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.

This is Love

heartI am writing this on Valentine’s Day (the Feast Day of St Valentine,, for the purists out there). Traditionally, it’s a day when much of the world celebrates love–particularly romantic love–with all its trappings: cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic dinners, and actions that show how much we love those who have a special place in our heart.

In our collective lives we are inundated with the theme of love. It makes headlines as those in the public eye hook up with (or unhook from) other famous people. It’s celebrated in tabloid magazines. It’s the reason why most music is written–at least most country music. It’s the theme of nearly every movie, every novel, every story worth telling. It’s on every channel of our television sets, every night.

Love Island.

The Bachelor.

The Bachelorette.

Married at First Sight.

Perfect Match.

We get so addicted to the drama of romance. Perhaps this is because we have an inner longing to find ourselves that perfect soulmate, the One who will solve all our problems and satisfy all our desires (in and out of bed). Or maybe its simply a residual trait from a long evolutionary process where the fittest of our ancestors were those who procreated the most.

Or maybe not.

Regardless, love is, as immortalised in song, is all around me, is in the air, is a battlefield (a little like ‘choose your own adventure’). Love is all you need, it will keep us together, it’s more than a feeling and it ‘ain’t for keeping.’

At the heart of our desire for the love of another, I believe, is the need to know another and be intimately known by another, and accepted regardless of what that knowledge uncovers. We all crave a relationship with someone who will love us in spite of our flaws, our bad taste, our sub-standard looks, our dad bod/dad jokes and our annoying habits.

And when we find that person, we are not afraid of what that relationship will bring because we know that we are truly loved.

As St John wrote two millennia ago, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In the embrace of a genuine, accepting, forgiving and including love, there is no room for nor necessity to be afraid. You are loved.

The opposite of fear, then, is love. In the absence of fear, love thrives. In the presence of love, fear flees. You cannot have both.

And we know from the same biblical letter, that God is Love and anyone who truly loves (loves with the generous, fear-scattering kind of love), is of God.

So on this auspicious day of the celebration of love, may I offer this blessing:

May Love bless you, and keep you.

May Love shine upon you and give you peace.

And may the blessing of Love–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–be upon you and remain with you always.

Amen.

 

Untitled

Sometimes life is rather plain, ordinary, characterised by keeping the status quo.

We wish it were exciting, full of adventure, high-energy, high-octane, a brilliant grand endeavour lived in full colour, Ultra HD, with cinema sound and Lucasfilm FX.

It’s not.

Even the most awesome lives lived can’t seem to measure up to what we wish for ourselves.

  • We wish for beauty, but find our cheekbones are too high, our nose too long, or our hair fast thinning.
  • We wish for adventure but, instead, find our lives an endless replay of sleeping, working, taking the kids to sports, dance or parties.
  • We wish for meaning, but end up spending 30 years in an average, repetitious job, stuck without promotion or further prospects beyond our cubicle in an office of 100 such spaces on the 13th floor.

In a library containing books of all genres, nations and ages, the story of our life seems to have fallen off the shelf, perhaps into the recycle bin, or (worse) still in the temperamental circuits of computer memory in a file called ‘Untitled.’

SarahPPatricia MacLachlan penned a story in 1985 called Sarah Plain and Tall about a woman who finds her way from East Coast Maine to the hard life of frontier America. She had answered a newspaper ad to be the wife of a farmer who wants nothing more from her than someone to do the cooking, cleaning and chores and be a mother to his two children. While not initially interested in love, having loved and lost once already, the farmer slides (inevitably–a classic novelist’s plot) into a romance that exceeds Sarah’s wildest imaginings.

While there is nothing unique about this story, it struck a chord with its audience so strongly that it developed into a five-book series (‘Saga’ is the bookseller’s term). Winning many awards, and achieving the ultimate reward of a movie deal, this story aims straight at the heart of all those who see themselves as, also, ‘plain and tall’–ordinary, unadorned and simple individuals whose own dreams were most often those of a handsome stranger finding in them that spark of delight and inner beauty.

But this is just a story. Or is this just a story?

It was written with a classic plot line that is known to sell books. Why? Because we all have a deep longing to be loved, valued and hear someone say, “You are mine.”

There is no elixir of love, no life-changing mantra, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

But, as taught by minimalists for centuries, there is more to be found in less.

This is our story.

It’s untitled. It’s raw. It’s evolving, growing, developing all the time.

Sometimes–no, make that much of the time–we need to disconnect from the world of celebrity headlines, news broadcasts, and the mindless stimulation of ads to become aware of the beauty that is found in a simple story, an unadorned life, in detachment from the need to have a label, or a title, on our Self.

We must learn, again, how to embrace the ordinary and be exactly who we are knowing that, despite how we look, feel or how our own story is playing out today, we are loved, valued and welcomed by a God who promises to be with us–us plain, ordinary, average people–always.

Just in Case

justincaseI’m not a hoarder . . . any more.

There was a time when I would wander through Kmart or Target and find something that attracted my attention. I didn’t need it, but I bought it anyhow. Just in case.

I had cupboards full of things and felt quite satisfied with myself that I had anything anyone could need for any given situation. I kept everything, just in case.

I had clothes I no longer fit into. I was hoping one day I would. They cluttered up my wardrobe because I may lose weight one day. Just in case.

I was a sucker for sales staff. I bought insurance policies for this that and the other because one never knew what might happen. I got an expensive monitored security system installed. I had to be prepared for every possible disaster. Just in case.

Filing cabinets full of ancient documents.

Boxes in the shed full of books, crockery, knick-knacks.

That huge drawer filled with every cable you could or may (or may not) ever need.

Every piece of music I ever played, sang, and lots that I filed away . . . just in case.

Just in case weighed me down.

There came a point in my life when I was reviewing my insurance needs and I realised I was paying money to protect myself against the loss of stuff I didn’t need, that was cluttering my life. I was buying a policy just in case I lost a lot of junk that I had accumulated in my house just in case.

I know the Boy Scout motto is ‘Be prepared.’ But prepared is a subjective word. There is no way I can be prepared for everything that happens in my life. Just trying to do this causes so much worry, fear, anxiety and nervousness.

In a rather famous sermon, a wise preacher once asked his congregation:

Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

His advice has the power to change not only the way we look at stuff, but our attitude towards life itself.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Read full text here.)

Fear of loss breeds anxiety. Fear of things not being just the way you would like brings worry. The root cause of all this is a lack of trust (faith) in a loving God / Presence / Universe / Force that looks on Creation with compassion.

So what happens if our house burns down? We are still loved. In the words of another group of wise preachers: “All you need is love . . . love is all you need.”

What happens if thieves break in and take our treasured possessions? We still have our lives, our memories, our family and friends.

To store up stuff just in case is to prepare for the worst. It is quite a negative approach to life. Rather, living in a simple acceptance of what is, and trust that we will always be cared for by our all-loving God is enough to see us through anything we face in life.

I think it’s time for another cleanout.

All of Life is a Prayer

magpie

The magpies chortle in the gigantic gumtree behind the fence,
calling in sheer joy and enthusiasm to each other,
greeting the new day.
Dogs in the distance greet one another,
and the neighbour’s dull Labrador-cross-who-knows-what
with the crooked tail howls. Each one making
the sounds of play and boredom respectively.

And we, in our early morning mindless banter,
speak blessings to one another,
affirmations, petitions, thanksgiving and praise and,
at the same time, whilst hiding our own irritability over lukewarm coffee, utter curses:
decrying the banality of someone’s existence in a dead-end relationship, or
the apparent lack of resilience in another, or
the poor taste of yet another in their choice of job, car, house, attire, food.

Are not all these prayers to some
ever-present yet invisible deity
(one who is beyond ourselves, perhaps
even as expansive as the universe)
who listens intently to the groanings of creation,
each one singing, speaking, sobbing, blaspheming
their own private prayers that, although perchance unintended,
always find an answer?

Blame God

So I’m talking with a friend of mine and he says something like, “God has a good thing going for him.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “Who else do you know that gets thanks and praise for all the good things he supposedly does, but cops none of the blame or criticism for the bad things which, surprisingly, also happen on his watch?”

My brain seems to draw from somewhere deep in my subconscious, Evangelical past and (embarrassingly) comes out with something along the lines of, “You can’t blame God for what humanity has brought upon itself by its continued rejection of God. After all, God has given us freewill and, if we choose to go against his laws, there will be consequences.”

(I cringe now to think there could have ever been a day when I said such things; after all, this is exactly how loonies such as Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker portray their God and his interaction with ‘dirty rotten sinners’.)

My friend (let’s call him Bob) continues.

“Yeah, but you believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere, right?”

I nod my head in agreement.

“And yet, in spite of the fact that God could stop the tsunami, cripple the 9/11 hijackers, bring the Pakistani earthquake below 1 on the scale, heal my mum of cancer and turn back that massive hurricane, he didn’t.”

I respond: “God can’t just arbitrarily interfere with the course of nature and, in the case of the hijackers, he won’t overrule the free will of human beings to decide to do evil.” (My response is a little weak, given that I catch myself partway trying to justify God’s actions, or kinda trying to place limits on The Almighty–and feel somewhat guilty for doing this.)

Bob isn’t satisfied with this canned, classic textbook answer.

“If you were able,” he says, lifting a semi-accusing finger to my face, “to save your child from certain death by running out in the street and grabbing him, pulling him to safety before the truck roared past, you would, wouldn’t you?”

The way he asked this question made me wonder if Bob thought I was some sort of monster.

“Of course I would; he’s my kid. I would never allow him to be harmed.”

I noticed that smug, “gotcha” look come across Bob’s face. I instantly knew where this conversation was headed.

“Yet, God—whom you say loves all of us as a father loves his children—will allow his children to go through hell, to lose family members, their health, their homes, their livelihood, and even their own lives in disasters that he himself could have stopped.”

“Yeah, but . . .” (I sensed I was starting to sound like a whining 3rd-grader) “. . . but God can’t change the natural course of things. He’s put laws in place that govern the weather, the earth and human beings. He can’t just override these laws.”

Bob laughed. “Seriously, you should listen to yourself! You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself that your God isn’t as big or powerful or loving as you’ve been led to believe. So would you say to your son when he gets hit by that truck, ‘That’s the consequence of not obeying my rule of staying in our yard’?”

He had a point. I was beginning to realise that I had created a wonderful, rather small box to contain my God. I had assumed that those who were supposed to know all about God (theologians, pastors, Sunday School teachers) were right when they taught me this catechistic auto-response, that God allowed such happenings because he couldn’t go against his natural laws and couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with humanity’s free will.

But this put God in a predicament because throughout the Bible (it is said) he did intervene, did interfere and did overrule. If the Bible is fact, then God could choose to step down out of heaven and come to our aid (Isn’t it funny how we placed him “up there” when we say that he is everywhere? But then, it’s also humorous when we anthropomorphise God to be a male when ‘he’ is not even human. But I digress.) God could choose to stop the winds and the waves, the wars, befuddle hijackers and terrorists, or heal the young mother of her cancer.

But.

God.

Doesn’t.

Why not?

I know this has led many people just like my friend Bob to stop believing there is a God, or at least a personal, loving, interacting Deity. I can understand their frustration and the incoherence of much of what religion portrays God to be.

I am also aware of the multitude of books, articles and talks that have been published on this problem of human suffering. Most de-converted Christians would say this is the one big question that caused them to rethink the whole idea of the existence of God.

Personally, I continually try to reconcile this dichotomy in my own mind. While at one time this had caused me great concern and anxiety, I now am now beginning to see how I can live with the tension as many before me have also learned.

 

Despite this, I take a page from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, the legend of Job, from David’s psalms of lament, and from Ecclesiastes and don’t feel in the least bit conflicted when I cry out in anger to God, “Why?” when my words sound more accusing than trusting, when I place the blame solely and completely on Him who, tradition tells us, is without blame.

And I believe that God welcomes my dissent. I think it’s this honest, confrontational, letting loose that God expects from his children. As Rob puts it, God wants us to rip open our rib cage and let our heart out. It’s in these moments of openness and vulnerability that we are changed and we begin to see things framed in a new consciousness, a new understanding and a deeper relationship with the Divine.

This is not an easy answer. There is no such thing. As long as we have apparent inconsistencies, we will struggle to understand God or conceptualise Deity. We may change our way of seeing things. Hell, we may even decide it’s easier not to believe.

Regardless of what we choose to do, I’m sure God is more generous, and more loving than we could comprehend anyhow, and would still do all he or she could to get that message across to us, even if it’s in the most unlikely of sources, like Bob.

Yes, God Can! (Questions that shouldn’t need to be asked)

We say “God can do anything.”
But God doesn’t do all the good we expect: planes crash, ferries capsize, people die of common illnesses, resources aren’t made available for our neighbours outdoors, and refugees are imprisoned.
We say “With God nothing is impossible.”
But then put limits on God’s power and ability. After all, how could God forgive Hitler? How could God love that rapist-murderer? And how could God save anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus or who was born into the wrong religion?
We say “God is king over all creation.”
imageBut then we assign ourselves the task to make the rules other people must keep in order to please God: “You mustn’t swear. You must attend Church. You must read your Bible. You must not think about sex. You must disapprove of gays, abortionists, socialists, Catholics, liberal politicians, or (insert profession, people-group or minority here).”
Pope Francis says that Jesus saves all, even if they don’t seek him.
Can God do that?
Rob Bell seems to believe there will be millions more in God’s kingdom than we would ever suspect–that we will be surprised at the reach of God’s love.
Can this be true?
Can God move in ways we cannot imagine? Yes! Yes! Hallelujah, YES!
Can God save anyone simply because of God’s instinct of love? Yes! (I believe this is called “grace.”)
Can God refuse to be limited by our human understanding of Divinity or our interpretations of revelation? Yes!
Could Pope Francis, Gandhi, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and St Paul all have a similar underlying understanding of God that ruthlessly opposes any attempt at figuring God out or assigning a role statement to the One-who-cannot-be-contained?
Yes!
Could it be that now we see as in a mirror, dimly? Could it be that worship of the Bible or our group’s way of seeing it is more important to us than letting God be God? Could it be possible that one day we will look back and be astounded by how small our imagined God was?
Would it be too far-fetched to assume that, when all the dust settles after all the wars are fought, that, in the end, love really is the highest aspiration of all creation and this love indeed has won?
I dare you to believe that this is the way it could be.