The Sunday Assembly: Musings on A ‘Godless Congregation’

I had been looking forward to experiencing London’s Sunday Assembly – or, as the media will have it, the ‘Atheist Church’. So many questions… what actually motivates people with no belief in God to meet together on a Sunday morning? What do they do? And – biggest question of all – what can UK churches that are losing members learn from a non-church movement that is escalating at a rate of knots, both in the UK and worldwide?

We rolled up at the door and did a double-take… everything was weirdly familiar: the welcome as we walked in, the buzz of bubbly conversation as people debated where to sit, the projector screen at the front emblazoned with the name of the non-church… right through to the very happy hosts Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans (stand-up comedians both) who bounded to the front to welcome the packed congregation, run through the morning’s agenda and encourage everyone to be friendly and introduce themselves to their neighbours.

But as I variously leapt to my feet to join in the lively Oasis (or Tori Amos or The Beatles) community singing, listen to a talk on forgiveness, and sit in silence for a few minutes of ‘personal reflection’, I was aware of something else, too.

I felt completely relaxed, yet knew this had little to do with the familiar culture, and more with the unexpected inclusiveness modeled from the front. Richard Dawkins-type angry atheists would likely have been irritated by the distinct lack of jibes about church, God, Jesus – anything in fact that may have offended Christians or those of any other faith who chose to attend.

The bouncy ‘good egg’ hosts came across as wholly authentic – yet not bitter, cynical, or superior. It turned out there was a good reason for the lively charismatic church model – both hosts have church backgrounds. While I didn’t discover why Pippa had moved on from her Christian faith, Sanderson did let on that childhood tragedy and trauma eventually demanded too great a stretch of faith for him to continue to believe in God.

Yet those of all faiths are welcome, and in fact, Christians, such as Dave Tomlinson from St Luke’s, Holloway, are regularly invited to speak. The only caveat is that speakers don’t use the platform to proselytize.

The guest speaker that morning based her talk on an inspiring ‘Forgiveness’ project she had initiated. It was short and low-key, although, as one of our friends who was also there pointed out later, it didn’t actually offer any tools to people who may have been hoping for help in this area.

But I had been struck by something quite simple… the speaker’s nuanced and respectful approach by which she balanced insights on forgiveness with assurances that no-one should feel pressured to forgive. I reflected on church settings in which I had felt coerced to make a particular response to a pointed message. And had probably put others under pressure, too. While The Sunday Assembly culture may have scored low on the equipping stakes, to someone more familiar with an authoritarian approach, the ‘adult-to-adult’ culture was a breath of fresh air. As I discovered later from their website, it was also an affirmation of The Sunday Assembly’s stance: ‘…We’re not here to tell you how to live your life, we just want to help you do whatever you want to do as well as you can.’

In fact, the one thing that jarred in this very inclusive style of ‘service’ was a slogan projected onto the screen at the front: ‘A Godless Congregation that Celebrates Life.’ Having discovered a number of Christians – and those of other faiths in the congregation, too – the description wasn’t a great fit.

The meeting drew to a close with the Notices… the usual things, including an appeal for help for someone leaving hospital, and details of mid-week home groups. Then it was time for coffee and cupcakes. Bar a few vaguely risqué bits in the poetry, familiar church stuff to the end.

And yet, perhaps not so familiar. As I pondered the success of the Sunday Assembly and what churches might take from it, the two qualities that came immediately to mind were Inclusiveness and Equality.

While The Assembly has been dubbed the ‘Atheist Church’, spreading non-belief in God is clearly not the raison d’etre here – whatever their slogan. Rather, their website shows a resolve that non-belief in God shouldn’t be a bar to people celebrating together and living meaningful lives, in line with their motto: ‘Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More.’ Anyone in sympathy with these positive aims is welcome, whatever their background.

With many Christians transitioning in their faith just now, I wonder what could happen were the church to be more inclusive, more intent on providing a safe and supportive haven for their members’ spiritual journeying, than on keeping everyone firmly on message with a particular take on scripture?

Which really links to the issue of equality. The leaders at The Assembly are great hosts, entrepreneurs, comedians, and much else besides. They just don’t lay claim to any special insights or status. And the invited speakers are interesting and sometimes inspiring contributors rather than authority figures. Which produces a culture in which people can learn to trust their intuition, keep their self-esteem, relate as adults, and generally grow and develop in a healthy way. I found myself wondering whether this could be one reason for the numbers of Christians counting themselves among the Assembly’s members. A plaintive post on their website made me think it just might:

‘…I find church such a heavy place and suffocating and full of rules that are broken as soon as you leave church. Sunday Assembly was uplifting, free, as in free thought, the people that were there were from all walks of life. I am not an atheist, I just want a community-based, honest place to go with like-minded people..’

Over all and through all and in all…?

When I first started exploring beyond the bounds of my charismatic evangelical Christian background, I would save up questions to unleash whenever I met with a particular trusted learned Christian friend who was evidently far more spiritually relaxed than I was. In fact, he tended to pose more questions than provide answers, but now and again he would light little wisdom fuses that would fizz away in my head, stirring things up for a long time afterwards. Such as the time he just casually dropped into the conversation, ‘Well, of course, there’s nowhere that God isn’t…’

I felt both thrown and strangely exhilarated. I recalled all the years of tippy-toeing around dark places and dodgy people my church tradition had warned me to avoid – spiritual ‘dementors’ who could suck up your soul if you so much as came within spitting distance. Yet, even here, my friend seemed to imply, there could still be signs of God for those who cared to change their focus.

Yet since that time I’ve discovered something even more awesome. Not only is there nowhere God isn’t, but sometimes he is more authentically represented in places you would least expect to find him, than in those you would.

Some years ago I began to train in coaching and related fields of human potential psychology. And to begin with, despite my trusty Christian friend’s input, I still found myself instinctively tip-toeing around the edges of some of the content. Somehow, the evangelical ‘Jesus is the answer’ refrain continued to worry away inside, causing me to question at a sub-conscious level at least, the validity of other approaches.

But then things began to get interesting. First, I discovered I was quite good at this stuff. Fellow-students I partnered with were experiencing deep shifts during some of the exercises I took them through, and began to book me to partner with them for the rest of the day. Interestingly, I found that working with them didn’t feel much different from my experience of praying with people. One girl actually burst into tears as she broke through a historical issue, then took me aside and somewhat weirdly asked ‘Who are you?’ She probed, insistent, until I found myself telling her about my work in Christian media – and then pounced on the information: ‘I knew it!’ She explained that she felt she had just had a profound spiritual experience and was convinced I was the conduit. I found myself reflecting again on the ‘nowhere that God isn’t’ idea.

The second thing I noticed was that the approaches I learned really came into their own when used in coaching sessions with other Christians. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since they had already helped me see off a long-standing issue. People who felt they were failures because despite being prayed for week after week, they still experienced defeat in some area of their lives; those who faced unexpected personal challenges for which they felt they had no coping mechanism; others whose unwanted behavioural issues were hurting both themselves and others… all discovered that they already had the inner resources to overcome their particular challenges – it was just that no-one had ever pointed out what they were and how to use them.

Interestingly, the fact that these people were now able to deal with these issues not only resolved some deep-seated problems, but also changed the way they felt about both themselves and God. Asking for prayer week after week had gradually made them feel victims: unless God sovereignly acted, then they were powerless, defeated. Worse, continuing unanswered prayer began to leave them with gnawing doubts about God’s care for them, or a sense that they must somehow have fallen far short of the mark. Simple strategies involving language and internal processing not only helped them resolve their issues, but in a triple-whammy, also removed stumbling-blocks from their relationship with God and restored their sense of self-esteem.

But it’s the third discovery that’s grabbing my attention just now. From the start, I picked up a huge level of spiritual interest amongst the delegates at my trainings. Somehow, rather than causing them to feel self-sufficient, learning about the intricate way we have been made and the powerful nature of our natural resources such as language, often prompted deep questions about God and the Universe. And it seems that this spiritual awareness is becoming as much of an influence on this area of study as an outcome of it.

At times I am still taken aback by the wealth of wisdom to be found in this particular coaching field. Wisdom that sometimes references biblical terminology – albeit at variance sometimes with its original meaning. For instance, the importance of ‘blessing’ children through our interaction with them so that, along with rest of ‘the Community of Saints’ assigned to their welfare, we protect their vulnerable spirits rather than imply innate badness, and saddle them with ‘curses’. If they are brought up in this way – unlike in some religious establishments, apparently (!) – they will be enabled to grow up whole and healthy and to fulfil all they have been put on Earth to achieve.

There’s more. In fact, there’s a whole movement in transformative coaching based on the importance of ‘awakening the soul’, connecting with and drawing from God, or ‘from wisdom that is beyond the cognitive self… the divine.’ Prayer and meditation are part and parcel of trainings I have come across.

One of the main pioneers of this personal growth model is a Christian, others have a Christian heritage and are on a spiritual journey, while others still come from Jewish and other spiritual backgrounds and find they are unearthing authentic, transformational truths on their travels. Importantly, they originally set out to discover what would work rather than to build a prescriptive model based on their particular spiritual worldview. Over their lifetime they have found much that has worked and had great success. Drawing now on their life’s lessons and discoveries, they have integrated a spiritual dimension into their model, explaining how it not only makes a natural fit with their approach, but explodes its potential for transforming lives. Their personal authenticity, together with their deep grasp of psychology, strong spiritual values and spiritual connection is uncannily reminiscent of Richard Rohr.

Just now it’s beginning to feel as though not only is there nowhere that God isn’t, but that many fields in so-called secular life are undergoing similar shifts, with a spiritual component inexorably becoming identified as part of the mix. And because these areas have evolved organically rather than out of someone’s particular doctrinal template, they can often end up reflecting more refreshingly authentic ‘Kingdom of God’ values and outcomes than some self-consciously Christian approaches.

It’s not just within coaching and related areas. Once the blinkers are off, I believe the evidence can be seen everywhere. What is happening? Why? Is it just me? Or is there really nowhere God isn’t – even in places people have been intent on keeping him out?

I’m an explorer by nature. A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to visiting London’s Sunday Assembly – dubbed ‘The Atheist’s Church’ by the media, curious for more answers. And the plot thickened… TBC

What was he Thinking? Aronofsky’s Noah…

Recently, after browsing through a bunch of conflicting reviews, Mick and I finally got around to seeing Aronofsky’s Noah for ourselves.

The reviews had been all over the show. At first American conservative evangelicals were slavering at the prospect of a shiny new Biblical epic movie, while the rest of the world seemed merely bemused.

But once these enthusiasts had seen the film, the ructions began. This wasn’t the Biblical story. For goodness’ sake, Noah comes over as an environmentally-aware vegan, while God is made out to be ruthless and capricious; some of those on the ark have no right being there – in fact, they were never in the bible, let alone on board the ark; there are weird, low-budget-looking ‘rock people’ lumbering through the landscape… and worst of all, whispered hints that the reason for all of the above is a sinister Gnostic thread intentionally woven through in the most dastardly way by its atheistic Director, Aronofsky.

Outrage. Then, as the evangelicals fired off furious blogs on the undermining nature of this unbiblical Noah movie, others began to take notice. Perhaps this film was worth a look after all?

Sure enough, the film reviews steadily warmed up as more liberal Christians now argued the case for a film that departed from the original text – on the basis that, duhh, it’s a film, not a Bible teaching module. Many from this group as well as those of other faiths and none, found they related to the anti-capitalist, ecological values of Aronofsky’s Noah.

I can’t remember ever going to see a film with less idea of what was coming. And in the event, I was impacted in a completely unexpected way.

The film opens looking very much like a classic Biblical epic, and features a gentle, compassionate Noah who risks his life for vulnerable children and animals, and is careful to bring up his own children with strong environmental values.

Then slowly, subtly, Noah’s natural compassion gets swallowed up in his dark conviction that God is entrusting his callous plans to him, and he assumes personal responsibility for realizing his bleak vision. Noah hardens progressively, becoming obsessive, judgmental, dogmatic and joyless, until eventually he alienates his entire family.

Finally, Noah’s understanding of God’s instructions conflicts with his deepest instinct to love and care in a terrible emotional crescendo. And when love eventually wins out, he broods, convinced that in choosing to go with his heart, he has failed God’s ultimate test.

In his depression, Noah doesn’t register that even as he envelopes himself in self-loathing, physically removing himself from his family, they are instinctively warming back to the man who rediscovered his God-given natural compassion when it counted most.

Finally, rather less sure now of his grasp on God’s voice, Noah is restored to those he alienated, his faith now sitting more comfortably with his compassionate nature. He has become kindly and approachable once more. And arguably a truer representation of a God of love.

Regardless of whatever else can be construed from Aronofsky’s Noah, the film didn’t come across to me as the story of a righteous man whose innate compassion shows up the gross shortcomings of a cruel, capricious God. Rather, it struck me as a timely illustration of the different stages of the believer’s spiritual journey. James Fowler’s valuable Stages of Faith, based on his personal research, reveals how faith development passes through up to 6 progressive stages, from the initial child’s understanding of God, through to the dogmatic certainties and judgmentalism of the Stage 3 fundamentalist stage, and eventually on to the humility of the more open and inclusive later stages.

Noah’s fixated belief that the Creator is making such harsh demands actually links closely to Fowler’s Stage 3 on the spiritual journey, the fundamentalist stage most often characterised by certainty, conviction and dogmatism.

As he wrestles with the mounting implications of that stage, Noah arguably finds himself caught between envisaging God’s displeasure at his questioning and the prospect of having to re-evaluate all he thought he knew… without really knowing how far this process could unravel: the Stage 4 position that so many evangelical Christians are encountering today.

Finally, Noah learns to travel more lightly, spiritually-speaking. He begins to hold the tension between faith, doubt, and unanswered questions, to let go of his dogged insistence that he alone holds the monopoly on the truth, and to value his natural intuition and discernment. All of which can be understood as having reached the wiser, more peaceable and authentic shores of Stage 5.

So, what did you make of it? Is Aronofsky’s Noah a story of the amoral nature of a ruthless God being thrown into sharp relief by the compassion of Noah? Or is this a tale for our time, in which the Director tracks with the expansion of Noah’s spiritual awareness, from an ego-led dualistic Stage 3 perception towards the deeper, more authentically spiritual understanding of the later stages?

Or maybe there’s a third option. That in the end the message we glean from the film actually has less to do with Aronofsky’s personal agenda and more to do with the faith stage we ourselves happen to be on at the time…?

‘Who is on The Lord’s Side?’ A thought on the death of Fred Phelps

So earlier today Fred Phelps, of ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist fame, died at the age of 84.

Members of his church were featured on Russell Brand’s show, the video of which was linked to this blog’s Facebook page. The most interesting aspect was the way in which their bigoted so-called ‘Christian’ stance was shown up by Brand’s genuine efforts to ensure they had a fair hearing, and that they weren’t pilloried by the audience, or in other ways made to feel uncomfortable.

It’s interesting to see how a similar scenario is playing out in many cases following the death of Mr Phelps. Given that he and his church would cruelly picket funerals with any trumped-up association with being gay, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if gay people everywhere were now gleefully preparing to return the favour – if only a funeral were on the cards for Mr Phelps.

A number probably would be. But what really gets the attention – in line with the reaction of the gay guests on Brand’s show – is when those in Fred Phelps’ line of fire refuse to react in the same spirit.

George Takei’s (Star Trek’s Sulu, and gay activist) Facebook page today carried the update: ‘Today, Mr Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no-one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.’

And according to cjonline.com, Planting Peace, the group that painted their resource centre (across the road from Westboro Baptist) in rainbow colours to symbolize peace and change for LGBT communities, responded by sending their condolences, saying: ‘(Our) philosophy has always been to overwhelm hate with unconditional love.’

How ironic that the upsetting, hateful actions of a so-called church group should be answered in such a different spirit by those not even claiming to be Christian.

Earlier this week, I was asked whether a lovely young man I knew was ‘the Lord’s’. I find the assumptions behind that question breath-taking. And the actions of Fred Phelps v today’s grace-filled reactions of some of those he targeted remind me just why.

All Most Welcome or Almost Welcome…?

Over the last little while I have been out of the loop, not just of the Spiritual Journey site, but the normal things of everyday life. Everything suddenly ground to a halt when my father suffered a major stroke early in December, and several traumatic weeks later, died in hospital.

Life immediately transitioned into a swirl of hospital life, caring for my mother, and sharing in the chaotic lives and emotions of the relatives of the other stroke patients in my father’s ward. Pretty much everything else was parked on the shelf.

And then one morning, as we were with him, my father passed on quietly in his sleep. Just like that.

The enormous grief we all felt was swiftly swallowed up in another round of intense busyness, this time centred around funeral planning and all the administrative paraphernalia that claims your time and attention when a close family member dies.

Then, finally, came the day of the funeral; a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning with a very special touch that would have appealed to my meteorologist father: a beautiful double rainbow edged its way spectacularly across the blue skies over the church just as the last two people arrived. The atmosphere inside was warm and supportive, the pews packed with assorted friends and family. The service itself was a sensitive and meaningful celebration of my Dad’s life, with the music, the readings and the shared memories all piecing together something of his very essence.

Yet… in amongst all the positivity, something, somewhere had jarred. One of my daughters put her finger on it later that week, quoting from the format suddenly as we chatted: ‘…the great promise of new life – for those of us who are Believers…’ She pulled a ‘yikes!’ kind of face, instantly nailing my own source of discomfort. The church hadn’t been filled solely with professing Christians. Yet this phrase had popped up more than once, pointedly implying that the assurance may not be applicable to everyone there.

Meanwhile, another, somewhat higher-profile funeral took place around the same time… that of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. The Reverend Dave Tomlinson took Mr Biggs’ funeral – and, having also presided over the funeral of Bruce Reynolds (seen as the Robbery’s ‘mastermind’) a year earlier – found himself scathingly dubbed ‘The Villains’ Priest’ in some quarters of the press.

Personally, I loved the label. It sounded to me reassuringly like Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’.

Dave seemed fine with it, too, responding thoughtfully to his critics in an article in the Church Times. He explained how he had joined many of Ronnie’s friends and family in the pub after the service (happily handing yet more ammunition to a few journalists), describing them as representative of ‘the hordes of people who know that their lives are a bit screwed up, who make no claim to being squeaky-clean Christians, but whose hearts are open to God, in all sorts of ways.’

With humility, he pointed to the deeper complexities of the concept of a ‘sheep and goat’-type Last Judgement: ‘…The reality is that there is a sheep and a goat in all of us – certainly within me. Divine judgement has to be more sophisticated than simply telling the Biggses of this world to stand on one side, and people like me to stand on the other.’

Whether the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus shared his life all went on to step over some qualifying line or not, they evidently sensed that they were accepted rather than being judged by him. Just as the Prodigal Son was extravagantly welcomed home rather than quizzed first to ensure he had signed all the officially-repentant forms.

So I’ve been musing… isn’t it likely to be more productive, let alone more authentically spiritual – more Jesus-like – to count people in rather than to assume that unless they conform to our particular spiritual brand, or are at the same point on the journey as ourselves, that they are unlikely to make it safely through the Pearly Gates?

And how significant is it, I wonder, that shortly after Dave took Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, he was once again featured in the press alongside the Biggs family – this time welcoming Ronnie’s grand-daughter, Lilly, into the church at her baptism…?

No Fear…

Remember Peretti? His ‘light versus darkness’ popular Christian fiction demonizing the spiritual ‘other’, were part and parcel in my younger days of the general climate of fear and prejudice towards any faith or spirituality outside of evangelical Christianity.

In reality, I guess those books were probably the inevitable outcome of a generation already steeped in the superstitions of a conservative charismatic Christian mindset. Looking back over the years, I can recall seriously weighing strong warnings from the front of the church never to remove my shoes before entering a Sikh/Hindu temple – the very act would signal submission to the demonic powers of that temple; that spirits were hanging around waiting to jump out at you at psychic fairs and Mind, Body Spirit festivals… and so much more, it’s embarrassing. The ribbons of looped tape reels wafting around the grass verges here and there were tangible evidence of the various witchy curses just waiting to attach themselves to unwary Christians. We had to tread very, very carefully – the world was a spiritual minefield out to snare us…

I went along with much of it – or at least, kept many of those things under review on my growing Shelf of Spiritual Questions. But even I was taken aback many years later by the powerful reach of this mindset. I was walking for the first time on to a particular TV set with the Executive Editor of one of the Christian media Channels I worked for. It was a set for a series I would present, and the original, rather sterile professional design had been vetoed. Relieved, I had quickly sketched out an alternative design – an altogether moodier look incorporating a background of heavy drapes woven through with Latin calligraphy. Happily, this one had met with approval.

So there we were, entering the studio filled with various TV crew busily adjusting their cameras and lights, to view the finished article – more beautiful even than I had envisaged, a gorgeous set bathed in the gentle glow of flickering candles. I beamed – but the Boss was jumpy. ‘Liz – are you sure this is ok? It all looks very dark… spiritually dark.’ Eyeing the drapes, his agitation increased: ‘What do those words mean…?

It was too much for me and my personal ‘dark’ side quickly shot back. ‘Oh those – nothing to worry about. Just a verse from the Karma Sutra. In Latin.’

‘What…!’ Eyes wide he spun round – before slumping and grinning sheepishly as the entire crew convulsed with laughter. ‘Liz Ray – you are one wicked woman!’

At least he had the grace to laugh. My sense is that years of dodgy teaching have left many so bound up with fear of potentially ‘dark’ people and situations that they have walked narrower and narrower paths, opting out of God-given opportunities and compromising their own personal identities for fear of spiritual contamination. And, ironically, the blanket-vetoeing and suspicion of anything that doesn’t conform spiritually means that true spiritual discernment is never cultivated.

How strange that with such reverence for C S Lewis in our circles we missed his own insightful thoughts on different faiths and spiritualities: ‘The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as the gap between those who worship & those who don’t.’

I decided eventually to test the validity of these words. On the look-out for ways in which to connect with spiritual searchers some years back, I trained in a Bible-based model of dream interpretation to use in a booth at Mind Body Spirit-type fairs.

The one thing those experiences impressed on me was the inclusive, affirming nature of the message of people’s dreams. I once found myself interpreting a dream which clearly signaled that the dreamer was a healer – were they? Their face lit up, buoyed by the recognition – yes, a Reiki Master. Didn’t God know that that Reiki didn’t actually count, I mused? Nope, evidently not. Taking a deep breath I continued to give the interpretation straight… it clearly showed the dreamer’s healing gift increasing as they followed the deeper spiritual path they had connected with recently. Moved, the dreamer explained that they had been brought up in a Christian home and had lately found themselves being drawn back to the church that they had earlier rejected… The Missio Dei, I discovered, is more just than a religious phrase… God really is at work in his own world, and the best response is to watch what he is doing – and the awesome respect with which he operates – and get alongside it.

Over the years I’ve followed with interest the spiritual journey of a major New Spirituality leader in the UK, fascinated by what has always come over to me as a mix of deep integrity and authentic spiritual hunger. Where would this take him, I had wondered? Originally, he would – by his own admission – promote any spiritual guru who produced some sort of authenticating supernatural manifestation. Until he began to notice that supernatural effects didn’t necessarily equate with values, ethics, or ‘goodness.’ In fact, even information gleaned directly from an authentically spiritual source was no guarantee of the truth of that information. Spirits themselves, he discovered, could lie. He wrote eventually that the deepest truth he had gleaned from his spiritual experiences over the years was encapsulated in the Bible verse, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God.’

Browsing the web recently, I saw that he had been an attendee at a leading New Spirituality centre – where a gifted Christian acquaintance of mine was giving a seminar on Christ-centred spirituality. The ‘guru’ had evidently taken to this person, and afterwards wrote a thoughtful reflection on both the appealing stance he had taken and the positive spiritual content of his message.

Interesting to see the route this particular journey is beginning to go. And sobering, too, to realize that had my friend been fazed by fears of connecting with those running a New Spirituality retreat, the message that is now helping to shape the journey of this particular spiritual guru would never have been heard…

God, NLP, and The Big Questions…

Yesterday morning on BBC’s The Big Questions, one atheist guest, Jonny Scaramanga, spoke about his charismatic evangelical upbringing, and how as an adolescent he would feel euphoric during times of worship – transported in a way he ascribed at the time to the work of the Holy Spirit. Later on, he made the unsettling discovery that he could experience exactly the same emotions listening to secular music. So it had all been down to the music and not God at all, he reasoned, and, disillusioned, his faith swiftly unraveled.

I believe Christians everywhere who have dipped their toes into unfamiliar aspects of either secular culture or different faith/spiritual cultures will have had similar experiences. Those who read or watched the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat Pray Love’ will probably recall Elizabeth’s irritated struggle in an Ashram with a painful Hindu liturgy that seemed interminable and discordant – until the night she tried it once again, this time with a heartfelt focus on her young nephew’s sleeping/nightmare issues. It is as though she wrestles with God through the medium of the liturgy and then finally breaks through – when in apparent confirmation of the outcome of her spiritual battle, she learns that her nephew has had a breakthrough of his own with a peaceful, unbroken night’s sleep. So does Elizabeth’s experience validate Hinduism, invalidate Christianity, is this all a coincidence… or is something else going on?

Talking of Hinduism, I know one person who was very impacted by the ‘Toronto Blessing’, and like many others, would fall to the floor jerking wildly whenever he was prayed for. Wow, this had to be God. Then he learned from a Hindu colleague that worshippers experienced exactly the same manifestations within his own religion. Did that nullify my friend’s experience? He certainly thought so, and like Jonny, he too began to lose his faith from that point.

I remember being unnerved myself as I began to attend NLP-based (Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the study of the structure of human experience) conferences when I first trained as a coach. At times, these actually looked and felt uncannily like church, complete with encouragement to connect spiritually, times of corporate release of forgiveness (that were actually more radical than anything I had encountered in church), values that included the belief that identity is to be found in contribution to the world, and so on. One particular session resembled the aftermath of a Toronto church gathering, with groups of giggly shiny-eyed people hugging one another and generally engaging in a huge corporate love-fest. They had just spent a session re-connecting spiritually and by all accounts it had worked.

It was an unnerving period. I would experience times of being in church that were interpreted as the Holy Spirit showing up. Then I would find myself in an NLP group situation that felt very similar, yet which I knew had been engineered through language and other sensory anchors. I began to understand the incredible power of language, and the part this plays in creating our experience of reality. And I began to wonder…

I examined the church situation more closely and realized that those very anchors I had learned about were firmly in place there, too. So here was a dilemma. Did that mean that my experience of God had actually been about the use of language, music and other natural tools all along? It was one of the most challenging times of my life…

Finally, I realised that there was a third option. That God was far bigger than I had conceived him to be, and was actually being accessed and experienced by people everywhere. He was there, present, in the language, in music, in the hearts of those of different faiths and spiritualities (and none). The one thing I couldn’t hold on to any longer was the illusion that God was only to be found within the confines of the Christian church – let alone the narrower confines of the charismatic evangelical church.

On the final day of my NLP Practitioner course, students were asked to write and read aloud a passage using what is known as the ‘Milton Model’ – conscious use of language in order to produce a desired effect. I decided to write about – and recreate for the audience – the very similar experiences I had had in a church situation and in an NLP conference, mentioning the different labels that the speakers in these 2 situations had used to describe what had happened. I brought the piece in to land with a final Miltonian-crafted suggestion:

‘And it may be that as I relate these experiences to you that you find yourself wondering – was there anything transcendent at all about the first experience? Or did the second event show that in reality the Milton model has far more to do with changing your experience – that this is actually one of the incredible uses, joys and delights of his language approach. Or it could be that the extraordinary power of mere words to effect change, itself suggests that there are hidden depths to the universe – couldn’t it?’

Interestingly, numerous students and trainers approached me excitedly after this piece to confide that I exactly articulated their own experience, too. Using the Milton Model had given them a new awareness of a deeply spiritual dimension to the world, one that a number of them were now consciously pursuing.

‘Almost all religion’ explains Richard Rohr, ‘begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access.’ And, by extension, that any other apparent means of access has by definition to be false – and also to cast aspersions on the validity of the original ‘holy’ encounter…

Personally, I finally gave up on drawing boundary lines for God and graciously permitted people to access him wherever she was to be found. After all, whether we listen to secular or Christian bands, go through times of spiritual wrestling in a variety of faith traditions, believe ourselves to be moved by the creative power of language or by the direct power of God himself, the bigger truth has to be that there is actually nowhere that God isn’t, ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17 v 28).

Something in the Air: Beyond Woolwich

We knew it would happen. Just as it did with the Oklahoma tornadoes and countless other catastrophes. The fundamentalist claim that the Woolwich murder had been orchestrated by an angry God for some imagined offence.

And it wasn’t long in coming… Westboro Baptist Church’s incendiary tweet, alleging that God sent the killers as a payback for the equal marriage bill that passed its third reading on Tuesday.

At around the same time, a radical Muslim cleric claimed that God destined British soldier Lee Rigby to die in the terrible attack.

Meanwhile, in contrast to the callous, gloating spirit of both of these claims, a small group of clerics representing the major faiths came together to denounce both the barbaric act and the violent reactions they sparked, and speak up movingly and authentically for an integrated community built on mutual respect and solidarity.

This outlook has been echoed most passionately on my Facebook Newsfeed by a Pagan friend. In all honesty, it’s been disarming to discover that I often find myself more in agreement with his updates than I do with some of the evangelical Christian ones.

Many of us grew up in ‘us and them’ Christian communities that honestly believed their expression of faith held the monopoly on the truth. But surely the real differences are to be found not between those of differing faiths, but between the well-intentioned of all faiths and none, and extremist fundamentalists of all faith backgrounds.

I’m not sure why this should come as such a surprise. The scriptures are full of accounts of good ‘God-fearing’ people who were neither Jew nor Christian… as well as a few give-away pointers along the lines of ‘by their fruits you will know them.’

And there are so many illustrations from our own day and age. A few years back I made a series of programmes with Canon Andrew White, ‘the Vicar of Baghdad’, who explained to me that a large proportion of his Iraqi Anglican congregation were Moslems who recognized that this community also worshipped God, or ‘Allah’. He spoke moving about his Ayatollah ‘brother’ who had suffered so much under Saddam Hussein, and with whom he shared a deep spiritual connection. He found it difficult to understand why Christians should even question the natural affinity between these religious groups.

Something is shifting in the spiritual world. Surprising things are being said by surprising people, and old models of divvying up the world just won’t do. And it’s going to take more than the odd modifying tweak here and there to really get it. A whole new paradigm… or wineskin, perhaps?

It’s always helpful to give an ear to those who have understood something of this paradigm and worked with it for many years. Talking of which, watch for an interview with Noel Moules on his explosive take on Shalom, coming to this site soon…

And in the meantime, hot on the heels of Pope Francis in the contest for Surprising New Religious Commentator award, I bring you Russell Brand’s reaction to the Woolwich tragedy: ‘Let’s look beyond our superficial and fleeting differences (and) instead leave flowers at each other’s places of worship. Let’s reach out in the spirit of love and humanity and connect to one another, perhaps we will then see what is really behind this conflict, this division, this hatred and make that our focus…’

Christian Spirituality: What is it… and where to from here?

Drinks & Dialogue with the Dranes!
8.00 pm, Wednesday 10 April, Molesey (Venue tba)

For those who have grown up in the Evangelical church, this is an intensely interesting time. Niggling questions that, for many of us, refused to be quelled by the church culture of certainty, are now not only being engaged with seriously but look set to bring about a paradigm shift.

Many Christians are relieved at the conversations taking place about issues such as Christian Universalism, hell, gay sexuality and so on. But for those whose faith has been built on certainties about the pre-requisites of salvation and focused on saving souls from hell, the current debates can also be confusing and destabilizing. Why worry if God has everything in hand? And if we believed the wrong stuff for so long, how can we know if perspectives popularized by the likes of Steve Chalke and Rob Bell are any closer to the truth? What does our faith actually rest on? And if so much of what we once believed has unraveled thus far, how can we know if there will be anything left at the end of all this…?

John Drane is a great person to have around at such times! An academic, theologian, author of best-selling books on the Bible, Introducing the Old Testament and Introducing the New Testament as well as numerous challenging books on culture and spirituality, he is truly radical in every sense of the word… able to go to the very roots of the Christian faith, and also to envisage freeing, creative ways of living it that connect us with, rather than distance us from others. John’s wife, Olive Drane lectures with John in Fuller Seminary, has authored books on creativity and spirituality, and is also very engaged with finding imaginative ways to connect with those on a spiritual journey.

If this evening sounds up your street, please reserve your place with Liz asap. Then come with your thoughts and questions and join us for an edgy, inspirational evening of Drinks and Dialogue with the Dranes!