Becoming

As I write this, it’s a beautiful autumn day outside. After a week of extreme heat, today is a desperately-needed refreshment. It rained lightly last night and the smell of rain is still hanging in the air. The sky is cloudy with some spots of blue daring to peep through from time to time. Some leaves on the trees are starting to change colour, but I think this is more due to the recent heatwave than to the new season, which is not even a week old.

AshWedesdayCrossIt’s also Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this is the day the liturgical church declares the depravity and mortality of humankind.

As a cross of ash is made on our foreheads, we are reminded of our transient state:

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or, instead, we may be challenged:

“Repent and believe the good news”

Or, in different words:

“Turn from your sins and follow the Saviour.”

Ash Wednesday contains in its essence both a reminder of who we are and also a challenge to become who we are meant to be.

While our own mortality is something we all must learn to deal with (death happens to all, no exceptions), turning from a life of self-fulfilment and self-pleasure to walk in the way of Jesus is counter-intuitive at its best. Giving up what we want? Letting go of what we have? Forsaking the identity we’ve forged for ourselves and lived out all of our life?

In the words of Coldplay:

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

(The Scientist)

It’s always difficult when we are called to give up, let go and forsake. We must come first to the place of recognition that there is a better way. We must then go through the process of casting off the old and exposing ourselves–being vulnerable–in acknowledging the part we have played in who we are at the present.

But then . . . but then! We are privileged to be able to start again. No matter what we have done. Regardless of where we have been. Despite all our past.

In this moment we are made new. The slate is wiped clean. We begin again.

We start on a journey as we, through humility and courage, move forward in the way of Love, becoming who we were created to me.

I’m not a big fan of the institutional Church nor of what Christianity has become. There is no argument that organised religion has a lot for which to answer, both in the past and in our world today.

Yet, the symbolism attracts me and speaks to me in ways no catechism, no systematic theology, no rules or standards ever could. And in accepting the symbol of ash in a sign of the cross on my head, I am accepting that I have not yet arrived at where I need to be, but, every day I am changing, growing, learning, loving . . . becoming.

This is where I need to be today.

And, on Ash Wednesday, this is my hope and prayer for you:

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.

Silly Songs in the back of a Holden EH Station Wagon

“In – de – pen – dent Bi – ble Church . . .”

The staccato notes see-sawed as the girls in the far back of the family station wagon sang them in full 11-year-old voice.EHF

“Is the best church a – ny – where.”

Every morning my dad made the school run from our house around the outer suburbs of
Adelaide then straight down Regency Road to Beverley where Faith Christian School—‘the first independent Christian School in Adelaide’—had recently opened its doors. To make the monotonous hour-and-a-bit drive slightly more bearable, Juline (my sister) and Linda (her best friend) had written songs about anything and everything we passed every day.

“If you go you’ll like it so . . .”

Oh, yes. Did I mention my dad was the Principal?

We had moved to Australia at the invitation of a family who wanted to start an independent, fundamentalist, dispensationalist Christian Church. Dad had been teaching theology in the Philippines and felt the call of the Lord to Australia. When this opportunity arose, it was like an answer to prayer, a dream come true.

“You will never want to go.”

The Church began holding meetings in the Enfield (now Broadview) Masonic Hall on Regency Road, about a 10-minute drive from the city centre. Apart from the family previously mentioned and our family of four, there was a handful of regulars who met every Sunday morning for Sunday School and Worship, then Sunday evening for a more informal service.

  • Mr L. He escaped the Communist regime in Latvia by jumping ship and swimming to Sweden.
  • Miss B. We laughed every time she stood on her tip-toes and raised her hands while she sang (something that my parents frowned upon, being a Pentecostal thing, yet tolerated).
  • Mrs P and Ann. Mr. P had died a few years prior to our arrival and left Nancy with a little down syndrome girl, Ann.
  • Miss P and Miss A. Two spinster ladies who were mainstays in the Child Evangelism Fellowship in Adelaide. They lived together and did everything together. Today they could well be the subject of runours.
  • Lee. A single man who lived nearby who, like Mr L and Miss B, spent a lot of his time in the Psychiatric Hospital at Glenside. He was a regular counsellor at the CEF camps and, like the two old ladies, would spark a fair amount of gossip in today’s society.

What a mix-up of people!

Mr L played the accordion and sang occasionally but, besides that, our family and the Elias family did everything else in the Church from playing the out-of-tune piano to cleaning up the beer and wine bottles from the Saturday night party in the hall we rented.

“Like it so” wasn’t exactly the phrase I would use, but my sister and her bestie sang it like they believed it. Perhaps they truly felt like this was a place people could come together and feel at home . . . or perhaps it just rhymed nicely.

Regardless of how they felt at the time, the morning of the Church’s 2nd Anniversary service, Mr Elias showed up alone, handed dad a letter, and left. In the letter dad found out that this family was increasingly concerned about our involvement with CEF and other “Christian” groups in the city and believed that, because of our “compromise,” they must do the biblical thing and separate from us.

Mum and Dad were crushed. In a strange country, this family had been our only real friends. They had helped us settle in, adjust to the Aussie culture and way of life, and provided so much emotional support as we made this transition.

That night we hardly felt like celebrating. It was just us and the ‘misfits’ left in our cosy little church. But the show must go on and, in front of the 60-or-so folks who attended that evening, dad put on a brave face. We sang our hearts out. Mrs P’s brother came and played a couple of hymns on his ‘saw’ (which we recorded and used years later as ghost music for a drama). We exceeded all expectations as we (hypocrites?) praised God for the great things he had done.

A year later, the church changed its name and relocated. Most of the original crew disappeared except for Mrs P and Ann. Oddly enough, Faith Christian School didn’t last the year. It closed its doors and, in its place, Maranatha Christian School was born (which is now a campus of Sunrise Christian School in Sturt).

What an interesting chapter of life that was! Childhood innocence crossing the realities of friends stepping out of our lives. Start-ups with hopes and dreams, changing, re-imagining themselves, and growing—and shrinking–in unpredicted ways.

And, yet, while so much changed for us in those few years, I don’t remember my parents ever losing their focus or their enthusiasm for what they believed was God’s calling. Whether or not the path they took was the best path or not, I am not in a position to make that judgement. And although I’m certain I have forgotten many if the details (and, hopefully, the nastiest ones), I still remember nearly every song those girls sang in that overcrowded, yellow Holden EH wagon.

 

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.

Which Religion is True?

BuddhaFor many, this is a genuine question. It is not something that requires a pat, one word answer. “Christianity, of course!” say some. “Islam,” say others.

People have died because of either their answer to this question or their refusal to accept another’s answer as truth.

Brian McLaren not only gives insight into this (often contentious) question in his most recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? but has just put up a post about it on his blog. Here’s some of what he writes:

I appreciate logic as much as the next person. But I find your statement seems to be missing some pieces:

“either all religions are false or only one is true.”

I can imagine four options:
1. All religions are completely true.
2. All religions are completely false.
3. One religion is completely true and others are true wherever they agree with it.
4. All religions are partially true and partially false.

I find #1 impossible since different religions contain many contradictions. I find #2 unlikely and incredible. That leaves #3 and #4. A big problem with #3 is that you have to ask, “Whose version of which religion?” For example, if you want to claim Christianity is completely true, you have to ask, “Pope Urban II’s version of Catholicism?” or “Benny Hinn’s version of Pentecostalism?” or “C. S. Lewis’ version of Protestantism?” or “Leo Tolstoy’s version of Russian Orthodoxy?” or … you get the point.

I would be happy to say that God knows what is completely true … but I would reject any human’s claim that they or their religion knows God’s mind with perfect accuracy. That’s why, as a committed follower of Christ, I advocate
– humility of heart and mind,
– a childlike desire to learn,
– love for neighbor, stranger, outcast, and enemy,
– and a sincere hunger and thirst for justice,
because, as Paul said, “we know in part.”

Think on these thing.

(You can read the rest of Brian’s post here.)

Simplicity

Here is something of which I need to be reminded often (and I suspect I’m not alone in this), from Richard Rohr:

We are all complicit in and benefiting from what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.” That’s not condemning anybody; it’s condemning everybody because we are all complicit in and enjoying the fruits of domination and injustice. (Where were your shirts and underwear made? What wars allow us to have cheap food and gas?) Usually the only way to be really non-complicit in the system is to choose to live a very simple life. That’s the only way out of the system!

Thus most of the great wisdom teachers like Gandhi, Saints Francis and Clare, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Jesus and Buddha—lived voluntarily simple lives. That’s almost the only way to stop bending the knee before the system. This is a truly transfigured life in cultures which today are almost always based on climbing, consumption, and competition (1 John 2:15-17).

Once we idealize social climbing, domination of others, status symbols, power, prestige, and possessions, we are part of a never-ending game that is almost impossible to escape. It has its own inner logic that is self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self-congratulating, as well as elitist and exclusionary. It will never create a just or happy world, yet most Christians never call it into question. Jesus came to free us from this lie, which will never make us happy anyway, because it’s never enough, and we never completely win.

Adapted from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CD/MP3 by Richard Rohr)

Slamming Doors: A Reflection on a Reflection by Richard Rohr

doorknobI’m not a religious person. I do religious activities like going to church, praying, reading my Bible, taking the Eucharist. But I shy away from labeling myself as religious.

The problem with identifying myself as “religious” is that it sets my identity in my own idea of what spirituality is and puts me into a box, further defined by which religion I choose, then by which sect of that religion I claim. This identity assured, I can go on living my life secure in the comfort I have from knowing “it is well with my soul.”

The problem with this is that I still slam doors. Otherwise stated, I am still angry, noisy, overtaken by my emotion–which is really a manifestation of my ego, which no amount of religionising can overcome. My normative functioning is driven by my ego.

This, I believe lies within the same category as that which Jesus addressed when he told his disciples that, if they had anything against their brother, to go and reconcile with him before coming to offer their gift on the altar. I cannot expect to connect with the God who says “Be still and know” when all around me is the disturbance of my own false-self, my ego.

Even in my own worship of God, my ego seems to delight in its glorious spiritual identity.

Richard Rohr makes this point (quoting Thomas Merton quoting Thich Nhat Hanh):

We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors. Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966

The piercing truth of this statement struck me as a perfect way to communicate the endless disguises and devices of the false self. There is no more clever way for the false self to hide than behind the mask of spirituality. The human ego will always try to name, categorize, fix, control, and insure all its experiences. For the ego everything is a commodity. It lives inside of self-manufactured boundaries instead of inside the boundaries of the God-self. It lives out of its own self image instead of mirroring the image of God. It is that superior self-image which must die.

The ego is constantly searching for any solid and superior identity. A spiritual self-image gives us status, stability, and security. There is no better way to remain unconscious than to baptize and bless the forms of religion, even prayer itself. As long as I am going to church, it is really meaningless whether I close the door quietly or slam the door. A spiritual master would say, “first stop slamming doors, and then you can begin in the kindergarten of spirituality.” Too many priests, bishops, and ministers are still slamming doors, so how can we expect the laity to be any better?

In the name of seeking God, the ego pads and protects itself from self-discovery, which is an almost perfect cover for its inherent narcissism. I know this because I have done it all myself.

Adapted from Contemplation in Action, pp. 79-80

So, taking the lead from St Paul, “I die daily” to my own religion, to my own sense of spirituality, to my own prideful door-slamming and noise, to my false self. And I rest in the “new self”–or as Rohr calls it, “the God-self”–as God renews me, recreates me in God’s own image and imparts to me a new identity.

Trapped in Church?

I came across this photo today which intrigued me. It sends a message that is receiving a fair amount of airplay in recent times and that is: Church is a trap.

Does this ring true with your past experience? Your present? In what ways would you say this is true, or not true? How do you see your friends, neighbours, and workmates believing this claim? Why would they see the Church in this light?

(Discuss amongst yourselves.)

The Church Trap at the Burning Man Festival, Black Rock, Nevada, USA, August 2013. (source: The Atlantic)
The Church Trap at the Burning Man Festival, Black Rock, Nevada, USA, August 2013. (source: The Atlantic)