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 Good Memory

I remember.

Not everything. I’m not that good at faces and names. I’m also not as good at rote memory–memorizing lists, passages, or poems–as I once was.

But I remember well places, scenes, roads, words, sensations, textures, experiences, tastes.

I remember far too much.

Eating ice cream at midnight when I was 2. Riding piggyback on my dad’s bike to Kindergarten in Legaspi City when I was 4. Mum making sauerkraut in a bucket in her office. The mango tree behind our house blowing over in the storm and the taste of unripe mangoes with a sprinkle of salt. The words of Filipino Sunday School songs. Getting my arm stuck in the washing machine wringer. Wading and swimming in flood waters in Lupagon. Playing with Gardiner Improsso on the IGBI basketball court. Visiting the Andersons in Tagbalaran. The look on the man’s face that I mistook for my Uncle at the airport in 1972. Where I was when my sister told me Mr Wright died (I had only met him once but he took our family to Disneyland.) The smell of the musty basement at my uncle’s church in Madison, Wisconsin. My first breath of Australian air after stepping off the plane in Sydney. How sausage rolls and strawberry milk really didn’t mix well in Grade 4.

1971-05-01 Burning the Clubouse
When we left the Philippines in 1971, our parents allowed us to have a bonfire with our old ‘clubhouse. I’m third from the left.

 

It might not seem so bad, but that’s only a small fraction of my mind’s inner workings. I also remember almost every unkind word I said, every failure, wrong decision, mistake. The lie I told in 1985. The rules I broke in 1986. The car accident of 1987. The wrong song I sang in church in 1996. The embarrassing joke of 1998. The brain snap of 1999. . . Many times my excellent memory feels like a curse.

It condemns me.

It beats me up. It makes me feel inadequate, foolish and, like Cher, wishing I could turn back time.

But I can’t wind the clock back. I can’t take back those hurtful words, unwrite that nasty letter, or undo that wrong move.

People are kind. They forget—or at least they don’t mention it again. I doubt there would be a handful of folks who would immediately call to mind that failed speech I gave, or that embarrassing joke I told.

People also give me advice on how to deal with my memory problems: “It is what it is.” “Accept it and move on.” “We all make mistakes.” “You wouldn’t be where you are today if you didn’t make the mistakes you made.”

While all these are true, it does nothing to mitigate the feelings of regret, remorse, or sadness over the past.

I find it easy to forgive others. I find it incredibly hard to forgive myself.

Memory is like that.

I recall the words of a song from First Call (Yes, I am a CCM tragic straight outa the 80s!) called God is Greater. Not a hugely memorable song and, despite my outstanding knack of remembering useless stuff, I can’t remember anything except this one line: “And even if your heart condemns you, God is greater . . . than your heart.”

God, the Divine Presence, the ever-loving, always forgiving, Eternal One is greater than anything that might condemn me.

I’m not discounting the reality of the regret I feel when I remember the bad things I have done or the pain I have caused the people that I have trodden on. That is still with me every day and, quite frankly, sucks. Big time.

What I hold on to is that no matter what my perception is, or has been, the reality of God’s love overpowers all.

Sure, I messed up and, if memory serves me correctly, still do.

But my life lies open before me and I can’t let those moments pass in vain. There are lessons I have learned and I need to move forward knowing that every mistake is redeemable, every wrong path can lead to healing, and every trespass is forgiven. Love wins, always.

 

What Grace Does

This meditation came in today from Richard Rohr and I felt I must share it:

A friend of mine shared this story with me. An angel was walking down the street carrying a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. A woman asked the angel, “What are you going to do with the torch and with the pail?” The angel said, “With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of heaven, and with the pail, I’m going to put out the fires of hell. Then we shall see who really loves God.”

That’s what grace does; it empowers those who really love and trust God, and frankly leaves all others in the realm of missed opportunity. Our image for that missed opportunity has been hell later, but it is primarily and clearly emptiness now. In that deepest sense, there are indeed many people in hell right now, and there are also many people tasting heaven in this world. But Divine Love never relents, and never stops urging, expanding, and appealing. Why would it stop after our death?

Only the theme of grace is prepared to move religion beyond the bad and tired story line of reward and punishment. Up to now, we have largely mirrored ego-based culture instead of transforming it. We need grace to reform religion and to recapture the gospel. Only the theme of grace can move us from a religion of mere requirements (that is all about counting and measuring) to a religion of Divine Abundance which deeply transforms human consciousness (Ephesians 4:23-24).

As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offers us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:7-10)!

– Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 158-159

Scandalous Grace

pearlGrace.

There has been so much written about grace, so many definitions presented, so much airtime given to extolling the many nuanced meanings of this theme in Scripture.

Who hasn’t heard of “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (or as one mission board used in its promotional material, “Give Regularly as Christ Enables”–what to do with that?!)

Who hasn’t heard a preacher speak about “the unmerited favour of God” (to which needs to be added: “with no strings attached”)?

Grace.

She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

(‘Grace’ as recorded by U2
Written by Dave Evans Adam Clayton
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Grace is scandalous.

That is if it is real, genuine grace.

Because grace means ‘gift’ and it is something given to one who may not deserve it, who may not even appreciate it, want it or like it.

Hence the scandal.

Imagine the God who made the worlds stepping into human history in the form of a human baby. Now imagine that this baby is born to a woman out of wedlock. Born in a cattle stall, worshipped by shepherds, yet claimed to be the Saviour. Scandal from the very beginning, grace never meets the expectations of those who are fortunate enough to bear witness to its presence.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV)

Take the story of Zacchaeus, for example. Jesus enters the city of Jericho, notices this tax collector in a tree and boldly invites himself for dinner. Why would he do such a thing? Tax collectors were sinners (on the opposite end of the righteousness-scale of those who were teachers of the law, a.k.a. the Pharisees. In fact, when the Pharisee in another of Jesus’s stories prayed in the temple, he said:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

The truth is, Jesus was known for his association with such outcasts. He was spoken severely many times by those who thought he should be more careful in choosing his dining companions: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” he was asked.

And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32, ESV)

Scandalous! Jesus hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus partying with the unrighteous. Jesus rescuing prostitutes from judgement. Jesus inviting himself to be the guest of a tax collector.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Scandalous grace. Didn’t the Saviour know the impropriety of such an action?
In today’s terms, what might this look like? Going into a bar? Entering a Casino? Partying with friends at a club? How many of your friends would think it improper if they caught you in such situations? Yet this is where we see Jesus on numerous ocassions–in fact, so numerous that I would say this is “the norm” for his ministry.

Tony Campolo (in his book The Kingdom of God is a Party) tells of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Campolo lives on the east coast of the United States so his body was six hours ahead of Hawaiian time. At three o-clock in the morning it felt like nine o-clock to him. Awake and hungry for breakfast, he found himself in a “greasy spoon” café in the small hours of the morning.

As he bit into his doughnut, eight or nine prostitutes walked in. They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. “What do want from me? A birthday cake?” was the sarcastic reply. “Why be so mean?” she replied, “I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now.” When Campolo heard this he made a decision.

When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. “Do they always come in here?” “Yes,” said Harry. “Including the one who sat next to me?” “Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party.” Pause. Then a smile grew across Harry’s lips. “That’d be a great idea.”

Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. “Blow out the candles,” people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. “Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some.” She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, “Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?” “Sure. It’s okay,” said Harry. “Take it home if you want”’ “Can I?” she said, “Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.

There was a stunned silence. So Tony said, “What do you say we pray?” And they did. Campolo lead a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.” Campolo comments:

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?… But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with prostitutes and with all kinds of left-out people. The tax collectors and “sinners” loved him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious people could not relate to what he was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to him with excitement.

Scandalous grace! I don’t know about you, but I would so love to b a part of that kind of church.

In his interactions with Zacchaeus, Jesus seems totally unconcerned about reputation or even the holiness code of the day. That’s because grace always reaches out its hand to the other and gives of itself generously and fully without any thought of self. You could say the Biblical concepts of grace and love (agape) are synonymous for they are both self-forgetting, others-serving ideas.

You could also view these two ideas in the form of a Venn diagram: grace being one circle overlapping the other circle of love. If this were the case, then the place where these two circles intersect would be Jesus, the perfect embodiment of both ideals.

“. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)

Extravagant love and scandalous grace meet in the person of Jesus and in the pinnacle of sacrifice, the cross.

In the presence of such a man, we find Zacchaeus overcome by the outpouring of grace:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19)

Grace is far more than some ethereal concept by which we are “saved through faith.” Grace is a life. A Grace life is centred on giving. A Grace life is filled with moments of generosity, blessing, forgiveness. In Zacchaeus’s life, grace flowed the moment Jesus set his eyes on him. Jesus didn’t say, “Salvation will come if you give to the poor,” or, “Salvation will be yours after you make ethical restitution.” No. Grace reached out and the tax collector responded with a heart that only can manifest itself in one who has received this gift.

We don’t read anywhere that Zacchaeus even kept his promise to Jesus. Nor do we read that Jesus ever demanded it. All we know is that they beauty of grace caught someone by surprise and his entire outlook on life and vocation changed.

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

Amazing, fully-forgiving, all-embracing, life-giving, scandalous grace.

Church, Politics and Partnership (Philippine Adventure, Part 3)

The reason for my recent visit to the Philippines was to accompany my dad who wanted to catch up with his friends and former students. He had taught at IGBI in Ozamiz City in the 60s and had seen many of his students go on to become pastors and leaders in their churches (Grace Gospel Churches of Christ).

We met with so many people and I, who in the best of times struggle with remembering names, could not keep up. Many of them remembered me as ‘Jon-Jon’ (from when I was 3-6 years old). My own memories flooded back on so many occasions while talking with them and hearing their stories.

2013-04-23 (19-32) Philippines 103The conference meetings were uplifting and encouraging. There were also representatives from other S.E. Asian countries and some from the U.S. It had quite an international feel.

But in its essence, it was purely Filipino. One of the best decisions, I believe, the American missionaries made in the early days, was to turn the entire work over to Filipino nationals. Everything was done from Day 1 with this in mind. (Dad left the Philippines in 1972 and was the last foreign Director of the Bible College in Ozamiz.)

And the national leaders excelled! We were both very impressed with the character and expertise of the leadership. The conference–the 55th annual such event–was run like a well-oiled machine. The delegates from all over the country were met at the airport, accommodated, fed, and organised to a fine standard. The program itself was well-thought-out with a wide range of leaders, musicians and speakers and took place in a beautiful old church building–the Elinwood UCCP Church in Malate, Manila.

Part of an denominational gathering is the business of making decisions and keeping the organisation running, and this was no exception. Whilst dad and I removed ourselves from most of these meetings (it wasn’t after all, our business as observers from Australia), we were privy to some of the goings-on in the churches.

I guess you could say that we discovered rather quickly that churches in the Philippines were like churches anywhere else in the world: aiming for a high goal with the cause of the gospel of Jesus as a primary purpose, yet often bogged down in the politics of running an organisation and supporting the various structures within that organisation.

2013-04-24 (11-27) Philippines 146Philippine churches, like ours, lose people through disagreements or differences that cannot be resolved. A few years ago, a group of churches left the denomination because they believed only an organ should be used for musical accompaniment in church services. They didn’t care for guitars or drums. Another group distanced themselves from the organisation because they came up with the idea that prayer wasn’t needed since God knows (and plans) everything.

In spite of these setbacks, the leadership has maintained a grace-filled, open door policy–and this has been rewarded with several churches rejoining the group after a short time on the “outside.”

The response of the Board is inspiring: it doesn’t matter if they are in or out, as long as the gospel is being preached. They pray for God’s blessing on all, not just those who are part of their group. In one word: grace.

The theme of the conference was “Generous Partnership,” which puts into words the character of these people: partnering together with each other in mission, as members with churches, as churches with the denomination, as the denomination with people, and the whole organisation with like-minded folk from all over the world.

And that’s the way it should be. May we be driven by the Spirit of God to the same goal of generous partnership, in all graciousness and love.

God of the One More Chance

secondchanceI recently read an interesting little book called Gracenomics which has everything to do with second chances, and third, and fourth . . . Around the same time I was impressed by the group behind the book, People of the Second Chance, whose business is lifting broken people up and enabling them to believe in grace.

More than anything else, I believe people long for forgiveness and a clean slate. Many of Jesus’ stories were grace-focused accounts of radical forgiveness.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, known on the web as Sarcastic Lutheran, speaks about one such parable–the Fig Tree and the Vineyard Owner–in a recent sermon, posted on Patheos:

The fig tree that for whatever reason cannot produce.  I feel like that not infrequently, maybe you do too.  Unable to produce.  Produce writing, or results at your work, or completed job applications. Unable to produce the improvement in the relationship with your mother than you’ve been trying to accomplish.  Maybe we are all fig trees in a way.  Unable to start that exercise program we know we need, unable to make our lives “more spiritual”, unable to keep a clean kitchen.  And sometimes we just give up.

That’s why we so much want–need–to believe that grace is real and God is outrageously and generously good.

Yet, somehow it remains very human for us to think that we cannot be the beneficiaries of such extravagant love. Bolz-Weber concludes:

I feel like the vineyard owner and the tree all at once.  Like I’m my own defendant, judge and jury at the same time.  And I’d love nothing more than to stand here and say that this only happens once in awhile but the fact is it happens all the time. Impatience with myself and others.  Which is why eventually this little parable really broke my heart. Because once I realized that I felt like the tree and the vineyard owner at the same time, both the one who does not produce and the one who harshly judges the lack of production..well when I realized that it felt amazing to make the next jump – which is to realize that God is the one in our lives who steps in with a big sledgehammer of grace and advocates for us saying “one more year”

Another year.  Another month.  Another week.  Another day.  This is what God comes to us offering like an endless deferment of your student loan

One more year, people of God.  One more year to do what needs to be done.  One more year to believe you really are the beloved child of God God has claimed you to be.  One more year to trust in God more than money.  One more year to forgive others.  One more year to forgive yourself.  One more year to put your mistakes behind you or better yet see them as the fertilizer God puts around you so that you can produce fruit.  One more year to be fed at the table of God’s grace.  One more year to be enchanted by the story of Jesus.  One more year to help someone else.  One more year to feel loved.  One more year.   This is the God we see in Jesus Christ.  A God who tells our inner judge-y vineyard owner to back off because you are a beloved child of God who God has named and claimed and forgiven and loved as God’s very own so that you can bear fruit.  So to all of you God again says…one more year.  Amen.

One more year . . . one more chance . . . every day is new and the mercies extended are never-ending.

God Always Entices Us Through Love

Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. If the mystics say that one way, they say it a thousand ways. But because most of our common religion has not been at the mystical level, we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me when I change (moralism). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel-gazing,” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.

By Richard Rohr, taken from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate (CD/MP3)