Monday 29 October 2018

Questions about Spiritual Authority

Over the last month or so, my reading and writing for my PhD has centred around a theme of spiritual authority. In particular, I have begun to look closely at women of Europe in the thirteenth century to explore where their spiritual authority came from, the barriers that prevented their spiritual authority and how they managed to express their spiritual authority in this time and place. It has been interesting reading and I am not sure how I would have coped if I was in their shoes.

It has also raised a lot of questions that can be asked in any time and place. Where does spiritual authority come from? What causes us to give others authority in our life? How much is spiritual authority external to ourselves and can it be internal? Do we doubt our own spiritual authority and is it even real?

In ministry, I was very aware of the spiritual authority people gave me. From time to time someone would come to chat about an issue in their life. I would listen attentively, offering support where possible, and then the question would come. 'What do you think I should do, Cathie?' I always resisted providing an answer, as I am a great believer that each person has within them the capacity to discern and find a way for their own life. My approach was to ask more questions to help facilitate this process. I did, however, find it a little disturbing that someone might trust my opinion and act upon it simply because of my position and the perceived authority given it. I have heard many stories of church leaders offering their wisdom to their parishioners and it being taken as gospel. I am aware, in an age of uncertainty, this may be comforting, but can also see the huge potential for abuse.
Lovelace from Happy Feet comes to mind!!

In saying this, I know in my own life, that some people hold more spiritual authority for me than others. In my recent decisions and discernment, many people have had something to say about my choices; sometimes positive, sometimes more sceptical. For me, these comments have held differing weight. Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with a person I greatly admire. The way they conduct their life, their 'being', their relationships have been an inspiration to me over the years. You could say I have placed much spiritual authority in this person. The words spoken during our recent conversation were weighty and important to me.

So, arising from my own experience and my reading of women in the thirteenth century, I wonder what it takes for us to trust our own inner authority? How do we recognise and know God working in our lives? Other people do play a role in our discernment. How do we decide who to trust?

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Need an excuse to be still?

I just sat for twenty minutes in silence and stillness in my garden and the time passed quickly and I don't feel guilty. Can't find the time to meditate? Feel guilty if you spend a few moments for yourself? Is your mind always thinking about the next thing that needs doing? Well, I may have a solution for you - for this week at least.

This week is the Aussie Backyard Bird Count and I thought I would get involved. There's an app for it that you can download for free. It times you for twenty minutes, while you sit in your garden and watch for birds. You record the birds that you see on the app. It even helps you identify them, if you are not a bird expert (I was very grateful for this). It is super easy to use and you are doing your little bit for science.

I don't find it hard to meditate or sit still for a period of time, but I know others do. This was such a simple, meditative act, but I can see for a more task-oriented person, it would be one way to slow down and feel like there was a purpose to it. As I sat, I became very aware of every flit and flutter around me. I noticed how quickly birds move, how many fly overhead and how noisy they can be. My eyes were opened, not only to the activity of the birds, but to my own presence in the garden. 

When the timer stopped and I was prompted to submit my results, I was surprised how the twenty minutes had passed so quickly. The dishwasher was still waiting to be unpacked, the emails were still there to be answered, the to-do list hadn't gone anywhere and life continued. I wonder if I do this every day this week, if it could become a habit? We shouldn't need the excuse of an app or a project in which to contribute to see the benefit of the quiet, still moments. Sometimes, however, we need to experience something before we are convinced.

I hope that some of you Aussie readers might find twenty minutes to sit in your garden this week and perhaps it could become a regular thing.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Beyond "Us" and "Them"?

Too many things!!! There is a lot to get angry about in the news at the moment. Domestic violence, atrocious treatment of refugees in detention, discrimination of LGBTIQ people in our schools, the #metoo campaign and the list goes on. I try not to read too many of the comments on social media, as this only fuels my despair and rage.

I must say, that it is not only the injustice of these situations that makes my blood boil, but a deeper sense of disturbance. I have read enough and lived enough to know that our natural tendency as humans is to find a tribe, a place to belong. I do feel, however, that there is a rise in dualism and tribalism. There is much uncertainty in our society and what better way to feel safe and secure than find a group we identify with and who will watch our back. When we can identify who the "us" and the "them" are, we know where we fit, we know where we belong.

People who are passionate about a cause will naturally band together to try and make a difference. Be it exposing violence against women, protecting religious freedoms, advocating for LGBTIQ people, enforcing border control, showing compassion for refugees; whenever a "tribe" is formed there is the potential to fall into an "us" and "them" mentality. Groups and movements fighting for a cause, can quickly become an angry mob defending their patch.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is an integral place for coming together to support a cause, for advocacy of the vulnerable in our community and getting angry at the injustice in our world. I do feel, however, that when we take our eyes of that focus, and it becomes more about protecting the group, perhaps we fall into the trap of stroking the communal ego rather than living out our true purpose.

My hope in all of this is that we can find another way; a way that is embedded in love and doesn't react out of our own fears. I don't anticipate it is an easy way. There will always be conflict and differing opinions. I often wonder if it is possible, in our humanity, to find a way that does not divide. But what would it look like to live within the paradox of life, navigating our way through the joy and suffering of differences without resorting to violence and devaluing of the other? Maybe I am just imagining utopian dreams, but I do have a hope that we are better than this.

The closest I have come to even touching this possibility is through living a contemplative life. Through stillness, silence and being present, I find myself in the best possible position to live an authentic life centred on the Ground of our Being. As James Finley said, "I cannot make moments of nondual consciousness happen. I can only assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by grace." 

Saturday 6 October 2018

Sing like never before

My introduction to up-front ministry and worship leading came some 30 years ago. Our congregation, at the time, was mostly singing from the one hymn book and a small group of us had learnt some new songs at church camps. We asked the minister if we could teach some to the congregation, and so began our music group. It began modestly with a keyboard, guitar, clarinet and myself singing. 

Song has always been a large part of my faith journey. As a youngster, I watched my parents throw themselves into the annual Sunday School anniversary production, my dad often taking on lead roles. I was in a Junior Choir that practiced before church and often performed pieces as part of worship. When we left that church to emigrate to Australia, the one gift I remember was the cassette tape of the congregation singing our favourite hymns and songs.

Music has been integral to how I express and understand my faith journey throughout the years. I must admit, however, that in the last decade or so, as my understanding of God and faith have changed, worship songs have become a difficulty for me. Many of the old favourites I used to sing with gusto, I find hard to stomach now. The lyrics grate and use language that is no longer part of my vocabulary in expressing my own faith. Choosing hymns each week became a constant battle. Can I, with integrity, sing this song now? But what about the people? They love this one.

I no longer lead singing from the front. Life has lead me in different directions with how I serve, but I was taken back to my love for singing during the week. On Thursday, I was at the Dayspring teaching day and one of the students led our morning prayer with a song. It is one some of you may know, "10 000 Reasons", written by Matt Redman and Jonas Myrin. Its a song I have experienced a few times in worship, and I actually find the words unifying. I can sing this song! It has a great melody. My more Pentecostal, evangelical friends seem to love it and I can sing the lyrics without cringing.

As it was played to us, we were invited to join in. We are only a small group of about 15, and I found that my familiarity with the song and confidence in singing took me back to those days of standing up the front leading. Although I have sung this song a few times before, one line struck me that morning. "Sing like never before, O my soul". It immediately took me to all those Psalms that start with "sing to God a new song" (Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144). As I stood there singing, being drawn back to experiences of 30 years before, I reflected on how far the journey had taken me. I reflected on the "song" I was singing now. This new song has found a new life in me, a new joy, a new melody. I am finding a voice, rediscovering words and music notes that have been waiting beneath the surface. It is like a "waking up". And so, as I sang those words, "sing like never before", I actually felt that was happening. This is a new song, that has never been sung.