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.

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.


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.



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.

“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)


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 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!

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.