Pride (In the name of love) of Lions

Another hangover from ‘church’ and ‘religion’ was my (limited) exposure to churchgoers who struck me as, how can I put this politely? Well, not quite ‘present’. I can’t lay that all at the feet of the church though, as I’ve had plenty of exposure to new-age spiritualists who would spend so much time looking at and chatting with angels and spirit guides to the left and right of my aura, I’d constantly look over my shoulder to see who else was behind me when we had a conversation.

While it seemed quite appropriate for spiritualists to have their ‘head in the clouds’, when it came to Christians it made me think about cults. Blame Karl Marx. All that opiate for the masses stuff. Think of the stereotypes: if you’re sitting in a pew each Sunday, you’ve left your brain out in the glovebox of your car. If you’re a Christian, it’s like you’re believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.  But if you’re a wiccan, or enamoured with Gaia, that’s perfectly acceptable.

Thrown to the lions

I’ve noticed on this journey than non-believers seem to think it’s perfectly OK to challenge Christians on their ‘magical thinking’, yet the same amount of bias rarely appears to be thrown at believers in other faiths, be they historical or new. rc-camera-buggy-meets-a-pride-of-lions-008

Since setting off on this pursuit, I’ve had both funny and hurtful conversations. Been on the receiving end of 2UE style rants. Jawdropping, goldfish gasping silence when I casually mention I’m off to church. Surprised friends giving me books such as Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion‘ – to try and balance my mind, perhaps? They would be apoplectic if I lent them The Bible. Why? Because if a Christian suggests someone read The Bible, the non-believer typically assumes the Christian sees them as somehow ‘less’. The immediate response is, “I don’t f-ing need saving.” I’ve done the same myself: “How dare you? I don’t need you to pray for me!” Yet meditating on and sending love & light to friends has been acceptable in the past. Figure that out…

Forget opiate for the masses. This is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Particularly at 40 (something) years of age! I’d quite enjoy a shot of something to take the edge off because, wow, Christianity digs into my pride. images-4Particularly given how much stock I have put into yoga and non-attachment over the years. I hadn’t packed that pride down quite as effectively as I liked to think! I know how things should be done, I can make my own decisions over what is right and wrong, and I can damn well do it on my own, thanks very much.

I did not want this. I did not seek it. Some of the time, I’ve been bloody annoyed about it. The SAP has been told to go himself and fornicate under carnal knowledge as I’ve pulled this apart. But I couldn’t ignore it.

I’d already read plenty of books against. But it makes me a pretty woeful journalist if I didn’t spend some time exploring the ‘for‘. I’d never bothered with the other side of the argument before, intellectually or emotionally. You reckon’ my aethist friends are surprised? How about me?! In the early weeks this agnostic veered between horrified and, well, more horrified.

As for pride? It came round and bit me. As one of the things I take the greatest pride in is being ruthlessly honest with myself. I have a near-sadistical bent for shining the light on my darkest corners.

Accepting does not mean abdication.

My brain is firmly engaged. Because to do this, really do this, means excavating pride. To turn the other cheek. To love. There are far, far easier choices I could make. Crucifixion, anybody?

So why keep going? Well, I like the person I’m evolving into. It may be mystical thinking to some. Yet I cannot deny the ease, joy and trust that has welled up. Do I find myself shaking my head? Each and every day. But more often now in amazement rather than disbelief. It’s precious and surprising.

For the lions, both gentle and rough, I’m not blogging to change minds. Nor am I blogging to convince anyone that this is a journey they ought to be on.

I started this because I communicate best when writing, and it gave me a spot to ponder and process. I share it publicly because if there’s one reader seeking something spiritual beyond Dan Murphy’s, and has failed to find solace in new age, I wanted to give an insight into a choice that, I now realise, has suffered from some woeful misconceptions.

Please notice the word choice. You may not seek solace, you may be just dandy with the selection at Dan’s. And that’s absolutely fine too.

Evangelical stereotyping is a blog post for another day 🙂

Getting to Church. Would my head spin?

One gothic friend used to say he could never go to church because his head would spin as soon as he walked through the doors – a poor reference to The Exorcist. I wasn’t quite at that point when I decided to visit the SAP ‘in-situ’, so to speak, but it wasn’t easy. Sneaking into a Christmas Eve midnight service and not making eye-contact with anyone was quite different to me turning up on any old Sunday, in broad daylight, without a religious festival day as an excuse.

I confess I even did a drive-by of the church before sending the email saying I may attend a service. I was also slightly comforted by an article on their website that made gentle recommendations on how to welcome new visitors.

The designated Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Major domestic that morning over everything and nothing. The appropriateness of trackie-daks as a clothing choice. Sunday best? Did I need to dash out to DJs for a fascinator? On the drive over, the bickering continued. “I can’t believe we’re bloody fighting on the way to church,” I ranted. Not a great start.

We arrive. Paste on smiles. Hold hands. Walk towards the doors. I now understand this is jokingly referred to in the trade as ‘the carpark conversion’. If we slap on a game face, then we may just ‘look’ faithful enough. Which isn’t the point at all, but I hadn’t learnt that then.

The Bolly-swigging PR stereotype I borrow when I can’t remember names.

In the doors. Name badges. Phew. I am spectacularly crap at remembering names so typically retreat to the PR stereotype and call everyone ‘lovey’, ‘gorgeous’ or ‘darling’ in order to hide it. But this wasn’t a room of media hacks, I wasn’t swanning around with a Bolly in my hand, and peppering strangers with endearments would have probably made me look like the wacky OTT evangelist. I have never been happier to see Avery labels and a Sharpie.

I liken our welcome that day to Goldilocks and baby bear’s porridge. Not too cold, not too hot, just right. Everyone was, well, normal. I remember feeling a little awkward when asked had we come from a different church, but no-one raised their eyebrows when we said we didn’t have one. Most importantly, no-one pressured us to come to this church when they discovered we were ‘church-less’. One member of the team did rush over with enthusiasm and I recall bracing myself, only to discover her passion was sharing where to find the barista coffee served after the service. Considering I believe instant coffee is the work of the devil, I appreciated the advice.

Growing up in England, my church exposure was all sandstone edifices and glorious stained-glass cathedrals. Hallowed halls. Pomp and circumstance organ music. Despite my lack of structured Christianity to date, I do love a good, rousing hymn. Dear Lord & Father of Mankind is a particular favourite. Attending my Mum’s weekly W.I. meetings as a kid where they belted out ‘Jerusalem‘ each week probably also played a part.

So the drums, guitars and electric piano didn’t quite fit my experience, but I figured if the church could modernise then so could I. The hymns may not have been the ones from my childhood but the essence was the same. Joy. Grace. Thankfulness.

The sermon that day focused on prayer and how, in times of persecution, prayer increased. I could identify – I’d had a bit of an ‘in case of emergency break glass’ relationship with God until then! The tone was intelligent, in-touch, blending teaching with humour and plenty of relevance to the real world. Without a dog collar or black dress in sight.

There was also a reminder that prayer ought to play a part of regular spiritual practise. As I have weeks when I’m one and zen with my yoga and meditation, and others when I’m hopeless, I understood the sentiment. Plus, as I’ve found over the past months, finding time to have a quick natter with God is often far easier than getting quiet time with my yoga mat.

Post-service coffee and chats were similarly unthreatening. Genuinely friendly people who wished us welcome and wanted to know a little about why we were there. My stereotypes were proving more and more insubstantial. Where was the prideful self-righteousness? I sadly realised that, for those traits, I needed only to take a hard, honest look in the mirror.

After the service, during the afternoon and well into the evening I experienced a sense of what I can only describe as quiet contentment. A peaceful sense of space that reminded me of yoga and meditation, yet with a far deeper sense of….what was it?

And then it struck me. Connection. A spiritual affinity that not even my beloved yoga delivered. Now I had to figure out if it was illusory, or something I could work with.

Having a try does not get you a conversion

lineout_window
The Game Played In Heaven. At the Notre-Dame-du-Rugby in France, one stained glass window has the figure of the Virgin Mary with a small boy in her arms and a rugby ball is in his hands. At their feet, players are jumping in a line-out.

Unlike the game played in heaven, giving church a try does not a convert make. After all, I’d ‘popped along’ to a few church services in my time and, whilst I especially adore the energy of the midnight Christmas service, it hadn’t moved me enough to do much else.

But, remember my failed job interview? I do recall spouting the line: “Well, I don’t believe I need to be at church each Sunday to have faith.” To which, one of the panel replied: “Yes, but it’s about the structure.”

So, in the spirit of open-hearted research, I decided I’d get myself along to a Sunday service. I’m at pains to point out that the smart-alec pastor (SAP) at no point hustled me along to his church. Which (as a business owner) now makes me wonder about the key performance indicators (KPIs) for successful pastors.

I must ask him if they work on a percentage rate. Trys: 60. Conversions: 6. Dip below ten percent and you’re under a performance review?

So, anyway, there was no car salesman approach. But that religious hangover of mine made me a tad wary. I recall writing that IF I ever came along, to please not put me near any scary Christians. I also recall deleting that line, then re-writing it, then deleting it, then re-writing it…..before pressing send.

Now I’d done it. Deep-down I did want to go. Underneath all my pre-conceptions I experienced a real pull. But, oh, the nerves. What if I took the Lord’s name in vain (which I’m afraid I do regularly) and offended someone? Stood (or sat) at the wrong time; forgot to follow the script? All this based on memories of a very confusing Catholic Holy Communion I attended for my niece years before. I felt I’d entered the religious equivalent of a Les Mills Body Attack class where I was hopelessly inadequate at keeping up with all the moves. I had mistakenly worn leather pants for that occasion too. Each time I moved, I squeaked.

Note to self: find appropriate outfit before Sunday.

N.B.: Read more about the Notre-Dame-Du-Rugby. I’m not kidding!

Seeking a cure for my religious hangover – Lesson One

Being told by a ‘psychic’ smart alec pastor (SAP) that he knew how this would end, firmly shoved a Christian stereotype of mine right back where the sun doesn’t shine. Over-confident, much?

So much for gently, gently, softly, softly. Yet it was just what I needed to hear, given my history of ‘insipid Christianity’. I suspect many of us have been treated to this ‘watered-down’ approach that treds carefully for fear of offending people. I was delighted to encounter someone who grabbed his Christianity by the throat and, instead of ramming it down mine, held it up and fearlessly examined it with me.

I’m writing some different posts on what I’ve learnt during the past months seeking a cure for my religious hangover, a big one being:

Stop confusing church and religion with God and Jesus.

images-2
Martin Shaw (left) who, as Doyle from The Professionals, occupied my thoughts during chapel service at school.

Church for me, from school, was a staid, serious affair where we knelt on hard kneeling mats, bowed our heads and were told sternly to ‘keep quiet’. The vicar/pastor/father/priest was as far removed from me as I could ever imagine. What would he know of my teenage dreams? Ahem, in fact, I would have been mortified if he did know about them. Whilst he was quoting Psalms I was imagining myself with Martin Shaw in a souped-up Ford Capri. But I digress…

And religious people? I was either worried about offending them with my hard-living, foul-mouthed ways, or expecting to be judged. Like the fire & brimstone, “Oh, so you had sex before marriage, shame on you, harlot temptress” stuff. Or the more pious exhale from those who live a ‘Victorious Christian Life!’ (VCL, yes, exclaim!) who are so darned good I would never have a conversation with them for fear of saying something desperately uncharitable.

How could little ol’ me ever aspire to Christianity if that was the benchmark?

What I had to learn was that truly Christian people are just like little ol’ me, trying to be charitable, humble and caring, with zero desire to thump and wave Bibles at you. All they want to do is love us. Because that is what Jesus taught. Love. No matter what. No matter what car you drive, whether you are rich, poor, prostitute or podiatrist, truly Christian people want to offer kindness and compassion. Yes, they also want you to get to know Jesus – He’s another uber-blog post – but before you get freaked out about the J-man, just hold onto this spark: it all boils down to unconditional love.

Yet some religious people who call themselves Christians, don’t act especially Christian. A painful, personal example. When I was young, my Mum attempted to take her life. I remember so called Christian friends and a Catholic Priest muttering about sin. There’s a major chunk of my religious hangover, right there. The SAP responded:

“Sometimes people end up in dark places emotionally.  Sometimes depression can be so overwhelming that one attempts suicide.  The Catholic church teaches that this is a sin that is unforgivable.  The Bible doesn’t – Jesus doesn’t.  Sure it’s unwise – but God knows our pain and understands it.  Churches aren’t finishing schools for the nearly perfect – they are hospitals for the broken.  The ‘religious’ friends who castigated and judged your family have probably never understood Jesus – otherwise they would have responded with love, grace, compassion and a meal or four brought ‘round to help your family in one of its darkest weeks.  I’m sorry people who call themselves Christians don’t behave like it very often.”

In those few lines, with grace and compassion, a pastor I had yet to meet in person managed to sweep away a blot that ‘church’ and ‘religion’ had left on my soul. It moved me that he would apologise for the behaviour of certain Christians around such a significant moment in my life. It hadn’t been him, after all, standing there when I was six.

Me? You talkin’ to me?

It all started with a job interview. I failed one of the essential criteria quite spectacularly, so much so that I’m surprised they even interviewed me. The criteria was practising Christianity.

I figured I was a fairly Christian person. So I only went to church at Christmas, but in terms of being a ‘good’ person, I thought I did OK. In terms of the job, I blitzed the rest of the criteria. So would skill-set trump spiritual-set?images-1

Not. A. Hope.

Not a pleasant feeling either.

My ego had been pricked. The very essence of what I could do was negated by what I was not.

So, like most scorned women, I took myself off for a long weekend with some pals to drink wine, eat chocolate, bitch and drink some more wine. That’d sooth it.

But despite the venting, I wasn’t soothed. Instead, I experienced a none too subtle spiritual shoving that, no matter how much I dug my heels in, pushed me closer and closer to unpacking everything I thought I knew about spirituality. I’ve blogged about the dream on Mum’s funeral morning that gave me much needed comfort. How I could ignore what was going on right now if I wanted to hold my faith in that sign? I couldn’t have it both ways. 

I have experienced too many small miracles in the past to ignore what went on that weekend: The Bible falling off the shelf at my feet at the Great Mackerel Beach communal library – with no one nearby to cause it fall. Or the yacht at Palm Beach, the sail unfurling, emblazoned with the words ‘Mister Christian’. Awaking with Jennifer Warnes’s ‘Song of Bernadette’ playing over and over in my head each morning when I had not heard her music in probably a decade.

So, finally, I surrendered. My conversation with God (3am, bolt upright in bed) went something like this:

Phil: Ok, ok, I’m listening. Enough with the signs and interrupted sleep already. What?

God: Work it out. Sort out your faith.

Phil: Yeah, right. Dreams and signs. Plus my way to Christ and faith is more Mary Magdalene meets Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday than Virgin Mary and Sunday school.

God: And your point is? Aren’t you the one who strives for non-judgement and unconditional love? You’ve lots of non-judgement for Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, etc. How about removing the judgement around your own faith, of ‘how’ Christians should seem to be?

Phil: (rolling eyes as God has just made a rather significant point)

God (chuckling) – You talk to Me plenty, you quietly join the midnight Christmas Eve service. You have The Great Invocation on your office wall. You feel it. You have it. Stop prevaricating.

Phil: (slightly petulant now) Okay, okay, I get it. I can’t witter about non-judgement when I’m not putting my toe in the water on this one. But You know I deal with You differently. What if I’m not, well, God enough?

God: You know Me better than that. Unconditional love is unconditional love.

Phil: You’re telling me to step up to the plate, aren’t you? Sort out my ‘baggage’ around Christianity. You know I’m going to look like a nut-job trying to explain my faith in talking to You through dreams, signs etc.

God: (drily) Solomon did OK with it.

I woke up the next day thinking, “WTF?” My husband was brought up Roman Catholic but had drifted from the church, so I decide I’d run it by him. I was sure he’d help me with a ‘get out of jail free’ card that would allow me to ignore all this oddness.

Instead, he said, “Well, Phil, Jesus did have to ask Peter three times.”

My jaw hit the floor. “You’re not helping!” I yelled. He laughed and told me to go fetch The Bible from the communal library.

I didn’t. Instead, back home, I quietly started researching. My starting point was the place where my own knowledge ended and societal pre-conceptions built up. Which took me back to 15 years old, a Church of England school, and a Divinity O-level. Plus a home life that didn’t include church, or discussion about anything religious or mystical.

So whilst I had learnt swathes of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (even recording them onto cassette to replay at night on my Sony Walkman to deliver an A-grade in the exam), it all stopped there. The subsequent 28 years had overlaid a lovely mix of new age and eastern mysticism.

While many of the philosophies I had researched over the years held reference to God as ‘the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being’, only one religion included a resurrection. There was my sticking point. To get to grips with Christianity, I had to make sense of the impossible. Could a man really have come back to life? Why didn’t I recall being more astounded and moved when taught this at 15?

I could have read articles galore, downloaded YouTube videos, gone to the library for piles of books. But I had this urge to figure it out NOW, tick it off the list, and move on. The journalist in me rose to the challenge. I decided I’d pick up the phone and ask some questions of a local church. But which one?

Tony’s experience of Catholicism hadn’t left him particularly engaged. Nor did I have many happy impressions, remembering the morbid fear of discovery my friend in Ireland lived with whilst hiding his Protestant faith from his Roman Catholic flat mates.

So back to what I did know. Church of England. Which, in Australia, struck me as similar to Anglican. There just happened to be an Anglican Church just around the corner from the children’s school. Taking a deep breath, I rang the number.

It became my first discovery that God has a massive sense of humour. And is very, very smart.  Had the ‘wrong’ Christian answered the phone (you know the stereotype: too much dogma, holier than thou posturing) I would have exited gracefully and taken it no further. Instead, God gave me exactly who I needed. A down-to-earth bloke with an irreverent sense of humour who not only took my mad questions on the chin, but also answered them patiently. He was then kind enough to engage in lengthy emails as I challenged, vented and searched through what I thought I knew, helping me discard the chaff whilst holding onto some wheat.

God’s humour? Well, in an odd parallel to my visiting a psychic after Mum died, the pastor  – in our very first phone conversation – told me quite confidently that he knew how this all would end.

He was right too, which is a blog for another day. Smart-Alec.