Contemplative Positivity

Negative or positive, opposite signs

How I really love listening to Richard Rohr! Seriously, if I need to choose one person who has challenged and changed my perspective on life and spirituality the most, it would be Rohr. From his books to his daily reflections to his seminars, his understanding of and ability to articulate what it is to be a present-day Christian Mystic is incomparable. You can check out his work at www.cac.org.

He and Rob Bell recently recorded a conversation about the Alternative Orthodoxy on the Robcast podcast. In this conversation, Richard spoke about the seven themes of Alternative Orthodoxy (which, as its title suggests, is a different way of understanding Divine Truth). You can see a summary of these themes here.

There are so many quotable moments in this interview, but one that grabbed me was the neuroscientific study Rohr cited that showed how our brains stick to negativity like Velcro. Not only is our mind attracted to the shadows, but it grabs these thoughts and clings to them, sometimes for years. And, while it takes only a split second for a negative image to be imprinted on our minds, it takes 15 seconds of savouring a positive thought to accomplish the same impressing into our brains.

That’s why we find it so easy to thing bad things of people and remember every ill word spoken and every evil action done towards us. Likewise, we find it terribly difficult, at times, to see and remember the good.

Rohr goes on to show how this should cause us to be more contemplative, aware of the goodness around us and focusing on that good purposefully for a span of time.

Fifteen seconds focussing on that smile, that encouraging remark, an uplifting tune, the laughter of a child, a feeling of peace and contentment. Fifteen seconds to centre your awareness on the streaming sunlight, the warmth of the fireplace, the beauty of that waterfall, the fragrance of that flower, or the refreshment of the falling rain. Fifteen seconds to sit in reflection on the good in that person, their fine attributes and positive character traits.

Fifteen seconds.

That’s a challenge, definitely one that I need. How my life would change if I simply spent time investing in this one change of habit!

Where we go Wrong (Part 2)

in my last post I wrote about kind atheists and mean Christians and how we are wrong in assuming all those who do not embrace our particular form of faith are evil and have an untoward agenda.

I have been reading a few incredible books recently that have been raising all sorts of questions, and I’m grateful to the men and women who are able to frame these in such a thought-provoking manner.

Rachel Held-Evans wrote a particularly poignant book that tells numerous stories of her formative years growing up in Evangelicalism. It’s simply called Faith Unraveled: Gow a Girl Who Knew all the Answers Learned to ask the Questions. Through these stories Rachel shares her struggle with many of the idiosyncrecies often associated with American Evangelicals such as the self-focused “I’m blessed” attitude, for example: thanking God for good weather for your wedding when a hurricane is at that moment wiping out entire towns and leaving people dead, injured, or homeless. Among other things she addresses the idea of living “biblically,” the position of LGBTQ folk in the church, women in ministry and Biblical inerrancy. All together, Held-Evans has painted a stark and realistic view of modern Christianity whilst showing how, within the very institutions that brought this pain, people are rising up and bringing healing and hope, reforming and changing the organisations that tried to destroy them.

Another book I would highly recommend is the new Harper Lee (To Kill a Mickingbird) novel Go Set a Watchman. It took a while for this book to engage me. It wasn’t really until around the eighth chapter that I began to see beyond the words and into the intent of the author. What first appeared to be a rather mediocre narrative about life in the early twentieth century South took on the air of prophetic voice of one caught in the middle of the 1960’s Desegregation Movement, particularly feeling the pull between the paradigm embraced by her father (Atticus Finch) and that of her own deep-rooted convictions. Like Faith Unraveled, Watchman recognises the tension between not only generations but also between worldviews. Rather than resolving that tension, both authors deconstruct the conflict and then reconstruct it in such a way that brings a sense of understanding and peace into the relationships (yet not fully resolving the underlying tension).

How to hold a sense of peace in relationships that appear to be on the two ends of the spectrum has always been of particular difficulty to me. Often I have found the maxim of loving my neighbour truly troublesome at times, especially when my neighbour is actively and vocally propagating what I consider damaging. Yet, in both of these books, the possibility of living at peace with all is something that is not only seen as desirable but genuinely possible.

I have one more book to add to this mix, and it is The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson. I will look into the message of this book in a later post, but will touch on the main story here.

Carlton Pearson was an Associate of Oral Roberts, an Evangelist and a megachurch Pastor of a Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, until he started seeing hell in a different light than his colleagues. Recounting his experiences in Rob Bell’s Robcast podcast, Bishop Pearson shares a turning point in his life–how he had a long conversation with the ageing Billy Graham shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, a discussion in which the famous Evangelist questioned the validity of his own 60-year ministry with remorse that he hadn’t left the world a better place, despite the millions “saved” in his numerous campaigns. This led Pearson to ask why this was so and, after much thought, study and prayer, to the conclusion that the gospel as it is traditionally understood (as a guilt- and fear-based message) is not at all how Jesus preached it. His argument through this book is that we must reclaim the good news that God has already redeemed all humanity and our Evangelistic message is truly good news to all: you are delivered, you are free! Live in the light and love of God.

For this. The Council of African-Anerican Bishops excommunicated Pearson, labelling him a heretic. He lost his church, his position on the board of ORU and many, many friends. Yet, in spite of all this, he believes that there is hope for the Church and he is at peace with her. Sure, the Church needs to change. One of his favourite statements is that “[The Church] is not growing; it is getting fat,” meaning that we are comfortable with who we are and what we believe. We have settled for ease in our places of worship rather than the discomfort that comes in asking the tough questions and facing the realities that our world is not a better place despite the centuries of spreading the “good news” to every nation. 

In the end, Pearson states that we are getting it wrong when we fail to question our understanding of the “good news” and settling for what is dictated to us by tradition, politics, church, or family. We are getting fat, not growing. We are caught in our parents’ worldview, our religious dogma, the doctrines of our Church, having never questioned their monopoly of the Divine. It is only when we see our faith unraveled that we can see order amidst the mess and a new and genuine faith arising from the ashes. Nothing is lost. Even uncertainty is a gift. There is hope. All is and will be redeemed.

Some may call this heresy. I call it evolution: an evolving faith that changes, grows and expands as new light is received. Perhaps it’s time we as a Church start asking the right questions. Perhaps it is time to be courageous and dare to be unsettled. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the “good news” as good news and take the steps necessary to leave this world a better place.

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.

Book Burnout

I’m experiencing book burnout at the moment. I really enjoy reading, but need to do so in small doses at the moment. My system is a little overloaded.

The unfortunate fact is that there are some really great books out there at the moment and it’s tempting just to get onto the Book Depository or Amazon Kindle Store and get my hands on them. But I’ve got so much information going around in my head that my thought-train is threatening to de-rail.

Recently, I’ve been challenged greatly by Brian McLaren‘s Naked Spirituality and by Rob Bell‘s Love Wins. These two recent publications have joined Hugh Halter’s And: The Gathered and Scattered Church in giving me hope in what is possible for the Faith, Christianity and the Church at what many have called a crossroads in its existence.

Mike Foster’s Gracenomics inspired me to lean more towards mercy in my life and give people a second or third or fourth chance.  

Shane Hipps’ well-researched volume, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, shows how this marketing guru-turned-pastor sees the way our faith is faring, growing, changing amidst the onslaught of new technology at our disposal (I am still digesting this one).

I really enjoyed the way Pete Rollins underhandedly sparked my thinking in his collection of modern-day parables, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. What a great, creative gift of storytelling this man has been given!

Then there are a couple of books that are more challenging to read since they are written by people who do not share my same belief-branding: The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became one of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I say “challenging to read” because sometimes what these men have written unsettles me, makes me squirm, and necessitates that I put the book down and do some further searching, study and praying. So many of the questions asked need to be asked–answered, re-phrased, discussed–not simply dismissed. The sad truth is both of these books contain truth, and sometimes address in very direct terms the deficiencies that pervade Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity today.

I have often heard the comment (from those with the best of intentions): “We shouldn’t be reading anything but the Bible,” or a variant, “We should only be reading books that are solidly based on Scripture” (what actually qualifies in this capacity usually are those books that agree with my own interpretations.)

While I see the value of not constantly surrounding oneself with “error,” it also must be said that we do ourselves no favour by blocking our ears and crying out “la la la” while others are raising genuine questions. We who claim to want to be like those of Berea who “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17),” have much to answer for if we fail to understand the claims of those different to us so as to critically (Scripturally?) give a credible response.

And what McLaren has penned in A New Kind of Christianity and Ken Howard in Paradoxy: Creating Community Beyond Us and Them gives me hope that we can have meaningful dialogue–and find friendship–with those who differ from us.

Meanwhile, too much thinking is “doing my head in.” I’ve removed the half-read stacks of books next to my easy chair and on my bedside table. For now I need to sit back, draw some deep breaths, mull over some well-written words and ideas and pray.  I think I’ll be back in the library or on the ‘net before you know it. But, for the moment, I’m taking a little time out for sanity.

More Meanderings . . .

A new web resource and magazine called Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation has appeared in recent days. Some articles are published on the website but many others are available by subscribing to the magazine (which can be sent in PDF form). In the most recent issue entitled “Contemplation,”  Mindy Caliguire reviews Gerald May’s book The Dark Night of the Soul. Here’s an excerpt from her article:

One of the most striking areas clarified for me was this: the experience of a “dark night”, according to John and Theresa, is not in fact just a season of difficulty.  May asserts that a deeper meaning has been often lost in translation with the word, dark. Dark in John’s sense did not refer to something sinister or particularly bad. Rather, the Spanish word in John’s writing isoscura. May writes,

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, another Carmelite mystic, lived in seventeenth-century France. At one point in his famous treatise, The Practice of the Presence of God, he says, “People would be surprised if they knew what their souls said to God sometimes.” Centuries before Freud “discovered” the unconscious, contemplatives such as Brother Lawrence, Teresa, and John had a profound appreciation that there is an active life of the soul that goes on beneath our awareness. It is to this unconscious dimension of the spiritual life that Teresa and John refer to when they use the term “dark”.… For them, it simply means obscure. In the same way that things are difficult to see at night, the deepest relationship between God and person is hidden from our conscious awareness.

“In speaking of la nocha oscura, the dark night of the soul, John is addressing something mysterious and unknown, but by no means sinister or evil…. John says it is one thing to be in oscuras and quite another to be in tinieblas (the sinister kind of darkness). In oscuras things are hidden; in tinieblas one is blind. In fact, it is the very blindness of tinieblas, our slavery to attachment and delusion, that the dark night of the soul is working to heal.” (p. 67-68) Read more here.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Brian McLaren was asked a good question about whether or not God’s grace comes with terms and conditions. The question and his response is found here. He has also made some interesting observations about Rob Bell‘s new book Love Wins and some responses to its release. Read about that here.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Read on Twitter this week: “I’m not a universalist but I prayer every day that God is.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Nate Stratman on his blog has written about an oft-missing ingredient in youth ministry.

When is the last time that we found out that a student was in counseling or left our church because we delighted in them too much? Delight is a cousin of Joy, which is a fruit of God’s Spirit and scripture says “against such things there is no law.” – Gal. 5:23  So my translation is “slather on an extra spoonful of delight” when we have the opportunity to greet any student in our ministries.

Here is the caveat, there are those that are easier to delight in than others. I must always remember my personal story and how I wasn’t the easiest teenager to delight in, which made it shocking when adults actually loved my ugly and not just my infrequent, well-behaved side. We delight because HE first delighted in us. (Read it all here.)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Jonathan Brink has written on the EV blog. One sentence stood out for me above others (perhaps because of my own experience):

“You know what I don’t understand. I have a lot of friends who are strict fundamentalists, and I’m okay with that. It’s what they want to believe and I don’t want to change that.But what gets me is that none of them say, ‘I may be right, but I hope I’m wrong.'”

My comment on this is: how often have I spoken the caveat when speaking my own thoughts on an issue? (I wish some of those who commented on Jonathan’s post could have considered this as well.) Read it here.


Inquisitions, Witch Hunts & Burning Heretics

I watched a doco the other night on SBS about the witch hunts of Spanish Inquisition days, and how the Church pursued, tried, and burned not only those thought to be witches, but those who were considered heretics (those whose beliefs differed from official church dogma).

We don’t see a lot of public burnings in our churches today (with the exception of ‘heretical’ books and ‘satanic’ rock albums and the odd roast preacher), but the accusations still flow. Usually they are the result of an incomplete understanding of someone’s interpretation of a doctrine or Bible passage, or they are because of a need to be –or be seen to be– ‘pure’ or superior in some way. When we condemn others, we truly do feel better about ourselves.

The problem is that we ourselves have an incomplete understanding and do not know as we ought to know–and that incomplete knowledge applies to Scripture, God, our world, ourselves and others.

Jonathan Brink has written a short post on his blog about Rob Bell, who has endured his share of criticism and name-calling by those who would believe they know better. Here’s part of what Jonathan wrote:

This post isn’t about Rob Bell.  Seriously.

Rob Bell has a new book coming out about heaven and hell. It’s called Love Wins. I can imagine it will sell like hotcakes because people have been wondering aloud for a long time what Rob really thinks about the nature of reconciliation, and if he a universalist.  It’s an easy trick to just come up with a simple test that makes him out to be a heretic, without listening to the underlying theology that goes behind it.  It’s easier to judge him based upon our assumptions, rather than listening to the nuances of what the nature of grace really entails.

The truth is (and I mean that in a nice way) we want to know.  We fight about it and argue because we’re talking about our very souls.  I get why people argue so vehemently and want to draw lines.  It really is that important.

I make the argument in my book that we’re all inside the kingdom of God.  The Tree Of Knowledge is not a test of obedience but a test of reality regarding the nature of reality.  It asks only one question, “Are we good or evil?”  This question is the only question that can trip us up because it is the basis of our interaction with all of reality.  Everything is good from God’s perspective in the story.

But the very nature of sin is to construct a false reality that sees the self as outside of the kingdom.  We all have our fruit that we used to judge.  So the problem is local in the self.  All the cross does is reiterate what has always been true, that we’re in, that there is nothing we can do that can change reality (or God’s judgment of good). (Read more here.)

I for one am looking forward to Rob’s new book. Yes, I’d love to read yours too, Jonathan, and will get to it one day soon. But back to Rob. If it’s anything like his previous books and DVDs, it will be filled with insights into the language and culture of the Bible, and the evolved understanding of God through the ages of humankind. It will certainly get people talking, questioning, arguing, and studying for themselves. . . . and denouncing Rob Bell from the blogosphere.

And some will be convinced. Some will keep studying this topic. And some will think Rob to be a fool. But this is the same result St Paul experienced at the first Mars Hill meeting, and it certainly won’t be the last time that the accusations will be forthcoming.

Now back to Jonathan’s post and the final point he was really trying to make:

I had a very interesting conversation regarding the final judgment with a friend.  I’ve written in depth on the topic in my book, and argue that when Jesus says, “All judgment has been given to the son…” he’s revealing that is is we who judge, not God. It has always been about us coming to terms with grace, not God.  But my friend spoke about what happens in the final judgment in a way that was so fresh, I had to stand back and say, “Oh my God. That is so brilliant.”

He was sharing that the final judgment isn’t God judging us, but our live played back in its fullness and it is we who are judging it.  But then he said, “Because we are in the presence of God, we will be able to see life from the perspective of love.  We’re going to be able to see how we missed out on love in each moment, how God was there, and how we just couldn’t see it.  And this awareness will still require a judgment.  But our judgment will include reality.”

Which brings me back to the top of this post: I’m sure glad we don’t have burnings of heretics today because I, like most of you, would have at some stage lost my life in the midst of the craziness and lunacy of the witch hunt . . . I for one am very glad that one day we will see all from the perspective of love and be in the presence of a God who sees all as it really is, yet loves us (in spite of our mis-understandings) and accepts and  us because of his great love and grace.