Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Spiritual Gifts and Words of Knowledge

Romans 12:6-8
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
The "spiritual gifts" are an important part of the life of any group of people seeking to live with the life of God amongst them (a church). The spiritual gifts are mentioned in the new testament three times (Romans 12 above and twice in 1 Corinthians 12). The danger is that we can treat these lists of the different ways that God is expressed through people as a definitive list of how we can express God. I've known many people feel like they couldn't be used by God because they didn't naturally seem to have any of "the gifts" - and they had been taught that as a Christian they ought to have more of these specific spiritual gifts.

A second danger, exacerbated by the term "gift", is that we think of these gifts as mysterious abilities distinct from who we are that are magically dropped into our soul by God when we become a Christian.

The antidote to both of these dangers is to understand that the spiritual gifts are your giftings made alive in God. Our spiritual gifts are the unique combination of character qualities we have. As we are made more alive in God, as we better express life, this will be through our personality (our soul) in a way unique to us. This is our gifting, the way that we love people and bring life. Some of these ways will fit the examples in scripture and some won't. Your task as a human is to work out, and come to terms with, who you are. Your one gift is your personality, your character. When you are alive in the life of God, showing love, then you are (Christian jargon alert) "moving in your gifts". There may well be times when you surprise yourself by doing something out of character but in tune with a specific situation (sometimes called a "specific anointing"), but the general case is that your "spiritual gifts" are the different and interwoven ways that you express the life of God. The lists in those scriptures, those examples, can be useful as something to aim for and something to practise, but they shouldn't be taught as a definitive list of "the gifts". "Moving in your gifts" merely means "being you" showing love. This is the new creation, and as we strive to love one another, in spirit and truth, it will naturally happen in many different ways - some of which are explored in scripture.

Just as we can erroneously think of the spiritual gifts as something magically dropped into our soul by God there is one particular gift that is sometimes taught as operating by the same kind of "magical thinking": words of knowledge.
1 Corinthians 12:8
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit.
Words of knowledge, as practised and understood by many charismatic evangelistic churches today, are when someone has "revealed to them" knowledge (of varying degrees of specificity) about another person. The purpose of this knowledge is usually to identify a person, or a problem they have, and to bring life or healing to them. Because the knowledge wasn't naturally known by the person but came about by God it is seen as a miraculous gift, a sign that God is real and at work.

The magical thinking is think of (or worse to teach) this knowledge as being "dropped into the mind" of the receiver by God. This kind of thinking shows no understanding of the nature of God and the relationship of God to our humanity. Thinking of words of knowledge as dropped or placed into our mind encourages the view of God as external, and therefore remote, whereas our knowledge of God (and the operation of our giftings) is through being filled with the Holy Spirit: God in us!

From a certain perspective the view that God places words directly in our mind is "true", but it's a perspective that doesn't allow us to understand - and without understanding there can be no growth. From another, better, perspective we can see how we interact with God. How we work with God and how God works through us. Is it us or is it God? Yes! (The more self is banished the more these become the same thing.)

Essentially the mechanism is that your spirit is tuned to God and to the spirit of a place, you pick up on things that in the spirit - whether in the spirit of people present or directly in the spirit of God. So what you're doing is tuning your mind, soul, spirit (take your pick) into reality. It isn't "magic" but it's the operation of your spirit in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. It's something that can, in measure, be understood and we can grow in understanding. How we allow these "impressions" to surface in our conscious mind is an interesting process that I'd like to focus more on, but as always the key factor is being close to the heart of God. It isn't a gift that operates in isolation from the rest of who we are, none of the gifts work like that. The way to get better at everything is to get closer to God.

I think we (Christians) have weak thinking in this area. Just because something surfaces in your mind doesn't mean it's from God. Just because someone responds doesn't mean it's from God! Some words of knowledge are so wide and so vague they are certain to apply to someone! That doesn't mean that God doesn't use them, but if we aren't able to truly judge their effectiveness then we can't get any better. A skill practised doesn't lead to improvement unless there is a quick feedback between something being done and you being able to tell if it is good (there's good research in this area - the larger the feedback time the less able you are to learn from it, this is how the human soul operates).

For me the best judge of the "truth" of any word (whether word of knowledge or otherwise) is what power does it carry. (Sometimes things strike home to someone without carrying apparent power - but how can you judge that? If we are to focus on learning and growing we have to focus on what we can learn from.) Sometimes words carry an obvious power and they do a work in people, and that's God at work! That's what we should aim for and strive for. Dry words that carry no life, no power, generally do nothing... We're not primarily rational beings, the course of our heart and life is not substantially affected by things that we take in and process by our minds - but we can be spiritual beings and words that carry life can reach our spirit and change us. So judge the reality of any word by the life that it carries. How capable of changing someone is this, how much of God is in it.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Spiritual Power

"Having the form of religion, but not the power."
Let me tell you a secret. To be fair, it's not really a secret, more one of those "hidden in plain sight" type secrets. Spiritual power is the same thing as psychological power. It's good spiritual power if it's turned to love, which in depth and substance requires the putting away of self (selfishness) that the Christian spiritual practise teaches (the purest love is sacrificial love - it has no hidden motive, no guile, no agenda but gives of itself just because it can). God is love, so any depth in God and any knowledge of God requires a commensurate depth and strength of love. However, any strength of capacity to love is merely the same strength of mind and character found in any strong minded person. Whether that strength is turned to love, or ambition, or anything else is a choice of the heart.

So the path to greater spiritual power, to a greater capacity for love, is a stronger mind and character. Great love requires great depth and great depth requires great strength.

As Christians we can often be lulled into thinking of the life and power of God as somehow "other" from normal humanity, that spirituality exists in some mysterious "spiritual realm". In fact spirituality is merely the art of being human and the spiritual realms are all around us. Divine love is just love. We can be fooled into thinking that we wield tremendous spiritual power that we neither really feel nor experience. This I'm afraid is often fantasy, and so much of Christian life can easily be wish fulfilment, a wanting to believe (confirmation bias at work - something so deeply ingrained that we must strive to overcome it). It's easy to think that believing everything you hear is faith, that every coincidence is God at work. In any other walk of life this would be called gullibility, why is it acceptable in our faith? Relentlessly seeking truth, putting aside fantasy, requires effort along with genuine discernment. In "Crossing the Soul Gap: A Rational Faith" I suggest rational scepticism as a useful approach for growing in discernment and understanding.

We can find it hard to accept that spiritual power is dependent on strength of mind and character. Accepting this can mean accepting how far we are from knowing real power amongst us, a tangible and indisputable power. Feelings aren't all they're sometimes cracked up to be, but if we don't feel the power of God in strength then a straightforward explanation is that it isn't with us. To pretend it's with us when it's not, to imagine it somehow must be because we think we're doing the right things when we don't really experience it, is not real faith. Real faith understands what's possible, is able to be real about where we are now, and presses on until we see the fulfilment of the promises we claim to believe. As I pursue strength of mind, along with depth of love, I have started to experience and understand more of the power of God.

Strength of mind may not always look how we assume, a strong character is a yielded character, and God uses imperfect people, but this principle is still true. Love is fire, love is fierce. Love is gentle, love is compassionate. Let's not be fooled into thinking we can have one side of love without the other.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Culture and Art

Culture is not art, music, poetry, or dramatic works. Culture is humanity, who we are and the expression of who we are (expression and being inextricably entwined in the ancient tussle of being and doing). Culture is the unspoken rules of society, the way we think, the consensual reality we live in that shapes us and is shaped by us.

Art, in all its forms, is the symptom of a healthy culture. A culture containing beauty, that values beauty, will produce beauty. The internet, including social media, in all its glorious mess and wonderful awfulness, is the subconscious of humanity out on display for all to see. Parts are deeply moving, and parts are awful beyond belief. And most of it is trash. But that's who we are.

The church of Jesus, the kingdom of God, has a culture - and that culture is the place where Jesus is king and the only rule is the law of love. Our art, the symptom of a healthy church, is healed and transformed lives. People are our works of art, and whether we produce this art is the yardstick by which we can measure our health.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Biblical Truth and Doctrine

Some people search for truth with so little effort they may as well have looked in the broom cupboard and then given up.

The big problem with Christianity as it is typically presented, particularly "Chicago Statement" style Christianity, is that you can't believe something just because you're told to (or even because you want to).

I'm not saying you shouldn't (but you shouldn't), I'm saying you can't. You only really believe things (heart knowledge versus head knowledge to use Christian terminology) you work out and discover for yourself. Look at how a child learns, their whole existence is centred around understanding and making sense of the world. You can't teach them directly you can only help them learn.

If you believe something because you want to believe it, because you're told to believe it, then you have to twist your mind into a funny place - ignoring (and pushing aside) the normal learning process and setting your mind on something that's actually external to who you really are. That's not how you learn, how something becomes part of you.

The best that doctrine and a set of beliefs can be is something that point the way to you discovering the truth. They can never be the truth for you. To think otherwise is not a path to understanding but an abdication of understanding.
This is particularly important for how Christians must approach the bible. The truth is *not* in the bible, at its best (and its intention and purpose) it points you to the truth, but it is not itself truth. Using Christian speak again; the bible is not truth in the way that Jesus is the truth.

If you're a Christian you have two important decisions to make. Firstly, is your faith in God or is it in the Bible? Secondly, which is more important to you: knowing the truth or believing the Bible? If believing the bible is more important to you than searching out the truth then how can you ever know if the Bible is true (or more importantly how it is true) - that's a question you're not even willing to ask.

"What I love about modern atheism is its fierce rationality, its refusal to be duped."

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tainted Love?

A Christian understanding of homosexuality is a topic I've shied away from, although I obliquely address it in The Liberal Agenda, because it can be so divisive. That it is a divisive and difficult topic makes me deeply sad. A refusal to face a topic because it is difficult could reasonably be called cowardice, so here we are.

People love to know the rules don't they. It's a fact of human nature that we want to be told what we're allowed to do and what we're not allowed to do. This is "the law" and the old testament of the bible is largely the story of humanity understanding God's nature and how to be right with God through a very detailed set of rules.

In Jesus' time there was a group of religious people who particularly loved the rules. Read Matthew 23 for some of the choice things Jesus had to say to these men, the Pharisees:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
Heavy stuff! The trouble with the law is that it can't help you, all it can do is tell you when you've broken the law. The law can't save, it can only condemn.

Jesus didn't come to remove the law, but he did fulfil it. In effect he rewrote the rulebook, and in his new rulebook there are only two rules (from Mark 12:30-31 or Matthew 22:37-40):

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.
In Romans 13 Paul simplifies this even further "Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10 or similarly in Galatians 5:14).

There's obviously a great deal of working out of this to be done, but most of what Christians understand as sin - greed, hate, selfishness and so on - can be clearly seen to be against this law of love. (Or the law of liberty as it's called in the letter of James.)

Much of Christianity misunderstands sin (in practise if not in theory). The question of whether any individual act is "a sin" or not is mostly irrelevant. Our outward sins are symptoms of our damaged nature. Our real sin ("Sin" with a capital "S" - the sinful nature) is our failure and inability to love deeply. This is a topic I explore in Sin and Freedom.

However, if we are to categorise any act as "sin" or "not sin" (something Christians seem determined to do) then all we need to do is examine whether or not this act breaks the law of love. If an act hurts another person, or yourself, then there's a good chance it is against the law of love and can be called (if you insist) sin. A harmful symptom of the sinful nature. Conversely, if something is not harmful, if it is loving and upbuilding, then it is hard to categorise it as sin. You see where this topic is going?

In my essay on Sexual Purity in Marriage I discuss how lust is damaging, even within marriage, and how sexual intercourse can be an act of deep and genuine love. The sin in sex is not the act itself, but the selfish nature. So if sexual intercourse, between two people who love each other and are deeply committed to each other, is a genuine act of unselfish love then how does the gender of those involved change whether or not this act breaks the law of liberty?
Titus 1:15 To the pure all things are pure.
1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.
So, your understanding of specific scripture not withstanding (and to be addressed shortly), if you are to believe that committed homosexual relationships are not acceptable to God you have to be prepared to explain how they are harmful and therefore break the law of love.

Merely saying that these relationships are harmful because they are not what God intended, or are harmful because they are sinful, is a circular argument. The only possible explanation for why homosexual love (or the physical expression of that love) is unnaceptable to God, is that homosexual love is not the same as "straight love", that homosexual love itself is inferior and damaging - a tainted love. If the pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is unacceptable to God, or that a pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is not even possible, it must be because there's something wrong with the nature of that love (and therefore the nature of people who have an orientation towards that love). And because this is what your heart says when your mind and rulebook says that homosexuality is unacceptable to God, this is what homosexual people hear.

This is why the common Christian response of "acceptance" for homosexuals is inadequate. This attitude, currently the official attitude of my church The Jesus Fellowship, was exemplified by Hillsong in response to discovering that one of their choir leaders was gay (from Do I Love Gay People):
So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course! You are welcome to attend, worship with us, and participate as a congregation member with the assurance that you are personally included and accepted within our community. But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No.
The idea that you can claim to love someone without being able to fully accept them into your church (in our church those in a homosexual relationship are not able to come into covenant membership nor live in our community) seems odd to me. Similarly, if they have a leadership ministry of any kind to claim to love them but not permit them to fulfil that ministry, not really permit them to be who they are, is odd. The real issue though, is that whilst you are claiming to love and accept them you are simultaneously stating that the physical expression of their love is harmful and damaging, that part of their nature, is unacceptable to God. You may think you're being loving and accepting, but they sure as hell don't feel loved or accepted.

The principle of acceptance of homosexuals, without accepting the practise of homosexuality, as adopted by many modern evangelical churches says that there is nothing sinful about a homosexual orientation but gay sex is still wrong (we're so obsessed with sex aren't we!). I don't think this is a rational and consistent belief. If gay sex is wrong it must be because either homosexual love can't be expressed in a pure and unselfish way, or because the pure expression of homosexual love is sinful. Either way it comes back to the nature of the homosexual love itself being wrong for the physical expression to be unacceptable to God. So to claim that homosexual love is not sinful but its physical expression is doesn't make sense. Or maybe it's not just the sex but the being in love that is the sin. Does that seem right? Not to me.

To put it in perspective suppose a married couple, say a black man and a white woman, came to your church. Imagine if your response was to welcome them, to make it clear that you loved them, but also to say that they couldn't fully join the church nor have any leadership role unless they divorced because you didn't think mixed race marriages were acceptable to God. A patently ridiculous position to take obviously. Do you think that couple would feel loved and accepted? Obviously not, they would feel hated and rejected. However much you may claim you love and accept homosexual people, if you believe that their love is unacceptable to God they will feel hated and rejected. Or they may be so conditioned by the belief of the world in general that homosexual love is wrong (and make no mistake this world hates Gay people) that they come to agree with you and reject themselves. This is sadly a common story for gay Christians.

So what about the bible and those verses that condemn homosexuality as sinful, the "six bullets in the gun" on the opposing side of this "debate"? Thankfully other people have written far more eloquently, and with deeper insight, than I could hope to. The definitive work on this topic, and on a mature understanding of the bible, is A Matter of Integrity by Steve Chalke. For those who want something shorter, or prefer video, I recommend this short one by Matthew Vines:

Reading and watching these it is obvious that the question of whether the bible outlaws loving same sex relationships is at the very least not straightforward. In this light any claim that the bible is "clear" on the topic is poorly informed at best (and really, really hard not to see as disingenuous).

It is possible to read and understand these and still disagree. This I can respect, we won't all agree and we have to be able to discuss difficult topics without acrimony. But please be clear about the consequences of your beliefs and statements. To believe that the expression of homosexual love is sinful is to believe that homosexual love is unacceptable to God, that the homosexual nature is damaging. This may well still be what you believe, but please don't at the same time claim you are loving and accepting of gay people.

The danger is that if homosexual love is acceptable to God, which is the only relevant question - not what the bible says but what the heart of God is, then we shut the door of the kingdom to people that God is desperate to welcome in. We may be confused on the topic, the church may be confused on the topic, but one thing is clear: God is not confused! For a genuine understanding of this topic, or any topic really, an understanding of scripture is not sufficient. We need a deep understanding of the heart of God, of sexuality and of gender. Without this we will quite simply get it wrong, misunderstand scripture and hurt and reject people. Let's not do that.

Sex at its best is an act and expression of love. If homosexual love is genuine love - deep and real in spirit and truth - do you think that its physical expression can never be acceptable to God? Is that what you think of the heart of God: that he accepts the love of heterosexuals but not the love of homosexuals.

If that is what you believe, surely the only way to reconcile that is to conclude that homosexuals don't really love each other, not in spirit and truth. That homosexuality is a perversion of real love. That's what the church has taught for centuries so you wouldn't be alone in that belief. I don't think this stands up to reality though, not to knowing and loving homosexual people. Their love is real.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Soul Healing: Becoming Whole

Soul healing means becoming reconciled to who you are, finding peace with yourself. And it's something we all need, in more or less obvious ways perhaps, but none of us are completed works and there are unplumbed depths in everyone waiting to be set free.

We're all big people, deep people, at least in potential. Think of all the people you know and the friendships that come alive as soon as you're with that person, all the books you've read, music you've listened to, films you've watched and places you've been to. Think of all the things you can do, your skills and abilities, there are many of them. You're incredibly complex, all of this and more is within you, but how much of that can you recall consciously at the moment; how much of all that's inside you do you use at any one time. There's a great deal to be released in all of, a tremendous capacity to love that we have only just scratched the surface of.

One way that a particular need for soul healing shows itself is through recurring memories that run through your mind reminding you of shameful, difficult or painful times. No matter how often you push these memories away they return. Where these are memories of traumatic events it can even be debilitating.

In this essay I'll explore a little bit about how our souls operate, and suggest an approach for dealing with recurring memories along with troublesome thoughts.

If you remember back across the years of your life, for any particular period in your life you'll feel a whole set of memories and emotions associated with this time. A general "pressure" of who you were and what happened. You'll also have a specific set of memories from that time and if you try recalling details of that time it will be this set of memories that you return to. Particularly for periods of your life in the more distant past these memories will almost seem to be remembered from the outside, like you're looking in. You may even see yourself in these memories rather than being in the centre of them.

This disassociation happens naturally, but is a sign of parts of you not being wholly integrated. The pain of life causes us to retreat from who we are. It's a rare person who is fully able to face all of who they are, who they've been, without flinching. That person however is free, and that's where we can all be. Disassociation doesn't just happen with painful memories, but is a consequence of the numbing of society and entertainments. All the distractions from facing life head on.

If you think of your life as a straight line from earliest memories to now you'll find there are times when the memories are jumbled up, the line gets tangled instead of being straight. Some parts of the line maybe quite faint or bleak. Where the "line of your life" has tangles, and where you're disassociated, life isn't able to move freely through you. The result can be a feeling of being "bound up" and unable to freely express who you are. Alongside this, if we're out of touch with the pain inside us (that is inside all of us) then we can't face the pain in others either. This isn't a conscious process, it's nothing to feel condemned about, it happens to everyone and is a natural consequence of life on planet earth. To the extent that our own self is hidden from us, to that same extent we're unable to really empathise and connect with other people. When we become aware of pain in other people our natural empathy will trigger the same feelings in us, and if we're running away from those feelings then we have no choice but to put up walls and keep people out.

As you face up to the pain and shame of the past, even the parts you'd rather walk quietly away from and never visit again, then you'll be able to bear that pain in other people to. And then you can help people. Seeing pain in others, but not running from it, touching it gently and showing them that you feel it too but you're not afraid. That they don't need to be afraid either. Then they can face it and can let go. It's one of the most beautiful things in the world, as you find freedom you can bring freedom to those around you. This is why the Christian says:
Let others be drawn to me Lord, and find in me your precious wounds.
Why do painful memories keep recurring, why are they so hard to push away? They keep recurring because underneath those memories is part of you. A painful part it maybe, but it's you nonetheless. This is why pushing them away doesn't work, unless you lock them totally out of your mind, something that is damaging and hard (but not impossible) to undo. The memory is just the tip of the iceberg, and submerged beneath is a part of you that you are afraid of or ashamed of and are rejecting.

My own experience of this has been through regular meditation over the past few years. The meditation I do is "mindfulness of breathing", an exercise of soul to cultivate focus and mental strength. In practising focus on the breath, something that is incredibly relaxing, you learn to quieten the soul and let go of distractions. As distractions, usually thoughts, arise you let go of them and return to the breath. As I've quietened the surface thoughts, the noisy chatter of the mind, I've found deeper parts of who I am rising up. Especially painful times in my past left quite a mess behind. When I went to university I didn't want to be a Christian as it felt like a social obstacle. I wasn't as worldly wise as I perceived my peers to be and I was ashamed of my upbringing. As I rejected my past, who I was, I didn't have much else to offer and I was very bound up. The pain this caused made me retreat from myself and the problems I had. The LSD I was ingesting in large quantities made this retreat into psychosis easier.

Recovering from all of this took many years, but it's only in the last few years that I've really been dealing with it and facing up to who I was - and am. I want to experience the pain of the past, I want to throw off the numbing that I succumbed to. I want the reality of being me, because that's all I have. So as painful memories have risen up I haven't pushed them away, but I haven't held onto them either. I've let them rise, and let them go. As those times from university came into mind, times that used to run through my mind regularly like a scab I couldn't leave alone, I felt the pressure of myself and my past beneath the pain. I remembered much of the goodness and wholesomeness in it, like the love of some beautiful women when I was a child, and also realised how much I learned even through the horribly traumatic times. 
Joel 2:25
I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten
Gradually the tangle of the line of my life is reducing. Jumbles of memories are becoming more ordered and I'm finding in me goodness I'd forgotten or never known was there. I'm more full of life, life is able to move more freely through me, and I'm able to drop the barriers to other people that I used to put up. There's plenty more to come too.

This is the best news. We may have pain, we may have difficulties, but these are our opportunity to find life. How much worse would it be if this was all there was? We're not stuck, we can change, we have challenges to overcome and beyond them lies freedom.

Traumatic times and memories shape us, but they needn't define us. Finding healing is not a process of forgetting. The memories don't go, but the sting goes from them. As you find healing you'll be able to remember those times, feel those parts of you, without recoiling or flinching. The memories remain but you're not submerged beneath them and they hold no power over you.

Far too many of us are afraid of what's inside us. We keep a lid on things, holding ourselves together, keeping things under control. True freedom only comes from overthrowing, however gradually, the lid we keep on things. I implore you not to be afraid of yourself, not to be scared of what's inside you. It only has any power when it's kept in the dark, bring in the light and the power evaporates. Let your soul rage and howl, that whirlwind you fear is you. And when the lid is fully off, all its power is yours!

So how do we deal with the pain of the past? The answer is to be able to experience those memories without flinching and to let who we are rise up from beyond them, but this can be easier said than done - both in making it happen and in facing the pain when it does.

If you attempt this then only do what you can cope with. For particularly traumatic memories professional help, a counsellor who will take you through them in a gentle and controlled manner, is the wisest course of action. This is why therapy and counselling works, it provides a safe environment for us to face what's inside.

I suggest finding a quiet space, sitting or lying, and quieten your mind. Any distracting thoughts and worries let them go. Don't worry, they're not urgent, anything important will come back. (Please let there be an end to souls scattered on countless pieces of paper! But that's a matter for another essay.) Let your mind wander back to some of your memories. Only attempt as much of this as you can face, don't force it or traumatise yourself again. It takes time for a soul to unwind. Let the memory rise. Hold it gently, don't grasp it or force it but let your awareness rest on the edges. As the feelings and emotions rise with the memory don't flinch or turn away. Let as much of it as you can bear rise up, but don't hold onto it, as much as you're able let the feelings rise and subside. Don't be carried off by thoughts or regrets. Recognise that it's gone, it's the past and it holds no real power any more. Feel for the memories, observe them, and let them go. Beyond the events you recall feel (gently) for who you were, for what's below. Don't judge or hate yourself, and if that's in you then let it go too. You were who you were and as much as you can now accept yourself is how much you're able to accept others. You may have been a fool (I certainly was), but you of all people understand the pressures and circumstances.

Over time it gets easier, but you'll find there's an awful lot to do. We're deep and complex creatures, and life leaves its muddy footprints over the best of us - no matter how regimented or buried we try to keep them. As the pain and sting of memories goes it gets easier to talk about them and talking helps as well.

What about troublesome thoughts? Many of my friends suffer from condemning thoughts, telling them they're no good or ugly or they won't make it. These thoughts cause distress and trying to push them away seems to do no good.

If you're a Christian it's easy to write off thoughts like these as "an attack" (from spiritual forces outside ourself), but we need a deeper understanding. Conscious thoughts, like memories, are just the tip of an iceberg. For thoughts the submerged part of the iceberg is also part of you, a difficult and negative part that needs dealing with but rejecting it (pushing it away) is not dealing with it. Being dragged along by the thoughts, believing them, and wallowing in the negative emotions isn't dealing with them either.

Dealing with the thoughts starts with accepting that no matter what it feels like sometimes you are an amazing person, you have great depths and complexity, a whole world of experience unique to you. You have particular qualities that no-one else has. What you need is freedom. You need to see the thoughts not as something that's real, but a symptom of something that needs healing. Treat them as a problem you can work on. This is a useful approach because it encourages you to see the thoughts from the outside, they're not "you" - it isn't you consciously thinking these thoughts, they're just a part of your soul rising up. The real you is much deeper, much more, than just these thoughts.

When one of these thoughts comes try to recall this, it isn't you it's just a part of you, it's an opportunity to understand yourself and to make a step towards freedom. Don't push the thought away, don't believe it or follow along, observe it. Note the thought to yourself and then try to feel what's below. Feel the emotions that come with it, this is what your soul is really trying to show you, it's trying to open up locked parts of you. Feel for those emotions, but again don't get lost in them, try to feel where they come from, what they're connected to. Every time you can do this it's an opportunity to learn more about yourself, and if digging in, observing the thought and feeling for where it comes from, triggers difficult memories then you can follow the approach above.

I don't underestimate the difficulty involved in this, particularly for some of my friends. Believing the negativity and following along with thoughts becomes a habit that's hard to break. But it is possible, and as hard as it is to believe these challenges really are the path that can lead you to wholeness and wholesomeness, to freedom and life.

"But the greatest people are those who refuse to be treated like squalling children, who insist on facing reality in every form, and tear off ruthlessly the bandages from their own wounds." -- King Lamus

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Fire, The River and a Sword

Several years ago I decided that I wasn't going to be a Christian and sing flowery songs of worship about having rivers of living water flowing out of my soul if I didn't actually experience it. If I give my life to this faith, if I'm going to believe that it's true, then I'm going to prove it true in my life. What I sing of, what I declare, what I say I believe, I will experience and understand.

A big part of my journey over recent years has been meditating. I meditate for an hour a day. It's an exercise of the soul to develop focus and cultivate mental strength. Along with these qualities I've found it bringing enormous healing to my soul, a topic I have waiting in the wings to write about. As well as meditating for an hour a day I pray for two to three hours a day. This wasn't something I intended to do, it just sort of grew out of exercising and using the time to reach out to God with body, soul and spirit. Trying to push everything within me to reach deeper into what I'm dedicating who I am to.

Although I call it prayer that's mainly because I have no other suitable word for it, it's not prayer as I used to know or understand it. I long to know more of God, to know more of the life of God. As I've meditated I've become aware that I am (and everyone else!) a much bigger person than I ever imagined. In terms of healing it's been a long and slow process because there's simply so much of me, my memories and my past, that is tangled up and needs freeing. I often sing of worshipping God "with all that is within me", and I've been realising that "all that is within me" is so much more than I thought it was! So I stretch and reach, wrestle and grapple, to take all of who I am - all my soul, all my desires, all my imaginings, all my longing, everything I am, everything I've been - and turn it towards God. It's the same reaching out to God as in worship. A big part of this has been wrestling to find God - where is the life, where is the power, where's God?! And within that search I find life, and as I'm picked up by the winds I connect with situations that are in my heart and that I also have longings for and pour in life and hope and faith. I wrestle and grapple for the life of God in people's situations and I wrestle for more of the life of God in the church. There are very few words in my prayer.

Jesus said the hungry will be satisfied and this is the secret to spiritual life. Get hungry. Really hungry. Spiritual hunger, the longing for God and for life, is something that comes from deep within. Much further, much deeper, than the rational mind (that loves to think it's in charge) can reach. In psychological terms we might say it is taking the raw force of the id and turning it towards God. All our impure desires, our greed and lust, are this force - this power of humanity - that can be renewed and made into something pure.

As I reach into God, reach into the spiritual and long for him with all my might I have (or had) a kind-of-mantra, a watchword that expresses and guides my longing and pushes me forwards. The watchword was "The fire and a sword". I want the fire of God, I want all I am to blaze with life because I know it's possible. And if that's possible what else would you live for? I want the fire that is substance and life, that takes hold of people, that changes and transforms, that heals and frees. I want the fire. And I want a sword. I want to fight. It's a dark difficult world, and I've walked a path of pain (of my own making). I know what it feels like to have lost everything and be utterly alone. And I'm angry. I want to fight.

A few weeks ago something unexpected happened. I broke through to the river of life, just to the edge but I touched it. I don't know what you imagine when you think of the river of life. I've always thought of a peaceful babbling brook, something soothing. This wasn't like that, it was full of life! Noisy life, bright and bustling and strong. I felt that if I touched it I would be dragged off. This was no babbling brook, it was alive. That's what I want flowing from my soul - life!

So now my guiding mantra is "The Fire, The River and a Sword".

"The greatest trick the devil plays is not to make us believe he doesn't exist, but to make us believe he's winning."


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Varieties of Religious Experience: The Religious Outlook

I recently started reading The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James. It's one of the classic books in the study of the mystical and I've only just begun reading it. In this book William James is mostly concerned with the individual mystical experience and my main interest is the corporate experience of God, but despite the moderately archaic language I'm enjoying it so far.

In the early part of the book William James attempts to tease out the difference between the religious outlook on life and a purely moral or "stoic" outlook on life. Here is his conclusion:
For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute.
So the big difference between a religious (spiritual) outlook and the merely moral is the capacity to find joy in adversity.

This reminds me very much of the attitude of the Vikings I describe in Bring on the Battle. Because the Vikings don't fear death on the battlefield, it is their route to Valhalla, they are virtually undefeatable in battle. Our battle, alongside the ethereal spiritual warfare, is made concrete in the daily struggle of being a living human with people we care for and responsibilities to fulfil. Let's find the joy of the battle, plunge into the struggle with everything we have. If we don't what else is there?

On this topic William James adds:
If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes.
Pressed upon as you are, to whatever extent you find yourself able to choose your outlook on life let it be one of girding up your loins and pressing further on and further in.

An Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God?

"I am nothing more than a product of history and a series of unfortunate decisions"
In Seeing Angels  I looked at how the spiritual powers, angels and demons, are related to our life. In a discussion about this blog entry on facebook a friend asked a very reasonable question:
While I certainly wouldn't disagree with your musings on human nature, I find it difficult to understand why the forces that unify us have to be personified. Surely biblical descriptions of demons and angels are just as easily understood as metaphor?

You know I respect your beliefs (and have family members who share them), so I'm not trying to be argumentative here. Just putting another side of the case.
This question is ostensibly about the nature of God and spiritual powers (the forces that unifies us), but this question is separable from enquiring about our own nature. In replying I outlined my view of an "evolutionary spirituality". This is an understanding that we're not separate from the forces that created us. The theory of evolution lays out how life, and therefore spirit, developed.

My reply in full:

I understand you respect my beliefs whilst thinking differently yourself. I did try to address that question in the article. Humans are nothing more than the creation of the universe. We come from the land and are shaped by the forces of nature that also shaped the world around us. So it's not so much that those forces are personified, but we are! Our life is nothing more than the same life from the forces that create us (active and present tense not just past). So no wonder those forces are familiar - we just have the relationship the wrong way round. It isn't that they look like us, we look like them...

It's easy to see religion as creating god(s) in our image and I'm sure there's a strong element of this in humans. However, if the central thesis of Christianity (and other religions like Buddhism) is true, that all life is connected, then how could it be otherwise - that the forces that created us produced our life and the currents of our life are a reflection of them. Even "reflection" is not quite the right word, our life is their life and it exists in a continuum with them. We are not separate but intimately connected. Everything we are and do is the product of history and the land we came from, and in turn we affect the world around us.

The danger is to get hung up on the appearance, and the religious imagery of floating babies really don't help. The universe is unimaginably bigger than humans, so I'm sure there are spiritual forces that bear little resemblance to life we recognise. But nonetheless, we will most resemble (in spirit and character not body) those that shaped us and are closest to us. And Christian tradition has room for this, with the hierarchy of angels including the ineffable (and both terrifying and distinctly inhuman-like) higher angels like cherubim and seraphim.

I think your question raises a deeper point worth exploring though. Effectively you're asking why must the forces of nature that created and shaped us, and therefore the life that binds us, be "personal" in any sense? (And Christianity very definitely espouses a personal God - to the point of incarnation in Jesus Christ).

Suppose the life that creates, shapes and unifies us is impersonal. The life it would create would manifest physically as chemical and biological processes with thought and consciousness an imperative to sustain that life. Any sense of self and individuality in that life would possibly be an illusion, imposed on themselves by the created life - possibly as a survival mechanism. And indeed this is exactly what buddhism suggests - that our self and sense of individuality is an illusion of the ego. This goes back to my point that the forces that create life would create life that reflects the nature of those forces. So even if they're impersonal (in whatever way we mean that) it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the creative power of the universe.

If we are joined, if there is an incredible power of being at the core of the existence (in judeo-christian language this is "Yahweh", the name for God which means "I am") then our life is a reflection of this life. Our own nature is very different from how we perceive it - experimental psychology demonstrates this very ably. To label the unified life force "impersonal" is reasonable, but it only reflects back on our own nature. We only have life in the sense that this creative power is alive, and if we accept that our consciousness is life then alive it is.

I would call this an "evolutionary spirituality". Evolution tells us how life developed and grew from the fundamental forces (processes) of the universe. And spirituality is nothing more than an understanding of the nature of our life. Our life is the product of natural forces, so the nature of our life as it is now (but in all the depth of the reality of that - not in the raving and screaming of culture) teaches us about the nature of the forces that produced us.

So, in a sense, if you believe in evolution, if you believe we are personal beings, and if you accept that we are not separate but our lives (our deeper psyche) are a continuum with the environment around us and the people who are part of it (continually influenced by and in turn influencing), then a personal God is the natural consequence of that thinking.

Another consequence, perhaps more disturbing, is that these forces of nature - truly alive in the sense that we are alive - are more real and unimaginably more powerful than mere humanity.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Seeing Angels

The central thesis of Christianity, viewed from a particular perspective, is that all humanity is connected. That God, the spirit of perfect love utterly pure and without guile, can be in all of us and that through oneness with this love we can all be joined. The metaphor for the church of Jesus is one body, one new person. Through Jesus we are unified in love and have the same spirit, one mind and heart. The mystery of this is that though we are joined, we do not lose our individuality. In fact as we become more joined with Christ we become more ourselves, more who we were intended to be.

The test of the reality of this is how much our lives are shared, in spirit and truth not just in theory. The substance of the kingdom of God is shared lives, and this is how we become one body - our lives and hearts are mingled and life moves freely amongst us. A people alive in God and God alive amongst us.
Romans 12:4-5
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
So the idea of Christianity depends on the deeper parts of the human psyche being joined. This is an idea that Carl Jung, one of the modern fathers of pyschoanalysis called the "collective unconscious". Jung traced the evolution of the collective unconscious through common elements in the culture of apparently unconnected societies. He also traced common elements of the human psyche he called "archetypes". These elements are abstract because they have no concrete existence, but personified because they are elements common to disparate human personalities. They are qualities of humanity and so are "human" (or perhaps better "supra-human").

Have you ever met someone who you "recognised" (at least parts of their personality) without having encountered them before? Been naturally suspicious of someone because of their behaviour, or known how to flow and interact with someone even on first meeting? You're interacting with common elements of humanity made concrete in individuals. In fact our personality is created from our experiences of dealing with others and our interaction with the world around us, and the same is true of everyone else. Even our DNA, our biological foundation, is substantially the same as everyone else. Being shaped by the same forces it would be astonishing if we didn't share much in common, in behaviour and personality, with others. Spirituality is merely an understanding of who we are as humans; in one sense nothing more esoteric than the dull and sometimes dirty reality of being a person.

Close to the centre of Christianity are the concepts of angels and demons. These are spiritual beings, distinct from humanity but nonetheless "alive". We possess physical bodies and free will whereas they are pure spirit. Understanding these spiritual beings, their place in the cosmos and their relationship to humanity, is difficult and one of the deeper mysteries of Christianity.

In common Christian thought and discussion there tends to be a difference between the way we talk about demons and the way we talk about  angels. Even the terms "angelic" and "demonic" are so culturally loaded with associations that it makes it hard to think about them dispassionately. As you read this essay please cast all thoughts of ghouls and monsters, along with all ideas of glowing disembodied messengers, out of your mind.

In Christian circles it is common to talk of "a spirit of fear" or a "spirit of hate". These are obviously demonic as they represent negative elements of the human psyche. The key phrase here is "elements of the human psyche". The Christian understanding is that the demonic spirit can influence human behaviour, effectively they become part of the subject personality.

When talking about angels it is common to visualise floating androgynous beings. However, just as we talk about a spirit of fear we should talk of a spirit of peace, a spirit of joy and so on. As you are motivated to love, as compassion moves through your personality, as joy takes over a meeting, this is the angelic at work.

These spiritual beings are spirit, so they move in and through the human spirit. (Your spirit is who you really are, as distinct from your soul which is your memories and emotion (etc). See Dividing Between Soul and Spirit for more discussion of this.) So how are you likely to encounter and sense the spiritual but in yourself and through other people.

In particular we encounter angels as pure (both in the sense of unadulterated and the sense of holy) elements of humanity. So if your kind friend commits an act of pure generosity and love, you just had an encounter with an angel! As we manifest the qualities of Christ, individually and corporately, we manifest the angelic amongst us - these angels, although abstract and distinct from us, are part of us and expressed through our personalities and character.

Angels and demons are alive because they are made of the same stuff that is our "life". They are part of us, but wider than any individual, and we recognise them as having human qualities because in a sense they are human qualities (although perhaps our categorisation needs work - maybe we could look to Jung's work on archetypes for inspiration).

To think of the spiritual in these terms is not to discount its reality, nor to limit it merely to part of the subconscious. Instead it is to acknowledge that we, the reality of who we are, are part of something greater and to understand what that means. The angelic, and the demonic, are more than any one of us but as real as any of us. Distinct but part, just as in the body of Christ we are distinct from one another but part of one another. Love and the works of love are both greater than us and external to us, but also internal and part of us. Love in us and from us, with us and through us.

In fact this view of the spiritual sheds light on our understanding of spiritual warfare. The constant struggle between good and evil, between the angelic and the demonic, is played out spiritually all around us. There is a corresponding struggle, all around us, played out in culture and society, people groups and individuals. Spiritual warfare is not entirely abstract and separated from humanity and our daily experience, but inextricably entwined. The spiritual is a continuous spectrum from humanity to God, not a separate realm. Heaven is all around us.

As these elements of the human psyche are "common", they are expressed in everything that humanity does. "Common grace" is the concept that the basic goodness in humanity is not restricted to Christians (something abundantly obvious I hope). So angelic spirits, spirits of love and generosity, are present in everyone. These common elements are visible in the culture around us. The good elements of our shared culture, the social movements for love and acceptance, the message of hope in films and music, are evidence of the angelic at work in the world around us.

This is why the plastic charade of halloween, that Christian superstition loves to hate, is not something that should really concern us. The real demonic forces of our age are greed and fear and loneliness and hate. All the common elements of our psyche, like sexism and racism (and sickness), that do so much damage. The ghouls and goblins of popular culture have no power. Likewise it is such a tragedy when Christians reject movements of love and acceptance (see The Liberal Agenda) that are a movement of God we ought to celebrate!

Note: a further exploration of some of these ideas, and what it means about the nature of God and our own nature, is in An Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Love of a Good Woman

Years ago, when I was small and not nearly so foolish as I am now, I was loved by a very beautiful woman. In fact I was loved by many beautiful women, my mother being one of course, but this isn't who I'm thinking of now.

This lady, Gwen Bradbrook, is the mother of ten children and was a second mother to me. Thinking back across the years I remember her love, so real and such a forming influence on my life. When our families were together it was like we were one family, and her love is a big part of why I associate church as a place for family and a place of love.

I'm afraid to say that remembering all that, and wondering that this love was still so real a part of me, almost made me cry. And then it made me laugh, because she was (and still is I assume) a very mischievous woman.

So thank you Gwen, for all you were to me and to others. And thanks to all women who love. Your love builds something so real and precious. Thank you.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Bible: The Good Parts

I'll start by saying what most "bible believing" Christians dare not say: the bible is a highly problematic book. As a historical record of the (gradual) revelation of the nature of God to humanity it paints a pretty unflattering view of God at times - seen through the eyes of a fallen humanity. Yet I've found no better way into experiencing (in glorious intensity) and understanding life than the words and person of Christ. Quite a contradiction at times.

The bible was greatly redeemed in my eyes by reading "A Matter of Integrity"  by Steve Chalke. I recommend it to everyone. Seen as the ongoing revelation of God to humanity, a revealing that didn't just stop 2000 years ago by the way, the bible again became something sacred and beautiful to me.

Despite being a "difficult" book, the nature of God and the way to the kingdom are hidden (or revealed - as you please) within the bible.

Below are some of my favourite passages (there are many more that I could have picked) that reveal God and the call to be his people. If all you knew of the bible were these passages you would have enough. More than enough.
1 John 4:7-8
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:19-20
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Exodus 3:13-14
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

1 Kings 19:11-12
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice.

Proverbs 1:20-23
Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
on top of the wall she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech:

“How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?
Repent at my rebuke!

Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
I will make known to you my teachings.

Jeremiah 31:33
“This is the covenant I will make with my people
after that time,” declares the Lord.

“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”

1 Samuel 16:7
Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

Luke 4:18-19
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 17:20-21
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

John 1:1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Joel 2:28-29
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Matthew 4:17
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 11:28-30
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 2:10-11
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Matthew 13:44-45
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Matthew 5:43-45
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Mark 10:14-15
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  (See be like a child.)
Galatians 5:13-14
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself".

John 1:12-12
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Matthew 27:51
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

(This verse stands some explanation. The curtain in the temple was what separated the people from the holy of holies. Only a priest could enter the holy of holies and the people needed a priest to mediate God to them. At the moment of Jesus' death that curtain was torn and the separation between God and man was undone. Through Jesus, our righteousness and priest, and through his sacrifice, we can now enter into the presence of God. We are now the priests and need no human intermediary beyond Jesus. See the 1 Peter 2 passage below as well.)

Psalm 51:10-11
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

John 15:13
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Romans 8:28
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

1 Peter 2:9-10
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Plus pretty much all of James chapter 1 and the all important "Blessed are the cheesemakers"!

Verses quoted here are mostly from the NIV (Nearly Infallible Version) translation, courtesy of biblehub.

The title of this article is a hat-tip to the computer programming book "Javascript: The Good Parts" by Douglas Crockford. This slender, and well regarded, tome is famously much shorter than more complete references on the programming language.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

There's a lot of pain

My Mum recently sent me a link to an article:
It's a very emotional article, worth reading, on an emotional topic. Terrible, awful, horrific things happen in this world of ours. Even if you don't have personal tragedies you don't need to spend more than a minute or  two browsing a newspaper to find more than your fill of pain and tragedy. Stephen Fry publicly expressed what many people feel, calling a hypothetical God an "evil, capricious, monstrous maniac":
So how can a loving God allow such evil? I don't know, and according to everything I've ever seen anyone who thinks they do know is deluding themselves or lying. It's a fair question, perhaps the ultimate question.

Something I find helpful when I think about this is a song by Godfrey Birtill, Outrageous Grace:
There's a lot of pain but a lot more healing
There's a lot of trouble but a lot more peace
There's a lot of hate but a lot more loving
There's a lot of sin but a lot more grace
I don't know why there is evil and suffering and why God allows it. Even theologically it doesn't seem to make sense. If a perfect world, without even the possibility of sin, is possible (the New Creation) then why not start with that? So why not come to the same conclusion as Stephen Fry, that there can't be a God?

I've experienced perfect love. I've experienced God's love. Living the life I have, if I'm true to myself, atheism isn't an option (despite my fondness for rational scepticism). As much pain and suffering as there is, and that often seems like a bottomless pit of human misery, I know that there's more love, there's more hope and there's more life. I've felt it. So I'll pursue life and love with everything in me, I'll fight for it. If I have to make a choice I'm on the side of hope.

What I do know is that God's heart breaks at the pain and suffering in this world. And he doesn't turn away. But it does make him angry. How could the response of love be anything other than anger to the greed, injustice and suffering we hear so much about (but often do so little about)? We need to have the same response, our hearts need to break and we need to not turn away. And we need to get angry. Anger is the right response. Anger is an energy and a motivator. It's the opposite of apathy and it's where the fight starts. I want to be in the fight.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Crossing the Soul Gap: a Rational Faith

Christian scepticism as applied mysticism?
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. ... By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. ... From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes. -- Aldous Huxley
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. -- John Donne
In I was brought up I describe my Christian up-bringing and my journey back to faith via Cambridge university, atheism, Buddhism, homelessness and Christian community. In Pursuing Faith this came full circle with me having to reconcile my faith to how I saw the world and spirituality without faith. This article is a further exploration of how I am pursuing a genuine and deeper spirituality.

My faith is a rational pursuit. It has to be. A genuine faith has to engage your mind as well as your emotions. Rational scepticism is the foundation of science, which if not the foundation itself is at least a cornerstone of modern society. Rational scepticism is essentially the refusal to believe something unless it can be proven. For many Christians (and non-Christians) this makes scientific scepticism, and perhaps therefore science itself, the enemy of faith.

The trouble with this mindset is that rational scepticism is so damn useful. Over a precious few centuries the ability to reliably tell the difference between potential truth and definite falsehood, to inexorably circle closer in on a better picture of truth, has built up an unimaginably enormous body of knowledge; leading to computers, health care and medicine, space travel and worlds' worth of wonder, fun and progress. Not to mention that making science an enemy is problematic, because, you know, it can be proved that it works. I'm a fan of rational scepticism and I don't believe that science is the enemy of faith.

To a certain extent science has to reject God and the supernatural. Science is an exploration of truth, but very specifically an exploration of truth about the rules and order of the universe around us. If it admits "the supernatural" as an explanation for any natural phenomenon how could any hypotheses be made? Only by assuming a natural explanation and rejecting the possibility of the supernatural can the rules of the natural world be determined. This is why many who ascribe to a firmly "scientific world view" feel that they too must reject the possibility of God. But the reality of how we know God is a very different kind of truth to scientific truth, or at least entered into by a very different method.

I don't believe that Christian faith can be a blind faith, a faith that is denied by proof. As  I explain in Faith versus belief, "trust" is a better synonym for a living Christian faith than belief. Unfortunately Christianity is often offered as a large pill that can only be swallowed whole. Faith only works if you believe, so doubt is the enemy. Take it all or leave it all is the message.

But humans just don't work like that. We can't, except in precious few rare cases, accept a new world view and be changed right down to the core of who we are. That's the ideal of conversion but, unless we become perfect in an instant, faith is a process. Even when we think we've swallowed the pill whole we haven't, and the freedom that Christianity offers is different to what we may think (see Sin and Freedom). We haven't escaped the fog and we don't see perfectly, there are parts of our soul (who we are) that haven't yet met with God.

To accept we have doubts isn't to admit defeat, it doesn't make us less of a Christian or not a Christian. Acknowledging our doubts is merely an acknowledgement of reality. The only way to come to Jesus is as we really are, not how we think we ought to be. We can only bring our whole selves to God if we are prepared to accept who we are. Too many of us are afraid of who we are, afraid of what's inside us. We can't acknowledge our doubts and fears because we can't face what we're really like, we're afraid of ourselves and keep our eyes tightly shut. God can't help us if we won't let him in, and we can't let him in if we're desperately afraid of going in ourselves! Remember how Jesus treated Thomas the doubter, not with rejection but with love.

Taking a wider view, doubt about the existence of God seems like an entirely reasonable position to take in this world, both wonderful and terrible, of ours. But we know that reality is very different from how we perceive it. Basic science tells us that all matter is almost entirely empty space, the solidity we see around us is a very clever illusion. Modern psychology tells us that just about everything we think about how we make decisions is wrong, a clever trick reality plays on the conscious mind to make it think it's in charge.

Our experience of life so far, and society at large, tells us how to understand the world and what to expect from people. We wear these filters (our soul - see Dividing Between Soul and Spirit for a clearer explanation of what I mean by soul) like coloured sunglasses, the filters tell us how to interpret life but they also obstruct from vision much of the world. (Huxley called these the "doors of perception" and described them as an evolutionary way of coping with a confusing world by reducing the amount of information we have to process.) We live in such a small proportion of reality, what I call a "constructed reality". A reality of concrete and tarmac, of rules and expectations, but only part of reality.

Often as my cat hovers by the back door, deciding whether or not to go outside, I wonder about the reality she lives in and how she sees the world. It's very different from my world, much closer to nature and full of territories, prey, enemies and opportunities that I just don't see. She also occupies a portion of reality, no less real but still a world apart from mine.

The rabbit hole goes deep. Very deep. So far that it is almost impossible to escape as we are its very progeny, made up of the same stuff. It takes an act of force to get closer to seeing the world as it really is, and understanding ourselves. (See Rehabilitating Intensity and Christian Meditation and Mindfulness for some of the ways I'm escaping the rabbit hole.)

We have a problem in trying to understand the world, and as always the problem is us. This problem has various names, but I'm thinking specifically of apophenia and confirmation bias. Apophenia is the human propensity to see patterns where they don't exist. It's how we can see happy faces in plug sockets for example. Confirmation bias is our need for what we already believe to be true. We'll find confirmation for our beliefs everywhere and ignore things that don't fit. Both of these truths about human makeup can (and have been) demonstrated by modern experimental psychology.

Our faith is appealing, it provides answers to some of the most basic questions of humanity, and we're very invested in it being true. If we really want to examine our faith honestly, and not be caught up in a fantasy constructed by our minds, can we escape this? Maybe some sceptical rationalism would be useful, but how can we apply this to faith? Finding patterns in our own psyche and the world around us, and calling it the work of God, is not faith. In fact it's the opposite. If we're not careful we can be subconsciously afraid that what we want to believe isn't true and desperately look for confirmation. A genuine discernment and rejection of the false isn't the enemy of faith but the route to real faith, a sifting out and refining of the truth.

The trouble is that Christianity presents us with something of a Catch-22, it only works if you believe it! Hebrews 11 verse 6 (one of the few bible verses I quote in this article and one I learned as a child from a song), says "without faith it's impossible to please God". Fortunately Christianity, despite what you might have been told, isn't an all or nothing proposition. It's fine to come to God as you are, doubts and all. Eyes wide open.

For me my faith, my journey so far, is my "best working hypothesis". I acknowledge that I understand so little, I see so little. I don't know the ultimate truth and I don't claim to. Anyone who claims they do is lying, mostly to themselves. They don't see either or they'd be very different. In fact this attitude is essential to coming to God. Drop all pretence you know and understand anything, come to God empty. Because whatever you think you know, God is more. A lot more. Unimaginably more.

As my faith grows I can put more weight on it. Part of ever increasing faith, an ever increasing power of faith, is both an increasing certainty based on experience and an increasing understanding of how faith works (how we apply our faith). Certainty and understanding aren't separate. To genuinely carry spiritual power requires both and growing in one causes growth in the other. But with a strong tendency towards being deceived (the human heart is deceitful above all things) how can we distinguish between a mere experience of the human psyche and one of the living God, between wish fulfilment and truth?

Our whole experience of life is mediated through our psyche, everything we think and know and experience comes through our senses and the filters of our soul. It's no surprise that religious experience has an electrical and chemical counterpart in the brain. It would be an astonishing surprise if it didn't! We are physical body, no point in denying it, but we are a physical embodiment of a soul (and spirit). If we are to assign any meaning to "pyschic phenomena" (by which I mean the experiences of the mind), how can we know our faith is real, how do we prove it? The process of proving it is not just for the satisfaction of the intellect, nor a stick to beat those who don't believe, but only as we become convinced to the core of our being that what we profess is real are we able to really trust in it and have genuine faith based on reality. We prove the substance of our faith to ourselves in order to be capable of placing more trust in it.

Have you ever heard anyone say, "what if we really lived as if we believed what we say we believe", or words to that effect? The trouble is that we believe with our mind, but our soul isn't convinced. It needs convincing, it needs to really meet with God. Closing our eyes and trying to believe harder doesn't work. We need a path of increasing faith that accepts the reality of where we're starting from and is willing to really search for the truth. But if we can get there, if we can push through the deception and find the depths of who we are and who God is... what a people we could be!

Of course if natural science, as we currently understand it, is to be believed then perhaps the answer is clear. If there is no spiritual (beyond the electro-chemical symptoms) then consciousness itself is purely a by-product of biological processes. An emergent property perhaps, but strictly governed by chance and deterministic processes. All decisions, all thought, is the result of these processes and so free will must be an illusion. We are no more free than a computer programmed to tell you it is free. This is the ineluctable conclusion of a purely materialistic outlook on life. Scott Adams calls humans "moist pink robots" for this very reason, a conclusion that I think is at least honest. To both believe in pure materialism and free will is a contradiction. True contact with another human soul is not possible simply because it is a meaningless concept.
I'm not satisfied being an island universe, no matter how big or how beautiful a universe I might be. The promise of Christianity is more than that. But if I'm to really believe it, to put my faith in it, then it isn't real until it explains the world around me, more than that - until it affects the world around me. It's not real unless it can change people.

Two concepts I've found useful for thinking about faith in action and proving faith are "crossing the soul gap" and "crossing the air gap".

The soul gap is that distance between the island universe, the distance between two souls. Can my soul, and the life and power of God in me - the substance and outworking of my faith, produce life and change in other people. The air gap goes beyond that, from the world of pure psyche and into the material world. Christianity professes a God that created and sustains the physical universe, not an absent God but a very present one (omnipresent indeed) and able to change it.

I can conceive of mechanisms for crossing the soul gap, how one soul can bring life, peace and healing to another. And the soul and body are not distinct but a continuum, so this extends to some physical healing too, particularly for problems with a stress related or psychological origin. Have you ever noticed someone who makes you feel at peace, just by their mere presence? You don't need to posit supernatural explanations for this, but at the same time it demonstrates how one psyche can effect affect on another. This is normal and every day stuff, but how far can it go, how much can love do?

As I massage people's bodies I can find the knots and release the tension. So it goes with souls. Because I can conceive of these mechanisms, even perhaps at a distance, I can pour my life, faith and hope into this kind of prayer. I don't see a great deal of it happening, except as very slow processes, but it's not hard for me to reach out in faith that it can happen.

Of course it's not just about soul healing, but about living in true communion with one another. Being of one heart and soul. Being a continent together rather than a collection of  islands, what Jesus called his kingdom.

However, when change in a person's psyche is initiated through the faith of another person it doesn't constitute ultimate "proof" of God. An experience of the psyche is still an experience of the psyche, miraculous and wonderful though it maybe. The human mind is an incredibly powerful thing, I'm counting on that and pursuing it with everything in me, but I won't be deceived by it.

Crossing the air gap is a different matter to crossing the soul gap. I have no conception of the mechanisms that God might use for this, beyond supernatural magic wands which isn't how I believe God operates anyway, so it's harder for me to have substantial faith for crossing the air gap. But when it happens, if it turns out that consciousness is contiguous with physical reality, then it'll be pretty gloriously awesome. This connection is central to Christian faith, Christianity is meaningless without it, and it is the very meaning of the name of God revealed to Moses: יהוה, Yahweh, "I am". The fundamental truth of the universe is "being".

Is it worth hoping to cross the soul gap? Are we alone, island universes?  We like to think we're so very self-contained, but we are the product of history and chance. Everything about who we are, how we see the world and how we think, was shaped by the forces of genetics, nature and culture. And they produced everyone else alongside us too - the same forces that produced us also produced everyone else, and we all shape each other and the world around us in a glorious feedback cycle. The Greeks and Hindus attempt to abstract these common elements of the human psyche and culture, that extend out into the wider world, into gods with stories and personality. Jung called them "The Archetypes". Christians call these "personified" forces that shape lives and history (although really it is us that are "personified"), Angels and fallen angels.

So we're not truly separate. Who we are is mostly subconscious, our motivations, and desires and the prejudices and filters we apply to the world around us. Whether or not we're aware of it we're constantly influenced by (and in turn influencing) the same things as everyone else. We're unique in the particular pattern of these currents that have produced us, but it's the same currents of nature, culture and history that produce myriad unique souls in different colours and combinations. Abstraction or ultimate reality, who knows, but we're not as much of an island as we think we are. Our very nature has been formed, and is being formed, in glorious dis-harmony with everything around us.

If you're a Christian living in a western culture, is it just a happy coincidence (for you) that the religion you've decided is true just happens to be the one adopted by the prevailing culture that produced you, that you grew up with. Have you swallowed whole a mindset and belief system that shaped your culture, and therefore like-it-or-not the way you see the world, or have you really been transformed by the creative mind and heart that produced the universe - which is what you claim? Let's be real about who we are. The western Christian mindset, it's traditions and orthodoxy, is inextricably intertwined with politics and the historical culture this tradition grew up alongside (including entrenched misogyny, power and control structures plus many other unpalatable background truths about our culture).

Let's acknowledge this and dig deeper. Let's not be satisfied with half a life and beliefs swallowed whole without critical examination, with the form of religion but not the power. Because surely we want the truth, we want to meet the real God and know the reality of his life and power. And if it's not true let's work out the truth. If you're not willing to consider your beliefs, if you're not open to truth, then you're not really open to God. Being open to God means being able to discern the difference between truth and lies, being able to get beyond the soul's tendency to see patterns in everything. If you can't discern the difference then you can't really meet with God because you can't find truth if you can't reject falsehood. If your faith can't cope with this kind of examination, if questioning it causes it to evaporate, what kind of faith is it and where is its substance?

Let's not be stuck in the shallows but pursue real depth. If God is real, let's prove it together.

"The method of science, the aim of religion."