Saturday, 19 October 2019

Embracing mystery and complexity.

When I was a young adult I used to be a part of a mission team working with Scripture union called Theos. As a part of that work we used to go around various country and city shows. I was a part of what was called the Bus Team as we did our work from an old red double decker bus. My main work was writing and performing puppet shows that retold some bible stories in new ways. The bus also had an upstairs coffee shop where we would sit and talk to young people who would come for a free coffee. Overall, it was a helpful, caring ministry and I felt that we were able to help those in need of some care. One year I remember that the Theos bus was at the Royal Melbourne Show and we were doing our normal thing. Along with our running the coffee shop and talking to people we also provided a retreat for some of the carnival people who were often really struggling. And it is here that I hit a bit of a faith challenge. As a part of our training for the even we were instructed that one of the most important things that we were doing was to try to convert people to Christian faith – to ‘save’ them. As a part of the ‘saving’ we were told to hand out leaflets which included what are known as the four spiritual laws. For those who have not heard of them they are …
  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
  2. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God's love and plan for his life.
  3. Jesus Christ is God's only provision for man's sin. Through him you can know and experience God's love and plan for your life.
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God's love and plan for our lives.
 It was a simple set of laws but it really stuck in my throat and I could not say them, let alone impose them on some poor, vulnerable soul seeking hope. So, I didn’t and shortly afterwards I decided (even though they did some wonderful, compassionate work) that I could no longer be a part of Theos. In fact, it was that event that actually led me to feel that if I was going to stay in the faith, I needed to learn more. So I ended up at Bible college. Not to study for ministry originally, but to learn and decide whether there were other ways of looking at the faith that were life-giving, rather than rule and guilt driven. Bible college did not give me a new set of rules or a definite plan to go by, but the journey opened up spirituality for me in ways for which I am eternally grateful. In fact, my first lecturer began by telling the class that if they were looking for a whole lot of answers they had come to the wrong place. Instead he promised a whole new set of questions and a life of faith that is about embracing the mystery and complexity of the Divine and about facing life’s deepest and most important questions.
For me this was a transition from a simple law-driven faith, to an adult religion. For some of us, the transition to adult spirituality is different, maybe brought on by a sudden life crisis. Perhaps we followed all the rules of religion but still suffered some tragic loss, and the old stuff about God having a plan and not giving us more than we can handle don’t work anymore. So we’re forced to wrestle with our old certainties, and if we’re lucky, we come out the other side a bit humbler and less certain about knowing everything.
And others made different choices. Some choose to continue to worship a god of human proportions—one who shares our prejudices and opinions on political issues—rather than an infinite and unknowable Divine. Others reject their childhood faiths in disgust, considering themselves “too smart” for religion. The trouble is that if too many people abandon their tradition then it is left to those who would distort them for their own purposes. One of the challenges for the modern church is to welcome those who do reject the old faith, to ask them to stay and reinterpret, and dig and find the deeper things in the faith that will give us all life. As a church we can become a place where we acknowledge that we don’t know everything, but that we are keeping our hearts open to mystery and to difficult questions.
I personally want a form of religion doesn’t teach simplistic or implausible answers but pushes us to ask the right questions. Not just “what does it mean to be happy or successful?” But “what does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To serve something greater than one’s self?”
I think that many of us are seeking this kind of religion. The invitation is to be a church community that embraces a wise, loving, open version of our faith. We need to not be afraid to be Christian people whose spiritual depth is matched by intellectual depth; who understand that faith at its best is a form of protest against the often self-absorption, materialism, triviality and cruelty of modern life; who challenge this way of being by living a loving life, and who are comfortable uttering the phrase “I don’t know.”
And to finish I would like to share a poem with you by Edwina Gately.
God ran away
 when we imprisoned her
and put her in a box named Church. 
God would have none of our labels
and our limitations and she said:

“I will escape and paint myself
 in a simpler, poorer soil
 where those who see, will see,
 and those who hear, will hear.
  I will become a God- believable,
because I am free, and go where I will.
 My goodness will be found
 in my freedom and that freedom
 I offer to all- regardless of color, sex or status,
 regardless of power or money.
  Ah, I am God because I am free,
 and all those who would be free
 will find me, roaming, wandering, singing.
  Come, walk with me- come,
dance with me!
 I created you to sing- to dance- to love…”

If you cannot sing, nor dance, nor love,
 because they put you also in a box,
 know that your God
 broke free and ran away.

So, send your Spirit then, to dance with Her.
Dance, sing with the God
 whom they cannot tame or chain.
Dance within, though they chain
 your very guts to the great stone walls…
Dance, beloved, Ah, Dance!

~Edwina Gateley

Finding our prayer.

I’ve got to say that I have spent much of my Christian life agonising over not praying properly or praying enough; and in some ways, I still do. Partly that was because I was raised in a Christian culture where praying involved words in a certain pattern and done in a particular way and doing that didn’t always work for me.
Then, a few years ago, I realised that prayer is a lot more varied and rich than just words and that I was praying in many ways that I had not realised. Prayer is about what brings us closer to a sense of the Divine in our lives and I realised that for me that was often music, or poetry or working in the garden or just being attentive to the people or the beauty around me. Praying is what found me in connection with the God who is all around me.
The disciples had also spent a lot of time agonising about what was the best way to pray and Jesus’ response was to try to take away their anxiety by giving them a simple pattern which we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. He gave them a simple prayer to take away their worry but also emphasised to them the nature of the God that they were trying to connect with in prayer. Like the disciples, I think that our ways of praying often reflect the idea of a god who does not really want to connect and who does not really want us to have fullness of life. In other words, the ways we pray often imply that God does not really love us and that we have to beg in order to get God’s attention. Jesus says that God is not like a bad neighbour or like an abusive parent! God is ‘Abba’ Daddy; the one with whom we can presume intimacy, not distance.
Therefore, when we seek the Divine, don’t worry, just keep asking, searching and knocking; and ask, search and knock knowing that the one we are seeking is on our side even before we knock/search/ask. That is Jesus' basic lesson in prayer. Acknowledge the goodness of the God to whom you pray, but it doesn’t necessarily stop there. Prayer can also lead me to be changed and to be prepared then to be used as an agent of change. When we crack through into the divine presence we can find ourselves moved into a new space and perhaps challenged. A poem or a song can change me and be the call of God to the New.
For me this has led to a much greater openness and peace about my prayer life. I no longer feel that I am letting myself or God down if I don’t pray twice a day. Instead I am finding that my prayers often happen when I least expect it, and my task is to stay attentive to when the gift is given and grateful for it.

Rising from the ashes