Review: It’s all about the journey

12 November 2021

This excellent book is hard to categorise; it straddles the divide between autobiography and spiritual insight. It is

Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light by Brandan Robertson (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2016)

Though still a young man (born 1992), Robertson has had more than his fair share of life’s ups and downs, as he has struggled to find his identity within evangelicalism in his native America. That has included coming to terms with his growing awareness of his own non-mainstream sexuality, which didn’t go down well in that circle, especially as he was in theological training to be a pastor.

He became a ‘nomad’—thrust out from mainstream church life and forced to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery and new alliances. And from these experiences he draws out some life-lessons of great value. These include the need to actually be with people we disagree with; the recognition that Jesus taught and modelled a way of life based on unconditional love; the need to stop trying to force our views on society through legislation; the fact that more of life is grey than black and white; the value of experience over doctrine—and more.

He leads us through some of his own discoveries, including the rich traditions of Orthodox and Catholic faith, and Celtic Christianity. He has found the contemplative approach to prayer of great benefit and has come to see the foolishness of writing off ‘tradition’—especially liturgy and ritual—the way most evangelical churches have done. And he is not alone: he has been surprised to find how many young Christians from charismatic and Pentecostal churches have moved in the same direction.

He tussles with the concept of what it means to be ‘holy’, and concludes that it is to embrace our own uniqueness as the products of an infinitely creative God. For him, of course, that has meant coming to terms with his sexuality—which he wisely refuses to be defined by. There are some challenging insights in this section of the book!

He has a chapter on the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Here, again, he has found the older traditions hugely helpful in appreciating its significance and depth. His eucharistic journey has also taught him the importance of ‘social justice’: feeding the poor, caring for the environment, and more—aspects which evangelicalism has tended to set over against the ‘important’ job of ‘preaching the gospel’.

He has much to say about grace, as expressed in forgiveness. Raised by a violent, alcoholic father who made his childhood a misery, his experience of putting this into practice is intensely down-to-earth, and I suspect many readers will find this deeply challenging. It was equally difficult for him to forgive his old pastor who, in the name of Christ, had treated him in an appalling way.

This really is a unique book. It is well-written and easy to read, but anything but shallow. And it’s one that will shake every reader out of smug complacency and urge them to get up and journey with Jesus.

Here is a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

I began to realise that I ‘struggled’ with same-sex attraction. As a good Evangelical Christian who felt called to be a pastor, I knew that this ‘struggle’ had to be kept quiet, lest I become the recipient of the harsh treatment I had seen the Church dish out to others.  (120)

I received handwritten letters from professors at my Bible college who were ‘deeply grieved’ by my support for same-sex marriage and even called for me to ‘renounce’ my degree, claiming that I received it under ‘false pretences’ as a ‘deceiver’.  (155)

The book you hold in your hand is not primarily about sexuality or gender identity. Instead, it’s about my journey so far from the rigid confines of religion to the vast desert sands of true spirituality.  (215)

Christians often define themselves by what they believe versus what others don’t. There is security in staying in a particular place with people who share our convictions and experiences. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all way of faith. For a growing number of us, this way of having faith is simply unrealistic and inconceivable. We need to move. We want to push the boundaries and traverse in lands where no one has gone before. We’re nomads.  (266)

Many people are leaving the safe confines of the faith of their upbringing and are roaming the streets, looking for and often discovering, new and innovative ways of expressing their devotion to God. This isn’t a symptom of unfaithfulness but is, I believe, a movement of God’s Spirit. As a new generation of Christians are taking to the streets of the world, looking for signs of God’s movement in the most unlikely and unexpected places, we are discovering that the God we worship is much bigger than we once expected. That Jesus is actually ‘alive and active’ as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Ephesians, in places we never thought he would show up.  (330)

What happens when the pat answers that once made so much sense now begin to seem uneducated, ill informed, and archaic?  (341)

Jesus wasn’t worried about giving anyone any answers. He was interested in leading them on a journey. Jesus created spiritual nomads, not doctrinal guards. Jesus stirred up doubt in the minds of those who thought they had it all figured out and honoured the seekers.  (414)

When I was still a Baptist, I believed that any church that used the NIV Bible were sell-outs and heretics. Seriously.  (583)

Fear and demonisation of ‘the other’ is one of the biggest problems with Christianity (and perhaps every religion) today. Anthropologists have long understood that one of the fundamental methods that humans use to create a unified community is to unite against a common enemy.  (620)

There is another means to fostering unity within our communities that brings life and breeds openness. There is a way that disarms both the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ and creates, in the midst of our great diversity and complexity, a ‘we’. And that way is love.  (645)

During my high-school years, I was very involved in inter-faith dialogue. What that really means is that I liked to argue with anyone who wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian like me. Throughout my four years, I spent countless hours debating with Mormons, Muslims, Wiccans, Pagans, Atheists, Non-Religious and of course, the Methodists, trying to convert them from their way of false teaching to my way, or rather, the way.  (675)

Part of loving is sacrificing our ego’s need to be right.  (712)

Even though the average Christian isn’t actually militaristic, this mindset of war does affect the way we interact with the people and culture that surround us. We begin to see everything in our world as increasingly dark and hostile to us and our faith… It’s this impulse to defend our faith against perceived threats that has made Christians more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.  (764)

I was a fan of the Apostle Paul. His words were clear, straightforward, and deeply theological. When Paul wanted to say something, he said it. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke in parables. His words were often cryptic. And most perplexingly, he seemed to have really bad theology. Paul made it clear that salvation was ‘by faith alone, through grace’. But Jesus seemed to suggest that we would be ultimately judged based on what we did, how we lived, and not on what we believed.  (788)

On the cross Jesus put an end to all judgement, condemnation, and war. He revealed that the Kingdom of God would not be established through Christianising our culture but by sacrificing our rights, privileges, and positions of power out of love for our neighbours. For our enemies. This is indeed ‘foolishness’ to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.  (824)

We vocally war against legislation to support same-sex couples’ civil right to be married under the law, claiming that marriage is ‘our’ institution. But when did Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or anyone ever ask us to do that? As we force our worldview and values on a nation that cannot relate to them, is it any wonder that there are such negative perceptions of Christianity?  (860)

The modern pursuit of winning over the culture is ultimately a pursuit of power and domination… While many great contributions have been made by Christianity because of its position of influence over the centuries, the truth seems to be that whenever Christianity is given power and prominence, it ceases to be authentic Christianity.  (874)

I found myself amazed that at the core of every religious tradition, there seemed to be beliefs and values that aligned with mine. Many of the religions we learned about had similar ideas and practices that seemed to complement my Christian faith in unexpected ways.  (959)

Truth isn’t a set of absolute propositions; rather, it is a person. Jesus Christ. He is Truth and like all people, he is dynamic. He cannot be classified, systematised, and organised into neat little boxes and categories. He defies boundaries and descriptions. And if Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, as the Apostle Paul claims, then we must assume that God is just as dynamic.  (1033)

When I understood that everything didn’t have cut-and-dried answers, that theology was a complex and imprecise art, and that God himself was dynamic and filled with colour and tension, I began to finally feel … safe.  (1045)

We are told to confess and affirm, rather than to critically think, engage, or seek after a personal experience with God. Many are even told that desiring to experience God instead of mentally assenting to his existence is somehow sinful and untrustworthy.  (1096)

…the Pharisees, a hyper-orthodox, Scripture-centred group of religious leaders who, like many Christians today, valued theological accuracy and moral purity over an intimate relationship with God.  (1120)

The early Christians’ spirituality was far more than reading the Bible and praying every day. It was deeply rhythmic; a well-structured pattern of living that ensured a person would remain aware and connected to the presence of God throughout the day. Many traditions involved some form of meditation.  (1144)

In my journey to experience God, I have found great resonance in the contemplative traditions of the Franciscans.  (1179)

When our theology and language fall short, as they always do, it is our experiential knowledge of God that will ultimately sustain us. As spiritual nomads with an insatiable desire to delve deeper into the depths of the great mysteries of our Universe, we must learn to seek and sense the presence of God.  (1215)

Though many of us may find ourselves in a place where we feel like no one understands our struggle and no church could ever be a comfortable fit for us, it is essential to intentionally commit to a community and to relationships, no matter how much tension or discomfort there may be.  (1396)

To be holy means to be unique or different. So when God calls us to be holy, we’re being called to embrace our ‘True Selves,’ the authentic being God originally created us to be.  (1466)

To be holy is to be like Christ, and to be like Christ is to be rooted and confident in our God-given identity.  (1509)

When a person diverges from the normalised cultural image, we marginalise and demonise them. Those who rock the boat by being their authentic selves are often the ones society despises most. Why? Because in our bondage to our false identities, which we perceive as giving us value and security, we can’t stand to see someone else walking in liberation.  (1522)

Instead of preaching the Gospel, which invites all people to come just as they are, we began to preach a message that required LGBTQ people to conform to our standard of holiness before they were welcome into the body of Christ.  (1634)

I now believe that God blesses LGBTQ marriages, that covenanted same-sex relationships are a reflection of the love and glory of God, and that identifying as both LGBTQ and Christian is not contradictory.  (1646)

The sooner we relinquish our desire to label and classify each other in neat boxes where we can understand and ultimately control each other, the sooner we open up ourselves and our world to true freedom.  (1669)

Growing up as an Evangelical, I never really got what the whole communion thing was all about… It wasn’t until I began to explore the ancient traditions of the Church that the importance of the Eucharist began to radically change the way I viewed Christianity altogether.  (1712)

Jesus seemed less concerned about whether his disciples were exemplary theologians and more concerned with whether or not they embodied grace, forgiveness, and peace to their neighbours, their enemies, and themselves.  (1797)

The ritual of the Eucharist provides the image of what it looks like to be a Christian. Beyond having the right answers or believing the right things about God, being a Christian is first and foremost about following Christ. About being filled with the Spirit of God, and allowing ourselves to be broken and poured out in the world.  (1834)

To the natural mind, it seems absurd to assert that the way to foster healing from a toxic or abusive situation is to return to the situation and offer forgiveness, blessing, and love. But this is the way of the Kingdom.  (1963)

One thing that I have become absolutely confident of is that life is not about achieving goals, gaining notoriety, or reaching a destination. It is about the journey.  (2025)

It seems to me that God has always been more interested in faithfulness to his leading and direction, wherever it may take us, than about reaching a place of certainty and comprehension.  (2037)

Beyond all of our theology, traditions, and practices, to be a Christian means to live every moment consciously aware that ‘in God we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28a).  (2087)

This is the goal for which I strive. This is the desire for which I long. For myself, for you, and for the entire world. That we would live lives of wonder, totally amazed at the goodness of God, the complexity of life, the diversity of human experience, and the peculiar reality that it all fits together somehow on to the giant canvas of the cosmos on which God is painting a beautiful masterpiece that defies comprehension.  (2160)

 


Review: Problems with prayer

7 October 2021

I have long felt uncomfortable with some aspects of ‘petitionary prayer’—asking God to do things ‘at a distance’ for people and situations around the world.

I used to avoid prayer meetings because they raised too many questions. Like, ‘If God is in control, as most Christians maintain, why does he so seldom step in to heal people and sort things out?’ And, ‘If God is love, why doesn’t he just fix things anyway, without making his action dependent on how many people pray?’

Nobody seemed able or willing to answer those questions. Indeed, some Christians clearly saw me as on the verge of backsliding just for raising them. At last—oh, happy day!—I have found a book that tackles these and related issues head on! It is

Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2018)

You may already have come across the idea of ‘the uncontrolling love of God’, popularised by theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Love is God’s essential nature (1 John 4:6), and love, by definition, does not control; it ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5). That is the central plank in the theodicy of ‘essential kenosis’. In this book, Mark Karris examines prayer in the light of it, and provides some deeply satisfying answers.

He patiently deconstructs the approach to petitionary prayer that is the norm among evangelical Christians, before proposing a reconstructed approach in line with the conviction that God is not ‘in control’ in the sense of causing of all that happens, or even ‘allowing’ things to happen. At the same time, he looks honestly at those Bible passages often used to support petitionary prayer (like Elijah’s prayer for drought in James chapter 5, and Peter’s release from prison in Acts 12), and shows them to be not as simple as we think.

He proposes ‘conspiring prayer’, in which we enter into a dialogue with God. We bring our requests. He hears them and, in response, suggests ways in which we ourselves can become at least part of the answer.

If you consider yourself a ‘praying Christian’, I’m tempted to say, ‘I dare you to read this book!’ It will, I think, make you even more of a praying Christian—but with a modified approach that makes more sense of how God’s love and God’s power interact. It has certainly been a big help to me, and I recommend it unreservedly.

[Here is a selection of quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

My own experience of unanswered prayers became a haunting ghost of doubt that impelled me to examine more closely just what petitionary prayer on behalf of others really entails.  (175)

We are called to be Divine Echoes—people who intentionally set aside time to prayerfully listen, humbly opening themselves up to receive God’s wavelengths of love and creatively reverberate them out to the world around them.  (236)

While I knew that praying for oneself and for others in close community could be liberating, I began to question the validity of petitionary prayer for others who were not present, as well as for social issues, like poverty, racism, drug addiction, and violence.  (268)

I define the traditional understanding of the typical petitionary prayer as talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand. For example, if I prayed, “God, please save my uncle Harold from his drug addiction,” I would be assuming that before I started praying, God was not already actively loving in the specific manner requested. In other words, God was not saving my uncle Harold from his drug addiction. I would be offering my petition in the hope that God might hear my prayer and lovingly save my uncle.  (376)

What exactly happens after the words leave my lips or after I speak them silently? Does God instantly hear them, or do they first move through the traffic of heaven where angels and demons are engaged in an epic battle? Some have suggested prayer releases and activates God’s power. Are prayers, then, like magical incantations? When a person prays for God to heal their ill dad, does that give God extra power, energy, or motivation to do so?  (455)

Does God increase his active love because a larger number of people pray? Does God say, “Well, just twenty of you prayed. If thirty of you had prayed, I would definitely have healed him”?  (469)

If an all-powerful God could single-handedly save and deliver loved ones but allows them to get into fatal accidents, become sick, get raped, or experience other tragedies because people did not pray for them, is that consistent with what a loving God would do?  (482)

It is important to remember that while biblical writers and saints of old believed petitionary prayer for others was powerful and brought about miraculous events, they were culturally conditioned. Their understanding was limited to the amount of revelation they could comprehend at their time in history. It is possible they did not think through the nuances, mechanics, and implications of petitionary prayer. They did not consider how other agencies were involved in moment-to-moment events—agencies like free will, lawlike regularities, randomness, and God’s uncontrolling, loving character. They engaged in an ancient social and sacred practice that came naturally and was modeled by generations of spiritual seekers before them.  (493)

One of the biggest conundrums with petitionary prayers for others is that they can unknowingly suggest a diminished view of God’s loving nature. In petitionary prayer, we are asking God to do our will with respect to our loved ones. We ask God to keep them safe, to heal them, to give them success, or to save them from an eternity without him. We want these things for those close to us because we love them. But if God loves them too, and his love far exceeds our love, does he not want these things for them too?  (580)

If our image of God is that of an autocrat, we believe God can do whatever God wants whenever God wants and however God wants to do it. Therefore, we don’t consider human agency and free will in the prayer equation.  (627)

If, on the one hand, God routinely intervenes in people’s lives without specific prayers for them and, on the other, chooses to remain passive and do nothing simply because people haven’t prayed, the logical conclusion is that God is a cruel utilitarian, prioritizing the faith of some over the health of others, rather than a benevolent Father to all.  (702)

The onus is on those who are trying to prove that petitionary prayer is empirically effective. Unfortunately, they have not effectively done so. Second, it would be impossible to scientifically prove whether prayer is solely responsible for any given outcome because there are too many variables.  (891)

If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.  (930)

How many times throughout our lives have we prayed fervently for those suffering and in distress, placing all the responsibility on God to answer our prayers while those for whom we prayed suffered needlessly because we took no responsibility to be part of God’s answer to our prayer?  (982)

Some prayers in the Bible may be considered petitions, but a closer examination shows they would be more accurately described as wishes. Wishes are not typically addressed to God and do not have an expectation that God will intervene and actively love in a greater measure in someone’s life. They are simply a way of expressing inner longings.  (1027)

If God chose to stop the rain [in answer to Elijah’s prayer], God was simultaneously choosing to ignore other faithful people’s desperate prayers for rain.  (1164)

Why is it that God is able to instantly and supernaturally send angels to break people out of prison without being seen, and yet he is unable (or unwilling) to perform miraculous acts of that nature more frequently? Why doesn’t God send angels more often to prevent people, including young children, from being raped? Since God can instantly flick open a massive iron gate, why doesn’t he use his power to flick a psychopathic gunman in the head before a mass murder?  (1263)

[Re Daniel 10]   While God does use angels to deliver messages on occasion, God is an omnipresent being who can, and does, promptly answer prayers, speak to us, and show us visions. I would think a proper theology of prayer—especially one developed under the New Covenant—would not have us worrying about whether our mail will get stuck in transit due to the heavenly postal workers’ fighting with each other.  (1363)

Forming a theology of petitionary prayer for others based on Scripture requires that we work through some hermeneutical issues. It requires that we separate wishes from prayers. It requires that we separate myth, legend, and metaphorical and symbolic literature from objective history. It requires that we separate event descriptions (this is what happened) from biblical prescriptions (this is what you should do).  (1435)

Recently, I spoke to a professor and well-known speaker on the topic of prayer. He quoted John Wesley, who said, “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.” I asked him why atheists in, say, predominantly atheistic countries like China or Denmark experience the same “miracles” as praying Christians experience. Why are they shocked to find their cancer has unexpectedly gone into remission? Why do they receive money as a gift at the last minute to pay rent? Why do they find true love, recover from addictions, find great parking spots, reconcile with estranged family members, and recover from depression? In other words, if “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer,” then why do atheists experience many of the things Christians pray for, except without the prayer?  (1471)

God does not step into time and intervene on occasion only when we pray fervently for him to do so. He is always close, always moving, always on mission, always loving, calling, challenging, encouraging, comforting, and convicting, moment to moment.  (1496)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. We have already seen how this view of God is problematic because a God who can unilaterally stop evil but who instead exercises “self-restraint” is a God who may be morally culpable.  (1561)

For many, humans having agency and free will to make choices in the world makes sense. Bad things happen because people choose to do terrible things. But randomness and lawlike regularities are seldom discussed. Understanding their interaction in everyday events helps us to understand further the complexities involved in human suffering. Understanding God’s inability to control randomness and lawlike regularities helps us understand why some tragic events occur.  (1573)

We often pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). It doesn’t make sense to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done if God’s reign is already everywhere and his will is always done on earth.  (1598)

One of the pitfalls of the traditional model of petitionary prayer is that it tends to ask God to love or change others without taking into consideration other dynamics and agencies, such as a person’s free will. Conspiring prayer, however, takes free will and a coherent theodicy into perspective.  (1647)

A person without faith or openness to God’s presence limits what God can do in their lives. If a person pushes God away, then no matter how much one may pray for them, God is kept from loving more fully. James reminds his audience that a person who doubts “should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7). It is not that God doesn’t want to give gifts and blessings to that person, but God has an open-door policy. God’s love does not control and only enters fully when people willfully open their door to him; God doesn’t force doors open.  (1672)

Despite his power, even Jesus was limited. Mark 6:5–6 states, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” Can you imagine? Jesus, the all-powerful, mighty God, met people he couldn’t heal? It certainly had nothing to do with Jesus’s desire or power.  (1685)

God always performs the most loving acts possible in every moment in every nook and cranny of existence. God can be trusted completely because he would never purposefully or maliciously harm any person, especially not for some grand Machiavellian purpose. This way of thinking about God, alongside an understanding of God’s relationship to human free will and other agencies, is a grand proclamation. Keeping God’s faithful and uncontrolling love in mind radically changes how we think about prayer.  (1697)

If prayer changes God and increases God’s energetic force of love toward people and circumstances, why didn’t the cumulative force of millions of Jews and other believers in God who prayed and cried out to God for mercy keep them from being tortured and executed in the Holocaust?  (1826)

Some would prefer to treat prayer as a ‘drive-thru window’ where they can place their order quickly and one-sidedly, without much engagement with the other party, rather than as an intimate meal in which both parties set the table and cook the food together.  (1905)

God invites us to create sacred spaces where we can be silent and practice the art of listening. A typical prayer meeting consists of people singing a few praise songs, stating their prayer requests, praying them to God, and returning home. There ought to be a time in that mix where the congregation turns down the guitar amps, shuts off the projector, zips their lips, quiets their hearts, and listens for what God might have to share. This old Quaker tradition is needed all the more in our high-tech age, regardless of denomination.  (1991)

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse still, would blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary cognitive and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (2027)

Mother Teresa eventually made the switch from traditional petitionary prayer to conspiring prayer. She is quoted as saying: “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”  (2076)

This “God-is-in-control-of-everything” theology lulls Christians into becoming passive observers and siren-induced sleepwalkers. It can potentially cause people to lackadaisically go about their life and throw up an occasional prayer because, ultimately, “God is in control.” Meanwhile, greed, oppression, poverty, sexual violence, murder, genocide, and other systemic injustices increase. It is theology gone wrong.  (2115)

 


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