Book Reviews

Steps to Christ


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This book is a simple and powerful affirmation of God’s mercy and beneficence. It offers a reassuring voice, reminding us that, as we humble ourselves at Christ’s door, our trespasses and offenses against God are forgiven and enveloped by divine grace. Written by Ellen G. White, the co-founder and prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this is an earnest, compelling and poetic offering, particularly for those who feel themselves to be beyond repair, or too extensively corrupted and defiled to be worthy of an advocate such as Christ. This book is for those who ask; how could one such as I ever be deserving of gentleness or forgiveness?

The book resonates with the very same humility and awe that inform the psalms. The words of psalm 51:17 sprang to mind after reading this: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (KJV). We are reminded by Mrs. White that even as we take responsibility for all wrong action and lament this with a penitent spirit, we make ourselves known to God, and demonstrate thereby that we take an interest in Him. The distance we put between ourselves and our sin is the distance we gain in finding God’s sacred and harbouring embrace. As we grimace at the enormity and grotesqueness of our selfishness, and savour with despondency the bitter return that comes from willfully rejecting Christ, we know that we are utterly and ineluctably in need of rectification through divine grace, through knowledge of Christ, which brings relief and mercy, for, in essence, Christ is mercy. Christ is the mercy we crave.

The message is simple; present yourself to Christ with the willingness to be convicted of all wrongdoing. Agree in your heart to be held accountable for any and all misdeeds and wickedness, as is the invariable demand of God, the searcher of hearts, as you make your presence patent to the Most High. Be prepared to stomach the knowledge of one’s effrontery to God and His creation, and make amends by withdrawing from sin and clinging with all earnestness and determination to the proper and respectful management of one’s behaviour, which unfolds, as always, before the all-seeing vision of the Most High God, the Creator. A broken and contrite heart that endures from day to day, now flooded with sorrow and repentance, now buoyant with joy in Christ; this is the way that pleases God, says E.G. White.


Favourite Quotes:

“The sunshine and the rain, that gladden and refresh the earth, the hills and seas and plains, all speak to us of the Creator’s love. It is God who supplies the daily needs of all His creatures.” (p.9)

“God made man perfectly holy and happy; and the fair earth, as it came from the Creator’s hand, bore no blight of decay or shadow of the curse. It is transgression of God’s law -the law of love- that has brought woe and death. Yet even amid the suffering that results from sin, God’s love is revealed.” (p.9)

“In nature itself are messages of hope and comfort. There are flowers upon the thistles, and the thorns are covered with roses. “God is love” is written upon every opening bud, upon every spire of springing grass. The lovely birds making the air vocal with their happy songs, the delicately tinted flowers in their perfection perfuming the air, the lofty trees of the forest with their rich foliage of living green – all testify to the tender, fatherly care of our God and to His desire to make His children happy.”(p.10)

“But when the heart yields to the influence of the Spirit of God, the conscience will be quickened, and the sinner will discern something of the depth and sacredness of God’s holy law, the foundation of His government in heaven and on earth. The “Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,”illumines the secret chambers of the soul, and the hidden things of darkness are made manifest. John 1:9. Conviction takes hold upon the mind and heart. The sinner has a sense of the righteousness of Jehovah and feels the terror of appearing, in his own guilt and uncleanness, before the Searcher of hearts. He sees the love of God, the beauty of holiness, the joy of purity; he longs to be cleansed and to be restored to communion with Heaven.”(p.24)

“They think that they cannot come to Christ unless they first repent, and that repentance prepares for the forgiveness of their sins. It is true that repentance does precede the forgiveness of sins; for it is only the broken and contrite heart that will feel the need of a Saviour. But must the sinner wait till he has repented before he can come to Jesus? Is repentance to be made an obstacle between the sinner and the Saviour? The Bible does not teach that the sinner must repent before he can heed the invitation of Christ, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28. It is the virtue that goes forth from Christ, that leads to genuine repentance.” (p.26)

“Christ is the source of every right impulse. He is the only one that can implant in the heart enmity against sin. Every desire for truth and purity, every conviction of our own sinfulness, is an evidence that His Spirit is moving upon our hearts.” (p.26)

“Through influences seen and unseen, our Saviour is constantly at work to attract the minds of men from the unsatisfying pleasures of sin to the infinite blessings that may be theirs in Him. To all these souls, who are vainly seeking to drink from the broken cisterns of this world, the divine message is addressed, “Let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Revelation 22:17. (p.28)

“…pride feels no need, and so it closes the heart against Christ and the infinite blessings He came to give. The poor publican who prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13), regarded himself as a very wicked man, and others looked upon him in the same light; but he felt his need, and with his burden of guilt and shame he came before God, asking for His mercy. His heart was open for the Spirit of God to do its gracious work and set him free from the power of sin.” (p.30)

“Even one wrong trait of character, one sinful desire, persistently cherished, will eventually neutralize all the power of the gospel. Every sinful indulgence strengthens the soul’s aversion to God. The man who manifests an infidel hardihood, or a stolid indifference to divine truth, is but reaping the harvest of that which he has himself sown. In all the Bible there is not a more fearful warning against trifling with evil than the words of the wise man that the sinner “shall be holden with the cords of his sins.” Proverbs 5:22. (p.34)

“Christ is ready to set us free from sin, but He does not force the will; and if by persistent transgression the will itself is wholly bent on evil, and we do not desire to be set free, if we will not accept His grace, what more can He do? We have destroyed ourselves by our determined rejection of His love. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” 2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 3:7, 8. (p.34)

“The examples in God’s word of genuine repentance and humiliation reveal a spirit of confession in which there is no excuse for sin or attempt at self-justification. Paul did not seek to shield himself; he paints his sin in its darkest hue, not attempting to lessen his guilt. He says, “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.” Acts 26: 10, 11. He does not hesitate to declare that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” 1 Timothy 1:15. (p.41)

“There are those who have known the pardoning love of Christ and who really desire to be children of God, yet they realize that their character is imperfect, their life faulty, and they are ready to doubt whether their hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. To such I would say, Do not draw back in despair. We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Said the beloved John, “These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” 1 John 2:1. And do not forget the words of Christ, “The Father Himself loveth you.” John 16:27. He desires to restore you to Himself, to see His own purity and holiness reflected in you. And if you will but yield yourself to Him, He that hath begun a good work in you will carry it forward to the day of Jesus Christ. Pray more fervently; believe more fully. As we come to distrust our own power, let us trust the power of our Redeemer, and we shall praise Him who is the health of our countenance.” (p.64)

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Remember:

Holding aloof from Christ is a damaging act, as the self is in conflict and without anchor; it is thus the universe is kept in conflict. Christ is the keystone that holds the arch of the universe in place. Christ represents our true self, reality at its most elementary. If we refuse to know Christ, we eschew the reality in which we dwell, we reject our very self, and this is true madness. According to the guiding spirit of E.G. White, we do well to: reside in humility and repent of sin, accept Christ and love God (as commandment number one instructs), be honest in facing the ugliness of our sin, and find assurance in the knowledge that, every day, divine hands are knitting together the kingdom of God in us all. Indeed, let us trust the power of our Redeemer, and we shall praise Him who is the health of our countenance.


Renfield H. Bizarre, 24.06.16

For Christ’s Sake


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Introduction:

This is an outstanding book, with a veritable raft of highly thought-provoking ideas. It is sensitively and passionately written and, although crafted by a Professor of the New Testament, offers some candid insights into the pitfalls of modern Christianity. This is the perfect book for an independent thinker who feels drawn to Christian philosophy.


The Big Ideas:

1. Exclusivity is Destructive:

The prologue opens with this poem:

The Jesus who
Keeps saying “I am Jesus,
Look at me,
There is no substitute”
Is an impostor. Do not trust
The Christian cult of
Personality. I came
To turn you on and not
To turn you off,
To make you free and not
To tie you up.
My yoke was easy and
My burden light
Until they made
Salvation copyright, and
All in the name of Jesus.
So forget
My name was ever Jesus.
From now on
I am anonymous.

-Sydeny Carter

The idea that salvation is dependent on a name, Jesus Christ, is a fallacy based on the fear of acknowledging all people as the highest and most elevated expression of the divine. In truth, every person incorporates the divine within their being. The idea of salvation being hinged squarely on the singularity of Jesus Christ’s person, as controlled and monitored by the Church, is a falsehood, intended to maintain and extend Church power and control. The idea of copyright is contradictory to the free-flowing nature of creation. People who are ignored and overlooked as “the highest” are easier to control than people who know themselves to be free and dependent on nothing. Salvation, really, is predicated on nothing else but the experience of interior freedom, which is available freely to all people. The Church’s disinterest in acknowledging this, that is, all people’s individual interface with the divine as a sacred thing, is testament to a love that shrinks, rather than one that expands joyfully. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, disavows the religious or mystical experiences of individuals claiming to have touched the divine within themselves. This is expressly overridden and superseded by Christ’s way as being the only way. This is destructive as it makes people feel small and inadequate, rather than loved and acknowledged.

2. Jesus was not a Christian:

Jesus was a Jew who visited synagogues and was versed in the Old Testament. He did not do the things that modern Christians do. He did not go to church and was an anti-establishment character in many ways. He challenged and rebuked authority. He did not need to refer to or acknowledge the “word of God” in a book. Rather, he spoke from the heart. His emphasis was the ability to empathise with others and relate directly to their problems and concerns. The point that he reiterated was that people should have faith with respect to the Father building the kingdom of God within them. This process, this faith, does not depend on religious practices or institutions, and really, people need to look to their own honest voice within in precedence to looking to a book, namely the Bible. If you want to be like Jesus, connect with people directly, thoughtfully and honestly, have faith in the process of life, know that the kingdom of God –freedom- will inevitably arise within you, and exercise a healthy mistrust for institutions that seek to control or distance themselves from humane and sensitive heart-to-heart dealings with human beings.

3. Everything that is, is Holy:

Excerpt:

“The problem with religion is that in its all too human efforts to make peace with God it cleaves human reality right down the middle. It tears apart more than it heals. Above all, it divides life into the sacred and non-sacred: these things, actions, vestments, places, words, times, and people are sacred or holy; the rest are secular or profane. Thus we have the disastrous body-soul dichotomy in religious history, a dichotomy that even today shows its results in the negative ecclesiastical understanding of sex and the body. The obsession of the Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church, with sexuality; the rules about celibacy, divorce, birth control; even the issue of women’s ordination all these are results of the split.”

The urge to make divisions of any kind between certain things being more holy than others is like trying to say that your kidney is more valuable than your liver, like trying to say that the sun is worth more than the moon, or that grass is inherently better than moss. The idea that all places, things, people and materials are all equally sacred and that all represent the divine property of the Creator, needs to be fostered in precedence of any notions that cast some things as acceptable and other people or things as unacceptable. The challenge of love and reconciliation is to be able to see all things as included, without needing to invoke the barbarism of prejudice and judgement.

4. The Obsession with Sex by Orthodox Churches is not Scriptural:

Excerpt:

“I find it very odd that the churches -particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the most orthodox Protestant groups- have always seemed almost obsessed with sex and sexual matters when Jesus himself had so little to say on the topic. He has left us no specific wisdom on such matters as abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, or even premarital sex. Yet some Church leaders give the impression he spoke of little else.”

The Catholic Church in the Catechism describes masturbation as a disorder. This again seems to be a doctrine that emerges from fear, an institutionalised hang-up, that disavows the ability to freely enjoy the sexual pleasures that form perhaps the most incredible and scintillating area of human experience. One can only conclude that unbridled sexual self-expression represents the freedom and inhibition to which the church is directly opposed. Sex must be wrapped up in the confines of marriage and restrained within certain ordinate norms, and be for the purpose of procreation alone, in order to be condoned. As Tom Harpur notes, these concepts are the outworkings of an establishment that values control above freedom of expression. Jesus had precious little to say about this area. We are led to believe that Jesus somehow existed in a sexual vacuum. The Virgin birth is another case in point. Sexual intercourse is distanced from that entity that would supply salvation, although it is obviously impossible, as Harpur notes:

“Modern knowledge of reproduction and genetics, of course, also rules out a virgin birth. We know it takes the genetic material-with all its history-from two parents to create a new person. The orthodox doctrine requires that Jesus have no normal genetic traits of any male forbears whatever. In fact, if parthenogenesis (virgin birth) were to occur, only a female baby could result, since there would be no Y chromosome from a male sperm.”

5. The Church does a Pretty Average Job of Communicating Who Jesus Was:

“Put in its bluntest form, the fact is that the Christian Church is doing a very bad job of communicating who Jesus was and is for humanity and what it was he came to do. Most of the traditional language and dogmas about Jesus are simply incomprehensible to a generation that has seen men walking on the moon.”

The Church often perpetuates an understanding of Jesus that services ideas of personal disempowerment and ineptitude, which helps to reinforce institutional control. Individuals are not encouraged to speak for themselves, from the heart, which actually exemplifies Jesus’ approach to others. If we want to follow Jesus, we should speak for ourselves, feel dependent on no institutions or books, interact with others thoughtfully and considerately and really try to fathom where they are coming from and be secure and safe in the knowledge that the kingdom of God, the clear visage of freedom and truth, will arise of its own accord. Trust your own voice. Speak your truth in the face of expectations from without. Do not let your own personal truth be suppressed by or squandered on the regimes of power-seeking institutions.


Renfield H. Bizarre, 06.03.16

Warfare Prayer


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Introduction:

I have spent a few weeks looking into the colourful world of C. Peter Wagner, via two books, a number of videos online, a number of websites, and a brief look at his FB profile. His area of study is church growth and his home base is Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

The first book I read was “Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits”. Pretty fascinating read. It tracks the experience of various evangelical churches across the globe, but particularly in South America, and the various challenges, set-backs or triumphs they have achieved or suffered in their missionary efforts. Wagner looks at the reasons for these various wins or losses.

One of the key concepts is the idea of territoriality in the supernatural realm. To Wagner, this is the unseen, silent dimension which sits behind and directly informs the occurences or ‘happenings’ in our world. The spiritual realm dictates the manifestation of physical phenomena and human experience. The contention is that certain malevolent or power-seeking entities observe dominion over spiritual territory -which can often have affiliated geographical territory- and this needs to be understood and combatted, through holy observances and prayer. Often these unholy regimes will work through national agencies or be harboured within human institutions. People or groups of people can influence the supernatural using concentrated and willfully directed thought energy.

This state of affairs, this sin-stricken landscape, is an ingrained consequence of fall of man; the idea that Adam, the inclusive archetype of human kind, relinquished his God ordained dominion to the unsavoury and deleterious clasp of Satan. We are in the grueling contortions of wrestling back that power. Wagner is all about reclaiming that divinity and authority by rejecting and overpowering the forces that would see humans defiled, mistreated or destroyed.

I want to present some of the main concepts that I find interesting or thought provoking, most of which come from the book Warfare Prayer. I should say that I do not subscribe fully to this wing of protestant Christianity, but I am very interested in what C. Peter Wagner has to say. I have read quite a number of objections and protests from online sources that would cast Wagner as a charlatan or as an extremist. I figure fleshing out some of his material is worth the effort.


Idea 1: Defining demons that operate in the Spirit Realm

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*St. Anthony plagued by demons, engraving by Martin Schongauer in the 1480s.

Wagner regularly return to Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.

Wagner’s theory is that our daily trails, stresses and vicissitudes are the product of conflict in the heavenlies. Demons represent that portion of the cosmic agency that is at odds with the authority of the Most High God. It is the incompatibility of ethereal or spiritual modes of manifestation -godly and ungodly modes- that causes disharmony and a confusing disarray of human agendas. Suffering is borne of this clash in the inherent manner in which something wants to manifest itself.

In general, the bent of a demonic force is one that treats the property of God with disrespect. The property of God refers to absolutely everything, everything that is, all creation -all beings and matter. The demonic refers to those intelligences or dispositions that would use God’s property as part of an agenda or expression that is: selfish, perverted, hurtful, aggressive, domineering, greedy, jealous, impious, egotistical, competitive, oppressive, lustful, angry, idolatrous or manipulative. These things do not speak of God’s holy character. Forces that perpetuate or encourage such behaviour, or a combination of these behaviours, may be thought of as demonic. They detract from the holy character of humankind. They compromise our divine nature. Satisfaction in God, wanting to give expression to and honour to the truth, is the reverse of this.

Wagner describes various cases where human individuals or groups are infused with one or more of the insalubrious characteristics mentioned above, for instance Pastor Lorenzo facing a demonised woman, or Carlos Annacondia mounting a prayer and conversion crusade in the city of La Plata, which harboured a real stubbornness against the message of the gospel.

Wagner’s belief is that “social structures, like demonised human beings, can be delivered from demonic oppression through warfare prayer” (p.95).


 Idea 2: Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare

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Wagner promotes “Strategic-Level Spiritual Warfare” (SLSW) which involves the practice of learning the names and assignments of demonic spirits as the first step to effective spiritual warfare. How this is supposed to be ascertained is not especially clear, but the theory is that knowing names of entities assists in confronting them. Further, SLSW involves assembling large numbers of focused intercessors -prayer agents- to identify and then pray against some identifyable malaise that might be afflicting a geographical region.

For example, as a generalisation, a town might be all about appearances and material show, and dwell too much and too overtly on status and ego. The role of the intercessor group might be to find a place of silent humility within themselves and put that into the universe, in that region, with solid and unwavering intent. They find the inverse emotion or feeling and then stay with that, planting it in the atmosphere and hoping that it is felt and noticed by those in the grasp of a ego-centered existence.

Wagner describes the conscious and planned dispersal of intercessors across a city to make a geographical grid, so that when those thoughts and sentiments are energised, they meet the city with greatest geographical effect.

This is essentially a conscious and willful battle against the forces that draw us away from God. We are all mutually implicated, and indivisible as a group, so the practiced and premeditated directing of positive or God-fearing thought enegy is something that cannot really be reversed or disregarded. The thoughts go out and meet the universe, so the likelihood of that reality changing or shifting to something brighter and more harmonious is increased.

Sometimes this concentration of holy energy can result in major power encounters and aggressive interplay between conflicting parties. Wagner depicts some hair-raising anecdotal scenarios where power encounters combine willful sorcery or the use of violent magic to undermine the position of church members. So it is worth remembering and appreciating that these encounters are generally downplayed in our society as unreal and undeserving of attention, because they don’t fit a rationalist world view, but actually seeing their ineluctable place in shaping our reality, and understanding the dynamics, is, absolutely, an important thing. These clashes and power encounters happen to us all. Understanding how to pray and direct thought energy effectively is an integral part of success in this respect, if one is to be of assistance to everyone else.

This supernaturalistic world view encourages us to see God as an intimate and ever-present force for good, as we go about our daily business, something infused in the very fabric of our daily affairs, which can be called upon for strength and hope, and as an ultimate arbitrator, the final authority which can, without hindrance, stamp down a final outcome. Warfare prayer helps to facilitate a godly or God-fearing outcome when power encounters occur. Prayer invites God to intervene for the good of others. “Good” being synonymous with finding inner peace and freedom from hurt.

The ability to name evil spirits is not so important as to perceive the brand of sin or immorality that might be afflicting an area, and then work concertedly to combat that.

I was pretty inspired about what might be achieved with this. The prospect of sizable, organised groups of people coming together to give expression to thoughts that might shape a better world I found utterly compelling. How else are we going to do it? We must think something better into reality. The better we get at coordinated thinking, the more adroit we become at defining the shapes and characteristics of our thoughts, particularly in group situations, the better positioned we will be to craft a world we are proud of and inspired by, rather that systematically and predictably sickened by.


Idea 3: How to Pray

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Wagner outlines a set of principles that will assist warfare prayer, or targeted prayer. This includes:

Submitting to God: That means be committed and obedient to God. This means being reluctant to stray from holy things. Understand that you are the property of God and your personal free will sometimes will be overridden by God’s will, since God created us and knows how to lead us and draw us to good (Himself), better than we do. Be okay with this happening. Ensure that you participate only in agendas that you are absolutely proud of. Do not enter into the spirit of ridicule or unkindness, ever. Fear God’s power. It is immense and will put us in our place in an instant. Be humble and penitent before God. Hope in God; sure He will provide, as always.

Draw Near to God: You MUST desire God’s holy presence. In prayer, desire is everything. Desire to know the truth within and remain in the silence that is with you and upon you always. This, according to Wagner, means striking up a close and trusting relationship with life. It means expecting that thoughts that are emitted in the form of questions will be answered, but generally in a completely unpredictable way. It means respecting God’s right to answer our prayers in a fashion decided by God, not in a fashion that we hope for or preempt. We need to regularly engage in a personal prayer life. This can be assisted by a prayer book or devotional literature that can promt and draw us to a holy place within. This requires time and practice and faith and belief. Not necessarily easy!

Cleanse Our Hands and Purify Our Hearts: This basically means keep yourself from evil to the greatest extent you are capable of. Give minimal attention to pursuits or behaviours that drag us away from a holy position. Do not indulge, engage or fuel sordid or harmful activities. Use quotes, prompts and images of people that represent the highest virtues and attitudes within human experience. Make this part of your reality. This will help to craft a version of yourself that approximates your highest capability.

Carefully Choose: The place (somewhere safe and quiet), the time (prefeably at the same time each day, Wagner suggests one hour, gradually bumped up from smaller timeframes), the attitude (one of quietness and sincerity and desire for God), the format (either something of your own creation, or something formal like the Lord’s prayer), the quality (aim for something genuine, enter into your thoughts and feelings with the conviction and aplomb of an actor. Mean it. Make sure it comes from you. Want and desire whatever outcome you are looking for. Sincerity is THE most important factor in prayer.)

Consider Fasting: Wager notes that fasting can help us to eneter into the spirit of not needing to slake desire. It is a statement to ourselves and God that we are strong enough and determined enough “not to want”, which connotes freedom. This is potentially a helpful exercise, rather than something essential.


Idea 4: The Reality

The purpose of the post above is to set out a few of the main concepts from Wagner’s work and consider the value or potential. Many of the objectives and theories embody a target only, and are obviously subjected to the reality that demonic or negative forces plague our existence and are difficult to extricate or abstain from altogether. If one person is participating in them, we all are, as our actions are shared.

The point is to identify some areas that could be of assistance or promise, like understanding what demonic or negative forces look like, the potential of choreographed and planned group thinking or prayer to propagate material outcomes of a positive nature (to counteract demonic influences), and to provide some of the basic tenets and practices Wagner puts forward for effective prayer. Solidarity of purpose is perhaps the most essential factor in making warfare prayer efficacious.


Renfield H. Bizarre, 07.02.16

 

 

 

Still, Flowing Water


 

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Introduction:

I have known a few Buddhist monks, both of whom ordained at the same monastery, though at different times. Their names; Venerable Anenja and Venerable Mudu. Bodhinyana, in Western Australia’s Serpentine area, is a beautiful, peaceful monastery and the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly. Residing for any length of time in the temple is like being softly cradled in the embrace of a great seraph -magnificent, overwheming peace. With my visits, at various occasions over the years, to catch up with Mudu and Anenja, I perceived a notable alteration in their demeanour and outlook, a perceptible shift to a more bright, joyful and imperturbable place within, a positive progression from their previous station in life outside the monastery gates. Part of this success, I believe, can be attributed to good teaching. Both monks undertook discipleship below the highly accomplished Ajahn Brahm, the monastery’s leader, whose teacher, in turn, was Ajahn Chah. This post looks at a few compelling ideas in Ajahn Chah’s Dhamma talk, “Still Flowing Water“, and makes a few connections to Christian ideas.


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Idea 1: Calming the Defilements (Killing Sin)

Excerpt: “What people usually refer to as peace is simply the calming of the mind, not the calming of the defilements (ignorance, hatred and desire). You’re just sitting on top of your defilements, like a rock sitting on the grass. The grass can’t grow because the rock is sitting on it. In three or four days you take the rock off the grass and it starts growing again. The grass didn’t really die. It was just suppressed. The same holds for sitting in concentration: The mind is calmed but the defilements aren’t, which means that concentration isn’t for sure. To find real peace you have to contemplate. Concentration is one kind of peace, like the rock sitting on the grass. You can leave it there many days but when you pick it up the grass starts growing again. That’s only temporary peace. The peace of discernment is like never picking up the rock, just leaving it there where it is. The grass can’t possibly grow again. That’s real peace, the calming of the defilements for sure. That’s discernment.” (page 3)

Interpretation: Calming the mind through regular meditation practice is helpful, but not enough to enshrine lasting peace. While this is, assuredly, a nurturing discipline, that sets a salutary tone, elevates one’s position, and sheds the dross and turmoil of stress, the cycles of behaviour and thinking borne of the defilements -hatred, ignorance, desire- must be reigned in and quieted before a more substantial peace can set in. Conscious awareness and scrutiny of one’s own tendencies to succumb to such defilements needs to be observed. A mindful regime should be enforced to divert the suffering that springs from hatred, ignorance and desire. Explained further, defilements could take the form of censuring or ridiculing others (hatred), refusing to listen to the professed beliefs or position of others (ignorance), or lusting after people or things (desire). If these areas are not identified and treated with due trepidation, if conscious attention and discipline are not applied with respect to these danger zones, then those unwanted habits of heart and mind remain alive, they endure below the surface, they will reemerge and wreak pain in your life, they will grow, again and again, like the pestersome grass.

I was listening to a conversation of Baptist church leaders recently and they were discussing a similar thing, where the influence of sin persists and endures like a smouldering fire, even after the claiming of Christ by an individual. This state, this reality, this “holiness atop the enduring, heaving refuse of sin”, seems to be the way things are. The forces and dynamics that prompt the defilement of our fundamentally holy character are part of the fabric of our world, raging and boiling anon, below our feet, in the cavernous depths, and we must be aware of this. Although, it seems, the defilements can never be quelled and arrested to a zero point, the stilling and reduction of the defilements to the greatest possible degree should be the aim of anyone wanting to nurture and support a deep and persistent interior peace, and keep themselves from being thrown around as though in a washing machine. It is simple (but incredibly difficult). Don’t pick up the stone. Don’t touch. Leave it on the grass and do not disturb. Don’t let these things surface in any degree, if possible. Be vigilant and strong at a thought level. Guard from evil. Hold your tongue when goaded to anger, listen with patience and an open heart, know that you are perfection itself and therefore need nothing beyond what you already have. “Be killing sin or it will be killing you”, they say!

Archangel Michael is the Christian representative of this task. The image below, the “Altar of Archangel Michael”, by Gerard David, captures the spirit of maintaining a holy place that keeps evil underfoot, like the troublesome grass of the defilements under the stone.

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Idea 2: Neither Right nor Wrong

Excerpt: “People these days keep studying, looking to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and evil, but they don’t know neither-rightness-nor-wrongness. All they’re looking to know is what’s right and wrong (…) People keep searching for what’s right and wrong, but they don’t try to find what’s neither-rightness-nor-wrongness. They study about good and bad, they search for merit and evil, but they don’t study the point where there’s neither merit nor evil. They study issues of long and short, but the issue of neither long nor short they don’t study.”

Interpretation: It’s somewhat awkward considering this concept of “neither right nor wrong” straight after a section promoting discernment, or the deliberate avoidance of defilements, as this concept certainly entails some degree of differentiation between right action and wrong action, what has a good or bad effect on one’s life. However, the emphasis here is different. Ajahn Chah is reminding us that it is not necessary to make an overt or overactive habit of putting things or experiences in categories of good and bad, right and wrong, merit and evil. Perceiving and appreciating things as they are requires the relinquishment of the will to categorise. It is necessary to be comfortable with “neither-rightness-nor-wrongness”, as he puts it. The dissolution of the desire to subject experiences to the categories of good and evil affords a liberation and peace of its own. The will to judge and categorise the world around us is often a fruitless diversion.

“If your attention is pulled to categorization, you overlook what is uncategorizable. If you imagine differences to be real, rather than appearances in reality, you suffer unnecessarily. Discovering reality releases you from the bondage of differences.” -Gangaji

Still waters, Lake Taymyr


Idea 3: Always Right is Wrong

Excerpt: “Whenever we feel that we are definitely right, so much so that we refuse to open up to anything or anybody else, right there we are wrong. It becomes wrong view. When suffering arises, where does it arise from? The cause is wrong view, the fruit of that being suffering. If it was right view it wouldn’t cause suffering.”

Interpretation: Obviously a critical point, and worth underscoring, again and again, as we attempt to become better listeners. So essential to understand that the failure to listen to those around us results in relationship deterioration and suffering. A delicate skill, no doubt, as we seek to preserve a distance that shelters our own sanity, but make equal effort to reach out and connect thoughtfully and appreciatively with the characters that shape our world and lives. The willingness to relent and revise an old position in light of new information, or a newly communicated idea, is a core life-skill. It is particularly important, I think, to exercise this sentiment towards our greatest enemies and detractors, to open up to those we see with disdain. To be willing to understand and learn from those we mark as most different from ourselves is a pivotal thing. An exciting and hopeful prospect, though, should a viable and mutual connection appear. The ability to view one’s own philosophy as probational rather than fixed, evolving rather than reified, is a poignant proviso to be conscious of.

This ties in closely with the idea from Colossians of suffering together and bearing with each other. A closed heart and mind forsakes this togetherness, which is the overriding objective, before all else. Togetherness, oneness, is the goal of foremost worth. “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Colossians 3:13

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If we make an island of ourselves, rather than listening, rather than regularly processing and communicating with others, we become like a dammed up body of water, according to Ajahn Chah. If we can’t listen, we have to inevitably scramble around at a future point, trying to balance up the scales, feverishly taking on board the messages intended for our consideration and use all along.


Idea 4: Not For Sure

Excerpt: “You have to let the mind encounter different things, then register them and bring them up to contemplate. Contemplate to know what? Contemplate to see, “Oh. That’s inconstant. Stressful. Not-self. It’s not for sure.” Everything is not for sure, let me tell you.

“This is so beautiful, I really like it.” That’s not for sure.

“I don’t like this at all.” Tell it: It too is not for sure. Right? Absolutely. No mistake. But look at what happens. “This time I’m going to get this thing right for sure.” You’ve gone off the track already. Don’t. No matter how much you like something, you should reflect that it’s not for sure.

When we eat some kinds of food we think, “Wow. That’s so delicious. I really like that.” There will be that feeling in the heart, but you have to reflect, “It’s not for sure.” Do you want to test how it’s not for sure? Take your favorite food and eat it every day. Every single day, okay? Eventually you’ll complain, “This doesn’t taste so good anymore.” You’ll think, “Actually I prefer that kind of food.” That’s not for sure either! Everything has to go from one thing to the next, just like breathing in and out. We have to breathe in and breathe out. We exist because of change. Everything depends on change like this.

Start knowing from your own mind and body, seeing them as inconstant. They’re not for sure, neither body nor mind. The same goes for everything. It’s not for sure. Keep this in mind when you think food is so delicious. You have to tell yourself: “It’s not for sure!” You have to punch your likes first. Whatever the mind likes, you have to tell it, “It’s not for sure.” Punch it first. But usually these things just punch you every time. If you don’t like something and suffer because you don’t like it, it’s punched you. “If she likes me, I like her”: It’s punched you. You don’t punch it at all. You have to understand in this way. Whenever you like anything, just say to yourself, “This isn’t for sure!” Whenever you don’t like something, say to yourself, “This isn’t for sure!” Keep at this and you’ll see the Dhamma for sure. That’s how it has to be.

If you meet a sakadagami, go and pay respects to him. When he sees you, he’ll simply say, “Not a sure thing!” If there’s an anagami, go and bow to him. He’ll tell you only one thing. “Uncertain!” If you meet even an arahant, go and bow to him. He’ll tell you even more firmly, “It’s all even more uncertain!” You’ll hear the words of the Noble Ones: “Everything is uncertain. Don’t cling to anything!”

Interpretation: I really enjoyed reading these simple lines and ruminating on the idea of all-pervading impermanence, and, further, the practice of preemptively treating all people, things, experiences and situations as not for sure. Consciously designating them as not for sure. This awareness fades and slides with time; it’s good to assert the ephemeral quality of it all as a habit of mind. It is a liberating and consoling notion, rather than a frightening one. The drama and torture of our condition is fueled by forgetting this simple truth and taking things as highly important, definite, fixed or non-negotiable. The urge to perpetuate and fabricate enjoyable experiences, and suppress negative ones, is a natural impulse, but the evanescent and fleeting quality of it all should be borne in mind as a mechanism to see the truth, as it is. One of the underlying themes within this talk is willing mutability. It is the capacity to face the challenges of alternative perspectives, but not feel threatened by them, because they are as ‘not for sure’ as your own position, they are important to listen to, important to understand, but are most decidedly ‘not for sure’.

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not”.

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Idea 5: Still Flowing Water

Excerpt: “Have you ever seen flowing water?… Have you ever seen still water?… If your mind is peaceful it will be just like still, flowing water. Have you ever seen still, flowing water? There! You’ve only ever seen flowing water and still water, haven’t you? But you’ve never seen still, flowing water. Right there, right where your thinking cannot take you, even though it’s peaceful you can develop wisdom. Your mind will be like flowing water, and yet it’s still. It’s almost as if it were still, and yet it’s flowing. So I call it ”still, flowing water.” Wisdom can arise here.”

Interpretation: The aim is comfort in a paradox, a personal facility with a dual yet united mode of existence; deep peace superimposed over total instability. Motionlessness integrated in unrelenting flux. Some might use the words, the union of microcosm and macrocosm, where the human interface with the divine finds perfection and its truest expression. The willing dismissal of the concept of a set or real self, in exchange for the humbling and humorous thought that the whole parade is predictably not for sure.

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Renfield H. Bizarre, 06.02.16

 

 

New Seeds of Contemplation


 

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Introduction:

This remains the best book I have read to date. The spiritual craftsmanship is profound as it is beautiful. Using a very plain and unassuming style, Merton draws on his highest intuition to channel the sacred heart of the Catholic mystical tradition and guide the reader in the thinking needed to develop a loving appreciation of God.

Ineffably valuable and truly stupendous in implications, this book lays down a set of ethereal stepping stones to traverse the chaos of the void, tumble through the flaming sword of the cherubim that guards the gate of heaven, and emerge in a place of primordial peace. A masterpiece.


Main Ideas:

God is reality in its most unadulterated and immediate form. God represents reality stripped bare of any manner of falsehood or constriction and subsists in a state of invulnerable perfection, free from the dross of human folly, such as power seeking agendas, concepts, confusion or greed. God appears as ‘the clear blackness’ surrounding and infusing all. God is omniscient, holy, merciful and good.

Contemplation is the conscious, loving appreciation of the dynamics of God.

Contemplation cannot be learned by theory, it can only be facilitated by seeking God (reality) with genuine desire and passion. It requires the willingness to be honest at all costs and the capacity to trust God. Contemplation may be entered into by serving others and thinking about how to serve others, as this reflects the nature or character of God.

Christ is supremely puissant and reigns as King forever. The metaphysical manifestation called Christ is impossible to supersede or overthrow; this is the nexus point that unites all people and means that we are one person, one divine body manifesting in many physical bodies. Christ inevitably owns us all and will, ultimately, unite us.

The best way to learn contemplation is to maintain high standards of moral discipline and act on the desire to be with God, to want to know the truth of reality and oneself, and thereby find liberation. Christ is the thing that delivers the opportunity to see this truth.


Strengths:

The simple, poetic turn of phrase make for a highly satisfying read.

Asserts that the path to contemplation is unique to the individual; exhibits a healthy respect for individual free will and the idiosyncrasies of personality. Affirms the right of all people to determine their own means to commune with the divine.

The book illuminates very clearly a place of goodness and moral discernment within the reader, a very handy reference point amidst the strife and confusion of the present day.

Shows us that the highest expression of freedom is choosing to do God’s will, which means actively seeking truth and eschewing any activities or tendencies which disrespect or pervert God’s creation. Reminds us that there is no freedom in sin, only death.

Makes one realise that we are the property of God. We own nothing, may “take nothing” and must treat everything as sacred, or at least strive to do so.

Engenders a vibrational wavelength that is highly refined and palpably holy. This sort of wavelength, this sort of maturity, offers the promise and hope of a peaceful world.


Weaknesses:

Perhaps too accepting of Catholic dogma, which undeniably has elements that serve only to isolate, denounce or deride individuals that express interests or experiences outside the ambit of Catholic control and tradition.

Dated in some respects. The book was written in 1961, so many of the socio-political issues alluded to have shifted or elapsed.


Quotes:

“For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God Who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood.

His love spreads the shade of the sycamore over my head and sends the water-boy along the edge of the wheat field with a bucket from the spring while the laborers are resting and the mules stand under the tree.

It is God’s love that speaks to me in the birds and streams; but also behind the clamor of the city God speaks to me in His judgments, and all these things are seeds sent to me from His will.

If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if His will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that He is, and my harvest would be His glory and my own joy.

And I would grow together with thousands and millions of other freedoms into the gold of one huge field praising God, loaded with increase, loaded with wheat. If in all things I only consider the heat and the cold, the food or the hunger, the sickness or labor, the beauty or pleasure, the success and failure or the material good or evil my works have won for my own will, I will find only emptiness and not happiness. I shall not be fed, I shall not be full. For my food is the will of Him Who made me and Who made all things in order to give Himself to me through them.”

New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 16-17