"Having a blog is like wandering around your house naked with the windows open; it's all very liberating until someone looks in the window. However, while being caught unawares is one thing, it is quite another to stroll up to the window and press your naked, flabby body against the coolness of the glass in a hideous form of vertical prostration for all the world to see..." These posts are the smudges that are left behind on the window.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Dark Night of the Soul

All the posts you see below were copied over from my other site, due to problems with it. This is the first real post on this site. As I was copying them over, I was reminiscing on the various entries. I came across "Look Ma No Hands" and as this is Easter Sunday, it stuck out. Then for some reason I started to think back several years ago, before I started on my current spiritual journey, to I time when I was going through what has been described as the dark night of the soul by saint John of the Cross. It lasted about a year and a half.

Are Muslims Christians?

I fear I am leaning towards being a universalist. I don't think I'm all the way there yet, but the thoughts are definitely there. How can this be? I've always been taught that there's a special place in hell reserved just for universalists. After all, how are you supposed to feel self-righteous if you have no belief system that excludes anyone who doesn't think like you? But... it seems to be the only thing that makes sense.

Maybe the line in the sand - the line that divides non-christian from christian - is so hard to find, and define, because it's not there. Maybe there are only degrees of being Christian. Maybe when the bible indicates that christians will  become rulers and priests, it means that these people are the ones who have learned the most in this life, and are therefore worthy to be mentors to the others. Maybe this is the real meaning of the parable of the talents.

Does this mean that Muslims are Christian? Does this mean that any good deeds, done by anyone, all contribute to the kingdom of God, no matter who they are? Is this what Jesus meant when he said that whoever is not against you is for you. Does this mean that the sadness of the story of the rich young ruler is not that he failed to become a Christian, but that he missed an opportunity to enter into the true, and complete, kingdom mindset? That when he will be shown the error of his ways, during the final judgment, that even then he will reject the mindset of the kingdom - a mindset of self sacrificing love - because he is used to having too much?

Was Gandhi right when he said that he was Muslim and Hindu and Christian and jew and Buddhist?

I don't know. I think the jump from evangelical to universalist is too much. I think I'll go out and force myself to feel smug about my self-righteousness until this feeling goes away.

Look Ma, No Hands

“My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This is the cry from the cross. The traditional interpretation is that God couldn't look on Christ anymore because of the sin of the world that he was carrying. When you think of it for awhile, you realize how ridiculous that explanation is. Since when can God not look on sin? Doesn't he have to look at sin in order to judge it as wrong? Hasn't he been looking at sin for millennia?
 The other view is that God moved away from Christ, such as in “the dark night of the soul”. But no one ever seems to give an explanation as to why. Perhaps God does move away, but not in the negative sense that most people would think of.
 Christ is the perfect model for how we are to live. He modelled for us perfect obedience and self-sacrificing love. Maybe God moved away from him in the same way as a parent moves away from a child learning to ride a bike.
 When teaching a child how to ride a bike, you run along side of them, holding onto the seat, keeping them steady until you sense that they have enough balance to do it on there own. And then you slowly release your grip on the seat, while still running beside, until they are doing it all on their own. Eventually they are riding down the street, all by themselves, without even realizing that you are no longer there.
 Maybe God saw Christ's perfect obedience on the cross and then slowly moved away, in the realization that his modelling of obedience and self-sacrificing love was now coming to completion. And, just as a child suddenly realizes that the parent isn't holding onto the seat anymore, there is a burst of fear and panic.
 Maybe in the closing moments of the cross, God was standing off to the side, slightly out of breath, but with a big smile on his face.
 “It is finished.”

The Middle Seat

I had to travel for work the other day. I'm always a bit concerned about what seat I get, as I hate sitting in the middle seat. I read an article that said the person in the middle seat should get both arm rests, as the window person actually has a bit of excess room between the arm rest and the actual window, while the aisle person can always lean out a bit for some more room. Makes sense to me, but I still hate the middle seat, and you can't count on the person either side of you having read the same article.

Anyway, when I checked in at the kiosk, I made sure to check my seats on all three legs of the flight to make sure they were aisle seats - they were. Perfect. When I boarded there was already someone in the window seat, but the middle was empty, so I waited, hoping against hope that no one was acually sitting there, which would give me even more room. The flight was just about compleley boarded when a woman came towards my row, and looked at the seat beside me with a crest fallen look on her face. Then I saw the man behind her, with the same look on his face as he made preparations for moving into the middle seat in the row in front of me, on the opposite side of the aisle. It was clear that they were together, and I waited for the inevitable question.

It didn't take very long before he asked me if it would be possible to swap seats with him, so he could sit beside his wife. Since he wasn't completely settled yet, I grasped at a straw and asked if he was in the middle seat. Yes. Sigh. "Yeah, sure - not a problem" I said in an attempt to act like the little Christ that I'm supposed to be. I consoled myself that it was only a 2 hour flight. It's not like crossing the atlantic.

After I was settled in my new seat, the guy comes over and tries to give me a five dollar bill to say thanks. Very nice, but I give it back to him saying that it's not necessary - and really it isn't. I didn't do it to gain anybodies appreciation, I really did do it to reflect Christ - as all Christians should be doing - trying to live life the way God had designed us to in the first place. All through the flight I struggled with what to say to the guy when we landed, because I knew he would try to thank me again as we were getting off the plane.

This is something that I have thought about in the past. I've always felt that in order for, what appears to be, a random act of kindness to be meaningful, that it should somehow be tied back to God.

I thought of a few things, but they all seemed cliche-ish, stupid, sappy or corny. Some I thought of only Gandhi could pull off. My mind kept being drawn back to this older Hollywood movie, Pay It Forward. I never actually saw the movie, but I heard enough about it to understand the basic premise. Then it kind of occurred to me that this was probably ok. After all isn't that what it's sort of about - trying to move the world forward, a little at a time, towards what the world was meant to be in God's original design. I know it will never reach that state until God returns, but it is the essence of Christian responsibility and purpose to do everything we can to move towards that state.

So that's what I did. Sure enough, as we were all standing up to retrieve our luggage from the overhead bins, he did thank me again, to which I responded that he could thank me by paying it forward some day. His wife understood, but I'm not sure that he did 100%. But that's ok, either she'll explain it to him, or someday he'll come across a similar situation as I did, and the light will come on and he'll understand at that time.

Separating Eggs

I am currently reading a book by Peter Rollins called “How (Not) to Speak of God”. I first heard of him, and the book, on Drew Marshall. He was so fascinating that I immediately ordered all three of his books. So far I’ve just gotten through the introduction and the first couple of chapters.
In the foreword, Brian McLaren says that he is a raving fan of the book, so I was cautiously optimistic when I started reading. After having read a couple of chapters let me just say this; I do NOT recommend reading this book – unless your spiritual journey has taken you down a path that is similar to Brian McLaren et al, and you are comfortable in that spot. Because, if you aren’t, you will start to read and after a very short while you will put it down in disgust, and possibly never pick it up again - which would be a real shame. This book has the potential to take your spirituality to the next level in much the same way that “A New Kind of Christian” opened up the spirituality of many fundamentalists. In fact, providing that Peter doesn’t somehow screw up, I think that he, and those who are like minded, will be the force that causes the emerging church to explode in the coming years.
I am debating whether or not to write about the book as I fear that in my attempt to summarize some of the concepts I will overly simply things that he has taken great pains to explain. However, since a blog really isn’t written for those who read it, but is more cathartic therapy for the author, I probably will. In any case, I suspect it will influence my blogs for the next while.
In the first chapter his basic premise is that theology is man’s attempt to explain what can not be explained – God. In fact not only can God not be explained in any adequate way, but he actively resists any attempt to be explained. The danger in thinking that we can explain or define God, is that it creates a type of idolatry – conceptual idolatry as opposed to physical idolatry.
One of the examples of God avoiding explanation or definition is Job. I have never come across a wholly satisfying explanation of God’s response to Job, until now. Basically Job questions God, and God goes into the whole long tirade of how Job has no idea what he’s talking about, and how he can’t possibly know why God does, or did, anything and never does really answer Job. After which Job goes; you’re right, I have no idea what I’m talking about – and backs down.
You might think that if you are arguing that God can not be explained, you would come to the conclusion that you should just give up trying, but this is not the case. It is one of the things that I like about the book - it is actually very fair and balanced. What he is trying to say is that we can have our explanations – in fact we need to have our explanations – but we need to remember that they are completely inadequate, and that they may not be correct or complete. We must always remember that the points of view of others may be more complete or valid than ours, so we must not create an idol out of our beliefs.
I don’t know if you’ve ever separated eggs – the whites from the yolks – but there are basically two methods. One, you crack the shell in half and then slip the egg from one half to the other, and you keep doing this until the white has fallen off and you are only left with the yolk in the shell. The other way is to crack the whole egg into your hand and let the white slip through your fingers until eventually you're left holding just the yolk in your hand. The second way is a very tactile experience as you move your fingers back and forth trying to open them just enough for the whites to flow through, but not wide enough that the yolk starts to drop. You are always very conscious of the fragility of the yolk. Any wrong move and you will breach that microscopic barrier that holds the yolk intact, and the whole mess disappears through your fingers. This is a very good picture of how we should view our ideas of God. Yes we can have our concepts, but we must always recognize their fragility. That they are less than perfect and that they may disappear on us suddenly if we are confronted with different concepts that make more sense, or give us a more complete picture of God.

Thinking Inside the Box

At our group the term “thinking outside the box” comes up on a fairly regular basis. Now when we use this term we generally mean thinking outside the traditional evangelical mindset. Now this box is a very small one that overlaps portions of the bigger box of God.
 Much bigger.
 Contrary to popular opinion, and in true Christ-like fashion, to think outside the box doesn’t include wild abandon where everything goes. In fact to be a true Christian is to stay inside the bigger box. God is very much about the box. It’s why he had to send Jesus. People had gotten themselves so far out of the box they didn’t even know it. And much like our evangelical contemporaries they thought their box was God’s box.
 Now some people who find themselves in the traditional evangelical box after living outside of any kind of box, find it very comforting - life has borders and rules, as well as all kinds of well meaning people that are only too happy to tell them how to live. This gives their lives a structure it didn’t have previously, which is something that, at this time, they need.
 But we can’t leave them there.
 To move from that small evangelical box to the expanse of God’s box is true freedom. God’s box is not wild abandon either. It still has rules and boundaries that address peoples previous lives outside of either box. But it’s not the restrictive, artificial, arbitrary, manmade rules of the evangelical box. The evangelical box will eventually suck the life out of your Christian existence, rendering you useless to the true mandate of Christianity. Whereas God’s box will breath life into you and those around you. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t the picture that God is trying to give us in the Genesis story where God takes dirt - absolute nothingness – and breathes life into Adam.

Do You Eat the Red Ones Last?

At our group the other day we were discussing the Genesis story. The question came up about whether or not we had real freedom of choice before Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One of our group said that they did since they chose to disobey God and eat from the tree in the first place. Ok, fair enough. Now being the arc typical introvert that I am it sometimes takes me hours, if not days, to process something. So now I’m up at 3:30am thinking about this. Although they had a form of freedom, I don’t think they had true choice until they ate. After all, they didn’t even know they were naked until they ate from the tree. (which brings up another point; why is being naked evil? I wear clothes for comfort, not necessarily modesty. I create a micro climate around my body that keeps me comfortable. If, like Adam an Eve, the climate was perfect, and my wife and I were the only people on earth – literally - I’m not sure I would wear clothes either. This part of the story has never made sense to me) It’s sort of like being offered the choice between a red smartie and a blue smartie, when you are really craving something sour. It really isn’t a choice at all. They are both little bits of chocolate covered in coloured candy. If you close your eyes they actually taste the same. The only difference is the food colouring in the coating. So your choice comes down to the whim of the moment. Now if you had to choose between a smartie and a sour soother, that’s a choice. They are very different in size, shape, and texture, not to mention at polar opposites of the taste spectrum. Not only this, but now your genetic predisposition for sweet vs sour starts to factor into your choice. So, did Adam and Eve really understand what they were doing before they had complete knowledge. I don’t think so.

Now all this brings up another aspect. If God is ultimate good, and evil is the opposite of good, therefore the opposite of God, then you have to know the difference between good and evil in order to choose good and thereby God. If Adam and Eve didn’t really have true freedom of choice until after they had eaten from the tree, then they also didn’t have the ability to truly love. Because you can’t truly love if you don’t have the freedom to choose. If I can’t choose to not love you, then my loving you is meaningless. So since God wants us to freely choose to love him, did God put the tree there knowing full well that man would eat from it -  in fact wanting him to eat from it, because if he didn’t, man couldn’t truly love God?

Hmmm...red or blue?

The Carnage of Hell

The problem with the old Fire and Brimstone preachers and their contemporary cousins, evangelicals, is that trying to scare the hell out of someone, as an evangelistic technique, is not very effective. And, when it does work, it seldom produces a true Christian.
The better, more effective way to evangelize, is with our lives - which is our evangelical mandate as well as the point of being a Christian in the first place. We need to show people what it means to be a follower of Christ; to show them why following Christ makes a difference in this world here and now; to give them a reason to want to follow in the footsteps of Christ – a path which, in many ways, is actually harder than the one they are currently on.
 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
 Now, I realize that some people who’ve had the hell scared out of them do eventually get it - in fact I am one of them. However, besides the years – possibly decades - of wasted opportunities to spread the true Gospel of Christ, it produces a religiosity that emphasizes a personal relationship to God with precious little regard to the world around them. They’ve done their bit: they have a death grip on their get-out-of-hell-free card, and they know they are “in”. And, for the most part, everyone else can go to hell.
But that’s not the saddest part.
The saddest part is the carnage they leave in their trail of misguided evangelism. The wrecked relationships with family, friends and co-workers. The ostracization of people closest to them whom they have made to feel less then acceptable. The “I’m in and your not” attitude.
In other words - the exact opposite of being a Christian.
If you think the point of Christianity is getting out of hell, and you are in the least bit a human being, then of course you are going to want your loved ones to get out of hell as well. This then justifies any amount of bullying that’s required to accomplish that goal.
Placing the emphasis on getting out of hell seems to produce a strange mixture of arrogance, compassion (at least for those closest to you), selfishness, in-your-face intimidation, and ambivalence.
Not exactly stellar qualities.
Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words – Francis of Assisi

The Rose

If you want to smell the aroma of christianity, you must copy the rose. The rose irresistibly draws people to itself, and the scent remains with them. Even so, the aroma of christianity is subtler even than that of the rose and should, therefore, be imparted in an even quieter and more imperceptible manner, if possible. - Mahatma Gandhi

If you have a nose and an eye for beauty , you will recognize the inherent authority of the rose. In fact, it's inner authority might well be so pressing and demanding that you might say to the rose, as did St. Francis de Sales, "Stop shouting!"

If christianity relied on it's inner authority, the weight of it's truth and the sheer power of genuine goodness, the world would also say to christians, "I hear you - stop shouting!" And we would not have preached a sermon or spoken a single word. - Richard Rohr

Share the Pig

Once again Richard Rohr strikes. I was reading through the Daily Meditations. It happened to encompass a series of quotes from, Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction. The  first thing I read was about was Too Much Access, and how we have too many gadgets to make our life simpler and give us more free time, even though it seems to have the opposite affect. He ends the section with a quote from Pope John Paul II, "In a culture of affluence you will predictably see a decrease in spiritual values: time, knowledge, wisdom, love and friendship. Those decrease almost in mathematical proportion as you move toward materialism."

The second story is about a wealthy family that lives very simply. Instead of spending all their money on the things that you or I might, they live simple lives and give away the rest. One of the interesting things they do, is that each month the mom gathers up the six kids and she writes out cheques to all the people that need it. With each cheque she explains who is getting the money and why they need it more than they do.

The next story is called Share The Pig. This is the abridged version; [In talking about third world countries] As soon as you come to the village, in a very short time you will hear the squeal of a pig or the squawk of  a chicken. They're killing it for you. They've been saving it for you. And sometimes you find out that it was the last pig or chicken. The poor are so generous... ...after you're finished eating with the people who were originally invited to the meal, there's lots left over. What would we do in our country? We have Tupperware and refrigerators. To save it would be the good, responsible thing to do... ...Here's the perfect example of how technology has a good side and a bad side. The Guatemalans have to immediately share the pig [they have no refrigerators]. Bringing food from one house to the next, which creates family, is a daily experience. It creates community and interdependence... ...The poor have an amazing politics of abundance precisely because they can rely on the group and are not as tempted to securing their future. Our biases see this as irresponsibility, but the poor actually are closer to faith, community and the Kingdom of God.

The next reading is called Announce the Gospel. I'll just let you read it: "There is an unbelievable vitality in the church in parts of Central America and Asia. There's such excitement about faith that I felt like staying there when I visited. When I said. 'Maybe I should stay here' people, without exception, said, 'No, go back to America. It's America that has to be converted and really recognize the gospel.'
'We don't need you down here in Central America,' as they'd jokingly say. 'We're actually doing better without so many priests. You go back and preach the gospel in North America.'"

Then the section of readings goes onto something else, but the very next one starts off with the beatitudes. And we all know what the first one is,"Blessed are the poor in spirit".

Out of all the beatitudes this one is probably the most debated; does this mean actual, material poverty; is it a type of spiritual poverty, like maybe a lack of knowledge; is there some sort of redeeming benefit to being destitute; etc.

But when I first read this, after reading the other sections, a new thought occurred to me. Maybe this means to be "poor...in spirit". Not actual material poverty, but to have a spirit of poverty. To have whatever amount of wealth you have, but to act and run you life as if you were poor, like the family who lives simply so they can write cheques for the less fortunate. To live simple and not hoard things so that we can share the pig. 

After all, we do talk about doing things in the Spirit. We talk about the intention and spirit of the law, or a contract. We talk about giving in the spirit of season.

And what is the second line of this Beatitude, "The kingdom of heaven is theirs". Of course it is! It makes perfect sense. If we are living in a spirit of poverty, we are able to be more giving, more connected to community, family and friends, better able to use our resources where they will have the most impact for social justice. In short, able to live as if we have actually adopted, owned and invested in  the Kingdom of God, and not just talking like it.

Do You "Get it"

Shortly after we started down this spiritual journey, about 3 or 4 years ago, we started to meet with a group of friends who had similar questions. I think it was Brian McLaren who used the term "Recovering Evangelicals" in one of his books, and we would sometimes refer to ourselves by that moniker.

In the early days, one of our group told us a story. 

Despite the fact that she was still attending an evangelical church on Sunday mornings, she would sometimes sneak away in the evening to attend a church of a different persuasion. I don't remember if it was during an evening service or some other event, but they had brought in a magician who was entertaining the congregation with some of his tricks. I don't think there was a particularly spiritual point to it all, it was just entertainment. Our friend happened to be sitting beside the priest during this performance, when she temporarily fell off the wagon of "Recovering Evangelicalism", and asked the priest if the magician was a Christian. After pausing for a moment, the priest replied, "Yah, I think he gets it".

Now, I have often in the past, and still do, wonder what it is that clicks with a person and changes their point of view from something like evangelicalism, to something that is more open, more accepting. A view that embraces the freedom and spirit of the Gospel, the way it was originally intended. A view that is ready to interact with the world and show them in actions and deeds what the Gospel really means. A view that would make them "get it". 

Apparently Brennan Manning has said, "You either get it, or you don't".

When I've used the term "Get it" in the past, that's the way I meant it. But lately I've started to wonder if "Getting it" isn't bigger than all that.

Let's assume for a moment that my recent universalist leanings are in fact true. And, let's boil them down to the most basic statement; everyone goes to heaven. If that's true, that everyone goes to heaven, what's the difference between a "non-christian" and a "christian"? What's the point of being a christian, of going to church, of reading the bible, of trying to learn to be the best christian you can be, of praying? Why not just carry on our merry way, doing our occasional good deed, screwing up every now and them, but basically being good, law abiding, citizens. 

Maybe, the difference is between those that get it and those that don't. Maybe there are those that go through life being basically good people, and then there are those who take it to the next level, or at least spend their life trying to. Those that realize that Jesus came to show the way to be fully human. To show the way to self-sacrificing love, even it it means going to the cross.To show the way that God had been trying to instil into the Israelites for millennia. To show the way that Adam and Eve were supposed to live originally. To show the way of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Maybe that's why Christianity was originally called "The Way".

Now I'm not for a moment trying to suggest that those who are following The Way are perfect, but maybe they get it, and the others don't. And, although they aren't perfect, I'm pretty sure they are better people than if they weren't following The Way, at least they should be, because if they aren't, they really don't get it, even if they say they do.

Living with Weeds

My mother drives me crazy sometimes. She is in supportive housing, which is the step just before a nursing home. She understands a lot, but not as much as you think, which sometimes makes for major confusion, which I end up having to straighten out. It's like have a child, except with a child things eventually start to progress. With her, things will only get worse.

The slow, steady, almost imperceptible decline is very frustrating at times, and I'm afraid I don't handle it very well sometimes. You think that you are supposed to be reflecting the image of God in every situation, and just when you feel you are getting the hang of it, one of these situations comes up, and everything seems to go into the crapper.

Very frustrating.

I've been reading a book of daily devotionals by the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr. Most times I have no idea what he's talking about, but every now and then he comes up with these gems; like today.

"God is like a good parent, refusing to do our homework for us. We must learn through trial and error. We have to do the homework ourselves, the homework of suffering, desiring, winning and losing, hundreds of times."

And then a couple of days over he comes up with this;

(He's talking about the parable of the wheat and the weeds, where the servants discover weeds, but the landowner says not to pull them up until the harvest) "Folks now chase after the yin and yang of eastern religions as if they are new, honest teaching. As usual, Jesus already said it: We just didn't hear. ...we don't often translate mythic language into the human patterns that the myths point to. Maybe it never computed into 'half will be dark , half will be light, again and again.' Or, 'No matter where, when or what, life will be both agony and ecstasy.' 
The field contains both weeds and wheat, and we must let them grow together.... ...You cannot really pull them out, but don't ever doubt that they are there. Thus, the sacrament of penance is not the sacrament of the annihilation of sin, or even getting rid of sin. It is more reconciliation with, and forgiveness of, those dang weeds in the field."

How often have we heard it preached that this passage is about Christians and non-Christians and how God is going to separate the two, with one group going to heaven and the other to eternal damnation. And yet here he is saying that it's about character, personal actions and choices, which makes way more sense with my recent universalist leanings, and less than stellar performance concerning my mother. That it's about how God is going to separate our good actions and choices from the bad - eventually. But right now we are going to have to live with both, and accept the fact that we will screw up, but not to worry about it, just keep plugging along.

We will always have failures, but what is important is that we keep trying, doing our homework, and eventually we may start to move closer to the image that God is trying to create in us.