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).

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