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.

Losing Faith

I don’t know about you, but I have a faith problem. My faith problem is simply that I often lose my faith. It’s not a matter of maintaining appearances–I can do that awesomely; after all, I am a pastor’s son. I can look happy and spirit-filled at the drop of a hat.

No, this is far deeper, raw and honest; it’s a place where I find myself all too often.

Maybe it’s the books I read. People have said stuff to me like, “Don’t read (insert name here)’s books. Your faith can’t last if you expose yourself to such dangerous ideas.” Maybe its the blogs I visit and the topics they discuss like post-evangelicalism, post-modernism, post-Darwinian thought, post-Christian, post-colonialism, etc. Maybe its the stuff I put in my ears–words that tell me I need to think freely, have an open mind, be more inclusive, love more/hate less. . . .

Regardless, apart from the fact that there are certainly elements of danger every time I open my mind to entertain a new thought, I would say the greater danger remains in trying to maintain a status quo, an attachment to a system that just doesn’t work and is losing its credibility more each day. I can’t buy into the Evangelical culture any more than I can buy into consumerism, wanton capitalism, or corporate warmongering.

Ideals aside, it’s still Good Friday (and I digress).

Today we remember the cross, the sacrifice of Jesus, the rigged execution of the God-man who came to be revered as Lord,  King and Saviour.

It is a dark day and, perhaps, “Good” Friday is too sanitised a version of this story. This particular day was horrible, terrible, dark, depressing. It was a  time of pain, of loss, of an end to a promise. . . .

The disciples fled.

The women wept.

The soldiers mocked.

The earth kept spinning into night and the one who promised it all had died.

God had left the building.

There was no more promise, no more hope, no more kingdom.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living that day.

Sometimes my faith gives way to anger, pain, regret. Too often God is distant,  silent, unknowing and uncaring. This is my own personal Good Friday . . . or Monday,  or Thursday, or Sunday. . . .

How about you?

(To be continued)

What is Remembered

My dad and I recently traveled to the Philippines to attend a conference where several of his students from Bible College were now serving as pastors and denominational leaders. Everywhere we went, they told stories of “Pastor John” and his radio quartet, choir, music practice.

Dad didn’t go to the Philippines to teach music and direct choirs. He went to teach the Bible and direct a College.

In frustration one night he asked the question that I could tell had been causing him a lot of anguish: “Why don’t they remember my Bible teaching?” (The reverse was implied: “Why is it that all I hear is ‘We remember the music’?”)

What is remembered says a lot about two things:

1. The effectiveness of what was presented, and

2. The response of the person to what was presented.

IGBIPerhaps what dad taught in Theology 101 wasn’t as memorable. This could be the boredom factor of having to go through a systematic study that would, at times, seem tedious and sleep-inducing (Been there; done that.) It could also be a comparative thing: compared to the joy and excitement of singing, traveling around to visit churches and performing on the radio, sitting on a hard wooden seat listening to the 26 reasons why we aren’t Arminian just doesn’t cut it.

Or it could be that the students who were enrolled in the College at the time were far more passionate about and felt connected in singing together than they were about studying Soteriology and proof-texting John Calvin’s 5 Points?

We could look at this example and draw the conclusion that his students should have been more serious about their Bible study and ministerial training and that this should have driven them to enjoy learning and applying themselves to their studies.

But that would be about as fair as expecting the congregation on any given Sunday to leave reciting the main points of the pastor’s sermon rather than singing the memorable chorus of that final song. We are naturally wired to remember things that appeal to all our senses; our minds naturally prioritise that in which we are actively engaged above that which just goes into our ears.

Dad shouldn’t be so hard on himself. He did a great job of teaching, I’m sure. Otherwise the vast majority of his students would not be in the ministry today. I’m sure the essence of their vocation has “Pastor John” written all over it; the music is simply the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down.

(And, in keeping with this theme, the ending pointed question of this post is, “And who doesn’t like sugar?” not “And how bad was that medicine!”)