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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on when the character of God in the Bible doesn’t match our experience

I need to pause and take a moment to talk a little more directly about God, and the character of God as depicted in the Torah/Bible. Which, at least for me, aren’t necessarily always the same thing.

I know that for some people, it’s really important to be able to track how every verse in the Bible can be totally consistent with every other verse in the Bible and also their theology, but that’s never been my jam, honestly.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg – Life is a Sacred Text: Theology Interlude

And later

…it was already OK with me that God in the Torah wasn’t necessarily always going to be acting like the God I’d begun to meet in prayer, in mystical encounters, in the woods and on my long, winding walks outside at night.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg – Life is a Sacred Text: Theology Interlude

For something funny, but still on the topic of understanding God’s character via weird Bible stories: After A Long Pandemic Layoff, God Interviews For A New Job by Jonathan Weisberg.

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An inspiring couple supporting Ukrainians with 500+ houses

This is one of the few “feel good” stories coming out of Ukraine: Ms Lam Bao Yan and Mr Rudy Taslim, a married couple from Singapore, who together run an architecture firm, have been building insulated and shock resistant homes for displaced Ukrainians, as well as other things that they know the people need, like public places with electricity and internet access (they’re calling “lighthouses”) so people can communicate.

Read it here: The Stories Behind: The S’pore couple given residency by Ukraine after designing, building 500 emergency homes there.

There are several things I love here:

  • They’ve found a way to have an impact that doesn’t just feel nice to them, but is valuable to the country – valuable enough that they’ve been officially offered residency in Ukraine to continue their work.
  • This quote from Ms Lam: “(We want to) overcome injustice with good, and good looks differently to different people. ‘Good’ could look like a word of encouragement to some, (but to us) ‘good’ looks like our skill sets. We are not politicians, neither are we militarians, so we cannot overcome injustice with these because we are not influential people like that. But we overcome all this injustice with the good that we know – our skill sets and our lives.”
  • They encourage smaller acts of justice too – like knitting scarves or drawing pictures! They don’t judge lesser efforts, but encourage and celebrate it and invite more people to join.
  • The whole approach seems very humble (not over-celebrating their success, not looking down on others) and very non-judgemental (not criticising the military)
  • They’re Christians, and 10 years ago bought one-way tickets to Mozambique to study to be missionaries. But that experience taught them that the best thing they can do for the world, and for God, is use their skill sets to serve others.
  • They keep their day-jobs and self fund their impact work. (This is similar to the take in The Future is Bi-vocational but for social impact work, not just church work. Lots of the same reasoning applies).
  • They hire locals to be involved in the building and installation, stimulating the local economy rather than trying to capture that value themselves.
  • This isn’t their only project! They’ve got a history of noticing a need, and getting something started, building it up, and then spotting the next opportunity. It feels like this gives them compounding momentum. I’m not sure the degree to which it stretches them thin – these projects feel like they can be handed over to locals giving them headspace for the next opportunity. There seems to be a delightful responsiveness – they see a need and jump to help.

Very inspiring. Ties in close to the message Ryan Gageler gave at Riverview this morning on The Parable of the Talents, and the idea that “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”:

So what is it that’s in your hands? Perhaps you have a family, or significant relationships, that are truly a gift from God. Perhaps you’ve been given financial blessing, or the ability to grow wealth. Maybe God has entrusted to you the gift of hospitality, and you love to help people feel like they belong. Maybe you have capacity for enormous things – you’re like the energizer bunny – and you can do far more than most people in a single day. Maybe you’ve been given the gift of time, you have more time and space in your schedule than most. Or maybe you’re just wired a certain way and you can bring joy and peace to every space that you walk into.

Ryan Gageler – the parable of the talents
The pre-recorded message from Ryan that was shared at my church this morning.
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Whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“When I’m — when — Pooh!”
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Never again?”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.” Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.
“Pooh, when I’m — you know — when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”
“Just me?”
“Yes, Pooh.”
“Will you be here too?”
“Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh.”
“That’s good,” said Pooh.
“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.” Pooh thought for a little.
“How old shall I be then?”
“Ninety-nine.”
Pooh nodded.
“I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.
“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I — if I’m not quite —” he stopped and tried again — “Pooh whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”
“Understand what?”
“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet.
“Come on!”
“Where?” said Pooh.
“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

The House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne

I first read this beautiful end to a Winnie the Pooh story in Danya Ruttenberg’s fantastic book “Nurture the Wow”. It’s a book that explores parenting from the perspective of Jewish faith, and it was formative for me at one of the hardest points of early parenting, when I felt like I had no time for anything, self care was at all time lows, friendships drifted, and church and faith was something I used to do, and hoped to do again one day, but didn’t have headspace for anymore.

The book as a whole paints a beautiful picture of the mystery of faith, and the wonder of watching new life grow, and the hardships of parenting, and how they are all intertwined.

She quoted the Pooh story to talk about the wonder and play and imagination of childhood, and how soon it’s lost, and that it is a loss, and that we should honour it:

Even if we can’t keep our babies at the age when they’re happily talking to their bear all day — nor, maybe, would we want to — we do have a little power. We can keep the play from being squashed out of their lives. We can make sure they have time to do Nothing. We can guard that jealously for them, and even join them, sometimes, in Pooh Corner, if they’ll let us.

Nurture The Wow, by Danya Ruttenberg

I finished the chapter and closed the book, determined to make that space for play and imagination and Nothing in my kids lives. And presumably got busy again, called back into the demands of a young family.

Later that day, in a quiet moment, a parallel truth dawned on me: it’s not just the kids who lose something when they lose the space for Nothing. Kids get busy with school. And I was neck deep in my own busyness: cooking a meal, cleaning up a toilet training accident, responding to a meltdown, discussing sleep routines and health appointments and trying to still get in enough hours for my job to call it a full day of work. They don’t let you do Nothing any more.

And just as Christopher Robin had the looming sense that he would be so busy – that without the time for imaginative play, he’d lose his closest friend – so I realised how little space I gave to my connection with God.

See one of the beautiful things about the Christian faith I grew up with is the absolute insistence that you can know God, and be known. That there’s not just a spirituality or transcendence on offer, but a relationship.

(Make what you will of the parallels I’m drawing between having an imaginary friendship with a stuffed bear and a relationship with God! 🤣)

Growing up, and through my young adult years, that had been deeply deeply meaningful to me. My relationship with God. A sense of closeness, trust, shared joy, back-and-forth, relationship with the divine everythingness that we called God. The closest relationship in my life was the one with God. And a lot of the richness there came from the quiet times, the times of doing Nothing. Walking out at night and staring up at galaxies. Sitting at home and picking up books from my parents library on faith and history and love. Talking with friends until it was midnight, 2am, 5am, and trying together to sense how God was active in our lives, and how we could tune in more.

And then, life got busy.

And then, almost a decade into a marriage, and several years into hard-mode parenting, I still believed in God, mostly. And I still tried to live in line with the same values, mostly. But I realised how long it had been since I took part in that relationship.

And I started to weep.

I’d forgotten the deepest connection I had known.

And as I wept, I remembered another story, from the movie The Notebook. (Spoiler alert!) An elderly woman suffering from dementia and memory loss is in a nursing home, and a volunteer comes in to read her a story. It’s a love story, and she follows along intently. And only at the climax of the story when she asks what’s going to happen, does she realise that it’s not just a story, it’s her story, and the one reading it is not just a volunteer, it is the love of her life. And she has a few minutes remembering the richness of their love, before the reality of it dissipates again and she’s left wondering who is this stranger she’s with.

It felt like I was having one of those moments. The reality of it, the depth of relationship, the richness of love, came flooding back, and I remembered, and wept. Yes, I remember, I remember you, I remember this.

And the love was still there, intermingled with the grief that I could have forgotten for so long.

And like Christopher Robin asked Pooh, I asked in prayer: Promise you won’t forget about me? Even when I forget about you? Whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?

And all I felt in response was love, understanding. And the confirmation that God was still there, had never left, and that the relationship was still there too, open for me when I was ready to be open to it.

So if you’re reading this…

… and like me, you have known that love, but when there was no time to do Nothing, it got crowded out by the concerns of life: may you find enough stillness to hear the quiet voice of God again, and when you’re ready, rediscover the richness of that loving connection.

… or if you know the love I’m talking about, and you’re still connected to the source, may you safeguard the quiet moments that nurture that relationship and make it real for you.

… or if you have never known it, may you find it, in the way that resonates with you most. The thing that unites all of us at some level isn’t just an idea or energy or “the universe”, I believe it’s a person. And they are hoping we will perhaps reach out, and perhaps find them, though they’re never really far from any of us. God connects with a thousand people in a thousand different ways. May you notice the small invitations to connect, and have the courage to respond.

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The difference between right and wrong

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5 (emphasis mine, of course. Does biblical greek even have italics?)

There’s a black-and-whiteness that many or most people bring to morality. Some things are clearly good, some things are clearly bad. Often something that’s clearly good for one person is clearly bad for another. Sometimes there’s an internal compass, “it just felt right, and I trust that“. Often there’s some external source of truth that defines what’s good or what’s not for a person. I’ve seen cheesy christian souvenirs that say “the bible said it, I believe it, that settles it”.

Like it’s that easy. 🤷‍♂️

I appreciate the writer of Hebrews reminding us that knowing the difference between right and wrong is a skill, and a sign of maturity. It’s not all easy and straight forward, it requires training.

It’s interesting thinking about the ethical dilemmas the early church stressed about – divorce and remarriage, eating food sacrificed to idols, sharing meals with different ethnic / religious groups.

In the book of Mark there’s a story where Jesus is teaching on divorce and remarriage:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.

Mark 10

Then in a similar story in Matthew’s book, either Jesus said something different or Matthew included or added an extra detail:

And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful

Matthew 19

We started with a clear-cut, black and white moral statement. And now there’s an exception. Then Paul, addressing a specific circumstance in a specific church, adds another, for when the other person doesn’t follow the same Christian way of life, and doesn’t see marriage the same way and they walk away:

(But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)

1 Corinthians 7

I feel like more nuance might have come out if you asked either Jesus or Paul about situations like domestic abuse…

They’re trying to make a point: marriage is important! It’s sacred! We should value it way more than the surrounding culture! But there also needs to be maturity to be able to recognise the difference between right and wrong, simple rules interpreted simply don’t always cut it.

Endless equivocating and avoiding moral absolutes, and taking an “anything goes” approach also feels like a trap. The wisdom here is not “recognise there is no difference between right and wrong”. That’s not what was said.

Instead, it’s recognising there is a difference, and that with training and skill and maturity, that for a given situation you can know the difference, find what is right, and you can choose to do what is right, to live righteously.

That’s hard work. But it’s a sign of maturity. Let’s train in it.

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“Stay soft”: Sabbath rest

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

Hebrews 3

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4

When I was a teenager I got a birthday card. There were messages in the card from a few different staff and leaders at my church, but one of the messages was only two words, and they’re the only two words I still remember from it.

Stay soft. -Ads

Adam – a friend and a church leader I looked up to – would often talk about the importance of keeping your heart soft, responsive to God, not being hard-hearted. When he picked those two words to write to me, I took them to heart, and it’s been a formative posture for me, a big part of shaping who I am now.

And that’s the message coming out from this passage in Hebrews too: stay soft.

The couple of verses I’ve quoted are part of the passage I remembered that originally drew me back into reading the bible earlier this year. Our family life has been a real struggle, and we have been exhausted and depleted, and the promise of a sabbath rest, some kind of deep, fulfilling rest, and a call to enter that rest, sprung out of my memory and, like a siren song – so appealing and so urgent – its words drew me back into this passage, and back into the bible.

Do not harden your hearts.

Stay soft.

Not like in the rebellion, the time of testing in the wilderness.

The psalm being quoted actually includes the names “Meribah” and “Massah”, which suggests its probably referring to the two stories where the Israelites have run out of water in the dessert and are wishing they were back in the Egypt, the land of their slavery, because at least there was water there. In both stories Moses strikes a rock with his staff, and miraculously, water comes out – enough for the whole community.1 While much of the commentary on this story is about if Moses did something wrong, Numbers 20:13 puts the focus on the people not trusting God:

This place was known as the waters of Meribah (which means “arguing”) because there the people of Israel argued with the LORD.

Numbers 20:13 (emphasis mine)

And that’s what both the psalm and the book of Hebrews seem to focus on too: the community of Israel didn’t trust God to look after them and give them water.

Despite all the miracles they’d seen so far – “for forty years they saw what I did” – they didn’t trust they’d be provided for. They’d rather go back to slavery because they knew there was an agreement there – they’d do work and they’d get water and food.

All the miracles and provision that came during their time in the desert had not helped them internalise that God would provide for them, and so they kept trying to make other plans. “They have not known my ways, their hearts are always going astray”.

They shall never enter my rest.

Brutal.2

But in Hebrews, the author tries to remind us that they think we’ve still got a better offer open: “Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you.” (Hebrews 6:10).

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God… Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…

The point being made in Hebrews is about an eternal Sabbath, a permanent rest, full of joy and liveliness and deep delight, that lasts forever – not just the weekly rhythm and the seventh day. But as I’ve been dwelling on this passage in Hebrews, and this rallying cry to “stay soft”, I realised that a weekly Sabbath practice can be a part of keeping a soft heart.

Here’s how I see it:

  • God was doing work among their people, and they saw it.
  • But they did not know God’s ways – they never took it in, never seeing it or beginning to understand who God is and how God works, never internalising it, never learning to live in a way that trusted God’s working.
  • So they argued with God, and made other plans.
  • And so they never entered the promised land, or the promised rest.

So, we don’t want to harden our hearts. We want to stay soft. What can we actually do?

When I was in my early twenties I ran a fortnightly small group meeting for young adults in my church, and there was about 30 of us, and to facilitate some kind of conversation that attuned us to what God was doing, I would ask everyone to break up into groups of two or three, and ask a question to each other: where did you notice God this week?

There’s a similar question I ask myself in an end-of-day “Examen” reflective exercise I do, at least when I’m not so tired I fall asleep instantly:

Where have I felt true joy today?
What has troubled me today?
What has challenged me today?
Where and when did I pause today?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?

The Examen: A Daily Prayer

This kind of reflection requires you to pause.

To rest from your works.

To stop.

To cease.

And when you do, your heart rate shifts. Your thoughts shift. You stop problem solving and stop rushing and stop striving and … notice things. Notice the things that brought you joy. The smile from a kid, or the sunshine through the window. You notice the things that were really hard. The words spoken that pierce your heart and cause your stomach to churn. You notice where God’s presence was in it all.

You see, when you’re so focused on what you have to do, it’s easy to miss what others are also doing, easy to miss what’s going on around you, or what’s already happened. This is why gratitude is such an important practice. But more than just the gratitude, there’s the stopping. The ceasing.

When we cease our work, we have the opportunity to see what God is doing, and to know God’s ways, and to stay soft.

In Marva Dawn’s classic book on Sabbath3, she talks about what the Sabbath is for:

  • Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. 
  • Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace. 
  • Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. 
  • Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope — the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come. 
Marva J Dawn, an excerpt from “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly”

Ceasing from “the many ways we fail to trust God and try to create our own future”.

We’re so damn busy trying to create our own future, that we don’t even notice the future God is creating right around us. We have not known his ways.

Ceasing on the Sabbath is an antidote to that, a weekly chance to stay soft, to notice God, and to know God’s ways, and to live in trust. And from there we can move to experience the resting and embracing and feasting too.

And as we practice Sabbath each week, it is indeed practice for that greater rest that is talked about in Hebrews 4.

So I’d encourage you, make every effort to enter that rest. Practice for it by practicing the Sabbath.

One day a week, cease your work.

Notice instead where God is working.

Learn to trust God’s ways.

Stay soft.

Footnotes
  1. The “water from the rock” stories are super interesting. In the Numbers 20 version, Moses is supposed to speak to the rock but instead hits it twice, the miracle happens and water comes out, but for some reason, God is pissed. God says Moses will die in the desert and not see the promised land. But no one is quite sure why God is so angry. This article has a whole gamut of theories from Rabbis who are trying to make sense of it. One particular theory from the 15th century made me laugh:

    “Moses and Aaron’s sin was not particularly terrible; they merely made a mistake. However, G‑d did not want them entering the Land for other reasons. Moses, because he sent the spies, and Aaron because of his involvement, albeit unwilling, with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d wanted to protect Moses and Aarons’ honour, so He pretended that the rock was the reason for their punishment, to cover up the true reason.”

    Once you start going down this rabbit hole you notice the death of Miriam at the start of the story, and that leads you to Miriam’s Well and then you start learning about how Miriam was probably a much more important leader than is recognised, and the texts we have tried to diminish her role. Patriarchy 🙄

    Also the Numbers 20 story sounds like it happened at Kadesh, right on the border of the promised land, the same place where the Israelites were when 40 years earlier they had spies come back and tell them about the promised land, and they didn’t trust God would make it theirs. In both this story and the water-from-the-rock story, God was trying to give them something good but they didn’t trust it, and wanted to go back to Egypt where they worked for the things they need.
  2. I’ve written before about how my beliefs around hell and eternal punishment are not what most Christians might expect, and I’ve probably had a few years of having a fairly “universalist” worldview, seeing God in all different places, and so trying not to think about the reality that some people live lives in a way that is not just “a different experience of God” but is actually separate from God and that there’s a pain and despair in that. I still don’t think the dividing line of those who experience God and live in line with God is the same as what religion you put on your census form. But this experience of reading Hebrews in depth for the past few months has actually forced me to open up to that: God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. (Hebrews 4:1)
  3. One day I was looking at my parents bookshelf and I picked up “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva J Dawn. I’m glad I did. Sabbath wasn’t a concept that was well taught in my childhood churches, and so this book was my starting point. Even read the dedication:

This book is dedicated to all the people who need the Sabbath

the busiest, who need to work from a cohesive, unfragmented self;

social activists, who need a cycle of worship and action;

those who chase after fulfillment and need to understand their deepest yearnings and to hear the silence;

those who have lost their ability to play because of the materialism and technologization of our society, who need beauty and gaiety and delight;

those who have lost their passion and need to get in touch with feelings;

those who are alone and need emotional nourishment;

those who live in community and need solitude;

those who cannot find their life’s priorities and need a new perspective;

those who think the future is dictated by the present, who need hope and visions of the future to change the present order;

those who long for deeper family life and want to nurture certain values;

the poor and the oppressed, who need to mourn and dance in the prison camp;

the rich and the oppressors, who need to learn nonviolence, stewardship, and God’s purposes in the world;

those who suffer, who need to learn how suffering can be redemptive;

professional theologians, who need to bring the heart back into theology;

those who don’t know how religion fits into the modern world, who need a relationship with God;

those who are disgusted with dry, empty, formalistic worship and want to love and adore God;

those who want to be God’s instruments, enabled and empowered by the Spirit to be world changers and Sabbath healers.

From “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly – Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Fasting” by Marva J. Dawn.
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We may drift away

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it… what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?

Hebrews 2:1

Last week I wrote about how it had been years since I’d read the bible in any meaningful way. And here in the book of Hebrews it said something that aligned with that experience – if you don’t pay careful attention, you tend to drift.

It’s kind of a relief to read this, honestly. Most of the Christian New Testament parts of the bible were written by people with powerful first hand experiences of Jesus: Peter and John and Matthew were all walking with Jesus everyday for three years before his death. Even Paul who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament talked about his life altering experience as a physical encounter with a resurrected Jesus. I imagine that kind of exposure to a person is indelible, it leaves a permanent mark, its hard to drift away from.

But that’s not what most of us get. We might experience the invisible God, and have spiritual encounters of various kinds, but we don’t see or hear or touch or smell Jesus like they did. Not in a physical, tangible way. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, we don’t get to see him. We just hear about his life from others. And the experiences we do have first-hand tend to be more intangible.

So it’s refreshing to here someone who wrote an important part of the bible, this letter to the Hebrews, say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t give us their name, so we don’t know who exactly it is. (Scholars like to guess. An audio-bible I used to listen to had the voice for Hebrews played by a cast of men and women to demonstrate the ambiguity. I liked the idea that it might have been a woman, because we know several women had important leadership roles in the early church but we’ve mostly been kept from hearing their voices.)

Whoever it was, they say they’re in the same boat as us. They didn’t know Jesus directly, they heard about him from someone else. They’re a second-generation follower. And they say it’s easy to drift and forget.

For me personally, some stuff didn’t drift: a sense of worth, value and dignity, of being made in the image of God. That was deeply internalised. My values as well have been deeply shaped by my faith earlier in life, and those mostly held steady even without continued focus. So what has drifted?

I think its the focus on the “great salvation” they talk about. There’s a big picture, a meta-narrative, an arc of history that ties together the story of Jesus and the stories of us.

When a person keeps this big picture in their field of view, it can yield a big change in the way they lead their lives. Being part of something bigger is incredibly motivating for most of us – and can call us into living courageously, selflessly, resiliently.

And I think that’s the bit that has drifted: without a focus on the big story, the routines and the challenges of my life have become all encompassing. I’m not suggesting I should have been going and serving the poor or preaching in churches instead… keeping my focus on my young family and loving them, providing for them, that should have been the focus anyway. But I wonder if I’d kept a connection to the larger story, if it would help strengthen the moments of joy, help bring meaning to the moments of suffering, and help me see beyond my own troubles to offer compassion to others around me who have their own challenges going on too.

I want to live my life with that big picture in view.

“We must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away”.

Now, there’s a thousand different ways to understand what “great salvation” means, and I think each person’s experience of it, and the way they describe it, would be different. There’s a deep shared truth in there somewhere, and then the just-as-real truth of each person’s experience of it. And of course for me its complicated, because I don’t feel comfortable with some of the simpler narratives of sin and salvation and heaven and hell.

But there is something speaking there, something true, and if I want my life to follow that path in my life, and not drift away, and I should listen carefully, actively, asking questions and seeking to understand.

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“What about those who never got a chance to hear?”

One of the awful recurring conversations of my teenage and early adults years as a young Christian usually began with a question like “what about all the people who never heard of Jesus because of where and when they lived?”

The reason that I find this an awful conversation, in retrospect, is because a bunch of the assumptions behind it. For example: God is the only meaning in life, so if you don’t have God, your life is meaningless. Worse still, hell is a thing, and that’s the awful default choice for where you go if you’re not connected to God. And you get connected with God when someone tells you about Jesus and you respond in a certain way. So what if you live in one of the many, many times or places where no such opportunity arises? That hardly seems fair!

Here we were, as young Christians, responding to our own spiritual experiences of love that meant the whole world to us, and that pushed us to want to love all people, and yet the belief system surrounding those beautiful experiences was one that assumed a whole bunch of people would suffer intensely and unendingly for something they had no control over.

Now, the conversations weren’t that awful, because for the most part, we were trying to find ways to morph the beliefs back into something more loving, that more closely matched our experiences of love.

I remember clinging to the story of a guy’s near death (or actual death?) experience which apparently involved a supernatural deathbed opportunity to connect with God despite being an atheist until that point. Maybe everyone gets a chance and no-one goes to hell unfairly after all!? Eventually we’d start hearing rumours that maybe the “hell” story isn’t as clear cut as we thought, and when Rob Bell wrote “Love Wins” a bunch of people felt relieved to hear someone articulately argue that we don’t have to believe in the punishment thing. (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read the book, and many people said he’s a heretic for it, but I love Rob Bell. Any “heresy” he’s pushing I’m likely to agree with him on!)

But even aside from the question of hell, do we really think God is completely absent from humans, except through some of the organised religions?

Back then I studied the bible a lot, and over time some verses that aren’t commonly talked about in evangelical circles started standing out to me, like this little aside from Paul in Romans 2:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

So there’s the most prolific writer of the early church, Paul, acknowledging that sometimes God is interacting with people who’ve never had any conscious interaction with the visible religions that are officially representing God. God just gets in and connects with them anyway, and doesn’t wait for the religion to make its way across the world first.

Eventually, I found myself paying attention to Paul’s sermon to the people of Athens, recorded in Acts 17. After a few years away from church, and when I was not even sure if I’d call myself Christian, this sermon felt really compelling to me:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Acts 17:24-28

For any century you could be born in, for any country you inhabit, “Got is not very far from any of us”. And God’s whole motivation in placing us here on this world… that we would seek God, perhaps reach out for, and find God. God desired relationship, and thats been available – “not far from” – all people in all nations at any point in history.

And this rings true for me: the same God I’ve known, I’ve seen showing up in other parts of the world which hadn’t had exposure to the same Christianity I had.

I remember learning about the Boon Wurrung people in the Kulin Nations, what is now called Melbourne. Their creator taught them to always welcome guests and care for them as for their own, and that duty of hospitality is a key part of Derrimut’s story in protecting early European arrivals. That teaching might sound familiar to people who’ve read Leviticus: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself“. There’s so many examples like this. The golden rule wasn’t unique to Jesus.

A few years ago I discovered Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case For God”, which does a beautiful job depicting how cultures across the world have tried to reach out to “the unknown God”, and showing common threads of mystic encounter and a deep ethic of compassion emerging from all different parts of the world.

She’s gone on to start the Charter For Compassion, and perhaps that’s a fitting place to end this post. The love that me and my friends felt so strongly, that made us want to question any belief system that sent innocent people to suffer, that love was the real deal. And that same love is emerging all over the world, in all sorts of communities, religious or not. Making sure your religion – both the spiritual experiences and the belief system – drive you towards love and compassion is absolutely crucial.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

Charter for Compassion

Edit: 15 Dec 2022: I’ve since discovered the name for this topic: The Fate Of The Unlearned. There’s even a wikipedia page, which explores the same passage in Romans 2. The page lists a range of viewpoints from Christianity and Islam, and my upbringing probably sat on the “harsher” side – many traditions do have theologies that are more inclusive for those who outside the formal religion. Even with that though, I think there’s a lot of the behaviour I described us also doing: trying to find justifications to drag their beliefs back to the reality of the love they’ve experienced… but the starting point for the beliefs is often still out of line with the experience of infinite love. I think our theology can be better than that, we can have belief systems that are more reflective of our experience of infinite love. We should strive for that.

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Faith Personal

Following over believing

I’ve started participating in a local church again lately, after a few years away.

In that time away my beliefs have continued to evolve (there’s never really been a period in my life where they haven’t), and now I find myself standing in a gathering of people signing songs whose lyrics often make me cringe, and bring on a sense of cognitive dissonance for me – there’s parts of this I do believe are true, parts of this I want to believe are true (but probably don’t, if I’m honest) and parts that I think are downright unhealthy, regardless of their truth.

So what am I doing here?

Well, I want community. And being part of a regular weekly gathering is a way of building friendships that I know works, and that I’m comfortable with. Even if there’s a little dissonance.

I also want a spiritual practice – I’ve never stopped believing in God (if you’ll let me define “believing” and “God” on my own terms at least!) and have wanted to maintain a connection with the spiritual reality that permeates everything. And while I’ve experienced this same connection in music festivals and yoga classes, something I’ve appreciated about the church I grew up in is the absolute insistence that this divine spiritual reality isn’t an impersonal energy, but is a person, and is a person who can be known, and a person who wants to be known. I want that.

But probably the biggest thing is that for all my questions about the meaning of Jesus’ life, I still find his example and his teaching incredibly compelling, and to this day haven’t found anything else that I’d want to have as a foundation for building my own life on, a story to orient myself towards, a starting point for choosing the way I want to live.

I guess that’s what I think of as discipleship. Following the way of the teacher. Regardless of what I intellectually reason to be truth, I can still listen to teachings, learning from the example, and choose to live that way.

This morning at the church gathering, there was a song I felt no awkwardness singing, so I sang it loud:

I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back
No turning back

A hymn by Sadhu Sundar Singh
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Faith Personal

Cloudy Mornings

I’ve been using a book called “Common Prayer“, which acts as a kind of guide to help me think of things to pray about and let my mind chew on each morning, lunch time and night.  (Example: when I usually get distracted by what I’ve got on for the day, it says “pray for others”.  Good idea!)

Anyway, each morning the prayers open with this line:

Lord, let me soul rise up to meet you

As the day rises to meet the sun

The last few weeks, I’ve mostly been reading this and praying this as I begin my walk to work, walking down the street, the morning is still cool, but the sun is shining, and I visualise it: the earth reorients itself once again, so my little corner is facing the sun.  Jason, your turn, reorient yourself, turn and face God.  Starting the day this way is good.

This morning however, it wasn’t sunny.  And I came to pray this line, and went to look up at the sun, to help visualise it, and I couldn’t see it.  It was gone.  The clouds had taken it away.

Now of course, the sun wasn’t gone.  It’s still there.  If it were not, it would be pitch black (not just a little grey), the temperature would be dropping so rapidly we would probably have frozen to death by now, and in general things would be falling apart.  I might not be able to see it, and I might be a little chilly, and a little wet with rain, but if the sun were not there, things would be far, far worse than they are.

This is helpful on the days that I feel a little uncomfortable spiritually, can’t see God and struggle to believe he’s there.  Or maybe I’m not struggling with his existence, but just wondering why he’s not doing anything helpful for me with everything I’m struggling with.  On those days, it’s not that God is gone.  He’s still there, and he’s still keeping the general universe running, even if it’s a little obscured, and even if I’m not as comfortable as I want to be.  If he was genuinely not there, or genuinely had ceased taking any interest in me, things would probably be far worse than they are*.

 

* footnote: I’m lucky enough to be healthy and live in a first world country.  My idea of struggles of course aren’t worth even mentioning when compared to what people in different circumstances.  Something else this prayer book is teaching me to be mindful of.  Is God still there for those people?  I hope so…