Sunday, November 18, 2012


I have to admit that I have never fully comprehended the concept of sin. But two disparate sources have enlightened me. These are a young, Buddhist-flavored self-improvement guru and Francis Spufford, author of a recently published book, "Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense."

Possibly my problem comprehending sin was, as Spufford describes, reliance on the conventional  everyday-parlance version of "sin," conveyed hilariously in this Creme d'Or ice cream ad. Fussing about delicious naughtiness trivializes and prissifies. With so many other conspicuous sources of evil in the world, how could anyone, any institution worth attention, waste its time on peccadillo?

And then there's the judgmental side of sin, as  David Cain writes in his Raptitude blog:
The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people.... Sinners!
In more recent years, I tried on a definition of sin as referring to anything that separates us from God. But when you struggle to find God at all, this definition becomes pretty useless. And hidden within it is an assumed knowledge of realms that are "of God" versus remote from the Almighty. If you acknowledge that God is beyond human comprehension -- or, for that matter, if you start by saying that God is in all things, as far as the farthest corners of the universe and as close as your next breath--how can one ever be separated from God -- or actually know that this is the case?

Both Spufford and Cain, reject the conventional versions of sin and simply consider it as "the human propensity to fuck things up" (HPtFtu as Francis Spofford writes) or, as Cain raises (sorry):
...the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”
From this redefined version of sin, Cain finds a footing for self-improvement:
once we drop all of its religious baggage, we can use the concept of sin in our own lives to recognize those instants when we’re about to do the dumb thing, the bad thing, the lazy thing, the self-defeating thing, and do something else instead.
Spufford does something a bit complex, but ultimately finds in the HPtFtu one (of several) emotional grounds compelling his belief in a God of unconditional love, as well as a foundation for his affiliation with the universally broken, defective companions who call themselves Christians.

I haven't finished Spufford's book yet, so I don't know whether I will buy his case for God based on human emotional needs. But I certainly can see in myself (and everyone I've ever known closely) the HPtFtu. I see the value in reflecting on and acknowledging one's individual HPtFtu -- both single acts of Ftu and our larger personal Ftu- tendencies. These have the potential to plague us with guilt, steal life and joy from our lives,  poison our relationships, cause us to lose face, undermine our communities -- and send dark ripples out from there to our society and the wider world.

I am also powerfully attracted to Spufford's concept of Christians as a society that confesses to its HPtFtu. It's kind of the opposite to the cartoon Christians -- self-righteous holier-than-thou's (thinking here of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons). It's more like a Dirty Dozen or Imperfects Anonymous. Hi. My name's Celia and I have a tendency to fuck things up.

One of the quotes that first got me back to church as an adult was: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” (attributed to "Dear Abby," Abigail Van Buren). Anthropologists say forming groups is woven into our nature as a species. Even if the affiliative group is what  Spufford calls "a league of the guilty," I expect it can serve all the useful functions of a welcoming tribe.  And credentials for belonging to this hive are universal.

There's a pool of much-disputed, murky atonement theology surrounding Jesus' death and how he reconciled humankind to God through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. All that arm-waving and windy philosophy are wasted on me. But I do appreciate, as Spufford argues, that the Christian faith has at its core the concept that humans are all flawed, all doomed to Ftu, but that there is a way to repent, or turn things around, wipe the slate clean, and start again on the path to a fuller, more joyous life. There's real hope, and probably some very good psychology, in that.

Spufford makes an interesting distinction between Christianity, on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. The latter he says, attempt to define a good, moral life through a series of rules laid down in sacred texts and updated by teachers and Talmudic rulings. Live by those rules and you'll be at one with God.

 Christianity's new Jesus-based approach is more pragmatic. Acknowledging the impossibility of rule-making to cover all human error (much less actually following such a complex, self-contradictory compendium of transgression in a changing world), Christianity indicates broad general areas of what to do (love God; love your neighbor as yourself) and not do. But it also sets an inhumanly high standard for us -- give up worldly goods and love our enemy, for example -- and says that messing-up begins in one's heart and mind. Even impulses can have dire consequences. Vile instincts are part of our animal nature.

But -- returning to the wonderful opening lines from Tree of Life-- beyond the way of Nature is the way of Grace. While I may never embrace philosophical atonement theology, I do believe -- yes, emotionally HAVE to believe -- that we can change course, wipe the slate clean, move on, repent and be "at-one" (atoned) with grace. That is the heart of Christianity.

In "How to be a Bad Christian... and a Better Human Being," Dave Tomlinson gives an upbeat description of what can be a very painful process of purging guilt and resuming the way of grace. The steps he lists are: 1.) Identify specifically what you feel guilty about. 2.) Accept responsibility by confessing or admitting your error, be it to priest, therapist, or friend, and, without self-justification, apologize to the person you have wronged. 3.) Take proportionate, appropriate steps to right the wrong. 4.) Accept God's forgiveness, forgive yourself, and move on. Tomlinson stresses the importance of fully forgiving ourselves, opening ourselves to God's love, and internalizing every day the gift of God's forgiveness. This is vital to returning to full life in the here and now, rather than continuing to be preoccupied with feelings of guilt.

So, the gem of a quote I will end with ultimately speaks to the guilty as well those they've hurt:
Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible,
hurtful behavior. Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek
that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is the
finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present,
free of contamination from the past.  (
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., neuroimmunologist)
Update: This is a lovely column on sin by Rob Bell:
Bell defines sin as disrupting the shalom -- the peace, health, wholeness and blessing -- that God intends for the world. He argues that this puts sin in a wider context of the harmony of God. It's maybe not so helpful for people who struggle with belief in God, but I think almost everyone has a sense of a wider goodness and peace that we know are just right -- inherently good -- for our immediate community and the world beyond. Think of the last time you said "It just felt right."

Bell says there's a tripartite Christian story to sin that starts with humans being born in God's image, with goodness, glory, and honor. Sin is the bit in the middle where, as imperfect beings, all of us disrupt the shalom of the universe in ways great and small. But being the bulls in God's china shop is not the end of the story. Part 3 says that the crucifixion of Christ "restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed. We are invited to live as if this is actually true, letting it shape us and mold us and transform us into grounded, centered people who increase the shalom in the world."

I still don't really get how that all works, but I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of living "as if this is actually true." I'm not sure I'd be able to face the mirror each morning if I didn't.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voice of the Dollhouse God

It was "Listening to God," Class 2, and things moved into the garish pink zone on the weirdness scale. Thanksgiving and other obligations mean we won't be going back to the class, so it's time for summing up. The bottom line: I can't personally buy into the tiny, human-sized God the class has offered. But it has been very enlightening. Characterizing a God I can't believe in has helped me to start imagining a more astounding God that I could believe in.

The second class followed the same format as the first, beginning with singing. Couldn't help but recall the social psychology studies showing that activities performed in unison (think Marine boot-camp) subconsciously encourage people to form a cooperative group. Not to mention the endorphin-promotion from singing or the subtle suggestive influence of the lyrics: "I'm giving you my heart... I surrender all to you..." We had a few folks raising their opened hands.

This was followed by the sharing of "homework" -- to think about what God said to us during the week. Several people got up to describe how God had spoken to them, but no one described anything that had happened during the preceding week. One man said he'd once prayed to God for a job, and an hour later received a phone call, out of the blue, offering him a job he hadn't applied for. A woman discerned God's will in the fact that she had a smooth relocation to the UK from South Africa. "I prayed that if God didn't want us to move he would stop me," she said.

Another woman found comfort in her faith during her husband's cancer. Another testified she heard the voice of God in September, 1999, tell her to stop praying for her severely ill brother-in-law on October 1, when all would be well. That proved to be the date of his death. Rev Keith told us of a horrible abscessed tooth that had caused him great pain over a weekend when no dentist was available. "I asked the Lord to heal it." He did.

Then we were on to angels and other Signs. Rev Keith has never seen angels and was quite jealous that his son had seen one angel; his daughter-in-law saw TWO flying above his car. He recited a pile of Bible verses -- talking donkeys, burning bushes, and visions. "Our God can use any way to get our attention," Rev Keith said.

Rev Keith admitted he had not personally "heard the audible voice of God," but had received lots of messages from God. For example, a large dragonfly had flown through his house and into a bedroom THREE TIMES on the very day his grand-daughter showed him a picture of a dragonfly in her children's Bible notes book. A buzzard had appeared in Rev Keith's garden on two consecutive mornings, just before he relocated. As he was leaving the old place, he drove by buzzards perched on THREE CONSECUTIVE TELEPHONE POLES. As if that weren't enough, three buzzards again appeared when he was sworn in at his new church.

Dear Husband bravely raised his hand and said that at the Naval chaplaincy where he worked, he saw God revealed all the time in the lives of the young soldiers who came in to chat. DH said he worried that if people spent their time listening for the earth-shaking, jaw-dropping testimony-inspiring signs and wonders, they might well miss the amazing everyday reflections of God.

The duo of teachers were somewhat dismissive of DH's observation but gave us their own caveats. They reminded us again that as we start to listen for God, there are three possible voices we might hear: our own, God's, or The Enemy's. But not to worry, the Bible, and the Living Word (the Holy Spirit), would see us through. Later we were urged not to spend time trying to figure out good vs. evil, but just to accept that the Lord is with us. We shouldn't argue with the message. "If the Lord wants to tell you something, he'll go on. Relax and trust that the spirit will guide you." Rev Nigel also advised us to be judicious in repeating God experiences. "Repeat it over and over and it loses its power, really, REALLY. Don't tell these stories lightly, as it leads to disillusion."

(Somewhat snarky question in the proof-texting sort of way: Was this why Jesus told his followers to tell no one of the signs and wonders they'd observed? And, come to think of it, just why would our teachers be sharing, and encouraging us to share, stories of signs and wonders if Jesus himself advised against it? Especially after their own experience showed it saps the power from the stories and leads to disillusionment???)

Rev Nigel added that whilst he loved hearing people's stories, he was leery of testimony-escalation, where each story exceeds the last one in amazing signs. Audience members may feel let down if they haven't experienced such miracles. But he quickly reassured us, "If you haven't heard the Lord speak, you just haven't realized it." Near the end of the evening there was another step back: "We're not claiming the high ground, but rather say all are being confirmed into being the people God intends us to be, if we're integrous and authentic."

Tips for increasing hearing of God's voice included: Asking God to speak to you; expecting God to speak to you; writing down remembered dreams; praying with other people; praying to God to protect the space you are in from the Devil; tuning out your own problems; limiting your own talking; listening to beautiful music; listening to silence; fasting; journaling anything you think God has said;  and persevering.
What I hear from Revs Nigel and Keith is a version of God who, despite being the Almighty Creator, is still in a donnybrook with the Devil for the chance to manipulate us humans to play the role he has planned for us. If you're having trouble hearing this type of God--they recommend typical procedures (paragraph above) that psychiatrists would probably agree tend to encourage a change (at least to some extent and in the direction you are fervently seeking).

I still really don't understand the difference between "God Speaking To Us" and ordinary good ideas, insight, inspiration, keen observation, sense of well-being, psychological phenomena, etc. Maybe I just haven't been one of the ones chosen to hear the voice of Keith and Nigel's God. Maybe I haven't been listening right. Maybe not believing in that version of God makes it impossible.

Be it my blessing or my curse, and with thanks to discussions with DH, the only kind of God I can start to imagine is a Creator far beyond human imagining. More wonderful than a God who runs his Earth and its inhabitants like an elaborate dollhouse, I would see a God who made the Ultimate Awesome: Creation that keeps on creating through cosmic and atomic forces (increasingly understood by physics); geologic processes; evolution; human discovery, growth, societal change...  Made in His image, we humans have choices each day as to how we will play our creative role in life, for better or worse. We can choose what and how we will create; what words and sounds and patterns we'll notice, and what significance we'll attach to them. He gave us amazing brains that can discover, remember, learn, and convey information to others.

I do believe there are destructive forces and evil in the world--some that are part of creation (perhaps even necessary for the universe and life to exist) and some that stem from human choices and actions. I believe that all humans are born with "the human propensity to fuck things up"(HPtFtu as Francis Spofford says). But we also have help with that -- the lives of Jesus and others that can inspire us to better ways to live through love; the sense of a comforting, all-knowing, all-loving God; and the ordinary human love of friends and family, for example.

This God-Beyond-Imagining might well infuse every bit of the world. Between the Ultimate Awesome of creation and our neurons that perceive it, there is no end of "messages" we could be getting from God every minute, every place we look, every sound we hear, every breath we take. The only question is which messages, which signs, which instincts, which input we're going to take in, which we're going to ignore, and what significance we attach to them. This is the pallet from which we create our lives.

The sheer size and complexity of a Creation filled with ongoing creating and change means that it is  statistically likely that astonishing, odds-defying things -- seeming miracles -- will happen all the time. These become one's Testimony -- or just stories you dine out on. The unlikely events are fascinating -- our brains are evolved to detect patterns, strive to find meaning, and latch on to rewarding discoveries and thoughts. Sociobiologists say that pattern-recognition, making predictions and discoveries is part of humankind's evolutionary inheritance. This has informed and shaped our behavior since the dawn of history, fostering reproductive fitness (i.e. leaving more grandchildren) and survival. Amazing observations, inspiration, and "messages" are out there for everyone, everywhere, always, no matter what their beliefs in God or His powers of speech. They might be "of God" but probably not in the sense that he directly arranged them for you personally.

I don't think any particular caveats are needed for tuning in to a world full of potentially wonderful, every-day thoughts,  observations, and encounters that each of us use to create the opus that is our lives. No one is favored and anyone could be afflicted or blessed with an odds-defying event. Even without factoring in sharpening of skills to encourage detection of happy findings, by sheer force of statistics alone, some people will have disproportionate luck or misfortune. I suppose retelling your "miracle" might make it seem a little less amazing each time but that's just the way human minds desensitize -- the first bite of cupcake is always the tastiest. (I wonder if this is the reason our repertoire of amazing stories has a propensity for turning into fish-tales. Does the prize catch get bigger with each re-telling to compensate for desensitization?)

I see the opportunity for dishonesty, manipulation of others, a conceited sense of "chosen-ness,"  as well as the disillusionment Keith mentioned, when messages, signs, wonders, etc. are attributed directly to the Creator. If, instead, we appreciate the awesome but attribute it to everyday functioning of Creation -- including humans, and our own senses and brains -- we may avoid potentially harmful side-effects, yet still enjoy the best things about "Listening to God."

As Freud probably didn't say, sometimes three dragonflies in the bedroom are just three dragonflies in the bedroom -- amazing, wonderful, likely to make you pay attention to dragonflies -- but no more and no less a "message from God" than every other human observation.
Bonus quote that just popped up on FaceBook, proving that when you're tuned in to looking for certain things, you're going to find them -- as if by magic or the work of God's hand, but more likely just because that's what your brain is locked into:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, November 2, 2012

God's Saying the Same Old Thing?

I missed the church service when the notice for an upcoming course was distributed, but a neighbor -- whom I love to bits -- kindly brought it over. She and her husband, in their seventh and eighth decades of life, have watched sadly as the village church declines. They are devout and long to see the church as it once was. They long to see young people flocking back to the church as they have always known it. They pray. They believe.

Looking at the notice, I could tell this course would come from a very different perspective than mine. But aren't I striving for Equipoise here?  So I decided I would go just to listen, to see what these other folks are really saying. "Don't bother," said Dear Husband, "I can tell you already, from the notice, what it's about. You just need to decode it." Here's the meeting notice:
The Listening to God Course Nov 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd -- 7:30 p.m. 
Have you ever wondered what people mean when they say "I heard God say" or "I felt God told me"? If so then you may be interested in attending a course set over 4 weeks. This is one of a number of courses available and offered to support the renewing of the Christian church in this country. It is founded on the teaching of Jesus, that God loves, accepts and forgives us when we ask in His name. This country is facing many developing problems. We believe that God is calling out to us in UK to return to him, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst the people in this land.The "Listening to God course" covers the following:
  • We have a God who speaks. Are we listening?
  • How does God Speak?
  • What hinders or helps our ability to listen? 
  • What happens next? 
  • Speaking out what God has said.
The course runs over 4 weekday eveinings and is delivered in an informal style with a mix of worship, teaching, story, discussion and prayer. It is interactive in a gentle and inclusive way. It is led and guided by the Holy Sprit, and there is time set apart to know His presence. 
Revd Keith Powell is Rector in Othery, is the Diocesan renewal advisor and has a prophetic, healing, and teaching ministry. Revd Nigel Rawlinson is a doctor, in self-supporting minstry and has a teaching, healing and evangelistic ministry. Both are members of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Renewal Group, committed to the encouragement of others in the Power of the Spirit and to the Glory of God. This course is open to everyone from any parish and any denomination. For more information please call...

DH predicted the meeting would be a charismatic thing, calling us to renew charismatic practices -- songs out of a certain hymn book, hands raised in praise during the singing, prayers made up on the spot, maybe a little speaking in tongues, righteous MMMmmmmm'ing and trembling hands thrown in, and pews thrown out for good measure.

Armed with these and other prejudices, we set out for the meeting. As it turned out, there was a bit of righteous Mmmm'ing, especially when prayers called on renewal of this troubled nation by the Holy Spirit. But by and large, the session was not wildly charismatic. The hymns were unfamiliar to me but had the standard lyrics... "My God's Great and He's more powerful than all those others..."

One thing that didn't sink in beforehand was that the presenters were the diocesan experts on church renewal. These are the guys who are supposed to reboot the church--handle the "Wicked Problem" of a dying church-- the problem my dear neighbor prays so much about; a problem I care a lot about, think a lot about, and am pretty sure requires different thinking, innovation, and the application of all human gifts -- adding to ancient knowledge and wisdom the latest discoveries and tools emerging from science, psychology, and economics, in hopes of gaining insight into the new forces, ideas, and cultural and social phenomena that touch our lives -- for better and for worse -- in 2012.

But we definitely didn't get anything different. It was the same, tired old evangelical message, expressed in the same old religionspeak. They basically just want to get people back to the Church-centered Church, circa 1900, I would guess. A large part of the evening consisted of the two Anglican priests' testimonies on how God had spoken to them.

Not too astonishingly, the Good Lord had told one or the other of them--very much to their surprise and inconvenience--that they should confess Jesus was their saviour, go to church, go to a home group, host a home group, become a church warden, come forward for an altar call, quit their job, leave their farm, take medical odd-jobs to pay the bills if necessary, become Anglican priests, and tell people the Good News.

They did start their preaching at the beginning of the Bible (as Rob Bell recommends) -- but only to point out that "God Speaks" numerous times in the first 22 verses of the Bible--proof that we have a God who speaks! They preached that there are three significant voices in our heads -- God's, our own, and the Devil's. But fortunately, we're given the gift of discernment, they said.

Rev Keith shared a poem about Adam and Eve blaming one another and discounting the voice of God. For him, this was not one of several "creation myths" in the Bible. This was the way it really is. Adam, Eve, the Devil... who is still at work in the world, subtle and sneaky. Mmmmmmmmm. (We were quite surprised to hear that there could actually be such a crafty devil left in the universe, given that the praise hymns we sang claimed an all-powerful God and King of Glory.)

At one point Rev Keith said "God calls us to be ourselves ... as we are... as he finds us." But the only examples that they gave of God's calling were their own. Evidently, Keith and Nigel have discerned that the way God speaks is by planting an idea in your head that you should pursue churchy things. Maybe they were just delivering the message that they thought the mostly-elderly audience of mostly evangelicals would understand and find inspiring. I do think my neighbor would have liked it. The concept of God's speaking to humans in the familiar way is comfortably straightforward to these priests -- and probably the other members of the audience. You just need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God, Keith advised.

But as one who cannot claim to know with any certainty the sound of God's voice or what his will is for me (much less anyone else), the presentation was superficial, nothing new, and unresponsive to any of the profound challenges to being a person of faith in 2012. DH found the presentation simplistic to the point of condescension. The clincher was a skit the two vicars performed as "Jesus" and "a Traveller" laden with his life's baggage (good and bad), unsure of where he was going. Jesus told him he was on the easy route to Death. But if Traveller gave up his baggage and let Jesus be his guide and be responsible for everything needed for life's journey, he would carry it all and take him on the road to everlasting life. Cute dramatization of a metaphore. But how does it actually translate into real life?

DH was also quite grumpy that the course-- billed as an interactive discussion, and despite the speakers' avowed desire for dialogue, didn't really include any. The speakers were preachin' to the choir. I sort of expected that.

Revs Keith and Nigel evidently don't see a need to start with very basic questions like, "How do you know it's God speaking in the first place, and not just your own thoughts?" Or, "If God has this specific plan for us and is going to nag and boss us around, why did he bother giving us free will?" Or, "if God gives different messages to two people, how do you know which He really means?" Or, "if God is still speaking, why does the Anglican Church claim a 'closed canon'?" Revs Keith and Nigel -- and the sympathetic audience they attracted -- somehow have no trouble "hearing God." And they know confidently that His message is the standard evangelical revival stuff.

 It seems a particular waste that Nigel, the doctor, is not drawing on one of the great gifts in his life -- namely his medical education. Was God not speaking to him in that? Doesn't the way the brain works have some bearing on how God does (or doesn't) speak to us? Doesn't his medical training give him provocation to explore how objectivity and science challenge our understanding of religion today?

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps Revs Nigel and Keith will get around to these and other basic questions in the three remaining classes. Having given this extended introduction of themselves, perhaps the weeks ahead will afford time for genuine discussion and permit them to address their subject in greater depth, detail, and with novel insight.

But sadly, if this is what the renewal experts have to offer, I don't think there's much hope for the church. There's no "new" in this renewal. It's more like the library book you're "renewing" for the umpteenth time. You do that for books you really love -- or maybe have misplaced but don't yet want to admit are gone.
Update: One of the things Evangelicals insist God says when He -- and the Bible -- speak to them is that human life begins at conception, and therefore all abortion is murder. Thus I was quite interested to read this article which documents that this reading of the Bible -- this version of what God's saying when he speaks -- is less than 30 years old, i.e. younger than the McDonald's Happy Meal!

Update #2: Another example of a conservative evangelical, Pat Robertson, mis-hearing a message from God:
In January of this year, televangelist Pat Robertson informed his “700 Club” audience that God had revealed the results of the 2012 election to him in a vision, implying broadly at the time that the Almighty was less than pleased with President Barack Obama. According to Right Wing Watch, Robertson recanted on Wednesday, responding to a viewer question about his false prediction, saying he “missed” God’s message about the election result.
“So many of us miss God, I won’t get into great detail about elections but I sure did miss it, I thought I heard from God, I thought I had heard clearly from God, what happened? What intervenes? Why?” Robertson said. “You ask God, how did I miss it? Well, we all do and I’ve had a lot of practice.”