Form and Substance

The Resources

There’s been a lot of nothing happening in my inner space since my enneagram retreat last year – not completely nothing, because the retreat brought up a lot of things to process – but for a long, long time, I have been a gatherer of all kinds of things. Ideas, images, experiences, metaphors, perspectives, concepts, insights, connections…all of these rich sources of input and I collected them together to mull and exclaim over, to reflect upon and wrestle with and eventually synthesise and share. I did this with much delight, usually, and more recently, just occasionally with a slight tinge of desperation, as if the search for information and resources for growth were driving me more than the desire for the actual growth itself.

On the retreat, I was told that as that creative drive was part of my personality, if I wanted to grow I had to stop being creative. At the time my response was that I can’t. I need to be creative for my work. It’s how I work, it’s what I love about work. I can’t stop.

And I may have been right about that, as I have not chosen to stop my usual pattern of immersing myself in diverse resources, following up, reflecting, researching and gathering – but it has stopped. At first I felt a bit scared. Who am I, what do I have to offer if I’m not making creative connections, if I’m not engaging with fascinating, beautiful resources to share and show to others? Is there anything worth sharing beneath all of that?

Is this a pause while I find a non-driven way to engage with information and make insightful connections? I guess we’ll see.

Pause to reflect

What’s the one thing that you don’t think you can stop doing in the way that you approach life/work? What do you imagine would happen to you if all your energy and interest in that just dried up and fell away? Who would you be without it?

And so what next?

It just happened that one day this week when my morning guided meditation video had ended, youtube offered me a talk by Brian McLaren to watch next. I first came across Brian over ten years ago when I read one of his earliest books, A New Kind of Christian. He is one of the staff at the Centre for Action and Contemplation, and I really enjoy listening to him being interviewed…but until this week I hadn’t really been jazzed to listen to him ‘monologuing’. But I’m in this weird space where I’m not really jazzed to listen to anything, however since I was taking time to do some stretching I just let youtube play.

And it’s a good talk. He’s addressing a group of preachers in St Aldate’s (Oxford, I am guessing). He’s talk is called ‘worship that destroys (and saves)’. You can listen to the whole thing here, it’s just shy of an hour long, including the Q&A, but if you don’t have time for that, here are the highlights:

  • In the first ten minutes Brian reflects on how for the last 500 years Christians have gathered for weekly worship while the planet has been pillaged and plundered, poisoned and polluted. Our preachers have been giving the message that God doesn’t really care about THIS world, and that attending worship on Sunday has no bearing on things like slave ownership and economic gain from exploitation. Then in the next three minutes he reflects on church gatherings as ‘weapons of mass distraction’ as we argue about music and doctrines and miss what’s really important.

Then he says this: “I came into ministry so that I could deal with the most important realities in the world. I didn’t want to be an entertainer, or to help religious people have a nice experience for an hour every week”. Oh. Amen.

  • At minute 13 he mentions the year 1452. Do you know what happened then? I didn’t. Pope Nicholas V made a decree “Go into all the world, invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Muslims and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and also their kingdoms…possessions and all moveable and immovable goods whatsoever held by them. And reduce their persons to perpetual slavery”. Gulp.
  • At minute 18 he recognises that Christianity has a history of seeing oceans, mountains, soil, air, human lives all having value only in terms of money…these slaves are living beings but they are ‘as good as gold‘. Quote from Christopher Columbus. Did you know that’s where this phrase came from? For me, it is now relegated to the same unspeakable dung heap as ‘rule of thumb’.
  • There’s a lovely story of Brian’s grandfather at minute 23, responding to young Brian’s question about what happens when all the oil runs out. Tragic pathos.

“Worship that puts God on our side as the chosen people and therefore creates a sense of spiritual elitism, religious supremacy and excessive unreflective confidence destroys the world because it gives us permission to dominate, exclude and seek our own interest even to the harm of other humans and other living creatures.”

  • The next section reflects on the dualisms that allow us to separate and mistreat others. At minute 30 he asks, how much responsibility do preachers have to take for perpetuating the ongoing issues of prejudice, toxic masculinity and bureaucratic patriarchy through our preaching, songs, prayers and liturgies? This is something I have really struggled with because people seem very attached to their songs, images and language about God and resist and resent my gentlest attempts at changing them.
  • At minute 35: so much of Christian ministry is trying to attract a crowd…which is looking for a certain feeling…and your sermon should just be sure not to mess up the good feeling that the music creates. This made me laugh…sad and true!!
  • 40 minutes in, Brian is still listing the kinds of worship that are helping to keep us complacently destroying the planet and praying for a miracle to save us in the nick of time, and recognising the power of money (the donor is Lord). Chances are good that he’s covered most of what happens on Sunday mornings pretty much everywhere in the world.

We are transformed into the image of that which we worship

Dallas Willard
  • In conclusion, it’s clear that Sunday by Sunday the image of God that’s being celebrated in song and prayer and sermon is an image which, if we’re being transformed into its likeness, we’ll become more and more destructive.
  • Lastly, at about minute 42, there’s a story about a church service Brian was invited to preach at which exemplifies what he means about the song lyrics reflecting an image of God and humans which is formational. It’s kind of funny.
  • Finally, at minute 44 he recognises that people who leave church and are then formed, not by bad worship, but by facebook and twitter, by advertising and political leaders or ideologies doesn’t lead to a better place. We have to imagine a kind of worship which can save the world. Where every element of every experience of worship aims to transform us in the spirit of justice, joy and peace.
  • He ends with…. Greta Thunberg…check out what he says at minute 45…and then with imagining what it would be like if all the white men who lead our Christian denominations issued a call to creative disruption. Improvise, create and adapt! Be fresh and bold! And what if, in response, preachers offered to lend our voices ‘to the movement of people who are taking this moment seriously’.

I’d LOVE to hear what you make of his talk and where it ends.

Lectio Divina

I think in part this sparked off some reflection in me because one of the lectionary readings for this week is this:

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?

For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.

For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building. 

And once I’m over the hump of that flesh/spirit dichotomy, I notice the mention of quarrelling and jealousy in the church…here we go again with the distractions, distinctions and divisions, and again we miss the point, miss the Spirit…. and then I wonder what is being planted, what is being built?

But before I get too abstract, Brene Brown will bring us back down to earth, with this 20 minute interview about her latest book, Anatomy of the Heart. In the conversation, she talks about how most people have three feelings they are able to identify and name, and also about how important it is that we have a wider range of awareness and of words at our fingertips, and that we can tell the difference between, for example, stress and overwhelm, anxiety and excitement. Especially interesting for us, there’s a bit about jealousy as one of those misunderstood emotions – confused with envy. Lastly, there’s a short bit on near and far enemies of different feeling states. I’m sure I won’t do it justice here, so have a listen and see what connects for you. (minute 15 or so, if you are short on time).

The practices

Reflect and notice

How do you nurture the good stuff that is planted? How do you weed out the stuff that’s formed/forming you into a destructive pattern?

How do we help each other in that, and how do we do that as ‘worship’? Sorry, can’t type that without the inverted commas yet – what do you notice about your responses to the idea and practice of worship and how it is formative for you?

Trust Love

This is a beautiful short video about forgiveness and authenticity – what touches you in Nick’s story?

What can you take to plant within you, or to build on what you already have?

How are you practicing trusting in Love, and being Love, as Nick says?

Planting and building – the preps

Both of these are creative actions which require preparation and ongoing attention. In a garden there is clearing out of weeds and stones, the addition of compost and elements to increase the soil’s fertility to nurture the seeds and protect them from pests or infections. This part isn’t much fun but it is essential.

Choose a patch of garden to prepare for planting, and as you work in it, bring all of your attention to this aspect of the project. Listen to the sound of your tool working in the earth. Listen to your breathing, smell the aromas of the earth, observe the shades and textures, the creatures you encounter, listen to the earth as you dig, turn and loosen.

I’m not much of a builder, so if that’s more your thing than gardening, please do some appropriate prepping activity with the same mindful attention as the gardening practice.

You can also do this with dinner preparation if you are neither gardener nor builder. What else can you approach with this kind of attention to preparation? .

How does this quality of attention affect the task, or your perceptions of the task?

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