Freedom is Where We Start

I have been following The Hidalgo Grain Company‘s blog for a while now and, while I’m not sure of its current operation, it has long been an outspoken critic of the extreme Christian fundamentalist movement.

In a recent post entitled “Radical Truth,” the topic of Obedience is discussed and the setting is the centres of Independent Baptist fundamentalism which have this philosophy:

In order to be holy, a good witness and a “show window” for God, emphasis is placed on behavior. This highlighting of the behavioral aspects of conservative Christianity is reinforced in private Christian schools, home schooling literature and in institutions of higher learning. To many children and young adults, Christianity becomes a way to behave, a way to live, a lifestyle – clean, healthy, controlled, ordered, traditional – and we are all told that all things being equal, a Christian should excel above all others.. . .

. . . The truth is more radical. Happiness is not found “on the road to duty” or modifying our behavior or the behavior of others. Freedom is not found through obedience or happily keeping the rules. Freedom isn’t “found” at all – it is given.

Freedom is where we start.

It is The Love that gives you freedom, freedom leads to conviction, conviction to confession, confession to total forgiveness and total forgiveness to worship. When Christ said “my burden is light”, He meant it. We aren’t trading one set of shackles for another. When He said “you are free”, there was no legal disclaimer in small type stating that “free” doesn’t really mean “free”, and that there are a number of ifs, ands or buts.

Will embracing the gift of freedom make your life perfect? No. In spite of what you read on your friend’s Facebook page, there is no “perfect life.” Freedom entails risk. Risk of offense. Risk of failure. The difference is that we allow ourselves to fail. Failure is built-into the freedom we embrace. Fortunately, the forgiveness is total. (Read the full p0st here. The comments are worth a look too.)

God is Good

GodPlaneThis article appeared on CNN recently.

A light plane crashes into the house and a woman, inside the house at the time, survives and declares for all to hear, “God is good.”

The three people in the plane were killed.

I thought it was amazing how God would save the life of the woman in the house, yet allow those in the plane to die. “I’m blessed. Truly God was with me.” Too bad God wasn’t with the three who perished.

  • This kind of god weighs the value of you against the value of the others and decides you deserve more blessing than them. Why? Because you are one of the ‘chosen’ who call themselves ‘Christian?’
  • Celebrities stand on stage and say stuff like, ‘I want to thank God for blessing me with this award.’ And everyone who was nominated, but missed out, isn’t blessed?
  • After many months of hunting for the perfect house, the couple finally find one that ticks every box. “God is good. He’s blessed us with this house of our dreams.” Maybe their dream house is the house that the homeless people who “live” under the bridge just down the road really do dream of.

The psalmist writes that “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Elsewhere in Scripture we read that “God is no respecter of persons.”

Every day we read or hear or see reports of bombs going off, earthquakes, buildings collapsing, planes crashing, businesses going under, miscarriages, car accidents–are all those affected by these tragedies safely assumed to be “evil” or “undeserving”?

On the other hand, “good luck” or good fortune comes upon others in the form of business success, travel safety, high achievements, lottery wins, or health breakthroughs and miracles. Do we assume these folks are somewhat more righteous or holy than those in the above group?

Truth is, we often confuse God’s blessing with being plain lucky, fortunate, being born into a particular family, in a particular country, at a particular point in time.

One of my favourite writers (those who read this blog with any regularity know who that is) writes:

If we want to go to the mature, mystical, and non-dual levels of spirituality, we must first deal with the often faulty, inadequate, and even toxic images of God that most people are dealing with before they have authentic God experience. Both God as Trinity and Jesus as the “image of the invisible God” reveal a God quite different—and much better—than the Santa Claus god who is “making a list, checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty or nice” or “I will torture you if you do not love me” god (worse than your worst enemy, I would think). We must be honest and admit that this is the god that most people are still praying to. Such images are an unworkable basis for any real spirituality. (Richard Rohr)

God is good. This much is true. But to credit your good fortune to God’s goodness is false. God is good to all.

How do we then view those passages that seem to display an angry, wrathful God?

The writers of Scripture have said that God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus reveals God’s character.

I would go so far as to say that if your picture of God looks different than Jesus, then you are looking at a false god–this god is not the God who is love, who is peace and who is rejoicing over creation and calling it “good.”

What is most amazing is that we see Jesus siding with the underdogs, the down-and-outers, the marginalised, the thieves and tax collectors, the unclean, the “sinners.”  If any group would deserve the fierceness of God’s wrath it would be many in this lot. Yet we see his harshest words and actions were reserved for those who thought they had it all worked out, those who thought they were doing the right things–those who were definitely in the “nice” category–those who thought they were the “blessed” ones.

In the end, you could say that this shows we really haven’t got God “figured out”–and possibly never will until the end of our days.

Meanwhile, let us choose, in moments of good fortune, when all seems to be going well, to be grateful for good times and bad times, understanding that we can have confidence in our God to be fully present and fully good all the time.

Emerging Christianity

RichardRohrAs many of your who read this blog will know by now, I really enjoy reading and hearing Richard Rohr. (www.cac.org). His Franciscan way of seeing the Church and the world (whilst never allowing himself to fall into a dualistic sense of either) somehow resonates with my own inner struggles and questioning.

The Jewish prophets had one foot in Israel and one foot outside and beyond. So must you have one foot in your historical faith community and one foot in the larger world; one foot rooted in a good tradition of accountability and another in your own world of service, volunteerism, occupation, a subgroup, or what I call “lifestyle Christianity” and some call “Emerging Church,” which desires to move beyond mere belief and worship systems to actual lifestyle choices and new accountability systems for giving your life away.

How else can we imitate the surrender of Jesus, who did exactly the same in relation to his own Jewish religion? He never left it, and yet in some ways he always left it when it did not heal or help real people. He formed his own little “parachurch” within and yet alongside the Jewish priestly system, which became, rightly or wrongly, its own separate religion which we now call Christianity.

As the 12th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous recognizes, we do not really appropriate things ourselves until we actively hand them on to others. We have to find the Love, and then give the Love away; and it is amazing how the two events do not always happen within the same group. I think they are both training grounds, one for the other. The first is our spring and our well (home base); the other is the channel away from home base that keeps our well from becoming brackish and stagnant water. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations #53)

One foot in, one foot out. Never leaving, but always left. This perspective on life within and without the Church walls, I believe, is not only the way I see Christianity heading (or ’emerging’) but also a very Christ-ian concept which we would do well to live out.

The Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Heaven & Imagination

I have a confession to make.

I am a Book of Mormon junkie.

No, no no! Not THAT Book of Mormon. Not at all!

I’m a huge fan of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

Yes, I know it is quite crude–it’s got lots of bad language, inappropriate references to God, seedy plot lines, and goes too far sometimes (just like its cousin South Park). But I love the idea of the story: two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their Mormon evangelistic ‘mission’ and are intent on making a difference in the village in which they find themselves. What follows is a comedy of epic proportions as they misunderstand the villagers and the villagers fall for their ’embellished’ story of the American prophet (complete with Brigham Young’s nose being turned into a female anatomical part by a God who also cured Joseph Smith’s AIDS).

But what I love the most is the way the writers have so cleverly sent up a religious system and its eccentricities. From the Opening number ‘Hello’ which introduces the missionaries to the approved doorstep dialogue to the positive, forward-looking ‘Tomorrow is a Latter Day,’ I laugh (until I cry, maybe) at the way strange Mormon beliefs are woven into common, stereotypical Christian creed (Speaking of creed, have a look at the performance of ‘I Believe’ from this year’s Tony Awards here. This is The Book of Mormon’s equivalent to The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence.’ Even the phrasing is the same. Language warning.)

Here’s one of my favourite parts: the song Sal Tlay Ka Siti (read: ‘Salt Lake City’)

My mama once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying
I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story mama told
But a village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat-meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case
The war-lords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat!

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy
You were right, mama
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly!
I’m on way

Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

How misguided! How totally misinformed, naive, ignorant . . . trusting.

I want to grab her and give her a good shake and tell her ‘That’s not real. They’re having you on.’ Oh, it’s just a play. (Ahem…) Moving on…

Yet . . . how many times have I (and possibly you too?) heard the same sort of talk?

Not about Salt Lake City. No. Another ‘city’—or at least another place which has entered the imagination of many as being a city.

Streets of gold.

Gates of pearl.

Mansions.

Paradise.

Home of the tree of life.

Nothing made by humans contained therein.

Angels.

White robes.

Bejewelled crowns.

Choirs singing.

No pain, sadness, death.

Unicorns.

(OK. I haven’t actually heard that last one . . .)

How much is real? How much is interpretation of the little we think is in the Bible? How much is fiction?

Are we like the natives in The Book of Mormon (I’m still talking about the musical) who have envisioned paradise from the context of their own experience: unlimited goat meat and vitamin shots, friendly war-lords, and a ever-present Red Cross with plenty of flour for everyone? Is what we imagine paradise to be simply an extension of our own human experience? This is possible, else how could we comprehend it without some point of reference?

I think the afterlife must be something far better, far beyond our grandest imagination, so fully not-of-this-world that we cannot even imagine such a place. I won’t know this with any certainty in this life because I can’t talk to someone who has been there. There are no eyewitnesses. (And don’t start with St John because I haven’t got the time to go through the historical context and Jewish apocalyptic nature of The Revelation.)

Truth is, we all want to believe that there is some utopian paradise, a place like Sal Tlay Ka Siti. We all wish to be in a place of joy, peace and prosperity. And we have a name for that: heaven. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But perhaps we should be less dogmatic about the picture we paint for ourselves and more at rest in the knowledge that God has promised to be with us now and into eternity–and that is enough. We do not know with any certainty what form eternity in God will take. But we trust.

And whatever it is, it surely will be better than Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Your Image of God Creates You, Part 2

“Spirituality creates willing people who let go of their need to be first, to be right, to be saved, to be superior, and to define themselves as better than other people.”

This is the last instalment from Richard Rohr’s week of “Your Image oif God creates You” meditations. I’ve highlighted a couple lines that grabbed me. These may also resonate with you, or you may be caught by something else he writes.

My dear friend, Dr. Gerald May, made a distinction years ago that I have found myself using frequently. He says spirituality is not to encourage willfulness, but in fact willingness. Spirituality creates willing people who let go of their need to be first, to be right, to be saved, to be superior, and to define themselves as better than other people. That game is over and gone and if you haven’t come to the willing level—“not my will but thy will be done”—then I think the Bible will almost always be misused.

I would like to say that the goal in general is to be serious about the word of God, serious about the scriptures. We have often substituted being literal with being serious and they are not the same! (Read that a second time, please.) I would like to make the point that in fact literalism is to not take the text seriously at all! Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text.

Both Origen and Augustine in the third and fourth centuries said there were at least four levels of interpretation to every scripture text. Recent fundamentalism, which says that literalism is in fact the truest meaning of the text, is totally inaccurate—and very late in coming. Literalism is the lowest level of meaning and if you just stop there you will never come to any real Encounter. You have engaged your own critical and self-protective mind, instead of bringing your mind into union with your heart. It will not get you very far. It will make you wilful but not willing, and that makes all the difference. (from Richard’s Daily Meditations, 24 February, 2012)

Paradoxy

I am still reading the excellent book, Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them by Ken Howard. Being more disenfranchised with the whole disunity thing in the Church, I value Ken’s insights and commentary on this subject.

I have been guilty far too often of creating division rather than bringing unity, of drawing the line between two views rather than seeking common ground on which to unite.

Ken speaks about the paradigm of both conservatives and progressives and shows how, for both ‘sides’ of the Faith, problems arise.

. . . If the paradigm has become your reality, what do you do when the cracks become too noticeable to ignore? If you can’t abandon the dominant paradigm (or maybe even recognize that you are in one) in favor of a more complete and encompassing one, what are your choices? There seem to be three:

1. To the Ramparts! Rally around the purist position with increasing defensiveness and increasingly elaborate rationalizations.

2. Compromise and Adapt! Adopt compromises that soften the position or attempt to prop up confidence in it by means other than facts.

3. Create a “Them”! Focus all of your attention on what seem to you to be the greater inconsistencies (and the “unlikeablilities”) of the other side.

Being a natural ‘right-seeker,’ I immediately say ‘Amen’ to all three as I see all of these positions alive and well in those who seem to enjoy harassing me with their version of truth.

But, looking deeper, I realise that I also, at times, defend my ‘more reasonable’ position by rallying support amongst my friends who embrace a similar paradigm to my own, compromise when around those on the ‘other side’ just to be seen to be acting with civility, or encouraging taking sides and fighting the other side with my weapon of choice: words.

As Doug Pagitt has said:

Our biggest challenges come when we assume that those who hold worldviews or values different than ours lack knowledge or values.

Too often I’ve mocked the beliefs of people unlike me (in time past when I had a more fundamentalist mindset, and now as more of a progressive Christian). What I have assumed is that they had to be uninformed, ignorant, or living in a cocoon to believe as they do. I’m beginning to see this is not so. They have simply started with a different framework for their thinking, a different bias. And in the light that we all have incomplete knowledge and limited ability to understand life’s mysteries, their worldview may be just as valid as mine.

If we are ever to live together in community–and I believe it is the only way to be true followers of Jesus–we must learn to accept (not just tolerate) one another fully, in spite of our disagreements. This doesn’t mean we won’t hold our convictions firmly, but when we do say or do something that flows from those convictions, we know we will be fully loved and fully accepted, regardless.

One of our staff members said something in morning prayer recently (sorry, I can’t recall who it was) that is relevant to this post. Essentially, they said that God chose us as a collective body, not merely as individuals. God chose that you would live in community with me–that is not either your or my choice. If God, who we claim is all-wise and all-knowing put us together in the same body, there must be a good reason for it. Rather than try to figure it all out, why don’t we just accept it and live together in harmony? Rather than fighting and arguing and stirring up each other to debate and discord, why don’t we simply clothe ourselves with love which, as the apostle writes, is the bond of perfection?

(Easy to say–damn hard to do!)

On that note, I realise I have much to learn, and I’m looking forward to what else I discover as I continue reading Paradoxy.

The Evolution of Religion

Religion is constantly evolving. By “Religion,” I am including all those forms of Christianity that proudly declare, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a person.” Despite claims made, their practices still closely resemble what is currently understood to be “Religion.”

In his new book, Religion in Human Evolution, Robert N. Bellah traces the roots of modern religion from ancient ritual, through tribal “religion” and classical Greek worship practices to the forms we more widely recognise today.

In the most recent The Atlantic web posting, Bellah speaks about his book and how he traces the path of religion from primeval days to the present. He makes some interesting and insightful observations, one being about the evolution of the ritual in the time of the classical Greek drama.

But when you’re watching a play by Schiller or Tennessee Williams, the audience is observing it but is not part of it. We can identify with it to some extent but there’s a split. Nietzsche pointed out–Nietzsche was crazy as can be but he was damn smart–that if you look at the beginning of Western drama, which is the Greek tragedies, the audience was in it. The chorus was the audience. The chorus represented the citizens of Athens. And furthermore, Greek tragedy was presented at the festival of Dionysus, and it was a sacred event. You had to be there at the crack of dawn and it was all day long. And so the beginnings of drama, of plays, were so close to ritual that the difference between the actors and the audience was minimal. We walk out of the theatre and we say, “Well, that was quite moving, but it’s only a play. It’s not real life.” But for the Athenians, it was real life. It was a form of self-criticism, Greek drama.

Where worship practices once used drama as a collective involvement (the “audience” as a very real part of the actual ritual), religion has evolved this into a drama as we know it today–an audience, minimally involved, looking on to and applauding the action which happens on stage. I see this as especially true in that the template, if you will, of contemporary Christian religion is more often in the form of the megachurch, or stage-centric “worship service” where parishioners are more entertained than involved. What is also interesting to note, as an aside, is that The Atlantic chose to put this article under the heading of “Entertainment.” That speaks volumes of the way society views religion in this age. You can read the entire interview here.

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While at The Atlantic, another article worth a look is one in the “Life” category which addresses our changing view of what makes us happy, based on Maslow’s widely accepted “hierarchy of needs” model (see picture).

What they found is that, while the hierarchy of needs model stands on many accounts, it is not as definitive as once thought.

To find proof that Maslow‘s theory translated into real life, Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist and senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, helped design the Gallup World Poll, a landmark survey on well-being with 60,865 participants from 123 countries that was conducted from 2005 to 2010. Respondents answered questions about six needs that closely resemble those in Maslow’s model: basic needs (food, shelter); safety; social needs (love, support); respect; mastery; and autonomy. They also rated their well-being across three discrete measures: life evaluation (a person’s view of his or her life as a whole), positive feelings (day-to-day instances of joy or pleasure), and negative feelings (everyday experiences of sorrow, anger, or stress). Finally, Diener analyzed the poll data with fellow University of Illinois psychology professor Louis Tay for a study in the current edition of theJournal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The results are mixed. Maslow rightly saw that there are human needs that apply regardless of culture, but his ordering of these needs was not right on target. “Although the most basic needs might get the most attention when you don’t have them,” Diener explains, “you don’t need to fulfill them in order to get benefits [from the others].” Even when we are hungry, for instance, we can be happy with our friends. “They’re like vitamins,” Diener says on how the needs work independently. “We need them all.”

Read the full article here.

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This from MINEmergent this week on the subject of  Theology:

Theology is to truth like a model globe is to the earth. A globe is spherical and represents the proper placement of the continents and oceans. But a globe is not  wet, contains no dirt, lacks any living creatures, and is a bit on the small side.

When we build theology we take the raw materials of revelation, tradition, community, and experience and build the best model we possibly can. We are thankful that in  many ways we have built an excellent model of truth, but absolute adherence to even the best model is somewhere between hubris and lunacy.

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One more link, this time from Huffington Post, where David Lose has a go at answering the question “Did Adam and Eve Exist?” Or, more accurately, writing about why we need to believe in such stories and what their larger (symbolic) meaning may be.

The second argument against reading Adam and Eve as mythic story rather than historical account is that later theologians, most notably the Apostle Paul, base some of their theology on the Adam and Eve account. Lose Eden, the theory goes, and you’ve lost Paul as well. This I name the “house of cards” understanding of theology, because if any single element of a larger theological argument appears flimsy then the entire confession is at risk. This creates for conservatives tremendous insecurity about the validity and integrity of Christian theology that must be kept at bay at all costs.

Read the entire post here.