Friday, 23 January 2015

I was brought up...

Originally posted to Facebook 8th May 2014.
This is part one of a two part series. The second part is: Pursuing Faith.
I was brought up as an evangelical Christian and had many spiritual experiences, experiences of God, as I was growing up. When I got to university my faith became a social impediment and I determined to become an atheist. And I succeeded. However, I still wanted to be spiritual and to explain the spiritual experiences of my youth.

At Cambridge university I was surrounded by many wealthy, and as I saw it at the time, self-interested people. I fell in with a bunch of local hippies, whose lives were in stark contrast to the people around me. (Assuredly I judged those around me too harshly, they were young and ambitious and merely trying to find their own way as you do at that age. But still.) The hippies had no interest in money, and shared their lives and homes with each other. At the same time I was friends with members of the FWBO (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order), a Buddhist community based in Cambridge, and I learned to meditate.

The hippie lifestyle was enormously appealing to me. The promise of free love, drugs, spirituality and genuine friendship. Unfortunately I just couldn't do it. I was too bound up in myself, and my injudicious and frequent ingestion of LSD left me further isolated and damaged. Skipping huge swathes of the story, I ended up homeless having destroyed my relationships with my family and just about everyone else. I had nothing. Especially not hope. I couldn't communicate with anyone, all I had inside was a raging emptiness.

Through the help of my father I ended up at New Creation Farm, a community house of the Jesus Fellowship. I certainly wasn't a Christian, if anything I was a confused Buddhist. However, I knew one thing. If I *chose* to believe in Christianity, true or not, I could experience the love of God and I could find emotional and mental healing. And that was my only hope for any kind of future. So that's what I did.

And true enough, over the next few years I found God in prayer and worship. I found life, pure love, and a path to healing. What I also found in the community lifestyle was brotherhood. A people who accepted me for who I was, who loved me, and who believed in something together. Who were fighting for something. And this was a big part of my healing. We have a song that expresses it very well:

Let us open up ourselves to one another,
Without fear of being hurt or turned away,
For we need to confess our weakness,
To be covered by our brothers' love,
To be real and find our true identity.

There's nothing quite like the experience of opening yourself up to people, all your worst fears and shames, and finding only love and acceptance.

Despite this, finding mental healing took a long time. About six years before I felt like I'd found anything approaching normality. Much of that time was spent in a fair degree of pain. A mental pressure that I couldn't escape and that I was always aware of. Having to go through that difficulty, having to endure despite the unbearableness of it all, built character in me like nothing else could. If there's any strength, any goodness, any compassion in me now, it's because of what I went through.

Fast forward a few years. I taught myself to program and became a software developer. I'm married and I have a three year old daughter. I have a job that allows me to work from home, I'm still part of the church (although no longer in Community I'm part of the wonderful community of the Jesus Fellowship), and I get to travel the world. A lucky man.

A couple of years or so ago I started meditating regularly again. In a fit of impending-fortyishness I gave up smoking (again) and started to get fit(ter).

And here's where it gets interesting. Despite being more assured of my faith than ever, those doubts that I acquired so willingly haven't just magically evaporated. I'm a scientific rationalist, a sceptic, by nature. This seems like an entirely sensible approach to a confusing but wonder-ful world. How does this square with my faith and my experiences of God? I wouldn't be being true to myself if I wasn't a Christian. I've seen the beauty of the heart of Jesus, a love so pure that to extol it as sacred and be blown away that this love extends to me is the only possible response. But really, it all seems a bit unlikely.

And so I seek God. If I'm going to base my life on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, that his love is stronger than death, then it damn well better be true. How is it even possible to know this, at the core of your being? I don't know. I do know that as I seek God, as I'm determined to reach his heart, whatever that means, I'm finding life. I'm finding strength. I'm finding that I'm changed, that I'm more able to really love people - and more convinced than ever that loving people is what I want to live for. That nothing else matters a damn. And I'm more aware of how far I fall from that astonishing purity I've glimpsed.

Jesus said seek and you will find. All I know is that if you come to God with a genuine heart you *can* find answers. I just have no idea how long it takes.

Pursuing Faith

Originally posted to facebook on 28th November 2014.
This is part two of a two part series of posts. Part one is: Pursuing Faith.
I don't often post spiritual stuff to Facebook. I have many non-Christian friends and I don't want to force my faith down anyone's throat. My faith is a core part of my life. Scratch that. It's *the core* of my life. So if you're really my friend (otherwise how are you reading this?) you'll have to accept a bit of it, or you're incapable of accepting me.

I'm still reticent, for a few reasons. The first is that my faith is not just precious to me, but quite literally something I hold sacred. I know some of you hold faith in scorn (but thankfully most of you have some empathy in your dealings with people of faith). I have no desire to open the most precious, and most beautiful, part of my life to scorn. I suspect I need to toughen up here.

Beyond that, I know that many of my friends are confirmed atheists. But not callously or carelessly, it's a considered and settled position. I have every sympathy with this. I was an atheist myself for some time and I understand the arguments and the questions an atheist would pose to a Christian. And I don't have answers to all the questions. Furthermore I think it's a perfectly *reasonable* position to take, a rational response to living in this world we find ourselves in - with little apparent sign of a God. The difference with me I guess, is my own experiences. I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't pursue faith and God.

Perhaps more than this though, I find it *difficult* to explain my faith to someone who's never experienced God. For those of you who are rational atheists, and who read this far, this is the closest I've come:

I venerate love as holy and sacred. I exalt it and I exalt in it, this is what worship is. In doing this I've found that love is a burning fire. And what's more it is life itself, and has volition. And I call it God. And I will pursue this with everything in me. And I can't be any other way. The fire and strength, and perfect holiness I've found in God I've seen in nothing else - and to share this with other people, to live in it and to live for it, is the best thing I can possibly imagine. For all the debate and discussions and difficulties I've not seen anyone living a better way.

Still too flowery. But true.

That sounds lovely. But there's more. I'm willing to believe that love has defeated death, that love wins. And that love has a name, was made perfect in Jesus Christ.

Now how you can know this, not just "take it on faith", (I vehemently don't think that faith means "believing something you can't know is true" - but that's another topic) is the question. And that's what I'm pursuing with all my strength and all my soul. Turning my mind and life toward. Because if it's true, it changes everything. And if I suspect it's true, how could I not pursue it.

This pursuit of faith has led me to a deeper understanding of the heart of God and the work of God. I'm far from alone this and I describe it in God is Doing a New Thing.

Faith versus belief

Faith and belief, in the Christian sense, are not synonyms. You can believe in something but have no faith in it. Faith is closer to the word trust.

This is particularly true for faith in God. Sometimes we think that if only we believed in God *enough* we could see the things he promised. We screw ourselves up and try to believe real hard, and still we're weak.

God wants to heal people. to bring his life and power in his church, all the things we hope and dream of and plenty more. But to actually have faith, that trust and connection to God that makes these things happen, requires more than belief. It requires being close enough to the heart of God to *be able* to step out in faith. The power of God in us is for *us* to be able to do things, not just for us to have the faith that he'll do them. That means a closeness to him that enable us to have the power and life, and *we* do them. Or at least him through us. We're to be filled with the Holy Spirit and move in his life and power, not to wave our hands and hope that he does it.

That requires much more depth and purer hearts, a deeper reality of knowing God and his life than we've had before. Getting there is a journey, a process. "Ever increasing faith". If you're on the path then each next step is small, achievable. But if you're not getting deeper and closer, just wishing that you were, then it seems an impossible dream and you screw yourself up trying to believe even more. Or you give up and decide that this is as good as it gets and we just have to live with it.

So how do we get there? Well, Jesus said "seek and you will find". Do you believe that, are you ready to trust your life to it, are you really willing to seek? It takes everything though. Bend your whole life, passion, will, substance into searching for that life and power. Be dissatisfied with what you have from God and demand more. That passion can become a life consuming fire. The more of the fire you taste the hungrier you'll get for more.

A practical consequence of this is how we treat doubt. If we're "trying to believe as hard as we can" then doubt is the enemy and we push it away. The trouble is that you're rejecting and pushing away the parts of yourself that aren't yet able to trust. A house divided against itself can't stand. Instead we need to cry “I believe; help my unbelief!”. We need to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we are, we need to bring our doubts to God, with a mind and heart open to faith of course, and ask for him to bring us into a place of faith. And getting there is a journey of many steps.

As Christians we can believe that we're called to blind faith. To step out in the dark, "off a cliff", and believe that God will meet our faith. We feel guilty for not doing it more, not trusting in God. Yet when we do it we often hit the ground, and that hurts, which is why we don't want to do it! And then we feel more guilty, and try to screw ourselves up to have the belief to step off the next cliff. Stepping off cliffs and hitting the ground is painful and discouraging. Sometimes God wants that, but in my experience you know it when it happens.

Jesus promised to be a lamp to our feet. We may not be able to see very far down the road, but we can see the next step. God doesn't want us to feel discouraged and guilty, and he isn't calling us to jump off every cliff we see! It's a journey of ever increasing faith, made up of small steps in the light. Yes there is more we could be doing, but your job is not to look at the mountain you haven't yet climbed but to see the next step you need to make. That still takes a step of faith, but it isn't a leap in the dark. 

The work of the heart

What's your purpose in life, why are you here? Do you have a destiny, is there even such a thing?

You have a unique character and personality (you're a special snowflake, just like everyone else...). These qualities are what you will excel at, your gifts and abilities.

Your mission in life, should you choose to accept it (and most don't), is to pursue the work of the heart. The human heart is strong, capable of love. Of changing people's lives, of building something real and lasting. What you can build, what you can do, who you can love. That's the work of the heart for you. It's not a career, it's not a lifestyle. It's a life. And it's the only thing that will satisfy you.

Of course the catch here is that loving, building, requires the involvement of other people. So you need to find your people too. People are tricky. You included. Learning to work with them, to be set free in the work of your heart, will refine you and strengthen you. This is a painful process, but it's the only way. You'll discover more about yourself, and find your place in your world. Not only is it incredibly rewarding, it's the only thing worth living for.

Wishes versus dreams

Your wishes enslave you, your dreams can set you free.

Wishes are the root of superstition. They're dreams, things you put your hope and energy into (even without realising it), but aren't prepared to work towards don't have faith they can actually happen. Dreams can become a passion and then a reality.

The media and culture feed us with wishes constantly. Wishes of luxury, stardom, sex, happiness... And we'll feed those evil gods our dreams and aspirations and wish real hard we win the lottery.