Most people recognise that the version of Christianity espoused in much of the Western world is a horrendous travesty of the message of peace, joy, love, healing, life and fellowship with God that Jesus actually brought.
On the surface, many Christians would claim to follow the teachings of Christ, while their daily lives fail to display the fruits of those teachings.
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the way in which mainstream Conservative American Evangelical Christianity, which appears to be strongly associated with the GOP (Grand Old Party) Republican party. As a Brit, it seems to me that the two – Republicanism and Conservative Evangelicalism – have been mixed and intertwined such that their ideas are indistinguishable from each other. It is difficult to see where one begins and the other ends.
I have my own ideas as to how this fits in to Biblical ideas and eschatology (the study of the End Times), which I will not share here. But at the very least, it does appear that, as I said above, the ideals espoused by this religious/political stream are a far cry from Jesus’s original message.
Here then is a great video that lampoons that sort of Christianity (and deservedly so) by showing how so many of its attitudes directly contradict Jesus.
‘Deconstruction’ is quite simply the shedding or ‘deconstruction’ of old belief systems and modifying or replacing them with something new. In many ways, the process of spiritual growth could be seen as a continuous deconstruction and reconstruction process as our beliefs change over the years.
But here’s an interesting thought. The people we refer to as the ‘early Church’ – the people in the book of Acts in the Bible, for example – were also essentially deconstructionists. They looked at their old ‘religion’ (if indeed they had one; just like people today, some probably didn’t) and they reinterpreted their beliefs, their viewpoints, and their Scriptures, in the light of the Risen Christ that they knew personally.
Today’s deconstructionsists are not all that different. We are reinterpreting the Scriptures and our beliefs in the light of what that same Risen Christ is telling us now, and not just to us individually, but to other believers like us, all across the world, and we are being told the same things.
This is nothing short of remarkable. And yet, given that we serve the same Jesus, it is also unsurprising.
Twenty-five months ago today, my precious wife Fiona died of pancreatic cancer. She’d been fighting it for three years.
And in the midst of the horror, we chose hope over despair, joy over grief, and love over despondency. Four years ago, on 5th December, 2014, about eight months after her diagnosis, Fiona and I renewed our wedding vows together in our Church in Torquay.
Hope for healing (didn’t happen, at least not this side of the veil), hope for the ability to live life one day at a time and appreciate everything that each new day brings. Renewing our vows so that, no matter how long we had left together, we would publicly declare our commitment to each other and our intention to live out our time together in freedom, joy and love. Because of our faith in Jesus, Who died and then came back from the dead, we believed (and I still do) that death is not the end. That kind of belief gives a person the power to live free of fear, and to live in the freedom of the moment. Not that fear and horror are not part of the ‘cancer journey’ – they are! – but that the fear is not one of losing someone forever to ‘death the great divider’, but that our lives go on through the veil of death and on into a glorious afterlife with Jesus. And that definitely affects the way that we live our lives, including the ability to live in the light of that blazing truth.
Fiona and I were married in January, 1984, at Guiseley Baptist Church in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. In the same way that we first promised to ‘have and to hold, in sickness and health’, that promise became actual and real in the face of the ultimate sickness of terminal cancer.
I’ve scanned in some of the photos that were taken at our wedding. The header picture is one of gorgeous Fiona, here reproduced in colour:
Wasn’t she stunning? Like I’ve said elsewhere in this series, Fiona was easily the most beautiful girl I had ever set eyes on, and, for me at least, it was love at first sight. 😀
Happy days, eh? 🙂 I was twenty-one (nearly twenty-two) on our wedding day, and Fiona was nineteen (nearly twenty). I count myself the most blessed man to have had such a gorgeous, amazing, wise and clever lady as my wife, and we always agreed how glad we were that we had met when we were young so that we could spend our entire lives together. And what amazing lives we led. The sheer amount of adventure we packed into our nearly 33 years of marriage was incredible, despite me (at least while in Leeds) being in a low-paid job and raising a young family on a shoestring. We were so happy together.
Of course, the last part of the story was traumatic. Cancer has a way of changing one’s outlook and priorities, but that doesn’t have to be a change for the worst. The illness meant that although we had wanted eventually to grow old together, we knew this wasn’t going to happen, and that’s quite disappointing when you realise it. And yet, over the time of the illness, we were so close: we learned so much about life and death; God and others; illness; compassion; dedication and commitment. Truly, that time enriched us as people, and we certainly didn’t let it go to waste.
For some time, we had wanted to renew our vows, so what better time to declare our love for, and commitment to, each other, than in the face of a terrible terminal illness? On that 5th December 2014, then, we stood in front of our family and our Church family, and many of our relatives and old friends who had come hundreds of miles to be with us on our special day.
In the face of that evil illness, we lit a bright light of hope and joy. We had decided that we were not going to let the illness defeat us as people, nor to let it cloud what remaining time we had together. And it’s interesting, but we actually enjoyed our second wedding far more than we did our first. Which, I think, speaks volumes.
Here are some photos from our second wedding:
Look at her wonderful smile, and that despite the ravages of the chemotherapy and the cancer. Because we had such a great life together, I often find it hard to point to a specific event and say ‘that really made her day’ – there were so many such events! – but in this case I think I can safely indicate that this was one of those occasions. She was just so happy! As you can see on this next shot, with Fiona dancing down the aisle because she was so full of joy 😀
I’m so glad we did that renewal of vows wedding. And at the time of the publication of this article, it’s almost exactly four years since our second wedding, and I still look back on it as one of the happiest days of my life, mainly because my lovely Fiona was so happy.
And doesn’t that smile say it all? It compares very well with the one she’s wearing at our first wedding, in the top picture above!
This next point is quite personal. Just lately, I have had the experience of seeing elderly people living in a care home. And while the care home in question really is an excellent one, still it is less than ideal; there is little privacy, there is of necessity a regimented approach to mealtimes, the patients have no freedom, but to be honest what else can they do? If someone is incapable of looking after themselves, then someone has to look after them, whether that’s family, or, if unavaliable/unable/unwilling, the local care system. But it’s horrible to see, even though the staff are lovely and the care home is excellent. I find it incredibly traumatic to see it. And here’s my point: although obviously I miss Fiona greatly, it would have broken my heart to see her in a situation like that, should we in our old age have become unable to look after each other any longer. Or being separated from each other; some elderly couples are (for whatever reason) not together in the same care home. We would have found that unbearable; completely and heartbreakingly unbearable. It hurts to even think about it, but I know of course that I will be spared seeing her in that situation, and for that I’m grateful. And she too has been spared the pain of either being in that situation herself, or seeing me go through it. I mean, sure, the trauma of losing her, and that of coping with her having a terminal illness, was immense for both of us. And in some ways I have already been through the heartbreak. But this is one heartache I will not have to face into. Fiona had the chance to live her last years in dignity and in freedom, and only for her last two weeks or so was she in a hospice – and even that was supposed to be temporary.** Maybe that sounds like I’m glad she died young – it’s not that; all I am doing is being grateful for ‘small mercies’, and finding another silver lining in the dark cloud of her loss. But I’m glad that I was spared that care home trauma, and of course I’m glad that she too has been spared it either way.
Anyway, with our second wedding, we effectively thumbed our noses at death and disaster. We declared by our actions that tragedy wasn’t going to have the last word over our happiness, and that was indeed how it worked out. Our last two years together were spent in joy and fulness, living the Kingdom life that Jesus gives, and being shining examples of joy in the face of adversity.
Fiona, my love, I love you and I miss you. Thank you so much for our second wedding, for what you said to me there, and for affirming once again that deep, deep love we shared.
It meant everything to me, and it still does.
I’ll see you soon, and then we’ll never be separated again.
*During our first wedding, it was throwing a blizzard outside and this is why all our photos were done indoors.
**As she was going in to the hospice (for a closely-monitored pain control regime), Fiona did jokingly ask, “When people go into a hospice, do they ever come out again?” “Oh, yes!” said the nurses…but in her case, they were wrong! Even at times like that, Fiona thought it funny. Our sense of humour together was funny and flippant; I’m still like that (have been so since about 1980) and I would have it no other way 😀
In fact, I almost did even more dark humour and called this piece Two Weddings and a Funeral. For this purpose, I took a photo of Fiona’s gravestone, which I reproduce below to complete the ‘joke’. The Scripture quote is Psalm 116:7, Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you, a verse the Spirit gave me a couple of years ago.
Our family name has been redacted because I want my site to stay semi-anonymous. With disabled people in my family, and given the propensity of certain Christians to take exception to heretics like me, the last thing I want is for a mob of rampaging Pharisees to turn up on my doorstep brandishing King James Bibles 😉
I must also say that credit for the photos of the second wedding go to my friend Ella. Well done, chick 🙂
Over the last few months, I have been writing my series of posts on the Stages of Spiritual Growth, and we have come a long way on our journey of discovery in this fascinating subject. We’ve read about what it can be like in all the different stages, their characteristics, their advantages and disadvantages, the transitions and the hurdles on the path. We’ve heard about the frustrations, the joys and the challenges, while all the while acknowledging that these are but stages in a journey; a path and indeed a lifetime of discovery of the wonders of God.
It’s been quite a ride.
So here, then, I present a final essay in which I will make some concluding comments about how we can apply our new knowledge.
And I’m sorry it has taken so long to get this piece to publication – but I have had to put a lot of thought into it. Some of it’s recap; some of it is comment and application.
When talking about the Stages of Faith/Stages of Spiritual Growth, I think it’s very important to remember two related points.
Firstly, the ‘Stages’ concept is only a model (shh!)  and it does not necessarily apply to everyone. Not everyone goes through the Stages in the same way, and some do not go through them at all, in the strictest sense.
Secondly, we must be careful not to try to place others on some sort of ‘progress scale’ that in fact they may not even be on. For example, ‘She’s going through Stage 4’, or ‘That’s typical Stage 3 behaviour’. Having said that, we may well recognise for ourselves our own place in the growth Stages, but that’s fine because that’s about ourselves, not others. Anyway, the take-home message is that the Stages are not intended to be used for labelling people; this is something I am quite averse to anyway, because to my mind, labels introduce limitations and increase preconceptions and judgmentalism. The Stages of Faith are not intended to be yet another set of criteria for Christians to use to judge others. So let’s not go there, ok?
Equally, though, there needs to be a consciousness, especially in Church leadership, that some people do indeed go through these Stages, and virtually all Christians must and will grow in their faith as part of their Christian walk, even if it is not via recognisable Stages. As we have already seen, what this will look like is going to be different for each individual, but the main manifestation of such growth is going to be change. You can’t have growth without change, because growth is by definition a change from one state to another.
A Safe Place
Having studied this subject in considerable depth, I have come to the place where I believe that not everyone is called to change in the way that movement through the Stages would suggest. For most people, just getting on with their normal Church life is all that God requires. Here’s an excerpt from a blog by my friend Peter, whose article I will link to in my references at the end of this piece:
“I am very conscious of the need to recognise that only some committed Christians are being called outside the walls of traditional Christianity at this time. The journey is often referred to as a time of detox or a wilderness experience […] Many people have attempted to describe how faith changes, matures and develops through life. Fowler uses ‘Stages of Faith’ (that tends to suggest a logical hierarchical approach), others have referred to styles or zones of faith (less rigid and allowing for overlap).
“For many people their experience of faith changes with adulthood – sometimes radically and unalterably transformed as they move into new ‘phases’ of faith.
“The great majority who attend church regularly could probably be described as in a ‘conformist stage’ where they are acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of significant others and where there is the security of being part of a like-minded community. I see this as a valid position for many church-going Christians that should not be disturbed.
“Many are committed workers with strong loyalty to their church community, often with deep but unexamined convictions. They often focus on relationships with God and the important people in their lives – a strong sense of the church as an extended family – there to support each other.
Because of this, they tend to find conflict and controversy threatening to them. They tend to see opposites such as good and bad; sacred and secular; Christian and non-Christian; saved and unsaved. They don’t have an independent perspective.
“(This seems to be a reasonable starting point although it is certainly open to discussion – perhaps it is particularly true of some Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches).
“Problems are thought to arise when some (possibly prompted by the Holy Spirit) become dissatisfied or disillusioned. Because of the ‘walled in’ secure feeling, it often takes a major upset for any transition beyond this stage to take place.
“The nature of pastoral care needs change over time – the need to understand the differing perspectives – we can all be vulnerable at times – the need for patience! There seems to be a need for Safe Havens – especially for older people?. A need for ministry at many levels – beware of the risk of concentrating only on those in the earlier stages.” 
And this is fine. It really does take all sorts, you know.
Problems, however, can arise – with both self, others and ‘leadership’ – when the person moving through the Stages is part of a congregation where they have what I might call ‘over-accountability’, or overbearing leadership structures similar to that found in what was formerly called the ‘heavy shepherding’ movement.
People in congregations which practise such accountability are usually highly ‘conformist’ and, as such, they seem to think that what they have is the ‘ultimate’ faith beyond which there is nothing better, and they would find it extremely hard to move out of that Stage and would possibly stagnate, barring a move of the Holy Spirit in their lives. I know this because I was once like that. For such congregations, the problem seems to be that they think there’s nothing else beyond what they have and so it’s harder for them to accept the growth of others – especially members of their group, but also including outsiders too – into faith regions beyond what they have themselves experienced. They feel secure in their knowledge and they usually feel threatened (either consciously or unconsciously) by people being ‘different’, even (and especially) if it’s one of their own number that has changed/is changing. Invariably, this results in people, who are moving onwards in their faith walk, in a way that the group ‘don’t like’, being labelled as ‘backsliders’, ‘heretics’ or other derogatory terms including the questioning of their salvation. This is so common it gets boring to see. And yet it’s understandable; there is a very real, though usually unacknowledged, fear in some congregants’ minds where they fear departing from the ‘norm’ in case they ‘get their theology wrong’ or ‘get their doctrines wrong’, which is tantamount to ‘getting God wrong’ and then (oh guess what) hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to Hell you go 😉 Needless to say, this kind of background stifles growth almost completely. 
In fact, the idea of spiritual growth means that we have to assume that we haven’t got it all right, something that Fundamentalists find difficult. Paradoxically, then, those who firmly believe that their doctrines are set in stone, and believe that with all their heart, are in fact those who will find it more difficult to grow spiritually. In fact, hard-set and firmly held beliefs actually make spiritual growth virtually impossible. We need honesty and repentance to grow out of that mindset.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when He spoke to the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 10:17-27; Lk 18:18-23), or that the sick need the doctor, not the healthy (Mt 9:12; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31). Those who believe they do not need Jesus’s help to change – because they don’t see the need to change – also end up missing out on His company; the Bible is full of examples of God saying that He draws near to those who are less than perfect. God humbles the proud, but lifts up the humble (James 4:6). Maybe that’s what that means.
But, at the same time, I do not believe it is possible to ‘decide’ to move on in our spiritual growth. Everyone grows differently in their faith, and much of the impetus for growth actually springs naturally from our simple everyday walk with Jesus. He leads us where He wants us to go. Maybe the best we can ‘do’, for want of a better term, is to decide in advance that we will co-operate with what the Spirit says to us, even if that appears to contradict our current belief systems – which is in fact what we should expect to some extent, since growth and change mean that things will be different, and that invariably involves belief changes. That, and the confidence in God that allows us to function without fear in the growth environment. There is a lot of depth to Jesus’s words in John 16:12, where He said, “I have so much more to tell you, but you are unable to bear it right now”. Meditate on that for a while…
The Old ‘Me’
One of the problems I have found with looking back on my former Stages is that I do feel some animosity towards (a) the person I was back then, and (b) the fact that there are other, equally obstinate, people still in those Stages who are just as dogmatic and unbending as I was then. It’s not so bad when they keep to themselves, but sometimes it seems they just can’t. But equally, I do not now consider myself to have reached any kind of stage of perfection or anything like that; I have simply grown. And so the temptation to judge my old self, or those like my old self, must be avoided because there is no ‘supremacy’ involved, nor should there be. In a way, we need to keep the good stuff from previous stages while discarding, or at least holding at a distance, the rest. And you can’t fully understand the next stage until you are actually in it, and even then it’s a learning curve.
To summarise this latter set of ideas, remember Love. Under the umbrella of God’s Love for us, and our love for each other as believers, let’s just love one another, and not criticise or judge. Sometimes we need to recognise where our temptation to criticism is coming from; usually it’s a fear of something ‘different’ that threatens our comfortable, secure mindset. I understand that, believe me. As an Autistic person, it’s actually worse for me to cope with than it can be for others. But, as part of loving one another, and as part of encouraging one another’s growth, it’s necessary for us to move outside of that self-protection instinct, and at the very least to not criticise others just because of our own insecurities. If we are threatened by someone else’s growth, maybe we should look at what the root of our own security is, and how that is being threatened by what someone else is doing or even thinking.
The Surprise of the Supernatural
Another point is that the person who interprets the Bible in the Literalist, Inerrantist manner (that is, they take the Bible word-for-word literally, and affirm that it is without error ) often has no room for imagination, no belief that the stories they read in their infallible and inerrant Bible could ever be true, or happen for real, for them in their existence here and now. This, possibly unconscious, position of seeing the supernatural as irrelevant is held despite a dogged insistence that the stories of supernatural occurrences, that the Bible is so full of, are in fact true, and actually did happen. In a lot of ways, this is the ironic tragedy of absolute Biblical dependency, in that anything that is not ‘in the Book’ is not valid, or worse, is ‘evil’ or ‘of the devil’. Because of this attitude, it’s as if these people are locked in a dark box which takes (usually) a supernatural breakthrough by the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts. That will probably come as quite a surprise!
Despite this, keeping – and in some cases treasuring – the ‘good stuff’ from previous stages is important. For example, the unlearned and automatic and complete trust of the small infant in Stage 0 is exactly the kind of trust exhibited by those in Stage 5/6; in fact, the earlier trust is in many ways more pure, and could therefore be learned from and emulated as being ‘better’ than that in later Stages. Another such example could be that the person learned very many Scriptures before their ‘wilderness experience’ (Fowler’s Stage 4) and they find that those Scriptures are still present, in their mental library, even after decades or more of deconstruction. That was certainly my experience, and I am so glad that it is the case. In this way, the ‘good parts’ of the ‘legacy’ of the previous Stages can be preserved and used by the believer in later Stages.
Learning and Growing
And it’s broader than that. Our whole lives of learning – about life itself, not just about faith issues – are always founded on lessons learned, habits picked up, attitudes assumed, and just life experience in general. We do not see our past experiences as being useless despite their sometimes being obsolete; instead, we see them as necessary stones on the path towards maturity, that can be re-used or discarded later in life as required, or not. And the walk of faith is no different. We should expect that some of our ideas, doctrines, dogmas and concepts will become less important over time, and eventually we outgrow them as we learn new things. And there are also things that will always stay with us and be useful.
My personal view is that the Stage to be at is the one you are in at the moment. I think that ‘movement’ from one Stage to another is something that we don’t decide for ourselves, it just kind of happens – maybe being led by God as He reveals new things to the believer.
I also think it’s easier to look back on ‘earlier’ Stages and accept what we thought back then as foundational to who we are now, even though we may have been ‘mistaken’ in some of our beliefs in those earlier Stages, or at least we have moved on from those positions.
The converse, sadly, is not normally true: people at ‘later’ Stages are often seen by those in ‘earlier’ Stages as being ‘backsliders’ because they appear to have ‘drifted’ outside the cultural norm of their faith community. It is also sad that this means they are often seen as ‘heretics’ and are ostracised, where in fact they are actually more mature and have so much to give to their faith communities in terms of edification and growth. The mistrustful attitudes exhibited by those ‘stuck’ in, say Stage 3 (the most common one where its incumbents accuse others of ‘backsliding’) are only depriving them of their own ability to move ‘forward’. In a very real way, they are being ‘left behind’ (oh the irony!). Key to all this is to think what personal spiritual growth could look like; what does it look like if we are ‘changed from one degree of glory to another’? True growth never involves remaining exactly as we are.
The Wisdom Bit
Let’s finish the present discussion on this concept with some wise words on this subject from a couple of friends of mine. Firstly, Jeff Turner:
“One does not despise or loathe their childhood, unless of course it was one of abuse. Rather we look upon it with great fondness and nostalgia. In the case of abuse, it is more than understandable to look upon it with loathing and hatred, but for the one whose childhood was relatively happy, it would be disrespectful, to both the biological process of growth, as well as to our caregivers, to look back and complain how binding it was, and how liberating it is now that we’ve woken up to the wonders of adulthood. If one were to become an evangelistic adult, and went about trying to convert children to adulthood, we would say they’ve lost touch with reality, and were guilty of robbing children of something extremely important and vital.
“In the same way, looking back at your spiritual life and loathing a certain stage of development, is a foolish and unproductive exercise. Blasting one’s past self for not being as enlightened, awakened or rational as one’s present self is, as Alan Watts put it, akin to a bird hating the egg from which it hatched. It’s irrational. Were it not for the egg, you wouldn’t be where you are. Certainly don’t glue it back together and crawl back inside of it, but don’t, at the same time, think of it in terms of disgust. And certainly don’t start an anti-egg campaign, lest you rob the world of birds altogether!
“You aren’t better now, you’re just older and more experienced.
“Some people grow up in secular environments and become religious. Some grow up in religious environments and become secular. Both think that the other is the unenlightened one, and that they are freer and more liberated than them. Both see the reflection of their past self in the other’s present position, and think of it as infantile and constricting. But the one whose position they view this way views the other’s position as something childish that they’ve moved past.
“We are all on a journey, and I’ve a belief about where this journey ultimately ends for all of us. However, in the meanwhile, don’t think of your spiritual and philosophical “childhood” as something worthy of mockery and derision, but rather as that which brought you to where you are. Without them, you wouldn’t be you. And future you ought to remember this when looking back at the very confident, present you as well. You may feel more liberated now that you’ve left behind a certain belief, but someone else feels just as liberated for having left behind the beliefs you presently are revelling in. People are not slaves simply because they think in ways you no longer think, and vice versa. We are all going somewhere, and since none of us begin at the same place, we will not progress at the same pace.
“May we all learn to love the former versions of ourselves, and the reflections of them that we see in both our neighbor and ‘enemy’ .”
And more from Chris Martin:
“None of us have it all figured out. We can learn so much from each other. But only if we understand we are all at different stops along our journey. Doctrines, theology, beliefs…we’re all brought up believing certain things about God and who He is. We have a number of different influences, whether it’s parents, culture, environment, pastors, teachers, etc.
“Something I’ve learned over the last couple years, and some days still learning, is to be patient with others. Not to assume. To walk in grace and understand we don’t have to agree on everything in order to press on together.
“Fighting and arguing isn’t doing anyone any good at all. Let’s be peacemakers”.
“Everyone is at a different point on their spiritual walk, and it is folly to reject that upon which our current faith structure is built. I think for me personally, the problems come when non-understanding people, who are where I was twenty years ago, talk to me as if I know bugger-all about my faith, like I have just woken up one morning and decided to become an heretic after like 38 years of faith. That’s what grates on me. My problem is to not despise the person I was back then, and, by extension, the reflection of that person I see in others who are still in that place.” – Me
“We must be extremely careful not to come off as arrogant when we discover truth others may not yet see. We are all on a journey of discovering who we are, who Papa is, and how we can all walk together in unity. Let’s not preach grace and condemn those who haven’t reached the place where we now stand. Let’s not speak of love while bashing others for their lack of love.
“Most importantly, let’s not act as if we are the only ones who have learned truth. Let’s not act as if we are the only ones receiving revelations from the Father.
“Let’s walk in grace, mercy, compassion and love.” – Chris Martin
Recognise and Remember:
Recognise that your past was important and do not despise those who are still at those stages. Bear with those people in love (Eph 4:2, Col 3:13)
Recognise that spiritual growth involves change, and you might not like what some people’s change looks like.
Remember to respect others’ individual journeys and keep each other safe (note: this does not involve criticising ‘in love’ what their beliefs are becoming like)
Remember that God is still in control and it is Jesus Who will build His Church (Mt 16:18)
“Once you say ‘higher level’ (regarding one’s level of spirituality), you appeal to the ego, and all the wrong instincts in people.” -Fr. Richard Rohr
“When you begin to refer to where you’re at on your journey as a “deeper place,” “higher level,” “another dimension,” or some other such thing, you create a space where pride, arrogance, and superiority can thrive in the name or spirituality. No, we’re journeying, and on this journey, mountains are laid low, and valleys exalted. Every place is an equal place for the sincere, it’s just that we are never all in the same place at the same time, and tend to assume wherever we’re at is the place to be.
“The place to be is wherever you are”.
– Jeff Turner
I hope this essay rounds off the series satisfactorily. If you have any comments or points to add, please feel free to comment on this or any other post in this series, as you need.
Thanks for following this subject, and I trust you have grown from reading about it 🙂
Peace and Grace to you.
References and Notes:
 From ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ – ‘Camelot!’ ‘Camelot!’ ‘Camelot!’ ‘It’s only a model!’ ‘Sssh!’
 Stages of Faith – an article on the blog Outside the Goldfish Bowl – https://outsidethegoldfishbowl.wordpress.com/stages-of-faith/
 If you personally feel that you are growing beyond such a Church structure, the decision as to whether to follow your own conscience, or instead follow someone else’s conscience, is yours, and yours alone, to make.
 Literalism and Inerrancy are all very well until one realises that different translations of the Bible very often contain different wording of the same passages (so, how can one take it literally?) and sometimes portray different meanings in one translation, from the meanings in other translations, of the same passage. So how can it be inerrant? Some people take the simple step of assuming that ‘their’ translation is the only‘correct’ one; usually that would be the King James Version (KJV), which, ironically, is actually one of the more inaccurate translations 😉
Here are yet more bite-sized wisdom goodies. I hope you are blessed by them!
Distrust all who make you feel bad about feeling good, and good about feeling bad. – Jeff Turner
Whatever a passage of Scripture means, it cannot mean that God is not Love – John Wesley
To my mind, the original sin, and what it looks like today, is the belief that God is really, really mad with us. In my opinion, all ‘bad behaviour’ flows from that – from not realising that a good, loving God actually exists and that He likes us. – Me
If your heart is kinder than your doctrine, it’s time to look at what you believe. – Joanne Glen
The Kingdom of God is not [rules and regulations], but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Why then does modern Evangelicalism major on all the negative stuff: judgement, Hell, conforming to the tribal ethos and all the other stuff? Those are all things that, believed in the Evangelical sense, actually stifle righteousness, peace and joy. – Me
“Sin is its own punishment devouring us from the inside. It’s not God’s purpose to punish it, it’s God’s joy to cure it.” – Paul Young
Don’t ever allow what someone doesn’t see affect what you do see. Walk your journey. Keep growing. Keep learning. – Chris Martin
The Gospel is good news for all, which makes it sound like bad news to some. We like the idea of a table prepared in the presence of our enemies, so long as it means they are forced to watch us feast while they starve. We don’t like the idea, however, when it means we share a table, in the presence of God, with those we consider to be enemies.
If you’re uncomfortable with the notion of an inclusive table, good! That is precisely how the Gospel transforms us – Jeff Turner
“I’m glad God’s not the asshole people think he is” – Jacob M. Wright
Perhaps if one more person tells me to read my Bible, I might get saved!? – Karen Belcher
The nature of God is not primarily manifest in what God says “no” to, but in what God says “yes” to. It is not understood by examining what God hates, but what God loves.
Consequently, then, the nature of God is not primarily manifest in *us by what we say “no” to, but in what we say “yes” to; not through what we hate, but what we choose to love. – Jeff Turner
My personal view is that it would be dishonest to read the Old Testament (OT) as if the New Testament (NT) had never been written. When people say, ‘Let Scripture interpret Scripture’, in no other way is this more true than in letting the NT interpret the OT in the light of Jesus – Me
It is better to love than to prove that you are right – Jim Palmer
It’s a well-known fact that ‘official’ Church numbers – people attending Christian churches – are on the decline. People are leaving the established churches in droves, and they’re not being replaced.*
It’s easy to see why, at any rate for those who have the eyes to see. It’s all summarised in this excellent piece by John Pavlovitz, a writer whose work I haven’t quoted for quite some time. Let’s put that omission right today, eh?
Over to John:
The Christians Making Atheists
Growing-up in the Church, I was taught that the worst thing one could be was a non-believer; that nothing was as tragic as a doomed soul that condemned itself by rejecting God. The religion of my childhood drew a sharp, clear line between the saved and the damned. All that mattered was making sure someone found themselves on the better side of this line—and the Atheists and Humanists didn’t have a shot.
In light of this supposed truth, the heart of the faith (I was told), was to live in a way that reflected the character and love of Jesus so vividly, so beautifully, that others were compelled to follow after him; that a Christian’s living testimony might be the catalyst for someone’s conversion. The Bible called it “making disciples” and it was the heart of our tradition. As the venerable hymn declared, we Jesus people were to be known by our love.
What a difference a couple of decades make.
Just ask around. People outside the Church will tell you: love is no longer our calling card. It is now condemnation, bigotry, judgment and hypocrisy. In fact, the Christianity prevalent in so much of America right now isn’t just failing to draw others to Christ, it is actively repelling them from him. By operating in a way that is in full opposition to the life and ministry of Jesus—it is understandably producing people fully opposed to the faith that bears his name.
In record numbers, the Conservative American Church is consistently and surely making Atheists—or at the very least it is making former Christians; people who no longer consider organized religion an option because the Jesus they recognize is absent. With its sky-is-falling hand-wringing, its political bed-making, and its constant venom toward diversity, it is giving people no alternative but to conclude, that based on the evidence of people professing to be Godly—that God is of little use. In fact, this God may be toxic.
And that’s the greatest irony of it all; that the very Evangelicals who’ve spent that last 50 years in this country demonizing those who reject Jesus—are now the single most compelling reason for them to do so. They are giving people who suspect that all Christians are self-righteous, hateful hypocrites, all the evidence they need. The Church is confirming the outside world’s most dire suspicions about itself.
These people aren’t stupid. They realize that bigotry, even when it is wrapped in religion or justified by the Bible or spoken from a pulpit is still bigotry. They can smell the putrid stench of phony religion from a mile away—and this version of the Church, frankly reeks of it. People are steering clear in droves, choosing to find meaning and community and something that resembles love outside its gatherings.
With every persecution of the LGBTQ community, with every unprovoked attack on Muslims, with every planet-wrecking decision, with every regressive civil rights move—the flight from Christianity continues. Meanwhile the celebrity preachers and professional Christians publicly beat their breasts about the multitudes walking away from God, oblivious to the fact that they are the impetus for the exodus.
And one day soon, these same religious folks will look around, lamenting the empty buildings and the irrelevance of the Church and a world that has no use for it, and they’ll wonder how this happened. They’ll blame a corrupt culture, or the liberal media, or a rejection of Biblical values, or the devil himself—but it will be none of those things.
No, the reason the Church soon will be teetering on the verge of extinction and irrelevance, will be because those entrusted to perpetuate the love of Jesus in the world, lost the plot so horribly, and gave the world no other option but to look elsewhere for goodness and purpose and truth.
Soon these Evangelicals will ask why so much of America has rejected Jesus, and we will remind them of these days, and assure them that they have not rejected Jesus at all—they just found no evidence of him in their Church or in them.
*This is not to say that the ‘non-established’ churches (for want of a better description) are on the decline; far from it. Many more Christians are meeting like-minded brothers and sisters online and ‘doing Church’ there instead. I am one of them, although I do go to a weekly house church meeting linked to ‘my’ CofE church that I call my home church.
Here is an excellent post from Christy Lynne Wood, one of my favourite bloggers and someone whose writing and spirituality is going from strength to strength. Her writing is always refreshing, innovative and showing immense wisdom and perception. If you have not ‘followed’ Christy’s blog yet, may I heartily recommend that you do so. There are insights on there that are absolute gold.
Over to Christy:
Mental Illness, Possessed Baby Dolls, and the Church
I’m going to tell you an embarrassing story. When I was a teenager, in the middle of religious cultic craziness, I thought I’d been given the gift of spiritual discernment. I truly believed that I could discern whether or not people’s toys, specifically baby dolls, were possessed. Parents in my church brought me their children’s dolls so that I could stare into their eyes and tell them if there was a demon inside or not. Yes, I now recognize that this is absolutely nuts. Yikes!! But at the time, it seemed very real.
We had all heard anecdotal stories of people’s experiences with possessed toys. We had heard stories about demons coming out of synthesizers and electronic keyboards.(Because rock music, you know, was from the devil.) The amount of fear involved was ridiculous. No one wanted demons in their houses. People do strange things when they are afraid.
Mental illness often gets put in the same Christianese category as possessed toys. While not on the same level, it’s something that we fear, don’t understand, and want to control. Christians feel like there should be a formula to change it. It feels safer to tell people that it’s the result of sin. It feels more comfortable to categorize it as “spiritual warfare.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as spiritual warfare. I just don’t think it usually looks like we think it does.
I think we give way more credit to fear, anecdotal stories, and just brokenness in the world, and not enough credit to the subtle lies the enemy whispers to us about ourselves, other people, and God. Satan isn’t necessarily behind the cold you caught, the fact that your car broke down, or even your anxiety. But, he definitely loves that you feel hopeless and doubt God’s love for you.
As humans, we are naturally afraid of things we don’t understand. But when you combine fear with religion, the idea that I have to do something to get results, brokenness and destruction happens.
Do you know how many people are silently struggling with things like depression and anxiety within our churches but are afraid to say anything? Do you know how many people are told that their mental illness is a result of a “lack of faith” or “bitterness” or some other problem on their part? They aren’t doing enough and that’s why they are broken. People are afraid to speak up and ashamed to seek help or admit they need medication. That’s not okay. No one should have to struggle in secret. No one should be isolated in their pain and afraid of the body of Christ. It’s wrong that the church has made them feel this way.
How did we get here? I believe three things have played a huge part.
“Religion is the business of appeasing gods.” This sentence from Mike Cosper’s book Recapturing the Wonder has been challenging my thinking for almost a year now. We do that within Christianity. We put our ideas about God in a tiny box. Then we work our hardest to appease our god-in-a-box because we want his approval and blessings. That’s religious Christianity. Formulaic thinking abounds within religious Christianity. We search for a magical guarantee to make our god do what we want.
We can be conservative, religious Christians, or we can be liberal, religious Christians. It’s all about the box. We might have different ideas about God in our box, but if we are focused on doing things to make our god-in-a-box happy, then we are religious.
The real Jesus doesn’t fit in a box. He will always be bigger than our understanding. He will never make sense. And He doesn’t need to be appeased, because He already appeased Himself on the cross. ?
Lack of Education
The church has been suspicious of psychology for far too long. There is nothing wrong with learning how the human brain tends to work. Just because some of the scientists that made breakthroughs in psychology weren’t Christians doesn’t make their work invalid. Psychology is a beautiful thing. It’s exciting and freeing to understand potential whys behind thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Somehow, Christians often separate the spiritual part of people from the rest of them. I just don’t think that’s an accurate way of doing things. We are complex beings. And our spirituality, that is our ability to connect with God, is interwoven deeply with our story, our beliefs about our self, the way we interact with people, etc.
The church that we currently attend loves psychology. And honestly, the more I have come to understand myself, the healthier I have become spiritually.
Ironically fear is often the motivator behind our religious Christianity and our lack of education. We are afraid of the god we have imagined, so we create a list of religious behaviors to follow. We are afraid of a lack of control, so we try to earn God’s blessings by our actions. People are afraid of psychology, so they don’t get better educated. We are afraid of God and people’s condemnation, so we keep our depression and anxiety to ourselves.
Fear is not from the real Jesus, friends! Do you know what the most repeated command in the Bible is? “Do not be afraid.” Wow! While fear is a legitimate emotion, it does not need to control us. Fear is not a helpful motivator. And the real Jesus is bigger than our fears.
Let me just close with some thoughts.
Spirituality is very abstract. Sometimes we need concrete help before we can deal with abstract spiritual things. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. If I’m in the middle of a panic attack, frantically praying or trying to quote the Bible is not nearly as helpful as taking deep breaths, using some grounding techniques, and speaking truth to myself. Once I’m in a better place, I can take a look at what triggered me and go from there.
Because we are complicated, spiritual beings, many parts of us are intertwined and affected by other parts. Are there lies that we are believing about ourselves, God, and others that might be adding to our depression or anxiety? It’s very possible. However, we need to help our brains get to a place where we can logically deal with those lies.
If you are struggling with a mental illness, it’s not your fault. We live in a world broken by sin, and one of the things that is affected is our brains. They are complex organs, and sometimes they get sick. The best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out and look for help. You are not less spiritual because you go to therapy or are on medication. It’s okay! Those are good things. God is not disappointed and He doesn’t condemn you.
I know that the church’s attitude towards mental illness has often been more hurtful than helpful. But the church is made up of individuals. The church culture towards mental illness can change as more and more of us develop a healthy attitude and understanding. I have hope! ?
Most of my readers will know that I used to be a worship leader in a Charismatic-style church; we’d have ‘open worship’ with, as well as the singing, things like tongues, prophecy and other spiritual gifts. There’d be singing ‘in the Spirit’ too, and it was all most uplifting.
My particular setup was that I had an electronic keyboard/piano: a Roland JV-30, which at the time, and despite having only five octaves (thus limiting my pitch range capability), was pretty much state of the art.
The JV-30 does not have its own internal loudspeakers; it requires external amplification. In this case, and since we were using a public hall for our meetings, the keyboard’s output was piped over to a sound desk at the back, manned by a couple of teenage non-musician lads that we nicknamed (unsurprisingly) the ‘Sound Boys’.
We also had other musicians: three vocalists – myself, Fiona and Cathy; Steve, our bass player; and sometimes an acoustic guitarist. I won’t give any names for the guitarists because there were quite a few of them and we never really knew who we were going to get from one week to the next. And in addition to the keyboard, each of these ‘inputs’ – the microphones for the vocalists, Steve’s bass guitar, and my keyboard, plus any guitarist(s) we had (playing into an electronic pickup clipped to the guitar’s sound hole), also went into the sound desk, each input with its own dedicated channel, to be dominated controlled by the Sound Boys.
The relationship between the musicians and the Sound Boys was somewhat complex, and often pretty fraught*. I usually felt that the Sound Boys had the volume of the piano turned way too far down; this was long before we had any ‘foldback’ (a loudspeaker set up facing the instrumentalist so that they can hear what they are playing) so not only could I not really hear myself playing, but I also had to trust the Sound Boys that the congregation was able to hear what we were playing. They assured us that they could, but I was never fully convinced!
Sometimes they even used to mute my output channel completely, such as during the sermon, or if there were some prayers going on; or if for whatever reason they ‘thought’ (and that’s being generous) that the piano was not needed at that time. It was almost as if they didn’t trust me to handle my instrument correctly, and to not do a huge bloody great big ‘dead body in the bath’ chord in the middle of the notices.
And so it seemed that, despite our best efforts, all that we did as a band was subject to the power-crazed whims of the Sound Boys and their all-powerful sound desk. Whenever you lead public singing, you need to have quite a bit of, well, let’s call it ‘authority’, but I don’t mean it in a domineering kind of way; more a practical way. When you are leading 300-400 people in singing, you need to be heard, so that they can follow your lead. For example, sometimes the congregation’s timing goes a little off so you need to lead them back into time again. To do this, you’d boost your volume to emphasise the timing and allow people to hear what you are doing and to re-synchronise. Or maybe they have drifted off pitch (out of tune), but this is actually quite rare. The problem comes when you can’t lead the music properly because your sound volume is turned wayoooh-doooowwwwn and you don’t have the oomph; thanks a bunch, Sound Boys.
And so, I had to develop a little trick to let me lead properly and thwart the best efforts of the Sound Boys. I called it the ‘Sound Boys’ Yo-Yo’.
Here’s what you do.
Set the keyboard’s volume control to about 30-35%, and do all your sound checks from there. Begin the worship with the same volume setting; the Sound Boys will have set you at a moderate volume for the opening song, and hopefully they will boost you once the congregation join in and the general volume in the hall increases. So far, so good.
But let’s say that after a couple of verses, you realise that the congregation’s timing is drifting (possibly because of the low lead instrument volume – who’d ‘a thunk it?!), so it’s time to ‘assert your authority’ as lead musician and bring it all back together again for them. Your piano isn’t yet loud enough to re-establish the rhythm, so you’re going to need more volume; trouble is that the Sound Boys don’t realise this is what you need to do, and if you gently nudge your volume up, they will correspondingly gently nudge your channel volume down in response, and to show you who’s boss of course. So there’s no net effect on the volume and things get worse for the song being sung.
So, you don’t do it that gentle way. What you do is to whack your volume control slider up into afterburner – say about 90-100% setting…
…and this allows you to use that increased volume to stabilise the song’s rhythm or whatever it is that’s drifted. Before long, of course, the Sound Boys will have rumbled what you’re up to, and will have reacted to your gross misbehaviour by drastically racking your channel volume fader right back down again. By that time, though, they’re way too late and they’ve proper missed their boat; you have brought things back into line again, in musical terms, like you wanted to do. And that was easy. Just doing my job.
However, at this point, of course, the Sound Boys have solidly put you in your place; your channel volume is a long way down and your keyboard volume is maxed out, although nobody can tell because the net effect on your piano volume as heard by the congregation is unaffected, and no-one’s any the wiser apart from yourself and the Sound Boys, of course. So now you need somehow to recover that reserve power so that you can use it again, possibly soon. And this is the clever bit, and the part that gives the Yo-Yo its name.
While playing, and in a reverse of the actions that the Sound Boys would perform if you boosted your volume gradually, you reduce your keyboard volume equally gradually, say by about 10% per minute. Maybe you could do this after each verse of the song you are playing, especially if you’re varying your song’s dynamics, which disguises what you are doing very nicely. One hopes that the Sound Boys will notice that your volume is getting a bit low, so they will (ideally!) advance your channel volume bit by bit until they can hear you better.
You continue doing this until your keyboard volume slider is back at around 30-35% and then you can use your afterburner again as required. You have now restored your ‘volume reserve’ and it’s available for use once more. Lather, rinse and repeat.
And that’s the the Sound Boys’ Yo-Yo, so called because you move your volume slider up and down like a yo-yo.
Granted, if you are an instrumentalist in a similar position and you’re thinking about using this trick, remember that your Sound Boys might have read this too, and therefore they will be wise to what you’re up to, but there’s nothing they can really do about it if they want the congregation to hear the piano at all.
Or maybe you’re extremely lucky and have Sound Boys that actually listen to you and provide the service you need. In which case, I envy you.
But it’s still a useful trick to have in your repertoire!
*Sound Boys, if you should read this, don’t worry, I forgave you a long time ago, and this is just humour, ok? 😉