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Monday, August 29, 2011

It's Really All About God

I've recently read this book and I think it is a "must read" for anyone pondering inter-faith issues while wanting to be an even more "Christian" Christian!

In the prologue Samir writes: "At different times in my life I have belonged to Muslim, atheist and Christian camps. In every one, I was rather certain. I believed that we - whichever "we" I was part of - were right. And for us to be right, I thought, others had to be wrong. There were insiders and there were outsiders, and I found comfort in being on the inside. ... In the past several years, however, I have been questioning the the certainty of my religious insider-outsider worldview. Such certainty had a tendency to divide my world and isolate me from the "outsiders" who, as some of my co-religionists and I believed, could not teach me, bless me, or correct me in the matters of God.
Now I am looking for a better way to stand on the ground of my beloved religion, to hold the treasures of my faith differently. Now I am looking for a better kind of certainty.
I made it a personal discipline to take trips outside the boundaries of Christianity. I did it first to find out whether my God is on the outside of my religion, woven into all of life, and second, to look at my religion from the outside in and experience the way my religion, like any other, excludes others. In the process I have adopted a simple question that helps me navigate the journey: Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshipping?"

You can follow more of Semanovic's story here. I found the book more engaging and thought provoking than the brief video clips on his website. He is an excellent writer. If you want to see what other (better known) authors say about his book see "endorsements" on the website. I got this book out of the library but have ordered my own copy as I think it is one to re-read and lend. This is definitely a "Concentric Circles" book!

Of Gods and Men

If you saw the movie Of God's and Men you may be interested in an article that includes a transcript of Dom Christian's last letter which was read at the end of the movie after we had seen Christian and his brother monks being led away to certain death at the hands of terrorists.
Here is the first paragraph of the letter:

When an “A-DIEU” takes on a face. If it should happen one day—and it could be today— that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me— for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value.

The article gives a very thoughtful reflection on the letter - rather like an exegetical commentary. The letter and commentary are worth reading on on their own but  if you didn't see the movie - try and get to see it somewhere, sometime!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Contemplative Photography

On Saturday I attended a photography workshop with Craig Potton - a wonderful Kiwi icon of photography. It was inspiring to meet him and hear his passion for the environment, and of course to see many of his wonderful photographs. Much of the "tech talk" was beyond me but that was fine as I don't need or intend to become a professional photographer.  I came away encouraged to continue my forays into what Howard Zehr calls Contemplative Photography. His Little Book of Contemplative Photography is subtitled: 'Seeing with wonder, respect and humility'.

So here are four of my favourite photos and why they speak to me:

The end of Long Bay in summer. 
The simple beauty of colour, stones, and "things right outside my door" reminds me that 
beauty comes without cost.

Sunrise on Long Bay. 
Delight in relationships! Man and dog; sun, water, sand, cloud; me as observer; God the creator of it all.

Cornwall Park.
Light and shadow enhance each other. The green path leads through both.

Mt Taranaki on a clear day.
The mysterious beauty of mountains too high for me to climb; of majesty beyond my reach.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Have you got back-up?

(First published in Reality. Interestingly just a day or two ago I was told an almost identical story to one below. A person heading for a mission trip to Mongolia discovered at the airport that he had left behind his folder of notes, talks etc. Others felt rather panicky on his behalf but apparently he said - tapping his head -  "That's OK. It's all up here.")

Three incidents happened in the space of a few weeks recently which got me thinking about my inner resources.

First, a friend. She has spent a lifetime in Christian ministry, teaching and giving spiritual direction. Now retired, she spent a few months visiting missionaries in several countries. She found herself in demand for giving retreats and bringing spiritual refreshment. On her return she told me that in the absence of her usual resources of books, notes and handouts she had simply shared from her heart. To her surprise, again and again people told her afterwards that her own lived experience had had far more impact than any amount of carefully prepared material and teaching aids.

It made me think. Hard work and preparation are, of course, part of the stewardship and integrity of a teacher. But what if there are no books, no resources, no teaching aids available? How much of what we have learned in life is so well integrated that it is immediately and naturally available to others?

Then I read Terry Waite's story: four years in solitary confinement. This was more sobering to contemplate. Not only did he not have any books or resources, he had no eager people wanting to hear what he had to say. No one to talk to at all in fact; no one to listen to either.

I was deeply impressed by the honesty and humility of Terry Waite's account. He experienced no ministering angels, no ecstatic experiences of God's presence, no deliverance from the agony of boredom, pain, loneliness and illness. He speaks very simply of a daily routine of prayer and of saying from memory the Anglican communion liturgy. He mentions once, almost apologetically, that he would like to be able to say that he felt God's presence close to him, but that in fact he did not.

This is a far more stark challenge to one's inner resources. What do we find within when even the comfort of feeling God's presence is gone? Do the great truths hold us steady even in the dark?

When we are completely stripped of the "treasures on earth" will we discover that we have adequately "stored up treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal" Matthew 6:20? I hope I never have that tested in the way Terry Waite did. But I was challenged to think about how deeply rooted my rhythm of prayer is, how much Scripture has been stored in my mind for the Spirit to rekindle and how comfortable I am with no one to talk to but God.

The third event was the breakdown of my computer! I know absolutely nothing about the technical side of computers and I was indignant that it should fail me! I was outraged to be told it would take a week to fix!

I surprised myself by my assertive (and successful) attempts to have the repair done more quickly. But all the while an insistent little voice somewhere in the back of my mind was prodding me with a question. Why is this so important? Is your identity somehow tied to the material on that computer?

Now, in practical terms I know it was quite reasonable to want my major tool of trade in good working order as quickly as possible. But this was the third time I had been reminded that the most important things are carried within ourselves.

So what if I had lost all the data on my computer? Surely what is "written on our hearts" (Hebrews 10:16) is what really matters.

The question everyone asked me was "Have you got backup?" They meant backup data on disk of course, but the question took on a deeper meaning as I pondered all three events together. Have I got backup? Is my inner life a storehouse of the things that really matter? Is there backup within?

Paul reminds us: "You know that you are a letter from Christ...written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone [or books or computer disks] but on tablets of human hearts." 2 Corinthians 3:3

I trust that I will continue to use well, and gratefully, the external resources available to me while they remain. Paradoxically however, it is in their absence that I will discover whether they have contributed to what has lasting value.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

One God, One breath, One story

At the recent Association of Christian Spiritual Directors' conference here in Auckland the speaker was Dr Alexander Shaia He was wonderful - both as a speaker and as a person. And surely those two should always go together. (Who wants to listen to a polished speaker who doesn't live and breathe what they teach?) The main focus of the conference was on Alexander's passion: a way to read the four gospels which  brings them to life in a new way. As a group of Biblically literate people who have probably read the gospels many times we were spellbound and deeply inspired as he painted the historical background to each gospel and showed us how each one specifically addressed a burning question for its first readers.  Understanding the gospels in this light leads him to call the four narratives a Quadratos - a cycle of four questions:
How do we face change? (Matthew)
How do we move through suffering? (Mark)
How do we receive joy? (John)
How do we mature in service? (Luke/Acts)

The main point of this Blog post is not to attempt a summary as that would be impossible. There is a lot more information about his book, video clips, interviews etc on his website.  Rather I want to underline his repeated statement: "One God, one breath, one story."

If there is only one God, who breathed the whole of this universe into being, then there is one big story which is found everywhere: the story of a life in which we constantly face change, experience suffering, find ways to receive joy and keep maturing in our service to God, others and the world.

From the cycle of the seasons: Autumn (change), Winter (suffering), Spring (joy), Summer (service), to the themes in all the great religions, to our own life experience - this cycle continues. While in some ways we can be in all four "seasons" at once in different aspects of life, it is usually easy to identify the main question we are facing.  The gospels seen in this way are a wonderful resource.

Clearly Christians are not the only ones to be part of "one God, one breath, one story".  Each religious tradition handles the same questions and holds its own wisdom. We can all learn so much from each other. The prologue of John's gospel (1:1-14) makes it clear that the presence of God has always been available to all people. Its unique incarnation in Jesus is the heart of our Christian faith. And even more importantly we are now the living body of Christ. This phrase was repeated often as Alexander continually reminded us that it is not so much about history (looking back to what was) as it is about living now, as individuals and as communities of faith, our own incarnation of Christ. This is not a new thought of course, but how seriously do we really take it? We are certainly in a world of change and suffering. Are we mature enough in our service to incarnate the breath/spirit/reality of Christ in a way that contributes to spring returning?

If you read my post God and the Evolutionary Impulse you will see that this is exactly the same point made there. Which just goes to show that there truly is One God, One breath, One story!