Faith

IMG_1448I was asked recently to share what my faith journey looked like.

I’ll admit: it is a journey, and it certainly involves faith. That said, it’s often difficult for me to articulate. Faith is not black and white (or as I heard one say, “It isn’t binary.”) It looks different for you than it may for me.

It may also include uncertainty, doubt, fear, struggle, deconstruction and reconstruction, and many seasons of growth and change.

It may or may not be tied to a church experience. It may or may not have clearly defined boundaries, milestones, turning points, commitments, or life-changing decisions.

Regardless of what it looks like, it involves questions, hope, and trust that what is promised will come to be, both in this life and in the next. I think the writer of the following reflection also understand it this way.

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“I shall not die, but live, and tell of the Lord’s great deeds.” – Psalm 118: 17

When my mother was dying, some of my siblings and in-laws kept whispering to her that Jesus was waiting to welcome her, that people she loved would be there too, that she could let go without fear. At one point in this litany of reassurance, she woke up, looked right at us, and said in a strong voice, clear as a bell, “Are you sure?”

Immediately everybody said, “Yes, we’re sure!” Even I said so—I who have struggled for years with what ‘life after death’ might rationally mean.

“We’re sure,” I said. I’m sure.

Immediately under my breath I threatened God: “Did you hear that? I just told her it’s true. It had better be. It had better be, do you hear me? I gave her my word.”

Some people claim to know. They’ve seen soft lights, green meadows, felt God’s embrace. If you find that comforting, I’m glad. But none of it is certain. We have only promises and poetry, longing and love, need and hope. The rest is silence.

All the same, if my mother had asked me a thousand times whether it was true about Jesus and loved ones and God’s embrace, a thousand times I would have said yes. And after each yes I would have threatened God, “It had better be.” And after each menacing prayer, silence would be the reply.

That’s hard. It just is.

There’s a reason they call it ‘faith.’

— Mary Luti, from StillSpeaking

How can it be?

lauren-how-can-it-beThere’s a song that has been going around Christian circles recently called How Can It Be* sung by (a relatively unknown) Lauren Daigle. You can view the YouTube clip here. This type of song is disturbing because it contains some truth but, apart from what I personally consider to be a harmful theology of penal substitutionary atonement (for further information read the excellent articles found here and here), it also contains a dangerous undercurrent of downright negativity and falsehood about who we are in God’s sight. Here’s the first verse:

I am guilty Ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become These hands are dirty I dare not lift them up to the Holy one

“I am guilty.” “I am ashamed.” “My hands are dirty.” “I dare not lift them to the holy one.” Who told you this? If we read the New Testament, we see that we have been reconciled to God, declared righteous, called “holy” and “beloved of God,” and urged to lift up holy hands in prayer. This is dangerous because it tells us and our families, our children, that they are intrinsically dirty, shameful, not desirable to God, unloved, and that they dare not approach God. Now, obviously, the songwriters continue by showing how Jesus steps into this gulf between who we are and what God demands, and this is the primary message of a penal system where God demands his son die to appease his own wrath against humanity. It also relies heavily on legal language and views human salvation as an transaction between Jesus and God and between God and individual humans.

You plead my cause You right my wrongs You break my chains You overcome You gave Your life To give me mine You say that I am free How can it be How can it be

And then verse two:

I’ve been hiding Afraid I’ve let you down, inside I doubt That You could love me But in Your eyes there’s only grace now

Do we want to feed our souls with such a fear-based, guilt-inducing message? “I’m afraid. I’ve been hiding. I don’t know how you could love such a person as myself. But there’s grace in your eyes now. Earlier? Maybe not so. But now, there’s grace.” The repeating chorus echoes that phrase “How can it be?” Incredulous that such a wretch (or “worm” in the words of another old hymn) as I should be able to lift my head to the Holy God. This is not a song that speaks of love, our endearment to God, a thriving relationship or being the beloved ones of the Divine.

That said, the real reason this song–and songs like it–arte so dangerous is that music has a way of binding itself into our mind and affecting our soul. It can change the course of a life. It can reinforce good thoughts or drive home a despairing view of life that adds to the already-burdensome load we carry. We don’t need the added weight of shame, guilt, and despair. We need music that will lift our spirits, deliver truth of who we are into our hearts, and declare the universal and eternal love of God. Unfortunately, How Can It Be is not that kind of music. Songs like this really need to be left as (possible) artful expressions, but not repeated and rehearsed and made part of our life.

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* Publishing: © 2014 Sony ATV Timber Publishing (SESAC) / Sony ATV Timber Publishing & Open Hands Music (SESAC) / Ponies Riding Shotgun (ASCAP Writer(s): Words and Music by Paul Mabury, Jason Ingram and Jeff Johnson

Resurrection Happens

IMG_1444Easter is a very conflicted occasion.

  • Pagan festivals and church processions.
  • Eggs and crosses.
  • Bunnies and burials.
  • Lilies and grave clothes.
  • Chocolate and empty tombs.

Then there is the question of reality–did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is there evidence beyond the Bible for this supernatural event? Is Scriptural evidence sufficient?

Regardless of our responses to these questions, there is a broader question that we ought to be asking: Is thee a wider truth that we can draw from the Easter story that speaks to us on a more universal, meaningful level?

Listen to the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” 

It doesn’t take that much imagination to put ourselves into the story of these disciples. “We had hoped. Our dreams were in him. Our future was in his hands. Now he’s gone.”

Are you feeling hopeless today? Do you feel that you cannot go on? Is the burden you carry great, and the pain too intense? Is the healing just not happening, the sorrow too much for you?

Here is the truth of Easter: God is in the resurrection business. 

The very first words of Scripture speak of God making new life out of chaos. The creation poem tells us that God spoke there was light.  The waters separated (the ancients believed above the sky was a water-dome called in Genesis ‘the firmament’). The dry land appeared. Fish and animals, human beings, plants and trees all came into being out of the chaos of ‘the deep.’

Some of the last words in Scripture state in simple words God’s grand plan: “Behold I make all things new.” From the chaos this world has become, resurrection will happen and new life–a renewed creation–will spring forth.

Whether or not we believe in a literal resurrection should not prevent us from drawing deeper meaning from this widely-accepted Christian narrative.

Resurrection–new life–is happening around us every day. It’s never too late to begin again. God is even now, in all-embracing love and grace, making all things new.

And this can be true for you too.

There is hope. The power of Christ’s resurrection is at work. The Spirit of God is moving amongst your chaos, speaking light into darkness, strength into weakness and new life into hopelessness.

Resurrection happens! 

And resurrection can happen for you.

Be-ing



So I’m sitting here in the calm of this mild autumn evening while my other half is out catching up with the girls.

I’ve already made (warmed up is a better word) and ate my dinner, watched a few YouTube videos, checked my running sheet for Sunday’s morning service, cleaned out the utensil drawer, downloaded a few more Spotify playlists, read parts of three different books, made some salt and vinegar almonds, drank a beer, checked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram numerous times, and now I’m listening to the Tony Bennet / Lady Gaga album ‘Cheek to Cheek.’

I’ve run out of stuff to do.

Or am I bored?

No, not bored because my mum always said that if you’re bored it’s because you can’t stand your own company. I love my own company. 

I love my own company better if my honey is with me.

(Wow! Lady Gaga’s got a great voice. Did you catch her Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars this year? I never knew she could actually sing like real songs, classic stuff.)

Now I’m reminding myself of that dog with the dog-to-human translator in the movie ‘Up’ who gets distracted by a squirrel in the middle of a conversation. (Vicki and I have made the word ‘squirrelling’ synonymous with getting sidetracked in the middle of a task … which is kind of what I’m doing right now. “Look! Squirrel!”)

Back to being on my own.

I was listening to the ‘Wilosophy’ podcast on the way to work, the episode where Will Anderson spends over an hour bantering with Dr Karl. They discuss everything from what is taught in High School to politics, unemployment, the economy science (of course! For those non-Aussies, he’s the Australian Bill Nye). Dr Karl spent some time explaining how the mainstream media works and how we have defaulted to allowing Big Business to dictate what we hear, see and how we live. Because of the way our ‘toys’ have been marketed to us and made more and more affordable–not to mention ‘necessary’– our attention span (and our contentment span) is getting shorter and shorter.

One day we’ll all think only in 90-second blocks and have sub-100 IQs.

At least that what’s Dr Karl thinks.

I believe he’s on to something.

He also says that we tend to feel guilty if we’re not productive. We seem to judge down-days where we just sleep, eat and relax as ‘wasted.’ He sees these times as necessary for wellbeing and won’t consider any downtime as non-productive.

But we’ve been conditioned to believe we need to ‘do’ stuff, ‘achieve’ status, and ‘earn’ accolades and respect. 

That’s too much of a burden for every day.

I’m warming to the idea of Sabbath. The ancients would set aside one day when no work would be done, nothing would be cooked, and people would travel nowhere. Millennia later, we have lost this concept in our desire to feel like we accomplished something worthwhile . . . every day . . . every minute of every day.

We need Sabbath. Downtime. ‘Do nothing’ time.

Instead of doing, we simply need to be. Be present. Be with ourselves. Be at peace. Be content. 

Take time. Steal it, if we must, from our ‘busy’ lives.

Just to be . . . . 

Just. Simply. Only be-ing, not do-ing. 

Which brings me back to tonight.

I’m not that good at be-ing.Especially be-ing alone.

I would rather be do-ing (as you can tell by my long list of ‘squirrel’ moments at the top of this page.)

But, for the rest of my alone-time tonight, I’m going to attempt quietly sitting here with a glass of something or another and entering into a place of be-ing. Listening to some chilled tunes. And just being. Resting. Relax . . . Look! Squirrel!

(This isn’t gonna be easy.)

God Creates Things That Create

earthIn Romans 8:22, Paul says, “From the beginning until now, the entire creation as we know it has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.” That is a very feminine notion of creation, giving birth slowly through labour pains. It complements Genesis’ masculine statement: “Let there be light!” (1:3). Just this one line from Paul should be enough to justify a Christian belief in evolution. Yet to this day, the issue of evolution still divides some Christians, questioning what is rather obvious: that God creates things that create themselves. Wouldn’t this be the greatest way that God could create–to give autonomy, freedom, and grace to things to keep self-creating even further? (Non-creative minds tend to not see or allow creativity anywhere else. In fact, that is what makes them so uncreative!)

Healthy parents love their children so much that they want them to keep growing, producing, and performing to their highest potential. Good parents are even excited when their children surpass them, as my uneducated farmer parents were when I went off to higher studies. Mature parents are generative about their children and say, in my paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “Don’t get too excited about the things that we did. You’re going to do even greater things!” (John 14:12). Immature parents only see their children as images and extensions of themselves. True love empowers and delights in the even larger and independent successes of those they love. (It is often would-be successful sons who are most resented and abused by jealous and weak fathers.)

For a long time most people were satisfied with a very static universe. Yet Jesus understands reality as dynamic and evolutionary. Clearly there is an unfolding to the universe (we are literally still expanding!). Reality is going somewhere. It’s moving, until “In the end there will only be Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11). The One > Multiplicity > Conscious Unity seems to be the underlying pattern. Paul sees history as an ongoing process of ever greater inclusion of every lesser force until in the end, “God will be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The notion of the Cosmic Christ is precisely “the One” reality that includes everything and excludes nothing. As St. Bonaventure put it, “God is the One whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Richard Rohr, from Daily Meditation (26 January, 2015), adapted from Christ, Cosmology, and Consciousness and A New Cosmology: Nature as the First Bible

Laying it on

christmas loveIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

As we approach this holiday, preparations are being made for huge family get-togethers, massive roast turkeys, bottomless bowls of salad, and copious amounts of drink (alcoholic or otherwise).

With this celebrations, the pressure is on to do what we colloquially term ‘laying it on’–putting on your best face, wearing your trendiest clothes, saying things that could pass as highly intelligent or bring the family to tears of laughter.

Sometimes we simply lose sight of what it is all about, as we are reminded in this fourth week of Advent, love.

Love doesn’t require airs, shows, obligatory pleasantries, or even artfully-painted faces. Love is.

With love–and I am speaking here of both being loving and accepting love from others and from God–there is freedom to be who we are. Richard Rohr uses the example of his favourite saint, Francis of Assisi, to illustrate that my true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me. When I know that I am loved unconditionally (without obligations or requirements on my part) I have a certain kind of freedom where not only do I not care what others think of me, but I, occasionally, intentionally play the fool in order that they don’t get too high a view of my self.

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Franciscan Mysticism (an unpublished talk)

May you know this kind of love this Christmas, a love that frees, a love that releases from expectations, a love that doesn’t need to ‘lay it on’ for others to see, and a love that values others simply because they are loved by God rather than because of what they can bring to the table.

A Meeting of Shareholders

sharesSo I had this dream.

Normally I don’t remember much of what I dream but, for some reason, this one I remember as if it were a technicolour movie.

In this dream, I walk with my family into what appears to be an arena of sorts—not a sports arena, but a small, but open space that looks similar to art I’ve seen depicting the Roman Senate at the time of Julius Caesar. Around the square floor of this arena rose wide limestone steps, like those of an amphitheatre. The steps were wide enough so that tables and chairs could be set on them. The levels were about 2 feet high and there were five or six of them between the arena floor and the back walls.

At the tables sat men and women who were listening intently to someone whom, I assumed, was in a position of authority, speaking from a small stage under a gazebo built in the middle of the arena. As he was speaking, I heard murmurs of approval or disapproval from the audience, and several of them were writing things down on papers (which I later found out to be a type of ballot).

The man in the arena was addressing the audience as ‘shareholders’ and it seemed like he was urging them to make decisions on some aspect of the yet-unknown company’s operations.

As my family and I walked around the edge of the arena floor, just under the first level of tables, I also saw children and youth milling about. Some sat on the floor by some of the tables, but most took the opportunity to play around the roof-supporting columns of the upper levels of the stands.

Returning my attention to the floor of the arena, I saw, surrounding the leader, men and women. Some were carrying books, some had instruments (It appears there had been some sort of performance prior to the speaking.) In front of the stage were tables with rows of old, leather-bound books, not unlike the records of proceedings which decorate the centre tables in the chambers of Parliament. I remember assuming, as I dreamed, that this was no ordinary shareholder’s meeting since it appeared to meet on a fairly regular and consistent basis in this space.

As the meeting in my dream progressed, I made my way towards the stage and ended up standing next to this leader. Seeing the stands from this vantage point, I began to notice a flow of people in and out of the arena. It appeared that, at different points in the meeting, some who disagreed would pack up their papers and books and leave and others would come in and take their place. On their way out, they would hand over some paperwork to a person who stood behind a bench and they would return to them something that looked like cash. These were obviously the shareholders who had decided that they no longer wished to be investors in the company, cashing in their stock and leaving.

It’s then that I began to see, as if my eyes had been out of focus but had somehow regained 20/20 vision. I recognised some of the ‘shareholders.’ They were fellow members of my church. The men and women standing around the stage seemed to morph into elders and members of the church board. The people holding instruments, the worship team. The CEO addressing the crowd, our pastor.

Whether or not this vision was influenced by recent church meetings, I have no idea. Votes were being made, people were leaving on the basis of those votes. The pastor, try as he might to persuade folks to vote in a certain way, couldn’t seem to make any progress, and the meeting dragged on as my family and I walked out the door which we had entered earlier.

I don’t know if this dream has any significance beyond the fact that I really don’t like church meetings. Yet, somehow, I can see in this a snapshot of how our contemporary version of Church has bought into the consumer culture where we can ‘shop around’ for a better church that ticks all of our personal wish list boxes. If things aren’t going well, we can either exercise our shareholder’s prerogative and attempt to change the direction of the company through lobbying, voting or investing more, or we can ‘sell our shares’ and move on.

In many ways, the clergy (with the support of the elders, board, council or other church body of authority) is doing much like the CEO of any corporation—selling the vision, encouraging people to buy into that vision and then invest their time, money and talents for the prosperity of the company. As more invest, the share price goes up, the public reputation on the ‘Church Exchange’ rises, and the church grows.

I don’t believe this is the community that shares the vision of Christ.

If we are seeking our own comfort and to perpetuate that sense of ease in our congregations, if we are seeing the ballot as the only catalyst of change, if all we are concerned about is getting our own voice heard or our idea approved, we are not following in the steps of the one whose name we claim.

The Church was never meant to be a meeting of shareholders. It was not established to be ruled by the principles of free enterprise. It is, and always ought to be, a place that exists for the betterment and success of those outside its walls.

And if it fails to live up to that modus operandi established by its founder and Saviour, then I believe we all need to cash in our shares and walk out that door.

And once outside, we may see that this is where God has been working all the while.