Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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26/08/2013

The Practice of Trust

I recently read comments from a Unitarian, posted on a messageboard, that they found a Quaker meeting they had attended to be often dominated by people who simply liked to be heard and at times, due to small numbers of the faithful, somewhat empty. I don't doubt this tendency occurs in some Quaker meetings and it is admittedly just one person speaking on a messageboard, but I did feel a little saddened at the way the Quakers were being characterised by a Unitarian, especially given their close ties and shared understanding. I do think this penchant for an approach to religion overly-centred on critical and comparative analysis is a problem for today's Unitarians (and Progressive Christians also, as it happens), keeping in mind I consider myself to be Unitarian in part and therefore sharing some of the responsibility.

Within the Quaker meeting I attend I have found a less intellectualised approach to liberal religion, a more fulfilling and 'growthful' practice, and yesterday was an example of this. And it is something I have previously witnessed at Unitarian chapels, those of a 'simply Christian' variety I attended before finding fellowship with the Quakers.

It's funny (not in a 'ha ha' way I hope!), but yesterday I realised, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I in fact have a need for meditation - and a need for prayer.

I have spent the past four weeks away from the Quaker meeting house I attend, and during that time, have certainly felt my sense of perspective and sense of being rooted dip. There are of course very real reasons for this dip based around exiting a highly stressful job and trying to prepare to walk into the relative unknown of a new job. So in that sense it is not the lack of meditation and prayer that is causing the dip - it's not a case of God, somewhere on a cloud, taking umbrage at being ignored and prodding me.

Rather, I have come to realise meditation and prayer acts as a preventative and protective measure. And whilst meditation appears to be an accepted 'in word' these days, I do deliberately recognise prayer as an equal - if not greater - component to this practice. For me, I find meditation is the opening gambit, and from there the more important process of prayer follows.

But, of course, that leads to the question,

"Well, what do you mean by prayer?"

And again, I am sure for many the image conjured up is of someone kneeling with hands clasped and head bowed believing they are talking to an imagined old man up in the sky, listing their various wants and whims that need answering, ideally within the next 7 days so they don't have to have an awkward conversation the next Sunday about why it hasn't been done yet!

Although I cannot give a comprehensive, convincing definition of prayer and its power, yesterday's Meeting for Worship provides an insight.

We sat in silence yesterday for around 40 minutes and I personally found myself alternating between periods of rumination and periods of settled, focused contemplation.

During the ruminative periods, I became aware of just how much my mind was preoccupied with planning various tasks from the important to the mundane to the bordering-on-ridiculous (a plan to make an irate call to a football phone-in even sprung to mind!). I returned each time to a quote, which I cannot remember word for word, that I had read before Meeting for Worship began in Quaker Voices - it was a quote from Thomas Kelley which basically said we need to cease our noisiness, outer and inner, to the point we can only hear our own pulse and, from there, we might just hear the whispers of God.

As the entire meeting became increasingly gathered - with the sounds of the odd page of the Bible turning from time to time, the traffic rumbling outside, and indeed my own breath and pulse, all seemingly becoming louder, a Friend rose to speak. She began by noting that Jonathan Sacks, 'Chief Rabbi' and de facto spokesperson for the Jewish communities of Britain, was retiring after long service as one of the country's most prominent ethical and spiritual guides - following this by stating her own personal respect for him and love of his teachings. The Friend went further to note Jonathan Sacks had recently made comments that he believed an increasing individualism with British society - where persons work to their own personal code of ethics and operate primarily for their own betterment - was a factor behind the recent crisis in economic institutions, and subsequent social ills (see here for the BBC news summary of this). From there, she discussed how Jonathan Sacks had argued faith communities can provide an example of 'trust in action' and its consequent benefits. She felt she had seen a marked decline in trust within British society during her own life and that membership of a Quaker community needed to continue to be centred on trust - trust in one another for insight and for practical support matched with trust in the teachings and practices of our particular tradition.

This prompted prayers of my own to be more trustful, including a confession of my sin that I tend not to trust others, even those closest to me, all in the name of 'being independent'. And whilst this might mean I talk proudly about how I am a 'self-starter' on my CV, it does lead to issues when things perhaps get tough and there are breaches I cannot fill - and this can sometimes lead to 'culpable disturbance of shalom' as I rebut offers of support and compound problems by plodding on. With thoughts around 'what if it all goes wrong' with reference to my new career direction, I have tended to try and problem solve how I might contingency plan when in fact the people around me - family, friends, fellowship - are my ever-ready contingency plan.

As I silently offered up these prayers, another Friend rose to speak. He acknowledged the opening ministry and its connection with his own contemplation of a radio slot looking at the use of psalms for helping people going through troubled times and crisis. He explained he had felt particularly moved by Psalm 91 and in light of the ministry, felt that in the plea to trust one another, we must also recognise our need to trust in God - from there he recited the first part of the psalm which brought forth tears;

"Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, 
“He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."

A first impression of this snippet, particularly in the cold light of day, might suggest the need for adherence to a narrowly defined God - and from there a cerebral conversation might take place about the whats, whys and wherefores. But it is in fact a deeply poetical and metaphorical plea - yet also a straightforward plea - to trust in 'a greater scheme of things beyond the self'. 

Put simply, yes you have to do your bit - try your utmost to do what is required of you, try your utmost do what is right - but then must come a putting of trust in others, and The Other, to do the bits you cannot do. Meditation and prayer, particularly when rooted in a fellowship and a tradition, is a vehicle for encouraging this mindset.

James Martineau once observed,

“Religion is no more possible without prayer 
than poetry without language, 
or music without atmosphere...” 

and perhaps this could be followed with,

Life cannot be lived fully without trust 
just as a swallow cannot fly without wings,
nor without its kind,
nor without the movement of the heavens...

or something along those lines...

As I left the meeting house, I resolved to place more trust in the flock and more trust in the flow.

21/08/2013

Gathering

Sorting through some old bits of paper recently, I found the following Catholic prayer which was once used to open an otherwise very dry policy meeting I attended. It provides a good definition, I feel, of how a modern Christian community might function.

We welcome each other,
We open ourselves to God's presence,
We welcome the opportunity to commune with one another,
We welcome fresh ideas and new insights.

Together we pray:
As Jesus taught his disciples,
as Jesus encourage his friends,
that where two or three gathering in God's name,
God's Spirit will be with us.

Help us to become more aware,
that you are with us and among us,
as we share, listen and work together.
May our work develop into action
that promotes justice, peace and love.

We choose to continue our journey
by listening and discerning the needs of the world
by being patient with the unknown and the uncertainties,
by living the questions
by listening gently to the chatter of our own desires and fears,
our angers and anxieties.

We call each other
to become more centered
to become more deeply tuned into the richness of existence
to reflect on our own experiences
to accept the challenge of shared vision
to continue asking questions.

We commit to supporting each other
to shape our future
to walk where there are no paths
to enjoy the wilderness
and occasionally to remind each other

to do what God requires of us:

to do justice
to love tenderly
to seek peace
and to walk humbly.

04/08/2013

Semantics and Pedantics

Following on from my post earlier today - drawing upon Rob Bell's 'Rhythm' video - on how we can come to understand God as 'The Song', and from there, seek to live in-tune with God by looking to the general example of Jesus, I also want to make a quick note of this other video which featured alongside it on Youtube.

 

In an interview with broadcaster Premier Christian Radio in May of this year - also featuring Andrew Wilson - Rob Bell affirms the potential quality of homosexual relationships as equal to the potential quality of heterosexual relationships. He does not comment further on gay marriage but nonetheless he has gone much further than other evangelicals (it's also worth noting that Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has since started to tread a similar path).

Rob Bell's argument could be interpreted as follows:
  • Christianity, as a tradition, as an outlet of God's Spirit, has both transient and permanent aspects;
  • There are aspects of Christianity that change - emerging, shifting and passing - according to the culture and time. This could be applied to the mechanics of sexual relationships, for want of a better phraseology!
  • There are scriptures that pass comment on the particulars, including prohibition of homosexual acts of intimacy, but these should be approached with reference to the historical context and to the weight given to them across scripture as a whole.
  • There are aspects of Christianity that are timeless - recurring, thematic - which continue to apply. These include monogamy, fidelity, nurturing of peace, the ending of idolatry and so on.
  • The scriptures of the Christian tradition - particularly the New Testament - give greater weight to such things.
So for Rob Bell it is an issue of interpretation and emphasis, borne out of an exploratory approach to the Bible that views this text as a complex conversation, as a layered narrative on humankind's journey towards greater spiritual understanding - God-inspired but not God-dictated.

For Andrew Wilson, he attempts - in trying to argue against Rob Bell's position on this specific issue - to make a clear distinction between sealed revelation and continued revelation. This is borne out of viewing the Bible as a fairly straightforward list of God-dictated moral teachings, and rules, to be held to literally for all time - placed within historically accurate events, including the actual resurrection of a man said to be clinically dead for three days.

What is also interesting, and saddening, is the manner in which Rob Bell - having been brave enough to be open on such things, when other Christian leaders with similar views keep quiet for fear of discrediting themselves - then finds himself prosecuted by the host and Andrew Wilson on his authenticity and legitimacy as a Christian. The host leads Rob Bell into a discussion as to whether he has, pejoratively speaking,  'gone liberal'. This is continued by Andrew Wilson, albeit in slightly more nuanced and gentler language, that if Rob Bell is saying certain moral teachings set out by figures in the Bible are no longer applicable, then the Bible becomes worthless as a holy book to follow - in other words, "so you might as well put it down, go find something else and let us look after it..."

This is of course, an age old response from the power houses of Christianity towards those Christians who attempt to work through their faith honestly, and in turn take up positions of conscience and reason that differ than the established views. And Rob Bell is right, it is what continues to turn increasingly educated, questioning, information-rich generations away from Christianity.

Just last week, at Meeting for Worship, a lifelong Quaker commented that he had been asked the age-old question, "So, are you a Christian?" by a friend of a friend, an evangelical conservative, after finding out his religious affiliation during an alumni gathering. He noted, "I've always replied with "yes, I am a Christian" when asked this, but when they outline what they see as necessary belief to be a Christian, it would perhaps be easier to just say no..."

It is particularly saddening to observe Rob Bell look so weary at this direction the interview takes. For an individual who has lead thousands back into the Christian faith but now finds himself under attack in this way, it makes me wonder where he goes next? And where do Christians who think and feel similar go next?

The Song

One of the biggest stumbling blocks about Christianity for seekers of a different way of living are the ideas that they think lie behind the terminology 'God', 'Lord', 'Father' etc (let's leave the Trinity for now, that's a whole other discussion).

In many ways the new proselytizing atheists have won a significant battle here - framing God as a wise old man up in the clouds, a puppeteer, a wrathful judge and so on - and from there arguing, "Can you believe in this God? No? Well in that case maybe you should join our cause?"

But if you ask many Christians, especially so those who stand within 'unorthodox' (for want of a better term) Christian traditions such as the Unitarians (the more classical variety) and the Quakers, they will likely deny such a God with a similar passion to Richard Dawkins.

The video clip below from Rob Bell, which I discovered many years ago and have now attempted to transcribe during a spare moment, is probably the most resonant explanation of God I've ever come across - and one I feel reflects what many contemporary Christians in Western society are now coming to think and feel (whether they feel free enough to say it aloud or not).


(If the video clip has expired, try here or here)

"I recently heard someone saying that they were pulling into a parking lot and the space closest to the building became available and they said it was a sign God was with them. 

And then around two weeks ago I heard somebody talking about two people who had been sick and one of them had been healed, and they were talking enthusiastically about how God had intervened to heal the one person. The whole time I am thinking, yes but what about the other person? They didn't get healed. Where was God? Why didn't God intervene with them?

And then last night, just last night, I heard somebody say they had been in a store and they had seen something they'd really wanted on sale. And they said, "this just shows how good God is..." If God can help people find things on sale, then why doesn't God spend time doing things that seem more important? Like earthquakes, famines or sickness?

When you think about God, when you hear the word God, what images come to mind?

An old man with a white beard behind a curtain working the levers? He's healing some and finding parking spaces for others. For many people, their concept of God is built around a God who is outside of everything, a God who is essentially somewhere else. A God who made the world and then stands back, watching it from another vantage point. A God who is there and from time to time comes here.

The problem with this concept of God is you then have to prove this God even exists. And so what happens is we start with real life, we start with existence, we start with what we all agree actually exists - and then we argue whether the God of somewhere else has something to do with this.

But the writers of the Bible seem far less interested in proving whether God exists and far more interested in talking about what God is like. Like in the book of Exodus, a man named Moses wants to know God's name and God responds, "I am." And later God reminds Moses than when he heard God's voice, he saw no shape or form.

God is beyond anything our minds can comprehend. So what does it mean to have any kind of personal relationship with this kind of God? It's hard to get your mind around. I believe God listens, God cares and God is involved but I find the whole relationship idea hard to comprehend. And then loving this kind of God, what does that look like? What does it mean and how do you do it?

When I think of God I hear a song. It is a song that moves me, it has a melody, it has a groove - it has a certain rhythm. And people have heard this song for thousands and thousands of years, across continents and cultures, across time periods. People have heard the song and found it captivating - and have wanted to hear more.

And there have always been people who have said there is no song and deny the music. But the song keeps playing.

Jesus came to show us how to live in tune to the song. He says he is The Way, The Truth and The Life but this isn't a statement about one religion being better than all other religions. The last thing Jesus came to do was start a new religion. He came to show us reality at its most raw, he came to show us how things are.

Jesus is like God, in the flesh and blood - so in his generosity, in his compassion, that is what God is like. In his telling of the truth, that is what God is like. In his love, forgiveness and sacrifice, that is what God is like. That's who God is, that's how the song goes.

The song is playing all around us, all of the time. The song is playing everywhere. It's written on our hearts and everybody is playing the song.

The question is not whether or not you are playing a song, the question is whether you are in tune?

In the Book of Acts it says God gives us life, breath and everything else. God is generous. So when I am selfish, stingy and I refuse to give, I am essentially out-of-tune with the song.

Later in one of John's letters, he says God is love - unrestrained, unconditional love. So when you see someone sacrifice themselves for another, for the well-being of somebody else, they are playing in the right key. That is why it is so inspiring and powerful. They are in-tune with the song.

Some people know all sorts of stuff about music. They know stuff about pitch and modes and keys and instruments, so they can hear things that other people do not - they may hear subtlety and nuance in the song that other people might miss, they may appreciate things others might miss. But it is also possible to be so caught up in the technical aspects of the song that you miss the simple, pure enjoyment of the song.

There are people who talk as if they know everything about being a Christian and yet they can seem way out-of-tune. And then there are others who say they don't know much at all about the Christian faith and yet they can seem very in-tune with the song.

I've met lots of people who struggle with what it means to have a relationship with God - but they haven't lost faith, and love, and hope, and truth, and compassion, and justice, and generosity.

You may have this sense that you have no relationship with God because of all these ideas about what that should mean, because of all these things you've been told what it is or what it isn't. And an infinite, massive, invisible God is hard to get out minds around.

But truth, love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion - the way that Jesus lived - I can see that, I can understand that, I can relate to that, I can play that song.

So may you come to see that the song is written on your heart. And as you live in tune with the song, in tune with the creator of the universe, may you realise that you are in relationship with the Living God."

Amen to that.