Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Christian Agnostic

A few weeks ago I came across a quote from a book written in 1965 by Leslie D. Weatherhead entitled "The Christian Agnostic". I found the quote quite fascinating and ordered a used copy of the book from Amazon. I don't think there are any new copies available that I could find. Anyway, I am currently reading this book and am finding it pretty amazing knowing that it was written 50 years ago. I began to think that it would have been nice to have read it 25 or 30 years ago...but then I realized that I probably wouldn't have been ready for it then.

So here is what I am thinking of doing...mostly for my own thought clarification: As I read and highlight the book, I am going to post quotations from it...sometimes as stand-alone quotes, but other times I may make comments to help with my own percolation of the thoughts.

I will start with the quote from the Preface that got my attention a few weeks ago.

"I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into fellowship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray...and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure." ~Leslie D. Weatherhead

Dr. Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Christian theologian in the liberal Protestant tradition. Weatherhead was noted for his preaching ministry at City Temple in London and for his books. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015


     Each of our lives is a story. The ending hasn’t been written yet…even if we have breathed our last of this earthly atmosphere. And our stories are a distillation of the stories we have been told during our lives by those we know, by those we don’t know, and especially by ourselves. It can be no other way. From the time we take our first breath…and maybe even before, if our mothers played music to influence us in utero…we are influenced by the stories of our families, cultures and environments. At a very young age, we don’t know enough to reject certain stories that are put upon us by those we love and into the homes where we grow up. But as we grow up, we begin to realize that there are other stories that are believed by others which differ greatly from the stories we have agreed to believe. In fact, we soon find out that stories are intentionally thrust upon us for the purpose of someone else's gains. This is the whole purpose of marketing and can be inclusive of politics and religion. In the end, we choose which stories we are going to agree with and use to write our own personal story. There really is much truth in the saying that “Each of us believes what we want to believe”. When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. None of us will change our beliefs unless something happens that motivates us in that direction. For many, this is a life altering event, or some kind of near death experience. The same principle holds true for the Alcoholics Anonymous program when they say that a person isn’t ready to change and become sober unless he hits “rock bottom”. Basically coming to a point in life where everything is lost because of a persistent belief (i.e. “I can handle alcohol”), and agreeing with another story line: “I can’t handle alcohol…it has caused me the loss of all things in life that matter…and, I need help to beat this thing”. These changes in life beliefs do not come easy or without great price. How silly it is of us to think that we can argue and debate with someone to change the very core of their being which is what our agreed upon stories really are in the end. 

     If we are living our lives in a perception of equilibrium, there will be no reason for us to change. It is only when some force, whether external or internal…or a combination of both, causes a disequilibrium and discomfort in our lives that we will begin to be open to changing our agreements with certain stories. There is nothing magical about this, nor is this particularly insightful. But it is something worth remembering when we see how others live, and even to understand  the reason why we do what we do, and to realize that we are seeing the world through the lenses of our own agreed upon stories. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

We Will Be Landing Shortly: Now What? spiritual musings of Mike Hamel

On October 11, 1970, Mike Hamel started a journal...his first entry states:

"I am starting this journal to find out about myself and through myself to find God. I hope that I can one day share this with someone. Maybe through my search for inner contentment and holiness others may find a clue in their own search."

And this remains the theme throughout the book. It isn't simply a collection of journal entries like the one above, but rather stories that explore the inner workings of Hamel's heart and mind. In an earlier autobiographical work entitled: "Stumbling Toward Heaven" he includes both spiritual musings as well detailed documentation of his battle with cancer. Since that book was written, much has happened in his life and so this revision...if it can even be called purely about his spiritual pilgrimage.

He describes himself as "a storyteller around the campfire, a minstrel in the company of pilgrims, a jester in the sanctuary." And that is what he is throughout this book. For me, one of the characteristics of a good writer is the ability to take some of the thoughts that are floating around I n my head (but are there in vagueness and obscured by cobwebs of preconditions) and articulate them in such a way as to give me an "Ah-Ha!" moment.

Mike Hamel is a pioneer rather than a settler in the sense that he is always willing to explore new thoughts, ideas, scientific findings and psychological concepts even at the expense of threatening long held beliefs of the past. Because of this he has endured...maybe with some glimmer of delight...being considered an "outsider" by those groups to which he once was considered a respected leader.

If one has a heart to always learn "how to think" rather than "being told what to think", then throw open the doors and windows of your heart and let this book be a fresh breeze of clean air blowing through the inner rooms of your soul.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Why I am an Athiest Who Believes in GOD

I grew up in a fundamental evangelical environment in the 1960s and 1970s, and continued on in that paradigm for years afterwards, doing various types of Christian service and missionary work in many parts of the world. I think that it would be safe to say, that for most evangelical Christians during that time…and even today, the name Francis Schaeffer (along with his wife Edith) conjured up images of some sort of Evangelical Super Hero.  The “liberals and unbelievers” might have their intellectuals, but none of them could stand up to our hero, Francis Schaeffer. He had established a community, called L’Abri,  of like-minded deep thinkers who lived in Switzerland. It was into this socio-religious environment that Frank Schaeffer was born, raised and marinated. 
In the last number of years, my journey has taken me away from much of the evangelical dogma that I held to for so long, and so it was with interest that I read this book by the son of our Super Hero. 
Much of the book is autobiographical in nature with Frank sharing personal glimpses into what it was like to be living as a growing boy with the great Francis and Edith Schaeffer. But it is much more than that…he shows the tenderness he feels for his two young grandchildren that he spends much time with each day. And then there is the thread of the ragged, messy journey that he has been on and how his life has been enriched by the freedom of mystery and paradox.  I will simply leave with some things I highlighted when reading this wonderful book. I doubt that the audience for this book will be mainline evangelicals who are “certain they are correct”, but for anybody who is willing to be honest and ask questions, it is a great read.
“My dogmatic declarations of faith once provided status, ego-stroking power over others and a much better income than I’ve ever earned since fleeing the evangelical machine. Certainty make things simple, gave me an answer to every questions and paid the bills.”
“Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure.”
“Apophatic theology teaches that the divine is ineffable and recognized only when it’s felt. In contrast to the literalistic evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims and Orthodox Jews, some of the earliest Church Fathers were closer in their thinking to Wettstein.They said that scripture was to be read through an apophatic approach.”
“Science can’t predict what stories my children’s great grandchildren will tell. The ultimate story about the experience of our journey into consciousness is a closed book to theologians and scientists alike, but it is not a book without promise. At this point we’ve barely cracked the introduction, and already smartass scientists and theologians pretend they know not just how the story started but how it ends—and worse—what it means or doesn’t mean.”
“How we treat others is the only proof of truth we have. That proof is not found in any book. It is only found in the expression of unconditional trust we may sometimes see in the eyes of the people who know us best.”
And one more that I am sure will cause the hair on the back of many necks to bristle….
“Those of us raised in the Christian tradition need to choose to either see God in Jesus or to continue to let the Bible define God.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reading List Recommendations: (Category: Fiction)

Recently there have been various challenges between friends on social media. The famous “ice bucket” challenge in August and September sought to raise awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Scelorisis (ALS), or commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Although there were critics that said too much water was being wasted, the net effect was that the public became more aware of this devastating illness, and millions of dollars were raised for further research into treatment and a cure for ALS. If you have ever cared for someone with this condition, you will know that this is great news.
One of the other different challenges involves people asking friends to list some (top 10?) most influential books in their lives.  This can be very revealing and kind of helps to see some of the thought processes that a person has gone through in their personal lives bringing them to where they are today. 
This is not a response to any challenge, but I want to list some of the fiction works that I have enjoyed over the last several months and few years. Some I have read in print, but many I have listened to in audio format with excellent narrators while working out or out running many miles. Even fiction writing has a tendency to help frame one’s mindset and paradigm of the world, and that has been the case with me as well. So, for what it is worth, here are some works of fiction that I have enjoyed and would recommend to anyone looking for great reading experiences. There is no particular order of ranking of these books as they appear below.
“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart:  If you love art and old furniture restoration, this will be an especially good book to read. Some have noted a similarity to the story line in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens. I can see where this can be true, but the setting is modern USA, and the story line and character development is excellent…the audio version had an excellent narrator.
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak: Many have seen the movie (I have not), but the book is a piece of literary fiction that moves one deeply. Set in Nazi Germany during WWII, a story of a family and an orphan girl who struggle to survive and help a helpless Jewish man. Somewhat dark at times, but the story has the potential to move your soul in the right direction…in my opinion.
“The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy: This is an older book and, again a movie has been made from the story (I have not seen this movie either). Great character development that centers around a very dysfunctional family from the South, and does an excellent job of showing the deep flaws of each of us as we live out this journey of humanity. And yet, through the brokenness of the world and the flaws in each of us, there is beauty and something of grandeur to behold.
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini: This, in my opinion, is great literary fiction. It probes deep into our hearts for who we are, not for who we think we should be, and finds many questions. All questions don’t have answers, however. If you have any link to Afghanistan, or to that part of the world or its culture, this is a good book to read.
“Breakfast with Buddha” by Roland Merullo ….and the follow up sequel “Lunch with Buddha”: A story of a successful, upper middle class professional and his family who are touched by crisis. Laughing at times and crying at others is what I would expect the response to reading these two books. These really helped me to break out in my thinking about many of the assumed dogmas that I have held on to in my life.
“Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts: This book is so awesomely good that I read the print version one time and listened (over 43 hours!) to the audio version a couple of years later!! The story is about a man who escapes prison in Australia and is on the run living in Bombay , India. Greatly entertaining while weaving different philosophical views of life into the storyline. Highly recommended!
“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel: The movie (yes, I saw this one!) did a fairly good representation of the book, however, the character and story development was much more thorough in the book. No need to give a summary since everyone has heard about this movie.
“Slumdog Millionaire” by Vikas Swarup: Again, the movie is well known, so no need to give a summary statement. Great book….audio narration was superb!
“Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen: This is the story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home as he recalls his life as a veterinarian for a circus. It is told in the first person, but two voices…that of the young man, and that of the old man in the nursing home. This touched a tender spot in my heart since I had seen both my mother and father live for years in a nursing home at the end of their lives.
“11-22-63” by Stephen King: Well know author, who takes on a slightly different story line. Greatly to be enjoyed by anyone who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. How life has changed. The twist of the story involves time travel and what would it mean if one could change one of the most devastating assassinations of the 20th century? 
“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter: Just a beautiful story of life in coastal Italy where love was found and then lost. The character development by Jess Walter is stunning and a thing of beauty. 
“A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving: This is a classic and should be read by everybody! At first I thought it was a bit slow starting out, but following these characters through their lives was enchanting and very impressionable.
“The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young: Not much needs to be said about this book. Many have weighed in with praise and deep seated scorn. I found it to be refreshing and insightful to the nature of God and how we live in relationship with a Deity of pure love.
“The Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End” by Ken Follet: If you have ever wondered about how life was back in England and Europe in the 9th and 10th Centuries…and how those huge gothic cathedrals got built without the aid of modern technology, this book is very insightful. Follet follows families and individuals through the perils and drudgery of life back then, with a spellbinding storyline that is sure to keep you reading.
The Century Trilogy by Ken Follet: “Fall of Giants”, “Winter of the World” and “Edge of Eternity”.In this trilogy, Follet starts off in book 1 around the year 1916, and begins to follow a few families in different parts of the world: Great Britain, Germany, Russia, USA. The story line incorporates excellent historical facts of the events that have made the 20th century so significant. In each successive book, the children, grandchildren etc. of the original families remain the main characters. Throughout the span of nearly 100 years, not only is there a spell binding story told, but a lot of history to be learned.  The final book: “Edge of Eternity” has only recently come out, so I am still not finished with it yet, but I am already     captivated by it!
“The Way of Kings” and “Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson: These books are the beginning of an epic fantasy series called The Stormlight Archive.  I know that not everyone enjoys this genre, but I found the story and character development to be insightful and greatly enjoyable.
“The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd: Literary fiction in the setting of the South in the 1960s. This is a beautiful story of a girl who runs away from an abusive father and finds a refuge and home in the home of three African American sisters. There are themes of prejudice, guilt, shame and love woven throughout this charming story.
Lest I go on endlessly, I will list some honorable mention books and authors without commentary except to say here that I found, even these books to be highly entertaining, enjoyable and containing nuggets of wisdom and insight.
Let me list some by Author’s name first:
James Lee Burke: “Wayfaring Stranger”, “Feast Day of Fools”, “Rain Gods”, and “Lay Down my Sword and Shield” . Okay, one more comment…Burke probably has more insight into the dark side of human nature and the evils of society than most of us do. And he is able to express this in his writings so vividly. Great author.
Stieg Larsson: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played with Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest.”
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games Trilogy: “The Hunger Games”, “Catching Fire”, and “Mocking Jay”. 
Cormac McCarthy: “No Country for Old Men”
Nelson DeMille: “Plum Island”, “The Gold Coast”, and “The Gate House”.
Dan Brown: “Angels and Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code”
John Lescroart: “A Plague of Secrets”
Steve Berry: “The Paris Vendetta”
Sue Grafton: “V is for Vengence”
Jo Nesbo (translated by Don Bartlett): “The Leopard”
Wm. Paul Young: “Cross Roads”
Jason Matthews: “Red Sparrow”
Michael Connelly: “The Poet”
So that pretty much covers it for now…If you want more information on any of these books feel free to contact me!
I hope to do a Reading List: Non-Fiction sometime in the near future.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Thinking Outside of the Box

I was speaking to someone this week and they made the point, with pride, that they like to “think outside of the box”. Now, this was in the context of religion and spirituality. This is a pretty common thing to hear because we don’t like to be thought of as stuck in a rut of our own paradigm…closed to new ideas and concepts. In the realm of evangelical Christianity, I remember, sitting in church services where it was stated or prayed asking the Holy Spirit to lead us wherever he would want, and to do whatever he would want to in our lives…we were open to his direction no matter what. This sounds good…taking the restrictions away from our thinking and being open to new things that we haven’t considered…a way of thinking and being willing to be “outside of the box”.

The problem of the matter is, however, that there almost definitely is a box that is slightly larger than the one we refer to when we speak like this…and this, slightly larger box that contains the smaller box is not one that we are open to living or thinking outside of at all. There are things that we all hold tightly to in life….paradigms of politics, religion, spirituality or even  culture. These are the structures of living that have worked for us and allow us to function in a life and world that is anything but certain. And so we fiercely guard these paradigms as if our lives depend upon them…and to a degree our lives do depend on seeing the world through these lenses. Most of the time, most of us are willing to “negotiate” some paradigm shifts that would alter our views and behaviors, but only to a limited degree. We cannot tolerate a complete abandonment of life paradigms that have worked for us and for which we have invested so much of our time and energy. For some, guarding and promoting these paradigms is a practical way of earning an income, and so there is a vested interest in not being open to new ideas.

A very basic way of looking at this would be something like this: I have successfully lived seeing the world as blue. I am in my late middle age years and seeing everything through blue lenses has been quite successful…for the most part. But I am not closed minded…I realize that blue may not be the only way of seeing the world, and so I relish seeing the world differently and even getting a new prescription for my lenses. In fact, I told my lens professional that on my new set of lenses I want the edges to fade into a lighter shade of blue at the bottom, a darker shade at the top and even the sides to be a type of blue/green, or turquoise shade. He was taken aback by this but agreed to do it. When we got talking about this, he said that one of his customers who used blue lenses had come in and wanted to switch to red lenses! “Wow!” I replied. “I would never even consider doing that because, as we all know, seeing the world through blue lenses is the way to see it accurately.” And he agreed.

And so it is with ourselves and others. When changes in our paradigms do occur, they are usually incremental in nature. And the impetus for change is usually not someone else convincing us of their great insight. Change is embraced when we discover something true for ourselves, and this often takes a crisis in our lives to help us along the path of walking in the truth.

Monday, June 16, 2014

We All Want To Be Winners

We all want to be winners.  Nobody intentionally wants to be a loser. It is in our genes to be the best… to be superior. All of this is relative, of course. Being a winner.  Being a success. It is all a matter of comparison…and we use others as our standard of comparison. In a foot race, there is only one actual winner…and that is because, compared to the other runners, the winner came in first. The second place runner can brag about beating the third place runner.  We all want to be “better than” or superior in some way to someone else. Even, the most down and out, lazy, drunken bum will still come up with a comparison that makes him look superior: “Well, at least I don’t beat my wife like Joe does!”

I am not really sure if this hunt for superiority is always bad. Some would classify it as a drive for excellence in life…a search for significance. I won’t disagree with those arguments. All I know is that it is there inside each one of us. I suppose that it is a drive…like many others that can be harnessed for good or for bad.
And there are so many arenas in life where we can play this game. Obviously, no one person can be the “best” in every area of life…and so we choose our areas of specialty. Academia, finances, athletics, words…spoken and written, sexual exploits, business, politics, religion and many other related areas that involve power and influence.
You see, the thing about being a “winner” is that it gives us some sense of security that, at least in some area of life, we have “got our act together”.  We feel some degree of control.
One of my favorite quotes I heard from a preacher was this: “As I get older, it is more and more important for me to have all of my ducks in a row”. In other words, “As I get closer to my inevitable departure from this earthly existence, I want to make sure that I am a winner at this game called life.”  I say that it is one of my favorite quotes, not because I agree with it, but because it illustrates just the opposite of what Jesus taught.
He taught that all of us will lose. We are all destined for physical death…and that, in a sense, is where we all become the ultimate losers. No matter how much we have won in the various arenas of life, we all will die and none of it will matter even a little bit. Some who have messed up their earthly lives pretty badly and have “hit bottom” probably experience this sense of being a loser long before physical death takes them. But in the end, we all relinquish a perceived sense of control that we never had and yield to the inevitable.
And it is here…in death…in being a loser… that Jesus meets us and gives us life. The fact is that he has already won the victory and given us an indescribable life of immense joy with God. This is truly good news. The not so good news is that we prevent ourselves from enjoying this life…from really entering into it by clinging to our notions of being a winner…of having all of our ducks in a row.  For all of our verbalized statements that we agree with Jesus that “the first shall be last, and the last first” or that to be a success in the kingdom of God you have to be a slave of others…for all of these protestations of faith, we still strive all the harder to be winners and to be masters and leaders.  Jesus’ story of the rat-bag swindler and the upright religious leader where God considers the crook the “winner” drive us nuts. We have to do some high level religious gymnastics to justify ourselves after reading that one. Or the story of the workers in the vineyard…the scumbags who were lazy and not even out of bed in the morning or even into the afternoon, yet when they went out to “work” for one hour they were given the same as the ones who had worked hard all day. Why do the losers win in God’s eyes?
This is hard core grace…it is a scandal. And the only way we can enjoy this grace is to acknowledge that we haven’t got it together…we are losers. As Robert Farrar Capon says: It is only the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead that will be embraced by this life of grace in Christ. Again, the good news is that sooner or later, we will all acknowledge that “we lose” and will be flooded with the life of God in Jesus.
And yet…as long as we are able, we will continue on in our striving to be winners.