Mindfulness and Spirituality – Book Review

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I recently posted up a blog about the usefulness of Mindfulness as a practise.  Some of my reflections came from this recently published book by Tim Stead.

This is a very useful and readable book on subject of Mindfulness. I especially liked his insights on God being one and God being experienced in the now. His explanation of his own personal faith journey was also very helpful to read. There has been a need for a book that looks at the interplay between mindfulness and spirituality and Stead has made a good start. It’s not a course though (which he admits) so if you want to learn mindfulness you would need to look elsewhere.

My only criticism is that it was written very much from his personal viewpoint. I suppose none of us can help doing that but when he writes that he sees mindfulness as a practise that will help rebalance the Christian faith away from too much emphasis on ‘what we intellectually believe’ towards a greater emphasis on ‘what we experience’. Many, many Christians would not recognise a problem with ‘too much emphasis on what we intellectually believe’.

Surely Christianity is only ‘too intellectual’ for a very small minority for western, conservative, and mostly evangelical Christians? If we lift our eyes up and take in a global perspective the massive growth of the Christian church is in the Pentecostal stream which, no offence intended, could not be seriously accused of being ‘too intellectual’. The life of a ‘charismatic Christian is ALL about experience – at the extreme end a ‘thrill-seeking, wonder-working, power-encounter of the ‘God’s in my corner’ variety: power everything, power evangelism, power church. For someone of this tradition the concept of ‘making space for God’ is synonymous with being filled with the Holy Spirit and if you ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ why would you need to meditate, you simply need to pray in tongues or have words/pictures from God?

But meditation as an exercise for our minds is somehow different from being filled with the Spirit and experiencing God through spiritual gifts (I write as one who would identify as ‘charismatic’) It adds something not better necessarily, just something different.

Stead poses the questions ‘Does it make sense? and Does it make any difference? of his own Christian faith but I think he also needs to add ‘Is it True?

There seems to be a pendulum which swings between these two

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and when the swing is too much towards the ‘does it work’ side of things we cease to be concerned about whether or not it’s true. And yet it does matter that Christianity true because Christianity is (in my view) the only unfailing ‘omphalos’ we have left to offer hope to our world and it’s only reliable as an ‘omphalos’ if it’s true. (The wonderful word ‘omphalos’ comes from John Higg’s book Stranger than we can imagine and refers to a big central idea that makes sense of everything/that connects heaven and earth). To be fair to Tim Stead, he is not writing a book defending the Christian faith.

So is meditation and mindfulness a power encounter for the timid?

Possibly!

I’ve certainly had a greatly increased sense of the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit recently as I’ve been meditating even though I haven’t been doing anything overtly spiritual such as praying (because meditation is not prayer)  but I do meditate with a conscious awareness that  whatever I am doing, I am doing it in the presence of God so it’s hardly surprising that when I quiet my own mind, I’m better prepared to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisperings.

In addition to this though, my own personal physical stress symptom has disappeared and my ability to find things on my computer (something that regularly causes me a lot of stress) has hugely improved. (I have a filing system, yes that does help, but what has gone, is my own mental panic that I won’t be able to work my own filing system!)

Good book, well worth the purchase price so long as you know it’s not a course on mindfulness. It does though point you towards other helpful places where you can access this.

 

 

Mindfulness – helpful practise or misleading fad?

I’ve been exploring the whole idea of ‘mindfulness’ in more depth recently.
There have been two books that have helped me with this Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, who is an Anglican priest and Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman. This last one is described as a “life changing bestseller” and that is certainly written by well-qualified people who are leaders in this field and based on a lot of creditable scientific research.

mindfulness1   minfulness2

But as I am a fan of another, rather more ancient,”life changing bestseller” (the Bible) I am interested to know what one might have to say about the other.  Is mindfulness a helpful approach to life for someone who already has a faith perspective. Do the two things complement one another helpfully or contradict one another?

So this post is not about what mindfulness is – it’s a reflection on whether mindfulness is a good and useful practice.

I have heard mindfulness described as’spirituality for the nonbeliever’and I do think there’s an element of truth in that. So my question therefore is, is mindfulness a helpful practice for those of us who are believers? How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold? What does it have to do prayer?

Is mindfulness a helpful practice? And is it helpful for those of us who are believers?

My answer is a resounding YES, followed by a very small ‘but’.

Yes, absolutely, it is a good practise to learn. It is very definitely a practise of self-discipline for the mind. Just like a healthy eating regime is good for your body so mindfulness is an exercise regime for your mind. If you have a mind that jumps around like a monkey in a cage, firing off distress signals regularly causing you to become very anxious then mindfulness and its associated regime of meditation will undoubtedly help. It will help you lower your stress levels, it will silence the monkey it will allow you to be less driven by your anxiety. Keep practising it over time and you will become more aware of the negative self-destructive thoughts that lead you to spiralling downwards into an emotional state where eventually everything seems dark and impossible. Even if you are not an individual who is prone to anxiety, mindfulness will increase your creativity, make you far more aware of simple everyday pleasures and hugely increase the sense that you are actually living your life not just watching it go past you.
Those are all very big claims – I do totally recommend it, I am practising it myself, so why the very small caveat (the ‘but’ behind my YES)?

My biggest concern might not sound valid:  It will ‘work’, it has many, many very tangible benefits. My concern is that it will work so well that you might miss, dismiss or generally never get round to the spirituality for which it creates space. You might decide that spirituality is not what you are looking for in which case you will still get huge benefit from learning about mindfulness and practising meditation.

Naturally my personal feeling is that that would be a shame because mindfulness is not the whole story.  It also makes one assumption which I believe to be faulty: it assumes that once you’ve sorted out your wonky thoughts and compassionately accepted your negative emotions, once you have trained your mind then you will be able to be in touch with the ‘essentially happy and content person you really are at your core’.

You will be much happier and more content than you are now but there may not be a ‘happy and content person at your core’?

What if at the core of your being there is only a person who can’t find any peace because of something they feel guilty about or because of a sense of deep shame? Or what if, at the centre of  you, you find an essentially lonely person who is very afraid and easily made to be anxious about everything? Or what if there is a person who is so chewed by anger about what life has thrown at them they can’t find anything about which to be ‘content’?
And, even if the person you find at the core of your being is none of those things, even if the person at your core could be described as ‘essentially happy and content’ it still leaves that person all alone at the centre of you, which is a bit lonely.

How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold?

What Christianity teaches is that we were not made to be alone, we were made to find our deepest sense of joy and connectedness when we connect to the God who created us and loves us.

img_4762.jpgYes I know it’s a corny diagram but it’s simply meant to express that life is best when I live it with an awareness of the one who gave it to me and who promises to walk through this experience called ‘life’ with me. God did not create humans so that we could be alone: the big G plus me (and you) was always the intention.

Faith in God inputs spirituality into a practice of mindfulness which is otherwise only physical (being still, becoming aware of your body and your breathing) and mental (learning to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings we have, learning that we can cut them down to size, that they do not have to control us).

Without a spiritual aspect to mindfulness we are still left alone in the universe-and if we are alone in the universe then there is no meaning to our lives. If we are alone in the universe then there is nothing beyond death. If we are alone in the universe, then we have no external objective source of truth. We have no-one to say over us “you are my beloved child with you I am well pleased”.

With only ourselves to tell ourselves that we are loved (or if we are lucky, a significant other to affirm this to us) then we are left propping up our sense of self-worth, security and significance by repeating a self validating mantra along the lines of “I am beloved”, “I am precious”, “I am valuable” and these things are true but you have to say that stuff pretty loudly if you want to avoid the inner critical voice saying “says who?”.

Plenty of humanists will tell you that you do not need an external source of validation to ascribe value to yourself but if we take away the word ‘validation’ and ‘value’, which sound a bit dry and psychological and simply use the word ‘love’ then it becomes pretty obvious that love is something you receive from an ‘other’. In fact love is incomprehensible without there being an ‘other’. So if there is no ‘other’ in the universe then we are at best simply applying positive thinking and worst deluding ourselves.

Christianity offers us ‘The Great Exchange’: we offer to God our week and flawed selves, accepting that we are guilty (mostly of being unloving or self protective) angry and anxious. When we offer this self to God we are given back acceptance, forgiveness and an everlasting commitment to be our companion through life and beyond death.

Now that’s an incredible exchange which is why it would be a great shame if you missed it. Some Christians might reject mindfulness because it stops short of making this connection with God.  And the truth is (as I’ve already said)  that you might be SO amazed by the potency of mindfulness to change you that it will be tempting  to think that it leaves no place or need for God/faith or spirituality and that would be a great shame because then you would be missing out on that connection which was always intended to be yours. (Big G plus you).

Mindfulness will create more space for God in your life. It will open a door and it is your choice whether or not to go through it. I do not think it will ‘open a door’ in any negative sense as in opening you up to harmful influences in the spiritual world (as a certain strand of Christians might fear although I suppose that depends on what you make the focus of your meditation), the main risk is that it simply opens a door to greater self-reliance which will take you away from God but it is equally likely to create a greater desire for God in your life.  It’s a tool or a process, it all depends how you use it.

It will help you create a calmer mind and yes,  I do believe that that what you most need is NOT simply a calmer mind, what you most need is to be connected to the divine presence that God offers you, but having a calmer mind maybe be a most useful way to create space for that connection.

We do not reject a diet because it doesn’t promise you peace of mind; a diet isn’t meant to do that, it’s meant to achieve weight loss. So why reject a helpful practice on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily offer you spirituality? It puts you in a place where you are more likely to become aware of God and that’s a good thing.

What does it have to do prayer?

If mindfulness offers you an open door to  spirituality then this is where prayer comes in.

I’ve tried out a number of mindfulness apps and so far I prefer Headspace as the meditations are straightforwardly about physically and mentally slowing down i.e. they are about body and mind and don’t become “spiritual” in a way that feels weird to me. I also like the guys voice – a warm friendly British accent, I don’t know who he is but there is nothing jarring about the way he speaks.

Some of the guided meditations on  the Calm app which aim to generate a laudable sense of compassion or kindness both to yourself and other people feel so much like praying that quite frankly I’d rather be praying! I accept that it  possible to generate this quality of compassion towards others without bringing a divine being into it but it just feels odd to me. Mind you, I’ve only listened to the free meditations on these 2 apps so I have no idea what the material is like if you pay a subscription. In Calm’s defense – it’s great if you like background sounds such as running water and birdsong – for anyone with tinnitus, this can be a very soothing alternative to the ringing in their ears.

Tim Stead’s book says that Mindfulness “makes space for God’.

“Whatever I am doing and however well or badly my life is going, someone (God, no less!) Knows I am here and is aware of my every move and every though; someone who is not being carried away by my experiences I am, often losing perspective completely, but someone who is in a position to be able to watch my experience as it flows past, seeing it all in the perspective of eternity. Even if I lose perspective, I know it exists because God is in that place where perspective can be seen. When I’m aware of being held in this sort of gaze I feel totally loved”

(Mindfulness and Spirituality p.46)

prayer-is-when-you-talk-to-god-meditation-is-when-god-talks-to-youWhen we practise meditation with the conscious awareness of being in God’s presence what we are doing is creating a less cluttered mind and in doing so we are making it easier to hear or sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Even if we don’t have any obvious ‘God thoughts’ or or words or pictures, even if we are not trying at all to do anything other than be still we can trust that God is at work within us in a way that is transformative.

I begin my prayer times with a period of silence using an app known as ‘Centering Prayer’ . It’s free to download and simply provides a timer, some sounds to begin and end the silence and prayer, a scripture or a quotation at the beginning and the end which help put your act of meditation consciously in the presence of God.

(Here’s what the app logo looks like)

centering prayerEven only a few moments of silent focusing on our breathing can make as much calmer when we come to pray. After my silence it feels very natural to flow into saying the Lord’s prayer very slowly and thoughtfully, using it as a structure to pray for all those things or people that I want to place in God’s hands. I almost always do this out loud and sometimes I will do with actions as using your body to express what you mean with your heart can be incredibly powerful.

After these two practices, I then turn to reading my Bible and I find I’m in a much better state to hear from it what God might be saying to me. Roughly I spend about 10 minutes on the three different disciplines. But if you can only find 10 minutes, you might still find you get more out of 3 or 4 minutes praying and 3 or 4 minutes reading if you have spent 2 to 3 minutes in silence first of all.

I’ll close with one of my favourite quotations which crops up on the Centering Prayer App which considers how very powerful this discipline can be:

“the contemplative journey [there are huge overlaps between contemplative prayer and meditation] is the most responsible of all responses to God because so much depends on it- the future of humanity, the healing of the wounds of humanity, our own deepest healing. It’s not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It’s basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications, including its desperate wounded nurse… Humans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life, and love of God are pouring through them,d3b449d62d2853729f1c6702fb3e444c channelling a source of healing, compassion, and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do.They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting… The pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life”

Thomas Keating Heartfulness: transformation in Christ

 

‘Stranger than we can imagine’ – by John Higgs – Book Review

stranger-than-we-can-imagine

This is an amazing read!

It leaps from relativity to Cubism to Surrealism, to the optimism in Star Trek and the nihilism in Casablanca. It explains quantum mechanics using a hilarious analogy of Putin punching a kangaroo. From there it goes on to existentialism, individualism and the space race.

Higgs has written a factual book that manages to be a page turner. Don’t simply dip into the chapters you fancy because you’ll miss the thread. He builds up a case which connects all the huge changes of the 20th century to one theme. It’s an intellectual ‘dot to dot’ tour de force. If I’d read this book before I did either of my degrees, it would have helped SO much.

It’s a hugely entertaining read. He draws on seemingly obscure information and you wonder how it could possibly be relevant but watch out because he will circle back to it later.

For anyone my age or above, he is writing about stuff we can actually remember. For anyone younger than me this book is a most accessible and readable account of the 20th century. If the first rule of understanding where you are now is looking back to see how you got here, Higgs traces humanity’s journey through the last 100 years along the paths of science, music, culture, war, and, to some extent, religion.

Which brings me to one of the two ways in which I would dare to criticise this book. Firstly, he gives a great deal of prominence to people who were really very obscure whilst overlooking others who have been massively influential. One of these obscure people is Aleister Crawley whose ‘thelamite’ religion gets a higher profile than I feel it merits – even though he was on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album and he was included in a list of 100 most influential British people from the 20th century compiled in 2002. I can see why Higgs gives him this profile. Crawley’s religion epitomised all the most negative traits of individualism – his guiding motto was ‘do what thou wilt’ (without the caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody’). So Higgs is using Crawley as an illustration rather than trying to make a case for his prominence. All the same it’s annoying that he is referred to so frequently whilst far more outstanding examples of humanity are over-looked.

Individualism is one of the very strong themes that run through the book. The other central idea is that the 20th century was the century in which the world either rejected or found inadequate any framework or concept which claimed to give us a fixed place to stand, a way to understand the world or human beings or God or science – he calls this concept an ‘omphalos’ and it might be a belief or an idea, a deity or a scientific theory. But one by one, he charts how the ‘omplaloi’ (plural) fall through the 20th century.

So my second criticism would be that he completely overlooks the huge extraordinary, world changing rise of the Christian faith particularly through such movements as Pentecostalism. None of the positive movements that have streamed out from groups and individuals motivated by faith were noted. As early as the First World War it was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) who provided compassion ministries on the field of war and rehabilitated 32,000 ex-soldiers into jobs of work after the war.
Ministries such as that of Oxfam arose from the catholic end of the Christian spectrum. No single stream of Christianity holds the corner on compassion.

I feel that this oversight leaves this book completely lacking in hope. Read it and you will find out all sorts of fascinating things you may not have known. I didn’t know that the most eminent researcher behind the American space programme was a bone fide Nazi who had worked in concentration camps. I didn’t know why the Beatles called themselves the Beatles, (in truth I’d never thought about it but suffice to say it’s nothing to do with insects). I didn’t know that the only ‘positive’ element to existentialism would be its emphasis on ‘living in the moment’ (Hmm – that has interesting implications for mindfulness). From the reasons for Kurt Cobain’s suicide to chaos theory and the connection between the growth of corporations and the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, Higgs makes so much so very, very clear – yes, even quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s blessed cat which is alive and dead the same time.

But what Higgs doesn’t manage to do is give any sense of hope. He tries. He tries very, very hard in the final chapter which is given over to a consideration of the influence of the Internet: how it has made us all so much more connected, how it has given rise to a greater accountability and transparency. In these he finds reasons for hope: he thinks that the Internet has imposed what he calls a feedback loop on our culture “we are being made to take responsibility for our choices”. Forgive me for sounding cynical, but I really don’t think the Internet has that kind of power. The Internet itself is morally neutral, like money. It can be used for good but it can be used for bad.

It came as a surprise to me that as a culture we are now beyond post-modernism. I’ve probably just been a bit slow to catch up but apparently “the entire edifice of post-modernism” has now been “routinely rejected”, if not by popular culture (of which I am clearly a part) then at least by academia. “Our current ideology” Higgs says, “stresses that of course there is an absolute“. His italics, not mine!

But don’t hold your breath, waiting for him to tell you what that absolute is. “The absolutist approach to the contradictory nature of scientific models is to say that while all those models are indeed flawed, they will be superseded by a grand theory of everything, a wonderful theory that does not contain any paradoxes and which makes sense of everything on every scale.” That such a theory might finally emerge, Higgs admits, is a leap of faith.

But for such a very erudite person, Higgs is peculiarly ill-equipped to make any ‘leap of faith’ and this is why the book leaves a lingering taste of disappointment, hopelessness and even despair. If you are someone with anxieties about the future I would not recommend reading this book.

He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the concept of Christian love, discussing it, as he does,  in the chapter on sex therefore equating love with sexuality in a way that totally overlooks the powerful, life transforming, self giving unconditional kind of love expressed by the God Christians believe in. Muddling  ‘Eros’ with ‘Agape’  puts him in academic kindergarten as far as understanding faith is concerned.

Which is a real shame because Christianity is very good at holding onto paradoxes -believing that two opposing things are true at the same time. These are at the heart of our faith: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” to name but one. I loved his section on quantum mechanics: how subatomic particles can be in more than one place at one time, how they can spin in different directions at the same time, how they can move instantaneously from one place to another without passing through the distance in between and how they can communicate instantaneously over great distances.  But no one who has ever read their Bible should have any problem with any of those things!

Perhaps he should ponder Colossians chapter 1:
“for it was in Him (Christ) that all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities; all things were created [planets, stars, neutrons and protons] and exist through him and in and for him. And he himself existed before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v 16 and 17).

If this isn’t a description of an ‘omphalos’, I don’t know what is.  Yes, it takes a leap of faith to accept it but if the alternative is meaninglessness and despair…..?

That Christ is the connection between heaven and earth, that the coming of the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ is the only reason for hope and that God can be addressed as a loving parent (‘Our Father’ or mother) not simply another version of a feudal ‘Lord’ (which Higgs takes as the reason for the ‘decline’ of Christianity, which, by the way, hasn’t actually declined at all if you take a global view rather than his short-sighted western view) – all these are substantial and in my view trustworthy reasons for hope.

So read this book – but don’t despair! There IS hope, of which I shall shortly say more…

Body, Mind and Spirit – further reflections on how spirituality intersects with our minds and bodies

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This blog is a further reflection on the book Cure: a Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant. In my previous review, I noted how people who meditate have more highly organised and coordinated brains with higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex. When I read this it felt a bit like a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me, “Ahh! So that’s why I so frequently have good ideas when I pause to pray about something, especially when I pray by just putting myself consciously but silently into God’s presence”. No sooner had I thought this, than a second rather more disturbing thought came along: “so where does that leave the Holy Spirit? If praying or meditating is simply a way of making my brain function better are the ideas I have or even the sense of God that I have, simply a result of me harnessing my own psychological resources?”

In other words where is the place for the spiritual in all of this?

When I teach about skills for mental well-being I often draw the diagram above. I explain that we are not merely a body nor are we merely a mind but we also have a spirit. Each of these three parts of ourselves inter-link and each affects the other two in ways I think we do not begin to understand. Marchant’s book explores the connections between only two of the circles: the body and the mind. She appears to find no place for the spirit. She is not a Christian, so why should she?

When I draw this image I use it to teach three skills.

1. Relaxation – learning to relax is a physical skill which is good for our bodies.

2. Changing our thinking – learning to challenge negative thinking is a skill which is good for our minds.

3. Learning to pray (and by inference learning that there is someone to pray to and who or what that someone might be). This allow us to connect to an objective reality which is beyond ourselves.

Those who have no faith in God (of any variety) would only draw two circles: the body and the mind. These are lonely places to be. Sex, at its best, is a union of two people which brings us a deeply comforting sense of connection with another person. In conversation with ‘like minded’ friends we can sometimes sense a ‘meeting of minds’ which is also deeply affirming. But for the most part only we alone know how it feels to live in our own body, and only we alone have any understanding of the internal landscape of our own minds. These are lonely places. If there is a third part of me and it is my spirit then I see that as the part which allows me connect to God. God’s promise to us is that he himself will be present with us through the Holy Spirit, who fills us when we invite him to do so and brings to us the assurance that we are God’s children, known and loved by him (her). (Romans 8:16)

Nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly explained that human beings have these three circles but they are mentioned frequently in different places and it is a model I find convincing not least because the Bible teaches that we are “made in the image of God” and God is also “three in one”

trinity

Here is an image meant to help us understand the Trinity. Can you find the second image inside the first?

The second reason I have for believing in the existence of my spirit comes from watching people die. Something happens at that moment, something that isn’t merely physical and it’s not to do with people’s mental capacity being lost because frequently this is lost well before death anyway. But at the moment of death, something changes, something leaves. The essence of us departs, it does not die. This is what Christians mean by being “called home”.

So for these two reasons I do believe there is a space for the spiritual, which brings me back to the question I originally asked of this book “where is the place for the spiritual in all this?”

The risk of a book like this is that you come away from it with a very much better view of your body and mind’s potential to work together for your own well-being. In other words you think more highly of yourself. This is, of itself,  not a bad thing because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. But we are missing out on something when we think so highly of ourselves that we rule out any need for God. Or should I say, we are missing out on “someone”?

There is a huge amount of value in meditation but it is still a singularly lonely activity. I admire my Buddhist friends for the sense of calm detachment they can achieve but their doctrine has no personal god only an inner state of transcendence which, admirable though it may be, doesn’t seem to offer any personal meaning to my life.

Anyway Buddhists aren’t the only ones who meditate. The writers of the Psalms, those ancient prayer poems of the Jews, frequently recommended meditating.

So what is meditating? I find it helpful to think of it as ‘exercise for the mind’. If I wanted to have strong abdominal muscles I would need to exercise them by doing sit ups. If I want to have a mind that works calmly, coherently and at its best then I need to exercise it.

Christians have a very odd relationship with their minds. Partly this is to do with their strong belief in the supremacy of the influence of the Holy Spirit but partly it is also fuelled by fear. Fear that if you think too hard, you may become too impressed with yourself or too self-reliant, that maybe you might rationalise away the spiritual.

When Gordon Fee a well-known Pentecostal theologian first began to talk about the possibility of taking theological training he was advised by some of his fellow Christians that it wouldn’t be a good idea, that it would kill his spiritual passion. “Better to be a fool on fire” they said “than a scholar on ice”. Personally I find the idea of being a ‘fool on fire’ terrifying – think radicalised muslim extremist killing people in the name of their religion and you have a picture of where passion without insight can take you. Thankfully those aren’t the only two choices open to us- any number of Christian theologians could be described as “scholars on fire”.  Passionate about their faith but also loving God with all of their minds, not just their soul and strength.

Some Christians avoid their minds by preferring to pray about things instead of thinking about things. ‘Looking for a sign’, rather than ‘thinking things through’  can make us superstitious in our faith and doesn’t strengthen the foundations of why we believe. Becoming aware of the presence of God through the resource of prayer is undoubtedly a powerful tool for transformation in our lives but it is not the only tool. We need to use it AND think! When, for example, we say we want to lose weight; we might pray about this but we know full well that we can’t simply pray about it we have to do something about it  as well i.e. reduce our calorie intake. Similarly, if we want to get fit, we might pray about it but no amount of prayer will make us physically fitter unless we are willing to get off our bottoms and do some exercise. We understand this interplay between the body circle and the spiritual circle – we get it. But when it comes to the mind circle we get easily spooked and think that “simply praying about it” is all that’s needed.

In fact there are plenty of skills and exercises that can help us to train our minds (to say nothing of helpful medications that can help us stablise them when we have got seriously out of kilter). Scripture recommends that we should “take captive every thought”. There is nothing unscriptural about learning techniques that help you control anxious thoughts or help you stop yourself rehearsing and ruminating over regrets, recriminations or revenge. Learning to be peacefully aware of all the stuff that is going on between your ears is a helpful first step towards getting rid of that stuff which is destructive or damaging mentally.

So if my mind needs fixing and let’s face it most of our minds do, why should I find myself prejudiced against skills such as meditation? or even hypnosis? Not the kind that gives someone else power over my  mind or actions but the kind that helps me access the unconscious parts of my mind.  I found her definition of hypnosis and her explanation of the history of it very useful and interesting.

So did Marchant make any space for the spiritual?

In a fascinating final chapter called “Looking for God” she visits Lourdes and uncovers what she calls the ‘real miracle of Lourdes’. Even as an unbeliever,  even having debunked at least one of the so-called miracles which has taken place there, she acknowledges that “seeing ourselves as part of something bigger, or having a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves can help us do better physically”. She felt for herself a ‘powerful sense of connectedness’. She goes on to describe the kind of friendships, full of hope and companionship that are forged at Lourdes, the dignity and respect shown to human life in all its frailty. She points to the ‘miracles’ of strong social support, people sharing their lives openly with complete strangers because they meet on the  common ground that everyone is broken in one way or another, being treated with respect, making friends immediately, the sense of equality experienced by everyone – these are the miracles. She doesn’t actually say it, because she doesn’t know of it, but I wanted to shout “YES! This IS the miracle! This IS the kingdom of God in action: people being treated holistically as more than cells and molecules, people being listened to, people engaging in an act of worship that encompasses their physical senses, engages their mental energies and recognises that simply being human is their core identity.

For me being human is synonymous with being a child of God. It is my core identity, it is God’s spirit within my spirit who reassures me that I was created for a purpose, but I am part of something bigger than myself but that I am also known and loved for my unique individuality. I am ‘beloved’.

 

What is a Christian?

I had a most interesting conversation yesterday with a friend around this question: “what is a Christian?”
We were discussing the phrase “practising Christian”, she accepts that she isn’t one of those but she does understand herself to be a Christian. The phrase ‘practising Christian’ is generally taken to mean “church goer” but being a “church goer” is no guarantee of living out Christian values such as generosity, forgiveness, compassion or thankfulness.
In fact people who don’t go to church frequently cite the ‘unchristian’ behaviour of “church goers” as a reason for not going. And it’s true – the church is as rich a mix of sinners and saints as anywhere else.
There are a lot of people who are innately Christian in their values. Their lifestyle, generosity, voluntary commitment to good causes are all exemplary, so much so you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking there might be as many Christians outside the church as within it. (In fact I hope you CAN be forgiven because I do think this!)
One of the most moving responses to the atrocity in Manchester this week was the reflection on how immediately after the explosion, terror, carnage and horror a huge number of people responded in a way that was totally in line with Christian values – you might almost say that the kingdom of God had broken out. People were spontaneously generous, altruistically compassionate and desperate to make some difference in the face of such horror. Of course, it needs to be said that the values they demonstrated are venerated just as much by all other religions.
So was there something distinctively Christian going on? Or is it just that the darkest of deeds brings out the best in people?
My Christian view of the world includes the idea that all human beings are made in God’s image therefore all of us have a vestige of God’s likeness and the capacity to demonstrate his compassion. All of us though are also flawed and it is classically those who are most damaged who are capable of inflicting the most damage on others.

Which brings us back to the original question “what is a Christian?” It clearly can’t be someone who behaves perfectly all of the time, because none of us do.

If we were to take that question and ask it of the entire spectrum of the Christian church, from catholic mystic through to charismatic evangelical and all shades in between (because of course, you can have a Catholic charismatic or an evangelical non-charismatic) you would get ALOT of different answers.
In the church scene that I grew up in we thought it was highly unlikely that a catholic could be a ‘saved/born again believer’ like us. How blinkered we were – people who smoked or went to dance classes were equally suspect!
We are notoriously bad at deciding ‘who is in and who is out’ – no wonder Jesus said “do not judge” and thank goodness he did. But for those of us who want to be a Christian the answer to the question still matters.
Here are some answers
A) A Christian is someone who has been baptised.  This answer might surprise some readers steeped in post reformation understanding but it was the only answer for thousands of years and may well be the first answer given by the majority of the world’s christians. (that’s just my opinion, I can’t prove that) . If it does shock you it might also surprise you to know that Luther, that great champion of the ‘saved by faith alone’ school of thought, leaned heavily in his darkest moments of self-doubt on the fact of his baptism.
B)  A Christian is someone who has had a conversion experience. How you define ‘conversion experience’ can vary greatly (which is partly why the ‘being baptised’ test is so much easier, it’s objective not subjective, you either have or haven’t been baptised). Defining a conversion experience is far trickier but this answer suggests that at the very least being a Christian is a conscious active choice, a decision made either in a single moment of time or over a period of time. It also suggests that faith is experiential i.e. something we experience not just a cerebral consent to a set of beliefs or values.

or here is a third definition (preferred by many, my friend included)
C)  A Christian is someone who lives out Christian values regardless of A) or B)

So what do YOU think?

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I think it’s not either A or B or C but, preferably, all three. I say preferably because being a Christian is not about making sure you tick all the boxes and someone with these three boxes unticked might still be a Christian but that’s God for you  – not picky about his friends!
Here’s my definition: a Christian is someone who knows Jesus and reflects his character, lives by his teaching and is most likely baptised.
The ‘knowing Jesus’ bit for me implies an encounter, a moment of personal commitment, a relationship that began in an experience. It might be a Damascus road style event or it might simply have been a warm inward sense of God in church one day but something mystical, spiritual, personal and relational has happened at some point that has created a connection between you and God and in being a Christian you are seeking to sustain and grow that knowledge and connection. This is the admission that there is an ‘other’ in the Christian faith. I know that many can experience positive change in their lives through practices such as mindfulness or beliefs such as Buddhism where adherents are encouraged and given tools to harness all their own inner resources. I’m not underrating our own inner resourcefulness but my Christian faith is me reaching out to connect with the reality, a personality, who is above and beyond me but infinitely loving and accepting of me.  This connection is the power dynamic, the spark of life, the presence of God permitted to be at work within me. Without it the other side of being a Christian, the living out and reflecting God’s character in our lives, might become just so much “trying hard”.

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Yes Christians should be recognised by their character. Jesus said “by your fruits you shall know them”. None of us can be perfect but even so if someone consistently fails to change at all as a result of their knowledge of Christ that would be surprising.

So where does baptism come into this? I would say that it’s important but not that important – because clearly so many who are baptised never go on to live out their faith or reflect God in the world. But it’s important because the Bible says it’s important it’s a public declaration of faith and commitment that ought to be an outward reflection of an inward reality.

Why Worship Matters

“Let man’s soul be a sphere and then, in this, 

the intelligence that moves, devotion is”

These are lines from a poem by John Donne (1573-1631), hardly contemporary but still wonderfully insightful. We have all sorts of words for worship these days: praise/adoration/contemplation but I think loves this phrase, worship or ‘devotion’ is ‘the intelligence that moves us’.

Worship might also be described as the act of putting ourselves in God’s presence with the express purpose of appreciating ‘him’ or being with ‘him’ (sorry pronouns bother me, God is not him or her, God is just God).

But even the word ‘appreciate’ feels weak – you appreciate your granny when she knits you some socks, you appreciate a friend or neighbour who helps you out with a chore.

To appreciate God is something far stronger than a moderate sense of reasonable gratitude. To really worship is to spend time opening your heart, mind and soul to God’s qualities and attributes, to put yourself consciously in God’s presence and to bend your heart, mind, soul and strength to worship – to acknowledge the superiority and strength of the ‘other’, of God himself.

Donne’s definition of worship has, almost by accident, a surprisingly modern feel. He writes that we, being like spheres are pulled in one direction or another by either external forces: “being by others hurried every day”; or by internal forces: “pleasure or business” whirl our souls.

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These feel like good descriptions of the phenomena that is modern life so often conspiring to keep us from worship.

I say ‘by accident’ because Donne had in mind the idea of the universe being a set of nested spheres the earth at its centre. But even in his day astronomers had begun to notice that planets followed erratic courses and “scarce in a year their natural form obey”.

This image and this phrase reminds me of those whose faith only finds expression at those annual pitstops of Christmas and Easter.

Donne’s image of a sphere makes me think of a set of weighted carpet bowls that my parents used to own. Holding an internal bias, not one of them would ever roll in a straight line. To help them reach their goal you had to remember to roll them with regard to their internal weighting.

All of us have a natural internal bias that rolls us away from God.

It therefore takes conscious effort and a certain degree of discipline to practice what Donne calls ‘devotion’ but there is a rich benefit when we do spend time in worship, adoration, praise or contemplation. As we do so we gather ‘the intelligence that moves us’. Use the word intelligence in the way that you would find it used in spy dramas i.e. ‘information’ and we realise that worshipping God allows us to see the world and ourselves through the lens of knowledge, insight or information about the world’s creator. In essence when we worship we see things as they truly are.

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Take time to worship and you may be surprised that a whole world may be contained in a drop of water.

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The only position Christians should take on the idea of a “merciless war”

If the title of this post sounds arrogant, forgive me: I am using the word ‘position’ literally and I’m talking about a way to pray.

Yesterday morning, as distressed as I was over the appalling loss of life in Paris, I was also very disturbed by the French President’s declared intention to start a “merciless war on terrorism”.

I am not saying we should not oppose terrorism, even using force if necessary. But I am saying that in doing so we must not become like that which we oppose: merciless.

(Nor should we forget that our brothers and sisters in Beirut, Africa and many other places, less familiar to us than Paris, suffer also but do so without the news coverage – however that it a different point to the one I want to principally make here).

How is all this linked to prayer? As I listened to the news I stood and prayed the Beatitudes.  I have been learning these by heart along with a series of positions that flow from one to another and I find this very helpful. I supposed its a bit like Christian Tai Chi. I have been praying the Lord’s prayer in movement for over a year now and I find it an incredibly helpful way to fully engage with the whole prayer, leaning into the full meaning of every phrase with your whole body.

So the action for each time you mention the Kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer is this:

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making a cross shape of your whole body, because the cross is the most vivid sign of the Kingdom that there is.

As you pray ‘Your Kingdom come’ you raise your arms out to the sides in this way with your palms down at first, pausing to pray silently for every person for whom you want God’s kingdom to come close, then your turn your palms over so they face heavenwards  and remind yourself that God’s will is done on earth, as it is is in Heaven.

If you are anything like me when I read instructions  you will have been trying out that position as I described it.

If so you will have discovered, it’s okay… for a moment or two, but trying holding that position….

for a two minutes…?

for four minutes…?

your shoulders will ache and your arms will feel heavy.  On second thoughts, you might actually do yourself an injury so  I am NOT recommending you do this!  Body prayer is not some form of macho prayer exercise along the lines of ‘see how long I can keep my arms raised to impress God’. Moving your body in prayer, helps you engage with what you are actually saying/thinking/praying (at least that’s how it helps me).  Even holding the arms outstretched for just a few moments though is just long enough to remember that praying for others is costly, just as dying for others (as Jesus chose to do) is very costly. Share the pain for just a little bit, both with the Christ crucified and with those who feel themselves to be ‘on the rack’ of suffering.  It will remind you that it is Jesus that died, he is the Saviour, you are not. You can only share a tiny bit of the pain of the world as you ask for God’s kingdom to break in to our world.

Praying through the Beatitudes using body prayer, the same position (with arms outstretched) is preceded by a big intake of breath recognising that what you are saying and doing is going to require real effort and be very difficult, you do this action as you reach the line: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God’.

Stand like that with your arms held out-stretched to both left and right as if you are trying to form a human link in a chain between warring people and you physically feel a deeper insight into the complexities of reconciliation.

And if our world needs anything, it needs reconciliation:

“Despite numerous attempts to develop utopian communities down the centuries, the human race has never been very good at taking care of these matters (peace, justice, marriage and family, business and trade) providing a way for men and women to make a living, work with each other for common goals, look out for the needs of the weak and damaged. War has always been the classic way of choice to impose our idea of what is good on the people we don’t like or disapprove of. It still is. In the century just completed ‘all the kingdoms of the world’, led by the most advanced kingdoms economically and educationally, outdid themselves in not getting along… The facts and statistics are indisputable: the smarter we get, the more prosperous we are, the more murderous we become” 

Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way

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(Karunaezara on Instagram)

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” Martin Luther King

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind” Mahatma Gandhi