Review: Meditation is good!

19 May 2022

I have learnt the value of reading Christian material from denominations and streams other than the one I was brought up in. This excellent one is from the Roman Catholic stable. It is

Contemplative Meditation by Matthew McGettrick ODC (Catholic Truth Society, 2001)

and is a short, 40-page booklet.

There is huge interest in ‘meditation’ these days in society at large. Some explore ‘mindfulness’, while others experiment with Hindu or Buddhist variations. But Christianity has a noble contemplative tradition, and many Christians today are finding that the normal routines of church and Christian activity, including their received patterns of prayer, while fine in themselves, leave a void which only some form of ‘contemplation’ can fill.

Fr Matthew introduces us to the practice of laying aside the chattering of our thoughts in order to just ‘be’ in the presence of God in his infinite greatness. I used to think that ‘emptying the mind’—a key step in that direction—was a dangerous thing that might invite sinister elements to take over. I no longer hold that view. Instead, I have found it immensely helpful to dismiss thoughts with the aim of ‘leaning into God’. It is what some call ‘centering prayer’.

The book is highly practical, with advice on how to deal with wandering thoughts, the value of a ‘mantra’, the practice of self-discipline and giving God priority in all we do. Anyone who has sought to draw ever nearer to a conscious awareness of God will recognise that the author has been treading the self-same contemplative path, and will find his insights and experience helpful.

If this is something new to you and you want to explore it, this little booklet might be a good place to start.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

[Re relaxing for meditation]  Let thoughts come to your mind, let them wander in and wander out but do not lay hold of them. Let your mind gradually subside. This is something one ought to do particularly on going to bed at night.  (p4)

As far as your thinking mind is concerned God means for you simply nothingness because He is the infinite, He is the unbounded, and so you reach out in your heart, in your will, beyond every distinct thought and every distinct mental picture and hold yourself in an attitude of attentiveness to the unbounded indescribable God.  (p6)

The more you give [wandering thoughts] your attention in order to try to get rid of them the worse they get because you are focusing your attention on them and you are distracting yourself from your meditation.  (p10)

Not only can a person use a phrase or a word for a mantra, he can also use a simple thought, so simple that it is not expressed in words, or only in very vague words. The thought, for example, of the presence of God. Just that God is here. God is all around you. God is within you. You are immersed in God. You are enveloped in God.  (p11)

We are being attentive to nothing, to no thing, to nothing we can picture or describe because we are going beyond all that. We are being attentive to a Being that is beyond all thinking and beyond all picturing and therefore we do not try to think or picture, and whatever thoughts or pictures come into our mind we take absolutely no notice of them, we just reach out in love; peaceful, quiet and attentive. That is contemplative meditation.  (p15)

We are not expecting anything to happen for the simple reason that everything is happening. God is working deep in our soul.  (p15)

Through the light and strength that we get in meditation we become enabled to develop a similar harmony throughout the rest of our lives, a harmony by which we keep our attention focused on God and withdraw our selfish desires from everything else.  (p18)

We must find time to give to God alone. Because if we don’t keep ourselves in contact with the source of all goodness, with the source of our being, then we shall not have within us what we should give to others.  (p25)

Because now our selfish desires are very much under control, and because the Spirit of God has got full power in us, we live with the spontaneity that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is the freedom of the Spirit by which we are lifted up above our own selfishness, and we enjoy all the wonder of a life that is spontaneous and joyous in the power of the Spirit of God. That is what we aim at.  (p30)

There is what you might call a force of gravity at work within ourselves, a spiritual weight, that makes us want to fall into the centre of our being, that makes us want to fall into the source of our being, into God, and this double element, God attracting us and our desiring to fall into God, develops in us a strong desire for God, to possess Him and to be possessed by Him. It is when we are in the quietness of contemplative meditation that this attraction exerts its power.  (p32)

Sometimes in the silence of meditation God absorbs our entire attention, He draws us into complete inner silence, but that is God’s doing. It usually only lasts a short time, but for the most part our imagination wanders.  (p34)

If there were no God life would not be worth living for anybody, but because there is God life is worth living for everybody regardless of what it is like because everything can be turned into a means of finding God.  (p36)


Prayer Puzzles

10 January 2022

I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’

Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.

I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’

One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!

It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it.[1] But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.

And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.

This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?

I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.

Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.

And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.

Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating.[2] It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.

But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?

The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.

Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.[3]

So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.

And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).

 

  1. I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
  2. A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
  3. More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/

 

 


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)

 


Review: Help on the D/R journey

24 September 2021

Lots of one-time keen Christians are questioning many of their long-held beliefs. This can create enormous pressure because those beliefs have previously undergirded their mental and emotional stability. To help navigate a way through that pressure, books have been appearing in recent years, including this one:

Religious Refugees: (De)constructing toward spiritual and emotional healing by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2020)

The author, who is from a Pentecostal background, is an ordained pastor and licensed therapist, and writes as someone who has himself made the journey successfully. He calls it ‘the D/R journey’ (Deconstruction/ Reconstruction). His book is in three parts. Part 1 identifies and outlines the scale of the problem, which is huge internationally. Part 2 examines the emotional and spiritual pressure people feel in the midst of it. And Part 3 provides some guidelines for moving forward and maintaining faith—though that faith will likely be of a different form afterwards.

The book is substantial and detailed, covering every aspect of the subject. Each chapter ends with questions suitable for group discussion. It analyses the different ‘stations’ of the typical D/R journey, providing honest evaluations of what people feel in each one, before offering pointers to the way forward. I wondered sometimes whether the author’s treatment is too detailed? But he is commendably anxious to cover all the options and so can perhaps be excused.

As part of his suggestions for moving forward, Karris offers some helpful approaches to prayer—including ‘centering prayer’—which go far beyond the routine petitionary approach of most evangelicals. He also offers useful insights from psychology and neuroscience. And he shows himself aware of a range of approaches to God and the Bible currently being publicised by authors like Thomas Jay Oord and his ‘uncontrolling love of God’ conviction.

If you are struggling with some aspects of your own faith right now, this book is guaranteed to shed light on your situation and offer you real hope for a good outcome.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

The D/R journey is shorthand for those who are going through a seismic shift in their religious and spiritual orientation… I call the signs and symptoms of this disorientation Religious Disorientation Growth Syndrome (RDGS).  (p17)

It’s not your fault that your faith is shaken and your core beliefs about God, the church, the Bible, and yourself are shifting. Life happens. Shift happens. Life changes with or without our gracious consent.  (p23)

You are going through (or have gone through) a profound shift that has catapulted you into a season of doubt, distressing emotions, anxiety-provoking and painful social realities, and existential and identity concerns. You are not alone!  (p26)

Since church politics and bureaucracy are overseen mostly by men, there can be strains of misogyny and patriarchy, interlaced with theology, that are oppressive to women and marginalized people.  (p28)

With the power of the internet, people now have the ability to travel to exotic, cognitive-dissonance-producing, theological places with the click of a button. Stale, simple, myopic, and repetitive Christian teachings on Sunday mornings are no longer going to reach the hearts and minds of many church goers.  (p29)

The problem is, when church is all about positivity, singing solely upbeat music, and hearing shallow responses to complex individual and societal problems, some Christians just can’t stomach it.  (p31)

Some churches are functioning like powerful, foreign occupiers attempting to squash identities, individual desires, and anything that doesn’t fit in with their pathological ideologies that masquerade as divine intentions and holy prescriptions.  (p38)

When people finally awaken and realize how their once-beloved faith has sadly failed them (or worse, mentally or emotionally abused them), the result can be spiritual trauma.  (p40)

We had the answers. We were part of the in crowd and everyone else was on the outside. And, the best part? Because of our denomination’s perfect, unblemished doctrines, I knew I was one of a chosen few who were truly saved.   (p48)

There comes a time…when all of us…have to choose either to go home to what is familiar or to journey ahead toward foreign, potentially perilous, territory.  (p52)

I have heard firsthand from pastors who were in the midst of this kind of internal conundrum. Many have shared with me their terror just thinking about publicly acknowledging their doubts about important doctrines that their church holds dear. Knowing that they would be kicked out of the church, and perhaps be unable to provide for their families, forced them to hide. This is no easy predicament. It’s sad their professional roles don’t allow them to be exactly who they are: imperfect followers of Jesus on a messy spiritual journey just like everyone else.  (p53)

No single, unchangeable label captures the complexity of who anyone is. Labeling others is an attempt to dehumanize and erase the diverse complexities of individuals and groups in order to gain power over them.  (p61)

The more love-filled and inclusive one’s heart becomes, the less at home traditional beliefs, that lack such love and inclusivity, will feel.  (p68)

Years ago, amazingly, I wouldn’t even cringe at the idea of God commanding genocide (Joshua 1:12); flooding the planet and giving sharks a smorgasbord of human entrees (Genesis 6-9); killing precious Egyptian babies (Exodus 11:5); burning people to a crisp (Numbers 11:1); striking down seventy people for being curious and peeking into the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 16:19); ordering someone to be stoned to death by an entire community for working on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32); being prejudiced against people with disabilities and those who looked different (Leviticus 21:17-24); or committing a host of other Hitleresque monstrosities. I suppose I was just going with the Christian flow.  (p74)

Am I supposed to believe that a God, who is vastly more loving and just than I am, would be less loving and just than me? No matter where you are on the liberal/conservative divide, I am sure we can agree that maiming, burning alive, stoning, and drowning our children, when they selfishly go against our wishes (even if they were our adult children), is not the most compassionate, just, wise, and loving thing to do.  (p79)

Here is my concern with the “God demands justice for sin” motif. It seems to me that God asks us to forgive, without the need for violent physical punishment, when people act unjustly toward us. So, how is it that God demands justice in the form of violent physical punishment if people sin against Him, but God calls us to extend love, mercy, and forgiveness when people sin against us?  (p79)

After many years of reading, wrestling, and reflecting on the biblical text, I cannot with a clear conscience hold to a flat reading of Scripture where all texts fully disclose and reveal the true nature of reality and of God.  (p81)

The Pentalateral Hermeneutic of Love (PHL) is a lens with which I currently look through the Scriptures… The five-part lens consists of:

  1. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)
  2. The biblical definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
  3. The only explicit parabolic picture Jesus gave of God the Father found in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31)
  4. Perfect love described in Matthew 5
  5. The radical self-giving, others-empowering life of Jesus Christ, who is the full revelation of God. (p82)

Even secular researchers are studying this phenomenon called spiritual disorientation, seeking to find a correlation between a person’s mental health, beliefs, and inner wrestling with God—what they call divine struggle.  (p90)

Because of our tribal brains, it’s almost impossible to stop singing the songs, to break the rules, to disobey the religious leaders in our lives, and to become anything different than the docile sheep that we are used to being.  (p92)

Some Christians, on the D/R journey, experience a sense of loss due to the tenuous relationship they now have with the Bible. What was once a comforting sacred text in which every passage of Scripture was God-breathed, is now an ambiguous book that is better left on the table collecting dust.  (p100)

It’s normal to experience strong jolts of emotion in the middle of your faith shift. After all, you loved deeply. You gave your heart to both God and the church. And you are now grieving a profound loss of connections, attachments, intimacy, conversations, rituals, and beliefs. You have every right to feel the way you do.  (p109)

The hardest dynamic of the deconstruction process is the confusion that sets in because of your chaotic emotional experiences. Your level of anxiety and suffering is increased by your inability to understand what is going on.  (p110)

Splitting is a defense mechanism that causes people to label others as either “good” or “bad”. Splitting enables people to steer away from complex feelings of ambivalence which are often uncomfortable. This shock absorber is wired inside of us because, let’s be honest, it is sometimes easier to see the world as black or white than to see in shades of gray.  (p128)

Because we can have so many thoughts—some of which are contradictory—and mixed emotions during our deconstructive process, our mind is on a mission to manage our mayhem and make sense of it all. Telling our story to others helps accomplish that mission.  (p140)

Finding healing in community is not an alternative, or fallback plan, for those who do not have enough faith in God. It is a biological imperative and part of God’s gold standard for successful healing and necessary for living life to its fullest.  (p147)

God loves it when we are truthful, no matter how ugly we think our experiences may be. And God much prefers truthfulness than to see us wearing a mask—pretending and bearing false witness. God can’t heal our masks because they are inanimate objects, but God can heal an authentic hurting soul that is laid bare before God’s presence.  (p152)

I have found Christians to be some of the most self-deprecating people I have ever met. Not only do many of us not love ourselves, we do not even like ourselves.  (p159)

Perpetuating the message of original sin and eternal torture, especially to children, can bring grievous, monumental, pathological ramifications from which a person might take a lifetime to heal.  (p166)

You have the option to relate to yourself as the Father of love (1 John 4:16) relates to you, or as the Father of lies (John 8:44) relates to you. Do I need to tell you which option is best?  (p169)

The descriptive words we use of God are not God. They are placeholders, and imperfect ones at that. They are fingers pointing to that which cannot be fully pointed to or named. I could tell you that God looks like Jesus. And, that is an incredible place to start. Jesus is God fully manifest in the flesh. But, even our conceptions of Jesus are diverse. Our minds, which are our filters that are conditioned by a great number of factors, such as the time and place in which we live, cannot even fully and perfectly conceptualize or reflect him.  (p181)

If it seems you have multiple personalities when it comes to your faith, rest assured, you are not crazy. Science validates our experience. We can have contradictory feelings and thoughts. We can have different parts of ourselves vying for their unique positions. The hope is that we can combine and integrate our head knowledge with our heart knowledge and align them with the truth of who God says we are and move a few degrees closer to who God really is.  (p188)

The primary metaphor Jesus gives us for God is that of a father. Premier New Testament scholar and historian John Dominic Crossan writes, “Despite its male-oriented prejudice, the biblical term ‘father’ is often simply a shorthand term for ‘father and mother.’”  (p191)

I am convinced that to reconstruct our faith, we must have a theology of suffering anchored in the unconventional love of God. This is especially important in a world full of pain, suffering, confusion, sorrow, and death. I believe that the unconventional love of God is shown in God’s perfect, moment-to-moment, uncontrolling, and co-operative love.  (p205)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. It is a complete paradigm shift (a heretical shift for some) to suggest that God simply cannot control because of God’s uncontrolling, loving nature.  (p208)

As you are in community with God and others, trust in your experience. I know that experience gets such a bad rap. But, unfortunately, the alternative is to trust everyone else’s experience and how they interpret the scriptures, God, and reality.  (p211)

What would we think of a man, watching a child be sexually assaulted, having the power to stop the event from happening, but simply choosing not to help? Our inner spirit captivated by love and justice would passionately rise up and object to the unjust and immoral actions of that man. In the same way, our spirit would also rise up against a view of God as someone with full ability to intervene in horrific events, but who simply chooses not to help (but unfairly decides to help others).  (p214)

Anyone who claims that God is in control of all things is implicitly stating that God is the Grand purveyor of evil.  (p223)

While God can always be trusted, the same cannot necessarily be said to be true of human beings. Creatures big and small, laws of regularity, and spooky quantum anomalies cannot always be trusted to have our well-being in mind. Horrific events occur because randomness, lawlike regularities, and human choices collide.  (p224)

The very fact that we can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), shows us that God doesn’t always get what God wants.  (p225)

I propose that we Christians need to get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse, 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.  (p226)

Your tears are not a sign of weakness but a powerful symbol that shows you were courageous; you took a risk on the unpredictable nature of love and loved anyway. Those who have ceased to cry have ceased to love and participate fully in life.  (p236)

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is that which appears faithless. There are times when singing songs of lament, which appear to hyper-religious folk as faithless, would be far more honest than singing today’s all-too-common, upbeat, pop praise songs.  (p239)

Our interactions with those theologically different than us can devolve into the type of religious debates for which Jesus called out the Pharisees. I think Jesus would remind us that, in spite of our differences, what matters most is whether or not we love God and others. Period.  (p262)

When we prioritize love, we make sure we are compassionately present, embodying the gospel for each person we meet.  (p264)

At the end of my life, I don’t want to have regrets because I was afraid of being the unique person God has co-created and co-shaped me to become.  (p274)

Identifying your values, choosing them for yourself and living them out is a part of the reconstruction process. This process can restore authenticity and congruence to your life, propelling you to live the life you are meant to live and to lovingly serve others with more of your authentic self.  (p275)

 


Review: Water to Wine

10 November 2020

I’ve been a fan of Brian Zahnd for some time. I often listen to his online sermons from Word of Life Church, St Joseph, Missouri, USA, and have reviewed several of his books. I first read this one a couple of years ago. It is

Water To Wine: Some Of My Story by Brian Zahnd (Spello Press, 2016).

wtwAt the time, I chose not to review it. Maybe that’s because, as I discovered long ago, there is a ‘right time’ to read a book, and that clearly wasn’t it for me. But I have just read it again, and found it immensely helpful and reassuring as I pursue the adventure of my own pilgrimage of faith.

Zahnd describes how, as a successful American pastor with a large charismatic church, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the bland style of Christianity he was practising—the ‘water’. Events in 2004 led him to a crisis-point that set him off in a new direction—one he has been on ever since: the discovery of the ‘wine’.

His new direction took him to some new emphases. He found a new appreciation of the cross of Christ. And he began to revel in ‘mystery’ in his walk with God, where crisp answers have little place. He learned to appreciate the Christians he encountered in other traditions, such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. He saw a way out of harmful dualistic thinking. And he began to question the individualism that dominates evangelical culture as he rediscovered the importance of community.

He came to believe that the ‘politics’ of Jesus, which is the kingdom of Godoutstandingbook and is rooted in love, cannot be associated with any human political system. At the same time, he began to value the use of some old liturgical forms as he explored dimensions of prayer that were new to him. This included an embracing of silence and the ’contemplative’ approach favoured by the mystics. And among all this, he found a new appreciation of Holy Communion and the sacramental aspect of the faith.

Zahnd is an accomplished author. His writing is meaty and substantial, but it also has poetry and heart. Indeed, he includes several poems that he wrote at key moments in his life.

The book comes out of the American religious scene, which is different in many ways from that in my home-country of the UK. But the bulk of what the author has to say remains fully applicable. If you are dissatisfied with your current Christianity, you will find some helpful pointers here.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. (2)

Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I don’t want to drink that anymore. I don’t want to serve that anymore. I want the vintage wine. (7)

God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. (17)

I began to see the cross in a much deeper way—not as a mere factor in an atonement theory equation, but as the moment in time and space where God reclaimed creation. I saw the cross as the place where Jesus refounded the world. (24)

If we insist on explaining the mysteries of faith—mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the return of Christ, the new birth, baptism, the Eucharist—we inevitably reduce rich mysteries to cheap certitudes. (30)

Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. (30)

Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. (31)

The revivalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to “industrialize” evangelism. While Henry Ford was mass-producing cars, Billy Sunday was mass-producing converts. (32)

Salvation is not a private, autonomous, individual, unmediated experience—salvation is being personally gathered by Christ into his salvation community. The individualistic view of salvation leads to the distinctly Protestant anxiety of having to convince yourself that you are saved. (40)

The Apostles don’t call us to “accept Jesus into our heart”—they call us to belong to the body of Christ. (44)

The politics of Jesus is without coercion. The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, martyrdom—but never by force. (47)

Faith, serious thought, and prayer are not easily cultivated in the transient and trivial atmosphere of modern mass culture. Everything is a bit too fast, too loud, too superficial. (54)

Without a primary orientation of the soul toward God, life gets reduced to the pursuit of power and the acquisition of things. (56)

To belittle the work of the theologian is to advocate a spiritual poverty. We need more than Christian folk religion—we need a Christianity that is serious and substantive in its thought. (60)

One of the sad things about spiritual poverty is that the impoverished hardly ever know they’re suffering from it. (61)

I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious. Anyone can be spiritual. Atheists are spiritual these days! So of course I’m spiritual—we all are!—but I am also intentionally religious. I accept the rigors and disciplines of a religious tradition. (68)

We are formed as Christian people as we learn the regular rhythms of praying well-crafted, theologically-sound, time-tested prayers. (69)

The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. (74)

The objection I often hear to the use of liturgy—a formal track of worship—is that it’s dead. But this is a category mistake. Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. Liturgy is either true or false. What is alive or dead is the worshiper. So what we need is a true liturgy and a living worshiper. (78)

Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law of Moses and eat it! Peter was being instructed to transgress the Torah! Talk about cognitive dissonance! (96)

Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought—as the Enlightenment told us—but love. (99)

What is called “revival” today is mostly spectacle and religious entertainment playing upon the emotions of guilt, desire, and anger. (108)

I was beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past, we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. (112)

Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. (116)

Looking back on those days I realize that our eschatology wasn’t based in any sound reading of Scripture, but in childish impatience. Everything had to happen in our lifetime. We could not be content to be faithful in our generation and hand the task over to the next generation. (120)

I’m trying to learn how to mature like a dusty bottle of wine patiently resting in God’s cellar. If nothing particularly notable happens in church history during my lifetime, I’m fine with that. It’s not my church. It’s not my world. It’s God’s church and God’s world, and God has time on his side. I can afford to be patient. (122)

As the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around. (125)

For the secularist the sacred is mere symbol. But to this idea the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation offers a resounding, “No!” If we believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14) then we believe in a sacred ontology, a sacredness of being. (129)

Looking through a eucharistic lens we discover that we live, not in a secular world, but a sacred world, a world where every tree can become a burning bush aflame with the presence of God. (131)

It is only our false hopes that are being disappointed in the death of Christendom. Jesus never intended to change the world through battlefields or voting booths. Jesus has always intended to transform the world one life at a time at a shared table. (134)

Jesus reversed the concept of kosher. When the unclean touched Jesus, Jesus was not made unclean, rather the unclean were made whole. (140)

The Lord’s Table bears witness to the new covenant truth that the holy land is the whole earth and the chosen people are the human race. (140)

Jesus was constantly teaching people not to worry about scarcity, but to trust in God. (144)

The oceans, deserts, forests, and mountains are medicinal; they are a tonic to the mind, a palliative to the soul. (152)

Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. (158)

Why did God create? Why did God say, “Let there be”? The mystics have always given the same answer—because God is love, love seeking expression. (162)

The “wrath of God” is but one way of describing the shards of suffering we inevitably subject ourselves to when we go against the grain of God’s love. God is all love, but we have to go with the grain of love or suffer the pain of self-inflicted sorrow. (164)

In the parable of the sheep and goats, the goats are not condemned for wrong belief or for failing to pray a sinner’s prayer, but for failing to love the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. If Jesus is to be trusted, it seems we will not be judged by how rightly we believed, but by how well we loved. The judgment seat of Christ is not a theology quiz, but an evaluation of love. (165)

Once I’d found the good stuff of substantive theology, the Great Tradition, and historic Christianity, there was no going back. (172)

As long as our churches are led by those who view being a Christian primarily as a kind of conferred status instead of a lifelong journey, and view faith as a form of static certitude instead of an ongoing orientation of the soul toward God, I see little hope that we can build the kind of churches that can produce mature believers in any significant numbers. (181)

The Christian life is a journey. It’s a road. We have to walk it. Jesus’ call to discipleship is always the same—“Follow me.” It’s presumed that we are going to be on the move. We’re going somewhere. The Christian life really is following in the ancient footsteps of Jesus through a modern world. (185)


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


Review: The case for ‘open theism’

19 January 2018

Many Christians today, it seems, are uncomfortable with the traditional view of God as all-controlling, and are exploring alternatives that claim a biblical foundation. The view commonly known as ‘the open view’ of God is filling the gap for many, and this book sets it out. It is:

The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge To The Traditional Understanding Of God by Clark H. Pinnock et al (Paternoster, 1994).   

Openness of God #1852It’s a powerful case for the ‘openness’ position. That position holds that God has sovereignly chosen to limit himself in relation to us, his creatures, granting us freedom of choice, and opting to not normally interfere with natural processes or human decisions. At the same time, he is steering things in the background towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purpose of an earth where his will is done ‘as in heaven’. In doing so, he constantly adjusts to human choices and sometimes changes his mind.

The five contributors handle different aspects. Richard Rice establishes the view’s biblical foundations. John Sanders looks at historical factors that shaped the traditional view, especially the harmful effect of Greek philosophy. Clark Pinnock shows how the Open View dovetails with the usual categories of systematic theology. William Hasker considers it from a Christian philosophical angle. And David Basinger looks at its practical effects on key aspects of Christian living: prayer, knowing God’s will, how we account for evil, approach social problems and fulfil our evangelistic responsibilities.

I personally embraced this position some years ago, and recommend this book as a fine introduction to it. It could change your life radically!

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

People who believe that God cannot change his mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do exactly that.  (32)

The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God—the picture that emerges from the full range of biblical evidence.  (109)

The view of God and his relation to the world presented in this book…expresses two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.  (114)

Two streams of biblical evidence support an interactive view of God’s relation to the world. One consists of statements that affirm in one way or another that God is responsive to what happens in the creaturely world, that what happens there affects God somehow—by evoking a certain emotion, a change in attitude, a change in plans. The other consists of statements that indicate creaturely freedom in one way or another. These include various divine warnings and promises and calls to repentance, as well as fairly straightforward assertions that presuppose creaturely alternatives.  (147)

The biblical descriptions of divine repentance indicate that God’s plans are exactly that—plans or possibilities that he intends to realize. They are not ironclad decrees that fix the course of events and preclude all possible variation.  (256)

Some construe these denials [Num 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29] that God will change his mind as general assertions of divine immutability, but this is not the case. For one thing, the word repent in both instances is used synonymously with the word lie. The point is not that God never changes, but that God never says one thing while fully intending to do something else. Only in this limited sense of the word does God not “repent.”  (340)

To summarize, at times God simply does things, acting on his own initiative and relying solely on his own power. Sometimes he accomplishes things through the cooperation of human agents, sometimes he overcomes creaturely opposition to accomplish things, sometimes he providentially uses opposition to accomplish something, and sometimes his intentions to do something are thwarted by human opposition.  (405)

The cross was God’s action. He was working in Christ to accomplish our reconciliation. Appreciating this fact, many Christian scholars now perceive the suffering of Calvary not as something Jesus offers to God on human behalf, still less as something God inflicts on Jesus (instead of on other human beings), but as the activity of God himself.  (500)

While proponents of divine openness emphasize the biblical evidence that God is affected by what happens in the world (suffers) and that he changes his mind (repents), they fully accept the biblical affirmations of divine changelessness. They apply the “changeless” statements to God’s existence and character, to his love and reliability. They apply the “changing” statements to God’s actions and experience.  (536)

The view of God worked out in the early church, the “biblical-classical synthesis,” has become so commonplace that even today most conservative theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God (such as the one we are proposing) must be rejected.  (675)

Arguing from what is “fitting” for God to be (theoprepes), significant aspects of the biblical revelation (such as suffering and temporality) were revised to fit this understanding. Though they had good intentions in applying the ideas of immutability and impassibility, they used them in an absolute sense and so distorted the faithfulness and love of the biblical God. In the end the true understanding of the divine nature was derived from metaphysics and the biblical revelation was made to conform to it.  (925)

Calvin followed his feudal culture in interpreting divine kingship as domination and control so that “nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.”  (1053)

In Christian theology we are not dealing with just any old concept of God, but with the surprising God and Father of our Lord Jesus. This is a God who does not remain at a safe distance, worrying about his own honor, but one who bares his holy arm and rescues humankind through sharing their distress and affliction. We are not dealing with an unapproachable deity but with God who has a human face and who is not indifferent to us but is deeply involved with us in our need.  (1193)

Though no power can stand against him, God wills the existence of creatures with the power of self-determination. This means that God is a superior power who does not cling to his right to dominate and control but who voluntarily gives creatures room to flourish.  (1342)

In an attempt to preserve the notion of God’s power as total control, some advocate what they call biblical compatibilism, the idea that one can uphold genuine freedom and divine determinism at the same time. This is sleight of hand and does not work.  (1362)

To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so—such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense.  (1366)

Past, present and future are real to God. This underlies the biblical claim that God is an agent who works in history, who makes plans and carries them out, who remembers the past and gives promises about the future.  (1442)

Total foreknowledge would jeopardize the genuineness of the divine-human relationship. What kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say and do? I would not call this a personal relationship.  (1458)

Calvinism is distinctly unappealing as an account of our personal relationship with God.  (1724)

Since we believe that God greatly respects our freedom of choice, all of us find it quite reasonable to assume that God will at times refrain from doing all that he would like to do for us until we personally request such assistance.  (1958)

Since we do not believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, it makes no sense for us to think in terms of some perfect, preordained plan for our lives and, hence, to worry about whether we are still within it. Accordingly, we need never feel—no matter what has happened in the past—that we must now settle for “second best”.  (1996)

We, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason, or that the horrors many experience in this world in some mysterious way fit into God’s perfect plan.  (2068)

In his theodicy Calvin uses circular reasoning and equivocation, resorts to name-calling and, when he gives up on rational argument, appeals to mystery.  (2324)


Review: The ‘mystical’ approach to Christianity

11 January 2018

There’s a rising interest in the branch of Christianity described as ‘mystical’ and ‘contemplative’. My own interest was piqued, so I read a couple of books on the subject. The first one was:

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman (Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2013).

atcclargeMy main problem was how to find the route from my own, fairly standard, evangelical experience of God to the kind of ongoing Christian experience the author describes. Is the latter an alternative to the former, or a possible extension of it? Probably the second, but I can’t be sure.

The gist of ‘mystical Christianity’ seems to be recognising that, because God is omnipresent, he is within all of us. Because of this, we can make a regular effort to shut out the chatter of everyday life, and of the active mind, and focus on becoming aware of his presence in the depths of our being. It’s hard to describe in clear language and is, I suspect (as one Scots lady allegedly said), ‘Better felt that tell’t.’

The author builds the book around a ‘travel’ metaphor. His three divisions are ‘Recognizing the Call’, ‘Preparing for the Journey’ and ‘Embarking on the Adventure’. I have to say it all seems sound enough, and he explains things as clearly as anyone could explain deep mysteries of spiritual experience. He roots everything firmly in Jesus and has a keen awareness of the human weaknesses that can inject impure motives into any spiritual pilgrimage.

He also quotes with affection the works of past Christians who tend not to figure much in the average evangelical’s awareness, people like Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich and Thomas Merton. In doing so, his aim is to show that the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity is not some weird novelty but has a solid pedigree stretching across the centuries.

He introduces his readers to some terminology that will be new to many of them: as well as ‘mysticism’ and ‘contemplation’ (in their specialist senses), there are terms like ‘kenosis’, ‘apophatic’ and ‘kataphatic’. You will enjoy getting to know them!

The goal of the ‘contemplative life’, he insists, is to know God more intimately, and that can’t in any way be bad. So push to one side notions of your becoming a twenty-first-century Desert Father or cloistered monk, and open yourself up to what could be a new and stimulating facet of the very faith that you have known for a long time. That’s the way I’m approaching it, anyway.

[Here are some quotations. As I read this book in its Kindle version, the numbers are Kindle locations, not page numbers]

The goal of the journey is, at least in part, to have no goal; the purpose is not so much to find God as to find ourselves in God.  (142)

…mysticism: I’m using this word very much in the intimacy with God sense… Contemplation: If a mystic is a lover of God, then contemplation is the means by which Divine love is given, received, and shared…  When I speak of mysticism and contemplation, I refer specifically to the Christian journey into the love of God.  (164)

…an interior alchemy that occurs in the human soul—the transformation from the normal human state of existential angst to serene recognition of the unifying presence of God.  (206)

To mystics, the mysteries of life are our teachers. It’s no accident that mysticism and mysteries are such closely related words, both evolving from the same Greek root. What makes something a mystery is that it is hidden from the peering, penetrating efforts of the human mind to analyze, categorize, and understand everything.  (329)

God is what matters, and any experience of God is secondary.  (351)

The longing we sense for God is a gift given to us by God, out of God’s longing for us.  (371)

When God’s longing for us connects with our longing for God, we enter the mystical life. All that remains is for us to wake up to this fact.  (424)

The contemplative call is a call to intimacy with God, not a call to be entertained by spiritual experiences. This is not to dismiss our longing but rather to be careful to point it in the right direction. To humbly and lovingly long for God and God alone—not even for an “experience” of God—this is the path of awakening.  (588)

Those of us who recognize the mysterious longing in our souls have probably already had at least one spiritual awakening of some sort at some point in our lives, no matter how small or humble it may have been. In all likelihood, we’ve had more than one. And if now you have a longing to wake up again, that’s part of the nature of things.  (672)

We have been trained, at least in the Christian world for the last few centuries, to approach God primarily with our minds.  (690)

I’m asking you to consider something that, in all probability, you’ve never been encouraged to notice before. I’m asking you to recognize just how God is present and active in your life.  (712)

So there is the paradox: We do not need to go anywhere to get closer to God, for God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. And yet, just as life is a journey, so too our dance of intimacy with the Divine will take the shape and form of a path, a passage, an adventure.  (781)

Just as not all mystics speak to all people, neither are the mystics infallible. Their writings are shaped by their own limitations and eccentricities. Some are dull, overly abstract, excessively penitential, hostile to those who see things differently, and marred by such ongoing problems as sexism, hatred of the body, and irrational fear of the devil.  (901)

Our journey is an inner journey—we are seeking not something far away or beyond ourselves, but something found inside our own hearts.  (980)

Spiritual practice, like any other discipline, can at times be dull and boring, especially once the novelty wears off.  (1113)

Jesus has been loved and accepted by the mystics, not as a way of appeasing an angry God, but as a joyful entry into the mysteries of love.  (1200)

For the spiritual life to reach its full potential, the interior/mystical dimension needs to be balanced by the external/social dimension.  (1251)

Again and again throughout history, mystics have pointed out the importance of the apophatic way—that God ultimately cannot be known in any kind of theoretical or conceptual sense.  (1299)

Everyone who engages in the serious pursuit of contemplative spirituality discovers that either the sensual imagery of kataphatic prayer or the vast emptiness of apophatic prayer is the more “natural” way of praying for them. And that’s fine. But each of us needs at least to be familiar with both approaches to spirituality.  (1321)

Even after months or years or decades of practice, veteran contemplatives are often humbled by the degree of inner noise—of mental static and emotional turmoil—that persists within their hearts and minds.  (1359)

Behold God’s presence in your life, whether seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, sensed or at a level deeper than sensation. Behold God’s love for you, implicit in your desire for love and your ability to love, wounded and imperfect as it may be.  (1474)

Because God is not an object, it is absurd to talk about “experiencing God.” Contemplation is not about us experiencing God; if anything, it is about God experiencing us.  (1497)

If we can loosen the grip and relax into the awareness of the present moment with a humble and loving heart—then, by grace, we may join Julian of Norwich in beholding God in all.  (1562)

One of the signs of being a true mystic is forgetting about yourself in the joy of loving and being loved by God.  (1713)

Here are the core spiritual practices of the Christian wisdom tradition: meditation and contemplative (silent) prayer. The journey into the mystery of God is a journey into these two essential mystical practices.  (1724)

Unlike the Eastern idea of meditation as a desired state of mental peace and clarity, the Christian idea of meditation is much more interactive, allowing the mind (and heart) to engage with the object of meditation—God, Christ, the Spirit, the Trinity, the Divine mystery. So Christian meditation is not about letting images or thoughts go; rather, like other forms of kataphatic spirituality, it is all about immersing ourselves in the Word of God.  (1734)

…the crown jewel of mystical spirituality—the regular practice of silent prayer.  (1887)

Centering prayer, the popular method of silent prayer based on the teachings of Trappist monks Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and William Meninger, involves using a prayer word of your choice. The idea behind reciting one single prayer word is to give the thinking mind as little stimulation as possible, instead offering one single point of focus that can be repeated lovingly and prayerfully as you embrace the silence.  (1950)

As we go deeper into contemplation, we find that kenosis isn’t just for Christ; it’s a spiritual path that all who hunger for the love of God will eventually be asked to follow.  (1981)

The mystical act of kenosis—of self-emptying, of freely choosing humility, of letting go of any desire to own or control God or otherwise reduce God to the level of spiritual experience—can never be systematized or encoded or reduced to a set of laws or rules or principles.  (2046)

Kenosis is central to the mystical tradition. Christ emptied himself, and is now emptying anyone else who comes to him in love and trust.  (2118)

The contemplative life offers a new dimension of sorrow and suffering, for to the extent that our hearts are united with God, we will be that much more sensitive to the brokenness, pain, and suffering of all God’s children—of all beings.  (2140)


Review: A refreshing ‘take’ on Scripture

11 January 2018

Richard Rohr, the author of many books, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Franciscan tradition. Does that set your Protestant alarm ringing? If it does, switch the alarm off, please, for here is a book with a depth of biblical insight that, frankly, leaves a lot of evangelical writing seeming, by contrast narrow and insipid. The book is

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).

thlargeIt looks at some key biblical themes and draws from them practical applications for living the Christian life today. I found it resonating with lots of the changed attitudes to Scripture that I myself have adopted in recent years (some of which I have touched on in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith)—like the ‘trajectory’ approach to hermeneutics (which Rohr calls ‘the developing tangents’), the clear trend towards non-violence, rejection of the classic understanding of ‘original sin’, God’s core essence as self-giving love, and wariness of the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ position.

The author sees all the major themes being introduced early on in the Bible. These then develop throughout the middle part of it, and come to a crescendo in the risen Christ, who is the final revelation of what God is like, and who draws us into union with him. The large middle section records many instances of ‘three steps forward, two steps back’, as Israel’s understanding slowly progressed. We should be wary, therefore, of letting some parts of the Bible inform our conclusions as to what God is like.

In moving towards the goal of union with God through Jesus Christ, we need both the external wisdom of the Scriptures and the inner wisdom of experience; each sheds light on the other. As Rohr himself puts it, ‘Information is not necessarily transformation’. Too many Christians claim to have all the ‘right’ theological answers but don’t echo the character of Jesus much—and that’s challenging!

outstandingbookI love the penetrating insights Rohr provides into human nature, social dynamics, how we perceive truth, and how we change, grounding them firmly in the teachings of Jesus. They ring true and I, for one, have found them prodding me to make some adjustments to the way I think and act, and how I treat other people.

Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on grace, which will be reassuring if you are wary of any writing from Catholic sources. And I have to say that the nature of the grace it portrays is a million times bigger and better than the Calvinistic variety! The whole flavour of the book, in fact, is one of grace, warmth, love and challenge-to-change.
This is the best book I have read in a very long time. There’s huge and winsome wisdom here, and I encourage you to taste it.

Here are some quotations.

The ecumenical character and future of Christianity is becoming rather obvious. It is really the religious side of globalization. (p4)

I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact, a descriptor for inner experience. (p6)

The [Bible] text itself edges forward and sometimes backward, just as humans do. In other words, it doesn’t just give you the conclusions, but it does create a clear set of patterns and a tangent—and our job is to connect the dots forward and backward. In my opinion, it is only inner experience that can do that job—not just proof texts or external belief systems. (p11)

Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship). (p11)

If you read searching for certain conclusions, to quickly reassure your “false self,” as if each line in the Bible was a full dogmatic statement, all spiritual growth will not just stop, but you will become a rather toxic person for yourself and others. (p12)

We have created a terrible kind of dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism precisely is what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The principle of Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are and always have been one. We just couldn’t see it until God put them together in his one body (see Ephesians 2:11–20). (p17)

What you have built into the Hebrew Bible and strongly expressed by Jesus and the prophets is the capacity for self-critical thinking. It is the first step beyond the dualistic mind and teaches us patience with ambiguity and mystery. (p18)

Our temptation now and always is not to trust in God but to trust in our faith tradition of trusting in God. They are not the same thing! (p19)

Forgiveness always heals; it does not matter whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish. Forgiveness is one of the patterns that is always true, it is part of The Story. (p23)

One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian tradition and reaches its fullness in the crucified Jesus is the recognition of the cosmic and personal significance of human pain and suffering…   I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” (p24)

We were created in the very “image and likeness” of God… our family of origin is divine. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. This says that our starting point is totally positive, or as the first chapter of the Bible says, it is “very good” (1:31). We do have someplace good to go home to. If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, plus we know the clear direction of the tangent. (p27)

God’s main problem is how to give away God! But God has great difficulty doing this. You’d think everybody would want God. But the common response is something like this: “Lord, I am not worthy. I would rather have religion and morality, which give me the impression that I can win a cosmic contest by my own efforts.” (p31)

[Re the animals in Noah’s ark and Gen 7:16]  Most people never note that God actually closed them in! God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them together in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things unreconciled that teaches us—leaving them partly unresolved and without perfect closure or explanation. (p35)

If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted. (p37

The major heresy of the Western churches is that they have largely turned around the very meaning of faith, which is not knowing and not needing to know, into its exact opposite—demanding to know and insisting that I do know! (p38)

Salvation is only secondarily assuring you of an eternal life; it is first of all giving you that life now, and saying, “If now, then also later,” and that becomes your deep inner certitude! If God would accept me now when I am clearly unworthy, then why would God change his policy later? You can then begin to rest, enjoy and love life. (p41)

If we do not understand election as “inclusive election” (chosenness is for the sake of communicating the same to others), religion almost always becomes an exclusionary system against the “non-elect,” “un-worthy” or “impure”…  In any kind of “exclusive election,” the “chosen” do not see their experience as a gift for others, but merely a gift for themselves. We end up with a very smug and self-satisfied religion. (p44)

How we relate to God always reveals how we will relate to people, and how we relate to people is an almost infallible indicator of how we relate to God and let God relate to us…  The whole Bible is a school of relationship, revealing both its best qualities and its worst. (p56)

Jesus brings the biblical tradition to a climax when he defines truth itself as personal rather than conceptual. He says “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and then immediately defines himself as one who is in absolute relationship with his “Father” (14:7, 9–10) and the Spirit who is in relationship to both (14:16–18). This rearranges the world of religion from arguments over ideas and concepts into a world of encounter, relationship and presence to the face of the other. That changes everything. (p61)

God is not dependent upon knowledge in the sense that the Western mind understands knowledge. How could God make such a mistake when 98 percent of the people who have ever lived could not read or write? Biblical knowing is more akin to face-to-face presence. (p63)

You feel so much more in control when you are right than when you are in right relationship. (p67)

Faith will always be faith, and we are never going to be able to make it into total certitude and clarity, although that is always the temptation of religion. (p71)
Paul takes much of Romans and Galatians to say what the Dalai Lama says in one oft-quoted line: “You must learn the meaning of the law very well, so you will know how to disobey it properly.” You must know and respect the rules before you can break the rules. (p73)

It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know, the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50–51) and usually killed. (p74)

Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. He does not hate sinners at all, but only people who pretend they are not sinners! Check that out, story by story, if you do not believe me. (p76)

Paul tells us in Romans 7:8 that “sin takes advantage of the law” to achieve its own purposes. What does he mean by that? Our unconverted and natural egocentricity (“sin”) uses religion for the purposes of gaining self-respect. If you want to hate somebody, want to be vicious or vengeful or cruel or vindictive, I can tell you a way to do it without feeling an ounce of guilt: Do it for religious reasons! Do it thinking you’re obeying a law, thinking you’re following some commandment or some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right.” It is a common pattern. (p82)

We have been given a God who not only allows us to make mistakes, but even uses our mistakes in our favor! That is the gospel economy of grace and is the only thing worthy of being called “good news, and a joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If we could have come to God by obedience to laws, there would have been no need for God’s love revelation in Jesus. The techniques for order and obedience were already in place. (p84)

Only very gradually does human consciousness come to a selfless use of power, or the sharing of power, or even a benevolent use of power—in church, politics or even family and marriage. (p85)

Two thousand years after the revelation of Jesus, many people still seem to prefer a punitive, threatening and violent God, which then produces the same kind of people and the same kind of history. (p87)

It is largely a waste of time to tell people to love generously when the God they have been presented with is a taskmaster, loves quite conditionally, is easily offended, very needy and threatens people with eternal torture if they do not “believe” in him. (p89)

It seems that until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim.” (p92)

After Jesus, God can no longer be perceived as the Pantocrator or Omnipotence Itself, but a member of a self-emptying and humble Trinity. (p93)

[Re Gideon’s army-reduction]  God has to teach the people that there are alternatives to brute strength. If all you are taught is the art of the hammer, everything in your life is perceived as another nail. (p94)

Until you don’t need external power, you normally cannot handle power. When you have real power, you do not need to flaunt it. When you know you are being used by a Higher Power, you do not take your small power too seriously. (p98)

[Re Luke 9:3]  This austerity was not a program for the whole of life, but rather it was an initiation rite, a training course in vulnerability and community. Jesus is telling his apostles, as it were, “You’ve got to go through this or you will never be capable of empathy, compassion and identification with the pain of the world that you are called to serve. You will use ministry as a career move instead of a servant position.” Some such rite of passage seems necessary to break our foundational narcissism. Paul says the very same, and it is the only time the word initiation is used in the Scriptures, to my knowledge (check out Philippians 4:11–13). (p103)

Almost everybody seems to need some kind of sinner or heretic against which to compare themselves. (p105)

[Re those excluded from the Temple, Lev 11-24]  We tend to like purity codes. They define groups and give us an identity as superior. Once inside, we cannot hear anything that demotes us. (p107)

The Bible illustrates both healthy and unhealthy religion, right in the text itself, and Jesus offers us a rather simple criterion by which to judge one from the other. It is not a head category at all, but a visual and practical one—“does it bear good fruit or bad fruit?” (Matthew 7:15–20; Luke 6:43–45). Jesus is almost embarrassingly practical. (p110)

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably quite sure of themselves. (p110)
In my experience, I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom. (p113)

Without an in-depth prayer tradition, religion has cried wolf too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, usury, anti-Semitism, revolution, liturgical forms, native peoples, the Latin language and the earth-centered universe—to name a few big ones. If we had balanced our knowing by some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We proved whatever we wanted from one twisted line of Scripture. The unprayerful heart will always twist reality to its own liking. (p114)

Good poetry doesn’t try to define an experience as much as it tries to give you the experience itself, just as good liturgy should do. It tries to awaken your own seeing, hearing and knowing. It does not give you the conclusion as much as teach you a process whereby you can know for yourself. It does not “overexplain and destroy astonishment.” (p116)

If I left myself as open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as Jesus did by teaching in the way he did, I surely would be called a heretic, or at least a very fuzzy and dangerous thinker. Why do we need to be clearer or less capable of misunderstanding than Jesus? Apparently, it was not a problem for him. (p117)

The three monotheistic religions each insist on absolute truth claims in forms of words, whereas Jesus’ truth claim was his person (John 14:6), his presence (John 6:35 ff.), his ability to participate in God’s perfect love (John 17:21–22). (p123)

We must approach the Scriptures with humility and patience, with our own agenda out of the way, and allow the Spirit to stir the deeper meaning for us. Otherwise we only hear what we already agree with or what we have decided to look for! (p125)

Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way. If you put the Scriptures in the hands of a person uninitiated by life, they will always make it into a head trip. It becomes a set of prescriptions instead of an actual description of what is real and what is unreal. (p128)

Human nature always wants either to play the victim or to create victims—and both for the purposes of control. (p134)

It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been sacred violence, or more accurately, “sacralized violence.” Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating for something holy and noble, like God, religion, truth, morality, their children or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high-ground or being responsible and prudent, as a result. (p135)

If I would try to describe the evil people and evil events that I’ve encountered, they’re invariably characterized by a sense of certainty and clarity. They suffer no self-doubt or self-criticism, smirking at people who would dare to question them. (p135)

…the story of Noah’s Flood and God’s seeming destruction of the whole world. Unfortunately, this picturesque and ancient story that explains God’s salvation of a few, ends up presenting Yahweh as accusing, petty and even one who kills the unworthy and the innocent (Genesis 6-9). God’s love has not yet been received at a deep or reflective level by this biblical author. It is still a very conditional and deserved love, and God is free to drown a whole world of animals and children, even if we can assume all the other adults on the rest of the earth were sinful and “violent” (Genesis 6:11–13). Here God is created in our own punitive image and is made worse than we would hopefully be! But it is a good start, because Yahweh is at least revealed as a “savior” of some (6:19–20)…  This is an important story to use to reveal what I mean by a text in travail: getting part of the point, but not all of it yet, and partly in direct opposition to the tangent that will develop. (p139)

Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil as much as absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay the price. (p142)

I think the story of Jonah is the much-needed journey from ministry as mere careerism to ministry as actual vocation, from doing my work for God, to letting God do God’s work in and through me. (p147)

It always takes us a while to move beyond groupthink and to join the God of all the earth in universal compassion. (p148)

No one had been more pious, Jewish and law-abiding than Paul (Philippians 3:5–16). He was a perfect Pharisee, as he said, and suddenly he realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil. (p148)

All three absolutes that keep people small and paranoid have been undone by Jesus: my identity or power group, my job, and my family. (p150)

Jesus is teaching us that if we put our energy into choosing the good—instead of the negative and largely illusionary energy of rejecting the bad—we will overcome evil in a much better way, and will not become evil ourselves! (p152)

I want to name what I think is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace. (p155)

[Re a ‘reward and punishment’ mindset]  As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus really offered us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party! (2:7–10). How did we avoid missing the clear message on that one? (p159)

When forgiveness becomes largely a juridical process, then we who are in charge can measure it out, define who’s in and who’s out, find ways to earn it and exclude the unworthy. It makes for good religion, but not at all for good spirituality. We have destroyed the likelihood that most people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s forgiveness. (p162)

God seems quite practiced in using peoples’ sin for good, but those who refuse to see their dark side God cannot use! Jesus himself is never upset at sinners. He’s only upset with people who don’t think they’re sinners. Righteous folks are much more problematic for Jesus, because they are only half there, at best. (p167)

To allow yourself to be God’s beloved is to be God’s beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen. To allow yourself to be blessed is to be blessed. It is so hard to accept being accepted, especially from God. It takes a certain kind of humility to surrender to it, and even more to persist in believing it. (p168)

God apparently gives us exactly what we want. Do you want life, to live inside the city of Jerusalem, “where you will be suckled, filled from her consoling breasts, where you will savor with delight her glorious breasts” (Isaiah 66:11). Or do you want “Gehenna,” the garbage dump still outside the walls of Jerusalem, “where the worm never dies nor the fire ever goes out” (Isaiah 66:24). That is always the choice, and in these concluding verses of the prophet Isaiah the choices are dramatically portrayed. They became archetypal metaphors that were used in the Jewish tradition down to Jesus himself. They were used so dramatically, however, that they become literalized and localized. This has had an unfortunate effect for generations of Christians, who were often not consciously realizing that to take it literally would make the loving God into an eternal torturer. It’s an absurd notion, because then God would be less loving than we are. (p171)

All of Jesus’ healings, touchings and “salvations” (Luke 7:50; 17:19; 19:9) were clearly now. He never once said, “Be good now, and I will give you a reward later.” (p173)

We don’t know how to say yes by ourselves. We just “second the motion”! There is a part of you that has always said yes to God, it is the Holy Spirit within you. God first says “yes” inside of us and we say, “Oh yeah,” thinking it comes from us! In other words, God rewards us for letting God reward us. Think about that, maybe even for the rest of your life. (p179)

How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it just a heavenly transaction on God’s side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side? Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him “The Savior of the World”? (John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over all death!” (p188)

In forgiveness, it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught. I am told that forgiveness is at least implied in two-thirds of his teaching! (p193)

We are the only religion in the world that worships the scapegoat as God. In worshiping the scapegoat, we should gradually learn to stop scapegoating, because we also could be utterly wrong, just as “church” and state, high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome, the highest levels of discernment were utterly wrong in the death of Jesus. (p194)

[Re the cross]  The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue. The cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation. We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. (p199)

True Christianity beguiles, seduces, invites, cajoles, creates spiritual yearning and draws humanity into ever more desirable mystery, healing and grace. (p200)

If God can forgive, then God can forgive! We do not need one major exception where we need atonement and payment of price. But theoretical religion has always been more comfortable with cosmic problem-solving than with personal surrender to the healing and transformative mystery of divine love. (p202)

The things Jesus talked about constantly, like living a simple and nonviolent life in this world, like forgiveness and inclusivity, are still considered fringe thinking by many Christians. How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by the one we consider our teacher. It must be what saddened Isaiah and Jesus too: “This people will hear and hear again, but not understand, see and see again but not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9; Matthew 13:14). (p213)

You don’t have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don’t know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. “If you remain in me and I remain you,” says Jesus, “you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it” (see John 15:7). When you’re connected, there are no coincidences anymore. Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and “providences” just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. (p214)

It seems obvious to me that God is calling everyone and everything home, not just picking and choosing a few. In fact, the few are only for the sake of the many, or as Paul put it “the dough is for the whole batch” (Romans 11:16 ff.). We all are saved in spite of ourselves—and for one another. It never was a worthiness contest. If God is love and if grace is true, then what exactly is the cut-off point? “When is God’s arm too short to save?” (Isaiah 50:2). Are there any who have achieved worthiness and do not need saving? Name them, please. (p218)


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