Growing Towards God Upcoming Series

Water, Wind, Earth and Fire

Second Tuesday of the month September 2013 – May 2014
with Nancy Phillips

Water, wind, earth, fire

Join us in an exploration of the Christian practice of praying with the elements and learn how this practice can enliven our spiritual lives.  Creation itself is a sacred text through which the presence of God is revealed to us.  Using study materials from Christine Valters Paintner’s book:  Water, Wind, Earth and Fire:  The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements we will cultivate a more contemplative relationship to God through the natural world.

Sessions run from 6:30 to 8:30 pm
For those who wish to come earlier, join us for a brown bag supper at 6 pm.
Coffee and tea provided.
Find out more!

In the Storm

Point Pelee
Our Our city-dwelling culture often leaves us with a sense of disconnectedness from nature as a way of understanding God.

When I was a young girl, my parents used to take us to visit my father’s step-sister’s cottage on the shores of Lake Erie at Point Pelee. Although my mother recalls spending a lot of time cooking and cleaning while at the cottage, I harbour many happy memories of those visits. A trip to Point Pelee was always a feast for the senses: the scent of forest, the sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore, the sting of sand on my face during a windy walk to the end of the sand spit, the beautiful surroundings of nature – water and sand, forest and open beach and the view of miles of marsh from many trips down the boardwalk. And, of course, to get there one had to travel through Leamington where the scent of tomatoes often emanated from the Heinz factory. We knew our destination was close when we could smell the tomatoes!

Our days were filled with happy summertime activity. But at night I often felt quite frightened. At night the darkness would settle in like a thick blanket. It was so much darker than in the city. When I awoke at night I would be frightened by darkness so thick that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. To comfort myself, I often imagined that angels were standing beside my bed. I carried on lovely conversations with those angels and I always felt at peace after my encounters with the angels.

Point Pelee was a place where thunderstorms seemed to have a particular fury. We would feel the heaviness of the air and see the looming dark clouds as we anticipated the coming storm. The winds would buffet the trees around the cottage and the waves would crash noisily on the shore. The cottage had a screened front porch. This provided a perfect vantage point – front row seats — from which you could sit and watch the spectacular unfolding of God’s fury. The thunder and lightning would be intense and I would feel the rain sift in through the screen in a fine mist that landed on my face. The porch always seemed like a safe haven from the raging storm outside. After the storm the air would smell fresh and fragrant and a sense of peace would settle over the forest surrounding us.

Our Our city-dwelling culture often leaves us with a sense of disconnectedness from nature as a way of understanding God. This loss can prevent us from experiencing a revelation of God rooted in the natural order. Scripture contains many examples of an experience of God through nature. Mark 4:35-41 describes a stormy experience the disciples had on the lake in a boat. They called out to Jesus in their fear and Jesus calmed the storm for them. There are times in our lives when we feel as though we have been caught in the midst of a great storm, buffeted by life’s unexpected turns. In her book Water, Wind, Earth and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements, Christine Valters Paintner reminds us that although the elements offer us much beauty to contemplate, they also offer us an opportunity to meditate on the challenges of our lives and times of suffering when the firm foundation we have come to rely upon is shaking and crumbling.

Storms are an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Storms can cause us to question our understanding of who God is and how God works in the world. The winds that come to blow us in a new direction , Paintner says, are not always welcome. Paintner stresses that the scripture teaches us that it is important to continue to wrestle with God and to bring our pain before our Creator.

God is present in the midst of the storms of our life.

God is present in the midst of the storms of our life. We must continue to listen for the sacred presence in the midst of the whirlwind of life. Remaining attentive to our discomfort in the storms of life allows us to experience God breathing through creation and touching our pain as a gentle mist falling in the midst of storm. Be patient in the storms of your life. God will be present in the fury and in the fragrant quietness that follows.

Join us in an exploration of the Christian practice of praying with the elements and learn how this practice can enliven our spiritual lives as we cultivate a more contemplative relationship to God through the natural world, in the upcoming Growing Towards God Fall Series: Water, Wind, Earth and Fire.

Find out more…

Action!

an article by Nancy Phillips
from the February 2012 edition of the Rupertsland News

If our spiritual practices are not grounded in the stuff of our everyday lives,
all of this thinking and praying becomes meaningless.

Over the past while, I’ve written much about contemplative practices, prayer, deepening our spirituality, connecting with God and seeing reality from a different perspective. But if these practices and new ways of experiencing God are not grounded in the stuff of our everyday lives, all of this thinking and praying becomes meaningless.

It has been said that human beings are the only creatures who have been created with the faculty of reflection.  We are able to raise our experience to consciousness.  Rocks and sand may also have experiences but no ability to reflect.  In reflecting on our experiences we begin to realize that we are not only created, but also creators.   In reflecting upon our experiences, we find our purpose.

Our purpose is rooted in our relationship to God. The work of spirituality is to rejoin the one.  God is one.

Our purpose is rooted in our relationship to God.  The work of spirituality is to rejoin the one.  God is one.  Thomas Merton, a modern contemplative, discovered in his reflections that people are inseparable from God and from one another.  In becoming aware of this unity in God with all peoples, Merton had a deep experience of nondualism.  He found that he could not separate God from God’s creation, but also could not separate contemplation from concern for, and engagement in, the needs and problems of the age in which he lived.  God became incarnate and this created a bridge between divine and earthly.

Mature religion, Rohr says, involves changing ourselves and letting ourselves be changed by a mysterious encounter with grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

Our ability to reflect allows us to become aware of our experience of life at the level of ordinary consciousness – a kind of “one thing at a time awareness”.  But our reflective ability also allows us to center ourselves in the midst of an unconscious awareness at both the personal level and the collective level.  Getting to know God begins with getting to know yourself.   Richard Rohr reminds us in his book, The Naked Now, that only transformed people have the power to transform others, as if by osmosis.  Usually, he says, you can lead others only as far as you yourself have gone.  Too often we try to push, intimidate, threaten, cajole, and manipulate others.  It seldom works, because that is not the way the soul works.  In the presence of whole people; or any encounter with Holiness Itself, we simply find that, after a while, we are different – and much better!   Mature religion, Rohr says, involves changing ourselves and letting ourselves be changed by a mysterious encounter with grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

Use your imagination to create the world God is calling us to live into.  And then move — breathe life into your images of hope and healing and wholeness.

God has given us a new consciousness in what we call “prayer” and an utterly unexpected, maybe even unwanted, explanation in what we call “the cross”.  Part of that new consciousness involves using our faculty of imagination as a first step in creating a better world.  We see imagination being used to span the reality between heaven and earth in the New Testament book of Revelation – in John’s description of images while on the Isle of Patmos.  Great artists create visual images using the faculty of imagination.  The visual images artists create are a bridge between their inner world of image and form and colour and the outer world of art medium – paint and clay.  The images they create are a bridge between inside and outside – materiality injected with spirit.  Images are messengers – angels perhaps – places we have forgotten about.

Use your imagination to create the world God is calling us to live into.  And then move — breathe life into your images of hope and healing and wholeness.

All of this reflecting about image and imagination, the tension between inner and outer is rooted and grounded in our relationship with Christ.  This relationship is described by William Barry as being analogous to the kind of friendship that develops over a long time between two people. They are aware of each other even when they are apart or not engaging directly with each other. Although they may not be talking, at some deep level they are in touch with each other. Ignatius’s idea of contemplative-in-action has such a relationship with God. Engaging closely with God over time, we allow the Spirit to transform us into people who are more like the images of God we are created to be—that is, more like Jesus, who was clearly a contemplative-in-action.

The first step in creating a better world is imagining a better world.  We must spend time on the bridge of our imagination and be open to the energy God is creating to move us to action.  Use your imagination to create the world God is calling us to live into.  And then move — breathe life into your images of hope and healing and wholeness.

We are made holy
by our recognition
of God in us.
God is in all and everything.
But the reality of
God’s presence
only comes about
through human recognition.
Ah then!
We have the power
to sacralize the world.  

By Edwina Gateley; There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996).

If you would like to find out more about contemplation and action, please join us tomorrow for Tools for Responding to God: Reaching Outthe last session in the series Growing towards God,  facilitated by Nancy Phillips.

Becoming Whole Again

from the January, 2012 Rupertsland News article by Nancy Phillips

So here we are at the beginning of another calendar year.  We face that time of the winter when the long, cold darkness spreads out before us without even a hint that Spring will show its face again one day.  This new beginning provides us with an opportunity to reflect and re-think the way we engage with life.  Our New Year’s resolutions may involve a re-directing of our intentions in prayer or spiritual development.

The beginning of a new year provides a good opportunity to reflect on the different ways we engage with our inner selves.  We may have fed our souls by trying some new styles of prayer, fed our minds by trying a different way of studying scripture, such as lectio divina, or tapped into a new way of uncovering our inner spaces through techniques such as journaling.  But we may not have thought of our bodies as an important source of information which may assist in our transformation.

To be a “whole” person, we need to be “healed” in all dimensions of our being – body, mind, heart and spirit.

Our bodies are an incredible storehouse of information about our past history and this information can either aid or hinder our inner growth.  The experience of psychological or physical trauma can deeply affect our ability to live freely as our authentic selves and result in our living a shame-based life.  Maureen Conroy, a Roman Catholic religious and Spiritual Director, explains that we are created in wholeness and for wholeness.  Our journey through life is to reconnect with our original wholeness, our authentic self, our child-like innocence. To be a “whole” person, we need to be “healed” in all dimensions of our being – body, mind, heart and spirit.  Every life issue and experience, positive and negative, Conroy teaches, lives in our body – our issues are in our tissues.  Our body is our closest companion in life – the part of ourselves that we may experience as being the most “real”.  Conroy says our bodies – our tissues, fluids, cells, nervous system and brain – absorb emotional, psychological and physical trauma and pain that is too overwhelming for our psyche to carry on its own.

Suffering can make us bitter and close us down or it can make us wise, compassionate and utterly open.

Richard Rohr, in his book, The Naked Now says that the two universal and prime paths of transformation , great love and great suffering, are the primary spiritual teachers.  Great suffering occurs when things happen against our will.  Over time we can learn to give up our defended state, although, Rohr says, we will inevitably go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, resignation and (hopefully) on to acceptance.   Rohr explains that our suffering might feel wrong, terminal, absurd, unjust, impossible, physically painful, or just outside of our comfort zone.  But if we don’t have a proper attitude toward suffering, we can’t transform our pain.  If we don’t transform our pain, we can transmit it to those around us and even to the next generation.  Suffering can make us bitter and close us down or it can make us wise, compassionate and utterly open. Rohr says we should pray for the grace of this path of softening and opening to God.  Our experiences of struggling with our shadow self, facing interior conflicts and moral failures, undergoing rejection and abandonment, daily humiliations, experiencing abuse or any form of limitation are all gateways into deeper consciousness and the flowering of the soul.

The long cold days of winter invite us to look inward.  You may want to spend some time focussed on prayer that engages with your body.  The following exercise may be helpful in bringing about awareness of your body and areas that may be in need of God’s healing grace.

As you pray, experience healing from God that brings freedom from suffering and leaves you feeling empowered and healthy.

  • Enter into a quiet space and become aware of your breath – exhale fears and anxieties and inhale God’s loving spirit
  • Be aware of sensations in your body by slowly scanning various parts of your body from your skull to your feet.  Allow your awareness and your breath to soften tight muscles and anxious thoughts.
  • See yourself in your truest and deepest essence – whole, free, joyful, living life to the fullest.  Savour and experience yourself in your divine essence, your wholeness
  • Visualize yourself at a certain period in your life.  Invite God’s healing light to flow gently into that period of your life, healing traumatic experiences, any form of abuse, emotional neglect, painful encounters with another and so on.
  • Place one of your palms on your abdomen and the other on your chest.  Feel yourself grounded in your body.  Intend for God’s healing light to flow into your body, your mind, your heart and your spirit.
  • Be aware of and feel divine healing energy flowing into painful feelings and attitudes toward yourself that may have developed such as shame, self-hatred or low self-esteem
  • Place your healing hands on other parts of your body and being as you feel drawn to do so, allowing God’s love and light to flow.
  • Visualize Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit, surrounding you with love and light.  Feel God’s unconditional love seeping into your core.

You may wish to enter into this prayer experience for inner healing daily for several consecutive days or on a weekly basis for several months.  As you pray, experience healing from God that brings freedom from suffering and leaves you feeling empowered and healthy.  May God’s love surround you always.

Nancy Phillips 

Interested in learning more? Please join us tomorrow night for Tools for Responding to God’s Presence: Reaching In, session 4 of the Growing towards God series, Introduction to Spirituality. We will explore the differences between guilt and shame and introduce the Welcoming Prayer as a tool for deepening our awareness of God’s presence dwelling within us. An opportunity will be provided to engage with Body Prayer as a tool for healing.

Responding to God’s Presence: Reaching In

The Fourth Session in the St. John’s Educational Series Growing towards God
with Nancy Phillips, Facilitator
Tuesday, January 10th from 6 pm to 8 pm
Brown Bag Supper at 5:30 pm (optional)

Opening Yourself Up to the Gift of Jesus Christ

What I really long for at this time of year is an opportunity to open my heart more completely to the gift of God incarnate —
the arrival of the Christ child.

Each year, I promise myself that I will plan my Christmas season in such a way that I will have enough time to create an Advent focus.  The pull of shopping and social events, plans for family get togethers and promises to friends that we will connect soon, get lost in a frenzy of activity.  What I really long for at this time of year is an opportunity to open my heart more fully and more completely to the gift of God incarnate — the arrival of the Christ child.

But when I stop to think about it, this is exactly the space into which the paradoxical nature of God’s gift to us has the greatest impact.  We long for peace, but instead experience busy, hectic lives.  We long for love but instead experience guilt over not contributing to more charities or making more time available for friends and family.  We long for joy but instead experience the grief of unfulfilled longings.

In his book, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr reminds us that reality is paradoxical.  Everything is a clash of contradictions, and there is nothing on this created earth that is not a mixture at the same time of good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, endearing and maddening, living and dying.  Rohr says Jesus came to teach us about life and about ourselves.  Jesus is the very template of total paradox:  human yet divine, heavenly yet earthly, physical yet spiritual, possessing a male body yet a female soul, killed yet alive, powerless yet powerful, victim yet victor, failure yet redeemer, marginalized yet central, singular yet everyone, incarnate yet cosmic, nailed yet liberated, resolving the great philosophical problem of the one and the many.  Rohr points out that all statements and beliefs about Jesus are also statements about the journey of the soul (birth, chosenness, ordinary life, initiation, career, misunderstanding and opposition, failure, death in several forms, resurrection, and return to God).    Each one of us must learn to live with paradox, Rohr says, or we cannot live peacefully or happily even a single day of our lives.

a sincere inner journey opens us to know in a deeply personal way the mystery of Jesus Christ

To engage in a sincere inner journey opens us to know in a deeply personal way the mystery of Jesus Christ, not just to believe or prove this knowledge in a factual or scientific way.  If we become engaged with this way of knowing from a mystical sense, we can learn how to face and hold the contradictions, and even weep and laugh over them as we gradually become larger “holding tanks” for the contradictions and paradox in our lives.

This ability to hold together the contradictions in our lives and to create an openness or hospitality to the gift of Jesus Christ, born as a tiny baby yet Saviour of the world, is part of the transformation that happens when we are intentional about our journey of faith.

Ignatian prayer

The purpose of Ignatian prayer is to try to make the Gospel and Scripture scenes become so real to us that we can make a personal application of the teaching.

In the past while, the community of St. John’s Cathedral has been inviting us to explore spirituality and ways of growing and deepening our walk with God.  Another tool that we can use to develop our inner space is Ignatian prayer.  The purpose of Ignatian prayer is to try to make the Gospels and the Scripture scenes become so alive and real to us that we can make a personal application of the teaching or message contained within.

During Ignatian prayer we try to use all five senses as we project ourselves back, during an imaginary journey, to the events of Jesus’ life. We try to participate fully in the scene and draw some practical fruit for application to our present day situation.  If this experience of the life of Jesus is alive and real enough, we can experience spiritual healing.

So here is a prayer exercise to help you prepare to receive the gift of the Christ child:

  • Read Luke 2:1-20.  You may wish to choose a shorter section of this passage to focus on.
  • Place yourself in the scene and become a part of it.  Use your imagination to recreate the passage you’ve just read.  What would you notice about the manger scene?  What would it feel like to lay on the straw?  What would it smell like? Uses your senses as much as possible to experience the scene fully.
  • Observe the various characters in the scene.  What are they saying?  What are they doing?  What emotions, responses do you notice within yourself as you experience the scene?
  • When you are finished with the scene, take a few moments to be quiet and experience any new insights that might have come to you.  Are you being called to make any changes in your life as a result of this experience?

May this new way of inviting Christ into the midst of your celebrations be transformational.  If you would like an opportunity to explore more of your inner longing to be transformed by God’s presence in your life, please join us at St. John’s Cathedral, December 6th at 6:00 PM.

Wait.  Be still.   Watch.   Awake.  
Words of madness spoken
into a city alight 
with yuletide.  Restless 
drivers, exhaust rising 
like some toxic incense.  
Hurry on to the next 
Mall, party, obligation, 
Have another drink, chocolate-
coated, and exhausted. 
No.  The horizon holds
a promise.  Time, history 
and all creation groans.  
Too great for containment
in packages. Hidden, 
safe, within the frayed 
fabric of a tired world.  
Slow.  Breath catches deep in 
lungs.  “I am coming soon.” 
Soon.  Lights switch from red to 
green.  We all inch forward.  

Jamie Howison, from Beautiful Mercy: A Book of Hours, saint benedict’s table (2010)

Growing towards God: tools for listening to God

this article is from the Rupertsland News

If we are to begin to open up and uncover the parts of ourselves that long to connect with God, this requires prayer.

In our exploration of spirituality over the next while, it seemed appropriate to begin with some tools for listening to God.  If we are to begin to open up and uncover the parts of ourselves that long to connect with God, this requires prayer.  Talking about prayer can stir up a variety of emotions.  We may feel that we are not very good at praying, probably most of us would feel that we don’t do enough praying, and many of us may feel that we’re never sure if our prayers are getting “through the roof” – actually reaching the intended target of communicating with God.   And when we pray, is it one-way communication – us speaking the longings of our heart to God?  Or is prayer an opportunity for God to speak to us?  How much of our prayer should be speaking and how much should be listening?

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The Fire Within

Spirituality is about God’s longing to be present to us.
We become aware of who we are in the context of our relationship with a loving God.

Have you ever had an experience that you might have described as a “spiritual experience”? What was it about this experience that caused you to believe it was spiritual in nature? What impact did the experience have on you? How did this experience shape your sense of God and God’s presence in your life?

These are questions that focus on an element of our practice as Christians that seems locked in the realm of otherworldliness. You may not see yourself as a very spiritual person and a spiritual experience may have left you feeling puzzled, or perhaps unnerved. It’s also possible that these experiences might leave you with a feeling of deep peace and a sense of connectedness to God.

The term “spirituality” seems to be something we are hearing more about these days. In the past 10 or 20 years, there has been an explosion of interest in the topic, from guests on the Oprah Show to new books on the topic to a surge of interest in Eastern practices such as Yoga and forms of meditation.

The notion of spirituality is often not well understood in our Western culture. We tend to see spirituality as something that might interest only a few, and certainly not something that is in any way connected to our understanding of our practice as Anglicans.

We may see spirituality as something paranormal, other worldly, mystical, New Age-y and on the fringes.
This is a tragic misunderstanding.

We may see spirituality as something paranormal, other worldly, mystical, New Age-y and on the fringes. Yet, Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing says that this is a tragic misunderstanding.

Rolheiser asserts that everyone has to have a spirituality – either a life-giving one or a destructive one. Spirituality, Rolheiser says, concerns what we do with desire. It takes root within us and is all about how we shape and discipline the fire or passion that dwells within us. Spirituality is about what we do with our soul or spirit – the life pulse within us that makes us alive.

A healthy soul, Rolheiser suggests, must do two things for us. First, it must put fire in our veins to keep us energized, vibrant, living with zest, and full of hope as we sense that life is beautiful and worth living. And secondly, a healthy soul must keep us fixed together, to continually give us a sense of who we are, where we came from, where we are going and what sense there is in all of this.

Rolheiser explains that there is a discontent (another word for soul and spirit) in all things and what those things, or persons, do with that discontent is their spirituality.

True spirituality is not a search for perfection or control or the door to the next world;
it is a search for divine union now.

In his most recent book The Naked Now, Richard Rohr explains that much of religion has become a search for social order, group cohesion, and personal worthiness, or a way of escaping into the next world, which unfortunately destroys most of its transformative power. True spirituality, Rohr says, is not a search for perfection or control or the door to the next world; it is a search for divine union now. The great discovery, Rohr tells us, is that what we are searching for has already been given. Spirituality is about God’s longing to be present to us. We become aware of who we are in the context of our relationship with a loving God. Christian spirituality is about our own inner transformation as we become more and more present in our relationship to God. Rohr refers to it as falling into and undergoing God. Spirituality is a new level of awareness within ourselves of God’s presence and action in the innermost parts of our being.

As we grow into adulthood, our minds become more complex and preoccupied with day to day details. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, explains that we spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with a natural intimacy with God deep within us. Tools such as Centering Prayer or Christian meditation help us to withdraw from the demands of daily life and listen again to the presence of God deep within us. We need to move beyond ordinary awareness to a deeper sense of connection with the Source of our being. This allows us to become more and more transformed into the person God knows us to be – our True Selves. Bourgeault refers to this as a case of mistaken identity: the person we normally take ourselves to be – the busy, anxious “I” so preoccupied with goals, fears, desires and issues – is never even remotely the whole of who we are.

Do you have a longing to explore this deeper connection with God? As part of the Growing towards God series, Introduction to Spirituality will run for five sessions, beginning in October and finishing up just before Lent. This will be an opportunity to explore and develop some tools for listening to God and deepening our awareness of God at work within us and the ways in which God may be calling us to respond to the world around us. Please join us for what promises to be a lively growing experience!

The Naked Now, by Richard Rohr
The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser

Education: re-evaluating our life’s direction

Stepping off the treadmill

This time of resting seemed to me to be stepping out into an unknown wilderness. It was a feeling of wandering, not really sure where I was going, not being able to see the end point, but knowing that I must take that step or risk the consequences…

This past spring I found myself feeling quite tired – and cranky. I’m learning that it’s important to pay attention to these feelings within ourselves. I had experienced a lot of major changes at work with a new regional director, new ways of doing things, new approaches, and all of this on top of an enormously heavy workload. My job of caring for the staff who care for the patients in health care is often an area that is underfunded and unrecognized. And so I found myself feeling tired – and cranky. I felt as though I was at a crossroads in my career without any idea what the next step was. I decided to take some time off and rest. I thought I would just take a few days, perhaps a week or two, but my doctor, in his wisdom, suggested I take at least a month. And so I found myself stepping off the treadmill of work and facing an extended time of rest – foreign territory for me!

In this post…

Read more from Nancy
Helpful book suggestions

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A New Way of Thinking About Church: Conclusion

God provides for our needs, feeding us with whatever nourishment we need and are most ready for.
In the Stage of Simplicity, God feeds us with clear and easy answers. In Complexity and Perplexity, God gives us questions, paradoxes, mysteries that our old categories couldn’t handle. In the Stage of Harmony, we receive the rest in the experience of silence in surrendering and experiencing a Yes to God.

McLaren concluded his series of talks on the 4 Stages of spiritual or faith development by explaining that there is always a risk of cramming all of life into artificial constructs.  But McLaren feels that this examination of different stages helps us to understand the doubts that we go through.

McLaren says that each time we move through a developmental stage in our spiritual growth, we experience doubt.  It’s much like a young child, he explained, who becomes cranky when they reach the point of almost moving to the next stage of development – of growing from sitting to crawling or from crawling to standing.  It’s a point of discomfort that leaves us uneasy.  Many groups or cults may respond to this feeling of doubt that we have by inviting us back into a permanent Stage 1 – back to following the orders of the leader who’s needs may be best served by having everyone in the group conform.   Parachurch organizations, McLaren explains, often specialize in certain stages and when we are not in that stage, they don’t have much to offer.

We need more Stage 4 leaders, McLaren pleads, who have become better at knowing how to lead Stage 1, 2 and 3 Christians and who can speak the language of simplicity. The apostle Paul spoke of himself “becoming all things to all people in order that I may liberate some”.

McLaren poses the question:  “How can we learn to help or minister to people in these various stages?”

McLaren poses the question:  “How can we learn to help or minister to people in these various stages?”  He explores the practices of Jesus as Master Teacher – able to meet people where they are, but bring them further on in their journey; providing clear instructions, but always allowing room to question and to doubt.  The goal isn’t to rush people through stages;  there are lessons to learn at each stage.  People can’t move on until they are ready and leaders need to be equipped to assist more people at more levels.  The formation of a disciple, McLaren reminds us, involves learning and growing throughout life.

McLaren addressed the concern of some people at the constriction of the notion of linear stages.  But McLaren explained we could conceptualize the stages as being like the growth rings on a tree.  New growth doesn’t replace old growth, it just expands it and develops and matures the tree further.   As we wander through our life’s wilderness, our path may be a very circuitous one.  We may have different experiences and catch glimpses along the way that something more is possible.  We may move in and out of various stages more than once.  We then need to spend time developing the practises that help us to move on to the next Stage.

McLaren teaches about Jesus’ bold words in John 6:  “I am the bread of life – my flesh for the life of the world”.  This is a bold statement and must have been confusing since some may have understood it as referring to cannibalism.  But McLaren says we should think of this statement about the Body of Christ as being the embodiment of Christ – seeing ourselves as we partake in the Eucharist as taking on the embodiment of Christ.  We feed on Christ in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. McLaren says God provides for our needs, feeding us with whatever nourishment we need and are most ready for.   In the Stage of Simplicity, God feeds us with clear and easy answers. In Complexity and Perplexity, God gives us questions, paradoxes, mysteries that our old categories couldn’t handle.  In the Stage of Harmony, we receive the rest in the experience of silence in surrendering and experiencing a Yes to God.

God has been good to us.  We can ask and expect God to prepare us for the journey and through us to feed others.

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips.
This is the concluding article in the series.

A New Way of Thinking About Church: Part 4

In this continuing series of notes from talks presented at the Refreshing Winds Conference at Canadian Mennonite University by keynote speaker Brian McLaren, we explore Stage 4 of a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.  

McLaren introduced Stage 4 with a photograph of a female snapping turtle that had the plastic ring from a pop bottle around the middle of its shell.  When the turtle was much smaller it had likely swum through this ring which then stuck in place.  As the turtle grew it developed a deformity as its body grew around the constriction of the ring.  All of the turtle’s vital organs and processes had to fit through the constriction of the ring creating a life threatening condition for the turtle.  The turtle was young and continuing to grow.  The plastic ring was snipped and although its body shape remained the same (the shell being made of solid bone), the turtle would now have the possibility of a future, of surviving – everything had changed for the turtle.

McLaren suggested that this was a metaphor for Christians.  In Stages 1 and 2 Christians acquire plastic rings in the development of their faith in the context of a particular culture or religion.  These rings fit perfectly in Stages 1 and 2, but as our questions grow, the constrictive rings threaten our spiritual development.  When the rings are finally snipped, although it may seem insignificant at the moment, the freedom from constriction brings with it new possibilities.   McLaren quotes Richard Rohr:  “Great pain and great love pushes us”.

Stage 4: Harmony/Deepening

The focus on this stage is to regain simplicity – to seek first God’s Kingdom in rediscovering a few grand essentials.

Beyond Stage 3, McLaren states that we enter a state of harmony – a season of deepening.  The focus on this stage is to regain simplicity – to seek first God’s Kingdom in rediscovering a few grand essentials.  Love God, love your neighbour, in essentials, unity.  At this stage, we think about what is wise or unwise, appropriate or inappropriate.  Our motive in this stage is to serve, contribute, make a difference, fulfill our potential.  Stage 4, McLaren explains, is a time of synthesizing what we understand about our faith, using a wholistic frame of reference.  Our beliefs during this stage are that some things are known, many are mysteries.  Life is a quest.  In this stage we see authority figures as people like ourselves – imperfect, sometimes doing their best, sometimes dishonest, sometimes sincerely misguided.  Life is what you make of it, with God’s help.  In Stage 4, a Christian would see God as knowable in part, yet mysterious; present yet transcendent, just yet merciful.  Orthodoxy becomes paradoxy – we become able to hold truths in tension.  In Stage 4, the strengths of previous stages can be integrated and we develop stability, endurance and wisdom.   Harmony becomes the new simplicity, but we see the new simplicity with a sense of the experience of wisdom.  There is a purgation of Stage 3 – we don’t immediately analyze everything as bad or good.  McLaren explains that there is more to see than just throwing things into their categories .

Behold: The practice of seeing

It is important to stop putting people and things into categories and just see them.

Behold is the practice of being able to slowly and deeply see, to see with insight.  McLaren quoted from Richard Rohr’s book, the Naked Now, stating that we need to see as the mystics see.  This involves the ability to dispense with the rush to see things as either good or bad.  Judgements, McLaren says, are often based on what “I want”.  It is important to stop putting people and things into categories and just see them.  McLaren says really seeing is not possible until you’ve been through the deep, dark valley of perplexity.  Categories get challenged and shaken and brought to a new place.

Yes: The practice of joining

yield yourself and surrender to God

McLaren describes this as the natural next step.  It’s a step of surrender or consecration, of joining with God.  He explains, “I stop holding my separateness from God so strongly.  I yield myself and surrender to God.”   The term McLaren uses here is “theosis” or “catching a really bad case of God”.  McLaren uses the example of Steve Bell’s song, Burning Ember – an iron poker left in the fire will eventually take on the nature of the fire.  John Wesley referred to this process as “entire sanctification”.  McLaren points out that when we yield to God in an act of contemplation, we will find ourselves becoming one with God’s action.  Activism arises out of contemplation, the missional life arises out of the contemplative life.

[…]: The practice of being with

it’s a strange kind of prayer, not barraging God with words, but just openness.

The last descriptive word for Stage 4 is actually no word at all – just a deep silence.  In the practice of being with, in the midst of the silence, God and I are.  McLaren describes this as being like two fat people sitting in a boat who keep bumping into each other and laughing – the joy of being alive with God.  McLaren says it’s a strange kind of prayer, not barraging God with words, but just openness.  God is there.

McLaren quotes from Genesis 32 and 33, when Jacob was commanded by God to return to the land of his family after marrying Rachel and Leah.  He begins the journey home, but in fear of Esau’s response to his arrival, he sends gifts ahead of him.  During the night he wrestles with a man and his hip is dislocated.   In the end, his brother Esau welcomes him home and receives him with mercy.  McLaren says Stage 3 feels like a stranger, as if we’ve been mugged in the middle of our life.  If we make it through the struggle, through the night of Stage 3, even though we may have a limp and not feel as strong and confident, we will come out with a blessing.  We will begin to see the face of God in the face of the other, even in the estranged brother or enemy.   When Jacob meets Esau, he says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God now that you have received me favourably”.

McLaren concluded his talk with a prayer: Lord, please snip the rings that hold each of us back from seeing.  Set us free to be with you. 

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips. This is the fourth article in the series.
Up next… the conclusion