Controlling or Controlled…?

Over the last few days, the issue of gay marriage has acted as a touchstone for an avalanche of strong emotions from Christians with widely-differing viewpoints. Comments and disagreements lie strewn across Facebook, sometimes reasoned and courteous, at other times more barbed, graduating to the downright insulting and apoplectic.

Christians who shout down the idea of gay marriage, or gay sexuality in general – often peppering their views with Levitical texts – are usually perceived to be harsh, controlling characters. Sometimes they are. I was once stalked in my media career by a ‘Christian’ spokesperson who believed that the reason we had such a homosexual ‘problem’ in the UK was that we refused to take the Old Testament seriously. So what was he proposing, exactly? ‘String them all up’ he bellowed, ‘and the problem will disappear overnight!’

Hate-filled extremes exist. But I often find myself focusing on ‘controlled’ church members, rather than ‘controlling’ ones… those who, hand on heart, would dearly love not to stand in judgement on anyone, but have been convinced that this is what the bible demands of them. Caught in a cruel double-bind, they believe that keeping quiet would not merely threaten their own eternal destiny, but potentially those of others, too.

Fundamentalists are so often trapped in a life and personality-cramping fear of hell. I know – I experienced it. For many years there were two of us slugging it out in my body: the real, flesh-and-blood me, who instinctively resonated with people from all walks of life and longed to respond to them warmly and spontaneously; and the fearful legalistic side of me that felt weighed down with responsibility for their ticket to eternity.

As, mercifully, I finally clawed my way out of this angst-ridden black hole, I found myself drawn to others trapped in the same crippling mindset. One of the earlier encounters still lives with me. I was speaking at a church on ‘colouring outside the lines’ – on the impossibility of reaching the limits of God’s love – when I noticed one of the visitors shaking, almost imperceptibly. I had spotted her immediately – a serious-faced girl with long blonde hair and ethereal model looks, enigmatically dressed in shapeless nondescript clothes. I started multi-tasking, trying hard to stay on-message while also keeping an eye on her as she variously welled up with tears, sat upright suddenly, and glanced knowingly at her husband, continuing to shake gently throughout.

It transpired that the couple were from the US; they belonged to a strict fundamentalist church where pretty much everything that wasn’t compulsory was forbidden. Somehow the girl had discovered Rob Bell’s ‘Velvet Elvis’ and was riveted, her soul sensing the promise of liberation. Her husband shared her excitement – but they had been conditioned to be wary: what if this was all just too good to be true – a ‘snare’? With hell always snapping at their heels, there was just one thing for it – they decided to consult with a church leader.

Unsurprisingly, the rug of hope was swiftly yanked out from under them as they were set straight: engaging with Rob Bell’s deceptive message, they were told, would hurl them onto the slippery slope towards Liberalism and ultimately an eternity without God.

So near and yet so far. The girl confided that at that point she had felt herself sinking into utter hopelessness. But her spirit had been too stirred to let go entirely. She informed God that she would indeed steer clear of Rob Bell – but asked that if there was any truth in his message, that somehow this would cross her path another way.

The couple prepared to visit their friends in England, where they accompanied them to their church – and were amazed to hear a very similar message. Since Rob Bell’s book had just been published, they assumed I had drawn from it for my talk. The fact that I hadn’t heard of him seemed to encourage them – this must be bigger than Rob Bell! As the girl sat, wondering at just how quickly they were hearing the unfamiliar message of God’s unconditional love yet again, her soul soared, and she described how she shook as she felt the sensation of bonds snapping off, liberating her from the harsh, legalistic spirituality that was all she had known.

Conforming to church teaching her entire life meant she would have come across to her non-church friends as a dour, judgemental kill-joy. Yet part of her motivation in taking an uncompromising stand for her beliefs was to save others. It’s an irony that the most sensitive people can be the very ones liable to take such a stand – the predicament of others is of far more importance to them than their personal popularity.

With the backdrop of my own experience and this girl’s dramatic personal story, I was maybe less surprised than some to see earlier this week that even in Westboro Baptist church, people can be more complex than they appear.

Megan, the daughter of the notorious Fred Phelps, who regularly turned up to carry placards on their obnoxious, high-profile ‘God hates Fags’ demonstrations, and twitter her extreme religious views, has apparently made a dramatic theological u-turn, extricating herself from both her family and her father’s church. In an interview, she explains how she finally woke up to the deep flaws in their beliefs and practices. But why had she aligned herself with this group for so long, harassing gay people and the churches that supported them? She had just wanted to use her life for good. Now that she and her sister are free to think for themselves, they are taking time to process their recovery, and consider more positive, loving ways to make their lives count.

A timely reminder that sometimes even the most apparently opinionated, intolerant and judgemental may just be idealistic, well-meaning people cruelly skewed by a harsh, controlling theology…

This entry was posted in Spiritual Transition and tagged Hell, judgementalism, Legalism, Megan Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church.

small truth or Great Truth…?

I woke this morning to hear John Humphreys trying gamely to get his head around the latest astronomical discovery – a group of quasars so large it would take 4 billion years to cross it travelling at the speed of light. The scale of the structure apparently challenges Einstein’s ‘Cosmological Principle’ – the assumption that the universe looks the same from every point of view.

Along with John, I was doing my level best to get a handle on the idea of quasars, but failing miserably. I did, though, take on board the fact that the discovery trounces scientists’ current understanding of the scale of the universe. Later, I read that Einstein’s assumption is so ingrained that researchers are struggling with the new information. ‘People are maybe understandably reluctant to give up the thing, because it will make cosmology too bloody complicated’, sighed a candid Oxford University spokesperson.

Even early on a Saturday morning, the metaphors were jumping. I went back to re-read one of the passages I had recently underlined in Richard Rohr’s new book, ‘Immortal Diamond’:

“In the authentic search for God, the field keeps expanding and never tightening. As in the universe itself, we move toward an ever greater aliveness, a greater consciousness, a deeper union… a divine allurement, which is calling the universe forward until a truly cosmic ‘Christ comes to full stature’… Do you want the Gospel to be small truth or Great Truth? That’s what many Christians must ask themselves.”

Rohr’s use of an expanding universe as a metaphor for a growing understanding of and relationship with God whisked me straight back to my Philosophy seminars at university. As a mature student, I had been euphoric at the exciting new realms of knowledge that were opening up to me after 10 years as a full-time mum – and a Christian wrestling with a dualistic worldview.

I had been brought up to understand what a dark, dangerous world it was ‘out there’ – and how only Christians (actually probably only evangelical Christians) had the Truth. Joining a charismatic evangelical church in my teens sealed the deal. It meant that anything and everything – from other spiritualities to books on psychology – that wasn’t earthed in our particular Christian worldview, was at best futile and at worst dark and dangerously flawed. Safest not to engage.

The thing is, I had no personal axe to grind about the world out there. I was drawn to it. As a curious, creative person, I sensed that it contained many bright, beautiful, and interesting things. But sadly I just reasoned that this attractiveness must be part and parcel of the danger – rather like a spiritual Venus fly trap.

I was also drawn to so many ‘out there’ people who came across as instinctively warm, generous and loving – and often more attractive personalities than some very upright Christians I knew – despite being Buddhist, gay, or whatever else seemingly counted against them. It was both sad and frustrating to live with the sense that a spiritual wall effectively divided us.

Then in that Philosophy class came the first suggestions that a Christian worldview may not, after all, be set in stone. Studying the 19th Century Crisis of Faith, I was struck by the fact that those who held on to their faith in the face of ‘undermining’ scientific discoveries, were actually the ones who had allowed the new information to adjust and enlarge their understanding of God. Those who had tried to keep their image of God penned within the old demarcations were the very ones whose faith would gradually and painfully trickle through their fingers.

For me, it was the beginning of an interesting, challenging, and liberating journey that has gently revolutionized my understanding of the nature of God, and of the integration of his creation. I just pray that embracing Great Truth never gets to be too threatening – or just ‘too bloody complicated’ – to keep on going…

Lost, Saved – or just Unleashing the Power Within?

Tuning into Christian TV recently, I winced at the appeal to viewers to help ‘reach the Lost’. Not on account of the request for money so much as the glib definition of all non-Christians – and sometimes non-Evangelical Christians – as ‘Lost’. ‘Lost’ in the sense that they are drifting towards hell – unless someone can persuade them to recite the Sinner’s Prayer in time. I recently met someone from an extreme church background who still finds it difficult to hear the word ‘hell’, such was the trauma it induced in her as a child. I grew up in the more gentle Anglican church, but still absorbed the idea that people I knew may be damned unless I could convince them to invite God into their lives. For a sensitive, introverted youngster, it was a grotesque burden.

Aside from the theology of heaven and hell itself, Saved-or-Lost thinking leaves no room for those who may be journeying spiritually and living more congruently with their convictions than some fully signed-up Christians. And it takes no account of those whose religious labels may have been arrived at arbitrarily – such as the influential Mormon government policy adviser I once interviewed, who had an abusive upbringing and spent most of his early adult life in jail. A profound spiritual experience in his cell one day convinced him that there was a God – and that he himself was loved. Impressed, his prison officer introduced him to her Mormon temple, where he was baptized; 30 or so years later he works tirelessly alongside disadvantaged young people, convinced that God has called him to encourage them to make something of their lives. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that his Mormon tag would still define him as ‘Lost’ in some Christian circles.

Interestingly, the Bible itself seems to contain shades of grey… characters intriguingly described as ‘god-fearing’ despite being neither Jew nor Christian. Cornelius, for instance, had as real a faith as any of Jesus’ disciples, lacking only a context for what he already knew and experienced – something that evidently surprised and challenged Peter to the core when he visited him. What if Christians everywhere were to assume that the same was happening today – that many of those without a religious label may still have an authentic spiritual awareness that only needed affirming and contextualizing? What if they found themselves counted ‘in’ spiritually, rather than assumed to be ‘out’…?

I may just have glimpsed the possibilities during a 3-day event with US motivational guru, Tony Robbins. Held in London’s ExCel Centre, ‘Unleash the Power Within’ was high-intensity, featuring lunatic dancing and more every 30 minutes or so, to keep the endorphins flowing! Then suddenly, just as we acclimatized to those racing endorphins, everything changed. Tony reflected thoughtfully on the various personal breakthroughs delegates had experienced over the 3 days, and the ‘miracles’ that had enabled them to attend, and stressed the importance of earthing these experiences in gratitude. To God. For the next half-hour, he told us, there would be space to do exactly that. For most, he expected this to mean engaging in prayer – anyone who found the idea of God problematic could substitute whatever they personally found meaningful. And with that, Tony’s image disappeared from the various screens around the centre, and was replaced by a symbolic lighted candle.

Gone were the familiar thudding clubby sounds as pure strains of evocative, worshipful music began to permeate the stadium. I was nervous. This was the secular UK – no-one would pray – obviously – and the half-hour would be prematurely and embarrassingly wrapped up. My eyes were shut tight, not in spiritual connection, but just because I couldn’t bear to watch 12,000+ people shuffling awkwardly as a strong event limped to an undignified close.

Then it happened. Inching an eye open just a tad, I noticed that the wild Irishman to my left had disappeared. No, actually – he was on the floor. Prostrate on the floor, in fact, engaging earnestly and emotionally with his God. I glanced to my right, wondering about the young party girl I had chatted to. Her cheeks were wet with tears and her arms raised as she, too, unselfconsciously reached for spiritual connection.

Taking in the whole stadium now, I realised that everyone was either praying prostrate on the floor, had their arms raised in spontaneous thanks to God, or else were kneeling or standing with hands folded, rapt in prayer. The spiritual connection was palpable – in fact, a response of this kind, together with all the tears, shining eyes and hugging that followed, would have been written up as spiritual revival had this been billed as a Christian event. No religious jargon, no spiritual hoops to jump through or subtle pressures of any kind – just the affirming, grace-filled suggestion that their God was already quietly rooting for them, and that they had free access to him. Who knows where this experience may have led once they returned home?

Of course, Tony Robbins is a powerful motivator, and maybe more went into the simple invitation to pray than I picked up at the time. But however it came about, his open, uncomplicated invitation paved the way for many to connect with the still small voice within, some perhaps for the first time – and led to deeply moving, positive experiences that permeated the remainder of the event.

The only downside I can think of has been that the event left me more sensitive than ever to the exasperating inadequacy of those ‘Lost’ and ‘Saved’ labels…

Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace…

Coming in October to a bookshop near you – watch out for ‘Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective’, by ‘Shalom Activist’ and teacher Noel Moules. Some years back, at a time when many Christians would guardedly preface their changing perspectives on heaven and hell with ‘I’m not a Universalist but…’ I asked Noel if he now saw himself as a Universalist… characteristically, he responded without a moment’s hesitation, ‘Of course!’ Noel’s book bursts with faith and freshness, and comes over every bit as authentic, colourful and passionate as its author.

The topical question of Universalism is included in the book, and so much more besides; from fresh perspectives on the potential of our relationship to ‘wild nature’, to ‘shalom activism’, Noel draws from a wide range of references in his discussions on the radical implications of truly living from a Jesus perspective. Both liberating and deeply challenging, ‘Fingerprints of Fire’ is likely to connect not only with questioning Christians, but also with those who, like Gandhi, may have been impressed with Jesus but turned off by his church. The Amazon ‘look inside’ facility, reveals Pagan and Humanist recommendations for the book, as well as a number from influential Christians. Envisaging Christianity as nothing less than a vibrant, revolutionary way of being in the world, Noel’s book promises to contribute to the spiritual journeys of people of all faiths and none, and ignite a whole new raft of intriguing and energetic conversations.

How to be a bad Christian

Although we have moved in different circles, I have known Dave Tomlinson for more years than I like to admit, and have been intrigued to find whenever we’ve bumped into one another, that our spiritual journeys have had many parallels. Dave’s latest book, ‘How to be a Bad Christian’, is being launched at Greenbelt this year – celebrated in typical Dave-style with a special new brew of “Bad Christian’ ale. It’s too early to comment on the beer, but based on the snatches I have read and on Dave himself (another ardent Leonard Cohen fan – is there no end to this man’s credentials?), I can’t wait for a copy of his book. Here’s Dave, in his local, giving a few clues to what you can expect…

‘What has God ever done for us?’ A helpful tool…

Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward’ is an enlightening, encouraging read for anyone going through a spiritual transition. Rohr explains the process as moving from first to second-half of life spirituality – the first half being the period in which we live with the illusion of certainty and control, and the second where issues such as tragedy, failure, hurt and other challenges nudge us towards a deeper, more complex, more authentic take on spiritual things.

Second-half of life spirituality is likely to mess with everything we thought we knew. Faced with the kind of complexities that never came up in our church teachings, we can find ourselves wandering the wilderness, uncertain if our faith is evolving or just unraveling.

At these times, it may even be tempting to ditch our beliefs wholesale rather than to calmly sort through what we actually have left. But the likelihood is that we’re on the journey because of our commitment to reality… and knee-jerk reactions can leave us in unreality still – just a different version.

So how to make sure during the tough times that you let go only of the things that need discarding, and stay true to yourself ? In my life-coaching work, I have noticed some NLP (or neuro-linguistic programming) strategies come into their own as spiritual transitioning tools; in particular, the NLP approach to cutting through negative ‘limiting beliefs’ to a more accurate picture of where you are really at, can be eye-opening.

Intentionally applying just 3 simple questions to a ‘limiting belief’, or knee-jerk reaction, quickly reveals any contrary evidence buried deep within our sub-conscious. To restore these to your conscious mind and enable you to come up with a more accurate belief statement, just take the time to reflect…

* What am I deleting in order to believe this?

* What am I distorting?

* How far am I generalizing?

I remember confronting my own deep disappointment that, despite all the promised ‘breakthroughs’ over the years, I had never seen any real evidence that God healed. So what was the point of prayer? Consciously stepping back to think through these questions opened the door to some surprising memories….

In fact, there were probably enough of them to fill a whole chapter – maybe even (passing over the disappointing bits) a bestseller: ‘God Still Heals Today!’ Starting from the time that my mum caught sight of my young son’s hands covered in warts, and prayerfully told them to take a running jump – or words to that effect. They began to shrivel from that moment, and in a few days Jay was completely wart-free. Later, my husband did the same with one of our girls, whose own crop of warts didn’t hang around to be told twice.

Fast-forwarding, there was my more recent overwhelming urge to tell a young girl that I sensed she had been praying for something she thought was too big even for God – but that he really was going to answer that prayer. She beamed. Brilliant. Then I discovered that her father had terminal pancreatic cancer – she had been praying desperately for his healing, but told me she now felt peaceful because she knew he would be ok! The cancer spread and chemotherapy was stopped. Then a blood clot was found, and he was scanned following treatment to disperse it: no trace of the clot – and hang on, no trace of the cancer, either! Her father remains fit and well to this day. Just like the young mum I know whose breast cancer had returned, and who told me she felt something shift as she was prayed for. Her next scan confirmed that she was cancer-free…

I could go on. So many instances of people I know personally whose healing stories, great and small, I had completely erased from my conscious memory. True, there had been no shortage of disappointments, but I had distorted the overall picture by choosing to foreground them. I had generalized… ‘we never see any real healings’, rather than tested my statement with an incisive question along the lines of ‘never… not even one…?’

We long for certainty and control in our lives. And if God doesn’t always jump when we say, it may seem preferable to dispense with him altogether, settling instead for the relative sense of control that his non-existence gives us.

Because if God answers prayer here and there but can’t be relied upon to do that to order, then we’re left with paradox… having to hold the uncomfortable tension between our relationship with him and the humbling knowledge that, despite the claims of some TV evangelists, there still remain dark times and deep questions. Yet it’s exactly here, Rohr argues – allowing the pain of unresolved issues to deepen rather than threaten our relationship with God – that we begin to experience true second-half-of-life spirituality.

Over the last few years I’ve learned to make friends with paradox; in fact, I’ve experienced some absolute paradox humdingers. My spiritual life has given up on order and predictability and is the messiest it has ever been. Happily for me though, it is also quite definitely the most real…

This entry was posted in Spiritual Transition and tagged doubt, faith, faith and paradox, Falling Upward, Healing, NLP and Christianity, NLP and spirituality, Richard Rohr, Spiritual transition.

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