Contemplative Positivity

Negative or positive, opposite signs

How I really love listening to Richard Rohr! Seriously, if I need to choose one person who has challenged and changed my perspective on life and spirituality the most, it would be Rohr. From his books to his daily reflections to his seminars, his understanding of and ability to articulate what it is to be a present-day Christian Mystic is incomparable. You can check out his work at www.cac.org.

He and Rob Bell recently recorded a conversation about the Alternative Orthodoxy on the Robcast podcast. In this conversation, Richard spoke about the seven themes of Alternative Orthodoxy (which, as its title suggests, is a different way of understanding Divine Truth). You can see a summary of these themes here.

There are so many quotable moments in this interview, but one that grabbed me was the neuroscientific study Rohr cited that showed how our brains stick to negativity like Velcro. Not only is our mind attracted to the shadows, but it grabs these thoughts and clings to them, sometimes for years. And, while it takes only a split second for a negative image to be imprinted on our minds, it takes 15 seconds of savouring a positive thought to accomplish the same impressing into our brains.

That’s why we find it so easy to thing bad things of people and remember every ill word spoken and every evil action done towards us. Likewise, we find it terribly difficult, at times, to see and remember the good.

Rohr goes on to show how this should cause us to be more contemplative, aware of the goodness around us and focusing on that good purposefully for a span of time.

Fifteen seconds focussing on that smile, that encouraging remark, an uplifting tune, the laughter of a child, a feeling of peace and contentment. Fifteen seconds to centre your awareness on the streaming sunlight, the warmth of the fireplace, the beauty of that waterfall, the fragrance of that flower, or the refreshment of the falling rain. Fifteen seconds to sit in reflection on the good in that person, their fine attributes and positive character traits.

Fifteen seconds.

That’s a challenge, definitely one that I need. How my life would change if I simply spent time investing in this one change of habit!

Silly Songs in the back of a Holden EH Station Wagon

“In – de – pen – dent Bi – ble Church . . .”

The staccato notes see-sawed as the girls in the far back of the family station wagon sang them in full 11-year-old voice.EHF

“Is the best church a – ny – where.”

Every morning my dad made the school run from our house around the outer suburbs of
Adelaide then straight down Regency Road to Beverley where Faith Christian School—‘the first independent Christian School in Adelaide’—had recently opened its doors. To make the monotonous hour-and-a-bit drive slightly more bearable, Juline (my sister) and Linda (her best friend) had written songs about anything and everything we passed every day.

“If you go you’ll like it so . . .”

Oh, yes. Did I mention my dad was the Principal?

We had moved to Australia at the invitation of a family who wanted to start an independent, fundamentalist, dispensationalist Christian Church. Dad had been teaching theology in the Philippines and felt the call of the Lord to Australia. When this opportunity arose, it was like an answer to prayer, a dream come true.

“You will never want to go.”

The Church began holding meetings in the Enfield (now Broadview) Masonic Hall on Regency Road, about a 10-minute drive from the city centre. Apart from the family previously mentioned and our family of four, there was a handful of regulars who met every Sunday morning for Sunday School and Worship, then Sunday evening for a more informal service.

  • Mr L. He escaped the Communist regime in Latvia by jumping ship and swimming to Sweden.
  • Miss B. We laughed every time she stood on her tip-toes and raised her hands while she sang (something that my parents frowned upon, being a Pentecostal thing, yet tolerated).
  • Mrs P and Ann. Mr. P had died a few years prior to our arrival and left Nancy with a little down syndrome girl, Ann.
  • Miss P and Miss A. Two spinster ladies who were mainstays in the Child Evangelism Fellowship in Adelaide. They lived together and did everything together. Today they could well be the subject of runours.
  • Lee. A single man who lived nearby who, like Mr L and Miss B, spent a lot of his time in the Psychiatric Hospital at Glenside. He was a regular counsellor at the CEF camps and, like the two old ladies, would spark a fair amount of gossip in today’s society.

What a mix-up of people!

Mr L played the accordion and sang occasionally but, besides that, our family and the Elias family did everything else in the Church from playing the out-of-tune piano to cleaning up the beer and wine bottles from the Saturday night party in the hall we rented.

“Like it so” wasn’t exactly the phrase I would use, but my sister and her bestie sang it like they believed it. Perhaps they truly felt like this was a place people could come together and feel at home . . . or perhaps it just rhymed nicely.

Regardless of how they felt at the time, the morning of the Church’s 2nd Anniversary service, Mr Elias showed up alone, handed dad a letter, and left. In the letter dad found out that this family was increasingly concerned about our involvement with CEF and other “Christian” groups in the city and believed that, because of our “compromise,” they must do the biblical thing and separate from us.

Mum and Dad were crushed. In a strange country, this family had been our only real friends. They had helped us settle in, adjust to the Aussie culture and way of life, and provided so much emotional support as we made this transition.

That night we hardly felt like celebrating. It was just us and the ‘misfits’ left in our cosy little church. But the show must go on and, in front of the 60-or-so folks who attended that evening, dad put on a brave face. We sang our hearts out. Mrs P’s brother came and played a couple of hymns on his ‘saw’ (which we recorded and used years later as ghost music for a drama). We exceeded all expectations as we (hypocrites?) praised God for the great things he had done.

A year later, the church changed its name and relocated. Most of the original crew disappeared except for Mrs P and Ann. Oddly enough, Faith Christian School didn’t last the year. It closed its doors and, in its place, Maranatha Christian School was born (which is now a campus of Sunrise Christian School in Sturt).

What an interesting chapter of life that was! Childhood innocence crossing the realities of friends stepping out of our lives. Start-ups with hopes and dreams, changing, re-imagining themselves, and growing—and shrinking–in unpredicted ways.

And, yet, while so much changed for us in those few years, I don’t remember my parents ever losing their focus or their enthusiasm for what they believed was God’s calling. Whether or not the path they took was the best path or not, I am not in a position to make that judgement. And although I’m certain I have forgotten many if the details (and, hopefully, the nastiest ones), I still remember nearly every song those girls sang in that overcrowded, yellow Holden EH wagon.

 

Mary: A Good Friday Story

imageHi. I’m Mary. I used to live in the beautiful town of Magdala on the sea of Galilee.

I First met Jesus when my friends asked him to drop by my house. I guess I’d better tell you a little of my story:  I had been really sick for a long time. It started when I was young—probably when I was around 10 years old. It wasn’t something that happened all of a sudden, but gradually over many years. I began having really dark thoughts about myself. I know that God made me just like I am, but it never seemed to be enough. At synagogue each Sabbath, we were taught how girls were inferior to boys, like there was something wrong with us. The story in the Torah that talks about the woman being deceived and causing all human sin and sickness as well as making our lives generally miserable really got under my skin. It bothered me more and more until it became like it was me there in the garden of God and the snake was coming to get me, or at least take over my mind.

This despair slowly took over my mind and I became really dark and sad.It got to the point that I hardly left my room. I just lay in my bed and stared into nothingness. My parents and whatever friends I had left were worried sick about me. They called in every healer they could find in the hopes that one of them would have some magic oil, herbs or tea that would cure my illness, or at least make it bearable. They spent heaps on trying to help me, but nothing worked.

I can’t even remember where those days went. It all seems like a blur. I started cutting myself and marking my skin with knives. I started hearing voices in my head and it became so bad I couldn’t even hear my sister or mum speak to me. I would wake up at night in terror and see spirits and demons in my room. Many times they would taunt me and call me names. They would tell me I was useless and should kill myself. When my mum died, I couldn’t deal with anything anymore. There seemed to be no end, no way out of this deep darkness that was my life. I gave in to the voices in my head and the years of torture and stumbled and crawled my way out of the town and towards a high hill that dropped off like a cliff into the sea below.

I don’t know why I couldn’t follow through with it. I told myself it was because I was such a coward, … and that became one more name that the demons used to mock me.

Then, one day my sister ran into my room and grabbed me. She was so excited she had tears running down her face. She said, “I think we found someone who can help you!” I must admit I was in some kinda zombie state at the time and the fact that I hadn’t washed or changed my clothes in days didn’t seem to faze her at all. She grabbed me and literally dragged me out the door and down the stairs.

And there he was. Jesus. …

He said one word, “Mary.”

It was the sweetest way someone had ever said my name. I felt . . . I can’t really explain it . . . There just aren’t the words  . . . . I could feel my demons leaving me as something like a huge gust of wind swept right through me. I  . . . I . . . was . . . . free!  I was so overcome by a joy and sense of peace that I had never known. The voices in my head disappeared. The spirits in the room vanished and the air was fresh and sweet-smelling . . . (not like me, as I suddenly realised). And you can’t begin to imagine how my friends and family reacted: they were over the moon with excitement. It was like I was resurrected from the dead!

I followed Jesus from that day on. Everywhere he went. I wanted to be near him. I watched him heal the sick, I saw him open the eyes of that blind man. I was there when he fed 5000 people with just five small bread rolls and two little fish.

I was there when he rode into Jerusalem a few days ago, on the back of a donkey. I heard the crowds shout “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” I poured the wine for Jesus and his followers when they celebrated Passover together.

When he was arrested, I went with Jesus’s mum to his trial—if you can call it that—and watched him accused of treason and blasphemy.

And then they sentenced him to death and immediately took him to the hill of the skull, outside of the city and nailed him to a cross.

My heart broke. After all he had done for others—I mean, look at me!—after all the good he did . . . this? Seeing his mum sobbing . . . I don’t know what to say. It was horrible.

I just remember Jesus as being this wonderful, kind . . . generous man who always had a smile and encouraging word. He never turned anyone away. . . . We’re going to miss him, and I’m sure memories of these past few years will never ever leave us. A few of the other women who travelled with him are gathering together some spices and oils and are going to go to the tomb and do a proper burial as soon as the Sabbath is over. I guess I’ll join them. Then I’ll probably go back to my family home in Magdala. I just hope those demons don’t come back. I knew they wouldn’t if he was nearby, but I don’t know what I’m going to do now. . . .

Goodbye my dear friend. You saved my life. I will always remember you.

Wheels

rmspWe were walking down Rundle Street just before 9 last Friday night and crossed paths with the Rundle Mall street preachers.

(For those of you not from the beautiful city of Adelaide, these are men who have taken it upon themselves to scream at and shame shoppers in Rundle Mall every Friday evening in an attempt to save their souls from eternity in hell. If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you’ll see the content of most of their rants and you may also notice the irony of the placard’s first line and the man’s face adjacent it.)

Back to Friday night.

Coming towards us was this gang of several rather sombre-looking men, one of them carrying a large almost life-sized cross made of timber. I made a comment to Vicki how mean the cross-bearer looked, and then looked down to notice, to my surprise, that the cross had wheels.

What?

Imagine 2,000 years ago as an exhausted and beaten Jesus made his way carrying his cross up the Via Dolorosa to the place of his execution. He is so depleted, he falls under the substantial weight of the cross. A nearby man–we know him only as Simon– is co-opted into carrying the cross for him.

His cross didn’t have wheels.

Truth is, we all have wheels on our crosses. We struggle to make sense of tragedy and loss, but we have access to professional counsellors and therapists to help us through the trauma. We face loss of income through redundancy, but we have government and employer-funded programs and training options to aid us in getting back into the workforce. A burglar breaks into our home and steals our most valuable possessions, but we are insured.

Wheels on our crosses.

We really don’t know what suffering is until we are in a place, a state, a circumstance where there is no safety net, no lifeline . . . no wheels . . .

Maybe that’s why, when things take a wrong turn and seem to be crumbling around us, we use the phrase, “The wheels fell off.”

Unless we have been in such a hopeless, helpless predicament, there is no way we can truly understand the agony of being powerless, resource-less, friendless. Until we must carry our cross alone (sans wheels) we cannot fathom the pain and weariness of Jesus.

I wonder if that may be what Lent is all about: putting ourselves in the place of Jesus and imagining what life would be like in the way of the cross. Perhaps in doing this, we may not only gain a new appreciation for our own lot in life–however ordinary it may seem–but also a clearer perspective on the suffering that surrounds us in our world.

And perhaps we, we might be the wheels on someone else’s cross.

Where we go Wrong (Part 2)

in my last post I wrote about kind atheists and mean Christians and how we are wrong in assuming all those who do not embrace our particular form of faith are evil and have an untoward agenda.

I have been reading a few incredible books recently that have been raising all sorts of questions, and I’m grateful to the men and women who are able to frame these in such a thought-provoking manner.

Rachel Held-Evans wrote a particularly poignant book that tells numerous stories of her formative years growing up in Evangelicalism. It’s simply called Faith Unraveled: Gow a Girl Who Knew all the Answers Learned to ask the Questions. Through these stories Rachel shares her struggle with many of the idiosyncrecies often associated with American Evangelicals such as the self-focused “I’m blessed” attitude, for example: thanking God for good weather for your wedding when a hurricane is at that moment wiping out entire towns and leaving people dead, injured, or homeless. Among other things she addresses the idea of living “biblically,” the position of LGBTQ folk in the church, women in ministry and Biblical inerrancy. All together, Held-Evans has painted a stark and realistic view of modern Christianity whilst showing how, within the very institutions that brought this pain, people are rising up and bringing healing and hope, reforming and changing the organisations that tried to destroy them.

Another book I would highly recommend is the new Harper Lee (To Kill a Mickingbird) novel Go Set a Watchman. It took a while for this book to engage me. It wasn’t really until around the eighth chapter that I began to see beyond the words and into the intent of the author. What first appeared to be a rather mediocre narrative about life in the early twentieth century South took on the air of prophetic voice of one caught in the middle of the 1960’s Desegregation Movement, particularly feeling the pull between the paradigm embraced by her father (Atticus Finch) and that of her own deep-rooted convictions. Like Faith Unraveled, Watchman recognises the tension between not only generations but also between worldviews. Rather than resolving that tension, both authors deconstruct the conflict and then reconstruct it in such a way that brings a sense of understanding and peace into the relationships (yet not fully resolving the underlying tension).

How to hold a sense of peace in relationships that appear to be on the two ends of the spectrum has always been of particular difficulty to me. Often I have found the maxim of loving my neighbour truly troublesome at times, especially when my neighbour is actively and vocally propagating what I consider damaging. Yet, in both of these books, the possibility of living at peace with all is something that is not only seen as desirable but genuinely possible.

I have one more book to add to this mix, and it is The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson. I will look into the message of this book in a later post, but will touch on the main story here.

Carlton Pearson was an Associate of Oral Roberts, an Evangelist and a megachurch Pastor of a Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, until he started seeing hell in a different light than his colleagues. Recounting his experiences in Rob Bell’s Robcast podcast, Bishop Pearson shares a turning point in his life–how he had a long conversation with the ageing Billy Graham shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, a discussion in which the famous Evangelist questioned the validity of his own 60-year ministry with remorse that he hadn’t left the world a better place, despite the millions “saved” in his numerous campaigns. This led Pearson to ask why this was so and, after much thought, study and prayer, to the conclusion that the gospel as it is traditionally understood (as a guilt- and fear-based message) is not at all how Jesus preached it. His argument through this book is that we must reclaim the good news that God has already redeemed all humanity and our Evangelistic message is truly good news to all: you are delivered, you are free! Live in the light and love of God.

For this. The Council of African-Anerican Bishops excommunicated Pearson, labelling him a heretic. He lost his church, his position on the board of ORU and many, many friends. Yet, in spite of all this, he believes that there is hope for the Church and he is at peace with her. Sure, the Church needs to change. One of his favourite statements is that “[The Church] is not growing; it is getting fat,” meaning that we are comfortable with who we are and what we believe. We have settled for ease in our places of worship rather than the discomfort that comes in asking the tough questions and facing the realities that our world is not a better place despite the centuries of spreading the “good news” to every nation. 

In the end, Pearson states that we are getting it wrong when we fail to question our understanding of the “good news” and settling for what is dictated to us by tradition, politics, church, or family. We are getting fat, not growing. We are caught in our parents’ worldview, our religious dogma, the doctrines of our Church, having never questioned their monopoly of the Divine. It is only when we see our faith unraveled that we can see order amidst the mess and a new and genuine faith arising from the ashes. Nothing is lost. Even uncertainty is a gift. There is hope. All is and will be redeemed.

Some may call this heresy. I call it evolution: an evolving faith that changes, grows and expands as new light is received. Perhaps it’s time we as a Church start asking the right questions. Perhaps it is time to be courageous and dare to be unsettled. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the “good news” as good news and take the steps necessary to leave this world a better place.

Traditions

It’s ironic, in a nation where Christmas Day is celebrated in the middle of Summer when the weather’s usually hot and humid, that the shopping malls and radio stations still play Christmas music a la Currier & Ives—singing about sleighs, snow and sitting by the fire. The Christmas dinner of choice in most households, even in 40-dgree heat (100+ on the old scale) is still a roast turkey and piping hot vegetables. And the ubiquitous Santa Claus suffers through days in stuffy faux-snow castles wearing a long-sleeved fur-lined coat, long pants and boots.

Australia_SantaWhy is it that, miles away from the northern hemisphere, traditions are carried on through the generations as if one is living in Europe, the U.K. or America?

Apart from the inroads of Americanism into our culture, Australians by-and-large carry in traditions of their ancestors to a fault (even though shrimp and cold meats are slowly usurping prime position on the table (and the turkeys breathe a collective sigh of relief).

Tradition is a powerful motivation. One only needs to visit any family in a growing number of ethnic communities to see that the holiday itself takes on different (or no) meaning, depending on the country of origin.

Christianity, too, has its traditions. And just like traditions differ between Afghans, Chinese and Italian immigrants, so traditions within Christendom vary depending on denomination and, often, nation of origin of that denomination.

Regardless of the origins or the variables evident, traditions—rituals, liturgies, stories, histories—are a grounding force in religion. I believe they are important elements of faith that bring to the table a sense of place, a history. In my opinion, we need history to show us not only where we came from, but also bring perspective into the present and help us in envisioning a trajectory into the future.

Traditions may be rituals such as candle lighting during Advent, special stories read on Christmas Eve, a Christmas Day church service, the pennies baked into plum puddings or great-grandma’s hand-embroidered doilies on the dinner table. They may be the Christmas hymns we sing (a.k.a. carols), the legend of St Nicholas, or the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Traditions are like points on a map that show us where we have been, or like mile markers to show us where we are or how far we have to go.

They give us a sense of belonging.

They ground us in our ever-changing culture.

They give us a sense of stability.

They show us, in symbolic picture, prose or ritual, what is possible.

They give us hope for those who follow, that they too will be able to grasp the meaning and find a way to live in generations to come with purpose and faith.

Traditions may change. Rituals may evolve. But may the myriad of ways they speak into our lives always bring us joy, peace, love and a sense of hope for the future.

God Showed Up?

worship_lightI am concerned about the language we use when we speak of God.

Words are important. They ought not to be thrown about casually as if they were cheap, Reject Shop candy.

Words have power. Used wisely and appropriately, they can change lives, build communities, shape nations. Used foolishly they can bring false understanding, stir hatred, or incite fear.

That’s why I am troubled by the cheap, throwaway lines used by church leaders such as “Let’s make Jesus famous” (like God’s son is a Hollywood A-list celebrity nobody knows). Or the way people speak of our “unworthiness” or “sinfulness” (I was under the impression that God in grace and immense love has made us worthy). Or, directed towards God, “Lord, come down and meet with us here today” (as if God is one who is distant, apart from us, and whose presence depends on our invitation or prayer).

But on the peak of this mountain of bargain-basement language is the phrase used often after an especially moving time of worship (a.k.a. emotionally-charged singing): “And God showed up.”

God showed up? Really?

God chose this moment in time, and this particular location (usually within the confines of a church building) waiting patiently until we were fervently praying and singing and raising our hands to “show up”?

Allow me to turn this one on its head.

God didn’t show up.

God doesn’t show up.

God never needs to show up.

God is always here.

Now.

With us.

Present.

It is we who “show up” when we realise that God has always been here. It is we who “show up” when we become aware that we are always standing on holy ground and everything and everyone around us is engulfed in the presence of the Divine.

It is we who “show up” when we respond to these encounters by acknowledging that is our blindness that kept us from seeing God and our misplaced focus that kept us from entering the divine dance.

“Surely the Lord is in this place,” the Hebrew patriarch Jacob is quoted as saying, “—and I wasn’t even aware of it!” (Genesis 28:16, NLT)

God is not some magical genie whom we can summon any time we need a favour, a fix, or a recharge.

God is not dependent on our prayers, our Facebook “likes,” or certain worship songs sung in a certain sincere and holy manner to visit with us.

God is here.

Not just in a church building or in a Christian gathering, but…

…in every place (home, garden, mosque, desert, public square)…

…at any gathering (class, football game, bat mitzvah, parliament)…

…at any given moment in time (now, tomorrow, when you turn 80 years old, forever).

Sacred Presence. Now. Always.

It’s us who need to show up.

It’s our eyes that need to be opened.

It’s we who need to wake up and be aware of the great dance going on around us all the time.

And in waking from our sleep, we rise to join in and celebrate the God who is always with us.

*  *  *  *  *

My thinking about the concept of God has been challenged and strengthened by the framework Rob Bell has proposed in both his books and his podcast. I highly recommend his most recent episodes on God Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, as well has his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I also recommend Pete Rollins’s similarly-titled book, How (Not) to Speak of God. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.

My understanding is evolving and is, as I noticed when I looked back at a few of my older posts, changing. I want to keep on this trajectory since I feel this area is, in fact, inexhaustible and my present understanding, relatively speaking, has quite a long way to grow.