Monday, November 28, 2011

How to Love

I am God's beloved. Beloved! Have you ever heard such a sweet word? I love how it rolls off the tongue. I am sweet and precious in His eyes. I am cherished. Now, if only my head would tell that to my heart. I have a feeling that when I truly get it, when I tear down the walls I have built to protect my poor bruised heart and let the light in, nothing will ever be the same.

Have you ever tried to be good? I mean really tried. Have you ever set out to love well only to fail miserably? I have. My desire to be kind and gentle, compassionate and forgiving, are quickly forgotten when I face the weakest of opposition. A mere look, a simple slight and I fall to pieces. Why is that? I think I know the answer.

I am still looking to externals to validate my worth. I am still operating under the false belief that I am not enough. Not pretty enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not spiritual enough. Deep down, way deep down, there is a part of me that believes there is no good thing about me and that belief drives me. I seek recognition, affirmation and approval from others because I don't possess it for myself. When I try to love, and I am confronted with a word or thought that challenges my fragile sense of worth, I protect it at all cost.

But here's the thing. When I rest in God's love, when I open myself up to His light, when I seek Him first, the whole world loses it's power over me. In fact, I actually become a channel of blessings to others because who among us can contain the light? When we let it in it shines everywhere. It pours out of us. We leak love.

On my own I have nothing to give. Sure, I can reciprocate that which is given to me -I can love the lovable and have affection for the affectionate, but I cannot create light where darkness exists. Instead, I myself become blinded by the darkness too. I become fearful, arrogant, self-centered, jealous, resentful and hurt. We cannot give that which we don't have.

But God's love changes everything. Darkness does not exist on it's own. It has no source. It is the absence of light, not an equal and opposite force. I'm trying to meditate on that today. I am not going to focus on giving, I'm going to focus on receiving and in doing so be filled to overflowing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Daily Examen

A few days ago a friend mentioned Ignatian prayer in a blog post which led me to research St. Ignatius and his spiritual exercises. Wiki tells us that Ignatius of Loyola was "a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family, hermit, priest since 1537, and theologian, who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)." His spiritual exercises, consisting mainly of prayer and meditations, are meant to bring people into a deeper relationship with God.

The Examen of Consciousness is one of St. Ignatius' most well-known spiritual exercises. At the heart of this daily practice is a review in which one reflects on their day with the intention of becoming more spiritually minded and tuned into God. This prayer method helps us see how we have responded to God's movings and promptings throughout our day and when we have failed to do so.

I scoured the net and found all kinds of variations on this exercise, but generally they all follow the same process. I noted the things that resonated with me then whittled it down to a simple practice I could easily incorporate into my day. I've only been doing this for a few days but the results are profound. I already find myself much more God-conscious and I'm receiving supernatural help for issues that have held me back for a very long time. For the review I chose and created questions that I felt would be most helpful for me.

RECALL THAT YOU ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

God is always present but I am not always mindful of this. I'll now take the necessary time to fully experience God’s presence.

THANKSGIVING

“In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thess 5:18)

What do I have to be grateful for today? What have I taken for granted that deserves thanksgiving? I'll now talk to God about these things.

PRAYER FOR THE LIGHT

“The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything.” (John 14:26)

Only the Holy Spirit can help me to know my true self as a child of God and shine light on that which I need to see. I'll now invite the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide me.

REVIEW THE DAY

• How were my thoughts, words and deeds today?
• Which of my feelings and moods are drawing me closer to God?
• Which are driving me away?
• How conscious have I been of God’s presence today?
• Where were there barriers to God's presence or resistance on my part?
• When did I reach out to help others?
• What held me back when I neglected to do so?
• Was I so preoccupied with my own plans that I missed an opportunity?
• Did I bring Christ to my community?
• Did my community bring Christ to me?
• Did I go out to the lonely, the sorrowful, the discouraged and needy?
• Have I been a sign of God’s presence and love to the people I met today?
• When did I neglect to stand up for truth, to share my beliefs and faith?
• Am I sharing my story honestly with myself, God and others?
• How was I drawn to God today?
• Did I see God in the beauty of nature, a song, poem, story, scripture?
• Did I call on God in my doubt, fear, work, failures and weariness?
• Did I share my peace, hope, joy, successes and gratitude with Him?
• Are any of my daily habits interfering with my spiritual growth?
• Are there spiritual practices I need to cultivate? 
• Are there specific people I am allowing to influence me negatively?
• Where has Christ helped me overcome challenges today?
• Could I have accepted more help from Christ?
• Can I become more sensitive to God’s grace?

RESPOND TO THE REVIEW

Now it's time to have a heart to heart with God. I may need to seek forgiveness, ask for direction, share a concern or express gratitude in response to my daily review. What changes can I make? What specific graces do I need to make those changes? I'll now ask God to provide that which I need to draw closer to Him and resolve to be more conscious tomorrow. Finally, I give thanks to God for His gentle work inside my heart as we labour together to help me become more Christlike, day by day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

20 Spiritual Questions to Ponder

In the documentary ONE: The Movie filmmakers asked well-known spiritual teachers and everyday people philosophical questions that explore the meaning of life. I haven't seen the movie yet but I did read the questions and they are great food for thought. What do I believe? Some answers came easily but others required much more reflection. It's interesting to ponder how my beliefs have changed over the years and consider how they will continue to evolve in the future. Feel free to copy the questions and post your answers on your own blog. Make sure to share a link in the comment section so I can read your answers!

1. Why is there poverty and suffering in the world?
Because the majority of us that could do something about these issues are too far removed from the problem to really care. Humans can be selfish, greedy, fear-filled creatures. We live in an unelightened world.

2. What is the relationship between science and religion?
Science studies creation but religion is focused on the creator.

3. Why are so many people depressed?
They've lost a sense of meaning and purpose. They are disconnected.

4. What are we all so afraid of?
Being criticized, abandoned, forgotten, alone. That death is the end.

5. When is war justifiable?
I don't know.

6. How would God want us to respond to aggression and terrorism?
With prayer.

7. How does one obtain true peace?
By surrendering.

8. What does it mean to live in the present moment?
To act without an attachment to the results, let go of the past and stop trying to control the future.

9. What is our greatest distraction?
The limitless void. The illusion that more (money, stuff, power, recognition, talent, travel, friends, prayer, etc.) will make us happier.

10. Is current religion serving its purpose?
Sometimes.

11. What happens to you after you die?
I'm pretty confident that our spirit separates from our physical body and based on accounts from near-death experiencers I think it is possible that we are guided by spiritual beings and participate in a life review. I believe we continue our education while in the spiritual realms and reincarnate if necessary. I believe hell does exist and some souls go to hell because they have made a conscious decision to reject God. I also believe there are realms beyond imagination in which we enter into communion with God.

12. Describe heaven and how to get there.
Heaven is communion with God. It is experienced when we take up our crosses and follow Christ -when we die to self and become Christlike.

13. What is the meaning of life?
To encounter and transcend adversity. To experience the physical realm, practice free will, embrace life and learn to love. To find pleasure in God's creation.

14. Describe God.
God is the sentient life force that exists in all living things and watches over us at the same time. God is a part of and separate from; intrinsic and transcendent. God is the creator and the creation.

15. What is the greatest quality humans posses?
The capacity to love that which seems unloveable.

16. What is it that prevents people from living to their full potential?
Fear.

17. Non-verbally, by motion or gesture only, act out what you believe to be the current condition of the world.

18. What is your one wish for the world?
That everyone will feel safe and loved.

19. What is wisdom and how do we gain it?
Wisdom is the ability to see the big picture. We gain it by learning from our past and listening to God.

20. Are we all One?
We are, but we don't yet know it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Can Christians Become Enlightened?

As much as I love the Christian path there is a mindset common among followers of Jesus that really disappoints me. I'm finding this a little hard to put into words so please bear with me. 

What I have observed is that very few Christians appear to work on their spiritual health in any practical way. Often, they genuinely want to change but instead of doing work to help themselves they choose to put their faith in God. It's as if they expect God to flick a switch and make them better people. 

Some Christians believe that incorporating certain practices not only demonstrates a lack of faith but is potentially dangerous. Personal development resources (books, programs, counseling, etc.) are often viewed with suspicion if not fear. There may be the outright rejection of any spiritual teaching that is not found in the Bible or even hints at New Thought. (Ironically, sometimes the Bible says the same thing but frames it differently!) Self-help books, yoga, meditation, body work, cognitive therapy and the likes are often dismissed entirely as being too new-agey and therefore risky business.

Many Christians are afraid to claim their own (God-given) power. Afraid to even admit they have any. I happen to believe God created us in His image, with the divine spark, and capable of greatness. Our animalistic nature (what many would call our fallen nature) is a considerable handicap but I won't allow it to be the defining characteristic of my being. I am a child of God first; a creature of this world second. Can we overcome the flesh? Jesus did. He received a glorified body in its place. What if that is what the resurrection was all about? The overcoming. What if Jesus' death on the cross was a symbolic message rather than a substitute punishment? What if we paid as much attention to the resurrection as we do the crucifixion? 

What if God can only give us new glorified bodies when we have freely surrendered our earthly ones for crucifixion?

It's almost like Christianity promotes this fatalistic thinking that we cannot fix ourselves, that we are broken beyond repair, and our only hope is that God will restore us after we die. Although there is some truth in this we are allowing it to have too much power over us. Yes, as long as we remain in this world, in these (unglorified) bodies, we will be tempted and we will stumble. But is that evidence that we belong on the ground? No, even Jesus stumbled on his way to the cross.

Don't get me wrong, I wholly believe we need to trust in God, just not in the believe now so he can fix us later kind of way. God leads but we must listen and follow his directions. He gives us strength and wisdom but we must do the work. God empowers us, here and now, to be healed, to be transformed, to become (dare I say it) enlightened! To me this is the most beautiful message of any teaching in any religion. We can be born again and made anew. Of course we never do it alone. Aloneness is an illusion. Our spiritual nature is intimately connected with its source; it cannot be disconnected any more than an estuary can be disconnected from the ocean. All that craves God comes from God and is God. Deep calls out to deep.

Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is within and you know what? I believe him.

What do you think? Do Christians shirk spiritual work? Is the doctrine of original sin a self-limiting belief that prevents Christians from reaching their full potential?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Belief is More Important Than Works

At least when it comes to nutrition.

Most of us are aware of at least a few people who have little interest in diet or exercise yet manage to live long, healthy lives. I remember asking a youthful 94 year old her secret and she replied, "a cigarette after dinner and some whiskey before bed." I laughed; she was serious!

It sounds fanciful, but this sweet lady may have been sharing some profound wisdom.

For starters, it appears that our beliefs about the food we eat have a greater impact on our health than the actual composition of the food. This really isn't surprising when you consider all the conflicting evidence research provides for healthy eating. What is found to be beneficial in one study becomes detrimental in the next. Furthermore, cultures around the globe thrive while eating highly diverse diets; many of which would be considered controversial if not foolhardy.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Maybe nothing. But, well, I'm wondering if perhaps the same principle can be applied to our spiritual well-being. A few verses in particular recently got me thinking:

"Someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required." (Luke 12:47-48)

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned." (Luke 6:37)

Does the expression 'ignorance is bliss' come to mind?

And if I'm interpreting these verses correctly then perhaps faith really does trump good works. I mean, if I truly believe I am saved by grace regardless of my actions then perhaps God's mercy really does cover me.

If I have not condemned myself or I don't know any better...

Would this make God the greatest relativist ever? I mean, not only does He judge our sin but He considers our perceptions and attitudes toward them as well.

Hmmm. Could this cover non-believers too?

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

It sounds to me like Jesus thought it was at least worth asking...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Church: Stepping Stone or Stumbling Block?

Peter Rollins wrote a book of parables called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. I think it's exceptional. My favorite parable is called Finding Faith; a story in which a preacher has the unusual gift of causing people to lose all their religious convictions when he prays for them. The preacher doesn't see much use for this gift until he meets a man who, despite declaring his love for Christ and being very involved in his church, engaged in ruthless business practices. He explained to the preacher that the business world was a cold one and he simply did what he had to do, but he went to church every Sunday to remember who he really was. The preacher finally understood the value of his unusual gift. He prayed for the businessman, causing him to lose all his faith in God. Without his prayer groups and Bible studies to put a glossy finish on the lens through which he perceived himself, the businessman had to face the reality of how he was actually living. He started to despise his business practices, had a breakdown and left his job. Eventually he put his skills to work challenging the corrupt system he once participated in.

In the commentary that follows Pete asks if perhaps our religious convictions and church activities have become safety valves, allowing us to blow off a little steam, inoculating us against a deeper change that would permeate every aspect of our lives. I remember watching a video a few months ago in which Pete was lecturing at a university and he explained how it's actually in an employers best interest to have their employees sit around the staff room complaining about management, because if they weren't allowed that release the pressure would build to a breaking point and people would be forced to take steps toward actually changing the situation.

Does going to church inoculate (that links to a great talk our church pastor shared on a related subject) us against more meaningful spiritual practices? I think it's a big risk for some and completely true for many. I mean, if I couldn't talk about Jesus with my church family who would I be having conversations with? If I wasn't giving my time and resources to the church who would I be giving it to? If I couldn't worship on Sundays or be inspired by a good sermon where would I go to worship and be inspired? Without church to help us let off a little religious steam we'd really have to live by our beliefs because there would be nobody else to do it for us.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think the answer is to join the ranks of the de-churched but I am becoming aware of the huge potential for complacency and compartmentalization inherent in church life. When we are a part of a large institution, like a church, it's easy to lose our sense of personal responsibility. For example, I may not go out and feed the poor but if there is a group within our church who does this I probably feel that I am in some way contributing; especially if I throw a few cans of soup their way. We probably use the collective term "we" in church way too much; usually it's only a handful of people actually contributing. The next time our pastor says "We did this!" I'm going to reflect on who was actually involved and scratch my name off the list!

So that's what I've been reflecting on tonight. Any thoughts?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Better Together: The Spiritual Practice of Community

Western culture places enormous value on the individual, independence and personal achievements. We often live completely removed not only from our neighbours but also from our own family. Gone are the days of the multi-generational home and a true sense of community. There was once a time, not so long ago, when a family would (literally) not survive without their neighbours. Nowadays those who work, eat and play with their actual neighbours are probably Amish or living on a commune. Even those of us who start out in a nuclear family and grow to have children of our own usually end up alone. We break away from our parents, our children fly the coop and our spouses die. If we are lucky enough to grow old we will find ourselves among the loneliest, most depressed demographic in the world; either living alone or dying with strangers in a nursing home.

I know many people, mostly introverts, who are quite comfortable in their own company; but even introverts need to be intimately involved with others. Living in community challenges us in ways that no other spiritual practice comes close to: we learn to work together, make sacrifices, forgive, share and cooperate. We also learn that we can't always get what we want, that we aren't the centre of the universe and that other people matter. We share in their joy and suffering. When we know people well they become real people, with histories and dreams of their own; not just two-dimensional characters in our own story.

It seems to me that stronger communities, not communities of like-minded individuals but actual side-by-side neighbours helping one another, just might be the most important step backwards the world could hope to make. A few months ago I heard a popular feminist on talk radio. I can't remember her name but she's been around for decades and the interviewer asked her what change would most help improve the lives of women. I expected her to say something like more women in politics or equal pay but she surprised me by saying (I'm paraphrasing here) that women need to start working together again. That every day in every neighbourhood women are in their homes doing the exact same chores: cooking and cleaning and raising their children. We are all exhausted and lonely. Imagine how much more efficient it would be if the women worked in groups, some minding the children, a few prepping evening meals, others spending the afternoon folding laundry or running errands for the group. By the end of the day all the work would be accomplished with much less effort and in the company of others.

I know I am an idealist but there is a realist in me too. I know this would never work and I think I know why: we have forgotten how to live with others. We want it our way, right away. We have preferences for how the socks are folded, how much cumin is in the curry and which route to take through town. We live in the kind of society where if we don't like the way someone looks or how they spend their time we never have to talk to them -even if there is only one wall separating their home from our own. And we won't even look like snobs if we ignore them; they expect us to! In fact, we'd be going out on a limb if we walked next door to introduce ourselves. We'd probably be received apprehensively if not suspiciously. Who can blame them? We ourselves don't want to be inconvenienced or imposed on. Sure, we'll help out at church on Sunday but heaven forbid someone knock on our door after supper when we've put our feet up in front of the television after a long, hard day. We want to give on our terms. We guard our time jealously, as if it actually belongs to us.

I want to live and work side-by-side with other women and their families. If I spend a whole day inside this little apartment with my husband and two children I start to go a little crazy. I get mean, impatient, bored and discouraged. I need other women to talk to, to teach me how to be a good mother, to help me stay on course, to show me how to make a good casserole. I want my children to grow up with friends who live next door and not spend my days driving to play groups or activities across town. I want to be in relationship with people simply because they are people who live close by not because they meet a certain criteria to be considered my friends. It seems we no longer need to enter into any relationship that really challenges us. Real life neighbours make for complicated relationships: they are alcoholic, elderly, wealthy, cancer survivors, immigrants, drug dealers, prom queens and assholes. We choose our friends because they are like us. They like the same movies, share our religious beliefs and sense of humor. We are usually close in age, have similar incomes and dress pretty much the same. Boy, we must really love ourselves! Every relationship we choose reinforces our choices and affirms our worth.

But it ain't so with neighbours. We don't choose them. They are kind of like family in that respect. We must learn to work through our differences, to tear down walls and build healthy boundaries, to let go, to be useful, to be valued and to be vulnerable, to give and receive. It's very difficult to be spiritually well on our own. We grow together or we stay sick alone (in our little oasis of a home where the laundry is folded properly and the curry always has just the right amount of spice!).

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Learning the Art of Patience

I'm not a very patient person. I've been aware of this shortcoming for many years but only recently have I made a conscious decision to practice patience as a spiritual discipline. It's a deeply challenging commitment and I feel it pushing me into a whole new level of being. My impatience has lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities. I have hurt myself and those closest to me. Not only that, instead of being fully present and enjoying the moment, I often find myself racing through life like an addict desperate for her next fix.

I'm so caught up in getting things done that I lose the ability to see let alone meet the needs of those around me. I see tasks instead of people and practice efficiency when I could be expressing empathy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my work as a nurse at a long-term care facility. The workload is heavy so we have very little time to spend with any one resident. I find myself avoiding small talk, dismissing needs and rushing residents through their meals and cares. At home I am painfully aware of the extra time it takes to allow my toddler to figure things out for herself. I can do it myself, let me do it! is her everpresent mantra these days and my rebuttals are just as predictable: We're too late. Hurry up. Focus. You're taking too long. Just let me do it!

Even more difficult than the time crunch factor are the inevitable personality conflicts that arise. Learning to have patience with someone who is deliberately mean or manipulative is far more challenging than having patience with someone who is unwittingly pissing me off. At work I am expected to maintain therapeutic relationships with some very hostile people. On a regular basis I am criticized, ignored and degraded. I've had my wrists grabbed and my face slapped. Usually these people are suffering with dementia or mental illness, but some are just plain hateful. Here's an example of a situation I encountered just this past week:

Resident: Get me an egg sandwich; this dinner is terrible. 

Me: We don't have any egg sandwiches but there are some tuna sandwiches in the kitchenette.

Resident: I don't eat tuna! I pay top dollar to live here. There must be someone who can make me an egg sandwich.

Me: (Taking a deep breath and trying to remain calm.) As soon as I finish passing out the dinner trays I'll go down to the main kitchen and see if the staff can make you one.

Resident: You always have to wait for something in this place. What happened to actually caring for people? Nurses aren't what they used to be.

I did go down to the main kitchen and wait while the cook made an egg sandwich but when I brought it back to the resident she ended up taking just one bite and spitting it on the floor. This is horrible. I wouldn't feed this to a dog! I wonder if you can imagine how much it made my blood boil to wipe up spit food off the floor and dumping that uneaten sandwich in the garbage after going out of my way to appease her. Mealtime is very busy in nursing homes and we rarely entertain last minute special requests.

This resident remained rude throughout my shift. I did my best to remain kind and professional but eventually I cracked. As I was getting her ready for bed she threw another snarky criticism at me and it was the straw that broke the camel's back. You're right, I told her angrily, I can't do anything right so why should I bother trying? With that said I abruptly turned and walked out of the room. I didn't return to help her with anything for the remaining hour of my shift. I lost patience.

Actually, I shouldn't say I lost patience because truthfully I don't think I had any to begin with. I was remaining outwardly calm and polite but underneath the surface I was still a ball of nerves. She set my teeth on edge and I hated every minute I spent in her presence. My defenses finally crumbled and I showed my true colors. Then, within minutes, the guilt set in.

I spoke to my pastor about this incident and he lead me to some important insights. Not least of which was that I had been expecting this person to be won over by my actions. Deep down I believed that if I was kind enough she would stop being mean to me. I viewed her bad attitude as my own personal failure. I had been treating her with respect and kindness but she wasn't returning the favor. It was so unfair!

I had been modifying my behaviors but I had not yet changed my thinking. I was merely hiding my frustration. Practicing patience, it turns out, is much more than simply controlling my angry outbursts. True patience involves abandoning my agenda to enter a new perspective -one that seeks to accept and cooperate with the will of others. By acknowledging their independence I free myself from the misery of expectation. Some people will remain distressed and miserable no matter how much love we shower them with. When I approach a relationship with a personal agenda, using my patience and kindness as a tool to get someone to do what I want, I am simply being manipulative. Can I still be kind and patient when that person tosses my agenda out the window? Now there is the real test!

"In your patience possess ye your souls." (Luke 21:19)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Does Church Turn You Off God?

About two years ago I started attending a local church on a regular basis. That isn't to say I wasn't seeking a relationship with Him long before that time. As a child I paid attention to God because He was a mysterious, magical being that, like Santa Claus, was creepily watching everything I did. As a teen I suffered paralyzing existential anxiety and turned to (a seemingly deaf-mute) God with big questions about the meaning of life and my place in it. As a young adult I became intrigued with New Age spirituality, yoga and the mind-body-spirit connection. I also attended the occasional Catholic mass or Protestant service. Meanwhile, I had formed a few close friendships with Christians and I was in love with their love for God. Their faith made me thirsty for my own intimate relationship with the Divine, but their churches turned me off.

Surely the God of the universe was infinitely more complex and unknowable than the Sunday school version we were being spoonfed. Those who claimed to know God and His nature often struck me as naive or ignorant in the sweetest possible ways. Not only that, I sensed a cloud of unreality hovering over the Christian subcultures I encountered. Where were all the broken, desperate and needy? Everyone looked pacified, generic and sanitized. If they spoke at all about serious struggles (addiction, domestic violence, depression, etc.) it was in the context of a testimony about their transformation. On several occasions I heard preachers share about God's healing powers but no one around me looked like they needed to be healed. They kept their wounds well hidden. When did the church become a spiritual country club for middle class do-gooders and socialites? Going to church was like watching an ABC Afterschool Special; it felt lame. It didn't inspire me into a deeper relationship with God. If anything, it underwhelmed and disappointed. Or, it felt forced. Much like a person who invades your personal space, the Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour? spiel was desperately awkward. It certainly didn't fan the spark of intimacy that was developing between me and God. It was all too much, too soon.

I was highly suspicious of the prosperity gospel, although I wasn't familiar with that term at the time. I just knew that many churches promoted Jesus as if all your troubles (health, finances, etc.) would melt away if you trusted Him. If only it were that simple. That message is a much loved lie. Truly following Jesus involves carrying your own cross and being a willing participant in your own crucifixion.

Another thing that bothered me as I straddled the line between heathen and Christian was that the relationships between the 'saved' (them) and the 'lost' (me) often felt tainted by agendas or expectations. I can remember feeling like everyone was wearing a Jesus mask and trying to sell me something. I often felt more like a project than a friend. I doubted these people had any interest in remaining my friend if I didn't eventually cross the line -that gulf of belief that separated us. I wondered how long their interest would last. They appeared to care more about leading me to Jesus than me as a person. (I have to add, the longer I stayed in the church the more blurred that line between the lost and the saved became.)

But you know what I've realized? Not everyone in the church is faking it. There are many genuine people who, once you get to know them, will surprise you with their experiences and candor. And yes, there are those who do have simple, straight paths and rather boring stories but does that mean they are any less deserving of our time and attention? Does that mean they have less to offer? It seems to me that prejudice can come from both directions. Those who share struggles aloud and claim to be "keeping it real" are sometimes more critical of people who appear to have it all together than vice versa. Yes, there are those who are severely wounded but work hard to hide their dysfunction and there are people who preach fear and hate disguised as God's plan. But aren't they the saddest cases of all? Their egos are like iron maidens preventing God's love from getting through.They need the kind of love and patience that is rarest of all.

I guess what I'm trying to say is the church community is much more complex than it appears on the surface and it is to our benefit to keep an open mind when we encounter people who don't think about or worship God in the same ways we do. For a long time my knee jerk reactions kept me isolated from the living body of Christ. It took a few years before I realized that I was being just as arrogant and judgmental as those I claimed to be separating myself from. Don't get me wrong, I realize not everyone will feel comfortable in every church and that's okay. But I think it's important to keep looking until you find a community of believers who will help you grow spiritually and support your journey in an authentic way. We come together to challenge and encourage one another, to learn patience, sacrifice and the art of cooperation. We teach one another what love really is and we do it intentionally. No church is perfect, but when our goal is to serve most churches will suffice. A large group with a common goal is much more powerful than the will of any individual.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Does Satan Really Exist?

Many religions, new and old, believe there are two supernatural forces battling one another: good and evil. I've heard Christians talk about the existence of evil as if it were a conscious, external power that can attack and even take over our lives if we aren't vigilant. I've been told this 'enemy' can wreak havoc by feeding us lies, or worse.

I'm not sold on this dogma. I'll try to explain why.

If God is love (and I think He is) then we do God's will by being loving. But true love is always a free-will choice which means there has to be another option. Therefore, evil (which I'll simply define as not God's will) is a necessary alternative to love. So God created not only love but nonlove as well; He simply cannot create the option to love without the option not to love.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

I see evil as the absence of love. However, just because I don't believe evil is a powerful, omniscient, conscious being capable of personal attacks doesn't mean I dismiss the existence of evil beings (those who set out with the singular purpose of opposing love) altogether.  I think they probably exist in human form and could exist in other forms as well. I can't be certain I've ever encountered one though. In general I think people oppose love because they are wounded, fearful and ignorant -not because they hate the very spirit of goodness.

As for God, I understand Him to be an omniscient, omnipresent, life-giving, creative energy that birthed each one of us into existence. And as the sons and daughters of God we possess a spark of divine light, or God-consciousness, that serves as a moral compass to guide and instruct.

"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jeremiah 31:33)

Now, finally, here's what I do believe about the battle between good and evil:

We grow spiritually by overcoming temptations and aligning ourselves with the will of God. I don't believe these temptations need to be personified into a supernatural entity: we are the enemy! The 'devil' is alive and well in each one of us as our lower, self-serving, God-ignoring selves. The great spiritual battle isn't taking place in the heavens above; it is God's Kingdom Within that is being attacked by our animalistic natures. I think collectively we have projected our evil natures onto this supernatural being to reduce our anxiety and blame something else for our shortcomings. Convenient, but not entirely healthy or helpful. We can't control that which exists apart from us, but we do have authority over ourselves. Through the practices of restraint, discipline, surrender and sacrifice we can crucify our beastly natures and allow God's love to flow in and through us. We must feed the good (God's will) and starve the bad (self-will) by nourishing ourselves with prayer and communion. As our God-consciousness strengthens and our self-consciousness weakens our whole nature changes and we come to identify more with God and less with self.

I don't know how biblical all that is, but it's what I believe. I've spent a little time trying to make a case for Satan (as most Christians define him) from the Old Testament but I don't find the arguments convincing. As for Jesus' teachings about Satan, I think they are open to interpretation as well. But, truthfully, I haven't spent a great deal of time studying the text. Perhaps some of you, my readers, can enlighten me on the subject.

Speaking of Jesus, where does he fit into this battle between good and evil?

Now that is a good question. I suppose, more and more, I am doubting the substitutionary atonement theory. I trust that Jesus was the physical manifestation of divine love and his life had a divine purpose but I'm not convinced his death in any way purchased my salvation. But that's a whole other discussion isn't it!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Atheism: It Kind of Makes Sense


Why are we (Christians) so willing to let God off the hook when terrible things happen but give Him the credit when things go well? We see bad things happening to godly people all the time and even hear it described as God's will. (Yet, if it were anyone else who desired to see tragedy and suffering befall the innocent or defenseless we'd consider them sadistic psychopaths.)

The atheists are right. It doesn't add up.

One 'simple' but inadequate explanation: God gave us (humankind) free-will and we (Adam and Eve) chose to turn away from Him (sin) so now we live in a fallen (imperfect) world (because that one sin was actually a gateway sin that opened the door for an evil disease to infect all life) and He (being the gentleman He is) doesn't force His will on us so we are left to decide for ourselves if we want the cure. 

The cure consists of accepting/following Jesus, the only son of God, who was sent for us to kill as a perfect sacrifice so that the evil curse would be broken. There is a catch however, the curse is only broken for those who worship (the raised-from-the-dead but now invisible) Jesus and acknowledge what his death on the cross represented (a substitute death penalty because we all deserve to die).

But wait, even if we accept the cure we won't be immune to future infections. At least not in this world. Presently the cure can help, but it doesn't take full effect until the World to Come. Someday, probably long after we're dead, God is going to restore His Kingdom and everyone who accepted Jesus' cure will be healed of their sin-infestation forever.

So you see, God has a perfect plan to fix this big mess which is all our own fault to begin with. Get it? And yet I have to ask, if God really has the power to transform this war-torn world into a Kingdom of Paradise then what is He waiting for?

I guess the (typical) Christian response to Epicurus' questions is that God is both willing and able to prevent evil; just not yet and He won't do it for everybody.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Transfiguration



When he took the three disciples
to the mountainside to pray,
his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame.
Two men appeared: Moses and Elijah came;
they were at his side.
The prophecy, the legislation spoke of whenever he would die.

Then there came a word
of what he should accomplish on the day.
Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place.
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade.
They fell on the ground.
A voice arrived, the voice of God,
the face of God, covered in a cloud.

What he said to them,
the voice of God: the most beloved son.
Consider what he says to you, consider what's to come.
The prophecy was put to death,
was put to death, and so will the Son.
And keep your word, disguise the vision till the time has come.

Lost in the cloud, a voice: Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of man! Turn your ear!
Lost in the cloud, a voice: Lamb of God! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of man! Son of God!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Hardest People to Love

Jesus told us that the most important commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbours as ourselves. I have lived in apartment buildings most of my life so I know firsthand that sharing space with strangers who have different values can be frustrating to say the least. I've been neighbours with people who party loudly, drink and fight, let their kids run wild, use the halls as a place to store soiled diapers, leave their laundry in the washing machines for days, dump old appliances and furniture in the yard for others to deal with, are ignorant and abusive, smoke in the hallways, get too close for comfort and sell drugs.

Then there are the leeches. These folks, often sweet but socially inept, are overly friendly and invade your life by knocking on your door just to chat or ask favours. They've known you for five minutes and suddenly you are their best friend. You find yourself sneaking in and out of your own home hoping they won't see you coming or going. They assume that living in the same building means they should know about your personal life and don't hesitate to share their own. These situations are probably the most frustrating for me because I have a hard time establishing and maintaining boundaries. I am always nice but deep down I want them to leave me alone. These people are hard for me to tolerate let alone love.

And this love commandment gets even harder. You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus didn't limit his definition of neighbour to the family next door. It's (usually) pretty easy to love our own clan, and even to love anonymous strangers who we see struggling, but when someone is close enough for us to see their faults and invade our space but not close enough to be in our personal circle, it gets mighty difficult to feel the love. These neighbours are our coworkers, classmates and church family. We might not see eye to eye, share values or even like each other's personality, but we need to spend a lot of time together.

Can I love the coworker who is always bossing me around and treating me like a child--the one who has worked with me for four months but still can't remember my name? Not easily.

Can I love the clerk who never returned my calls when my daughter needed medical treatment, who misplaced paperwork, didn't put us on the waiting list and was unapologetic if not annoyed by our inquires after waiting weeks for an appointment? Probably not.

Can I love the woman at church who often offers constructive criticism of my initiatives with the toddler ministry even though she has not stepped up to offer any help herself? Barely.

Can I love those who are arrogant, dumb, oblivious, weak, snobby, ignorant, judgmental, bossy, phony, two-faced, mean, lazy, weird, overly dramatic, painfully chipper or emotional vampires? Sometimes.

I know I am not perfect--some days I am painfully aware of this fact--but I still seem to have a major problem accepting others in their imperfection. An old friend recently told me something I shared with him years ago that stuck with him. Apparently I said, "people are at where they're at," which basically means we need to accept people as they are. Sounds like I was pretty wise back then. These days I am acutely aware of just how little I am able to love. I consider myself active, conscientious and generous but am I truly loving?

Perhaps loving acceptance comes easily to some but for me it takes conscious practice. I need to recognize the voice of the enemy--my ego--who is eager to tell me I am being offended, threatened or rejected. This voice separates me from others and feeds on my fear. But there is also a quiet voice within that unites and heals rather than wounding and isolating. It is this spirit, call it the Holy Spirit if you will, or God Within, that connects me with all that I lack. Infinite love, boundless joy, forgiveness and serenity. There is no fear when I tap into the Divine Source and drink from the Eternal Cup. Oh, but that gentle voice is so often drowned out by the loud and angry ego. One must remember to listen if she wishes to hear.

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,but have not love, it profits me nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Hope in the Valley

My fears are big and my chest is tight. I find it hard to breathe right, to pray, to love. Okay God, where the hell are you? I'm so fucking sick and tired. I'm bored, lonely, resentful, easily frustrated and nitpicking. I'm overwhelmed by life's disappointments and all that will never be made right.

The storms rage on across this dying planet, orphan children are sold as sex toys, holy wars hold whole nations hostage and trees that stood when Jesus walked the earth are being cut down for a quick buck. Unfortunately most of us who could make a difference are too preoccupied organizing potlucks, designing blogs and making money to pay for our car insurance to notice all that.

I've resigned, given up and checked out. You are hiding somewhere far away from here God. Perhaps you are on a retreat ministering to suburban housewives or maybe you and Zeus are sipping margaritas on a Greek coast somewhere. Who knows. All I know is I'm having a real hard time seeing you these days. That probably says more about me than you. Probably.

I won't pull myself up by my bootstraps or fake it 'til I make it. I can't ignore, repress or pretend. But I won't allow myself to be paralyzed either. I am blind, deaf and lame and the path has turned into a treadmill but I continue on. I choose to put one foot in front of the other, acknowledging the sham and drudgery without becoming entirely intoxicated by it. I have come to embrace the valleys and be still in the darkness. This too shall pass. Dawn is inevitable.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
~Alexander Pope~

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

LGBT in Light of Reincarnation

Be forewarned, I'm going way out there in this post. My beliefs about sexual orientation are bizarre even among the unorthodox. (Well, at least among unorthodox North American Christians!) My theory is uncommon but not entirely original; there are variations of this thought among those who research and believe in reincarnation.

We find very few clear descriptions of the world to come in the Bible but on one occasion, when the Sadducees present Jesus with a hypothetical situation involving marriage after the resurrection, Jesus shares some surprising information:

"At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." (Matt 22:30)
Now, I have no idea what the angels in heaven are like in form or character but I'm going to make a few fun guesses. What if there is no marriage in heaven because there are no sexes? What if the angels, and our heavenly bodies, are androgynous? (I am aware that angels showed up as men in the OT but I don't think that is their true form; just one that made for good communication!)

Could homosexuality be an overstatement -i.e. a case of the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction as the soul struggles to overcome the male/female polarity? Or perhaps when a soul has incarnated as the same gender for many lifetimes it carries with it a sexual imprint, subconscious memories, making it difficult to identify with their new gender.

I'm not discounting the biological component here: sexual identity/orientation most definitely has a physical component, but what if the soul is the architect, the mind is the builder and the body is the temple? If that is the case then being straight, gay, bi or whatever isn't just an issue of anatomy/physiology, psychology or sociology; it runs even deeper than the typically understood influences of nature and nurture.

The irony here is that it seems I've come to the understanding that at our deepest level of being homosexuality (and all non-heterosexual sexual identity expressions) still 'miss the mark.' True, but I don't believe missing the mark automatically translates as sin. Let me illustrate: suppose two dark-skinned/dark-haired people living in a very hot climate give birth to a child who has considerably lighter skin and hair. From an evolutionary perspective the child has 'missed the mark' because the recessive fair-skinned/fair-haired genes do not offer as much protection from the sun. Likewise, non-heterosexuals are at an evolutionary disadvantage because they are less likely to procreate. From a purely physical perspective this is not ideal. However, from a spiritual viewpoint we can see that the overstatement, or the state of transition from one gender to another, is a necessary experience for the development of that particular soul.

In the end, when the human condition is no longer a necessary lesson, there will be no need to identify as gay or straight, male or female because we will all be reconciled as one. At least, that's what I believe.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hey, Don't Think So Much!

I was recently told that I suffer with analysis paralysis. I let the comment sail by without offering a rebuttal but it felt like salt in a wound. It seems I keep getting the same message: these thoughts, these questions, aren't really okay. People might say it's okay to question things but their subsequent words or actions usually betray their (often subconscious) true feelings. Not everyone is a "thinker" and I get that, I really do. I don't have a burning desire to change or challenge every Christian on my radar. Some followers are content to trust the Bible and accept traditional teachings without much thought. That's okay. I don't understand it, but I can (usually) accept it. Sometimes I even envy it. Where I start to feel defensive is when it is implied that my questions betray a lack of commitment or faith; that eventually, as I mature spiritually, I will no longer ask so many questions.

Wiki defines analysis paralysis as over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation, so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome. I am hurt and disappointed that someone has made this assessment of me. I wish I were secure enough to let people have their opinions without feeling the need to defend my position. Unfortunately I'm just not there yet. So I sat, a little stunned, and changed the subject.

But this is what I wanted to say:

My relationship with God, my decision to and the action of following Jesus, is not dependent on me wrapping Christianity up in one tidy little package. I prefer to unwrap this precious gift again and again; examining every last inch. I am okay not always having one definitive answer and I thoroughly enjoy exploring the plethora of possibilities. But that doesn't make me any less of a follower. I have made the decision and I do follow. That is why I am alive, here and now, living a new way of life, surrendering all my shame and hate and loneliness and failures to the One who loves and leads and takes pleasure in my questions. That is why I make choices everyday that go against my desires and instinct. I am certainly not paralyzed; I'm more free than I have ever felt in my whole life. Please don't clip my wings or knock me down a notch.

Yes, I am struggling. Every day I wake up and think, God, I am so broken, please help me do something useful today instead of hurting myself and everyone around me. Please help me love well. This is me making a decision, this is me following. I am very self-centered but (when I humbly ask) God gives me strength to get out of the way and do the next right thing. I'm not saying I do it perfectly, or even well, but this practice is very much a part of my life.

I've read a lot of dialogue (online) between more conservative and progressive Christians and what I've observed is that most conservatives perceive questions like mine as an avoidance of truth because we don't like the traditional answers; i.e. we don't like what the Bible says so we'll keep twisting and reinterpreting it until it says what we want. Like every good lie this one has a seed of truth, but this same accusation can be made of any group or individual who tries to interpret the Bible. We are all human -not mechanical, objective creatures. Dismissing my search as an attempt to distort truth is a convenient way of sweeping my questions under the rug and I don't like that. Truth should stand firm against scrutiny. If progressives are disregarded as relativists who try to impose 21st century values on a timeless message then conservatives are blind to their own cultural baggage and warped lenses. Just because a lot of people believe something to be true doesn't make it so. The church used to think the world was flat, used the Bible to prove it and punished those who thought otherwise as heretics. Our understanding of biblical "truth" is constantly evolving; it just happens more slowly among conservatives.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make here is that my questions are anything but a denial of truth, they are a search for it, in spite not only of the challenges and discomforts of not having quick and easy answers but also the criticisms of those who don't understand my journey. I don't believe I suffer with analysis paralysis. I think my analysis enriches, not diminishes, my faith and I'll go so far as to say that it is more likely that it is those who don't have questions who suffer with paralysis.

I really wish all this didn't bother me so much. I know a big part of the reason is that I am still learning to give myself permission to be me -to keep exploring that which puzzles me. It's tempting to keep it all to myself and just focus on the similarities. But man, that would be so boring and phony on my part. It takes a lot of guts for me to say what I really think and it brings me down when I feel misunderstood or judged. A few days ago I came across this sad website and immediately wondered how many of my Christian friends would have my photo up there among those who need to be evangelized to: Michelle the Heretic! Hopefully one of these days I'll stop feeling the need to defend my position and these kinds of posts will become less frequent. Until then, I still need to vent and work through the mess. It's just part of my process right now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Everything

You are God
I am me
You are big
I am small
You are strong
I am weak

I am in the spirit
You are the spirit
I am in the light
You are the light
I am in the music
You are the music

I am not safe
You are my shelter
I am hungry
You are my bread
I am alone
You console me

I make mistakes
You forgive me
I stumble
You pick me up
I turn away
You follow me

I am your child
You are my everything

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Evening with Lewis

A few evenings ago I got together with a group of friends (Lisa, Brian, Josh and Jenny) to discuss Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Here's a passage Brian shared:
"That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, 'Be perfect,' He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder - in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
Since Easter is still fresh in everyone's mind let me mix those two analogies together and say I'm feeling very much like a painted egg these days. Why are my God moments so far apart? Why do I find it so difficult to turn to Him and surrender my crappy day/bad attitude/impatience/arrogance/fear/loneliness, etc.?

I want to be set free. I want to fly. I don't want to remain an ordinary, decent egg. Heck, I don't even feel like an ordinary, decent egg. I feel like a bad egg.

Jesus telling us to 'Be perfect' is just plain deflating. I suppose he's saying to strive for perfect love; not that it is possible to achieve it -at least not for any length of time. (Unless perhaps you are off on a mountain top or in a monastery removed from the world and it's unending assults, but even that is debatable.) Sorry Lewis but Jesus does seem rather vague and idealistic to me sometimes.

I often wonder if the people in my life (family, friends) notice any real change in my attitudes and behaviours since I've embarked on this journey with Jesus. Unfortunately I don't think they'd see much change at all. I feel like a big fat failure a lot. Brian said that the people in our life can't always perceive the changes taking place and when I think about the inner battles I've been fighting without the knowledge of those closest to me I'm sure he's right.

Jenny reminded me that it can be very difficult to recognize change on a day to day basis but over time we can see what has eluded us. Yes, when I compare the me I am today to the me I was two years ago I can see big changes.

Josh had a good point too. He said that even the fact that I'm questioning myself is proof that change is taking place. It's true that I'm ├╝ber aware of all that I'm doing wrong now; how short I fall. Every thought, feeling and action is held under a microscope for inspection and it appears I'm a very sick girl. But this way of living, this constant vigilance, is exhausting and depressing. I suppose that's why it's so important to balance that reality with God's unlimited love and grace.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Initial Take on Homosexuality

I think (hope) we can all agree that sexual orientation is not a choice. While we have yet to determine any one cause (I personally doubt there is one), it has been proven that there are definitely biological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. For example, studies have been able to prove that in nonhuman mammals sexual differentiation of behaviour is mostly determined by hormone exposure while in utero. It isn't so easy to replicate these studies in humans because subjects need to have their fetal hormone exposure levels measured and then be followed for several decades in order to determine their sexual orientation, however preliminary studies do indicate that lesbians have been exposed to higher levels of male sex hormones while in the womb when compared to straight women.

So, I have to ask, how can gay people be held responsible for "missing the mark" if God created them this way to begin with?

Now I know that the argument a lot of Christians give is that God expects us to "act" a certain way (heterosexual) despite our (homosexual) "feelings". This, in my honest assessment of the situation, is bullshit. God is truth and truth calls on us to look at ourselves honestly; not deny or repress that which He created in us. I think telling a gay person to act straight would be comparable to telling someone with a beautiful voice to sing off-key for the rest of their life. It is uncomfortable, unnatural and unnecesssary. Not only that, but it devalues that which God created. God made gay people gay. He literally knit them together in their mother's womb -all of their biology right down to the last gene and chemical is His doing.

I suppose the flip side to this is the idea that we are no longer created as God intended us to be. That we have inherited sin from Adam and Eve through The Fall. Therefore we are imperfect beings even before we leave our mother's womb. Okay, I don't think I believe that doctrine exactly as it is understood by most Christians today, but following that thought process through, do we tell someone who is born tone-deaf that they shouldn't sing because surely God wouldn't have intended such imperfection and they're offending us with their voice? Or how about people born with birth defects or chronic illness? Do we shun them because they are living evidence of our fallen world? No. We attach no shame or blame. We tell them that God created them this way and we encourage them to accept and love themselves just as they are.

I have many more ideas and questions swimming in my head on this topic. Any thoughts so far?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Many Paths to God

Path: Worship
Motto: God is a lover who hungers to be loved in return.


It's easy to recognize people who experience God through worship. They sing and smile (or cry) and sometimes lift their arms in the air. They are deeply moved by the spirit and it takes over their entire being. I'm not like that. Vibrant, exuberant expressions of worship make me a little uncomfortable. In fact, I don't even sing much during service. I'm tone-deaf and self-conscious about that so singing causes me to focus more on myself than God. If I just close my eyes and enjoy the music I connect with God much better.

Path: Preaching
Motto: To teach is to learn twice.


These passionate and charismatic teachers seem to channel something greater than themselves when they have an audience. Martin Luther King Jr. had the gift -so do most cult leaders. I'm a great teacher if you want to learn how to take better photographs or dress a wound, but I am not a good spiritual teacher. I'm far too open-minded to consider my religious practice and interpretation of scripture to be the final truth so I lack the conviction necessary to teach.

Path: Discipline
Motto: God is in the details.


These personalities love structure, law and order. Studying scripture and following the rules is extremely important to these people. Monks, ascetics and zealots follow the path of discipline to feel closer to God. I could use a little more discipline in my life that's for sure.

Path: Service
Motto: Serve the Christ in one another.


This is the path of action and charity. These folks go out of their way to help others. They aren't afraid of hard work and give generously. They may or may not not feel comfortable discussing theology, having a heart-to-heart or dealing with eccentric personalities but they will volunteer their resources, time and skills without hesitation when they have something to offer. I would like to start volunteering regularly and know that this is a path I could easily follow.

Path: Love
Motto: If you judge people, you have no time to love them.


It's easy to recognize lovers. They share loving kindness equally with friends and strangers. A rude cashier would probably elicit their empathy rather than anger; they respond quickly to those in distress and spend more time listening with an open heart than offering solutions. You won't hear a lover participating in idle gossip and if they have strong judgements or criticisms they hide them well. Lovers tend to be people-orientated rather than task-oriented and prefer small groups and meaningful conversation. Me? I'm much more task-oriented but I'm getting better at opening my heart and quieting my critical mind.

Path: Contemplation
Motto: Be still and know that I am God.


Those who do follow this path not only enjoy but require daily solitude for their peace of mind. Some people may go on weekend retreats, take periodic vows of silence or, like the Carmelites, devote their lives to contemplative prayer. There is a wonderful Russian Orthodox tradition in which a person retreats alone to a small, sparsely furnished cabin called a poustinia to be with God through fasting and prayer. This sounds delicious and transformative but is completely unrealistic for me today. I do feel ready to start a daily meditation practice though; perhaps just ten minutes daily.

***

If a spiritual practice requires a lot of effort and brings little satisfaction it probably isn't our primary path. I'm not saying that we shouldn't do things that require effort, or push ourselves outside the box, but maybe we could put most of our energy into doing those things that come most naturally. When we become aware of our talents we can dedicate ourselves to honing those skills. I know my life will become much richer when I start honoring my unique self rather than trying to be everything I admire in others.

I tried for a long time to fit into certain molds. I wanted to share the beliefs of the majority and be as charismatic, dedicated, contemplative and charitable as my role models. It is a completely overwhelming and unrealistic way to live. I no longer believe God wants or needs me to do everything well. God is telling me to be me, and that is enough. I'm eager to discover my gifts and develop them. I've recently experienced a series of meaningful coincidences that lead me to believe God thinks I'm hiding my light under a bushel. I'm also trying to admire the gifts others have to share with gratitude instead of coveting their abilities.

Do you use any of these paths to connect with God? What about art and nature? Do you use your gifts to serve God or are you hiding your light under a bushel?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

When Silence is Deafening

If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence. We will never be anything, and in the end, when the time comes for us to declare who and what we are, we shall be found speechless at the moment of the crucial decision: for we shall have said everything and exhausted ourselves in speech before we had anything to say.
Those who do not know there is another life after this one, or who cannot bring themselves to live in time as if they were meant to spend their eternity in God, resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise. Even when their own tongues are still, their minds chatter without end and without meaning, or they plunge themselves into the protective noise of machines, traffic, or radios. When their own noise is momentarily exhausted they rest in the noise of other men. How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton shared these thoughts in 1955, before satellite TV, iPods, cell phones, and the internet. These words ring truer today than at any other point in the history of the world. Mulitmedia sources permeate the daily fabric of life and we are no longer even aware of the constant slew of propaganda that defiles the inner sanctuary. And yes, when the machines are absent the mind chatters on, afraid to be still it continues to produce an endless variety of useless information.

Why is it that we have such a strong aversion to silence? Merton went on to say that the dark (silence) into which we fire "burst after burst of ammunition" is nothing less than the fear of death:
The reason for their talk is: death. Death is the enemy who seems to confront them at every moment in the deep darkness and silence of their own being. So they keep shouting at death. They confound their lives with noise. They stun their own ears with meaningless words, never discovering that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.
I hunger for silence and push it away when served. When I come to Christ I bring my thoughts, my fears, my questions and my gratitude but so rarely do I just sit with him in silence. 

I imagine a lush forest on the edge of a city, a sacred space where one can leave behind the hustle and bustle to meander among the trees and wind and little creatures. I come here to meet Christ and as he approaches I hastily start to tell him about all the things he already knows. I blabber on about who hurt my feelings and how sorry I am about the mess I made and what I'd like him to do for me but when I've finished my dizzying soliloquy I simply wave goodbye and head back to the city. Only occasionally do I continue to walk, waiting patiently for his quiet reply. Even more rarely do I come to the forest simply to enjoy his company and stroll along in silence together.

When we spend time with someone we don't know well silence can be very uncomfortable. We work hard to make conversation and distract ourselves. But in the company of our loved ones we can just be. Maybe I need to consider that the next time I visit the forest.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A New Language

Just a few of the words that have graced my Google search engine this past year: inerrant, infallible, emergent, postmodern, missional, relativism, pluralism, universalism, atonement theories (satisfaction, Christus Victor, moral government, penal substitution), original sin, the Fall, modalism, perichoresis, pantheism, cessationism, continuationism, dispensationalism, hermeneutics, eschatology, preterism, ecumenism, veneration, eschatology, predestination, ontology, epistemology, total depravity, reformed, evangelical, orthodoxy, ecclesiology, transubstantiation.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Heavens to Betsy

With all the hell talk spreading like wildfire arcross the Christian landscape I can't help but wonder if we'll eventually get around to discussing that other otherworldly realm: heaven. Does this magical land of milk and honey really exist and if so what is it like?
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
What a powerful and comforting image. Yet beyond the simple beauty of this message I stumble on several large obstacles: how can heaven be a place without sorrow if it is reserved for a select few? Can mothers abandon their wayward children and mourn them no more? Will husbands forget their fallen wives? Is everyone so drunk on God's love that they can no longer hear the painful cries of those left behind?

I also wonder what becomes of our individual identities when we enter heaven. Are we made perfect? Do we receive a total makeover of body and soul? (Wouldn't that mean we lose all freewill when we enter the Kingdom of God?) Obviously heaven is not the kind of place one expects to find ordinary sinful creatures like ourselves. Will I still be me if God strips all that stuff away?

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Big 'Party of One' Bible Study

I feel like my tenuous connections to the Christian body are being chewed away. I belong to a wonderful community of believers and I participate wholeheartedly but I feel like something is missing. I'm hungry to go deeper, to study more, to challenge every last tenet of this religion but I'm hard-pressed to find anyone in real life who shares this hunger for truth. I'm not saying they aren't out there, but they certainly aren't very visible.

The community I belong to is filled with an amazingly diverse group of believers, our pastor is spiritually healthy (encourages questions, doesn't provide simple answers, continues to seek and grow himself) and I have formed many meaningful friendships yet I have a big spiritual need that remains untouched. I'm starting to think that if you want to research basic Christian principles or study the Bible you should avoid the church.

I want to tear open the text and rip into it like my life depends on it (and I'm told it does); I want to know not only what was said but also who it was addressed to and what their beliefs were; I want to avoid taking for granted that words like hell, salvation, grace, belief and resurrection mean what we've been taught. Instead let's study the people, consider the context, and research the original Greek or Hebrew words being used. But man, most Christians really don't want to talk about these things. Not only that, I'm feeling judged and discouraged as I travel this path. I can't begin to tell you how heartbroken I am about this. I'm hurt and I'm lonely.

I've asked these questions as an outsider and although I rarely found someone willing to seriously ponder the questions with me I at least felt it was okay to ask. But when I started calling myself a Christian and continued to ask questions the responses started to shift. I've been told I need to pray about these things, should trust the authority of the church, am on a slippery slope, etc. I've been reprimanded and unfriended. To tell you the truth I feel very unloved and unwanted if not completely ignored and irrelevant.

I've harboured deep doubts about sustitutionary atonement, questioned the teaching that homosexuality is sinful and been appalled at the blatant but seemingly ignored misogyny presented in scripture. When I call myself a Christian what am I telling the world about who I am? I have no idea anymore. In the few years that I've been on this path and expressed these concerns I've never once had a Christian say to me, 'let's get together and really explore this issue'.

I'm certain there are a wide variety of reasons people are disinterested. Perhaps they were raised by loving Christians and these beliefs have served them well; they trust the Bible as God's message to mankind and have never seriously considered an alternative perspective. (I'm guessing these people are usually younger and probably in the minority.) There are also those among us who do have concerns and questions but they trust that God (as revealed in scripture) knows best so they repress any doubts they may have. Maybe some of us believe that to question the Bible is a foothold for Satan or displays a lack of faith. Undoubtedly there are a few who have wrestled with their own questions long and hard and have now made peace with their beliefs; they feel no need to engage in the discussion any further.

I also think there are a lot of misconceptions about people like myself: that we are just trying to warp the Bible's message so it confirms our own (liberal) beliefs, that we want to have our cake and eat it too, that we are trying to eradicate our guilt or can't cope with the truth, that we think traditionalists are ignorant or dumb, that we are argumentative, that we have issues with authority.

Some of the above criticisms contain seeds of truth but they are not, independently or collectively, the driving force behind my questions. Let me ask you something which might better clarify my position: can a person be a Christian if they don't affirm the inspiration and authority of scripture? If your answer is no then you can strike me off your list of Christian friends. I can only speak from the truth of my experience and that is of a God who is so awesome and complex that no book can ever claim exclusive knowledge of or access to His divine presence.

The Bible does not define my relationship with God but that doesn't mean I throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have at our fingertips a collection of the most remarkable stories of man's encounters with the Supernatural dating back several thousand years. Is that not profound enough to make you want to cry? It's truly breathtaking. Not only that but in the New Testament we find what I consider to be the most incredible story to ever grace mankind: the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This Prince of Peace came into the world to share God's love and surrender to His will. He showed us what it means to be fully human and in the process reconciled to the Divine. He bridged heaven and earth. He conquered the grave. And because of the gospels I can read all about the things He said and did.

So yes, I have a deep appreciation for the Bible but I don't believe God dictated or compiled it. What we read are God experiences as seen through the filters of the experiencer and/or author. This doesn't make it any less special but it certainly highlights the need to study the historical context and personal background of each author. This means we can't take every statement at face value; it requires study. This is especially true of the letters that compose most of the New Testament. This is the canon from which we base our beliefs and values as Christians yet we only have access to half the conversations.

If there is a prominent or relevent teaching in scripture that opposes the clear voice of God that speaks to me through His Holy Spirit, if I am told I must deny my intuition and suppress my love to submit to the authority of the church, if the God being presented to me requires emotional and mental gymnastics to reconcile all the contradictory messages then I want to challenge those teachings honestly. Not in a dismissive, that can't be right because I don't feel good about it kind of way, but in a way that looks at many sides of the issue with an open mind and good research.

And who knows, maybe one of these days I'll find someone who shares my enthusiasm.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fire the Architect

There is a truth that God has etched upon my soul; it is love.

It is the seed of freedom that grows when I return to the divine wellspring with my empty vessel.

But I am so rarely empty.

I build God in my image or borrow blueprints from others.

Then, somewhere in the middle of the night, I realize it is all theory. Every last word.

And I am alone.

The walls that provided me with a sense of security have been abolished.

Just. Like. That.

Gone.

In my aloneness I am empty.

Yet somehow this site of deconstruction, this demolition, is God's favourite place to dwell.

I have no ideas, no pictures, no manual.

But I now have space.

Space to be filled with What Is.

And I am.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Marian Apparitions in Medjugorje

In 1981 the Blessed Virgin Mary began appearing to four girls and two boys in Medjugorje, a small village located in former Yugoslavia. The children, who ranged from age ten to sixteen, were typical kids. They weren't overly religious and they were outwardly unremarkable. Mary's appearance initially frightened the children but they were also drawn to her and experienced a profound peace in her presence.
"When we came to about six feet of Our Lady, we felt as though we were being seized and pushed to our knees." (Vicka)
On the second day of the apparitions Ivanka, the youngest of the four girls, spoke to Mary. She asked Mary about her mother who had recently died. Mary responded that her mother was well and she shouldn't worry about her. The children asked Mary to send the villagers a sign so they would believe that the children were telling the truth about having seen her, but Mary's only response was a smile.

The children had good reason for asking Mary to send the villagers a sign, their story was spreading quickly and was received with criticism and suspicion. Eventually, the local authorities got involved and the children were interviewed and interrogated. They received opposition from the police, government and local Bishop. The early days of the apparitions were very trying for the children but they never wavered in their devotion. Well, I say they never wavered but I should add that the children, following the advice of others, once sprinkled Mary with holy water while Vicka said, “If you come from God stay, but if you do not come from God, please leave us.” Mary simply smiled and said, “I am the Queen of Peace.”

During her visits Mary encourages the visionaries and challenges them to deepen their commitment to Jesus. She sometimes has personal messages concerning their unique struggles and she often leads them in prayer, but she never recites the Hail Mary prayer herself -she simply listens and receives that prayer. Early on, Mary explained to the children that she has special messages for the world and that the children were to be instruments for sharing these messages. Initially Mary appeared to all the visionaries every day but now only three receive daily messages. Mary states that her purpose is to help convert the unbelievers and deepen the faith of believers.
"I have come to tell the world that God exists. He is the fullness of life, and to enjoy this fullness and peace, you must return to God." (Mary)
In her messages, Mary frequently shares the great importance of prayer, fasting, communion, confession and Bible reading. She reminds us to love our neighbours and care for the poor. But there is also a dark side to Mary's message: she states our world is entering into a time of great trial and we must prepare ourselves by reconciling ourselves to Jesus. Her call to conversion is urgent! She is revealing secrets to the visionaries about future events on earth and when the time is right these secrets will be shared with the world. The first 3 secrets are warnings for the world. Three days before each event an announcement will be made as to what is going to happen and where. The fourth secret, the only one that has been revealed so far, will be an indestructible, supernatural sign left at the place Mary first appeared to the children in 1981. The children have always de-emphasized the secrets and urge the public to focus instead on Mary's call for conversion.



I'm sure the whole "secrets" dimension to the Medjugorje story turns a lot of would-be believers off. Secret knowledge with apocalyptic overtones sends all kinds of crackpot cult alarms buzzing! Having said that, I'd challenge anyone to genuinely research the apparitions and come to the conclusion that these visionaries are "faking it" for fame or money or any kind of payoff. It would be one heck of a scam to be running for 30 years. If they were lying I'd expect at least one of the six to grow tired of the charade or develop a conscience or sell their story.

The children were often called liars, made fun of, harassed and interrogated -hardly the kind of feedback that would encourage a behavior. Their lives were subject to intense public scrutiny; their visions happened in public and their activities were very transparent: school, family, daily mass and prayer groups.

If they had been "making it up" why wouldn't they just say that Mary stopped appearing to them? Instead, their lives changed overnight; the years that followed would see the children in church every day for 2-3 hours praying and attending mass. Jakov, the youngest visionary who was just 10 years old when the apparitions began, was described as an active and lively child but he was able to spend long hours in daily prayer and meditation along with the others. He, like the others, had a much more mature and sober aspect to his personality after the visions began.

However, the visionaries also remain very childlike: trusting, joyous and seemingly unburdened by what many of us would consider serious trials such as physical suffering and the death of family members. In the video below you can watch Vicka being interviewed in February 2011 by a late night TV host. I was struck by just how sincere and somewhat oblivious Vicka was to the "game" that is supposed to play out in this sort of environment: her attention was on the audience not the host and she shared what she felt was important rather than being guided by the interviewer's agenda.



The visionaries never charge for their appearances and apart from Ivan who is married to an American and spends half the year in America, they all remain local. Rather than being served they joyfully serve others; their homes are generally filled with extended family and visitors. They frequently host prayer groups and healing prayer sessions. From what I can gather most of the visionaries (and many people in the area) make a living by renting out rooms in their homes to tourists.

The visionaries have also agreed to be the subjects of many tests over the years including lie detector tests. They have been assessed by psychiatrists, neurologists and scientists of all sorts. One brief summary that I found particularly interesting can be read here. Before reading that study I had watched the video posted below which shows the children during a 1984 apparition and I was impressed by the simultaneous movements they made (looking up) as the Blessed Virgin ascended when she left them. The movement I'm referring to occurs at 2:04 in the video clip.


Medjugorje Apparition from 1984 from steve shawl on Vimeo.

Something else I find quite inspiring is that some of the messages shared by Mary challenge us to rethink our traditional Christian belief system. For example, in 1981 when asked if all religions are the same Mary replied, "Members of all faiths are equal before God. God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom. In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the commandments of God. They reject and disparage them." Clergy and laymen alike were especially intrigued by the theology shared through a group of children uneducated in such matters.
I especially see the importance of the role of Medjugorje in the ecumenical work of the Church where Our Lady is bringing us closer, uniting us with our brothers from the Orthodox church, the Muslims, and even our brother Marxists. Our Lady is spreading only love. She is the mother of all and she is teaching us to love even at moments when we feel that our brothers to not understand us and interpret us falsely. One can conclude, according to what is happening here, and what the children say, that one universal love is being born here through the gospel, which is recommending that we love all men even when it seems they are our enemies. (Frane Franic, Archbishop of Split, 1984)
It's estimated that 30-40 million pilgrims have traveled to Medjugorje since 1981. Many claim to have witnessed inexplicable events and experiened physical healing but the most convincing of all miracles are the staggering number of conversions of heart taking place in this little village. Testimonies pour out of the visitors and the transformations aren't limited to those who have seen signs and wonders; spiritual healing seems to be commonplace. Criminals, addicts, agnostics and those who are poor in spirit have experienced life-changing soul surgery in Medjugorje. Is there something special about this place? Yes, but I believe these profound experiences have more to do with the power of the Spirit of God than the apparitions of Mary.  Mary's message has always been to reconcile yourself to Jesus wholeheartedly and in this community it's not unusual to see small groups huddled in prayer or  find the church filled to capacity 7 days a week. Hundreds of confessions are heard daily and more people have gathered for communion in Medjugorje than any other place in the world. God is alive and well in Medjugorje; not tucked away for Sunday morning services. This little village is filled with the presence of God.

Of course there are naysayer who believe that Medjugorje is a money-making scheme: they point to the flourishing economy in this unlikely tourist destination with shops lined up selling rosaries and statues of the Blessed Virgin; they criticize the visionaries for living in large homes and Ivan especially for marrying a former beauty queen; they point out that although they deny using their gifts for material gain the visionaries have indeed managed to live quite comfortably without maintaining regular jobs. These are considerations worth exploring but in their defense I must note that the four women visionaries have embraced the vocation of motherhood and are not unlike other Christian women who stay home to care for their families. Also, all six visionaries would receive donations not unlike any other priest or pastor who has devoted their lives to teaching and serving God. The real question, I believe, is concerning their motivation: do they appear to be motivated by the money or spending it excessively? That is something I cannot answer.

Another point I want to make is that the visionaries themselves do not promote the idea that they are without sin or have been chosen to receive the visions because they were especially devout. They, like every other human on the face of this earth, struggle with sin and temptation. They have shared that Mary will gently rebuke them when necessary but generally allows them to live their lives with the free-will God grants all His children. They will be accountable for how they have lived their lives and managed their gifts. To whom much is given much will be required. (Luke 12:48) This isn't to say they aren't exceptionally devout or mature in their Christian faith; that is not for us to judge, but from what we can observe they certainly appear to be strong, faithful followers of Christ.

Then there are those who believe the visionaries are sincerely misguided: that they are the false prophets we have been warned of and their visions are the work of the devil. They point out the messages that challenge our current theology (like the message about followers of all religions being equal before God) and argue that surely such teachings are heretical and ungodly. Personally, I don't believe any one group (including the Catholic Church) has a perfect understanding of the nature of God so theological issues don't surprise me. I do think, like the Bible says, we will know false prophets by their fruits and to date I have seen nothing but good fruit coming out of Medjugorje.

Those who believe the demonic hypothesis will tell you that Satan is willing to give a little to gain a lot therefore we shouldn't rule out satanic activity completely. However, if a powerful three decade long revival of the local church and millions of conversions worldwide is considered "giving a little" I tremble to think what "gaining a lot" would encompass. Our Lady has called us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, taught us to pray fervently and begged us to love our enemies. What deception could she be preparing us for if the origin of these messages is demonic? I have faith that those who listen to and heed the messages would be capable of identifying and discerning any changes to the central message or character of the Blessed Virgin.

Personally, I don't believe all the signs and wonders reported by Medjugorje visitors are supernatural in origin. There is probably an element of collective hysteria and confirmation bias at work here too -perhaps a strong one! People often see what they want to see and the energy of a large crowd has profound effects on individual behaviour and experiences. That is not to say miracles aren't happening; just that I remain skeptical about many of them.

As for the apparitions of Mary, those I believe wholeheartedly. Would my faith be shattered if I found out it was a hoax? No. But I would be very surprised and disappointed.