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.