Saturday, February 22, 2014

That God is better than Wifi

Leanne Payne, in a book called "Believing Prayer", writes that modern people suffer a severe split between our heads and our hearts, without even knowing it. Our culture trains us to be separated from our own hearts. In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes attempted to ground all human experience in his own confidence in reason, and his attitude has stuck. After all, they didn't call it 'enlightenment' for nothing.

She goes on to say that many of us are anxious to accept head knowledge about God to feel that we have a handle on Him, while we don't understand the powerful ways we have at our disposal to actually 'know' Him. These ways emphasise such things as intuitive knowledge, gut feelings, imagination and those things which can't easily be explained in words. Just the sort of thing that traditionally gets shunned by many of our universities' most highly esteemed intellectuals.

As a result of growing up in this climate, many Christians find it hard to believe in one of the basic tenets for believers, which is the presence of Christ within us. I can certainly relate to that. I always felt that Jesus was foisting a wishy-washy substitute on us when He said, "It's better that I go, so that the Helper may come and live within you."

"Huh, I'd far rather have you," I would have told Him. "Which would you prefer? A real flesh and blood friend and hero who gives you definite counsel you can hear and facial expressions you can see? Or the chance to blunder along, trying to guess where the vague impressions inside your mind are coming from? It's a no-brainer. How could I possibly think the second option would be better?"

It seems I was stuck in post-Enlightenment thought. When we deny and downplay our insubstantial impressions, of course they're going to get blocked. Perhaps the carnal mind and those things which can be measured with our five senses have been elevated to where they shouldn't be, which is a supreme position. Maybe we need frequent reminders that the spiritual world is, in fact, more 'real' than the physical world. Our trusted physical/sensual world has it's beginning in the unseen spiritual world, after all. Our persistence in putting feelings first results in feelings of loneliness and futility. We assume that if sensory experiences are not forthcoming, then God isn't with us.

For years and years, I never really understood what carnal thinking meant. I assumed it just meant that people are shallow thinkers, but it really means that we tend to live our lives based merely on the evidence of our five senses. Perhaps the automatic minds of many in the twenty-first century are carnal. Carnal people get browned off with prayer, because we assume that nothing is happening and we're just talking into thin air. Or we start, but then give up too quickly, for this same reason. 

I've certainly been there. Sometimes I'd stop praying altogether for long stretches of time, reasoning that I'm doing a foolish thing. As I can't feel anybody here, it feels as if I'm a grown woman, talking to a pretend friend. Ridiculous. I won't pray until I have some tangible evidence that I'm not wasting my time. Well, Leanne Payne's book suggests that we frequently need to remind ourselves that He really is there, closer than our next breath, faithfully listening to us, whether or not we 'sense' Him.

I bought that book last year, during a holiday to Victoria with my husband and our two youngest children. With these ideas in my mind, we were driving around Ballarat at night wanting to get onto the internet. We had Emma's laptop and my new Ipad mini with us in the car. (It's way different to holidays in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid with my parents). So we were looking for Wifi hot spots. We spotted a KFC outlet, parked on the street in front of it, and managed to log on. Andrew paid the rent while Emma checked Facebook. Then, as we were driving, she was able to tell us where other hot spots were, for future reference. 'That cafe over there has Wifi, and so does that Taco Bill and that Maccas.'

Well, it's quite amazing, when you think about it. All I could see on the street were shops, restaurants and old gold rush era buildings. You can't detect Wifi signals with your physical senses, but they are there nonetheless. At our last house, a cheeky neighbour kept managing to latch onto our internet. Our big boys, Logan and Jarrad, kept trying to block him, but his name would keep popping up, sucking the internet time we'd paid for. And at our current address, the kids quickly realised that we are easily able to tap into our neighbour's internet if we ever wanted to. You can't see or sense internet or Wifi signals, but boy, do we benefit from them! In those moments when I'm feeling that God might not be real anyway, it helps to think of Him a bit like Wifi, but far better, because we don't have to drive around a city trying to find spots where He is. He's always present everywhere and we can always connect freely and easily.

So those times I've stopped praying because it feels ridiculous may be even more ridiculous. It's like somebody walking into KFC where they've seen there's free internet and choosing not to turn on their phone, tablet or computer, because they can't see or sense the Wifi signals.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

To prevent reading indigestion

I've been reading a book by Eugene Peterson, whose name many of us may recognise as the author of 'The Message' Bible translation. He believes that writing is intended to change our lives, rather than simply stuffing information into our brain cells. Reading should be a ruminative and leisurely experience, as if we're actually eating.

On a few occasions in the Bible, people were told to physically eat books. In Revelation 10:9-10, the Angel of the Lord tells Saint John to eat a small scroll, which turns out to be as sweet as honey in his mouth but bitter in his stomach. I used to think that was a weird, symbolic occurrence which I couldn't understand, but can't help remembering that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel before John, were also told to eat books on earlier occasions. I've been told that the Bible never wastes words, so when something unusual happens more than once, it's evidently quite important.

Okay, when we eat food, we take it into our bodies where it gets digested and makes its way to our bloodstream and our cells to be assimilated as part of our bodies. We all know that this is why we're counseled to eat healthy, rather than junk food. And we're probably all familiar with the slogan, 'You are what you eat.'

Peterson suggests that the same is true of what we read. We're meant to chew and ponder, to mull over healthy books until the words strike a chord and become absolutely true for us. He's speaking especially of holy scriptures. The truth gets into our imagination and spirit, and becomes part of us. It's a similar sort of process to actual, physical eating. It's surely more than just a good analogy, as we know there's a strong link between the mental, spiritual and physical parts of us. I believe that something grasped strongly in the mental and spiritual planes, does become manifest in our physical bodies.

At the same time, I've been dipping into another book. Coincidentally, they complement each other. The author, Ruth Haley Barton, describes the serious scripture study she did as a young adult at Bible College. She discovered that it helped improve her grades when she got really good at memorising verses, filling in blanks, ticking chapters off a 'Too Read' list, and coming up with clever, gimicky, creative ways to impress the staff and fellow students in class. One day, it dawned on her that she was tired and what she was reading seemed lifeless to her. She realised that she was approaching scriptures as a tool people were using to rein her in or coerce her to their way of thinking. And it was a very subtle shift. Those purposes totally squashed the greater purpose of reading them, which she believes is similar to what Peterson said, to allow it to sink into her heart and soul, becoming part of her make-up.

She had to re-train herself to chew slowly and savour each word, letting its meaning sink into the deeper part of her, instead of rushing on to the next chapter to complete whatever assignment she was working on. She learned to allow change to take part at deeper levels of her being as she slowed down and meditated on those words.

I found myself nodding, "Yes, yes, yes" time and again. That's the way many of us are taught to function. We are even given recommendations of books which help us to speed read. I remember facing a thick pile of old British classics on the English syllabus back when I was a student. There was no way we could have read them all with the attention they deserved, and I'm sure the lecturers secretly wouldn't have expected us to. They were just trying to cram as much into a semester as possible.

I see the same habits in my 19-year-old son's approach to his studies. We aim to develop techniques which enable us to read as little as possible for the best grade possible. Barton says we get pretty good at cramming information into our heads to keep there just long enough to regurgitate onto exam papers. I thought it was an interesting choice, that word 'regurgitate'. Getting back to the physical analogy, it's like eating so much and so fast, we can't contain it and throw up.

So that's how I was when I was a student, and I had to ask myself if I'm still like that. I've got to admit the answer is often yes, even though I can try to convince myself it's for the best intentions. I like to read several blogs, along with interesting articles I stumble across through Facebook or Twitter links. I instantly see many of them will take some time to read. It's evident that it would take all day if I was to read them all carefully, so I find myself skimming hurriedly to get the highlights, gulping down the points that seem most important. Sometimes I don't even finish them. With books also, I want to find out what will happen next or what life-changing advice may be contained within the pages, so I gallop ahead. And it does give me something similar to physical indigestion when I eat too fast. I'm bloated in the head instead of the belly.

I'm taking these books as a wake-up call and training myself to chew more slowly, when it comes to both food and whatever I'm reading. It'll be worth the effort, I'm sure. Although these authors were focusing mostly on Bible reading, I think that what I've spoken about in this blog will apply to a broader range of good books.

*If you're interested in reading those books I quoted, here they are.
1) 'Eat this Book' by Eugene Peterson (It's a great name)
2) 'Sacred Rhythms - Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation' by Ruth Haley Barton
3) 'Choking on a Camel' by Michal Ann McArthur (This is a good novel about a heroine who finds herself grappling with just this sort of thing. It'll stay in my memory.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

that Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real

My son, Blake, and I were reading about Prince Henry the Navigator for a History lesson. Henry was the fourth son of a king of Portugal in the Middle Ages. Knowing he'd never inherit the throne, he got to please himself and follow his own interests, which happened to be love of the sea and exploration. Henry built fleets of ships, intending to send them south, down the West African coast. He hoped to build relationships with the native west African people. Sailors had to learn to read star maps and old archaic astrolabes and compasses at a school of navigation set up by Prince Henry.

His problem was fear. Not his own, but that of the sailors. Nobody had ever been very far south before. Africa was known as "The Dark Continent" because of its mystery and possible danger, and that part of the Atlantic Ocean which Henry intended to launch off into was known as, "The Sea of Darkness." Sailors were certain they'd run into savage sea monsters and fierce whirlpools. Some thought that as they sailed further south, the ocean would become so shallow that their ships would get fatally wrecked on the sea bottom, or that strong currents would pull them off into nowhere, never to return. There was also a strong belief that the sun down south would be so scorching hot that the seawater would boil them alive.

The result was that Prince Henry would pour funds into his navigation school and pay for expedition after expedition, but the ships would return after a short time, full of woebegone sailors who were simply too frightened to go far. They'd reach a certain point and then decide to turn around and head back up to Portugal. It was years before a brave explorer named Gil Eannes pushed through, and discovered that the sea further south was actually pretty similar to that up north.

I've heard that a suitable acronym for the word FEAR may be False Evidence Appearing Real. This was certainly the case for those nervous Portuguese sailors! For them, that part of the Atlantic Ocean along the western coast of Africa might as well have been a boiling cauldron full of seething, heat-resistant monsters, because their fear made it true for them.

It's easy to shake our heads at their fear in retrospect, but I had to question whether our fearful moments may be the same. Over the years, I've experienced several fearful predicaments and maladies which turned out to have no basis in reality. But boy, was I scared when I thought they did! It might as well have been true, during those times. Not long ago, I was out walking and almost stepped on an old, squashed paper cup from Gloria Jean's, but as I glanced down, I thought it was a dead, black crow. Relief came when I saw my mistake, but by then, my heart was already thumping hard, my pulse racing and my skin recoiling. The fear-disgust response had already been set off, so as far as my body was concerned, that old cup might as well have been a bird carcass.

Life is too short for unnecessary fear. It steals peace of mind which we may otherwise enjoy. I've been wondering how we can short-circuit limiting fear and have lives of faith instead. I think it all comes down to not just giving lip-service to what we say we believe, but truly believing it. For many of us, it may be faith in a sacred text. For me, it's the Bible. For years, I declared that I believed the promises to be found in the Bible, but in moments of fear, I had to question whether I really did.

I love the thought of an invisible realm around us, protecting and caring for us. The Bible tells us that this realm, although invisible, is a reality. I love how we're told about the unseen forces of angel warriors in 2Kings chapter 6. The prophet Elisha's young servant (maybe the hapless Gehazi) was filled with fear when he saw the hostile army of Aram surrounding them. He wondered why his master wasn't terrified, but Elisha simply said, 'Don't worry about it. There are more on our side than their side.' Then he prayed for the young man's eyes to be opened. It happened. The young servant saw that the whole mountainside was full of a strong, angelic army protecting them. He understood that they'd been there all along, only they'd been invisible to him until that point. Of course, that was all that was needed to help him relax. And it's the same for us. Invisible doesn't mean that this force of love and protection isn't a reality for us too.

So in the light of this, we've got to get it into our heads that the notion of being alone, unprotected, uncared for and vulnerable is FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real. Our five senses, and what we read and hear from others who are using only their five senses, isn't all there is to know. I like that perspective.
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