Minimalist Spirituality

I’m a big fan of minimalism.

Those of you who follow me on social media probably know this. I like a lot of posts by folks like Joshua Becker, Be More With Less and The Minimalists and follow people like Marie Kondo, Greg McKeown and Leo Babauta. Each one of these has a unique take on what constitutes a minimalist lifestyle, achieving balance and experiencing contentment in life.

There is one commonality in all interpretations of minimalism and that is that we humans thrive best when we only hold on to that which brings meaning and sparks joy.

I’ve often thought that minimalism would also serve us well in our spirituality. As I reflect on past expressions of my faith, theology, and spiritual practice, it is clear to me that many things that once served a purpose for me no longer meet that need. There are principles I once held dear which, over time, have become, for me, spiritual clutter–clouding my vision, distracting me from what is important, or just taking up space in my soul that would be better given to meaningful pursuits or joyful contemplation.

Whatever we choose and however we practice our faith, juxtaposing it against a minimalist mentality has helped me personally to clarify what is essential to my spiritual wellbeing and what is simply excess baggage that I would do well to discard.

CatPigeonAnd here’s where I may be setting the cat amongst the pigeons.

Over the past twenty-or-so years I have found myself gradually re-forming many of my previously-firmly-held beliefs about God. And that, in many circles, may now classify me as somewhat of a outsider. I believe still in the unconditional nature of God’s love, but I have now defined this as truly unconditional.

PreviouslyI would have stated with not a small amount of cognitive dissonance that God’s love was unconditional as long as I am not gay, I am not fornicating, I attend the right church, listen to the right music, read the right Bible, say the right words and ‘accept Jesus as my personal Saviour’ (not a Biblical concept by the way), or as long as I keep the hundred-or-so rules that ensure God doesn’t reject me. I would even twist my understanding of “unconditional” to say that I put my own conditions on God’s love by sinning (a classic ‘blame the victim’ stance that is characteristic of a fundamentalist mindset).

To me, having gone through the valley of doubt and deconstruction, discovering a God whose love is not only beyond our comprehension but is as the very core of the universe was mind-blowingly liberating. As my eyes became adjusted to these new lenses, I began to see the spiritual clutter that lined the walls of my spiritual home:

  • The feeling of not being good enough
  • The rule book of other’s expectations
  • The tally board that kept score of all my wrongs
  • The tally board that kept score of everyone else’s wrongs
  • The blinkers that once kept me from looking at those in the margins
  • The reasonable arguments that convinced the faithful ones that their understanding is the one, definitive, correct interpretation of the Holy Bible
  • The smug feeling that I was one of the faithful ones
  • The judgemental spectacles through which I viewed all those who did not fit into my understanding of the Divine

Like minimalism, my spiritual minimalist journey has brought my focus into those few truths that truly bring meaning and spark joy in me:

  • God = Love and all love is from God
  • Sin is our choice to live outside of the love of God and in no way affects God’s unconditional and eternal love for us
  • There is no need for us to prove anything to God.
  • God is in the process of reconciling all creation to God’s-self and sometimes–often–chooses to use us in this process
  • Our humanity is a gift, not a curse
  • Our togetherness is God’s design and needs to be nurtured
  • Our differences are chances to show love and develop our understanding

I still believe many of the truths which I was raised to value such as the love, generosity and grace of God, the incarnation of God revealed in Jesus who died and was raised to life by the power of God, the importance of Scriptures in shaping my faith, the creation of this amazing universe by God–although I would nuance these understandings differently than perhaps you would. No, I’m not turning into a Buddhist monk or a Zen master. I am not choosing to live as a hermit or monastic. I am not even working on my new age guru skills.

I am also not devaluing those truths in your spiritual house that bring to you meaning and spark joy in your heart. As we are all different, so is the way that God speaks and relates to each one of us. What I may view as ‘clutter’ may be your most valuable asset. For some, a systematic theology might indeed spark joy, or having a certainty that your Scriptures are infallible and factual may bring meaning. Maybe there’s other forms of spiritual clutter that you need to cast out of your home. Rules that were good to form healthy habits but no longer serve any purpose. Ideas that once brought joy but now provoke feelings of uneasiness or regret.

In the end, the object of living a life of love is to recognise this and, in the midst of these differences, still choose love, because, above faith and hope, it is still the greatest abiding presence.

A New Story

Cory-and-the-Seventh-Story-Cover-LargeBrian McLaren has written a new book. There’s nothing new about that. He’s been churning out around one a year for a few decades now. I personally have been blessed, challenged and changed by reading his writings. By far, the book that has had the greatest impact on my life of faith has been A New Kind of Christian which, for me at the time, echoed so many I-dare-not-speak thoughts and questions about what had become to me a stale, dead, rote-memory, agenda-driven Christianity.

And that story is told in a new, embraceable way in this brightly-illustrated children’s book by Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, Cory & the Seventh Story.

If you are familiar with Brian’s work, the seventh story will definitely ring a bell. In this child-friendly version, Cory the raccoon and his friend Owl (who, unfortunately, remains nameless) live through the evolution of human civilisation as symbols of ourselves in their animal village. As the story unfolds, the creatures play out the stories, centring around the possession of a ‘shiny object,’ that we all, at some point, have lived:

Domination: Us ruling over Them
Revolution: Us overthrowing Them
Isolation: Us apart from Them
Purification: Us marginalising or excluding Them
Victimisation: Us defeated by Them
Accumulation: Us with more than Them
Reconciliation: Us for Them

Cleverly weaving in very relatable interactions between Cory and the main players in these stories, McLaren and Higgins reveal the great flaws in history’s six stories which are only overcome in the telling of a seventh story by a poet-horse named Swift.

In this new story, a bigger table is built and all the animals are welcomed to a great feast. They are to come as they are and leave their ‘shiny objects’ at home and simply enjoy what has been prepared for them. Those who up until now had been considered ‘the least’ are given places of honour at the table and there is plenty of food for everyone–nobody is left out.

As they enjoy the celebration, Swifthorse tells the new story:

“There is no big or small, no short or tall,
No best or worst, no blessed or cursed,
No dirty or clean, no cause to be mean,
No rich or poor, no reason for war,
We have more than enough in the story of love.
Each is for all of us, and all are for each of us.
This is the wisdom this new story teaches us.”

Of course, there are a few who snarl and spit at this idea–these are the dominating creatures of the previous stories: Badger, Fox, Weasel and Skunk–who drive out Swift and, possibly (this part is left unanswered) kill her.

Drive the poet away, but this story will stay.
Long after I’m gone, the story lives on.

In the concluding pages, the creatures, who themselves are treated as outcasts by the antagonists, gather around a fire and retell Swift’s story and promise to live in love and service for the betterment of their world.

For those of us who have grown up in Christianity, the parallels are quite obvious. However, seeing ourselves as tellers of the six stories at various times in our journey is something that, even as an adult, is confronting. In our own interaction with ‘shiny objects’ and the desire for power over others, we have failed in many ways to hear the story of love as it is told–and demonstrated to us–by and in the life of Jesus.

This short, readable parable may not only grow our children’s awareness of the stories by which we live our lives, but may also help us to see how much we need to grow as their parents and role models to not only tell but also show them the reconciling love and acceptance of Jesus.

Cory & the Seventh Story was released on 12 December and, at the time of writing, is only available directly from the website https://www.theseventhstory.com/kids/

 

. . . But we were too busy being Christians

I sat down to watch the (now classic) movie Back to the Future with my mate David. Despite there being 9 years difference in our ages, we both loved the same music and enjoyed the same TV shows (even though he did have an unshared weird fascination with the animated Dragon Ball series). We had dropped by the local Blockbuster and picked up the aforementioned movie on VHS tape and, for 116 minutes precisely, lived life through the eyes of one Marty McFly.

Dave’s mum was in and out of the family room, and at one point sat down at the desk behind us and, like us, got caught up in McFly’s adventures (or maybe she was just keeping tabs on how I was corrupting her son?). I remember turning to her at one point in the movie where Marty’s future mum and dad were slow dancing at the ‘Under the Sea Ball’ and I made an off-handed remark that she must have enjoyed her Senior Prom (seeing as she was, like the McFly elders, coming of age in the rock-n-roll era.)

Her response floored me with its almost-venomous indignation: “We didn’t do things like THAT. We were Christians!”

I tell that story to tell this one:

I enjoyed a long lunch recently with some friends and, as we sat around the table, talk shifted to our shared past in the Church. None of us at that table attend church with anywhere near the regularity we once did, having found so many new and more practical expressions of our faith. Musing on how many good deeds we could have done and how much life we could have shared with others outside our own churches back then, one of the group summed it all up in a truism that echoed in my head for days to come: ‘We were too busy being Christians.’

Yes. We were.*

The world around us was crashing and people were finding themselves jobless, without a home. Interest rates were at an all-time high and unemployment was off the charts. The AIDS epidemic was at its highest. There was famine in places we never heard of. Evil was rampant. In short, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket. But we were too busy meeting in our Church buildings, praising God, praying, and eating shared ‘fellowship’ lunches; meeting to plan our praising, praying and eating times. We were spending our time handing out gospel tracts, going door-to-door in an Evangelism Explosion™, preaching on the street corners, writing letters to politicians to express our anger over any number of anti-morality laws, and pasting up posters advertising the latest evangelistic rally or youth event.

churchfamilyThe next-door neighbour lived with his girlfriend and we all knew that was against God’s law. The folks behind us played KISS (and we all knew what that meant!) The across-the-street family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just down the road, Mrs H was an anxious wreck and spent most of her days in the local psychiatric facility. Around the corner was another family whose son was born with a rare genetic condition and spent most of his life so far recovering from numerous surgeries and extended hospital stays. The man just behind them beat his wife and, she ended up on medication that turned her into a shadow of what she should have been.

But we had to be at church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and at youth group Friday night. Church visitation was on Monday night. We said we cared. We prayed for these poor folks who weren’t one of us. . . . but, as we well know, thoughts and prayers really are a poor substitute for action. (As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wisely notes: We are the answer to our prayers.)

How dare the people on our street hold drunken parties New Year’s Eve and interrupt our ‘Watchnight’ services! The homeless man who slept rough near the church would never have dreamed of asking us for help because, in our minds, he had no excuse for not getting a job or at least taking a shower once in a while. And any money we gave him, he would spend on drink anyway…

And so we kept ourselves busy.

Church Sunday morning. Fellowship Lunch Sunday afternoon. Church Sunday night. Visitation Monday night. Kid’s Club Tuesday afternoon. Bible Study Wednesday night. Church Board Meeting/Worship practice Thursday night. Youth Group Friday night. Saturday (no sports) usually was spent around the house or with some Church folks doing some Safe-for-Christians™ stuff.

The Church always had a roster, a programme, a working bee, a ‘ministry’ that needed volunteers, and we were urged to ‘give our time to God’ to be used for “His glory’. And we all knew the only way God would accept our time-sacrifice, like our money-sacrifice, was if we gave it to the Church.

And when we did have free time, we were encouraged to spend it reading our Bible, praying or listening to Godly Music®. And if we still had time, we could go around the neighbourhood leaving gospel tracts in people’s front doors or letterboxes or sing Christian songs at the mall. (I think the goal was to keep us so busy that we wouldn’t even have time to contemplate drinking, smoking, going to the movies, cruising around town or–God forbid!–sex. After all, we knew well the unwritten Bible verse: ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’)

Yes, we could have mowed the neighbours’ lawn. We could have made Mrs H a nice cake and gone down to her house for a cuppa. We could babysit a little boy so his parents could be with his brother in hospital. We could have just spent time listening to our friend whose life story read more like a tragic, abuse-ridden soap opera.

We could have done ever so much to show that following Jesus meant a great deal to us, so much that we would love our neighbours to the moon and back, even if they never joined our Church.

We could have.

But we were too busy being Christians.

___________________

* Like many posts I write, I have used the literary technique known as ‘Gleaning from many sources [books, talks and personally-related stories, as well as from my personal experience] and condensing it into one short post to make a point.’ While some of these things actually happened to me at some point in my life, some have been related to me by friends and acquaintances along the way. Sadly, I also inflicted many of these expectations on others, for which and to whom I offer my heartfelt and honest apology. I was too busy being a Christian.