’ live on a solid but illusory continent of their own making, built out of sensation and experience. In my opinion, they are simply postponing the inevitable question of ‘what does it all mean?’]

We are now at a point where all the conflict about the rationality of having a belief has arrived at an impasse. We are entering what I wouild call the post-postmodern era. Consider several quotes about our current situation:

  • “By the late twentieth century [the Western mind] had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.” [1]
  • “A new integration will be based on the rejection of all univocal understandings of reality, of all identifications of one conception of reality with reality itself. It will recognize the multiplicity of the human spirit, and the necessity to translate constantly between different scientific and imaginative vocabularies.” [2]
  • “Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. . . There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic.” [3]
  • “There is an enormous difference between the dead letter and the living word.” [4]

What these authors seem to promise about belief is that new beliefs emerge constantly in human history, even now, if we are open to that possibility. My question is, what does this mean for Christians?

Christian and secular belief

Because we are human, we experience the storm of ideas in the era in which we live. Christians would like to believe that our little island of belief is built on rock — the solid foundations of the Old and New Testament as well as the Church’s careful study and insights into these. But even inside these solid beliefs there is, as Derrida pointed out “a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity.” And as Bellah also pointed out, the “living word” can’t be contained within human structures of knowledge. In our belief, Jesus is the eternal living Word — and God is not finished with our understanding of what He is doing with us and the world.

What does all this mean then? For one thing the foundation to Christian belief is very different than the basis for secular belief. Secular belief struggles with questions about what is real and true. Christians struggle with questions of what ultimate reality and truth is saying to us. One makes human knowledge its foundation, and the other uses human knowledge to understand what its foundation (God) is saying. Essentially one foundation is built on ever shifting quicksand and the other is built on eternally reliable rock.

My take away about belief in the post-postmodern era is that Christians must ever seek to understand in the light of the latest human knowledge what the living God is saying in our time. Does this mean giving up our beliefs? No, but it does mean distinguishing between what is of God and what is of man in our beliefs. This requires reflection and prayer, in a time of great conceptual storms that seem to be on the verge of overwhelming our little island of belief. What is God saying? As it happened to Elijah, it is happening to us: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ The Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, nor the fire but in a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” [1 Kings 19:11-13, condensed]

_____________________________________________________

[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind

[2] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief

[3] Terry Eagleton, reviewing a biography of Jacques Derrida in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 2-3, 2013

[4] Robert Bellah. Beyond Belief

 

Sacred and ordinary Sunday

chair for sacred sundayIn the Sunday Life section of the Sydney Sun-Herald there was an article “Sacred Sunday” that got me thinking. The author Susie Burrell never defines what she means by ‘sacred’ but uses a practical ideal as the basis for her well-written article. “. . .we have to actively schedule more rest time, for the benefit of our health, our relationships and our soul.” Any Christian could use this same justification for making Sunday’s more special. (Of course, hopefully, we would go much further and bring God’s command into play — “Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.”)

What to do with Sacred Sunday?

Susie suggests five points for keeping a sacred Sunday:

  1. Sunday lunch — bring family members together, do some healthy food preparation for the week ahead
  2. Family-based activity — share some quality time together and also get some healthy exercise
  3. Prioritise — ensure you have adequate time for a proper sacred Sunday
  4. No electronic equipment — only face-to-face communication and activities, and getting adequate rest
  5. The mini-break — Get out of the city into nature

As far as these go, they are all good starting points for busy people to keep in mind. What would I add to what Susie recommends? (I wouldn’t delete anything.) I would add a new #1 that precedes her five points — #1 Worship God — Put aside everything else and spend time  with your local church community in their form of placing God at the center of life. Also consciously dedicate whatever you do on Sunday to God. But there is a far deeper significance to “sacred Sunday” than these points.

Let God be God

Psalm 80:19 makes the point that is most important about sacred Sunday: “Restore us, Oh Lord God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.” God established sacred Sunday for mankind as a day of rest so that we would make space in our busyness for Him to restore and save us. When we take control of Sunday, even doing the good activities listed above, we are implicitly saying, “I can decide what to do to restore my life.” Whether we intend it or not, we are saying the opposite of the Lord’s prayer (Thy will be done, thy kingdom come) — My self-will be done; my power to make choices is more important than the kingdom.

Perhaps you think what God is asking is extreme. Let me ask you, would you be willing to follow the strict Jewish law about doing no “work” on Sunday? Their intention was to take very seriously God’s commandment about the Sabbath. Do you subscribe to a truely sacred Sunday, allowing God to be God and restore you? I think the asnwer is obvious. We all do our shopping on Sunday. We are restored by going to the movies. Our families generally split and each individual decides how to spend Sunday. It’s almost impossible to imagine being open to God’s restoring power in a special way on Sunday, for only 24 hours a week.

But God’s kingdom — His Lordship — is present. Pope Benedict in his wonderful book Jesus of Nazareth puts it this way: “God’s dominion over the world and over history transcends the moment . . .yet it is at the same time something belonging absolutely to the present. . . It is present as a life-shaping power through the belever’s prayer and being: by bearing God’s yoke, the believer already receives a share in the life to come.” If this is the reality we believe — and I think somehow most Christians do — then ‘sacred Sunday’ is when we put aside as best we can our own choices and put on God’s ‘yoke’ by being open to His restoring grace. Can we do this for 24 hours? It may be our intention, but “the flesh is weak.” But if we become more aware of what’s going on in the kingdom and desire more strongly to be part of it and welcome God’s restoring power, then we have taken the vital first step of choosing how we would like to spend sacred Sunday. After that, stay tuned for opportunities to present themselves!

 

Human and divine

humanismI receive emails occasionally from the Harvard Humanist Community. Recently they awarded comedian Eddie Izzard a Lifetime Acheivement Award, and featured one of his quotes on their Facebook page –“I don’t believe in a God. I believe in people.” That got me to thinking (as the Harvard Humanist Community usually does). This is a classic “either/or” point of view — a false dichotomy which arises out of a false assumption. Either you believe in God or you believe in people. Probably Eddie didn’t intend it that way. What he probably meant was you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the basic goodness of people. If so, that statement also makes me shake my head. Let me take you through my logic.

What is the source of human goodness?

The issue comes down to what is a human being? If we are only an evolved animal, with a large brain that enables us to become self-conscious and develop langauge — which is what the Harvard Humanist Community and Eddie Izaard place their faith in — then the source of our goodness is some kind of Darwinian process that equips us to survive better because we are good. To put it more bluntly, when we commit evil acts we are decreasing our chances of survival as a species. I think it’s admirable that some people can have such faith in “survival of the fittest” and devote their lives to goodness to increase the chances of humanity’s survival. As they say, “Whatever turns you on.” But let me contrast the Humanist position with the Christian belief about human goodness. In a nutshell, God gives us his life (grace) which enables us to do good acts. We are not alone in the struggle between good and evil. And, as we do good, collaborating with God, we become more and more like Him, in a process of inner transformation. We are meant to become like God and we participate in making ourselves like Him through our free choices. You can read this many places in the Bible but I’ll give you one quote to illustrate: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” [Romans 12:2]

Why be a Humanist? Why be a Christian?

As I read the Harvard Humanist Community’s aspirations I thank God that they are trying to achieve many of the same goals as we Christians are. I can agree with some of their philosophy (taken from their website) — “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” If someone simply cannot believe that they are a supernatural and transcendent person who will live forever, then it is good to “aspire to the greater good of humanity.” I will do everything I can to help them in this. But why settle for the “B Team”? Why eliminate the wonderful, mysterious possibility that God has created us to transform ourselves and the world and, in doing so, become like Him? It seems to me self-evident that Christianity is the “A Team.” Oh I know, religion raises its ugly head here. “I can’t be a Christian because of what they do in the name of religion,” quoting crusades, inquisition, bigotry and paedophilia among other evils committed by Christians, some in the name of religion. (All of which are factual but not at all characteristic of Christianity). My invitation to Humanists everywhere is to consider the promise of Christianity — then look fairly at a real local Christian community near you. My invitation to Christians is to befriend Humanists and help them in their work of improving the lot of mankind. Don’t worry about their beliefs; it’s really no contest in the race between the A Team’s and B Team’s beliefs.

 

 

The Epic Story of Being

information-overloadIt’s strange how I come to write these posts. Usually I experience or read something that causes an idea to surface suddenly — I have to capture it immediately or it gets lost. This post was triggered by a phrase I read this morning in Psalm 81 — “A voice I did not know said to me . . .” I was propelled outside myself by that phrase — how mysterious is the human mind and soul — and watched as the grand 13,000,000,000 year old story of being flashed through my mind. I’ll share my roller-coaster ride through time with you briefly.

The story arc of being

If a Hollywood Script Writer had to “pitch” the epic story of being to a Producer to get funding, he might do it like this, in 6 major film segments:

  1. Black screen. No sound. Only indescribable divine Being. Then brilliant flash and the story titles flash by as created being emerges, expanding into a universe pregnant with possibility. (Necessary Being — what we call God — speaks the “Word” and creates contingent being to share God’s reality.)
  2. A sun exploding and fragments of flaming matter swirling. A barren planet takes shape, then an ocean, then a forest. Zoom in to see insects and then zoom back to see dinosaurs. Finally pan around and see a group of ape-like savages huddled in fear. Focus on a single savage face as it morphs to a human face. Screen goes black again. (The dynamism of created reality produces the spacetime continuum then biological life. Then, in another great act of creation,  God creates the first human soul as a transcendent being with freedom and self-consciousness.)
  3. Two humans walking in a forest. One suddenly strikes the other with a club. Cut to warfare, human sacrifice and great temples. Then cut to a desert and an old man, an arab herder who looks away into the distance, then packs his tent and family and sets out on a trek westward into the setting sun. (Man’s journey in his search for God, with God finally reaching out to Abraham as the father of true understanding in humanity.)
  4. Rapid scenes portraying Isaac, Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, and then the prophets and exile and return to the Promised Land. (The story of Israel’s growth in understanding about God’s presence in the world and His Plan for them)
  5. More rapid scenes of the familiar story of Jesus: Birth, growth, public teaching and miracles and death and resurrection. The last scene fades into twilight, but it is a dawn not evening. The new reality of “God is with us” has begun. (The story of God’s definitive entry into human affairs in Jesus)
  6. More rapid scenes showing the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of Christendom until finally, there is a cresendo of modern scenes representing man’s current power and dilemmas. Again the last scene is a pregnant twilight. But is it morning again — or evening? Will this story have a happy ending? Who is the storyteller? The movie leaves a question in the mind of the audience. (The story of the ‘last days’ and the transformation of creation)

A deeper level — the Human perspective versus God’s perspective

As I said, I never know where these posts will lead me. Once I completed my little account of the “story arc of being” several things occurred to me. Using the Hollywood metaphor, the story arc I have just described might be only one of an almost infinite number of ways of telling the story of being. What may make this one different is the weight of theological study of the sources for this particular Christian story. But, since the history of science advances as well, where does that leave Theology? Does theology have a privileged view of God’s mysterious Plan due to these historical sources? If we take the mystery of God seriously, then what Walter Kasper the noted German theologian wrote has some serious implications. “The believer is not better informed about God than the unbeliever, and theologians are not God’s ‘privy councillors.'” This bold statement flows directly from the nature of God according to Kasper: “God makes known his utter hiddenness and his being utterly beyond our power to manipulate and dispose of him.” We cannot claim we grasp God’s Plan any better now, in the 21st century, than Jesus’ disciples understood it when he was present in the flesh in the 1st century. Where does that leave us?

In Chapter 5 in my book Imagining Rama I wrote about our not knowing what is going on in God’s larger Plan. “The condition of being aware of something going on, in oneself and the cosmos, yet being unable to know or grasp what it is epitomizes the mystery of human freedom in the universe for me.” Put more simply, all we are left with is understanding our role in a story that God knows but we don’t — and learning this role in our situation with all its new language and new questions, depends on our relationship with the living God who is hidden yet present. We can’t go to school and study the sources, or even the Bible, and find out precisely what God’s mysterious hidden plan means to us right now, everyday. We must learn our role in the story through our relationship with God supported by the Christian community in which we grow in spiritual wisdom. That is what human freedom means to me. We have been given a free choice to relate to the living God (or not) in order to learn how to carry out the specific role created for each of us since the beginning of time. God sets the stage; we are the actors. We create the diverse possibilities for the future of Earth and perhaps the universe, which God brings, through his intimacy with us in grace, to a happy ending after eons of adventure. [See Ephesians Chapter 1 and 2:10 for St Paul’s view of this.]

 

 

 

Progress? Where are we?

chaos_and_meaninglessness_roweIn 1953  Robert Nesbit wrote a very insightful book called The Quest for Community. In it he summarised the prevailing view of  man with these words: “The theologian Paul Tillich sees before him in the western world today a culture compounded not of traditional faith and confidence, but one agitated by feelings of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, and meaninglessness.” Today, we look back at the 1950s as a time of innocence, of postwar optimism. It is now sixty years since Tillich’s grim words were written. Have we made progress toward a different view of man? How would a wise observer of the world summarize man’s situation in 2013?

Perspective on 2013

Living in Australia, I experience a country free from many of the conflicts that are taking place in the rest of the world. Australia is a comfortable place, with a national attitude of “No worries, mate.” Politics (and politicians) are something to be mainly laughed at. Our economy was barely touched by the GFC. The big issues of the day seem to be rather small on a global scale: boat people trying to land in a country that doesn’t want them, bushfires and floods. People here in Sydney live a good life, enjoying their weather and coffee — and Tillich’s words somehow seem wrong, strangely alien to life here. I find that I cannot get a grip on the Australian psyche to summarize it. It is as if there is nothing going on beyond dealing with the day to day issues of life. Have Australians somehow left the feelings that Tillich described behind? If so, how did we do that?

The search for what?

I have written 2 books about what I call the “quest” for transformation. My personal view is that all human beings engage in some sort of quest for the answers to the bigger questions about life. Yet, I find that there seems to be no zest for such a quest among many of the people I know here in Sydney, and elsewhere in the world as well. People are searching, that’s for sure, but for what? A better career, more recognition, intimacy — all these are discussed frequently as being important. It’s almost as if we have somehow found ourselves further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than we thought — at the safety, belonging and self-esteem levels — with no energy for self-actualisation or the search for meaning. And, without a search for meaning, can there be any interest in religion or God? Probably not. The days when belonging to a church fulfilled a social need in most people are long past.

So, now what?

The Christian message depends on people seeing the implications for themselves of the larger dimensions of meaning. Jesus came to “save” us from the futility of ordinary human life and death. But if life is only about being safe, belonging and feeling good about one’s self, we can handle those pretty much by ourselves. And that is precisely what our culture is about — self-fulfillment, self-knowledge, self-improvement abounds. Yes, we can go find a “guru” if we want to experience the mystical dimensions of life, but there is no life and death drama connected with that, only our feeling good about ourselves. For someone to make the effort of learning about Christianity, something must jolt them out “no worries, mate.”

The old time revival preachers used the threat of hell and damnation to do that — but that is so politically incorrect today people reject it. So what is the answer? I’m trying the “awe” approach myself. There’s obviously something much bigger than me, Australia or Planet Earth ‘out there.’ Science fiction movies like Avatar give us hints that mankind will play a much bigger role in the universe in ages to come. If people get excited about the potential of what a human being really is — transcendent, on the way to becoming divine — maybe they will get serious about learning about the one who is leading us on that transformational journey. In any case, that’s what I’m tring to do. How about you?

 

 

The map is not the territory

When Martha my teacher / coach taught me the rudiments of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), she gave me a model for how the human mind works. Whether or not you agree with this model, you must admit that some of its ideas are quite provocative:

  • Our memories and emotions profoundly influence our behaviours
  • The way we use language shapes our thinking
  • A good deal of what happens in our mind is unconscious

One of the ideas that Martha emphasised was “The map is not the territory.” By this she meant that each person lives in a world that touches on but is not the same as “what is” or external reality. All of us filter out aspects of reality — generalize, delete and distort what comes into our senses into something that fits our model of the world. We create our own “map” of reality — our unique mental model — so we can follow it and live more easily. It is a constant temptation to believe that our “map” is 100% accurate and actually is identical with the territory of “what is” or reality. That is simply not possible. The human mind is built to work like this — as a “mapping” or pattern recognition device simplifying reality — and we cannot escape being human. What does this have to do with living in a “grace filled world?”

The Christian “map” and God’s “territory”

Christians are human — and therefore must have a map of the world to function.  Christians also believe they live in God’s Kingdom and depend on God’s grace in a profound way to find their  way into and around the Kingdom. How do we put these two ideas together? It seems to me that there are two basic alternatives:

  1. Christians must create a different kind of “map” for themselves which includes aspects of the Kingdom (at least as far as it can be experienced in this world). In other words, through the normal human growth processes, Christians encounter God in other Christians, the Bible, etc and use their freedom to create a Christian “map” to follow.
  2. God must intervene and inject some special features into the Christian “map” to help us find our way into and then around the Kingdom. This alternative means that God gives humans gifts of insight and other graces to expand their “map” This alternative says that supernatural forces add to or even override the normal human growth processes.

Putting it this way, it seems to me that God would never override human freedom even to achieve a good end — a human mental model (“map”) that includes the Kingdom. No matter how much we Christians would like to depend on God to steer us through the world with some special infallible “map” we are no different then any other human being. We must build our own map to include God’s Kingdom, or it won’t be there when we need it. This reality creates an urgency for Christians to form their “map”  — their mental model for the world and the Kingdom — according to God’s reality.

Creating a Christian “map”

How do we create our Christian “map” of reality? By using and combining three different sources as we grow in our faith — our own efforts, those of the church, and those of God. We must have all three — else we begin to run the risk that our Christian “map” will be just our own construction and not reflect God’s reality. These three sources work in many ways; I will highlight one way for each source to give you an idea of what I believe growth in faith means.

  •  Our own efforts. Basically this means we take our growth as Christians seriously, and “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” Human growth takes effort; everyone knows that. Education, physical wellness and fitness, even spiritual meditation all require an individual to spend time and energy on growth. “No pain, no gain.” If a Christian never reads, reflects or prays they are unlikely to create a mature “map” of the world and the Kingdom.
  • The church. Over and above what an individual Christian does, the church is a primary factor in Christian growth. If a local church neglects the growth of its congregation, then the “maps” of its members will be immature and possibly even wrong. Christian education, sacraments, liturgy and fellowship are essential to every Christian’s growth. There is no wisdom in the statement “I am Christian but I don’t go to church.” Yes, you might have been baptised but you also may still be a Christian “infant” as far as your Christian “map” of the world and the Kingdom are concerned.
  • God’s grace. Notwithstanding the first two sources, no Christian can create a valid “map” of the Kingdom without God’s involvement. Even Jesus withdrew periodically to be with the Father. Why? The answer is that the Christian “map” is mysterious and alive. It is not simply the way the human mind processes data and recognises patterns (although it is that too). The Christian “map” is more like a relationship than a model, handbook or guide.  This relationship transforms the “map” we humanly construct because our “coach” (not an NLP guru like Martha) is there with us . We are not alone, using our map to navigate the world and the Kingdom. “God is my co-pilot” might be a reasonable image, helping us as we create and use our “map” to grow and guide our lives toward an often unseen purpose. Prayer is the common way we experience God and mature as Christians.

The point of this post — and my entire Grace Filled World blog — is to awaken Christians (including myself!) to the serious task of taking responsibility for our growth in the faith.

The insistence of everyday, Part 2

I posted a link to Part 1, The insistence of everyday, and a good friend commented: “Interesting post Jim. May be applicable to anyone who believes in a higher power, not just Christians. You took the time to reflect, which I must confess, I don’t do nearly enough.” What struck me was his phrase “may be applicable to anyone who believes in a higher power, not just Christians.” I agree. What I call God and others call Allah or higher power doesn’t just shower Christians with hints of His presence. The Spirit pursues every human being to lure them closer. Indeed, God is the creative source of every human’s spirit (soul, life force). (There is of course a different point of view, which one might term ‘relentless secularism.’ There are no supernatural causes only natural causes. I will not debate that point of view in this post. Read my book Imagining Rama; a brief guide to exploring the universe, mystery and meaning if you want to engage in that conversation.)

What I attempted to say in Part 1 is that the literal reality of God impinges on each person’s constructed reality, whether or not they open themselves to be aware of this. This gets us into the question of truth. Is what I am saying true, or only my version of truth? That seems like an “either/or” question but is actually a “both/and question.” Let me explain.

The question of truth.

In its simplest terms, God literally can both be true (really what is) and also untrue (non-existing) for an individual who programs their constructed world to eliminate the possibility of God. This happens because God honors human freedom to the extreme of even deciding God doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t end the discussion. What happens next? Does God “walk away” from a person who chooses non-God and “wash His hands” so to speak of this person? What is true about the relationship between God and human beings? That is where Christians make a claim that, so far as I am aware, no other religion holds as true.

Christians say it very simply. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that  anyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] You can see this reference plastered on public places by Christians who are trying to alert people to this reality. Unfortunately, some non-Christians take this as a threat — believe or you won’t be saved.  But you have to read the next line to get the full context and what this statement really means. “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [John 3:17] God isn’t in the business of giving people ultimatums. He is in the business of helping people to get out of their limited constructed realities without Him and take up their rightful place with Him as divine-like beings, created to live forever with him.” That is what Chrtistians say is true. But is it? If other religions hold that Allah or a higher power acts differently than this, what is literally true?

On one level, that of each person’s constructed mental model, there is no certain way to estabish the facts about this reality. God is beyond human comprehension and God’s ways are also impenetrable. That is why each human being engages in a “quest for truth” throughout life, to seek and hopefully find answers to such ultimate questions. Many stories have been written about this quest over thousands of years ranging from religious epics like the Bhagavad Gita, to Chretein de Troyes myth about Parsifal and the quest for the Holy Grail, to Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. The essence of the human quest for truth is to find what is authentically true outside themselves. Out of that quest comes a sense of completion and peace. “The pursuit of truth shall set you free.” Each person recognizes when they have reached the goal of their quest, which is truth which they didn’t reason to or construct. Until they reach that point, they sense they must not cease in their quest.

The Christian claim about truth

So, how can Christians be so confident about the truth? For some, truth is simple. If the Bible says it’s true, it’s true. In reality, that is very similar to what believers in other religions also claim. “My book is right and yours isn’t.” To someone engaged in a quest for truth, simply starting to accept the Bible as the end of their quest is as difficult as accepting they know God’s reality. They are unwilling to short-circuit their quest for truth — and good on them! None of what I have said addresses, however, the Christian claim to know the actual, literal truth about God — only the everyday reality that many people won’t accept what individual Christians say as true.

Where I come out on this is that every human being (including Christians by the way) must engage in an authentic quest for the truth — about God and who they are. It is the pursuit of truth not the possession of truth that grows human beings into the divine beings we are destined to become. In these two posts I have tried to show (though some trivial examples) that opening up yourself, and admiting the hints of God into your constructed mental model is a necessary step in this quest. Unless you do that, you never find your way out of Plato’s cave — your own limited self-constructed mental model for the world. The Christian claim is that the quest is worth it — and that you are never alone when you are pursuing truth.

The insistence of everyday

As I was driving through Sydney yesterday, I had the Bach Goldberg Variations on ABC Radio. I was stopped at a traffic light, and noticed the people crossing past my windshield, some talking to a friend, some punching their iPhone’s screen, no doubt linked to someone else doing the same thing. There was a cluster of people in front of a pub across the street socializing and having a great time (it seemed). What suddenly struck me was how much stimulation each person in the scene I was observing was experiencing (including myself) — and how difficult it is for the “still small voice” within them (and me) to “cut through” all this stimulation, to use the common marketing term.

Literal reality versus constructed reality

I am no different. Yesterday (everyday) I constructed my own world as I always do. As I drove, I chose to listen to Bach, I decided (somewhat habitually) what I needed to observe as I was driving, I observed Sydney as I drove along, and of course I had my thoughts about all these. This constructed world of mine pretty much filled my conscious mind. Yet (reflecting on this now) I believe as a Christian that literally the Kingdom of God was also really present, independent of my belief or what I allowed into my constructed world at any time.

How do I include the reality of God’s presence every moment that I am awake? Is that even a practical thing to do? (I might have a car accident if I got carried away in some rapturous encounter with God.)

Time, Consciousness and the Kingdom

I think one answer to these questions is having a different view of time and consciousness as a Christian. Let me explain. My usual constructed world works like this.

  • I do many things automatically, with only occasional interventions by my conscious mind. For example, driving a car.
  • I choose some stimulation consciously, like listening to classical music when I drive. (I flick between 2 stations in Sydney to find the piece of music I want). This choice then fills my consciousness with some beauty or drama or humour, depending on what I choose to listen to.
  • Some outside stimulation intrudes and I notice it; like the people who crossed my path or stood in the pub as I was stopped at the traffic light.
  • My thoughts are also always there, chattering away. That is who I am. I think everyone must be thinking, more or less all the time.

But in my constructed world I also intentionally add a different type of stimulation — the presence of God–  which happens in a different time and different level of consciousness. Did I learn to do this? I don’t know. It seems like it has always been part of me. I know I have become a better observer of this aspect of myself as I get older. My thinking contains its hints, usually surprising me. (I don’t plan to meet God; He seems to seek me out occasionally, even insistently at times.) What this feels like to me is the timeless intruding on time — and a different form of consciousness intruding on my ordinary constructed world. That feeling is actually inexpressible; I just know that it is real.

My conclusion? A Christian constructs their world differently than many people. We are ready to receive God’s stimulation. (Maybe that happens with other religions as well; I can only talk about Christians.) When God “knocks” we “answer the door.” We take God’s stimuli as seriously as stop lights and pedestrians when we are driving an automobile. We decide to pay attention to God’s timeless demands in order to “drive our lives well.” They come when God decides it’s time; we receive them when we make ourselves ready each day by our intention to be alert and respond. And we learn more and more about the Kingdom when we reflect on what we have experienced after the fact. What I have just described is commonly called “prayer.”

CONTINUE TO READ: The insistence of everyday reality, Part 2. [Click here]

Art is a mystery

There was an interview with Malcomb Turnbull in this week’s Sydney Sun-Herald. (For my American friends, he is the former leader of the Liberal Party now a back-bencher in Parliament, mainly focused on technology.) What grabbed my attention in the interview was his focus on literary insights. “Malcomb has an aesthete’s heart locked in a technocrat’s job title.” Not a bad sentence for the Sun-Herald!

Malcomb and mystery

While being interviewed, Malcomb used Twitter to send the following — “Remember, art is a mystery which the author little understands.” Those of you who know me know that mystery is my favorite theme so I immediately decided that I would support Malcomb — if ever he gets the chance to lead the Liberal Party again, when I become an Australian citizen. Australia (and the world) desperately needs leaders like Malcomb who have a deep and visionary perspective of the future. (Please read on, even you would substitute Julie or Tony or even Kevin for Malcomb.)

I don’t know exactly what Malcomb meant by his Tweet. I suspect it was a politician and technocrat’s awe of artists and poets that inspired it. Malcomb quoted Shakespeare twice during the interview. Why are usually pragmatic people like Malcomb (and myself) in awe of poets and artists? Precisely because somehow they allow us tap into mystery. We sense that poets and artists see beyond a veil that covers our eyes. (Anyone who has read my book Imagining Rama knows that I don’t believe the poets and artists are the only ones who can see beyond this veil. We all can.)

Long ago, in a galaxy far away 

All of this leads me to my story about art and mystery. I will use Star Wars and St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians to tell this story. (My mind works strangely, I know.) Both these artistic works have a cosmic scope that goes far beyond anything we usually imagine might be true. Star Wars presents a vast galactic empire at war; Ephesians has God’s entire plan for creation. Star Wars has aliens on the side of humans (Wookies) as well as against them (Jabba the Hut). Ephesians has gentiles being united with Israelites, in the battle against evil. Star Wars has Jedi Knights who use the force to defeat evil. Ephesians promises that the Holy Spirit will equip us with armor to defeat evil. Both Star Wars and Ephesians describe a larger mystery, which their authors “little understand.” Let me explain.

Where did the Force comes from in Star Wars? How did Luke Skywalker learn how to use the Force? (I know, from Yoda, but how did Luke actually do it?) Could the scriptwriter give us the answers to these questions? And, in Ephesians, how does God create a plan which he knows beforehand, and the opportunty for us to use our freedom to do the good works he has prepared for us — while leaving us free? As these examples show, we cannot plumb the depths of either of these stories — because they describe mystery. Mystery is a reality which we will never understand.

The seldom told story

So what’s my point? You must be thinking how can I wrap Malcomb Turnbull, Star Wars and the Letter to the Ephesians together? [Let me hasten to add that I am not involving Malcomb in a religious debate.] To me Malcomb represents every good leader struggling to make an impact in a very complex world. Many people in Australia wish him well in this battle — but are also cynical that he (or any politician) can actually do anything to change things. He is like the leader of the rebel forces in Star Wars in this regard. The question is, who will be his Jedi Knight and use the force to “defeat” the evil empire –the complex political, economic and social system that does not adequately serve the human needs of the people of Australia, which he is attempting to change? He is enough of a realist to know that he cannot do this on his own. But does he believe in Jedi Knights and the Force? Probably not. But they do exist!

That is where the Letter to the Ephesians comes in. St Paul describes the cosmic battle between good and evil, the role of the “force” and who Jedi Knights are. The problem is that even most Christians don’t understand the cosmic story that Paul is telling. (I’m not speaking about Malcomb here, to be clear.) The point of this blog is that we Christians must begin to see the deep truth that is in Ephesians — and our role in making the story known and real. The most basic point of the story is that all mankind, not just Jews and Christians, are called to participate in God’s cosmic plan. Reread Ephesians and see if you agree with me. Then, if you do, go find a visionary leader and support her or him in transforming the world!

Chicken or egg — freedom or grace?

I was having a conversation with a friend about respect. She said that you just can’t respect some people, the way they live or think. I said that God respected us so much that he sent his only son to become one of us and heal us. What does it mean to follow God’s example when it comes to people for whom we have little or no respect? She answered that even God doesn’t overwhelm our human freedom; we have to make a move towards God in order for him to heal us. There isn’t any automatic healing. We left off the conversation at that point; neither of us could figure out what the true answer was. Maybe a theologian can, and will comment on this post.

Limits on what God can or will do

As I pondered this conversation I realised that what we didn’t understand (and couldn’t) was how God acts in our lives. It is clear that God acted without waiting for man to be “good enough” to receive him in the Incarnation. But even in that act human freedom was involved in the story arc: Adam and Eve’s freedom to make a sinful choice; Abraham’s freedom to start his journey or not; Mary’s freedom to accept or not the angel’s message and become the mother of Jesus. God appears to rely on human free choice in his overall plan for healing us. Yet, there is an inexorable thrust toward the “omega” point in human history, determined by God, when Jesus brings all things together and transforms them into a suitable gift to the Father. Human freedom, with all its weaknesses and limitations is participating in this cosmic transformation. God chooses to let this happen and limits His power by doing so. It is obvious that He could instantly transform everything and make it perfect, yet He doesn’t. So God is limited in what he will do, not what he can do.

Which comes first, grace or human freedom?

Answering this question is like asking a fish to imagine what it would be like to live without water. It is impossible for us to imagine living without grace because we never have and can’t. God’s grace is pervasive; every human being lives with its effects, however subtle they may be. To say that a human being — enfleshed spirit that we are — lives without God’s life sustaining us is to conjure up some other elemental life-giving force for our spirit. There isn’t any. [You may wonder how I know this. I don’t; it’s my belief.] Therefore to ask such a “chicken or egg” question — either grace or human freedom must come first — is to profoundly misread our human situation and existence. It makes no difference whether we believe in God or not, our spiritual life comes from God, as does our human freedom.

Back to my original conversation then. What if we can’t respect a person? What if their behaviours are despicable and even inhumane? They are still sustained by God’s grace even when they choose to profoundly misuse it. What does it mean then for us to respect them? To me it means that God’s grace is active in every person and I can’t (and never will) understand what this means. I ought to give them and God the benefit of the doubt. Something is going on in this person — their human freedom is being nudged or however you want to think about it — and I might just be the one God has chosen to help heal them. If I don’t respect them, I’m saying I know more about this person and God’s activity in them than God does. It’s pretty obvious, to me at least, why we must respect every human being no matter what.

This is a very important lesson in these days of Christians versus Islamists; liberals versus conservatives; rich versus poor; right to life versus women’s right to choose and all the other human conflicts in our world today. Transformation always starts with respect.

 

Songs for sighing

I have lived in Australia for 16 years, a transplanted American. Compared to the USA, Australia is, for me, a place where  “nothing happens.” I say that with respect. Australians seem to keep their remote continent under control. The national attitude down under might be summarised as “No worries mate.” There aren’t any really big problems in Australia, even after the Global Financial Crisis. It reminds me of life in the 1950s in America when I was growing up. Life seemed simpler, happier back then. Certainly, Australia is a modern nation not stuck in some time wrap, with modern stresses and issues — but it has a carefree way of engaging with life that I love.

So why did I entitle this blog “Songs for sighing”?

Those words come from a hymn that we sang today at church, at the feast of the Epiphany. This feast celebrates the Christian realisation that God came for all men and women, not a select tribe or nation or even faith. The three Wise Men are a symbol of diverse people around the world searching for something and finally finding it in the manger in Bethlehem. The song we sang today remembering what Epiphany means goes like this:

“He comes with succour speedy to those who suffer wrong / To help the poor and needy and bid the weak be strong / To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light / Whose souls condemned and dying, were precious in his sight.”

Even in happy-go-lucky Australia, men and women occasionally sigh — and don’t know why. Life is good here; why am I not completely happy? When these moments come, they sense they need something but can’t say what. At these times, we Christians offer them “songs for sighing” What can that possibly mean?

Why does everyone sometimes need songs?

There are certain songs that touch my heart. Danny Boy is one. Un Bel Di (One Beautiful Day) from the opera Madame Butterfly is another. You probably have your own favorites.These songs express emotions that are almost unbearable. Yet, sometimes, I need to hear such songs. Why? That’s hard to explain, almost a mystery. Something in me yearns for emotional depth, and is fed when certain songs trigger an experience of such depths. That which is outside my control touches me. Words actually fail when it comes to explaining what goes on at such times. Yet, and of this I am certain, some part of me feels fed by such songs. A part which can’t be reached by the usual experiences of life in Australia (or anywhere else for that matter).

When Christians promise “songs for sighing” we are using a metaphor. We aren’t literally saying go listen to your favourite song. We are saying that, just as some songs touch you deeply and feed some part of you that you don’t normally sense, we have experienced God’s touch and been fed by it. It’s mysterious but real. When you sigh and don’t know why, that touch is what you are yearning for. Come and see, like the three Wise Men.

 

“Modern-day fairytales help to keep the magic alive”

What are we to make of the popularity of fantasy, say the huge following of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, or  the box office performance of the Hobbit? Libby Brooks in the Guardian concludes that the banality of the idea of “happily-ever-after” is rescued by the “magic that is used to get there.” [Click here to read the entire article.] What is this “magic” she speaks of?

Why are fairy tales “magical”?

It’s easy to see why young children love fairytales — they actually think there might be elves and goblins and rainbows with pots of gold. Their world isn’t yet limited by their experiences and rationality, and is filled with incredible possibilities. When they play they may actually encounter magic, and probably do, in their  games, real or electronic. The more difficult question is why do adults still encounter “magic” in fantasy? We all know that The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars isn’t real — at least in the world we have fashioned for ourselves, which we call the “real world”.

The psychological experts who analyse such things say that these stories “symbolise” something for us. What does this mean? A symbol is something that contains powerful meanings beyond the surface reality. The Cross has powerful meanings for Christians far beyond being a Roman device to execute certain criminals. So what are the symbols in these modern fairy tales that carry so much meaning for the average person that they queue up to see The Hobbit or patiently plow through over 1000 pages of difficult reading in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy?

The symbols are exaggerated versions of our everyday experience — “bigger-than-life” human beings and “anything-is possible” worlds. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars was a Jedi-knight in the making, taking on an evil empire that dominated the entire universe. Frodo was a simple Hobbit who endured a very difficult journey to defeat the evil that threatened the entire world. Seen in these terms, these modern fairy tales contain symbols that trigger hope in us — that our lives might contain incredible “magical” meaning linked to saving our world from its desperate modern situation.

The Christian “fairy tale”

At the risk of offending some of my Christian readers, I would like to apply the idea of fairy tale symbolism to the story of Jesus. In no way am I suggesting that the Bible is only a fairy tale and Jesus is just a mythical character like Luke Skywalker or Frodo. I am suggesting, however, that the symbolic meaning of Jesus’ incarnation has been lost — or people would be lining up outside our churches to hear the story. The modern world is very hungry for meaning; that seems obvious. So, with that obvious hunger, why is the symbolism in Star Wars and Tolkien so popular — and the symbolism in Jesus’ story is lost? (I could say that the way churches tell the story is the problem, and that also might be the case, but that is not what I want to focus on.)

I see two difficulties with the Jesus “fairy tale” as it relates to the modern hunger for meaning. First, Jesus is presented in such a way that he seems infinitely beyond what it means to be human — God, perfect, without sin, etc. Second, the world in the Jesus story isn’t transformed; there seems to be no “lived happily-ever-after” ending to his story. In fact, in the Jesus story, Luke and Frodo die an agonizing death. Christians quickly add that Jesus rose on the third day but then we have to consider whether the world itself has been transformed in the last 2000 years. My conclusion is that the Jesus story doesn’t easily satisfy the modern hunger for meaning. I say easily because, theologically and in reality, Jesus provides incredible meaning for the human race and the ultimate transformation of creation. We Christians believe this is true but the story somehow doesn’t convey this to many people. The symbols in the Jesus story have lost their meaning for many people in the modern world.

Christians as storytellers.

Our parents were our first storytellers. They somehow knew how to repeat the fairy tales they had heard in a way that captured our interest. “Once upon a time” triggered something in them and in us — a shift in consciousness, a relaxation of “shoulds” and an emphasis on “what might be.” Our parents convinced us that they believed in Santa Clause. The world was magical; our parent wouldn’t lie to us. I am saying that the people who aren’t excited by the Jesus story have never encountered a Christian who told the story in a “magical” way. To simply read passages out of the Bible isn’t convincing. Listeners must the sense that the story arc of Jesus’s story started before the “Big Bang” and stretches far beyond Star Wars to the end of the world. They need to experience a “magical” shift in their consciousness like a child — that they too are like Jesus, and are called to great deeds in this incredible story. Not just “Christians” (who are basically storytellers as well as actors in the drama) but every human being potentially plays a starring role in the Christian fairy tale.

Becoming good storytellers is a great challenge to Christians. In another blog, I’ll cover what this entails. But accepting that we are not telling the “greatest story ever told” very well is the first step each of us needs to take. We can’t point at the “church” as the source of the problem — as the little cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

 

 

Tis the season to be jolly?

We have arrived at that special period just before Christmas when all the platitudes emerge. How frantic everyone is, buying last minute gifts, etc. But what I really look forward to are the pre-Christmas editorials in newspapers. I thought I’d share a sample of a bit of the wisdom from the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend before Christmas — and then draw a few conclusions.

  •  Julia Baird gives three reasons why even atheists ought to go the church on Christmas: “Boredom  is often good for you.” “Church is one of the rare times — along with movies or music concerts — that we are able to sit, think, let our minds meander and reflect on who and where we are.” “[Christmas] is religion as we understand it turned on its head.”
  • Richard Glover writes a set of rules from God for celebrating His birthday — “And verily should the wine not be opened until 11am, and even then a tiny sip.” At the end of laying out all the rules about shopping and parking and cooking, “God became a little maudlin and thought about how all he’d wanted was a simple celebration.”
Silent night, holy night

In the spirit of the season, I should now answer the Sydney Morning Herald with some profound words about the true meaning of Christmas. Christians are usually on the back foot when it comes to Christmas — we love the seasonal hoohah as much as everyone else so our hearts aren’t really in the debate. We love Christmas trees, Santa Claus and getting presents as much as the next guy. So why fight it? And we don’t. My neighbourhood church has a Christmas tree on the altar, in the spirit of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” So let’s just admit that right after the Winter Solstice we have a pagan festival that we all love — and not confuse celebrating Christmas with remembering the Incarnation.

But alas, at Christmas-time we attempt to celebrate the Incarnation. I say alas because we humans can only usually celebrate one thing at a time. So we shouldn’t try to celebrate the Incarnation. We should fall silent, reflect and worship anew. And then, awestruck, realise that the real presence of God-is-with-us isn’t a seasonal thing at all. The cycle of Christian feasts rolls on inexorably, down through the centuries. Incarnation — Crucifixion — Easter, over and over, so each generation can fall silent before this incredible reality. Silent night, holy night — and holy world because God-is-with-us is real. I think God smiles as he watches us struggle to celebrate Christmas, and infects the season and the world with paradoxes to remind us, when we fall silent, what the word holy means.

Community and communion

I went to a retreat over the weekend where Father Brendan Purcell presented 4 reflections on different aspects of communion. One distinction that came clear to me was that community and communion are both essential human activities but not the same. A community is any group of people who share a common purpose and basic set of values. Communion is a Christian community with the real presence of Jesus among them. Communion can be as small as two people — Jesus was with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. Thus a Christian marriage can be a communion if husband and wife sincerely recognise His desire to be part of their marriage.

Going beyond community

In my book Imagining Rama, I talk about an underlying “Game Plan” for the universe. From a purely secular viewpoint, many are beginning to see a trend toward recognizing the value of mutuality, concern for the other person and community. In the age of the Internet, for example, we are beginning to sense that all humanity is part of a global village or community. People in church, in my experience, often say that they like being part of the church community. This is good, and the way it should be.

But, in a way, as a church community shouldn’t our “eyes be opened” like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus? Shouldn’t we believe (and sense) that Jesus is really present? Not just have a good feeling when we think about Jesus but actually believe that He is right here, now, participating, teaching, guiding our church in everything it does. Isn’t that what He promised? If that is so, shouldn’t we use the term “communion” to express this reality rather than church ‘community’? Otherwise our church risks becoming just a “club” or social experience.

The mystery of communion

I can hear you wondering how can we know that we are in communion with Jesus? His test was simple –“They will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” Let me give you a few personal observations about love within a church communion that signals Jesus’ presence. There is a retarded man who wanders into our Sunday service occasionally. When he approaches the altar, a man goes and sits with him and gently explains what is going on and why he must be quiet during the service. Another example. An homeless man who is an alcoholic attends services. Various people make him welcome and give him money from time to time. Another example. People actually smile and reach out to touch one another during the exchange of peace in our service.

The mystery is that Jesus unites with us as we do these simple things. They don’t seem to be significant enough to attract the attention of the Lord of the entire universe. And, unfortunately, we are not always loving. We criticise people. We erect barriers with other churches. Father Purcell said, “Every division, every discord is a barrier to love flowing out.” We must admit that our church has such barriers because we are sinners. Nonetheless, Jesus said unconditionally that he would be with us. Shouldn’t we be grateful more often for His presence as the healer of our sinfulness? That is the mystery of communion — that, somehow, Jesus is there before we are ready and makes us ready to see and be like Him. That is the lesson of Emmaus.

 

 

Strong or weak?

I recently had a Facebook conversation with a Christian woman I don’t know. At one point she said “We have to ‘occupy’ the world until Jesus comes.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “be an occupation force in the world until He comes!” Her statement made me think about how Christians view the world. It seems like we have what might be called a ‘love-hate’ relationship with the world. We are told that the world (and the flesh) are as nothing; only God’s kingdom is truely worthwhile. Yet, if we simply observe what Jesus did, we can easily see that he loved the world with an all-consuming and passionate love. [John 3:16 for example]

How ought Christians to see the world?

I feel the mixed ‘love-hate’ relationship we have with the world leaves us divided and weakened. And this wasn’t how Jesus saw the world. Somehow, he was 100% for the world and for the kingdom of God at the same time. He had a ‘both/and’ point of view, not an ‘either/or’ point of view. He loved both the world and the kingdom, not either/or. So how do you explain phrases like “You must serve either God or Mammon.” Doesn’t that mean we have to choose either God or the world? How can we serve God 100% of the time and ‘Mammon’ 0% of the time, yet also love the world? Only by being very clear about what Mammon is, as well as how Jesus / God sees the world.

‘Already but not yet’ mindset

In Jesus’ mind the world is struggling to become what God intended when he created it.  Jesus came into the world to be an agent of transformation in assisting the world to attain its divinely intended purpose. [Ephesians 1:10] As a result of Jesus death and resurrection, the world is already on that path but not yet there. Jesus radically transformed the world’s journey — by injecting the Holy Spirit into mankind’s struggle to bring the world to the end God intends. So, how can Jesus (and we Christians as his brothers and sisters) hate the very creation that he is saving? And what is Mammon? It is the other purpose that competes with God’s purpose — that of evil. Either we serve God’s transformational purpose or evil’s, but there is no compromise.

In practical terms, how do we only serve God’s purpose in a very complex world?

I come back here to my Facebook conversation with the woman who saw Christians as an ‘occupation army’ in the world until Jesus comes again. The problem I have with her metaphor is that it puts up a boundary between Christians and the rest of humanity. “We” are the occupiers and “they” are the ones inside the prison camp who must be guarded against lest they escape and defeat us.  Perhaps she didn’t see “occupying” in those terms but at the very least it would be hard for her to explain the metaphor to non-Christians. The taint of “we / they” is very strong in being an ‘occupier.’ It divides us from the very people Jesus came to save and serve.

I believe one of the good consequences of the current ‘crisis’ in the decline of churches is that it forces us to rethink our mindset. When Christendom was in full swing, we could believe we were an invincible army marching toward victory — but now we are weak. But as Paul said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Corinthians 12:10] We now have no choice but to rely on the Holy Spirit to help us reflect on and better understand our role in Jesus’ purpose. Only with the proper mindset (that of Jesus) can we do God’s will in the struggle to bring the world back to God’s purpose. And we Christians don’t know how to do that! That admission, in humility, is a good signal that we are now being made ready to do His will. Christians cannot approach the world as ‘occupiers’ with all the answers!

 

 

Church, State and Kingdom

At the risk of igniting an explosion of arguments, I’d like to comment on two events of the past week that graphically illustrate the distinction between the Christian view of the world and other (secular) views. These events are the US Election and The NSW Commission of Inquiry into ‘alleged paedophile priests in the Hunter region.’ [Click here to read about the Commission in the Sydney Morning Herald.]

The US Election

President Obama was reelected in part because his campaign managers successfully portrayed Mitt Romney, among other things, as being captive to the far right wing of the Republican Party — the so-called “Christian Right.” In fact, if one were to do a word association test in America, I predict the vast majority of people would respond to “Christian” as “extreme, intolerant, etc.” I suspect many Christians would be proud of this dubious distinction, perhaps saying, “We are different and we are here to change the world! If other people don’t like that, too bad!” But it’s pretty hard to win elections (and get the legal right to change things in a democratic society) when you dismiss other people as “needing to change their way of thinking to our way.” At the very least, such attitudes don’t work for any wanabe politician.

The NSW Commission of Inquiry

It’s obvious that the church is not above the law. It’s obvious that when a respected policeman says that the church is involved in a “cover-up” of paedophilia, the NSW Premier must act. The terms of reference of the Commission of Inquiry is where there are sticky points. For example, one policeman called for the ouster of Cardinal Pell. If the inquiry were to reveal that Cardinal Pell was involved in a cover-up (which I personally doubt was the case), the voters of NSW have no legal way to remove him from office. If he violated a civil law, for example speeding in a car or killing someone, he could be prosecuted by civil authorities. But it’s much murkier whether failing to carry out the duties as an Archbishop could be tried in a civil court. The State does not have jurisdiction over the Church, except in very limited circumstances. That is the way our system of laws has been set up. There is agreement in Australia and the US that the State and Church should be separate, each largely responsibile for their own governance.

What can Christians learn from these events?

To me the lesson is that Christians need to make a distinction between the reality of the world (State and to some extent Church) and the reality of the mystical Kingdom of God (Church when it is acting as Jesus’ Change Agent in the world). When we are acting as citizens of the State we should be as “wise as foxes.” We should get elected and do our best to govern for all people, paying special attention to the poor and marginalized, the sick and imprisoned, etc. We need to appeal to everyone and not judge them to get elected. Making silly statements about complex issues like rape and abortion is very poor politics!

But we are also citizens of the Kingdom, answering to a higher power. The grace of God is active in every human being, whether they are Christian or not. Jesus stated that very plainly — “I did not come to judge the world but to save it.” [John 12:47] So, as citizens of the Kingdom, we follow Jesus’ example. Save not judge. And save does not mean convert! It means to have compassion. “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice O earth; burst into song O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” [Isaiah 49:13]  When people do a wrod associatio  test, they should be joyful because a Chistian represents divine compassion and the really good news.

We spend too much time “in church” and not enough time in the Kingdom, bringing compassion into the world.

 

Needs beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy?

It struck me, as I watched the superstorm Sandy hit New York City, that millions of people suddenly found themselves thrown down Maslow’s hierarchy and face to face with basic security needs. Probably most of these people were used to operating at the mid-level of social and esteem needs, with a few (according to Maslow) operating at the level of self-actualization. It is a shock, I’m sure, to return to basic survival after spending all your life not worrying about such needs.

My experience is that, at times of great stress or chaos, another need emerges. People instinctively utter prayers like “God please help me” even if they are agnostics or haven’t been in a church for many years. Maslow’s hierarchy ignores such needs. In fact, many Psychologists now criticize Maslow’s concept of a “needs hierarchy” finding that self-esteem and self-actualization needs are present no matter what the circumstances are — whether a person is homeless or a millionaire. Arguing from that position, I would say that when someone utters a prayer in dire circumstances, they are only fulfilling a pervasive (although largely hidden) need for God.

Dependence on God

If human beings have this deep need for God, doesn’t that indicate that we are dependent on God? The word ‘dependence’ is an ugly word in our society. The ideal is independence. Dependence means we aren’t self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-determining and all those seemingly good things we teach our children. It’s hard to image teaching our children to be dependent. Yet, in reality, we are all dependent on each other. As the storm in the Eastern USA showed, the complex web of modern society is easily disrupted. We turn to our neighbors in these times, and depend on them. So why is it so hard to believe we are truly dependent on God too — and live that way, and teach our children they too are dependent on God?

To me, why it’s hard to admit that we are dependent on God is connected not only with modern culture but with who we are. One of the first questions in the old Catechism was “Why did God make me?” “God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and the next.” God made us free, and didn’t tie us to his “apron strings.” The beauty (and perhaps tragedy) of human life is that we  freely get to make ourselves and our eternal destiny. Our natural thrust toward independence matches each individual’s profound responsibility for themselves.

Communion — The other side of being human

If you consider the story arc of the Old Testament, however, you can easily see that there are two basic themes– the great individual heros like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and others — and the people of God. The great hero of the New Testament is Jesus of course. But the theme of communion is also there — “I am the vine, you are the branches” and Paul’s metaphor of the “Body of Christ all working together for the whole.” The question in our modern time, is how do we experience communion? Unfortunately we equate it with “church,” I say unfortunately because being in communion is far deeper than belonging to a church. It is a mystical reality not an organizational phenomenum. And that is what we have lost — the sense that, alone, we are actually nothing. Communion is an exchange between our soul and God and all other human souls in a manner that we can hardly imagine let alone understand. If we begin to see dependence in that way, perhaps we will begin to love differently.

 

Singlemindedness

Somehow, singlemindedness seems a poor strategy in today’s complex, unpredicatable world. Better to have many options and a Plan B, C and even D. If you really focus on only Plan A, and that doesn’t work you fail. Balance not focus.

There is a different point of view. Singleminded people put all their energy into one desired outcome, one project. They accomplish things because of their intensity. “Failure is not an option” is their motto. Focus not balance.

Christian singlemindedness

William Barclay, in The Mind of Jesus, makes a fascinating point about Jesus’ singlemindedness. In his opening proclamation of his mission recounted in Luke 4:16-20,  reading from Isaiah to his neighbors in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus stopped abruptly, half-way through the passage. He read the words in Isaiah 61 about God’s mercy and then according to Luke’s account “rolled up the scroll and sat down” and didn’t read Isaiah’s next line, “the day of vengeance of our God.” Barclay concludes that Jesus was showing his singleminded focus on his mission, which was proclaiming the arrival of God’s mercy not vengeance.

What about us?

If you combine this event in Jesus’ life with some of the others it’s clear what he is saying to us today. His forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery; his forgiveness of Peter who denied him in his own hour of need; his parable about the workers who came in at the last hour and got the same wages as those who had worked all day, and many others. His message is clear — I want you to singlemindedly forgive and show mercy no matter what the circumstances.

You might then say, how do I show mercy in a singleminded manner? Jesus summarised that in the reading from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of The Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclain the year of the Lord’s favor.” This means mercy and forgiveness and caring, without judgment, for everyone without exception.

With such clear instructions, it seems to me that we must make a distinction between “church-going” and “kingdom-living.” What we do inside “church” is important as preparation for singlemindedness in “kingdom-living”. One without the other misses the point. If Jesus had only read the passage from Isaiah to his neighbors and done nothing else, he would not have fulfilled what God’s Spirit annointed him to do. In the same way, if we see what we do outside of church as doing our best to live well in the world and maintain some kind of balance with living in the Kingdom, we are certainly not being singleminded. This may well mean that our “church-going” lacks something and, consequently, our “kingdom-living” suffers.

Distinctions and Generalizations

We live in a world filled with information. Media, Facebook,  email and mobile phone connectivity push information at us continuously. In fact. our lives are so completely full of information that we constantly need to make quick judgments about whether we should pay attention or not, or whether something rings true or not.

We ought to use critical thinking to make better judgments about what is true versus what appears to be true but isn’t, in important areas of our life. Much of what we encounter in the media or Facebook has some “spin” or bias connected with it and it requires some effort to sort out what is true. That’s especially important for Christians.  Jesus claimed to be “The way, the truth and the life.” Therefore, we ought to try to see things with “the mind of Jesus” to better understand the truth in the complex situations we encounter.

On the 7:30 Report last night in Australia a story was featured about the Victoria Police’s investigation of how the Catholic Church mishandled paedophilia cases in the past. Too say the least, the report was damning. This story was about the Catholic Church but it didn’t just affect Catholics. News about any Christian or any Christian church reflects on us all. Therefore we need to be able to help people outside the church understand how we Christians view such ugly incidents. This involves making some important comparisons and distinctions, rather than just generalizing, “Religion / Churches / Christians are all ___(epithet)____!”

Three important comparisons

First, I’d like to make three comparisons so help clarify some basic concepts that many people use quite loosely.

  • Church and organizations (government, corporations, etc)

Every Christian church is an organization. Like every organization, the primary interest of its leaders is the survival of the organization first and achieving its purposes second. There has to be an organization in order to be able to collectively work toward its goals. Where the church organization differs from other secular organizations (perhaps) is in its values. How the church survives, and how it achieves its purposes is paramount. The end doesn’t justify the means. Thus, church organizations are (and should be) held to account not just against the usual organizational criteria, such as ethics and following the law, but also each should be measured against its own espoused value system.

  • Religion and other institutions (legal system, healthcare system, etc)

Religion is also a human cultural system, which organizes itself to communicate certain foundational ideas and ways of thinking. There are no precise boundaries that limit ‘religion’ on our planet, so religion is a global cultural system. To a large extent, religion is out of the control of any church. In modern scientific terms, the Christian religion is a complex system that emerges from the interaction of enormous numbers of phenomena at all levels of all Christian churches as well as outside the church. This is exactly how the global legal system, global healthcare system, global economic system and all global systems work. In general all leaders are powerless to control how their specific brand of complex global system behaves and evolves. In fact, all these systems interact with one another, and influence each other’s emergence. The global system of religion is shaped as well as shapes, as we well know, by global political and economic events. That said, churches need a global understanding of how the system of religion works (or doesn’t) to advance the cause of love and peace on this planet

  • The Kingdom and reality (two views of “what is”)

We Christians also make another comparison, which hardly anyone else understands. We believe that, besides day-to-day reality, we also live in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, in addition to the realities of ‘church’ and ‘religion’ I described above, there is the real Kingdom of God. That is the fundamental meaning of who Jesus is — “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What is the Kingdom? Is it ‘pie in the sky by and by’ as some cynics describe it? Or is it “what is” right now? Some Christian scholars describe the Kingdom’s reality as being “already but not yet” fully present. The cynics would say the “already” bit is so tiny as to be non-existant. They may be willing to concede a hidden reality that only exists in some individual Christian hearts, but not many of those. I am of a different opinion, which I’ll cover in the next part of this blog.

Important distinctions

So, what about the paedophilia news story? What distinctions ought we Christians to make in understanding this ugly situation that involves all of us?

  • As an organization, the Catholic Church ought to be criticized. The way it handled paedophiles was inept and didn’t follow its own ethical or moral value system. I suspect that the Catholic Church organization is already taking steps (like any corporation or goverment organization would) to find the flaws in its governance processes that allowed this evil to persist for so long. And, the wider society has a right to keep criticizing the Catholic Church’s efforts. None of this means, however, that the Catholic Church ought to be condemned and destroyed. That would be like saying close down a major bank because fraud was discovered in some of its transactions.
  • Religion has a lot to answer for, which goes well beyond paedophilia. I won’t catalogue the evils that have been done in the name of religion down through the centuries. The distinction to be made, however, is whether those of us who are ‘religious’ need, advocate and support this institution — or are those who say “I’m spiritual but not religious” on the right path? The value of religion is its global power and capability to bring God into the world’s affairs. (That power is also its human weakness). For Christians to say that we don’t need religion is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ on a global scale. The question is, how to help the global Christian religious culture to evolve toward something that is closer to a “godly presence.” That is the task I have decided to support in this blog — transformation of the global Christian religion through ‘bottom-up’ transformation of all local Christian communities. Had local Catholic communites taken more responsibility for paedophilia, this current situation would likely have been fixed long ago.
  • Perhaps the most important distinction we Christians need to understand and apply is between living in a secular reality and living in God’s Kingdom. I described the ‘already but not yet’ idea above. My personal view is that the ‘already’ part is far more powerful than we Christians allow ourselves to imagine. The mystery of the Body of Christ is having a profound effect (in God’s time) on our everyday secular reality. The story of the “final days” is being written right now — and we individual Christians in our local communities are the Change Agents. So, in the paedophila case, we are responsible for changing the church and religious system that allowed that evil to persist — beginning right in our own local church, whether we are Catholic or not. It’s not a case of “That’s a Catholic problem.” We are all brothers and sisters, in one Body. Bottom-up change begins with the Spirit’s actions in each individual Christian when such outrages occur.

Paradigm Shift?

I went to a day of reflection yesterday on the topic “Contemporary Christianity.” What’s happening to the church? The session leader gave us some interesting perspectives. I’d like to share some of them with you, as well as my own reflections.

  • Weekly attendance at church services in Australia was 74% in 1954 and is 14% today.
  • The Christian church is shrinking in western countries with “European-based traditions” but growing in developing countries.

He also quoted a historian’s view that every 500 years or so, The Christian church goes major upheaval.

  • 500AD: The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian kings, with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in the western world
  • 1000AD: Increased conflict between east and west, with the schism in the church and the crusades
  • 1500AD: The reformation and rise of individualism
  • 2000AD: Our current experiences that “church” and “religion” are in decline, at least in Australia and other western countries

One author has called our current situation the “end of Christendom.” It certainly feels like an ending of some kind to me. But, with any change, there must be an ending before a new beginning. That current chaotic situation is a clear sign that Christians and others are experiencing what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift — when more and more questions emerge for which the “old” answers don’t work. [1]

The search for a “new” paradigm

Are the “old” answers of “religion” and “church” and “Christendom” not working anymore? If so, what questions were these realities created to answer? Are those questions no longer relevant?

To explore what’s going on, what if we seek the questions which Jesus asked. Were His questions “Which church do you go to?” or “Which Christian religion do you practice?” Seen in those terms, we can see that these “old” questions” seem wrong somehow. They weren’t central in Jesus’ preaching. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would even ask these questions today.

So what questions is Jesus asking? I suggest that you read his questions to his apostles, and decide for yourself. Make a complete list. See how many of them have to do with “church” or “religion” per se. I’ll give you a clue. Here’s one sequence from Mark 8:17-18: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

The unshifting paradigm

You get the feeling that Jesus was pointing beyond our human search for answers and paradigms when he asked His questions. He almost seemed frustrated at times with his closest friends when they didn’t understand what was going on. In the end, when Philip asked, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” [John 14: 8-9] If we understand who Jesus is, He is the unchanging ‘paradigm’, and history is understood in the light of who He is. “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” [1 Corinthians 15:24]

If we view “church” and “religion” in terms of dominion, authority and power (as we do), that way of human thinking (paradigm) is passing away, even in our lifetime. But we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ God’s kingdom is in the ascendency in the ‘final days’, and not merely in individual hearts. There is ‘one body’ of which Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, even if it appears that the ‘branches’ are being pruned right now.

We ought to take to heart what Jesus said to his disciples, and trust that he will answer our questions in due course. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

[1] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.

 

 

The Clash of Civilizations

In the 21st century, we don’t think we need the ancient religious myth about Adam and Eve anymore. Science has basically explained human origins. Isn’t that right? [1] No. In a way, the story of Adam and Eve is more relevant today than most other biblical stories. Let me explain.

A clash of civilizations

The story of Adam and Eve was written by a Jewish thinker who wasn’t describing anthropology or the psychological basis for human behaviour. He was wrestling with the difficult question of human evil. After describing how everything began — that God made everything and it was “good” (and humans were “very good”) — the author of Genesis was faced with a dilemma. How had the world and human beings gone so badly off-track after God created them? Other civilizations in ancient times had solved the problem of good and evil by saying that there wasn’t one good God but a whole host of gods, some good and some bad, who were at war. The Hebrew writer believed that there was only one God and He was good. His solution, therefore, was that God had created both man and angels and had given them freedom — and that some angels had misused this freedom, been condemned for their disobedience, and now were intent on persuading God’s newest creatures, human beings, to do what they had done — use their freedom to rebel against God. A war in the supernatural realm had spilled over into the natural realm. The serpent (a fallen angel) persuaded Eve to ignore God’s admonition “not to eat of the fruit of that tree.” She disobeyed God, and she and Adam, our ancestors, laid the groundwork for a continuing clash here on Earth — God’s kingdom versus the human rebels spurred on by the rebellious angels — that has been going on since pre-historical times.

Why is the story of Adam and Eve so relevant today?

It is obvious today to most people that there is a clash of civilizations on our planet in the 21st century.  Terrorists versus the west. Traditional cultures versus modern ones. Have-nots versus haves. Industrialized nations versus non-industrialized. The list goes on. Even more disturbing is that our human hopes of progress in resolving these clashes seem more dim today than ever before. Read this summary.

In the twentieth century, when human beings have already killed well over one hundred million of their kind, disenchantment [with an optimistic view of human nature] has set in. Two world wars, the Gulags, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, the nuclear and ecological threats form a somber litany that makes the optimism of the liberals ring hollow and naïve. Despite technological progress, evil, far from vanishing, has only become more powerful and more fiendish. . . . And artists like Conrad, Camus, Beckett, Golding, and Murdoch contend that because of our hearts of darkness there may be countless nice men and women but few if any genuinely good ones. In all these perspectives evil is held to be inherent, somehow structural, ingrained. And its terrible power defies explanation and solution. Paradoxically, the silver wings of science and technology, on which soared the hopes of the industrialized societies, carry the ultimate menace to the human prospect. [Steven Duffy, 1988 article in Theological Studies]

The persistance of the struggle between good and evil, and the inability of human institutions to resolve it and create peace and tranquility, points toward some deeper cause. The myth of Adam and Eve reveals a supernatural dimension to the problem.

The need for mythic solutions

In our modern world, we have lost the sense that myth is important. Science and political enlightenment hold the answers for us. Yet,  when these approaches seem incapable of dealing with the global situation, myth holds out hope. Adam and Eve is not the end of the Judeo-Christian story about life but the beginning. If, as that story says, the clash between good and evil has a supernatural dimension, then our hope lies in a supernatural solution. St Paul summaries that hope in his Letter to the Romans.  “For, if by the trespass of the one man [Adam], death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provsion of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:17]

Many Christians listen to these words and fail to appreciate the powerful mythic meaning of the story-arc from Adam and Eve to Jesus — and worse, we fail to apply it to how we understand the context for our lives in the 21st century. The clash between good and evil does not just need men and women of good will, although that is important. It doesn’t only need UN peace-keeping forces, foreign aid, and economic development, although those are also important. It needs Christians who understand that the battleline for the clash between good and evil runs right through their heart and their local church community. We Christians are on the front-lines of this struggle, as Jesus’s brothers and sisters. And grace is our secret weapon and our hope. If these words don’t ring true for you, I suggest you read Romans again. And read my post Anger and Mercy again.

[1] My friend Brendam Purcell, author of From Big Bang to Big Mystery quotes Paleontologist Chris Stringer. With recent advances in understanding the Human Genome,  “The realisation that humans are biologically highly homogeneous has one straightforward implication: that mankind has only recently evolved from one tight little group of human ancestors.” The probability that all of us have two prehistorical parents has increased.

Riots in Sydney, Part 3

Several of the commentators on the riots here in Sydney have focused on the issue of multi-culturalism — and how far does freedom of speech go? That is a persistent debate in a diverse society. How can we accept a degree of conflict between an energetic minority — religious or political –and the rights of the larger majority?  The western political system, in various forms has created laws to regulate this conflict. In Australia and America, by and large, it works. So why do we seem to be fearful of Muslims? Is our system incapable of dealing with the conflicts some of them seem to be associated with?

High Noon?

All this brings to mind a movie I saw once, High Noon. An American western may be a poor metaphor but it can also potentially bring to light some deeper issues in ouir current siutation. A small town marshall, Gary Cooper, has just married Grace Kelly and has resigned as marshall.  On the day that Cooper is to leave town, evil arrives, in the guise of three hoodlums who are awaiting the noon train, friends of a man who wants to kill Cooper. The town meets and agrees that Cooper should just leave on his honeymoon — with the hope that the evil will leave their town alone. Cooper does leave town, then returns, because he is concerned about the town’s safety. The entire town refuses to help him and even his wife turns against him. But he confronts the evil and, in the end, triumphs.

What has this got to do with multi-culturalism and the riots? First of all, let me be very clear. Islam is NOT the evil! Protesting blasphemy is NOT the evil. What, then, is the evil that threatens out peaceful community? That is a puzzling question for us. Certainly 9/11 was evil, but what evil is arriving in Australia on the “noon train”? And, is our “sheriff” — our system of laws — incapable of dealing with it”?

Second, Hollywood’s solution was a violent showdown. Gary Cooper met and killed the bad guys, all alone. That was the mythic solution in many American westerns — the good guys defeating the bad guys in a shoot-out. But we here in Australia have no such myth. So, how do we envision good defeating evil? That is another puzzling question for us. Our police can keep evil at bay, and they do a wonderful job of that. But they cannot not defeat evil and drive it from our peaceful shores. As Gary Cooper attempted to tell the small town, there is strength in numbers. If we face the bad guys together, we will triumph. But the town people refused to get involved. Isn’t that the real message of High Noon for us? And aren’t the Muslims themselves resident in our town, with us?

The real threat

As High Noon shows the real threat is the age-old “not me” attitude that the townspeople demonstrated. The entire small town gathered in a church and debated what to do about the evil arriving on the noon train in the movie. They decided that they should do nothing, and hope the problem would just go away. They did have a conversation in the church, but it was wrong-headed. Each person only looked at the impact on himself or herself, if they joined Gary Cooper in fighting the evil. They never discussed the “we” of the town, only the “I” of personal risk.

The real threat, it seems to me, is two-fold:

  • Not seeing the importance of the larger “we” of Australian society (which is larger than the multi-cultural parts) or excluding Muslims from that “we”
  • Not having civil conversations and debates with our Muslim neighbors, about the nature of the evil that threatens all of us, and what “we” will do about it.

Read Anger and Mercy (Part 1 of the Riot series)

Read Riots in Sydney, Part 2

 

 

Riots in Sydney, Part 2

I have had a number of comments on my post Anger and Mercy, about the recent riots in Sydney concerning the blasphemous (to Muslims) YouTube video. I wrote specifcally to Christians about how I believed they ought to react. I can now see that my answer requires a bit more background.

First of all, what’s interesting is that many people have an equally negative impression of Christians in general as they do of Muslims. They quote history about things like the Inquisition, etc, which are all accurate, as far as they go. But such events are not the whole story about Christianity or Christians, by a long shot. So one of my appeals is not to generalise about Muslims or Christians or Liberals or Conservatives because it doesn’t help.

Secondly, many people have an implicit theory about history (of which they are largely unaware) that goes like this: “Christians and Muslims today are the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Religion is the problem and we’d all be better off without it.” I would like to make clear what my theory of history is, for both my Christian and non-Christian readers. One of the points I’m making to Christians is that they need to understand their larger role in history as peace-bringers. I don’t mean to exclude non-Christians from this, of course, but the language I used in my blog about Anger and Mercy was Christian langauge.

My theory of history (which I learned from a Jesuit named Bernard Lonergan) is that history has three main streams, all of which are going on simultaneously: Progress, Decline, and Recovery. Very basically (and this doesn’t do justice to Lonergan’s thinking) Progress is human goodness creating a better world; Decline is human evil creating a world that tends toward chaos; and Recovery is God acting to transform human hearts, human relationships and through us the world. While I don’t expect non-Christians to see historical reality like this, in my blog I was speaking explicitly to Christians about their role in the Recovery stream in history. Basically, Christians believe that God is acting through us to bring peace and love into the world, transforming the results of the other two streams flowing forward in history.

My appeal was to Christians to be merciful to Muslims. Of course the historical reality (Decline) also consists of evil like 9/11, and the violence over the YouTube video.  9/11 makes all of us angry and the YouTube video makes Muslims angry. The political and social responses to these are in the hands of certain people like the military or police, who may also be Christians. My appeal to these Christians (and non-Christians as well) is to keep the ideal of mercy in mind as they deal with the reality of evil and Decline. My personal experience is that both the police and military, in Australia and the USA are sensitive about such things, by and large. So my plea is to all Christians (and, for that matter, every human person) is to be part of bringing peace into the world through mercy, which begets love, and not anger, which begets more hatred.

Anger and Mercy

Over the weekend here in Sydney there was a small riot in protest of the outrageous amateur film posted on YouTube about the Prophet Mohammed, and a sermon on mercy in the small church I go to. While the priest did not make the connection with the riots, the link between anger and mercy occurred to me.

Anger and Mercy

There is a lot of anger among Australians at the behaviour of the protestors. “Send them back to their own country!” (Notice I did not say Islamic protestors, because while the marchers may be Muslims, their outrageous slogans definitely don’t represent the approach of the vast majority of that faith.)  So what are we non-Muslims so angry about? Riots tend to trigger atavistic reactions — is that what we are feeling? Are these protestors wrong to march against the blasphemy of this YouTube video? I don’t think so. Perhaps it was the slogans they carried, some of which were extremely offensive. But we don’t get as outraged by off-the-wall polemics when they are used by other protestors, such as union members’ on strike. Do we think that Muslims really mean to start a Middle East-type war here in Australia? Doesn’t that say more about our fears than any realistic possibility? Whatever we are feeling, I suggest that we also ought to seek mercy for these protestors.

What a strange word mercy is, so inappropriate in most situations. Mercy means that the guilty person is simply forgiven not condemned. Mercy is contrary to this common atavistic feeling we have that someone (or some group) should get what they deserve. But why ought we to seek mercy? Basically because it is a higher form of human behaviour, which, for Christians, represents how God treats us. It is at the core of the second half of the Our Father, Jesus’ own prayer — “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God, you have every right to be angry with us but we ask you to treat us with mercy, as we treat others. Mercy not only applies to the guilty one, it applies to us as well. Mercy transforms anger into love, in our hearts and actions — and perhaps also in the hearts and actions of the guilty ones. Surely that is why we ought to seek mercy for these angry protestors. And seek, not just wish it would happen. Be peace-bringers, for example, between Muslims and Christians for a start.

If you need any added impetus for seeking mercy for the protestors, read the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald by Waleed Aly called “The Incredible Muslim Hulk proves to be no friend of Islam either.” http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/the-incredible-muslim-hulk-proves-to-be-no-friend-of-islam-either-20120916-260e8.html#ixzz26g3vhn9Z

Incident in a cathedral

I went to St Mary’s Catherdal in Sydney this morning, to the 9 am service. It’s an easy 15 minutes walk from my apartment. Just after the sermon, I noticed an older woman at the front of church look around and then hurriedly walk across the church to a point just behind the organist and look around again. Not finding the person she was seeking, she returned to her pew. Shortly after that, a man tentatively approached the pew. She saw him and beckoned to him to join her. He edged in next to her, keeping his distance. She smiled at him and stroked his arm. After that he settled down and she occasionally stroked his arm or patted his back. I thought to myself, there’s a story here — and my mind worked on this for most of the rest of the service.

A magnificent cathedral and an ordinary human story. What do these have in common?

The cathedral is a container, not for God but for our stories. I felt led to go to St Mary’s this morning instead of my usual small parish church (St Peters in Surry Hills) to find something, I didn’t know what. I encountered this woman and man living out part of their story in the front of the church. They were quite open about it, while most of us hid ourselves in the vast spaces of the cathedral and didn’t reveal our stories.

I hunger to know people’s stories and to share mine. It makes me impatient with the services I attend. I know, there is a time and place for human stories. St Peter’s provides an opportunity to share, after the service.  But how do I integrate all the stories vibrating inside the cathedral and St Peter’s with the celebration that we are witnessing? That is the question that puzzles me.

Mr. Cranky

My wife gave me a soft toy a few years ago, with the word “Cranky” embroidered on its stomach. Forty years earlier, when my son joined Indian Guides, each father and son had to have “indian” names, made up by the boy. I was “Chief Growling Bear.” Are you beginning to get the idea? What’s interesting is that, from inside my skin, I see myself as mainly easy-going and basically pleasant, with the rare bit of crankiness and growling. I would give myself a bear with “happy-go-lucky” on its stomach, and, given the opportunity, named myself Chief Sunny Face many years ago. Obviously, however, that’s not exactly how people I love experience me.

This got me thinking about the personalities of Biblical people. We don’t get much information about the personalities of people like Abraham, Moses, Isaac — or Peter, Paul or even Jesus. The person that I hope that I’m like is Paul (Jesus is too far beyond my capabilities). He seems a real living breathing person to me, struggling with himself, as he tried to do God’s will. “Why do I do the things I don’t want, and not do the things I want?” We don’t know much about how people actually experienced the personalities of these men. And maybe they were spiritual heros, and kept their personalities under tight rein, but somehow I doubt that. That seems the least of what  we are asked to do when we take on Jesus’ “yoke” — keep our personalities out of sight, and only be sunny and happy.

Jesus especially loved Nathanael because he was without guile (always was himself and honest). So, maybe that means Jesus loves us warts and all. I also remember that I once, many years ago, clearly heard God say, “Jim, I love you just as you are.” Perhaps our personalities are only seasoning sprinkled on top of deeper truths about ourselves. And, while we ought not to let our personailities run rampant, we also ought not to focus too much on shaping  them and ignor what’s really important, which is cultivating our virtues and controlling our particular vices.  So here is a list of the main virtues according to St Thomas Aquinas. (I won’t list the vices because we are all too familiar with them).

  • Prudence — we perfect our practical reason — and can apply the right principle in every situation (promoting the good of the individual person)
  • Justice — we perfect our ability to see the good of equality of things in common life (promoting the good of others)
  • Truth — we  perfect our ability to promote trust by being honest
  • Fortitude — we perfect our firmness in doing good and resisting evil and our vices
  • Temperance — we perfect our ability to restrain passion so that we may be better able to follow reason
  • Faith — a virtue infused by God, which shows us the end toward which we strive, which we reflect upon in order to better follow the path
  • Hope — a virtue infused by God, which enables us to continue to journey toward that end, which we treasure in order to increase our strength
  • Charity — a virtue infused by God, which unites us with the end of our journey, which we rejoice about since we are already but not yet completely, at our destination

It seems to me that our personalities are shaped by our experiences in the world, before we become conscious of who we are and the end toward which we are bound. It is better to spend time reflecting on and cultivating the virtues than working on our personalities.

 

 

“Time is there for the taking”

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald Essay, the noted observer of Australian life Hugh Mackay wrote “when it comes to time, we can indeed have it all, every bit of it.” Well, yes and no. If time is the ordinary progression of minutes, hours and days, then yes. Time is there for the taking, if we choose to do so, as Mackay argues persuasively. But if time is more mysterious than ordinary clock-time, as I imagine in my new book Imagining Rama, then the answer is no. Let me explain.

There is evidence that time isn’t ordinary. Our consciousness of time affects how we preceive it. “Time flies when you’re having fun” is a simple example. Toffler argued in Future Shock that our western perception of time has changed significantly in the last 200 years or so. I can remember time moving far more slowly 70 years ago. Now, it rushes at me. Additionally, poets like T.S. Eliot and Rilke have sensed some deep creative force at work in the interaction between space, time and humans, which is almost inexpressible. Read Burnt Norton for many examples of T.S Eliot’s sense of the mystery in time.

There is even more mystery about time when it comes to religious experience and belief.  During meditation, for example, time seems suspended. The Buddha sensed timelessness in  his pursuit of Nirvana. And Christian theologians use concepts of time such as “already but not yet,” to signify that we are already living in eternity in God’s presence but not yet fully.

I am not arguing against Mackay’s main point — that we need to get beyond the facile slogans we use to hide the reality of time. “Time poor” and “I’ve run out of time” are two of these common slogans, which imply we aren’t able to manage the time in our lives. I am pointing out, however, that we ought to also reflect occasionally that something is going on in time that may be a mystery, and “make time” to seek this as well.  The hints of mystery in ordinary things like time may be the eternal mystery reaching out to us through such intuitions.

 

The “submit” controversy

At the risk of politicising this blog, I’d like to comment on a deeper aspect of the current “marraige vow” controversy being debated within the Anglican Church as well as publically in the Australian newspapers. To me, this debate is really the collision of two worlds — the sacred and the secular — with the not unexpected result that there are incompatibilities between them.

One branch of the Anglican Church wants to change wives “obey” to wives “submit” to their husband in an optional form of the marriage vow.  There are two ways to view this change, one religious and one political. The Anglicans are debating this based on  religious not political grounds; the public at large is debating it based on political not religious grounds. Let me briefly cover each.

Submission of wives to husbands based on religious grounds

The basic religious point, it seems to me, is one of being faithful to one’s beliefs. One side of the Anglican church is being faithful to Paul’s analogy of marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church. By giving couples this option to consciously choose to elevate the seriousness of their vow into a higher level of conformance with the sacred mystery of Christ / Church, that branch of the Anglican Church is pursuing a higher level of religious faithfulness to Paul’s ideal.

The other branch of the Anglican church takes a different view. It attempts to stay faithful to Christ’s call to go into the world and be “yeast”, transforming the world by emulating Christ’s forgiveness. This branch views St Paul’s statements on marriage as being culturally conditioned. Dorothy Lee wrote a thought piece on this on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website. Click here to read the full article. Here is the crux of her argument:

“Household codes [like those on marriage] reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist). The household codes reflect the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.” This branch of the Anglican Church would say that we aren’t being faithful when we antagonise the people we are trying to serve in the world by stressing an outmoded cultural code.

Here you see the contrast between two religious views; one which draws a sharper line between secular and sacred in order to convert it, and the other which moves toward the secular, to be part of it, transform it and convert it.

Submission of wives to husbands based on political grounds

This might seem a simple question. In our society, it seems completely obvious that wives don’t submit to husbands, nor women to men in general. That is the ideal of western society (but not other global societies). It has been the ideal since the emancipation of women, given strength by the feminist movement.

But, as a general rule, in cases where things seem completely obvious, we ought to look more closely, to discover whether we have lost some nuances or distinctions. [Let me hasten to add that I am not opposed to the general thrust of complete equality for women.]

Here is one point I’d like to make about the nuanced power issue contained in the ideal of complete equality of men and women. As an example, when women take up powerful political positions — CEOs, Prime Ministers and the like — we hope that their feminine side is not totally subsumed by the masculine demands of the role. The crucial strenghts of the feminine side are well-known — seeing issues and context more broadly, more sensitivity and nurturing in their decision-making, more concerned about relationships. Their feminine side ought not be forgotten by the women in such power psoitions. Indeed Thomas Berry in his wonderful book The Great Work sees the feminine influence as being one of the major positive forces that can heal global problems in the 21st century.

So, if we have a nuanced view of feminine power in corporations and government, cannot one also exist in marriage? Whatever words we might use in the marriage vow, don’t we want women to bring their feminine talents to the marriage? I’m sure that makes sense to most married couples. Young people choosing their vows ought not lose the distinction between the different strengths men and women bring to marriage. It is an important part of what they are commiting themselves to.

If the Sydney Anglican Diocese, by its emphasis on having an option to “submit” in the marriage vow has reawakened a discussion of these important things, good on them I say.

 

Imagining Rama

I’m in the final stages of completing a new book called Imagining Rama. My publisher, planning the cover and layout for the book asked, as they always do, who is your target audience? I told her, initially, “People who searching for transformation” but then broadened the ‘market’ to “searchers.” From her standpoint, the trick is to get people to recognise something of interest to them on the cover, pick up the book, read the blurb on the back cover and open it. Then maybe some of them will buy it. It’s what they encounter on the outside that’s important in selling books: the design of the cover, the title, the author (well-known or not and I’m definitely not), what section the book is in, and so on. That’s why authors need publishers, bacause they know how to get people to take the first steps toward reading what you’ve written on the inside.

What’s inside Imagining Rama will have to remain a secret a bit longer. But I will share the opening of the Foreword.

“Why am I writing this book? I suppose I’m a bit like Arthur Stace, the homeless man in Sydney Australia who wrote the word ‘eternity’ in chalk on the sidewalks of the city for over forty years. He wanted people to encounter something that would trigger their imagination and expand their horizons about living.  That’s my purpose also.”

It’s tricky, persuading people to listen to what you have to say, no matter how valuable you may think it may be. You have to resonate with some need, some desire inside them. The wrapping of the book and the opening — the outside — must connect with what’s inside them. Isn’t that the challenge Christians face in communicating the Good News? Maybe we need to realise that, no matter how powerful our message is, its “wrapper” (the behaviors of the people living it and communicating it) are what counts in most cases, in persuading people to really listen to the message.

 

 

Remind me — who am I?

“When I look at my tattoo it reminds me I want to be free and independent and open to more experiences. . .As Johnny Depp reportedly said, ‘My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.'” in a featured article “I ink therefore I am” in Sunday Life, Sydney Morning Herald, May 27, 2012.

I come from a different generation, which didn’t value body-art, but I can understand what this young Gen-Y woman (and Johnny Depp) are saying. It’s hard to be who you want to be. You need to remind yourself and others so you don’t forget and so they’ll ask you about your tattoo and, in a way, hold you accountable.

Two things occur to me. Why is it hard to be “free, independent and open to more experiences” in today’s society? That is exactly what our culture values. Maybe it’s a case of ‘espoused values not values in practice.’ Maybe we don’t really want people to become themselves freely or ‘march to the beat of a different drummer’ as Thoreau said. My sense is that the western system actually values conformity, dependency (on consuming) and enjoying the pre-packaged experiences offered by the media and iPhone apps. If you aren’t doing those, you aren’t helping the GDP grow and “you ain’t nobody man!”

The second thing that occurs to me is what would I tattoo on myself? Maybe not actually display three words inked onto my arm but what is the ‘headline’ for my story, like Johnny Depp said? I know what I’d like it to be — Semper Fidelis: a faithful follower of Jesus Christ — but what is actually there, everyday, for everyone to see?

Easter: “me” or “we”?

In an editorial The great shock of Easter, the Sydney Morning Herald used the Christian Easter proclamation to make a provocative point to a wider audience. “Simply put, ours is a culture that pretends to liberate the “me” from the “we” by inviting each of us to forget about the tried wisdom of the past and to simply feel good about ourselves here and now.” [See complete editorial] As a Christian it pleases me that the SMH featured an editorial about Easter on its Opinion page. Certainly the point being made is a good one. Even Christians tend to forget the wisdom of Christ’s passion and resurrection, which is why we need Lent. In a way, waking up humankind to the existence of a far larger “we” and its wisdom is what Easter truly means.

Sleepers awake!

What Easter is pointing toward is a stunning truth: the transformation of mankind and, through us, the entire universe. Walter Kasper, a noted theologian, summarizes the signficance of Easter as “the event which opens the world to the future . . . a future which is based in the infinite destiny of man . . .the future of all reality has already begun with Jesus and is decisively determined by him, but far more: the person and activity of Jesus are that future.” [Kasper, Jesus the Christ, Paulist Press, 1976] The world and humankind was asleep until Easter morning, when the truth dawned. Even today, we find statements such as Kasper’s almost impossible to believe. The Sydney Morning Herald is right about one thing — our narcissistic “me” has become transfixed in contemplating ourselves, and is missing the wisdom of who we truly are. Not some shimmering image in a mirror but an unimaginable “we’ — the body of Christ, emerging in history.

Christian freedom

As Walter Kasper also points out, liberation is part of the Easter message — “Self-will is not free but quite unfree, because it means slavery to one’s own ego and the whims of the moment.” I think we feel today that we are free because we have so many choices at hand. Many of us have disposable income to pursue these choices. But Easter raises the question of who we are meant to be and whether our choices ought to be only self-willed (a pathological focus on “me”) or meant to be something else. So, especially on Easter morning, sleepers awake! Christian freedom is Christ’s freedom. Christ is the example of living for others, and what it means to truly be part of a “we.” Jesus demonstrated that in dying and rising, in solidarity with all mankind. Take a few minutes this holy season, then, and walk through what happened from the Last Supper through Easter morning. See if it helps you get beyond “me” to what “we” is meant to be.

 

Ideology, Part 2

I realise from some of the comments I have received on my previous post that the word “ideology” has many different connotations — some good, some bad. As I said in my previous post, I started out with a positive story about ideology myself. After my conversation with the woman who was a social activist I began to see the dark side of ideology. That’s why I wrote the post, to encourage Christians to think more like Jesus and not become “ideological.”

The need to make distinctions

Idealism, ideology and self-righteousness all have the same root cause, as my brother John pointed out — “I am right and I know I’m right, which makes you wrong if you disagree.”  We Christians must distinguish between having a strong faith and belief and acting out of one of these three “sinful attitudes.” [Sinful as I am using it here means “missing the target.”] Idealism, like any “ism” goes to the extreme. According to the OED, idealism bases a system of thought on ideas not actual real life. Ideology does the same thing, justifying our actions regardless of events. Self-righteousness goes even further, placing us at the center of the universe, assuming we have god-like power to decide which ideas and actions are right. I hope you can see why I believe Christians need to be on guard against ideology, idealism and self-righteousness.

The virtue of prudence

St Thomas Aquinas described the antidote for these sinful attitudes — the virtue of prudence. “Prudence applies universal principles to particular situations . . .Prudence is needed for acting in the right way. It especially demands the mean (middle way) in acting for we can fall short of or exceed reason.” From this brief summary of his thought we can see how by applying this virtue Christians can avoid the sins of ideology, idealism and self-righteousness:

  • We should suspect impulsive decisions or actions, especially in serious situations, which we do without thinking. Prudence requires we take the time to apply reason.
  • We need to be aware of making generalizations, without also taking into account specific situations. Prudence requires that we both apply general principles and be aware of the effects in specific situations.
  • We need to choose the mean not the extreme, in how we act in specific situations. We can be too lenient or too strict in responding.
  • There are principles, which ought to guide our right way of acting. Prudence says we need to always bring the ultimate principle of love into our thinking and actions.

 

Ideology versus ?

I had a very provocative dinner table conversation last night, with a woman who is a passionate advocate for social justice. At 15 she set up a special breakfast at her school for poor aboriginal children because they had no food. She has continued to be an activist for social causes her entire life. She made a statement that initially I objected to but eventually agreed with. “Ideology is one of the biggest issues that stands in the way of social justice.” She also claimed, as many people do, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” and wrapped ideology, church and religion together. The conversation made me think about how Christians distiguish between “ideology” — which is harmful — and . . .? What is the Christian antidote for ideology? Do we need an antidote? Will we bring the antidote into the world to help the cause of social justice?

What would Jesus do?

First of all, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know the answer to these questions. Any word I tried to use to describe the Christian antidote to ideology seemed to have problems of its own. Ideology versus faith? Ideology versus morality? Ideology versus love? If I am trapped in ideology aren’t these words also infected and twisted? Do I somehow claim a perfect understanding of “Jesus’ mind” and what he would do to overcome ideology? Isn’t that pride, the deadliest of sins? It seemed to me that, as a Christian, the only way out of this dilemma was to both understand what Jesus did during his life as well as how thinkers in the church since then have dealt with this question of ideology versus “right thinking and acting.”

“Right thinking and acting”

If you read the four Gospels — the stories of his life — it is obvious that Jesus did not buy into any of the religious, political or cultural ideologies of his time. He lived in opposition to them but did not create a counter- ideology. He simply announced and lived  what “right thinking and acting” in God’s kingdom is all about — feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the stranger and especially caring for the poor. You could say that, like my dinner guest, Jesus was advocating and living social justice. [He was spiritual but, unlike her, he was a Jew and generally followed that religious tradition but not any of its prevailing ideologies.] After Jesus, Christian thinkers down through the ages have dealt with the specifics of social justice but, it is safe to say, not one has ever disputed that social justice was part of Jesus’ core message about “right thinking and acting” in God’s Kingdom.

So, what must I do?

The answer is simple to my pragmatic Australian dinner guest. “Get on with it!” Don’t let my ideology get in the way of social justice. Don’t say to myself, “Well ____ doesn’t deserve my concern and help because she ______.” [You fill in your favorite ideological targets.] Go read my previous post about Christians and Moslems if you want to think about your ideology about a specific issue. Christians and Moslems: A Way Forward. Or pick your favorite sin — abortion, drugs, fornication — and see how you thnk about and care for the “sinners” engaged in such activities. But most of all begin to question, “How is my Christian ideology blocking following Jesus’ way?”

Read Ideology Part 2

 

“The winds that awakened the stars . . .”

“Here I learned to distinguish what I was planning to do after graduation from the person I aspire to be after graduation”

I read those words in my latest copy of Marquette, the magazine published by the university I attended many years ago. Looking  backward at my own years in university, it doesn’t seem to me that I would have said those words about myself as I graduated. Yet, somehow, in the intervening years, I did begin to aspire to be a particular type of person. And looking forward, it seems that becoming that type of person rather than what I do is the essential task of life.

What type of person do I aspire to be?

Unfortunately, words fail me here. I have no posters in my home listing the personal attributes toward which I aspire. I know people who say they want to be a person of “integrity” or “authentic” or “caring” — and they truly mean it and try to live it. The problem is, for me at least, that becoming a person is a mystery, beyond words. As W. B. Yeates wrote, “The winds that awakened the stars / Are blowing through my blood.” And Dylan Thomas also wrote:

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer.

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”

You must be wondering, what is the matter with ordinary goals and aspirations like integrity, authenticity and caring? Absolutely nothing. Yet I sense, and have long done so, that there is something flowing much deeper in me than these words can describe. Only poets seem able to sense this flow, not self-help gurus or psychologists. My aspiration cannot be contained in such goals.

I suppose, as a Christian, I ought to sum up this post by saying that I aspire to be like Jesus but that doesn’t feel right somehow. Maybe it would be more correct to say that Jesus aspires to make me like him. Such a divine goal fits him. I can only say honestly that I am “God’s work of art” [Ephesians 2:10] and wait for the artist to finish me as a person.

The “BrandMe” Society

“It’s not enough, apparently, to have lived life well.”

In a Sydney Morning Herald News Review Essay, The Marketing of BrandMe, Hugh Mackay, the well-known observer of Australia social customs and culture, discusses the “virus of self-promotion.” He contrasts self-esteem with self-respect. Recognition — the number of Likes on our Facebook page, the number of people following our Tweets — feeds our self-esteem. The key to rapid recognition in our modern digital society is self-promotion. Everyone suddenly seems to know that — thus the virus of self-promotion has “infected our society” according to Mackay. But what of self-respect?

The virus of self-respect

Mackay says  the “keys to self-respect are humility and self-restraint.” I know that is so — my father was a well-respected man but also humble and restrained. I knew implicitly that he respected himself and from that inner sense of his own strength everything else flowed. As I get older, I recognise more and more the gift he gave me of the way he lived his life. My mother was the same. I guess what I’m saying is that the “virus” of self-respect originates (or doesn’t) in one’s family. If it isn’t there, you can “catch it” elsewhere but life is more difficult without this early foundation.

How Christian parents nurture self-respect

To be clear, I am not saying only Christian parents can nurture self-respect in their children. But Christian parents have a special obligation. Their children’s self-respect — their confidence in their inner strength — has a different origin. To me it lies in the realization that we have a soul, an eternal life to be considered along with everyday things. My Dad wasn’t a Catholic but he always attended the big events in my life like my first Holy Communion, and he helped me with my Catechism. I sensed these were important in my life. My mother was a Catholic and was the major religious influence in my life but my father was 100% supportive of her.  Were we an extraordinarily religious family? I’d have to say no — but my parents clearly communicated that life was more than following the crowd, and had a moral and spiritual dimension. That’s how I think Christian self-respect is nurtured in a family.

 

 

 

The Great Adventure

I love fantastic stories, especially those which create entirely new worlds in my imagination. For example, The Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars Trilogy. I am currently reading a fascinating science fiction trilogy by S. M. Stirling about ‘The Change’, where the Earth has been devastated by a catastrophy that instantly eliminates all electrical devices, gasoline engines and gunpowder-based weapons worldwide. Within a year, only a small fraction of the Earth’s population has survived, mainly by regressing to medieval farming, military and political practices. An interesting subplot is what happens to religion. In Oregon, where the story mainly takes place, a nature-worshipping Wiccan sect saves many lives and becomes the predominant stabilising force in the lives of many ‘good guys.’ The ‘bad’ guys have no religion and are led by a power-hungry former Jesuit medieval professor. The author is not saying that “witches are good; Christians are bad.” He is simply saying that primitive nature-loving folk, respectfully serving the “Lord and Lady” gods of nature have a excellent survival strategy in such a world. Anthropologically, that would seem to be the case, based on studies of native American and other primitive cultures around the world.

Human Survival

At first, as I read this story, I wondered why the author hadn’t used a Christian community instead of a Wiccan group. Then I realised that the story would have been far more complex. He couldn’t easily describe a plausible, Darwinian survival strategy based on the Christian religion. In fact, as I thought about it, neither could I! Why would Christians be more fit for survival in a primitive world, or in our own modern world for that matter? That got me to thinking. The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars both have a hidden force that orchestrates the downfall of an evil Emperor. In the Change trilogy, even the Wiccan sect seems at certain points to receive help from their gods. Human survival in each of these stories doesn’t happen on its own. The authors use a story-telling device called a deus ex machina (literally, a god outside the system) to rescue the ‘good guys’ from ‘evil.’ The Force rescues Luke Skywalker. An unseen force guides Frodo through a dangerous journey to destroy Sauron’s Ring of Power. Science, in Darwin’s theory of evolution, says humans survive because we are better equiped than other living parts of the ecosystem. The authors of these fantastic stories all point toward the possibility that humans can’t survive on their own and depend on some outside force to rescue them from ultimate destruction.

God’s Great Adventure

Which brings me to the fantastic Christian story about the survival and triumph of the human race in the universe (still incomplete). You can easily understand the outline of this story in the Bible:

  • God creates the universe for his own purposes, as the framework for a great adventure story.  Mysteriously, He makes room in this story for man to choose to do both good and evil and to disrupt the world. [Genesis 1-4]
  • In the next phase of the adventure story, God selects a small band of nomads in the desert as His special people. They will learn the fundamental theme in God’s adventure story — they cannot survive on their own. They must rely on the ‘force’ to rescue them from their enemies. Otherwise, they will perish. For example, they must have God’s help to escape from Pharoah. [Genesis 12 – 15, Exodus]
  • In the next phase, God begins to prepare his people for a great event, a gift He will send the human race. His people imagine that this is a great military leader who enable them to conquer all their enemies, a ‘Messiah’ who will be the ‘King of Kings.’ [For example Isaiah 49, from among many references]
  • In the next phase, God announces that He is the promised gift. He enters creation as Jesus and demonstrates how mankind is to live, as His Sons and Daughters. In the climax of this part of the story, Jesus demonstrates that evil has no power to kill us, and that taking part in God’s plan to rescue the world from evil (like Luke Skywalker and Frodo) is how we humans are to be a crucial part of His great adventure. [The four Gospels]
  • In the final phase of the story (the phase that we are living in today), all humans are learning how to live as God’s sons and daughters. Christians have special insights into His plan, and therefore special obligations, but no monopoly on doing His will. For 2000 years, the story has been filled with danger, heros and villains, battles and defeats, and surprising turns-of-events, like any good adventure story. Occasionally, things seem about to fall apart but, mysteriously, a deus ex machina rescues us at critical points. The story is guaranteed to have a happy ending! [Paul points to this in Ephesians 1 and Romans 5]

The Christian Role in God’s Story

One of the main obligations of Christians is to tell everyone the story of God’s great adventure — to give them hope, and help them trust God when things seem about to fall apart. We need to tell this story in a way that different people from diverse backgrounds can understand their part in God’s story. I have tried to illustrate how to do that in this post. Our task is not so much to ‘convert’ Wiccans and other non-Chrisitians but rather to help them understand the larger context of a loving God’s great adventure story in which their part can be better understood. It is up to God whether, and if, and how they will be ‘converted.’ In fact, in their diversity they may play an important role in ‘converting’ us Christians.

 

Triumph or Catastrophe?

I was driving back from doing the grocery shopping today, and happened to hear the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique. What a sad, emotionally draining piece of music, with its evocation of the “dying of the light” at the end. Whenever I hear it, I remember the only time I ever heard it played live, in August 1974 in Washington DC at the Kennedy Center.

The day before the concert, Richard Nixon had made his final television speech live to the American people, saying that he was going to resign from the presidency. The evening of the concert, he signed his letter of resignation and boarded the Presidential helicopter as I sat in the concert hall, listening to this powerful music. I knew what was happening at the White House — and couldn’t help thinking of Nixon and his emotions on that evening. I was not a fan of his, but believed that I felt the depth of his personal “dying of the light” a few blocks away. The magnitude of the catastrophe he had brought on himself must have sunk in as he signed that letter and walked out of the White House with his wife, to never return.

Triumph or catastrophe?

When David Frost interviewed Nixon some years later, in 1977, he met a man intent on defending his record as president. The terms of the interviews did not let Frost fully probe into what happened in the Watergate fiasco but, finally, Frost was able to get Nixon to appear to have regrets over his actions. “Nixon admitted that he had ‘let down the country’ and that ‘I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.'” [from Wikipedia] So, was my empathy on the night of Nixon’s resignation mistaken? Was Nixon so convinced of his own ‘righteousness’ that he actually felt few regrets?

What strikes me about this question is that it applies to all of us. When we come to end of our lives, will we be able to see things the way they really are? Maybe not. Like Nixon, we might defend ourselves very skillfully, overlooking our faults and remembering our successes. But at our ‘dying of the light’ what will be the truth about our lives? Will it be whatever we wish it to be — or are there standards? Christians believe in God’s final judgment — but we also believe in His divine mercy. Is it possible that our life could turn out to be such a catastrophe that God’s mercy might not be able to change it into a triumph?

If we take seriously the human responsibility for making choices and using freedom for good and not evil, it seems to me that we have to admit that some humans could architect a catastrophe from their choices. It appears that Judas Iscariot, Hitler, Stalin and others have done that. But surely our transgressions don’t match these ‘super-heros of evil.’ God can overlook things and find ways to make our ordinary lives right. This brings me to the point of this post.

What if we knew the truth about God’s purpose for us — our unique talents, gifts and situation? What if we could see the gap between what might have been and what actually happened, due to our choices? My sense is that this gap would likely be enormous for each of us — because we do not take seriously the purpose for which God created us. Perhaps our blindness is what God overlooks in His mercy. Perhaps we are judged leniently, against what we consciously and willingly have chosen to recognise as God’s purpose for us. Even against that relaxed standard I feel uncomfortable. In the end, I am uncertain about what the truth about my own life will be. I can only say with the Psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” [Psalm 51:1]

“Allo, Cheeky Monkey”

I had just parked the car and was walking toward St Peters for the 10:30 service when I spotted him. An old, ragged man slouching his way toward me, looking at the ground as if he might fall over. But when I went to pass him, he looked up at me and grinned, “Allo, Cheeky Monkey” and kept on walking. What? Did he mean me or did he think he was talking to some other person that only he could see? In his world, do I look like a ‘cheeky monkey’? What kind of world does he live in? This conversation kept running through my mind.

What kind of world does he live ?

I’d like to think that who I think am is pretty much how I seem to others. I assume that their world looks pretty much to them as my world looks to me. Except, of course, for sick or disturbed or inebriated people, who might well see me as a cheeky monkey. But is that assumption warranted?  Maybe that old man wasn’t drunk or insane. Maybe his world is very different than mine (as everyone’s is). Maybe I am a Cheeky Monkey to a lot of other people and don’t realise it! I once heard that a good definition of humility is seeing ourselves as God sees us. Gulp! Maybe God sees me very differently than I see myself. I wish I could talk to that old man (and God) for a minute.

Hints of Heaven

I had a discussion at the butcher shop today, with a woman who usually waits on me. We chat and today she got onto ‘The world isn’t a very nice place. I’m ready to move on.’ I said, “Well, yes. We are definitely going to a better place.” It was what she said next that made me wonder. “I’m going to come back and do all the things I didn’t do the first time around.” I said, “When you get there, you won’t want to leave.” She just looked at me, as if she couldn’t imagine what would be better than her vision of fulfilling her earthly dreams.

Imagining a ‘better place’

My belief is that we humans will still be essentially human in heaven (although transformed). We won’t become angels or pure spirits. We are enfleshed spirits and, somehow, we will retain some semblance of our senses, feelings and thoughts  from this life. This belief is what helps me imagine heaven. I know, St Paul said “No eye has seen, or mind conceived what God has prepared for those that love him” 1 Corinthians 2:9 Still I believe there are hints of heaven we experience right now. By recalling these, and reflecting on them, we can begin to imagine a better place. That is a healthy and good thing to do.

Some hints of heaven

To help you get started, I will list a few hints that I have experienced.  A skeptic might say, “Oh, you’re only experiencing ____” and refer to some chemical or psychological cause. My response is, “Well God uses those means to let us see what he has in store for us.” This is clearly a case of “believing is seeing.” Here is a short list of hints that immediately come to my mind, from among many I have experienced:

  • There are several pieces by Bach which literally stop me in my tracks. I don’t want to move or think, just experience his sublime music. The only words I can think of to describe what this music is pointing at are “pure” and “love.” And, in fact, I don’t want to utter any words at all or analyse the experience. I only want to lose myself in the moment.
  • The first time I took my daughter Meg to Paris, we arrived very early and had to wait to get into our hotel. Just after dawn, we walked down to the Place de la Concorde and I happened to see her face as she took in the magnificence of Paris for the first time. Her eyes were shining. She had a look of pure delight on her face. She was lost in the experience. I imagine that’s how I’ll feel for the first 10,000 years in heaven.
  • I have some photos from the Hubble Space telescope, of incredibly immense colorful shapes of dust clouds and stars and galaxies all mixed together. It’s as if an artist is saying, “What do you think of this? I’ve got billions more to show you.” Endless excitement and surprises.
  • Occasionally,  I feel very relaxed and peaceful, like the first few hours after I arrive at a summer holiday resort, before I begin planning what I’m going to do on my vacation. The sky is bright, the breeze is soft; the ocean is gently reverberating in the background.  There is no need to do anything. A lot of pleasant possibilities are there for the taking but I don’t need to grasp them. I just “chill out” and leave all my cares and concerns behind.

I could keep on going, but I hope you get the idea. Try imagining heaven this way yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re getting it right or not. Tell some friends about your ‘hints of heaven.’ You’ll find they have their own hints too. Makes for a really interesting and uplifting conversation.

 

 

Quantum Theory and religion

Alain de Botton, “possibly the world’s richest philosopher” according to the Sydney Morning Herald, explains religion this way:

“There’s something called religion and it was invented a long time ago by people who felt very out of control with their lives, who didn’t know . . . why the sun always rose over the mountains. Nowadays people don’t find religion so convincing anymore.” Quoted from an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 14-15, 2012

It’s clear to me how de Bottom has become rich. He makes millions of people feel comfortable by simplistic observations like the statement above. It’s as if a scientist were saying, “All you really need to understand is Newton’s Three Laws. They deal with real things that you can see. All the rest of Physics, like Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity is just theory.” De Botton misrepresents religion as badly as my hypothetical scientist misrepresents Physics.

I would like to break down de Botton’s statement above to start you on the path towards sharpening your critical thinking about religion.

  • “Religion was invented by people who felt out of control of their lives.” (I wonder how de Botton knows the motivation of people in prehistoric times, but I’ll let that pass.) Not all religions were invented by people who felt out of control. For example, Abraham was comfortably in control of his life when God called him to leave his native land and go to a strange land to the west. In fact, the Hebrews celebrated Abraham giving up control of his life to God as evidence of his faith.
  • The people who invented religion “didn’t know why the sun always rose over the mountains.” Doesn’t this ignor the most common reasons that people give for religion? Religion provides answers to the ultimate questions, eg, What does life mean? What is my purpose? Religion is not a scientific explanation for any phenomena but it is man’s inspired wisdom for why everything exists and what this means.
  • “Nowadays people don’t find religion so convincing anymore.” Which people is he referring to? Philosophers? There are many who do find religion meaningful. Scientists? Again, there are many who see no conflict between science and religion.

Intellectual honesty

First of all, hardly anyone ever becomes religious by reading a book. Religion is a response to an invitation, to join with people who share common beliefs. Many of us received this invitation when we were infants and our parents introduced us into the religious tradition our family practiced. At some point, perhaps, we have encountered philosophy and science — and perhaps this has raised questions about religion for us. I’d like to suggest that how we answer such questions is important. If we only read books like Alain de Botton writes or simply adopt the opinions of our friends,  I don’t think we can claim to being intellectually honest. None of these sources may be particularly even-handed about religion.

Let me use the example of how physicists might be intellectually honest when it comes to Quantum Theory. First of all, no first year student of Physics would claim they understood Quantum Theory by simply having conversations with their friends or reading the “Idiot’s Guide to Quantum Theory.” They realise how complex and deep this particular field of knowledge is, and the years of study required to attain a general grounding in the topic. Second, even the most advanced Physicists are tentative about the ‘truth’ of Quantum Mechanics, and its connection with “what is really going on.” There are debates about various ‘hard questions’ and ambiguities in Quantum Theory that no reputable scientist denies. Lastly, scientists of all types are always tentative about their beliefs in their theories, realising that future measurements or knowledge may invalidate their current understanding.

My sense is that each of us ought to be equally intellectually honest with ourselves about religion in general — whether we are believers or atheists. Understanding religion involves an enormously complex field of knowledge. Like the first year student in Physics, most of us should be aware of our limitations in drawing sweeping conclusions about religion based on a casual acquaintance with the topic. Second, there are also ‘hard questions’ and ambiguities in religious discussions. Things are not simple, when it comes to making responsible intellectual judgements about religion. Lastly, religion is not science so it is not a theory which can be invalidated — but religion also involves human knowledge, which evolves over time. How people regarded the Christian religion in the First Century is very different in most respects than how people think about it today. We must be ready to distinguish between the unchangeable focus of religion, which is God and His revelation to us, and what is changeable.

To return briefly to Alain de Botton, I’m sure that he wouldn’t strongly disagree with many of the statements in this post, even though he and I have almost completely divergent views on science and religion. Perhaps I was a bit harsh, picking on one phrase out of his vast body of work. I hope, somehow, that he sees this post and confirms how close our perspectives are when it comes to being intellectually honest. My concern is that Alain de Botton and others like him not mislead anyone, especially young adults, when it comes to the certainty of his position on religion.

 

 

 

The Internet and Jesus

I love Jesus but hate religion CLICK to watch video

I suggest you watch this Youtube video, viewed more than 10,000,000 times, with a 10 to 1 like versus dislike rating, and ask yourself the following questions:

1. How much of what this obviously sincere young man is saying makes sense to you?

2. What doesn’t make sense to you?

3. If you were going to debate with him, how would you begin?

The Internet is how many young people form their opinions about Jesus, religion and church. How ought your local church respond to the Internet?

Let me know what you think.

Life is simple

I went to the 10:30 Service on New Years Day at St Peters in Surry Hills, after attending the Lord Mayor’s party at the Sydney Opera House the evening before. The church was cool and the service quiet. I was suddenly struck by the enduring simplicity of what takes place every Sunday at St Peters, and the contrast with the complexity of the world I bring with me into that small peaceful church every week.

What is simplicity?

My definition of simplicity would be “What you see is what is there.” No hidden agendas; no misleading messages. That may puzzle you. If a stranger were to attend the service at St Peters they might well be mystified about what was going on but the people who are there understand exactly what is happening. To them it is simple. I don’t mean that each person experiences exactly the same thing, or understands the theology the same but they all see exactly the same simple “what is there.” God is present.

What is complexity?

What do I bring with me to St Peters? The way I look at the world. I sometimes joke that the world has to be complicated for me because I am an engineer / physicist / management consultant. There wouldn’t be anything for me to do if the world were simple. I like to solve complicated puzzles so I like to see the world as complex so I can unravel it. My suspicion is that all of us have been shaped by our education and experience to see the world as complex, even though we aren’t engineers or scientists. The scientific “paradigm” is prevasive in the modern world. We see myriads of interrelationships and issues and assume that everything must be complex. We don’t leave any room for simplicity.

Advice from a recovering “complexity-olic”

As every recovering alcoholic knows, the advice from a brother or sister alcoholic carries more weight than advice from a sober person. I am a “complexity-olic” and I know how hard it is to see simplicity when everything appears to be so complicated. You have to admit to yourself that you can’t get out of the complexity trap on your own, and seek help. Until I was able to ask a “higher power” to help me, I was stuck in theological intricacy and religious issues. I couldn’t be in St Peters — or quietly sit in my home — and simply be present to God.  As a recovering complexity-olic, every day is still a struggle for me, but I take each day as it comes, opening my eyes to see the simple presence of God in the midst of life here in Sydney. My advice? Do what God suggests in Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Labyrinths and Mazes

I recently read a fascinating editorial by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Leave behind the retail maze, zen is just a single path away. In it she manages to combine the usual post-holiday lament about Christmas shopping madness with an excursion into meditation, and the role of labyrinths in the search for inner peace. She begins with “Christmas is a kind of test . . . just surviving it bestows a sense of achievement.” She then wanders through the pain of “fighting and struggling for more choice in our lives” and finally arrives at the relaxing properties of labyrinths, comparing them to mazes. “A maze is a series of decision points, any one of which could result in terminal confusion . . . A labyrinth, having only one path, requires no decisions, so its complications become instead a sort of dance, engendering a curious feeling of trust.” I think Ferrelly is on to something, comparing modern life and the struggle with complexity to a maze — and the way toward peace as a labyrinth of constraint yet freedom.

How does a labyrinth work?

Laryrinths are ancient, first appearing almost 5,000 years ago in the Bronze Age in ancient Peru, Crete, Troy and Jericho and elsewhere. In the 12th to 14th centuries in Christian Europe they became associated with religious practice. They became mediative tools. Ferrelly describes how they work. “A walk has three stages: the walk-in (purgation or release), the still centre (illumination or receiving) and the walk out (union or returning).” She described her own labyrinth walk as a ‘card-carrying skeptic” as “experiencing a delicious, timeless trance and a lingering wellbeing.” Are you skeptical? Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I have, once in a garden. I experienced a similar delight as Ferrelly did,  from giving myself over to finding the way to the center, then back out again. Maybe it’s just that I enjoy solving problems, or maybe there is a deeper significance. But the maze versus labyrinth metaphor is a powerful one about life and prayer.

Choosing to leave the maze of everyday life by entering the labyrinth of prayer

Why do we need to pray? Or better yet, do we need to find a way out of the maze of everyday life? I think that most of us can relate to Ferrelly’s description of information and choice overload becoming oppressive, especially at Christmas. We also sense that that the “rat-race” isn’t healthy. We look for ways to “wind down” or “go off-line.” But many people are reluctant to commit themselves to daily prayer. Either we’re too busy fighting our way through the maze or we fail to make time for prayer because we, like Ferrelly, are skeptical that praying regularly has any value. In any case, most us don’t know how to pray so we never actually give the “labyrinth of prayer” a chance. But, what if praying is as simple as following the path to the center of a labyrinth, enjoying some time at the center, then finding our way back out, feeling refreshed? As Christians, we believe that God is at the center of everything. What if this simple practice can lead us into a heightened experience of God, and bring “delicious, lingering well-being” into our life?

This question about praying as laryrinth can lead to a choice, or it can remain only speculation. Like any labyrinth, we have to take the first step into the puzzle. I’m an amateur at prayer but, encouraged by grace, I am going to enter the labyrinth, and encounter whatever waits for me at the center.

 

 

Happy endings

I love movies with happy endings.  My wife and I keep these “feel good movies” in a special place  so we can easily find them when  we need cheering up. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of our favorites. The look on George Bailey’s face (played by Jimmy Stewart) when he is reunited with his family at the end is pure joy.

On Christmas Day I drove my 93 year old friend Joe and his wife Marian to the 10am service and sat with them. He isn’t able to go to church regularly any more because he’s very frail.  Many of his friends hadn’t seen him in several months and greeted him happily before and after the service. The music was spectacular! The priest brought him communion where he sat, in the front pew. At the end, I looked over at him, and he had his eyes closed and his head bowed. I don’t know what he was thinking but he had an expression of joy on his face. That was the best present I received that day.

Joy is connected with something that transcends current happiness.  George Bailey realised that his entire life was meaningful, epitomised by the love of his family and all the people he had helped over the years. I think my friend Joe realised on Christmas Day that this earthly celebration is only a faint foretaste of what is in store for him shortly.

When the angel said “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” it wasn’t just about the current moment — the birth of the Christ child. The great joy of this event is that it proclaims a happy ending for all humankind and creation. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Giddings, paraphrasing Julian of Norwich: “And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well.” When next you experience joy in your life — and I hope that happens often — take time to remember that joy is God’s hint about happy endings.

Christmas as metaphor

The human mind works like this. Very basically, we see something and compare it against what we know and then we automatically know how to think and act. For example, we see an angry face and automatically prepare to ‘fight or flee’ — Scientists have shown that even infants can recognise what a face is, and whether it’s angry.

This demonstrates that our mind and language are fundamentally metaphorical. We see and describe the world by saying, “Oh that is just like something I have seen before. That is an angry face.” Seeing the world like this, in terms of metaphors, works at the deepest level of our mind, the unconscious and automatic level. We don’t reason very often and question whether that object we see really is an angry face which our mind has categorised. As George Lakoff says, “. . .the hidden hand of the unconscious mind uses metaphor to define our unconscious metaphysics . . .” [In Philosophy in the Flesh] Not only do we see faces and other objects automatically; our all-encompassing worldview is also formed by metaphor. This includes Christmas, whether we are Christians or athiests.

The Christmas season uses two conlicting metaphors

We like to say that our modern world has lost the true meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus and his bag full of gifts (comfortably supporting the need to shop to keep our economy growing and healthy) has taken over as the predominant metaphor from the Christ child laying in the manger. I doubt that this only happened recently. In fact, since the earliest days of the church, there was a common metaphor for the world, and that was whatever political/economic idea dominated in a particular age. The Roman metaphor was the great city of Rome and its grandeur. The Holy Roman Empire replaced that with the great church and its grandeur. Thus,  the modern metaphor of the great society creating global economic wellbeing follows a long line of similar metaphors. The infant God in a manger metaphor has always struggled against the dominant metaphor of the times.

The thing about metaphors is that you need to ‘unpack’ them to understand their deeper significance. What do the metaphor of Santa Claus and the metaphor of the infant God mean?

Santa Claus is a happy old man giving gifts to children who have been good. The metaphor means that, if we are good, the gifts will come to us. In our economic system, if we are well-off, we are usually seen as good. We are encouraged to give gifts to the less well-off at Christmas. This is not usually associated with Santa Claus, however, but with Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to all children, rich and poor alike, without regard to whether they were good or bad.

The infant God in the manger metaphor is more difficult for humankind to unravel. In fact, even Jesus’ mother probably didn’t understand the significance of this puzzling act of God. The angels had to explain it: “I bring you news of great joy that will be for all people.” The infant God is a great gift that brings joy and peace to all mankind. Exactly what this gift is remains subtle and largely hidden. God doesn’t enter the world like a hero or Santa Claus. God’s gift of Himself at Christmas, and His choice to do that in Bethlehem in a manger, keeps on giving because we can’t unravel the mystery of the infant God metaphor! The infant God metaphor is always in conflict with the dominant economic/political metaphor.

Christmas is a time for going back to the 1st grade in school

Can you remember when you were in the first grade? Probably not. What I remember is that I didn’t understand anything — about reading, nunbers, how to get along with the Sisters, or how to be a “success.” I was basically a sponge, waiting to soak up the water of education. [Another metaphor] If I had arrived at the first grade already full of ‘stuff’ I wouldn’t have been ready to learn. That’s what usually  happens at Christmas. We already know what the Bethlehem story means.

Still, when we see the infant Jesus, we experience some conflict with the dominant symbols of our commercialised world. This is a signal that there is some learning at hand. Our task is to make room “in the inn” (our already filled sponge) for the “news of great joy.” If we have been through thirty or forty Christmases (or many more in my case), making room is difficult.  Over the years, we have filled our sponge with our own explanations about the infant God in the manger. For me to learn what this gift means, I can only try to stop thinking and return to my innocent state of readiness, like the 1st grade. “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] The mystery of the infant God in a manger is there, waiting for us to be ready to receive the good news of news of great joy. Try emptying your mind of all your accustomed stories about Jesus and Bethlehem and wait for God to come.

“God” is not a noun

When I was in sixth grade we learned english grammar — how to speak and write according to commonly accepted rules. One of the basic things drilled into us was how to identify the different “parts of speech” — the role that words play in sentences.  Two of the most important parts were nouns and verbs. As I remember, there were two types of nouns and many different types of verbs. The two types of nouns were common nouns — the general name for something, like dog or game, which were never capitaised — and proper nouns — the name of a specific person, place or thing like Jim or America, which were always capitalised.

That’s where I got into difficulty (“Even in the sixth grade!,” my wife just remarked). I asked my teacher, “Is God the specific name of God, so that’s why we capitalise the G? Or is God a specific thing: the eternal being?” My teachers didn’t want to engage in this linguistic and perhaps philosophic discussion and said, “Just capitalise the G!” I actually didn’t think much more about this until yesterday, when I was typing one of my posts and I capitalised the G by habit. Suddenly, all those youthful questions emerged again, and almost made me dizzy. What is God? The Hebrews who wrote the Bible used Yahweh. Jesus used Father, as a name. So God must be a specific “thing” to be capitalised. But then I remembered that God isn’t a thing among all the other things that exist. Hmmm. I almost said to myself, “Just capitalise the G!”

 The problem of God

It seems more appropriate to say what God is not:

  • God is not a thing
  • God is not a spirit, some “super angel”
  • God is not nothing

I can sympathise with athiests. They just say God doesn’t exist so who cares. [Do they still have to capitalise the G, to follow common usage?] That’s the easy way out. We Christians have a more complex set of ideas to deal with. I remembered that Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” [John 14:9] So that solves the problem, for us. Jesus has “seen the Father” and tells us that He (Jesus) is like the Father. But this raises another problem. Jesus said that to his friends when he was present in the flesh. Is Jesus still the same person now? Does he look human now? Suddenly I was out of my depth. Paul says that Jesus was the “first fruits” of the resurrection, and that “we will bear the likeness of the man from heaven” when we are resurrected. [1 Corinthians 15:23, 49] But we cannot understand what that means, because we cannot see God, which is what Jesus is. So, in the end, t seems as if the problem of God persists, even for believers.

God is a not a noun but a verb!

Suddenly a way out of the problem I had created for myself occurred to me! God is not a noun! God is not a Father either, or any other created thing we know. Jesus was using very simple metaphors to reassure his friends before his death. He didn’t mean “Look at me. God has a beard and wears sandals.” [Although, at that moment at the Last Supper, he did.] Jesus was saying, “You know what I do and how I think; that is how you can understand God. God thinks and acts like I do.” “God” is a verb.

It’s OK to imagine Jesus or God looking a certain way — as long as I also imagine that my imaginary person thinks and acts consistently like Jesus while he was present in the flesh. That is the crucial point. God didn’t pretend to think and act one way as Jesus in the 1st Century, and now thinks and acts a different way in the 21st Century. We can get caught up in mistaken notions like Jesus being a 1st century Jew, with a very different way of thinking and acting than a modern man. In a way that is true, but in essence it isn’t true. Jesus and God are eternally the same, consistent and dependable in their thinking and acting.

So, as a brother or sister of Jesus, it doesn’t matter how I look. It only matters how I think and act. I am a verb too, and the verb that is me will continue forever, no matter how I look in the future, after my resurrection.

The White Rabbit

I had lunch the other day with an elderly friend of mine whose health is failing. He knows that he doesn’t have long to live but has a very strong faith, so we talk about this process of living and dying quite openly.

He told me a very personal story about his first wife, which I won’t repeat, except to say that, at one point, he told her that he no longer loved her and was leaving her for another woman. He immediately left her, and drove to the other woman’s home in another city but discovered to his dismay that she wasn’t there. Disappointed, he began to drive back to the city where his wife lived, intending to stay in a hotel. It was late at night and the roads were deserted. Suddenly he saw something in the road ahead and hit the brakes. It was an enormous white rabbit, larger than any rabbit could possibly be! It was just sitting in the middle of the road, calmly looking at him. After a few seconds, it slowly hopped off the road and disappeared. He was shaken and decided to go home and tell his wife about this strange occurence. When he knocked on her door it was very late but his wife answered the door fully dressed. She calmly asked him if he’d like a cup of tea, and he realised in that moment what a fool he was. He remained married to her for another twenty years until she died.

What is the White rabbit?

When strange coincidences or events happen, where do they come from and what do they mean? In his famous story A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley visit him as a ghost. Scrooge attributes this vision to something he ate. That is our usual first response — “I must have done something to cause this strange event to happen.” Perhaps that is correct, if you are a heavy drinker or regularly smoke Marijuana. Or perhaps, you may be experiencing the first sign of a psychosis; that is also possible. The brain can do funny things.

But what if, like my friend, you are certain that your vision of a white rabbit was caused by none of these physical explanations? What then? Understanding a “white rabbit” takes us into the region of the unusual, mysterious and unknown. Our well-ordered explanations for reality don’t work anymore. There is only one way forward. We must evaluate using our basic rule for what is true. Either we are a “seeing is believing” person– we require facts and scientific explanations — or a “believing is seeing” person — we allow our beliefs to help us see beyond the rational, physical explanations for our experiences. If we are a “seeing is believing” person, there is no explanation other than some kind of hallucination triggered by unknown causes. If, however, we are a “believing is seeing” person, we still need to examine the white rabbit to determine what meaning, if any, to ascribe to this unusual event.

Does God send white rabbits?

The great saints and spiritual writers were deeply mistrustful of apparitions. They believed that God doesn’t need ‘white rabbits’ or other strange things to attract our attention. They were concerned that Satan used these devices to mislead people. So, we shouldn’t jump too quickly in interpreting such events. [My recommendation would be to discuss it with your priest or pastor.] But, I have also experienced a “rabbit” in my life which helps me to see my friend’s experience in a different light.

Once I made a silent retreat over a weekend in a beautiful old house on the Potomac River in southern Maryland in the USA. The priest who was guiding me that weekend suggested that I not spend my time reading (which was my normal way to fill in time on retreats) but to simply relax and “be present” to whatever happened. On Saturday morning, I was walking slowly around the gardens and suddenly there was a little grey rabbit sitting on the path looking at me. I stopped to watch him. He just sat there and looked at me. We stood like that for maybe 30 seconds. I then detoured around him, onto the grass, and left him sitting on “his path.” I laughed out loud with an experience of amusement!  I hadn’t felt such pure joy in my stressed life for many years. God didn’t send the rabbit — He sent the grace of  recognition, of what happened in my heart when I detoured around that rabbit.

I don’t know what kind of animal stopped my friend on the road that night, but I’m sure it wasn’t a ghost or a supernatural spectre. But both of us are certain that something happened in his heart due to that encounter. My belief (and his) is that God touched his heart, so that he returned to his wife. And God also touched his wife’s heart, to welcome him back without rancor, with a cup of tea.

The ability to see such things as commonplace is also a gift from God. That’s why I call this blog “Grace Filled World.” I hope that you will begin to notice such things in your life and, with the mindset “believing is seeing,” know that God is touching you with love and gifts many, many more times than you realise.

“Making sense of it all” Part 1

When I was in high school, my cousin Leo and I would occasionally get into ‘philosophical’ debates late at night. “What is nothing?” “Why does something exist?”  and so on. We were pushing the limits of what we knew, spreading our mental wings, trying to make sense of it all.  Later, as an adult, I met people who, after some crisis or disaster, asked the same types of questions. “Is there any way to make sense of this?” “How can a good God let this happen?” They struggled to make sense of a tsunami or 9/11 or a tragic death of a child.

“Making sense of it all” describes the ultimate growth challenge for every human being.  Erik Erikson, a pioneer in human development, described the stages of growth we all go through, with the final stage before death being “Integrity versus Despair.”  If we fail to “make sense of it all” our life may seem useless, and we may end up alone and in despair. My cousin and I were learning a process we would need later on in life.  I want to share a few thoughts about the challenges of “making sense of it all” in the 21st century because the process is much harder now than it was 50 years ago when I was a young man.

The process of “making sense”

Who, exactly, is it that makes sense of everything? Is it some ‘guru’ or teacher or minister who explains the meaning of life to us? No, we instinctively know that we have to do this process ourselves. But what part of us, the complex being that we are, does this? Antony Storr, a noted Psychiatrist, wrote a book called The Integity of the Personality. Is it our personality that makes sense, or is there other some part of us that is deeper than our personality, which does that? Some philosophers and theologians call this a “person” or our “soul.” Whatever part we decide is in charge of making sense, there is still the question of how this process works. The phrase itself gives us a clue — we must actively “make” sense; it isn’t infused or given to us. We may want some magical authority to explain everything but the more we seek such authorities, the more we learn that they don’t have the answers we seek. Christians realise that this limit to our understanding is what it means to be human. We believe that the ultimate explanation for everything lies in God, which we will never know in this life. That does not say that we Christians are exempt from the challenge of “Integrity versus Despair.” It says that we are more comfortable with not understanding everything, as we wrestle with and grow our personal wisdom and integrity.

The process of “making sense” is lifelong and iterative yet unrecognised by most people. Our ‘worldview’ largely takes shape hidden from our view, starting at birth, perhaps even in the womb. We are a social being so we make sense in conversations and interactions with others. But, these conversations are always inadequate. The Theologian Karl Rahner describes this: “The abyss of existence opens up in front of us . . . mystery in its incomprehensibility is what is self-evident in human life.”  In his view, the process of making sense and creating a worldview that explains everything is impossible. Still, every human has this built-in desire and tries to make sense, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout their life.

Why this process is more difficult now

I read an interesting book a few years ago called Villages. The author spent many years living in primitive villages, studying how they worked as communities. The interesting thing to him was how radically different than cities villages were. Villages have many more enduring connections among people, which transmit how village people think about life, what their values are, and so on. Cities have many fewer deep connections and essentially no agreed worldview or consensus about life. As the world’s population  becomes increasingly urbanized, and experiences more and more shallow connections due to globalization, travel, the expansion of knowledge, social networking over the Internet, and so on, many people are experiencing an explosion of diverse ideas about every topic imaginable, without any community support in finding a worldview. Making sense is a far greater challenge because of this. Furthermore, we have far less trust in traditions and institutions in our ‘post-modern’ culture — so there are no authorities to help us make sense of life. This includes the church for many people! Whereas fifty years ago, many churchgoers trusted their pastor or the heirarchy, the vast majority of Christians today don’t depend on religious professionals to make sense of their lives. In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss why this is true and why Christians should be delighted that, in the age we now live in,  more and more of us are beginning to recognise that, ultimately, we are responsible for making sense of God’s purpose for our life. That is not to say that Christians don’t need to belong to a church. We do, but we need one that, like a village, actively helps us make sense of our lives.

“Making sense of it all” Part 3

In her book, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today — a task I completely support — Avril Henry uses a quote to set the stage. “Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on.” (Thurman Arnold) I think that describes the underlying theme of life in the 21st Century. We are struggling to find ways to describe and understand the world we have created up to now — and all our ideas, programs and solutions seem to fall short. The sheer complexity and interrelatedness of everything makes past formulas for living a “good life,” even the Christian ideals, now seem somehow inadequate. The enormous difference in scale between what confronts us and what we can understand and control,  is what we need to make sense of in this era.

Hints of the way forward

I like to look for an author’s way forward in transforming the world’s situation. Their summary generally comes near the end of the book. I have selected a few brief passages from books written by authors I admire, because I think they provide hints about the task we face in the 21st century in making sense of the world.

  • Avril Henry’s final word in her book is about acceptance: “I invite you to join me on a journey of awareness, understanding, tolerance and ultimately acceptance of difference, which will enable each of us to create a better future and world for many generations to come.”
  • Margot Cairnes, in Approaching the Corporate Heart, sees the way forward in individuals accepting an invitation to make the hero’s quest: “May you rise to the call next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid, self-effacing, dry self-limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light.”
  • Elizabeth Dreyer, in Manifestations of Grace, sees the way forward as being, ultimately, dependent on community: “Grace is above all a community affair. In grace we see ourselves as peers, not only with all peoples, but with the earth itself.”
  • Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, sees the power and love we need as already emerging: “As we enter the Twenty-first Century we are experiencing a moment of grace. . . A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.”

Metaphors to guide us

We can only see what we don’t know in terms of what we already know, so these hints use metaphors to point toward something new emerging in the Twenty-first  Century. By unpacking them, we can begin to make sense of what is going on.

  • “Journey of awareness” [Avril Henry]
  • “Hero’s Quest” [Margot Cairnes]
  • “Community of grace” [Elizabeth Dreyer]
  • “Vision and energy coming into being.” [Thomas Berry]

You can use your own intuition to make sense of these hints. You may want to find others too; there are plenty around today.

Making Sense of the Twenty-first Century

My own sense is that these metaphors tell us something about ourselves indiividually, about our local communities and about the human race as a whole. I find the following “both/and” statements helpful in making sense of both the great uncertainty in which I find myself and the great traditions and wisdom of the past that have shaped me thus far, which are both relevant and yet inadequate.

  • Dynamic and unchanging: A journey is about movement, from something toward something. In my life I have been, and still am on a journey, and the entire human race has been and always will be on a journey. That is what it means to be human. We are becoming more conscious of our ever-changing yet unchanging journey in this Century, so we are becoming more responsible for guiding ourselves and the world in its movements.
  • Individual and together: My life is in my hands yet my life cannot be lived alone. Who I am becoming is inextricably connected to who my family, my church, my company, my country and the entire human race is becoming. In this Century the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ is disappearing, to be replaced by some new, commonly held view of what it means to be human in community. I am responsible for being part of conversations that are shaping that view.
  • Inner meaning and external actions: What I will become is being shaped in my core (my soul) and by my actions shaping the world around me. In the Twenty-first century, things can only make sense if we understand ther meaning in a much larger context then we did in the Twentieth Century. The future will no longer be measured by how well we as individuals, companies or countries competed,  found security, and achieved near-term outcomes. That just isn’t adequate. I am responsible for conversations and actions that help this new model for “success” emerge.

As an example of how to begin to think, act and make sense of it all  in a Twenty-first century way as a Christian, read my post entitled Christians and Muslims; A way forward. Also read my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation.

At the beginning of the First Century, Jesus established the unchanging yet ever-changing way forward for Christians. I could quote many verses but these seem to me to state His way:

  • “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In the Twenty-first century Christians must learn to include non-Christians in Jesus’ way, in a loving concern and respect for them as brothers and sisters.
  • “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:4] Creating unity among scattered Christians is our unchanging challenge, dealing with ever-changing forces of diversity.
  • “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2] The ultimate measure of our growth toward maturity is how well we imitate Christ and carry out our purpose as ‘dearly loved children of God.’ Love is the only way we can deal with the centripetal forces of hatred and greed threatening to divide humankind in the Twenty-first Century.

 

“Making sense of it all” Part 2

One of the challenges of ‘making sense of it all’ in the 21st century is resolving the apparent conflicts between science and religion. I say apparent because I have degrees in both engineering and physics, and a certificate in theology, and after reading widely on the subject, I can’t find any real conflicts except those that result from misunderstandings of either science or theology.

Today people seem ready to accept the notion that human beings are comprised of  ‘mind, body and spirit.’ It seems to me, therefore, that they should be well-disposed to accept different types of human knowledge, each of which sees a different aspect of reality — scientific (mind), experiential (body)  and religious (spirit) knowledge. Interestingly, where this holistic view of knowledge seems to be struggling to be accepted is in the church. In this post, I will deal with a particular question to illustrate the challenge that Christians face in making sense of ‘church’ using these three types of knowledge.

Did Jesus and the Holy Spirit “design” the church?

Is the church solely a spiritual creation of God? Do we only need religious knowledge to understand the church? Or like other human social institutions, does the church “self-organise” over time, like any other complex adaptive system, emerging and evolving in response to a diverse set of changing cultural factors and human needs? Do we also need scientific knowledge to understand the church? And where does experiential knowledge need to inform our understanding of church? Where do our senses, desires, emotions and other experiences enter in?

In a way, these are the same questions we ask when we want to understand Jesus. Did he grow, like any other human, shaped by his genes as well as nurtured by his family and community and culture, or did God intervene in his human development? How did his experience as a human affect his growth? How does our experience of human beings help us understand him? Would Jesus have been profoundly different if he had been born in New York City in 2011? The church teaches that Jesus was fully man and fully God, which implies that he grew to maturity like any other man. Should the term ‘fully human’ apply to the church as well? It seems obvious to me the church is like Jesus, as we are are, fully human and yet somehow transcending itself, as divine, at least potentially. Therefore,  Jesus and the Holy Spirit shape the church in the same mysterious ways that God shaped Jesus’ growth, respecting the natural processes of our world, and Jesus’ experiences as he matured.

The church evolves over time yet remains the same forever

It seems that God intends human beings to be free to understand and shape the church, “guided” in some subtle, mysterious way by the Holy Spirit. Interpreting the metaphor “guiding” involves resolving political issues of power and love.  [See my post, Power is what make love generative] This, in turn,  raises the question of the role of professional religious women and men in the church as leaders in guiding the church’s growth.  One of Jesus’ most powerful inputs about this human political issue was washing the feet of his disciples right before he died. He clearly meant to demonstrate how to balance power and love. We don’t know what was in Jesus’ mind but he was a wise person and understood the dangers inherent in power so he established a principle which today we call “servant  leadership.”  This points toward the way that Jesus wants professional religious people to “guide” the evolution of the complex adaptive system we call church.

Like every other part of  the church system, the roles of professional religious evolve over time.  One might disagree and say that the religious metaphor of the body of Christ overrides the scientific systems metaphor  — that the fundamental spiritual dimension of the body stays the same. Hands remain hands, the head remains the head. Leaders are the head and ordinary people are the hands. The Christian challenge in making sense of the church is to discern how the religious “body” and scientific “complex adaptive systems” metaphors are to be interpreted. What is stable and unchanging about the church and the leadership of religious professionals and what evolves and changes? To me, the solution lies in understanding how the Holy Spirit works in the church.

How does the Holy Spirit work in the church?

In the scientific view, every human organization is a complex adaptive system comprised of individual human beings who give the organization its life. To better understand how this works, and how the Holy Spirit works, I want to use a simple metaphor to help you understand what scientists mean when they use the term ‘complex adaptive system.’ I will describe church as a living ‘ecosystem’– a forest, with its trees and leaves. The entire worldwide church is like the forest. Individual local churches and Christian communities are like trees. When trees are healthy and growing the forest expands. Similarly, when local churches do their work well the entire church succeeds.

Each Christian in a local church is like a leaf on a tree. There is something special about leaves. They have a unique capability, although they are only a very small part of a tree and a forest. Leaves create food for trees. Each leaf has the power to transform light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into food for the tree through a unique process called photosynthesis. The leaf also exchanges oxygen back into the atmosphere. Without leaves there would be no trees and no forest, a lot less oxygen and probably no other life on planet earth for that matter. Leaves have the ultimate power to grow forests—just as individuals have the ultimate power to grow and guide all organizations including the church.

We can see in this metaphor how the Holy Spirit (grace) works through individuals to transform local churches and so the entire church. Imagine that, in this metaphor, God is like the sun. Just as photosynthesis works with the energy of the sun through leaves to enable trees and forests to grow, there is collaboration between God and individuals to create special ‘food’ that organizations and the church needs to grow as well as heal their wounds.  Even though a single person is just one leaf, if she is linked with the Holy Spirit she can bring something powerful — a new idea, new actions  — to nourish her local church, and ultimately the entire church and world. This simple metaphor for the reality of complex adaptive system helps people begin to see they aren’t alone or powerless to change things in the church. Together with the Holy Spirit, they become the way the Holy Spirit works to transform the church.

What about Experiential Knowledge in understanding church?

The rational (scientific) and religious (spiritual) understanding of  church are not sufficient because they ignor the human experiential dimension of church. The experiencial is perhaps the least understood view of church because it is also the least understood (though very  common) dimension of human life. Historically, we have valued the thinking dimension of human beings more highly than the feeling, intuitive dimension. [This is one reason many more men are church leaders, compared to women.] I explained some ideas about this dimension in another post, Sometimes not thinking is better than thinking.  Our desires, emotions, intuitions and experiences are what energize us as humans (or not).  In that sense, the life of the church arises in a special way, from the desires, emotions, intuitions and experiences of all Christians. How these are shared, to create and energise the larger communities and church of which we are part depends on how we share this with other Christians. That happens in many diverse ways:  through music, art, poetry, sacraments, celebrations, Bible Study insights, and many others. These are the mysterious ‘fountain of life’ of the church. Cultivating and ordering the gifts of individual Christians to serve the growth of the church is a primary work of professional religious women and men.

Making sense of church in the 21st Century.

As I have tried to point out in this post, church cannot be easily understood. Making sense of church requires Christians to expand their knowledge in three dimensions — scientific, religious and experiential. Why should they do this work? Why not just stay at their current level of understanding? Simply put, the church is a pilgrim church, and must always strive to move ever closer to the holy place that God has prepared for it. If we Christians see the church as having already arrived at that place, perfect, complete and unchanging, we are simply not paying attention to the signs of the times or the Bible! “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10] Our work isn’t finished. That must be obvious. So making sense of the church in our times is about discerning, over and over, what is the work that God has prepared for us to do as local and a global church? I will discuss this in Part 3 of “Making sense of it all.” Making sense of this work has to do with discerning what science, our experience and our religious knowledge tells us about the 21st century.

“What if I never encounter a special person?”

A good friend of mine went to a lecture by a well-known woman, who said that her life had been profoundly affected by a special person she had met long ago, her mentor. My friend wanted to ask her, but didn’t — “What if you hadn’t met that person? Would all the advice you’re giving us today have worked in your life?” It occurred to me that what my friend was really asking herself was “What if I never encounter someone that will change my life? Is everything up to me?” As a believer, this conversation made me wonder, Is it possible that God leaves some people completely alone, to fend for themselves? How does God work?

Who can confidently answer such “ultimate questions?”

The obvious answer is God can tell us how He works in our lives. Still, Christians believe that, until we are face to face with Him in the next world, we see “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:12) If uncertainty about God’s ways is the lot of believers, where does that leave someone who is still seeking God? I think it leaves all of us with the human processes of thinking and deciding — and the influence of grace. Do you see where I’m going with this? We only have human categories to decide what God will or will not do for us — Is He stingy or generous; merciful or judgmental, etc? The Bible has many examples of different actions of God that we believers interpret according to our human categories. The absolute truth about God is hidden in God; we can only depend on our limited human powers of  understanding to know Him in this life.

Grace tips the scales toward generosity and mercy

But there is another path we can follow, not solely depending on logic and reasoning — although these are usually good guides — but also depending on our personal experience of God, which comes to us through grace. Knowing God in addition to “knowing about” God. My personal confidence in God’s generosity and mercy is based on the “tsunami” of grace in my life, which has been pursuing me since my earliest days. I can see God’s generous actions in my life in retrospect, especially in my darkest days, when my need was greatest and my worthiness of His friendship the least. These experiences actually happened in my life! And they also happen in the lives of many believers, who have shared their experiences with me. The great hymn Amazing Grace beautifully describes the same experiences. I am part of a community of believers who enthusiastically  report the consistency and reliablity of grace — merciful, forgiving, generous, etc. So, when my friend asked her question, I could confidently say, “Keep asking questions. I am certain that you will encounter someone who will help you to find what you seek.” That is the Good News about grace!

“How do I recognize grace in my life?”

In Manifestations of Grace, the theologian Dr Elizabeth Dreyer makes the following claim: “Grace is discovered in the concrete circumstances of life and thus its meaning is colored by the infinite variety of those circumstances.” We need to unpack this statement to be able to answer the question, “How do I recognize grace in my life?”

First of all what is grace? Basically Christians believe that Grace is a free gift of God, which doesn’t depend on our worthiness to receive it. Grace is not a “thing” among all the other things of creation. Grace is God’s free communication of Himself and, because God is infinitely beyond our understanding, so is grace beyond scientific analysis and our categories of thinking. Yet Dreyer says we can discover grace in the circumstances of our life. How can we notice the infinite God in the everyday details of life?

Noticing anything depends on our mindset. Our brain filters our experiences and interprets them. There are two basic filters when it comes to ‘spiritual’ experiences: The Scientific mindset (‘Seeing is believing’) and the Faith mindset (“Believing is seeing”). Science looks at reality and simplifies it so that scientists can fit reality into theories and equations. We have all, to some extent, adopted this mindset since the Renaissance, when man began to see that in order to control the forces of nature, we had to understand reality. Science is about simplication and control. Faith on the other hand accepts reality as it is, including the presence of an infinite unknowable God. Faith is not about control but about giving oneself over to that which is beyond our control. Faith is about sensing the deeper aspects of life, not about simplifying life in order to understand it.

If we approach the circumstances of our life with a scientific mindset (seeing is believing) will God stop givng us grace? Absolutely not. But we will have a difficult time seeing His gifts because we will look for causes for the events in our life that we can understand and control. So, the faith mindset makes it easier to recognize grace in our lives but our mindset doesn’t limit God’s giving of gifts.

When Christians are in the Faith mindset — and that doesn’t happen all the time because Christians live in a culture oriented to the scientific mindset — they notice surprises, coincidences, and delightful events amid the everyday data they take in. This happens to me often, usually in small ways. I go to walk out my apartment door and suddenly remember I didn’t feed the cat. I go into a bookstore and find exactly the right book I needed for some research I’m doing. A friend gives me a call when I’m feeling down. These are examples from among thousands and thousands in my life. A skeptic would say my unconscious was at work, reminding me about the cat, or leading me to that book. A ‘New Ager’ would say that I unconsciously put out a message to my friend because I had a need. With my Faith mindset, I know that these are gifts from God so that I know He is really here with me, in all that I do.

Is God’s self-communication limited to such trivia? Of course not.  Looking back over my life, I can see that He was leading me toward Him, despite the many times I went down the wrong path and ignored his grace. I can see from my earliest memories that my mother was God’s Change Agent as far as I was concerned. I can also see and be thankful for many other people, Christians and others, who were His Change Agents in my life. So recognising grace is also a reflective, retrospective activity in my life. My desire to reflect is another one of God’s gifts of grace.

So, how do you recognize God’s gift of grace? Ask for the grace of recognition. Once, many years ago, I said, “God, if it is possible, I want to know you.” Very soon after that, I began to actually see his grace in my life, starting with the wonderful gift of His acceptance of me, just as I am. I felt His presence and heard Him say, “You’re OK Jim. I love you just as you are.” Like the song Amazing Grace says “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” I had Faith before that moment but I only saw the world with a scientific mindset. Now I see it through the eyes of Faith as well, and I know for certain what the words in that great hymn mean.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

John Newton (1725-1807)

 

A. Why Change? — Are you a Change Agent?

Conventional wisdom says that that major change is the responsibility of powerful leaders. I believe that leaders cannot accomplish true transformation ‘top-down’ using their power.  ‘Bottom-up’ is ultimately how all significant change happens. The capability to achieve extraordinary change from tiny causes is built into reality. God has designed the world to adapt and change ‘bottom-up.’  I will cover more about bottom-up transformation in a later Post.

Leaders must play a critical role in bottom-up transformation, the role of Sponsor, supporting the efforts of those who drive the transformation, who are called Change Agents.  In transforming churches, the ‘people in the pews’ are the Change Agents. They must lead transformation in their local church, following Jesus’ leadership. These Change Agents need to enroll church leaders at the appropriate time, to play their role of Sponsor and support bottom-up transformation. To be very clear, bottom-up transformation of churches does not mean that church leaders are not involved.

What is a Change Agent? Are you one?

In my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation, I described Change Agents as “innocent fools.” In that book I made the case that the world needs a special breed of women and men, the ‘mid wives’ of a transformed world. I called them ‘innocent fools,’ in appreciation for their powerful yet largely hidden change work, in themselves and in the DNA of the ‘system of the world.’ I called them ‘innocent’ because they dream dreams that others dare not imagine. And I called them ‘foolish’ because they are not trapped in the ‘wisdom’ of the world. They choose to believe that they can make their dreams a reality against what seems to most people to be impossible odds. We can gain some insights into what it means to be a transformational Change Agent and innocent fool from Chrétien de Troyes medieval myth about Parsifal and the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Parsifal was a Welshman, the only surviving son of a widow who lived in the Waste Forest. His two brothers had become knights and had been killed in combat, so his mother was terrified that Parsifal would suffer the same fate. She isolated him from any contact with the world and he grew up incredibly naïve and innocent. He never asked questions or strayed far from home because his mother told him not to. One day by chance he bumped into one of King Arthur’s knights riding through the Waste Forest and was immediately consumed with desire to become like him. For the first time, he disobeyed his mother. He followed the knight out of the forest to find the king and become a knight himself.

Parsifal knew very little about what was involved in becoming a knight, but that didn’t stop him. He arrived at King Arthur’s Court with only the rudiments of training in the art of battle and immediately challenged the most experienced knights in Arthur’s kingdom. That’s why Chrétien called him Parsifal. The name literally means ‘innocent fool.’ The young man had to be incredibly naïve and foolish to challenge the best knights in the world.

Surprisingly, Parsifal defeated them all, and quickly gained respect as a mighty warrior. But that was only the beginning. After his initial triumphs Parsifal encountered something that changed his life. While on a journey home to visit his mother he found his path blocked by a deep river. He was searching for a way across when he noticed two men in a small fishing boat. He asked them if there was a ford or a bridge nearby. They told him there was no way to cross the river for some distance, but one of the men invited him to stay the night in his home, which turned out to be a great castle.

Parsifal entered the castle and was welcomed by the man from the boat, who was now dressed as a nobleman and being carried by servants on a stretcher. He wondered about that, but didn’t ask. The nobleman invited Parsifal to sit and dine at a sumptuous feast. A procession entered the hall, led by two servants carrying brilliantly lit candelabras. Following them was a beautiful maiden. With two hands she carried a golden wine cup covered with precious stones. It was the legendary Holy Grail, but Parsifal didn’t know this. He sat silently watching the procession, remembering his mother’s instructions not to ask questions. While they ate, the Grail was carried back and forth before them again and again during each course of their feast. Parsifal never asked what the Grail was or who was supposed to drink from it.

After the meal the servants prepared a bed for Parsifal in the great hall and when they were done the nobleman left him, carried out by his servants on his stretcher. In the morning, Parsifal woke up to an empty castle. Not a single person could be found. He went to the chamber where the nobleman had been carried the previous night. He shouted and knocked for a long while, but no one answered. Everyone had disappeared. Outside the castle he found his horse saddled, his lance and shield ready, and the drawbridge of the castle lowered so he could leave.

As Parsifal rode away from the castle he met a weeping maiden holding the head of a slain knight. She told him the story of the Fisher King, the nobleman who owned the mysterious castle. The Fisher King had been wounded years ago in both his thighs by a lance and was consumed by pain. The only way he could bear the pain was to go fishing each day. The maiden asked if Parsifal had seen the Holy Grail procession while he was in the castle.

When Parsifal said he’d seen it, but had asked no questions the maiden was dismayed. If Parsifal had only asked the right question about the Fisher King and the Grail he would have freed the king from his pain and the entire kingdom would have been released from its curse! Upset by her accusation, Parsifal left the maiden and rode off in a state of confusion.

From that point in Chrétien’s story Parsifal went on many more adventures, but he never forgot the Fisher King. Finally, he decided to undo his failure to ask the right question in the mysterious castle, and made an oath that he would engage in no more knightly contests until he found the Holy Grail and freed the Fisher King and his kingdom. He vowed not to abandon his quest for any reason.

Interestingly, de Troyes never completed the story of Parsifal’s quest. He left off writing mid-sentence so we don’t know how the story ended. Four other writers added endings later, each completing the myth differently. In the third ending—the one I like— Parsifal eventually finds his way back to the hidden castle, sees the Grail again, asks the right question, and frees the Fisher King from his suffering, transforming his entire kingdom.

What does it mean to be a Change Agent in your church?

Let’s unpack this story to see what it means to be a Change Agent, especially in a local church.

1.     Parsifal had innate talent that wasn’t developed when he stayed at home with his mother. He was “stuck” because he didn’t leave the safety of his home in the forest. Change Agents are willing to risk the challenges of the unknown. The other knights in King Arthur’s Court were excellent men but they weren’t Change Agents. They preferred the structure, power and rewards of the status quo. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]

2.     It was only when Parsifal began asking questions that he discovered his destiny to find the Holy Grail and release the Fisher King and all his people from their suffering. Change Agents are willing to question their beliefs, not because they don’t believe in anything but because they come to understand that something greater depends on their willingness to possibly leave their old way of thinking. Beliefs are comfortable; leaving them can be the most frightening challenge anyone can face. Therefore, Change Agents are willing to leave their ‘comfort zone’ in the service of something more meaningful. “Í tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” [Luke 18:17]

3.     Parsifal’s quest took most of his life and was filled with difficulty. The quest for transformation – in local churches and the world — is likely to be a long, slow and painful journey. Unlike Parsifal’s myth, there is probably no one to write a happy end to the Change Agent’s journey – other than Jesus in whose service she makes the quest. “’I tell you the truth,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.’” [Luke 18:29-30]

4.     Although Parsifal had a position of great honor in King Arthur’s Court, he gave all that up to follow his quest for the Holy Grail. Change Agents are single-minded. Their vision becomes central in their life. It begins to consume their thoughts. There is no returning to your old comfortable life once you set out on the quest. But there is also no greater reward than knowing you are making the same journey that Jesus made. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5: 11-12]

How do Change Agent’s transform a local church? Using a marketing idea, you can think of them as ‘early adopters’ of a vision of a transformed world. So, in the beginning, Change Agents are the few people in a local church who ask questions and develop a passion to pursue Christ’s vision. Unlike Parsifal, they also persuade others to also ask questions and pursue this vision – first the ‘Fast Followers then the ‘Slow Followers’ in their church. By doing this, they free their local church from its wounds like the Fisher King and enable it to engage in Jesus’ work of transforming the world.

“Who am I and who do I want to be?”

Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish philosopher, linked personal and global transformation —  a “genuine person (is one) whose transformation helps toward the transformation of the world.” When we think seriously about Buber’s statement, it challenges us to transform ourselves if we want to be authentic persons.

The journey toward being authentic

The aspiration to transform oneself doesn’t feel natural or come easily to most people. In fact, we have learned throughout our lives to be “agents of the status quo” which already makes substantial demands on us. We would rather stay in this familiar situation than transform ourselves. Usually, in our accustomed way of living, one of our basic drives dominates our life. If it is power, then it feels natural to set goals, achieve, compete. If it is love, then it feels natural to relate, include and care for. It almost never feels natural to one focused on power to make their achievement more difficult by also trying to help others achieve, perhaps in competition with them. Nor does it feel natural to people focused on love to use their power in forcing issues to the surface, and engaging in the ensuing conflict to achieve some resolution.

To be a Change Agent and engage in transforming larger groups and institutions in the world, we must first take initial, halting and uncomfortable steps in order to learn how, eventually, to use both our power and love in service of a larger vision of reality. That involves, as Adam Kahane says in Power and Love “falling” then “stumbling” before finally “walking.” Why would anyone want to take that risk?

Becoming a Change Agent requires a “trigger” from outside ourselves

The desire and urgency to become a Change Agent is a gift not an achievement. It comes from outside ourselves. This could be the result of circumstances — “Someone has to do something because the situation is desperate” — or result from an invitation. A teacher, a friend, a minister could say something that opens our eyes to the implications of staying in the status quo. It could result from reading this blog. Wherever it originates, you can be sure that a genuine invitation to become a transformational Change Agent will disrupt your usual ways of thinking and leave you uneasy, rattled or even frightened. You cannot stay in this painful state so you either “fight or flee” from the invitation initially. Ultimately, perhaps, as Buber says, you begin to see that your response is linked to being authentic, true to yourself. When that happens, you begin the journey toward being a Change Agent.

“Power is what makes love generative.”

I recently read a powerful book about changing the “system,” Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane. In it the author describes how both the proper use of power and the proper use of love must walk together to achieve lasting social change. Here is his most basic point (founded on the thinking of Paul Tillich, the noted theologian):

  • “Love has two sides, one generative and the other degenerative.
  • “Our love is generative when it empowers us and others; when it helps us, individually and collectively, to complete ourselves and grow.
  • “Our love is degenerative — sentimental and anemic, or worse — when it overlooks or denies or suffocates power.

What does it mean to “love with power”?

Given Kahane’s insight, Christians need to understand that love must be associated with power in an appropropriate way if we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves” as God commands.  We need, however,  to realise that love can also be destructive, of ourselves and others, if we misuse our power.  This is a difficult area to understand because the word power has so many different meanings and connotations — almost as many as the word love.  Kahane uses Tillich’s definition of power as his starting point: “Power is the drive of everything living to realise itself, with increasing intensity and extensity — the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow.” He also uses Tillich’s definition of love as “the drive toward the unity of the separated.” To love with power requires that we be able to discern when our drive to power and our drive to love are in balance and appropriate.

How do we love?

It is easier for us to understand our individual drive to power — to get things done, to achieve our purpose. But what does it mean to have a drive “toward the unity of the separated” as Tillich says? What in me is fragmented, and who in my life am I separated from? If I see myself as completely whole and already having deep intimate relationships — as a perfect person, completely in command of my own actions and relationships and life — then my self-love is unrealistic. All of us know that there are good and bad parts of ourselves, and healthy and less healthy relationships in our lives. Generally, most of us know we aren’t perfect, that we’re on a “journey,” still growing and maturing.  We realise that there are parts of ourselves, and damaged relationships, which we want to unify, bring together, get closer to. Recognising the reality of our imperfection and acting on it is healthy self-love in Tillich’s view.

The vital role of power in loving well

Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” If we simply have a desire to love ourselves and our neighbors — a warm and fuzzy feeling about ourselves and all humanity — and do nothing, then our love is hollow. We must exercise our power to actually love.  But our power can also be degenerative and, if we use our power in the wrong way then we stifle or even pervert our love into something else. Misused power is “power over” another person — valuing my own purposes, growth and objectives over another person’s purpose, growth and objectives. Appropriate power is “power with” another person, helping them become complete, develop to their full potential, etc. Kahane gives a good example of both generative and degenerative power. A father using his power appropriately  “goes out to work, to do his job. The generative side of his power is that he can create something valuable in the world. The degenerative side of his power is that he can become so focused on his work that he denies his connection to his colleagues and family, and so becomes a robot or a tyrant.”

How does balancing love and power work in practice?

Kahane says that we must learn to employ both love and power  “like learning to walk on two legs.”  We can’t address difficult social problems and transformation while walking on only one leg — power or love. Like children, we need to learn a difficult skill: “moving first one leg and then the other and always being out of balance — or more precisely, always being in dynamic balance.”  The key is while we are focused on love, we must not forget power — and when we are focused on power, we must not forget love. This takes practice, stumbling, occasionally falling. But, with perserverance and grace, fully believing that both love and power are necessary in significant change situations, we learn dynamic balance.

How is this related to transforming local churches?

One of the difficulties in transforming a church is that everyone is very well aware of the primacy of love in the Christian pantheon of virtues. Conversely, power seems out of place. Jesus was God yet seemingly refused to exercise his divine power. Of course, if we all internalised Tillich’s definitions, then we would only have to learn how to dynamically balance love and power. But we don’t understand love and power like that and so, oftentimes, we lapse into degenerative love — emphasizing passivity in the face of the lack of unity, for example. We believe that there is one Body of Christ but we tolerate factions and divisiveness in our own church, let alone between different Christian religions. That kind of love in a church is, as M.L. King said, “sentimental and anemic.” Part of transforming our local church is learning how to confront issues that, in the interests of the growth of others, need to be faced. We must do that in a mode of  “power with” the other persons in our church, not forcing or manipulating but influencing them.

The greatest challenge in transformation, in my opinion, is for Pastors and Change Agents to learn the dynamic balance between generative love and power. If they fail to learn this practical skill, transformation will surely fail.

 

Power and love and transformation

“Our most important learnings come not simply when we see the world anew, but specifically when we see ourselves–and our role in creating the world — anew” (Adam Kahane in Power and Love quoting Ursala Versteegen)

This type of learning is at the heart of transformation. Rather waiting for a magical leader to make our church / our community / our country / our world a better place, each of us must learn that only we can provide the power and love needed to change things.

What can trigger such learning in us? In my view, an encounter with the unexpected. Something that disturbs our comfortable assumptions. In a word, grace. Rather than seeing such encounters as luck or randomness, believers can see in them divine liveliness and involvement. And, seeing this, we must learn what it means for us. What is our role in what God is doing, here and now, in this moment?

God is never for the status quo. As St. Paul said, “The whole creation has been groaning as in childbirth” waiting for God and His children to transform it.

The second great act of creation

Most of us are aware that the universe began in a ‘Big Bang’ about 14 Billion years ago. But how many people realize that another equally great ‘big bang’ happened just 2000 years ago?

I once taught a weekend ‘Enrich Your Faith” workshop to a small group of Christians in the basement of a Baptist church in Virginia. I wasn’t a Baptist but a friend had vouched for me with his pastor who kindly lent us a meeting room for two days. I wanted to begin the workshop where Peter had started on Pentecost and help the group to understand what living in the last days means by exercising their imaginations. Having worked at NASA, I decided to use a metaphor about space.

A Story about God’s Second Great Act of Creation

“Have you ever seen a solar flare?” They looked puzzled so I continued. I drew a big circle on the whiteboard. “This is the Sun, an immense ball of fire. Every once in a while a giant explosion takes place inside the sun and a huge eruption of flame bursts out of the Sun and travels millions of miles into space, eventually falling back into the Sun, pulled by its enormous gravity.” I drew a big arc from the circle on the white board out and then back. “This is a solar flare.” I paused. They looked even more puzzled. What had they gotten themselves into?

“Let me explain this metaphor and how it relates to the last days in the Bible. In my story about the solar flare, God is the sun. Scientists tell us that the universe is about fourteen billion years old but they can’t explain what happened at what they call the Big Bang. The Christian explanation is that, in a gigantic act of creation, the universe and reality we live in erupted out of God like a solar flare. I call this God’s first great act of creation.” I could sense they sort of understood so I continued. “Two thousand years ago, the human race experienced God’s second great act of creation. Jesus entered the universe to bring it back to God, and transform everything.” I pointed at the place in the arc on the whiteboard where it stopped going out and turned back to rejoin the big circle. “We live in the last days where God has sent His Son and Spirit to the human race to reunite everything in the universe with Him.” I paused to see if there were any questions. The group was wrestling with the metaphor. I could see things shifting in their minds by the expressions on their faces. “The question I want to ask you is, what does it mean to be a Christian in the last days?” That’s where I left the metaphor and began the first lively discussion of the workshop.

The Last Days

We live in a time when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technologies that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Peter tells us what the last days means to Christians. The Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the time have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10] In the language of my metaphor of the solar flare, God has performed his second great act of creation and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role? To understand that, we need to understand more about what is going on in the last days.

The Christian Role

First, let me describe how science sees our times and the evolution of human consciousness. I will summarise a well known secular model, called The Graves Model or Spiral Dynamics.

Like Buddhism, Spiral Dynamics sees a certain inevitability in reality. Buddhism theorizes that reality is always the same in essence, with man ascending beyond himself into timeless nirvana. [1] Spiral Dynamics sees reality as evolving, and mankind’s social reality evolving as well, inevitably upward to greater consciousness and mindfulness of ‘the whole.’ Both these theories see reality as indifferent to humans and their fate. Everything will eventually turn out as it will regardless of what mankind does.

It should be obvious that both these theories are radically different than Christianity’s. In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world, while Buddhism and Spiral Dynamics are much less emphatic, theorizing that it doesn’t actually make any difference in the long run. “Some people seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy.” [2]

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” [3] Scientists and Psychologists like Graves don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness in Spiral Dynamics. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. Exactly what his purpose was in doing this is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan.

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious separation from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to float like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafter.”  [4] That is a magnificent hymn composed by one Christian, celebrating what it means to live in the last days. What is our response?



[1] The Buddha, a great and wise man, sat under a Lotus tree and developed his theory. Unlike what Christians believe, Buddhists don’t claim that the Buddha’s vision was revealed by the source of all truth, God. Of course The Buddha may have been influenced by God but he doesn’t attribute his wisdom to any higher being.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 100

[3] Chesterton, Ibid., p. 55

[4] Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, Paulist Press, New York, 2010, p. 77

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Anonymous Christians

“You aren’t a Christian but you are the most Christian person I know.” I hear this statement occasionally and it always makes me pause. I wonder what the person saying it means — and how the person being referred to feels. There are lots of possibilities.

Then I realize that the person I need to question is myself. Why do I care if a good person is a Christian or not? More importantly, does God care? Depending on your brand of Christianity, you may have clear answers for these two questions. How another Christian answers these questions probably determines, in your mind, if that person is really a Christian.

How would God answer these questions?

It isn’t absolutely clear how God views these questions. On the one hand we have a very clear statement about how God will judge all people at the end of time in the story about “sheep and goats.’ God values our behaviors, it seems, rather than our beliefs. On the other hand, Jesus said, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one that he has sent.” [John 6:29] Perhaps, then, these questions are more about God’s mercy than about understanding what’s in God’s mind. Should we be so confident about our understanding of God’s mind?  Job learned that understanding God’s mind was completely beyond him, saying after his dialogue with God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” [Job 42:3b] We do not understand and cannot define boundaries for God, or say with certainty, “That person is (or is not) pleasing to God.” Perhaps we should place all our confidence in God’s mercy, and not try to divide the world up into Christians and non-Christians.

So why be a Christian?

All this leads me to my basic point. What is my motivation for being a Christian? Is it about being  more confident that I’ll get to heaven? Like a spiritual insurance policy? Or is it my response to grace? The gift of faith and the gift of knowing Jesus. My life-long journey has led me to see that my reasons for being a Christian are more about being in relationship — with Jesus and with fellow Christians — than any other factor. And that is what I seek in my local church — ways to deepen these relationships.

A Heart-felt Story

An old friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, sent me a note after reading one of my recent posts. In it, he describes how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) views religion, which is worth pondering. We may disagree with some of his views but none of us can dispute the great good that AA’s approach has brought to millions of the ‘least of these’ — men and women trapped in a prison of their own making. God is certainly on the side of AA.

“AA takes an unique approach to what we generically refer to as ‘religion’.  A fundamental principle of AA is that we have been unable to stop drinking on our own, no matter to what lengths we go, under our own power, free will and best wishes.  It simply won’t work.  Organized religions, no matter which ones, were either derived from what was known as Catholicism, such as Protestants of all types, generally known as Christians, as they follow the teachings of Christ.  Others, such as Buddhism, Shinto, Muslim and many others take their beginnings from similar precepts, except they feel Christ was but a holy man, a special prophet, and they, too, have their own.  The Jewish faith is still waiting for theirs.

“But, collectively, they do not offer what any given human being needs – a personal God that loves us unconditionally, will always forgive us our trespasses as long as we keep trying, is not keeping some sort of tabulation or balance sheet to advise Him on which way to send us when we die.  We alcoholics felt we were trying to be good people, but began using the wrong medicine for our ailing minds, and could not stop feeling we had the weight of the earth on us, had to control ourselves and the lives of all we met, and despite our overt feelings to the opposite, we lived a life of self-centered fear.

“Organized religion has become man’s never ending quest to humanize that which cannot be humanized.  It gives all a set of rules, often quite different by religion, by which to live.  They often use the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc., to express these rules.  These books depict the life of Christ, Mohammed, or Old Testament characters, and they all offer wonderful knowledge, but often that knowledge is not applicable today.  Moreover, the books are often in conflict.  Divinely inspired or not, we have to recall that these books were written at least two thousand years ago, some far older than that, and the writers could only write what the readers at the time could understand and relate to.  For example, the concept of time, a day, or other relationships are not only often in conflict between the books, but within any book itself.  For example, did God create all He did in 7 days on the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese or Jewish?  We have no idea.  So we all begin to argue among the religious and throughout time many have used our human influence to desecrate what the Holy writings most likely meant, e.g., the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and many others.  Who was actually right, on whose side was God?

“AA says that we must have a higher power of some kind, because then we are able to do what we could not, what medicine cannot, what the greatest minds in medicine cannot, and it works.  It has worked for me going on 19 years.  Without the ability to ‘turn over’ that which I cannot do to a Higher Power, I would not have been able to stop, and death is the ultimate reward, no matter how much I wanted different.  The proof is that 19 years, and the many other years of millions who have tried, given themselves over to that Higher Power, and followed the principles.  It is noteworthy that AA does not mandate, or even suggest, any details about that Higher Power, or suggest a relationship to organized religion of any kind, simply saying that He exists, and that He is not me.  It goes on to say that for as long as I try to run my life (and most often the lives of others),  a true belief in a power greater than me is impossible.  There is no other alternative.  Either God is everything or He is nothing, and that’s it.

“I was recently diagnosed with a 50-50 chance of death from lung cancer.  Today, complications from Chemo have required me to attend to my heart, and have a pacemaker installed.  I had to have spinal shots to put steroids in my back to be able to walk properly.  I am still on disability.  But, from day 1 of all of this, I accepted what I had, as not given by God, but given to me by the luck of the draw in an imperfect world.  But I accepted it, and maintained my faith in a God that loves me.  AA gives me no special prayer for any one thing, although it has some suggestions offered by St. Francis, among others.  AA asks me to accept my frailty, and the hand I am dealt.  With this acceptance comes ownership – this problem was mine, not the fault of me or anyone else, but it presented an opportunity to look at each day given me as a new opportunity, and I was able to consider the cancer almost as a type of adventure, a learning experience from which, if it were His will, I would come out the other side a better person, closer to that Higher Power than when going in.  There is glory in fighting for one’s life, but when you give it all you have, there is futility in trying to call on more, when I am out of strength.  However, there is strength in calling on that Higher Power, asking for the strength to do His will, whatever that might be, and hopefully be of help and inspiration to others along the way. AA never suggests I do six Litanies or other formal chants that were in good faith defined by other humans and along the way, included in a doctrine that God had never mandated.

“AA condones no organized religion, nor does it condemn any.  It teaches that “Condemnation prior to investigation” will get you nowhere.  It does not name or frame your Higher Power – that is up to interpretation of each member, as long as it is not that member himself who becomes his own Higher Power, for anyone who does that has already failed.  It teaches to surrender that which is not mine, such as control of the lives of others, to that Higher Power, for He alone has that control.  It teaches me that perhaps I have abused, willingly or not, my gift of free will, and asks that I turn my will and my life over to my Higher Power that He may guide my every move.

“Does it always work?  It would, if we were perfect, but we are not.  We seek only progress and maintenance of a spiritual connection with our God.  If we falter or fail, we come to Him for a chance to try again.  We would find it hard to forgive ourselves were we not completely sure that God forgives us when we keep trying, and if He can forgive us, who are we to overrule Him?  So we keep on trying, keep on praying “only for His will for me and the power to carry that out” as the driving force of each of our days.

“I hope this helps in your writing, Jim.  It comes from the heart from a good man that was drowning in self-centeredness and self-condemnation, who found there is One who is greater than I, and who loves me, and will help me every step of every day of my life, if I will but ask.

Authenticity and our three ‘Selves’

“Being authentic” is one of the key attributes of leading a good life in the postmodern mind. As our confidence in traditional beliefs and institutions has weakened, we have come to rely more and more on our own core strengths. One of these is our “integrity” or our “authenticity.” The opposites of “authenticity”  — being a “phony” or “wishy-washy” — are easy to imagine. But what does being authentic mean in practice?

We all experience “being human.” We can easily recognise three parts of ourselves in daily living:

  • Our normal feeling, thinking and behaving self, that does practically all our living, mostly automatically, “on autopilot.”
  • A critical self, that watches our normal self and tells us what we ought to be doing, why we aren’t living up to its expectations, etc.
  • A third self, the detached observer, who watches both these other selves, recognises their characteristics and wonders about “what all this means” and other questions.

What does “being authentic” mean?

Given that each person has these three selves, how do we live “authentically?” Here are several things living authentically doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean living only ‘on autopilot.’ It doesn’t mean “If it feels good, do it.” Our normal self is shaped by many things out of its control — where and when you were born, your family, etc — and makes choices based on these circumstances, without a full view of the consequences. Learning by experience is what our normal self does, sometimes to its regret.
  • It doesn’t mean doing what someone else tells you to do, especially your own critical self. While that self might possibly include recommendations from a well-developed conscience that we ought to listen to, many times it is simply inappropriate memories and limiting decisions that chatter away and distract us.
  • It doesn’t mean living in a detached state, observing life but not actually participating. Our detached observer could spend all its time mulling over questions while the normal self stays on “autopilot,” barely aware of other people or day to day life and the critical self as it chatters away.

To me, living authentically means being able to balance all three of these selves and participate in life according to some higher level of meaning and purpose. Living authetically implies that our detached observer becomes an involved and committed self, which counsels the normal and critical selves according to its understanding of my higher purpose. [You can see an example of how this involved and committed self might emerge in Steps 2 and 3 of the AA’s Twelve Step Program.]

The only authentic question we can ask

To a Christian, being authentic must mean that I live according to Jesus’ guidance for the meaning and purpose of my life. But, many times, this leads to more questions. What is Jesus’ guidance in my precise situation? Where do I find this guidance — in the Bible (which passage?), from the church (who?), from prayer (How do I recognise Jesus’ voice?), etc. We may want to develop our involved and committed self so that we can guide our normal and critical selves “authentically” but we get stuck in all these questions. Many times, I lapse back to detaching again and letting life go on as it always has, defending this choice with, “Oh, I’m a good person” or “I’ll rely on God’s mercy to sort all this out at the end.” While I forgive myself and keep on trying, being detached is certainly a cop-out and not living authentically.

These is only one authentic question that our involved and committed self can ask, to find the way forward. “Where is God right now in this situation?” If we truly strive to answer that question, then Jesus’ guidance (and grace) will surely find us in our need. Of course, it’s not like picking up a phone, calling the God number, and getting an instant answer by SMS. It is like a conversation with a close friend. You know the mind of a close friend, even when they aren’t there. By telling her or him the story of your situation, you are pretty certain about what they are going to tell you when you meet them face to face. Sometimes, you talk to other friends and tell them what your close friend told you, to get confirmation. This is a metaphor for prayer and Christian community.

A Christian’s involved and committed self is formed in prayer and in conversations with other Christians about our life. Forming this crucial authentic part of ourselves so we (and the community) can achieve God’s purpose for us is one of the primary purposes of a local church. If this is happening already in your life, you are fortunate to know how to pray and you are in a genunine Christian community. If that isn’t the case, perhaps you are being called to be a Change Agent in your own prayer and in your church.

 

Sometimes not thinking is better than thinking

Descartes said, famously, “I think therefore I am.” But 400 years later we make distinctions between thinking, feeling and experiencing. So, is thinking the quintessential human act? This is a very deep and perplexing philosophical question — and philosophers use thinking to analyze thinking, an obvious tautology.

I went on a retreat this weekend, led by Father Greg Homeming OCD, a Carmelite priest. He cast some new (and old) light on this perplexing question. In the 16th century a Spanish priest, John of the Cross, used a different approach to describe what it means to be human. He used appetites and desires to explain different human experiences, including thinking but also others. An appetite is just what it sounds like — for example, the capacity to recognise and respond to the desire for food. We have many appetites, which lead to different desires: The appetite of curiosity, which leads to the desire to know, and thus to thinking. The appetite to love others, which leads to the desire to care for someone. And so on.

All appetites are good because they are built into us as human beings. But the desires that arise from these natural appetites, says John of the Cross, can be ‘disordered.’ A good example is the desire for food, which can become obsessive, leading to various disorders like obesity and anorexia. The question is, how do we give ‘order’ to our desires? John’s view is that desires must be ordered to serve God’s purposes for us, as a human and as a unique person. In other words, John has a view of what a human being is — we are enfleshed spirits ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’ As such John sees God as establishing the principles we ought to follow in giving order to our desires.

In practical terms this means discerning when one of our desires blocks our freedom to make good choices. When the desire for food becomes disordered we can no longer make good choices about eating. Worse, the compulsion to eat begins to interfere with the rest of our desires and all the choices we make in our life. We live to eat and everything else in our life begins to be dominated by this ‘addiction.’  This includes our higher spiritual appetites as well, like the desire to know God and follow His purposes for us. This is why John says that we need to do some work on our dis-ordered desires in order to be able to have more freedom to pursue the spiritual appetites and desires that are also in our hearts.

If you are still with me, you are probably saying, “OK. Makes sense. But how do I know if my desires are ‘disordered’ — I’m not an addict — and how do I change my desires if they are disordered?”  Father Greg said something pretty simple but also profound. “Just assume that you are like every other human being and that some of your appetites and desires are disordered and keeping you from being free to relate more closely to God.” That made a lot of sense to me. I have often thought that I’d like to relate to God more closely, and even started down some path of increased prayer and spiritual practices — only to find that my usual life kept interfering and ultimately snuffed out this higher desire. Something is obviously going wrong. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and not do the things I want?” The answer lies in these disordered desires that take away from my freedom to know and follow God!

So how can we change this? Again Father Greg had a simple yet powerful answer. “Be aware when you desire something. What you desire may be perfectly OK, like a cup of coffee. But, just to strenghten your general control over your desires, say no or defer that particular cup of coffee.”  Simple practices like this —  not doing things that you want, or doing things that you don’t want to do —  will begin to give you more freedom in all your choices, especially the freedom to relate to and follow God. That, of course is the age-old wisdom of self-denial, stated in down-to-earth, practical terms.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mark 8:34] And Jesus also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:30] The hope that Father Greg gave me was that, by simple, incremental steps of saying “no” to or deferring something I desire, I can increase my strength and freedom to follow Jesus.

I also recognized this weekend that one of my disordered desires is the desire to know — constantly feeding my appetite of curiosity, rather than actually experiencing the life that God is putting in front of me daily. God sends grace to us so that we can live more abundantly. But because I am living so much in my head, I am not  living abundantly, particularly when it comes to relating to and serving others.  I need to remember what the Zen Buddhist Master said, when asked by his pupil how to follow the right way, “Chop wood; carry water.” Do what is in front of me. Discipline my desires, especially my desire to know more and more. Be aware of God’s constant presence and pray.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  [Psalm 46:10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As St Paul said,

 

Self-delusion and self-forgetfulness

I haven’t been to church for several months. For most of my life, this would have been unthinkable. Church was an integral part of my life. What has happened?

I sense that my choice to stop going to church is wrapped in my own negative stories about many aspects of church. Where did these stories come from? Why did they only recently congeal into a mass that blocks my way into a new/old relationship with church? Why is my confidence in these stories so high?

I wrote down all my reasons for not going to church and asked for my wife’s critique. As usual, she went right to heart of the matter. “Why are you being so precious about church? Why do you have all these unrealistic expectations?” [Ouch] “Why do you think you are a special case, not like the rest of us, struggling with the good and bad of church?” [Another ouch] “Why don’t you find a church that you like and just start going? Invest yourself in it?” [I don’t have an answer for that one.]

In a way, my wife raised the fundamental issue of self-delusion and self-forgetfulness. When I took Moral Theology in university, my professor made a statement at the beginning that has stayed with me. “Human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion.” That is  why one must never make serious moral decisions based solely on one’s own views or stories about a situation. Listening to my wife is one part of the ‘medicine’ I need to take, to find my way forward in the situation in which I find myself. I need to have conversations with Christians I trust, to learn how to soften the grip of my negative stories about church, and ‘forget’ them and myself.

Is this process of self-forgetfulness a repudiation of my own judgement, a surrender to the rationale of others? No and yes. To the extent that I have the final choice about what to do, no. To the extent that I value and take on board the opinions and stories of others, yes. Even if Jesus were here in the flesh, he wouldn’t tell me what to do. He advises me, through my conversations with others, but ultimately the pain and glory of being human is that I get to decide what to do about church.

Lord, save me from myself as I make this choice, from what T.S Eliot pointed at: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Don’t let me weaken and return to church because it will make me comfortable, or please others, including especially you Oh Lord. And don’t let me stay in self-delusion too long. Amen

 

 

The day you face death’s certainty

A friend of mine learned today that the doctors had done all they can. His cancer is terminal. In empathy my wife and I reached out, to try to help and we prayed too. My prayer was straight forward: “God, please be very close to him and let him know you are and always will be with him.”

We all know we will die some day but that date is over the horizon. On this side of the horizon, life stretches out in front of us. Death and what lies beyond can’t be seen.

Then one day, like my friend on a Tuesday in October, we abruptly see that death is on this side of our horizon, close to us. The road we are on ends at a chasm. There is no bridge across the chasm, nor any road visible on the other side. There are no travel guides and no one, neither friends or doctors or even religious gurus can tell us how to make this trip. It’s clear that we are an amateur at doing death and also clear that we must learn to do death.

Are we alone? No our friends and family are nearby. But they cannot go with us so, in a way, when we step into the chasm we are alone — unless we believe God is with us.

Our mental model about God comes into focus as we approach the chasm of death. If we imagine that God is distant, it may be hard for us to imagine that such a God is close to us now. If we imagine that God is only some universal energy or the creative force behind the Big Bang, it’s hard to imagine such a God as caring about ‘little us.’ And if a Christian tells us that God loves us and is close to us as we step into the chasm of death, we may like to believe that but we have no evidence in our own life that that such a hope is well founded.

That is why I pray for God to be close to someone like my friend. God knows how to care for him, whatever his mental model about God is. I learned this lesson a long time ago when my father, who was not a overtly religious man,  was diagnosed with a terminal condition. God comforted me and my family saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, I have your father in my hands and won’t lose him.” That same God is already reaching out now to my friend to help him as he learns to “do death” and cross the chasm toward eternal life. Of that, I am completely confident.

The end of the beginning; Steve Jobs

“The study of man unmediated by religion marked the end of the middle ages and saw the beginning of the modern world.” (Rebecca Fraser in The History of Britain) It is easy for historians to look back and see the end of one way of thinking and the beginning of another. It doesn’t happen at one date, with one mind-shattering event. But, in hindsight one can see the beginning of the end of the old thinking, and the end of the beginning of the new way. Or as the sports vernacular has it,”a shift in momentum from one team to another.”

You can easily see that ‘shift in momentum’ in Steve Jobs accomplishments. Due to his creativitiy, computing became truly personal, mobile and a part of life rather than a calculating adjunct. Historians will surely look back and see his accomplishments as opening up a new paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn called it,  in not only technology but human life. We are at the beginning of an expanded way of living daily possibilities that will change our most fundamental concepts.  Stay tuned.

What does this have to do with the transformation of local churches? I think you can guess. If our way of living daily is changing radically, surely this signals the end of one way of thinking about church and the beginning of another. Whether the momentum is with the new way yet will be left to historians in the future, but there is no doubt in my mind that the old way of thinking about local church doesn’t work anymore. There are too many questions and too few answers. This is a sure sign of an impending paradigm shift according to Kuhn.

It is too easy for Christians to answer all this by saying that there are eternal verities that do not change, and we must seek them. True, but our seeking is strongly shaped by our mental models, which are strongly shaped by the world in which we live. Ths is sociology 101. If churches are to change, surely they must find ways to relate to the hyper-expanding communities of the new techno-social world many people now live in. That goes way beyond ministries to young people, who are at the leading edge of this change. Shouldn’t we be looking at the ideas and boundaries that hem in our local church community, and keep it from influencing people as widely as Facebook and Twitter? Can we become as revolutionary as Steve Jobs in our view of our “customers” and our ability to bring them new “products and experiences” that will change their lives?

Are there any people in your local church even talking about these things?

“the reckless possibility of grace”

Surprised by grace. Rescued despite myself. “How sweet the grace that saved a wretch like me.” Grace breaks into our experiences and mindset, doesn’t it? Grace is not linear, cause and effect — it’s simplicity inside of complexity, the improbable butterfly that triggers the hurricane.

Do you know grace? Here’s a recent experience of mine. I was with my son, his wife and my three fabulous grandchildren in Ireland for 17 days. We stopped to see Donegal Castle and then ate a late breakfast in a small cafe across the street. As I left, I saw a W B Yeats poem framed on the wall “When you are old” and read it. Something in it triggered a vague sense of deja vu or poetic recognition.

Several days later, in Dublin, I found a brochure in the hotel lobby announcing a Yeats exhibition at the Irish National Library, and told my son that I wanted to see this. “The rest of you can go somewhere else” I said, thinking he wasn’t likely to be interested. But he surprised me, and we two went together and spent an hour there.

Now, back home in Australia, I have the sense that my son and I are closer. A surprising hour at the Yeats exhibition, where we uttered no words but wandered together through something neither of us expected — I can’t get this experience out of my mind. Don’t you think grace is great!

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

© 2011 James Harlow Brown,  All rights reserved.【中古】新東京百景 愛蔵版
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A. Why Change? — We have lost our ‘saltiness’!

Culture for human beings is like the water that fish swim in. Water is so necessary for life, and so pervasive, that fish don’t realize that there may be another larger world beyond their ocean or fishbowl. Fish depend on water to live. Likewise, we all assume our culture is life giving because it surrounds us. We learn to breathe it and survive in it because, if we don’t do that, we believe that we will die. We all accept the utter necessity of our particular culture for life, without actually thinking much about that assumption. That is what living in a culture means.

But we Christians are told that we are “not of this world,” and must be “counter-cultural.” “Even religion itself can become enslaved unknowingly to the deceptive values of the culture, and hence the constant need of the prophetic tradition of self-critique.”  What does being ‘counter-cultural’ mean, in practical terms? First of all, it means that we ought to live in constant tension with the conventional culture. To do that, we Christians must create and live in an alternative culture that we strongly believe is essential for life. Resolving the conflicts between the common culture and the alternative culture when we make choices determines how we deal with life. If the common culture is very powerful, and the alternative culture is weak, then we Christians will make choices and live pretty much the same as everyone else. If our alternative culture is strong, we Christians will make different choices than others, and live according to Jesus’ reality.

For most Christians, their local church is the only source of an alternative culture.  And when local churches lose their ‘saltiness’— their radical differences from the common culture  —  then churches become weak influences on the way that Christians make choices and live. But since, in America and Australia we Christians live in societies that have largely marginalized churches, the conventional culture is persuading people, even many Christians, that the  Christian culture’s ‘saltiness’  just doesn’t make sense any more. “You are the salt of the earth.” [Matthew 5:13]  The common culture does throw us a bone: It is OK to retain a semblance of church (so you can feel good about yourself that you ‘really’ are a Christian) but it is definitely not OK to be ‘salty’ and to try to live differently and perhaps even change the common culture and the world.

This in a nutshell, is the cultural argument for why local churches must be transformed, to increase their ‘saltiness’ and their ability to grow a strong alternative culture that can help Christians conflict with the common culture and more strongly bring Jesus’ ideals of reality into the world. Charles Taylor saw this in its largest historical context: “God is gradually educating mankind by transforming it from within. . . We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.”  It is up to us, the people in the pews, to see this now and decide to act.

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A. Why Change? — “I’m spiritual but I don’t go to church.”

I don’t know how many people I have talked to that told me they don’t go to church but they are spiritual. In fact many Christians I know take essentially the same stance when they see church as a place to go to (occasionally) and not something that is central in their lives.

I recently read an excellent book called UnChristian that is quite revealing. Click here to visit the author’s website. It describes Christianity and church as people outside our communities perceive us. In a way, this book presents a ‘Voice of the Customer’ for Christians since one of our fundamental purposes is to announce the Good news to people outside the church — and so many people are turned off when we do this. We could say, ‘not our fault’ or point to other Christians who we feel  give the church a bad name. Isn’t that playing the victim and denying our own responsibility for this situation? For me the book UnChristian was a strong wake-up call to look at my own local church and see how we might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs.Essential【中古】
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Practical versus theoretical religion

Michael Fallon in his book Change Leaders made a profound point that Christians must understand to follow Jesus’ leadership. “Day to day practice is the only experience that can engage and reshape the brain.” This raises a number of questions which, when answered, can expand our sense of what salvation and our church are all about.
1. What are we humans and what role does our brain play in our life? Secular thinkers would say that our brain is all there is — Christians believe that we have an immortal soul. Still, we do have a brain because we are “enfleshed spirits” not angels. So what is the relationship between our brain and our soul, our flesh and our spirit? They must be taken together and our lifelong learning consists in developing that integration. It’s not “mind over matter” but the harmony between our different aspects that ought to shape our lives.
2. What is Jesus’ role in achieving this harmony? Jesus shows us how, in practical ways, to balance our flesh and spirit. God is not a spirit, some sort of super-angel or mighty spiritual being. God became an enfleshed spirit, Jesus, to communicate his “life” to us and, in fact has done that through Jesus becoming one of us. We are adopted sons and daughters because of this but that doesn’t mean that we are fully constructed and complete at the time of our birth. Learning what we are and what it means to be God’s adopted child is a life-long learning task for every person. The great challenge (and mystery) of human life is becoming conscious of the fact that, in freedom, we are creating who we are as God’s child. Learning how to achieve harmony between our brain and our spirit is the core of this learning process.
3. What is the role of religion and church in our becoming conscious that, as God’s adopted child, creating harmony between the two sides of our nature, our flesh and our spirit, is the practical way we create our eternal soul? Basically we learn by doing what others are doing, by imitating. The community of believers learn from each other how to imitate Jesus. This is not a theoretical task but a highly practical one. The difficulty is discerning which behaviors and actions we want to imitate because everyone in a church community is an “amateur” at being a child of God. No one does it right all the time, even so-called saints. This is why Jesus’ primary teachings were about love of neighbor, forgiveness and humility. This is also why everyone must be part of a community of believing teachers / learners.

The real church?

I visited St Winifred’s Well in northern Wales on my holiday and encountered an “old fashioned” religion that I hadn’t experienced since I was a boy. This holy place is called “The Lourdes of The UK” and has been visited by kings and ordinary people for many centuries. While I was there, an old couple was collecting a bottle of holy water from a brass spout. They got me thinking. I have an ideal of what religion and church ought to be — different now than when I was a boy — but is my view too limited? I began to think of other churches I have experienced.

On the same trip, I visited the Coventry Cathedral — the bombed out shell destroyed in a German air raid in WWII, built next too a very modern new cathedral. There were a few visitors in the ruins, and all were probably having a religious experience of some kind. The theme of this cathedral is forgiveness — even while the theme of the new church is portrayed by the massive bronze figure of the archangel Michael spearing the Devil. I thought the juxtaposition of these two themes says a lot about < !->Christianity Continue reading “The real church?”

10,000 gods versus one?

Peter Fitzsimons (a skeptic) recently wrote in the Sydney Sun Herald: “There have been 10,000 gods worshiped since the dawn of time. You (Brian Rosner, a theologian he is debating) have rejected 9999 of them as arrant and obvious nonsense. I counted up, and I have rejected just one more.”

He is pointing out a very important point! Human beings go through the same process in their individual lives as mankind has gone through over eons of history, regarding their beliefs in God. We Christians call this process salvation history and see God’s hand in the human and individual journey of belief. The skeptic believes that only man’s unaided reason has and must accomplish this awesome feat. That is definitely a point worth debating.

Christians start with today’s reality — the real presence of God in their lives — and look backward at history to see God’s loving hand in human history. I suppose skeptics also start with their current reality, seeing ‘facts’ and what science makes of them. Christians “believe and see;” skeptics “see and believe” only what their “facts only” paradigm permits.

So, at the root of the argument about 10,000 gods versus one lies an epistemological question, too deep for most people to examine let alone decide what is true. What can a man know? Is there truth beyond human reason? Science simply says that, for something to be scientifically true it must have certain attributes: be based on observations and measurements that can be verified by other independent observers, and so on. Christians don’t dispute science’s competence within its defined and limited field of study. Philosophy is still debating these questions. Theology — about which, in circular reasoning,  Peter Fitzsimons quotes another skeptic Sam Harris: “Theology is little more than a branch of human ignorance” — starts with the reality of God, as God has communicated this to us, and seeks answers about what we know.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Christians and skeptics see the world — and the world’s 9,999 false gods and the one true God — in utterly different ways. There is no common meeting point, other than Christians must love the skeptics according to Jesus. The questions of educating children about God, and prayer in schools, are also points about which where there is no common ground. In a pluralistic society, with both skeptics and Christians, it seems to me that the question to be debated is, are we going to teach epistomology in public schools? Should children be taught that science is all that there is or that some people “believe and then see” God’s hand in the world? Can skeptics allow that flexibility in the public education system — or must families and churches be the only permissible sources of this deeper education? That is a public policy question worth debating.

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 unable to operate outside local churches? Of course not. “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 wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church. (Of course, the church could be perfectly all right and all these ‘Christians’ are simple wrong-headed or misled.)

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.

The prison of ‘everyday’

The most basic fact about human life is ‘everyday.’ Everything we experience, know or hope is in the context of everyday. As the philosophers Kant and  Heidegger saw human life, we cannot get beyond our ideas about our world because our language is inextricably trapped in metaphors tied to everyday. But Jesus says that we are not of this world. He must have meant that there is a way to escape the ‘prison’ of everyday.

Jesus pointed out that the kingdom of God is at hand, as near to us as everyday life. He used ordinary metaphors from everyday experience to say what God’s presence is like — a pearl of great price for example. He also used metaphors to tell us how to find the kingdom — the woman who loses a single coin and searches diligently until she finds it. He also described our attitude as we search with another metaphor — we must be like ‘little children,’ innocently sees things with fresh eyes.

Once all this ‘clicks’ with us, through grace and the gift of faith, and we begin to experience intimations about the presence of the kingdom, we face another challenge. What is our response? How do we see the world and the kingdom, and act as if we are ‘already but not yet completely’ living in God’s kingdom?

One way of viewing church is as a way of expanding our everyday metaphors about life and learning with others how to live in the kingdom while surrounded by the world. And one way of deciding whether our church community is helping us meet this challenge or not is to have conversations often with believers, about how they experience the kingdom and how they live outside the ‘prison of everyday.’ If you feel that your church isn’t helping you with this challenge, that may be  a hint that you are being called to become a Change Agent and transform your local church.

Why aren’t you excited?

I had a ‘eureka’ moment the other day, as I was reading Hans Kung’s The Beginning of all things: Science and Religion. He had discussed science’s view of the beginning in the Big Bang, and the beginning of the human race in Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  Then Kung summarised Polkinghorne’s view of  the role that God played in the beginnings as  “. . .a patient and subtle creator who is content to pursue his aims by initiating the process and by accepting that degree of vulnerability and uncertainty that always characterises the gift of freedom through love.” A number of things clicked for me when I read this.

  • “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” [Acts 2:17]
  • “They are not of this world, even as I am not of it.” [John 17:16]
  • “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:14]

Eureka! We are in the time God and Jesus promised, when the very Spirit of God will empower us to do great works and ‘move mountains’!

So why aren’t you excited? Probably because your common sense tells you that this simply cannot be true. But where did your common sense come from?

Everyone faces three choices when they consider how to view and put into practice Jesus’ promises. First, they may decide it’s all too fantastic and refuse to think about it anymore. You might view them as the cynics of this world. Such people withdraw, become passive, remain victims, and generally wait for someone else to do things. [1]

Second, some people at least reflect on Jesus’ promises and begin to realize there might be some truth in them. But then they become overwhelmed by the reality of the world.  You can recognize such people because they actually talk about the Spirit and Jesus’ promises and seem to understand that they might not be the ordinary people common sense says that they are. In the end though, they say that Jesus’ promises are so improbable that it isn’t worth the risk of putting them into practice. These are the people who settle for the status quo, the skeptics.

Finally there are some people who realise what Jesus’ promises mean. You can call them visionaries or heros. Heros, in the great myths, went on a quest. The hero’s quest was seen to be an extraordinary journey requiring great courage. The first step in Christian heroism is imagining that Jesus’ promises mean exactly what they say: Ordinary people have the power to influence things. The second step is acting despite personal risk. The third is persevering despite difficulties and failures because Jesus’ vision is so vital and compelling.

A person who believes in Jesus’ promises says, “Even if I am only one person, I might make a difference. Therefore, I must try!” They begin to believe that a powerful force — the most powerful imaginable — is at work changing them and empowering them. They understand what Jesus meant by saying we can create whatever is in God’s will by asking him to do it. It isn’t our strength but his.

Isn’t that exciting? If you’re not excited, I encourage you to reflect on why that is. Are you actually a cynic or a skeptic even though you are a Christian believer?


[1] This is based on Melanie Klein’s model, taken from “Mourning, Potency and Power” by Laurent Lapierre in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp 26-31.

 

 

Escaping the prison of nature, nurture and culture

Psychologists, cultural anthropologists and philosophers now generally agree that there is no such thing as an ‘independent, rational self.’ All of us are products of our genes, our upbringing and the pervasive, continual influence of the culture we live in. We cannot escape what it means to be human. As St. Paul said so well, “I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I want to do.”

But this ‘scientific’ view leaves grace out of the human situation. We are more than mind, desires and emotions. Jesus added to the conventional view of man and said, “Trust in God. Does he not feed the birds of the air? How much more then will he feed you?” if we see ‘feed’ as a metaphor for giving what is necessary for life, then God feeds us with His own life — obviously more than mind, emotions and culture — which we Christians call grace.

So, is our escape from our prison of nurture, nature and culture automatic? No. God also made us free as He is free, to create ourselves and our future unencumbered by grace if we wish. Jesus is right inside our ‘prison cell’ with us, and appeals to us to trust in God. We need to choose to take the first step.

In my experience, this need to choose generally happens when our life in the prison becomes intolerable. We encounter a crisis and learn that nature, nurture and culture doesn’t give us what we need. When we experience this, we stand helplessly by the walls of our cell, until we realize the door is actually open. When we experience that, we arrive at the edge of a new expanded world and a new Self. When we go through the door, we begin to ask, “What happened? What (or who) opened the door?”

The grace to answer that question enables us to begin our personal journey of transformation. My own personal experience was that, when I had exhausted my own personal capacity to live ‘successfully’ and had arrived a point of near-despair, grace came to me and rescued me from my self-created prison. That encounter changed my life.

Living as if . . .

Hindus describe how man lives using a story about four ages of man.

  • Youth simply enjoys life
  • Young adults use their powers to achieve
  • More mature adults seek ways to contribute
  • Then, finally, some people seek  ultimate meaning

What story do we Christians tell about life? I would call it the “living as if” story. Christians live

  • As if everyday reality is much more than what it seems on the surface
  • As if God is present and active in our lives
  • As if love is the most fundamental force in the universe.

The question is, how do we live as if our story is true when the world around us tells a different story? The world tells us to live

  • As if everyday reality is exactly what it appears to be
  • As if God, if He exists at all, is remote and not active in our lives
  • As if energy is the most fundamental force in the universe

It seems to me that the purpose of church is to help Christians live their ‘as if’ story. A good way to measure whether this is happening is to look at the ‘fruits’ of the church. Paul describes these this way: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” [Galatians 5: 22-25]

 

A transformational story about God and life

Thomas Merton believed that life is a process of going from “innocence to experience and back to innocence.”

  • When we are innocent children the world is magical, and death doesn’t exist.
  • As we grow up, we learn from experience that the world is a difficult place. We must compete with others to succeed.  Evil, sickness and death enter our story about life.
  • Then, a different form of transforming innocence may enter our life. The Holy Spirit leads us to discover that God is on our side and death holds no fears.  In On Being Liked, James Alison describes this process of encountering and learning a mature form of  innocence with finding a fresh, transforming story about God.

Many Christians have a story about God that emphasizes our sinfulness. This story arises from the church’s explanation for why Jesus had to die for us. He had to “atone” to God for our sinfulness.  For example, the Catholic Catechism defines atonement in this statement: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.” [Article 1992].   This description creates an image of God as a Judge who requires a victim (His Son) to offer his life to make up for the sins of his creatures. In this story, God is merciful but also just and there must be retribution for man’s sinfulness. In his mercy, God substitutes Jesus and we don’t have to pay the price for our transgressions.

Atonement puts sin at the center of our story about God. Alison creates another story about God’s motivation and Jesus’ passion. Jesus’ apparent “losing to death, was not done so as to ‘please the Father’ but rather to get through to us.” Death has no power in God’s reality and we need to get beyond our ideas about death created by our experiences in the world that stand in the way of our becoming His sons and daughters. “God has nothing to do with death and humans need not either.” Jesus become man to show us how to ‘play the game of life’ as God wants us to.

Alison uses the metaphor of how a loving parent teaches a child to play tennis to illustrate how Jesus teaches us. The parent could obviously win every game but chooses not to and loses artfully, pushing the child to learn how to play. Jesus played the ‘game of life’ and by giving himself up to death, apparently ‘losing to death.’ By doing this he showed us how to “live as if death were not.” Jesus lived in a world filled with the threat of death but he took no notice and lived freely and lovingly.

If we look at  the ‘100,000 foot view’ of Jesus’ life, one theme becomes obvious: forgiveness. It was why he was sent and it characterized his life and death.

  • “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:17]
  • (to the woman accused of adultery) “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she said. ”Then neither do I condemn you.’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave you life of sin.'” [John 8-11]
  • (from the cross) “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

So, playing the game of life as Jesus did involves learning what such forgiveness entails.  Alison illustrates that our normal way of thinking about forgiveness falls far short of what Jesus means.

  • Forgiveness is “losing the human need to survive-by-creating-human-victims”
  • Forgiveness is “moving toward someone who I am like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we can become a new ‘we'”
  • Through forgiveness “As we forgive and are forgiven we come to see what really is.”

The expansive, inclusive and creative meaning that Jesus gives forgiveness is not something we learn like all other subjects. It is a transformation that we undergo, probably for our entire life. It means viewing worldly failure and death as God does, as things that are not real! “We gradually learn to live as if death (and failure) are not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.” Paul talked of this as ‘dying to self’ and Jesus told the parable of the seed needing to die in order to yield fruit.

We must give ourselves permission to question the usual story about atonement (and the teachings of our church) in order to potentially find a new ‘transformational story’ about God’s intentions in sending His Son and allowing His death.  A fresh story about Jesus and a potential new image for God can change everything in our lives. Yet, we also sense that commiting to a new story about Jesus is a very serious business. The danger is that we might set ourself up as the ultimate authority for our beliefs about God. We might commit the sin of pride and throw out all the learning of wise and good Christians over 2000 years. Nonetheless, we also sense that, to be fully human, we must prayerfully ask questions about the Atonement and not simply swallow our church’s story whole. Ultimately, we need to share what we find with other Christians, and study what the church and Bible says, before we finally commit ourselves to a new story about Jesus’ way of playing the game of life. Such conversations are precisely why we need to be in a community of Christians: to find a way to reach the truth through honest conversation about such provocative questions.

 

 

 

B. Where Does Our Church Need to Go? — A New Model for Local Churches

In my consulting practice I usually try to get business people to think about what their organization does (driven by its primary purpose) before they think about its structure. This follows the ancient Roman architectral design principle of ‘Form follows Function.’ It is better to design the functions of a building, an organization (or a church) before you decide how to organize the people doing these functions.

Most people find this very hard to do — their natural tendency is to want to know the ‘pecking order’ first. Who is the leader? Who is my boss? Who wields the power? I was part of a team many years ago that invented a way to get people to think in fresh ways about what their organization needs to do, without worrying about its structure. We called this method Value Streams.

Simply put, a Value Stream describes all the work necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular type of customer. For example, if a business has both large corporate customers as well as individual consumers, they would like to design the work for these two types of customers differently because their needs may be very different. You don’t worry about how the work is structured; you worry about what work must be done to meet needs. Value Stream thinking puts a premium on satisfying the needs of customers. [You can also have Value Streams focused on internal ‘customers’ too, such as a People Value Stream that is all the work that must be done to meet the needs of employees.]

I have used Value Stream thinking to create a fresh model of  a local church. This model has the following advantages:

  • It focuses on the needs of diverse people, whom the church is meant to serve.
  • It takes into account the differences between people in different situations, making the church sensitive to their different needs
  • It look at all the activities that a church might do and asks the question, “Who is this particular activity in service of?”
  • It provides a way to assess whether, and to what extent, a church’s current activities are meeting the needs of their key ‘customers.’

The following diagram shows a simple Value Stream model that fits any church.

Here is a brief explanation of the model. In the future, I will publish a more detailed model together witha Guide to the design process required to customize the model to meet the specific needs of any local church.

The Primary ‘Customer-facing’ Value Streams

  • The People ‘outside’ the church — non Christians — are served by the Connecting Value Stream. This might include activites like welcoming, evangelizing, initiation into the church, Baptism, and others. This value Stream responds the the Great Comission of Jesus.
  • The Members of the church — Christians, whether members of the local church or not — are served by the Belonging Value Stream. This might includes activities like liturgy, education, Bible Studies, community-building and others.
  • Poor and Needy people — whether Christian or not — are served by the Serving Value Stream. This might include activities like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing, visiting the imprisoned, and other activities by which Christians fulfill the most basic command of Jesus of loving our neighbors.

The Supporting Value Streams

  • The people who do the work in the Conecting and Belonging Value Streams are support by the work of the  Spiritual Value Stream. This might include activities like preparation for ministry, creating or enabling liturgies, coaching, retreats and others.
  • The people who do the work in the Serving Value Stream are supported by the Equipping Value Stream. This might include activities like special training, program creation, collaboration with other agencies and groups and others.

The Enabling Value Streams

  • All the work in the other value Streams is served by the Leadership Value Stream. This might include activities like parish council, recruting and organizing volunteers, transformation and others.
  • The financials and church building are served by the Stewarship & Facilities Value Stream. This includes fund raising and management, build programs and maintenace and others.
  • The professional employees of the church are served by the People Value Stream. This might include hiring, training, and other traditional HR activities.

This model can used used in a variety of ways

  • As a way to assess how effecteively a church’s current activities are linked to the needs of primary customers.
  • As a means to help everyone in a church see where their particular activity fits, and how it supports the overall church community
  • As the starting point for rethinking how a church might better prioritize and apply its resources.

 

 

 

Three Cheers for Empathy AND Religion!

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.

Empathy accepts  the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.

A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?

If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe,  then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!

Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!

Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to  Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!

 

Is church necessary at all?

This question is generally asked and answered in two ways:

  • “Is ‘going to church’ a necessary part of my life?” Individual Christians answer this question in a variety of ways and, increasingly, as evidenced by falling church attendance, say no.
  • “Is church a necessary component of Christianity?” Perhaps individual ‘spirituality’ and a relationship with God is sufficient. Regardless of how individuals might ‘vote with their feet,’ thoughtful people in various Christian churches are wondering about what church has become over time and whether  ‘church’ as we traditionally understand it is needed? Does church have to radically change?

I would like to explore the  question of whether church is necessary by introducing a different word to describe ‘church’ — Christian ‘community.’ My belief is that, to the extent that any local church is a genuine Christian community, and it is not always easy to discern this, that church is a necessary part of its members’ life. They cannot live a truly Christian life without it. Why do I believe this?

Bernard Cooke in Christian Community: Response to Reality, justifies the necessity for Christian community with these statements: “Men will be human to the degree they are free; to be free they must know and love; to know and love they must be taught and loved — and this is what Christ does in and through his body which is the Church. . . Experience shows that love among men can come into being and develop only if people have the opportunity to deal with one another, share experiences together, develop common concerns — in short to live together in some form of community. God’s action in both Old Testament Israel and Christianity has been one of forming such a community, so that true freedom might be achieved.”

Accepting Cooke’s reasoning, we can begin to see some attributes of a genuine Christian community. Using these attributes, we can begin to prayerfully discern whether and to what extent our local church is a genuine Christian community. My assertion is that, just because a local church is part of some larger religious denomination, that does not guarantee that it is a genuine Christian community. Belonging to a religious denomination may be a prerequisite for forming a Christian community (and not every denomination would say that this is so) but it is the responsbility of the local church members — clergy and lay together — to create, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, a genuine Christian community.

What are the attributes of a genuine Christian community?

  1. A genuine Christian community loves all men and women (Inclusive)
  2. A genuine Christian community teaches all men and women how to know and love, so that they can be truly free. (Nurturing)
  3. A genuine Christian community designs ways for its members to live together and find opportunities to engage, share experiences and develop common concerns. (Creative)

These attributes are a starting point for a local church to assess whether and to what extent it is a genuine Christian community. Whether Bernard Cooke’s logic, or my analysis of his reasoning is the right context for the discussion is not the issue. The real issue is whether we (members of a local church) reflect about and assess the health of our church community. And then, are we willing to take responsibility for transforming our local church into a genuine Christian community?

 

 

Seeing with Jesus’ Eyes

“Our learning to see with Jesus’ eyes will eventually result in us desiring with Jesus’ heart — which is to say, our receiving the mind of Christ, which is how we discover the mind of God.” [James Alison in On Being Liked]

There is a chain of reasoning associated with this statement that each of us needs to ponder.

  1. Do we want to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes? Grace puts the desire in every human being’s heart but it doesn’t automatically ‘program’ us. That is our choice, using  God’s other great gift of human freedom.
  2. Once we say yes, however incoherently, to this first question we are faced with finding a new way to learn how to see with different eyes. Our minds are programmed to see in a certain way and our teachers see with the same eyes, and teach us to see like they see. Jesus’ is the only one who can teach us to see with his eyes and mind. How do we learn to listen to his teaching? This generally happens once we choose to become Christians, but that is only the first step in a journey of learning.
  3. Human beings learn from others within a cultural context. The best way to learn from Jesus is within a Christian culture. The only place that such cultures exist are in local Christian communities and even these may largely see with secular eyes, not Jesus’ eyes. So, do we search for the ‘right’ church or do we become part of a local church and help make it the ‘right’ church that sees with Jesus’ eyes? The Spirit leads us on this journey but my general sense is that we must follow Jesus’ example and ‘heal the sick’ right where we are. That means transforming the local church where the Spirit has led us.

What is seeing with Jesus’ eyes like? Alison says that Jesus’ eyes are ‘clear, limpid, non-accusing,  non-persecuted.’ These are all metaphors but if we unpack them , it may give us a picture of what this Christian Ideal is like in our experience. Once we begin to understand, then the desire to see like Jesus does will awaken and grow within us.

The Bible tells stories about how Jesus saw. In modern terms, he not only taught but modeled seeing as God sees. I will use the story of the woman caught in adultery [John 8:3- 11] to illustrate how we can use the Bible to unpack the metaphors for seeing that Alison uses.

Jesus’ eyes are clear

Jesus sees the woman standing in front of him, and the whole scene in the temple clearly. We might think that this is some kind of divine capability and he saw into her heart and the hearts of the teachers of the law. If we believe that, we probably give up and tell ourselves “I could never see like that.”  But imagine that Jesus simply sees the terror and guilt in the woman’s eyes, and the anger in the teachers’ eyes. And he sees all this taking place in the temple dedicated to God. We can do that kind of seeing if we simply notice what is going on. Having clear eyes like Jesus means our eyes are not clouded with non-essentials, and are focused on what is there in front of us, in the moment.

Jesus’ eyes are limpid

Limpid is an unusual word. It means transparent, translucent, serene, peaceful. As Jesus clearly saw the drama of the scene in front of him, he didn’t get caught up in the emotion that infected everyone. He didn’t automatically side with the woman nor did he engage in a debate with the teachers (though he could have easily done that).  He simply ‘bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.’ We usually think he is writing divine messages to the teachers or something like that.  But imagine he was just disconnecting himself from all the emotion and conflict surrounding him, allowing his serenity to become obvious to everyone. We could hope to practice limpid seeing in that manner, first imitating Jesus’ serenity then actually realizing  it in all situations.

Jesus’ eyes are non-accusing

The story explicitly says that Jesus refused to blame the woman or hold her responsible for her actions. We normally interpret that as Jesus overlooking the worman’s sin in order to teach the officials a lesson. But what if he genuinely liked this woman and did not accuse her of anything? What if God sees the woman and likes her, no matter what? What if Jesus (and God) say, “She is a creature and creatures do these things. What’s not to like? If I’m looking for perfect people to like, I won’t find anyone.” Seeing in a non-accusing way like this is very hard for us. We (and our churches) have standards for ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. We don’t generally like people who are very different than our standards for ‘good’ people. We may ‘forgive’ them and overlook their ‘sins’ but our seeing is still not Jesus’ seeing. We can only pray for God’s grace to give us this type of seeing.

Jesus’ eyes are non-persecuted

Persecute is another seldom used word (although we do persecute others all the time). When we berate someone, pester them or worse, abuse them, we are persecuting them. Jesus didn’t lecture the woman and simply advised her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” More importantly, he didn’t berate or abuse the teachers who were misrepresenting God. He simply said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” His way of seeing the situation touched them and they all walked away. You’d like to think that they began to understand God’s way of seeing. At least we can begin to learn how to see like God ourselves.

Seeing with Jesus’ eyes means seeing in all these ways at once. Jesus’ way of seeing is based on liking ourself and others. As Alison puts it, “Because God likes us he wants us to get out of our addiction to the ersatz (phony, commonplace, conventional, culturally conditioned) so as to become free and happy.” The place to start liking, it seems to me, is liking all other Christians! If we are evangelical, liking the catholics. If we are catholic, liking the evangelicals. Not getting hung up about our differences but liking our diversity. Once we have mastered that situation, we can attempt liking others who are different than we are, who have different sins than we do, who may even wish us ill. We learn that liking in our local church, as it engages with the surrounding local communiity and the world. That’s why we must belong to a Christian community, and to transform it — to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes.

C. How Do We Get There? — Seven steps to transform your local church

The transformation of a local church can be viewed in terms of a logical progression of steps. These steps don’t always follow one another in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, I will present them as a coherent progression because it is easier to understand. Where there may be alternative paths, I will highlight this possibility and its significance at the appropriate time.

The seven steps of transformation of a local church

Transformation happens, not as a well-designed, planned program, but as a series of surprising changes – like a child growing. A church may plan a transformation program but it will never proceed according to plan, because the Holy Spirit is involved and a local church is complex. So, when you read the following Steps, think of them as overlapping, iterative and ‘messy,’ meaning never working exactly like you expect. It is best to think of transformation as a continuous learning process, with new understandings raising new questions and the need for more learning. Nonetheless, the work of each of these Steps is necessary so the local church ought to begin its ‘change journey’ by understanding the basics about each Step. This blog is only an introduction; I will be writing a detailed Guide and making it available when it is completed. But remember, there isn’t a ‘cookbook’ for transforming your local church. Real transformation is ‘advanced’ change, and there are no experts in local church transformation, only many students sharing their experiences.

Here, briefly, is the ‘100,000 foot view’ of local church transformation, to give you a perspective of what is involved involved.

Step 1.             Awakening – An individual or a group within a local church reads this Blog or has some other experience, and realizes that their local church needs to be transformed. These individuals are the Change Agents within the local church. They approach the Pastor and obtain his support to do Step 2, the Assessment Phase.

Step 2.             Assessment – A ‘Learning Team’ appointed by the Pastor, which includes the original Change Agents, reviews the church’s current ability to carry out Jesus’ purpose and presents their findings to the Pastor as well as other senior local church leaders.

Step 3.             Sponsorship – The Pastor agrees to be the Sponsor, and appoints and empowers a Transformation Team to design, plan and lead the rollout of the transformation. The original Change Agents ought to be part of this Team, or at a minimum be Advocates.

Step 4.             Design – The Transformation Team designs the future local church’s ‘Value Streams’ to better carry out Jesus’ purpose, and the changes required to build the future church. [There will be a future Blog covering Value Streams, a specific way of thinking about the ‘architecture’ of the functions of a future local church.]

Step 5.             Decision and Enrollment – The Transformation Team receives the Sponsor’s approval to implement the design and enrolls those people in the local church who are both the change leaders as well as the Beneficiaries of the new design.

Step 6.             Implementation – The change leaders, supported by the Transformation Team, do the detailed design and plan the required changes, then implement them, supporting the Beneficiaries of the changes as they make their own change journeys.

Step 7.             Guidance – All during this process, the Pastor and other appointed senior church leaders review and guide the progress of the transformation.

Again, these steps will be detailed in the Guide to be made available later.

The key roles involved in transformation of a local church

There are four key roles that are critical to the successful transformation of a local church. The people involved in these roles need to learn how to do them. It should not be assumed that people in these roles understand what is required of them just because they have read this Blog. This implies the need for an advisor (or teacher or coach) with experience and expertise to also be involved in the transformation process.

Sponsor (Pastor as Servant Leader) – A person who defines the intent of the transformation, allocates resources and enforces consequences of following (or not) the transformation initiative within the local church.

Change Agent (the core of the local church’s Transformation Team) – A person who sees the need for transformation, energizes the local church to change, and designs the changes in the local church required to accomplish the transformation.

Advocate – A person who believes in the transformation and actively persuades others in the local church to support it

Beneficiary – A person who must change in order for the transformation to happen, and who also receives the benefits of the transformation

These roles will be detailed in the future Guide.

Three major risks in transforming a local church, and how they must be mitigated

Lack of clarity – When the Sponsor, Change Agents and Advocates are unclear about the goal and process of transformation, a number of things can happen to endanger the transformational journey. First, the people in the church get mixed messages, which leads to added change resistance. Second, decisions are made more difficult because the choices are unclear. Third, energy is wasted pursuing tangents because the goal and outcomes are indistinct. This risk is mitigated by an early focus on achieving absolute clarity about intent and constant communications about this intent among the key players as well as the entire church – why we need to change; the desired outcomes and what the major steps will be to get there.

Change resistance – This risk is natural in every kind of change but especially in the fundamental changes involved in transformation. Many people may feel as if the church that they know and love is threatened by change, and they try to find ways to slow progress or even completely stop transformation. This risk is mitigated by helping such people adjust to change in small steps.

Poor management – The changes involved in transformation may involve all aspects of a church, many people and multiple tasks, all of which need to play together harmoniously. There needs to be an overall transformation initiative manager to achieve this result and many times that skill is absent in a church. The confusion that can result from poor management can demoralize the Transformation Team and even the whole church. The risk is mitigated by ensuring competent planning and management disciplines are understood and practiced.

Transformation as Cultural Change

The important thing to keep in mind is that transforming your local church is fundamentally about changing its culture. This generally means  ‘freeing’ it from the restraints that it has put on itself in order to ‘co-exist’ with the surrounding culture. Only if you see transformation in this light, will you focus on the right areas that need changing. A key barrier to cultural change is busyness. It is too easy to create activities that serve others but also serve staying in the status quo. Also, Jesus is the true leader of transformation and we always need to reflect and apply Jesus’ Principles before acting. “Who are we following in this area of church activities: the world or Jesus?” Since Jesus’ Principles are transformational, when we faithfully apply them, we will inevitably run into conflicts between the way things are now and the way they ought to be. That gap is an opportunity to transform the church’s culture.

What are some of the key points to keep in mind about cultural change?

  • A church may (and most likely does) have multiple cultures within its congregation. This usually results in clashes within the church that slow its overall transformation but also ensure that many different Beneficiaries, both internal and external, have their needs met.
  • Culture has many subtle yet powerful ways to defend the status quo.
  • Culture changes slowly, especially if there is a ‘paradigm shift’ involved.
  • Changing culture requires Change Agents who are willing to stay out of their personal ‘comfort zone.’

Are you kidding me? The World is filled with grace? What about Auschwitz or Rwanda?

How could grace have been present when millions were murdered in concentration camps, or in genocidal racial conflicts? We know that broken and sinful men and women did the awful deeds at Auschwitz and in Rwanda. We know that the “system of the world,” political and religious, stood by and let this happen. Where was grace? That question boils down to how does God see the world and how does he want us to act in the light of these undenible horrors?

In a word, God sees the world as being profoundly “wounded” and in need of healing. Many modern secular thinkers are beginning to see the same thing and have written scholarly studies about what has been happening in our world, good and bad, over the past 500 years since the ‘enlightenment.’  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “Précarité” (precariousness) to describe what ensues, when all our trustworthy structures and rules seem to many to fall apart. The foundations have been removed from beneath everything western civilization thought was reliable only a few years ago.  Now, many people feel that there is nothing solid underneath our ideas, and certainly nothing that transcends these ideas. This emptiness creates a vacuum of values, one that has no solution because we ‘deconstruct’ any solution that is offered.  We cannot fill the vacuum we create with postmodern scientific and philosophic views with anything reliable.  There is no language, at least that we trust anymore, to express true values. Religions have such language but they are not trustworthy according to our rational standards of truth.

At the core of our being is a paradox that we cannot resolve: We hunger for meaning, yet, in the deepest sense and as far as our minds can reach, we sense that we cannot create trustworthy meaning for ourselves. “The western mind . . . by the late twentieth century had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.”  [1] The only solution is trusting in  meaning outside ourself, in acknowledgement of our dependence. But another modern crisis – reducing our ability to trust — does not permit us to do this! Catch 22. So, the vast majority of people simply refuse to think about such ‘deep and meaningful’ things at all! The explosion of ideas on the Internet and of chatter on Mobile Phones is how many people hide their emptiness from themselves.

Trust is based on reliable people and reliable institutions. While we may still trust our spouse or our neighbour, there has been an almost universal loss of trust in institutions, especially religion in the twentieth century. How often have you heard, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or “organized religion” used as an epithet? Consequently, as trust in churches and religion eroded, as it has in the west, trust in Jesus as a leader has also eroded.

Finally, there is a crisis in the use of power, reflected primarily in the economic system of the world. The “new economy” is creating great wealth for a few but is also creating deep feelings of anxiety and confusion.  “The rewards of the new economy are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified.” [2] Everyone has been exposed to the financial insecurities caused by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). More to the point, billions of people on our planet are living marginal lives while a relative handful lives in extraordinary comfort, controlling most of the world’s wealth.

At long last, the voices of women are also being heard about the misuse of power in the system of the world. “There is a white patriarchical male system. The dominant system is destructive to people . . .” [3] Small wonder that many women feel like second class people in American and Australian society, and poorly used in most organizations. The women in every society on the planet feel (and many millions are) oppressed by a male-dominated system! Perhaps, the wounds of our world are becoming apparent to you.

In summary, we find ourselves at an apparent dead-end. The daily deconstruction of what we previously believed in has removed the safe harbours of belief of the past.  We can’t go back and find safety.  There is a widespread sense of something being missing or lost, creating emptiness and the inability to act.  “Mental depression – a feeling of one’s impotence, of inability to act, and particularly the inability to act rationally, to be adequate to the tasks of life – becomes the emblematic malaise of our late modern or postmodern times.”  [4]

The mind of man has created many wonderful things – but it has also created the situation that I have just described. How? By its insistence, particularly in the western world, that the mind of Jesus has no power in modern society. There are many ‘humanistic’ programs trying to deal with the situation – feeding the poor, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, providing ‘safety nets’ to the ‘have nots’ – and I applaud these. Many are sponsored by Christian organizations. But these programs do not (and cannot) heal the deep wounds that I have described. That is why Jesus came to earth and commanded the Christian church to grow and make disciples of all mankind – to heal the wounds that man’s power and pride have inflected on the human race and the world.

By now, the mind of God must be obvious to you, once you begin to see the world and leaders as wounded. Empathy, compassion, going out and searching for those in need, self- forgetfulness, practical help not words. All these characterize Jesus’ ministry and the ministries of many Christians over the past 2000 years. Yet, Jesus was focused on individuals and, when he encountered the ‘system’ did not seem to explicitly try to change it, even the Jewish religious system.

So, you may say that one way of healing the world might for us to simply imitate Jesus – ignore the system and heal individuals. A case can be made for that. But, to me the lessons of Auschwitz and Rwanda are too plain — tending to the victims of the wounded system is not enough. Jesus’ transforming power shines ‘light’ on the system too. Christians must also change the system that allowed (and still allows) such crimes to happen, while ministering to its victims wherever they may be found. That is another reason why we must transform local churches!

Walter Brueggemann in Finally Comes the Poet summarized God’s transformational view of our situation. “When that speech of God’s fidelity, sovereignty, and presence is uttered again, the world is changed. The silence of God has been oppressive, but somehow we had not noticed. We imagined we were children of modernity: liberated, autonomous, on our own. We thought the speech of this other one had been banished and with good riddance. But the ideology of autonomy is not sufficient. It leads eventually to alienation, isolation, and rage. In our autonomous silence, we deny our true selves, created as we are, for conversation, communion, trust, and yielding.” Brueggemann then quotes the prophet Isaiah: “For a time time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself ; Now . . . I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.” [Isa 42:14-16] Transforming your local church means taking this promise of God seriously. Christians need to become God’s right arm of loving transformation, fulfilling His purpose of rescuing the human race from its stubborness and ignorance –even though we believe our knowledge of the world and our ability to find solutions on our own are sufficient.


[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991, p. 394.

[2] Robert Reich, The Future of Success, Knopf, new York, 2000, p. 8

[3] Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel, The Addictive Organization, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988, p 44.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, London, 2001, p. 43.

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Unity — Who is a Christian?

A Christian is a person who loves Jesus Christ and follows him as their leader.  [1] There are many types of Christians: Roman Catholics, Anglo Catholics and Protestants, evangelicals and eucharistic, orthodox and modern, eastern and western, believers in the Bible as the sole guide and believers in the Bible and tradition, and other variations as well.

But what characterizes all Christians? All of us are individuals and have our own experiences of the realities of living as a Christian and we also have many debates about what it means to love and follow Jesus. But I believe that if we are to transform the world as Jesus wishes us to, we also need to see each other as brothers and sisters who have been given some common gifts by Jesus, and because of that, share some things in common. “Yes, that’s what a Christian is! I hope to become more like that.” Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” There is only one vine, one body of Christ. We all belong to the same body and share Jesus’ life in the Holy Spirit flowing through one vine.

I offer the following statements that describe what a Christian is, not to spark debate but to spark recognition and alignment among all of us, no matter which local church we attend. These statements describe our aspirations as Christians, and describe who we hope to become. These ideals are unchanged since the earliest days of the church. My hope is that we can all agree on them, share them in common and pledge to each other to follow them as we gather and do our work together, as a global Christian community.

1. Christians are “Jesus-centric”

While the world may shy away from talking about Jesus, Christians don’t. This doesn’t mean that there is any specific or right way of talking about Jesus; there isn’t. Each Christian has her or his own unique encounters with him, no matter how subtle or hidden these may be. We know him and recognize his voice when we hear it.  Some may proclaim him quite easily and openly; others may view their relationship with Jesus as quite private and be more diffident. The point is, Jesus is part of our conversations and the wise counselor / facilitator of all that we do. Non-Christians may try to be more politically correct and refer to God as ‘the Universe’ or some other name, but Christians are certain about the name of God’s Son.

2. Christians have a different way of thinking than non-Christians. We are “in the world but not of the world”

Basically, this is a cultural statement. If culture means sharing common ideas, common language and communication, and alignment about how things ought to work, Christians share a culture that is different than the world’s culture. We see and speak about the world differently than non-Christians. To be “of the world” means you buy-in to the conventional culture. Christians are “not of the world.” We don’t see things in the world quite the same, use quite the same language about them or believe things ought to work quite the way that they do in the ‘system.’ In a few words, Christians have different hopes for the world, love it differently and have faith that they will, with the Holy Spirit’s help, ultimately transform it.

3. Christians experience time differently. We are “already but not yet completely” living in a time when the promises of Jesus are fulfilled.

We live in a world where we say in the Lord’s Prayer that the kingdom has already come on Earth but not yet fully as it is in heaven. We live in the 21st century of the Christian era but we also live in the last days, working and waiting for the complete fulfillment of Jesus’ promises. We live in a time of horrible events in the world but we see them differently and believe that their present outcome is already being transformed, in some mysterious way, but not yet fully. Christians distinguish between the appearances of the space-time continuum, and the reality of God’s time. One is measured by astrophysicists and the other is unmeasureable, safe in God’s care, flowing toward His desired eternal state.

4. Christians use the word ‘power’ differently. “We are Easter people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit”

As Paul said, when we do good, it is not us but Jesus’ power in us that does it. This power was given to Paul and to us because of what happened on the Cross, at Easter and Pentecost. We live mindfully and prayerfully, able to distinguish between when God’s power is empowering us, versus when we are doing “our own thing.” We also distinguish between having gifts of the Spirit and our own self-development. Our gifts are meant for others; our efforts at self-development, while understandable, are focused on ourselves.


[1] Every Christian ‘loves’ and ‘follows’ Jesus in their own unique way. There are no widely accepted criteria for how much a person must love and follow Jesus in order to be a Christian. Jesus loves us first and tells us that his ‘yoke is light,’ which is a gentle invitation to follow him. Therefore, if you feel that you love not hate Jesus (although you may hate the church at times) and would like to follow him if you could only figure out how in this complicated world, then you are a Christian as I mean the term.

Angry Christians

Sometimes, I notice different kinds of anger when I talk with Christians or read their Blogs:

  1. “The church doesn’t give me what I need”
  2. “Those other Christians and their churches are heretics, apostates or just irritating.”
  3. “The Pastor offended me.”
  4. “They are ruining the church.”

What is Jesus’ mind when it comes to such anger? I suspect he would tell them a parable, like this one.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Jesus says, how can I show you my love unless you empty yourself of your anger?

Transformation needs a realistic assessment

How much does our local church need to change? Are we already doing our ‘utmost for his highest’ according to Oswald Chambers’ famous yardstick? How do we measure ourselves, and against what standards?

I offer the following standard as a starting point for discussing and answering the question how much do we actually need to change? Christians should break Jesus’ mission into three fundamental areas of focus of a church’s activities – Welcoming, Belonging and Serving. These three areas can be directly tied to Jesus’ own life and teaching so we can be confident that they are truly transformational activities. They can also be measured, which allows us to objectively assess how much we actually need to change.

  • Welcoming: Our attitude toward strangers and what we do to invite them to experience Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Belonging: What we do to grow the maturity of Christians, especially in regard to strengthening them in Jesus’ alternative cultural reality.
  • Serving: What we do to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc, following Jesus’ first Principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor.

Each church most likely will have on-going activities in each of these three areas. The question is not only how well we are doing these, but also what are we not doing? That is why I included “strangers” under Welcoming, Jesus’ “alternative cultural reality” under Belonging, and “preferential Option for the Poor” under Serving. We need to measure ourselves using the mind of Jesus and our measurement ‘yardstick’ must have some ‘bite’ to it. Looking at other options for these three areas, and applying Jesus’ Principles to decide whether they ought to be done is a good way to answer the question how much do we actually need to change.

 

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.

Cocoon to Butterfly; The Church’s Journey

Human beings first understand things metaphorically. When we encounter something new, we understand it by comparing it with something that we already know.

Many of us have never encountered the idea that the Christian church, like all living things, is on a journey. If we want to understand its ongoing life journey then the transformation of a butterfly, from egg to larvae to cocoon to butterfly helps us understand this.

After Jesus died, the church was in its primitive egg stage, tiny but with tremendous potential. Then it began to grow, becoming an organization among other organizations in the world, and entered the larvae stage. It was in this stage of its life for many centuries. This was the ugly, squirming stage, almost painful to consider in retrospect, with schisms and crusades and reformations and many excruciating learning experiences as it tried to survive as an organization as well as apply itself to Jesus’ vision. At some point it started to become more self-reflective about what it had become and entered the cocoon stage. That is where it is now. In the mysterious dark place where it finds itself there is change and growth but this isn’t visible. But now, finally, it is struggling to emerge from this cocoon and ‘reinvent’ itself as a butterfly, to better live as Jesus intends, and ‘fly’ so the world can see God’s kingdom as it is actually present today. The world is already filled with grace, and all human beings can access it to transform the world.

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Change starts with a mindset

There are two opposed mindsets and viewpoints about the world in general:

  1. Disengaged Viewpoint. The world? I don’t pay any attention to it. It is, always has been and always will be filled with problems.  There aren’t any reliable facts about problems and there certainly aren’t any global solutions. The best you can do is make your own little part of the world as secure and comfortable as you can, for yourself and your family, and keep your head down.
  2. Engaged Viewpoint. It’s important to know about the world. After all, I’m part of it. The world has enormous problems and all of us have an obligation to do something about them, beyond just making ourselves and our families secure and comfortable. Even if I can only do something small, it may help make things better on a larger scale.

Christians with the Disengaged Viewpoint quote certain of Jesus’ sayings to strengthen their position. Their position is commonly called a “judging” view, where the world will be judged and destroyed in a final judgment.

  • “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” [John 15:19]
  • “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” [Matthew 13:41]

Christians with the Engaged Viewpoint quote other verses to strengthen their position. Their position is commonly called the “Incarnational” view, which says that Jesus became man to transform the world, which is the will of the Father.

  • “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:16-17]
  • “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” [John17:18]

I am an advocate of the Incarnational view.  My purpose is not to debate the Bible or theology but to enable Christians to transform themselves and their local church, to increase their ‘saltiness’ so that they can more effectively participate in Jesus’ work of transforming the world.「あこや本真珠≪グッドクオリティ花珠真珠≫パールネックレス ホワイトピンク系 7.5-8.0 AAA ラウンド」≪花珠鑑別書付≫(アコヤ本真珠・花珠ネックレス)[真珠 パール ネックレス][CO][n
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Christians and Muslims; A Way Forward

Jesus shines his light on the  most difficult issues we face in the early 21st century. Let me illustrate this by discussing a possible way forward toward peaceful collaboration between Christians and Muslims, to solve many of the economic and social issues our world faces. The issues between Islam and Christianity are extremely complex and I will not discuss them in depth.  Rather, I want to illustrate how one might discern the mind of Jesus regarding the entire global relationship, both cooperation and conflict, that exists between us today.

The mind of Jesus is especially plain in the Bible about the relationship between Christians and Muslims. In Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, Jesus has an extended conversation with a Samaritan woman. She states the situation between Jews and Samaritan’s very succinctly at the outset, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).” [John 4:9] Jesus’ mind is completely clear in his response. He simple ignores such conventional distinctions, and proceeds to engage in a deep spiritual conversation with this stranger. He offers her ‘living water’ and invites her into the Father’s household, “Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’” [John 4:21-23] Then he reveals who he is to her, the Messiah, which he reveals to very few others in his public ministry. At that point, his disciples joined Jesus and the woman and were surprised to see him talking with a woman (let alone a Samaritan!) Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them, about the harvest: “I tell you open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” obviously speaking about the woman and her friends that were coming out to see the person she told them about, Jesus. [John 4:35] [1]

In this story, and in many other ways throughout his ministry, Jesus showed his followers that man’s distinctions and prejudices are not his. The parable of the Good Samaritan showed that goodness trumps religious membership.  He emphasized that following him means associating with whatever wounded person needs to be healed. “[The Pharisees asked] ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. But go and learn what this means [from Hosea 6:6] ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” [Matthew 9:11-13]

To illustrate how a local church might begin to apply the mind of Jesus toward issues between Christians and Muslims in the current global situation (and toward all religions for that matter); I will quote from Hans Küng’s magnum opus Islam.

  • “In an age of ecumenical awareness – more than ever after the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, in Madrid on 11 March 2004 and in London on 7 July 2005 – I want to argue for the overall responsibility of all for all. . . Such inter-religious responsibility means we must all be interested in the well-being of Islam.” [2]
  • “No religion – neither Judaism nor Christianity nor Islam (nor the religions of Indian and Chinese origin) – can be satisfied with the status quo in this time of upheaval . . . Like Judaism and Christianity, in this transitional phase of world history Islam is involved in a fundamental conflict of tradition and innovation.” [3]
  • “Will the Islamic peoples, who are caught up in a tremendous crisis of existence at the height of modernity as a result of their confrontation with western imperialism and colonialism and with European science and economics, technology and democracy, succeed in accepting the challenge of a new era and work creatively toward a new post-modern form of Islam? In this globalized world, all the great religions are in transition from the crisis of modernity into a ‘postmodernity’ of some kind (or under whatever name) and are thus exposed to the same kind of structural problems.” [4]

I think the lessons to be learned by a local church from this brief discussion are this. First, we can have hope that even the greatest global conflicts can be transformed, when the mind of Jesus changes our narrow way of thinking about our neighbor and strangers. Second, because we Christians are going through the same emergence from a ‘cocoon’ as our Islamic neighbors, we can empathize with each other, and perhaps even heal each other. And finally, in our own small corner of the world, we can heal some of the wounds that underlie this global conflict, by following Jesus’ Principles as we seek out the Muslim ‘strangers’ and learn from them about our own path toward transformation. The local progress we jointly create with our Muslim neighbors can ripple throughout the world and help transform it too.


[1] I am not trying to make the case that Christians must ‘convert’ Muslims. To the contrary, I believe that this story shows Jesus’ invitation as well as acceptance and respect of the Samaritan woman personal journey to the Father. He offers her living water (the Spirit) unconditionally, while also telling her that he is the Messiah. This is obviously an issue that some churches may wish to debate, to discover the mind of Jesus in this situation. I am simply inviting local churches to remain open to the possibility that Jesus’ mind looks beyond our certainties.

[2] Hans Küng, Islam, Past, Present and Future, Oneworld, Oxford, 2007, p. 24

[3] Küng, Ibid, p. 22

[4] Küng, Ibid, p. 22

C. How Do We Get There? — Understanding the ‘Journey’ of Transformation

The best way to begin to understand what transforming a local church means is to use the metaphor of a ‘journey.’ There are a number of  journeys in the Bible but I will use the exodus from Egypt to illustrate the major features of a ‘journey of transformation.’ [1]

There are three major parts to the Exodus story: preparation and the decision to make the journey, the actual journey, and arrival in the Promised Land. I will briefly summarize some of the main features of each of these and relate them to transforming a local church.

Preparation and the decision to make the journey

From our perspective, looking back thousands of years with the eyes of faith, Moses is one of God’s heroes, so when we use the exodus journey as a metaphor for transforming a local church, we may become confused. Should we wait for a ‘hero’ to arrive, to lead us? Are we inflating the role of Change Agent, which we must fulfill, so that it requires heroic qualities beyond the reach of ordinary people? I suggest putting ourselves in Moses’ shoes, and seeing him as a reluctant leader and unlikely hero. That is precisely who we are, as we consider being Change Agents in our local church. [2]

The journey of transformation in Exodus begins with Moses’ personal change. He became aware of how badly the Hebrews were treated by the Egyptians, and killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Israelites. To escape Pharaoh’s vengeance, Moses fled to escape being killed himself. “I can’t stay in this situation anymore” is generally the experience that starts an individual down a path toward finding ways to change the status quo.

Moses created a new life for himself as a shepherd in Midian, but he wasn’t yet a Change Agent. That was God’s work. God chose Moses, to transform the situation of his Chosen People. “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” [Exodus 2:22] The sequence of events leading to Moses acceptance and performance of his role as Change Agent shows us our own personal path toward becoming ready to transform our local church. There are three steps in this preparation stage:

Encountering God

One day, while he was tending his father-in-laws’ sheep, Moses had an encounter with God. The burning bush got his attention, and he heard God’s voice calling him, “Moses! Moses! And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” [Exodus 3:4b] God’s call collided with Moses own awareness of the Hebrews situation. Our personal struggles as Christians are the preparation for God’s call to us. Our willingness to listen is how we play our part in His plan to use us to fulfill His purposes. That may include becoming a Change Agent in our local church, if we open ourselves to that possibility.

Overcoming doubts

“So, now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” [Exodus 3:10] God’s call is very clear and explicit in the Biblical retelling of the Exodus story. But you can also see how difficult it was for Moses to respond to God. “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh   and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3: 11] In the verses that follow, Moses throws up one question and doubt after another, which God answers patiently, “How do I prove that God actually is behind this? What is your name?” “Why should the Israelites listen to me? What if they don’t believe me?” We can easily identify with these questions. Discerning a call from God is difficult, especially when we can so easily be misled by our own ego or give in to our fears. God’s reassurance to Moses was to provide other like-minded people to support him in the journey. God sent Aaron, Moses’ brother with him as a companion on the journey. “I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.” [Exodus 4: 15b] In transforming a local church, a small group of like-minded Change Agents is crucial in discerning the mind of Jesus and having the courage and resilience needed to undertake the difficult journey of transformation.

Decision to make the journey

The final step in preparation is taking the first irrevocable step on the journey, which involves a firm decision to leave the status quo. In Moses case, he first asked Jethro his father-in-law for permission to leave Midian. “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” [Exodus 4:18] He met Aaron and then all the elders of the people of Israel and, with Aaron’s help, convinced them that God wanted them to leave Egypt. In the case of a local church, this decision step involves convincing and aligning the Pastor and important people in the local church about God’s desire that the whole church begin the journey of transformation. This can be a difficult and discouraging process. “The Israelites did not listen (to Moses) because of their discouragement and cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6: 9] But God was insistent, even though Moses was discouraged. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?’” [Exodus 6:12] And God kept on saying to Moses, “I am the Lord. Tell Pharaoh king of Egypt everything I tell you.” [Exodus 6:29] That is the choice that Change Agents must make: to focus on their own internal self-doubts or to focus on God’s insistent urgings to make the journey of transformation that God desires.

The actual journey

The actual Exodus journey seems to begin after the Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go. Before that happened however, there were the plagues, culminating in the ‘Passover’ when God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian but spared the Hebrews who had showed their faithfulness in smearing blood from a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts. Were the plagues and Passover part of the journey? Yes, because every significant change journey can only begin with an ‘ending’ stage. The Hebrews had to experience something that would make them leave their usual surroundings behind and end their familiar life, even slavery, to set off into a barren desert toward an unknown destination. That didn’t just depend on Moses and Aaron’s persuasion but on God’s clearly demonstrated support for their journey. The plagues and Passover were unmistakable evidence of this and bound the Israelite community together in a common purpose: to make a dangerous journey to find the Promised Land.

How can we relate the plagues and Passover to what we can expect from God in transforming a local church? God doesn’t always signal his support so dramatically. Elijah experienced God’s support for his mission and journey as a ‘gentle whisper.’ [1 Kings 19: 12b] The question is, should Change Agents expect some sign of God’s support for their mission of transforming a local church? Or should they depend on their own powers of enrollment and persuasion to unify their community at the beginning of the journey of transformation? As I ponder this, I believe that Change Agents should not depend on their own talents and resources. God will send signs of His support but they may be surprisingly ordinary ‘whispers’ not dramatic plagues. This highlights the strong need for prayer and discernment at the beginning of the change journey, when ‘endings’ and leaving the familiar behind will be required. Combine this with the requirement that the whole church community must make the journey, not just a few ‘early adopters,’ and the ending and setting off stage may be quite protracted, as the community waits and discerns God’s support for the journey.

The Israelites’ journey also started with great drama. Pharaoh let them go, then changed his mind and descended on the helpless Hebrews with his entire army. They wailed in fear, “What have you done to us? . . . It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” [Exodus 14: 11-12] We all know the story of what happened next, and probably have an image of Charlton Heston stretching out his hands and parting the waters for the Hebrews, and then stretching out his hands again and bringing the waters on top of Pharaoh’s army to drown them all. What can this mean for our journey?

This is a story of learning to trust, in God’s promises and in our own decision to set off on a journey of transformation. If we unpack the story in Exodus, Pharaoh’s change of heart can be seen as a loss of comfortable assumptions about transforming church and a collision with the harsh realities of opposition and discouragement. In the exodus story God told Moses what was going to happen, in advance, and Moses reassured the people.  I heard another story years ago that helped me understand this same situation.

I was leading a Change Team in a large Insurance company a number of years ago, and one of the executives described the ‘change journey’ like this.

“I was flying across America a few years ago on a brilliantly clear day. We were at 39.000 feet as we approached the Rocky Mountains, and I happened to notice some small towns in eastern Colorado. If you have ever been there, you know that the eastern third of Colorado is all barren, dry plains, with few trees and very little water. As I looked at these small towns I wondered why anybody would ever settle in a place like that. Then a reason occurred to me.

“I imagined that some poor farmers in Missouri, a thousand miles to the east, had heard about California and decided that the farm that they struggled to make successful wasn’t worth the effort. So they talked to some of their neighbors, who basically felt the same way and they all decided to go to California. They sold their farms, bought covered wagons and set off for the ‘promised land’ in California.  After traveling without any particular difficulty for a month or so, suddenly they saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance, on the horizon. Every day the mountains grew in size until, one day they seemed to fill the horizon with an impenetrable barrier.

“The farmers had a map someone had given them, and it showed a trail through the Rockies but it also showed that the journey to California would be all mountains and desert from now on, as soon as they entered the mountains. It all seemed too hard, almost impossible, so they just gave up their dream about a new life in California and settled right where they were, in those desolate plains of eastern Colorado.”

That business executive told his story to illustrate the importance of understanding the barriers and risks of the change journey – and the vital need of having guides on the journey who understand what will happen, who can help the community get past these barriers. That is the vital role that Change Agents must fulfill in transforming local churches. That is what Moses did for the Israelites, reassuring them that God had promised to be with them and was actively working on their behalf. “But Moses said, ‘Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” [Exodus 14: 13-14]

Arrival in the Promised Land

When does the journey of transformation end? Do we really ever arrive at a new church? Indeed, perhaps we never fully arrive until the final coming of Jesus. We always remain a ‘pilgrim church.’ So, how can we understand ‘arriving’ as a result of transforming church? The Israelites journeyed in the desert forty years before they entered Canaan. Arrival was a process that happened to them both before and after they reached the political border of the physical land that was given to them. This process can be seen as a ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ in God’s time, according to his plan. We can expect the same ‘continuous arrival at new church’ on our own journey of transformation. How does this process of ‘continuous arrival in the Promised Land’ work?

As the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses looked back over their forty years in the desert. [3] He reminded them of everything the Lord had done for them, in spite of their continued grumbling and losses of faith. He reminded them that they hadn’t trusted God before they fought the Amorites. “You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” [Deuteronomy 1:27] And, indeed, because they were hardhearted and did not trust in God, the Amorites “chased you like a swarm of bees and beat you down from Seir all the way to Hormah.” [Deuteronomy 1:44] Moses told them this story before he retold their encounter with the Law, which established how they were to live in the Promised Land. “Walk in all the ways that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” [Deuteronomy 5:33] What do these two stories say about ‘continuous arrival’ in a journey of transformation?

God promised to give a homeland to the Hebrews, and led them through transformational experiences to prepare them to live in this land as he wishes them to live. He fed them with Manna when they were starving and provided water from the rock. He clearly showed them that when they trusted him, he did great works in their behalf – but when they didn’t trust him, they were like any other people and could be defeated. He gave Moses very explicit instructions in the Law, which described life in his kingdom. “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers.” [Deuteronomy 7:12] Seen from this perspective ‘continuous arrival’ means gradual growth of a community into God’s people. In the journey that a local church makes, we should expect the same type of gradual growth, as well as times of forgetting and backsliding. The Change Agents must create the desire in the community to continue the journey no matter what happens in the short term.

Viewing the full sweep of the history of the Israelites from our current day perspective, you can easily see that they and their descendents are still ‘arriving’ in the Promised Land, and not yet fully there in the 4000 years since Abraham. And we Christians are just the same as them, ‘continuously arriving’ in God’s promised kingdom of the New Covenant but not yet there. While we may feel that we have learned a great deal from our transformational journey over 2000 years, we are still in the arrival process, with all its human foibles and need for divine forgiveness. Change Agents need to understand that whatever accomplishments may be achieved by the local church as it tries to more closely follow the mind of Jesus, the journey will continue. This awareness of the local church’s role in ‘Salvation History’ as well as learning to be mindful of its practical consequences in the life of the church is one of the important steps in the journey of transformation.

The final irony in Deuteronomy is that Moses could not enter the Promised Land. He “broke faith with (the Lord) in the presence the Israelites . . . and did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites. Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” [Deuteronomy 32: 51-52] This is a clear warning to Change Agents and leaders in local churches. There are risks in the transformational journey, and those who lead the church need to be aware of them and take them seriously. These risks should not discourage the community from undertaking the journey. In God’s Plan, churches cannot opt out of making the journey. To me, these risks once again emphasize the need for prayer. Only by trusting that God is going before the church, to prepare the way and the Promised Land, can we find the courage to be Change Agents and leaders of this journey.

Lessons from Exodus for the church’s journey of transformation

I will not cover the practical details of how to help a local church make a journey of transformation in this Blog. I am currently writing A Guide to Transforming Your Local Church which will be available on this website when it is completed. The process I will  describe in that Guide is based on the experiences of many experts in organizational change. Equally important, I have amplified that organizational change process to take into account the lessons of the holy journey of transformation that each church is being called to make, as exemplified in Exodus.

Briefly, here are a few lessons that we can learn from Exodus about each local church’s journey of transformation.

Lesson 1. The change journey of a local church is difficult.

Exodus does not describe a ‘change project,’ or finding practical everyday solutions to help the Hebrews live better and serve God in the land of Egypt. It describes an incredible adventure, of leaving, being pursued, almost starving, facing countless enemies and finally arriving after many years of wandering in a vast wasteland. Understanding this, preparation for the journey is vital, especially of the church’s leaders.

Lesson 2. The change journey needs dedicated people – Change Agents — who can see where the church must go and help the church’s leaders see the path and guide them through the steps.

The Hebrews would never have left Egypt unless God had sent Moses to them. They were trapped in slavery and surrounded by a formidable barrier, the vast desert. They didn’t know where to go or how to get there. Local churches need Change Agents who, with God’s help, can persuade the church’s leaders that the journey must be made, and then support them and the entire community as the journey progresses.

Lesson 3. The change journey needs leaders who are strongly committed to help the entire church community make this difficult journey

God led the Hebrews using a few people, the leaders and elders. They were the essential intermediaries who, with Moses help, saw what God was doing on the journey and communicated this to the Hebrews. Transforming a local church is not a ‘one person job,’ for a charismatic leader or anyone else. It requires that a number of people in the church fulfill leadership roles in the journey.

Lesson 4. The ones who actually have to change – the entire community, including leaders and Change Agents – need to be supported every step of the journey.

The Hebrews constantly struggled on the journey. If they could have gone back to Egypt, they would have. They lost trust in God and even worshipped a Golden Calf. Yet, God chose the entire community as his people, not just a few people that were ‘good enough’ to make the journey.  Helping people change their long established habits is one of the key challenges that Change Agents and leaders must deal with when transforming a local church.

Lesson 5. The leaders and Change Agents need to anticipate the risks of the change journey and put plans in place to lessen or eliminate those risks proactively.

God knew what the Hebrews faced before they did, and prepared ways to help them get past these risks. The Lord told Moses what he should do, to help the people find Manna or defeat their enemies. In the same way, Change Agents and leaders need to depend on God to help them past the difficulties they will surely face. Some of these risks are common on any change journey, such as change resistance. Some are unique to the challenge that the church faces in the 21st century. Prayerful awareness and preparation are an essential undertaking for leaders and Change Agents.


[1] I will use the terms journey of transformation and change journey interchangeably. While all changes may not be transformational, transforming a local church is generally concerned with making numerous changes, some small and some large.

[2] There is a mythic dimension to undertaking a journey of transformation, which Joseph Campbell described in his classic Hero with a Thousand Faces. He described this mythic journey as ‘a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In this sense, the Change Agents I describe in this book are heros, because they intend to leave the everyday common world of church and, with Jesus’ help, successfully help their fellow Christians find the ‘boons’ of a new way of being church. However, I will not expand or emphacize this heroic aspect of transformation. Jesus never saw himself as a hero and neither should we. See Philippians 2: 6-11.

[3] This retrospective look is contained in the Book of Deuteronomy.