Monday, December 19, 2016

ARE YOU A SHEEP OR A GOAT?

We are fast approaching Christmas but we're still in the season of Advent which ends on Christmas Eve.

The season of Advent, in the Church year, is a four-week period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus. It's a time when Christians also look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus.


Now, I don’t interpret the Bible literally for the most part. For me, the events in the life of Jesus depict and represent various stages in our potential spiritual growth. Thus, doctrines such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming of Jesus have for me a deeper, more spiritual meaning and importance than a literal reading might otherwise afford. We can be resurrected at any time into newness of life, with our minds and bodies being restored in any number of ways. We can ascend to greater heights of understanding and achievement. As for the Second Coming, it can be right upon us now. It is not a matter of whether Jesus will again appear in the flesh.

In all my years of regularly attending Baptist and Anglican churches I rarely, if ever, heard a sermon on the parable of the sheep and the goats. I think the reason why preachers rarely speak on the topic of that parable is simple--its message doesn't sit at all well with the ‘believe and be saved’ evangelical interpretation of Christianity.

In the parable of the sheep and the goat, in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Day of Judgment. Now, once again, I do not actually think there will be a literal day of judgment when some people will go to their supposed reward in heaven while others will be sent to hell for everlasting punishment. You can believe that if you wish but that is not how I see it. The Day of Judgment occurs every day, and every minute of each day, when we get the result in our lives and in our world of our thoughts, words and deeds.


According to the parable of the sheep and goats, everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus, a personification of the divine. The Anonymous Christ, as he or she is known, comes to us in so many ways, and we fail to recognize that Jesus’ incarnation continues all the time, in us and in other people. In the parable, Jesus talks about the Day of Judgment:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

Notice how the separation of sheep and goats is not on the basis of what people believe or don’t believe. No, the separation takes place on the basis of what people do or don’t do with their lives. The sheep are the ones who feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe those in need of clothes, look after the sick, and visit those in prison. The goats are the ones who do none of those things.


The message of this parable seems lost on conservative Christians. They are so damn good at judging others on the basis of what they believe or don’t believe yet they fail to realize that the Bible says they will be judged on how well they have looked after their fellow humans---as respects the provision of such things as food, water and clothes, and attending to the needs of the homeless, the sick, and those in prison.


Many Buddhists I know, even many atheists and other secularists, live lives that are so much more nobly and deeply and closely molded after that of Jesus than those fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. I repeat, many people, who would not identify as Christians, are real followers of the way of Jesus. There is a hymn written by Marguerite Pollard which contains this verse:

And there are some who love him well,
yet know not it is he they love;
he tends the holy fire within
and draws them to the heights above.

Of course, many, if not most, of the people who Jesus declares to be ‘sheep’—true followers of the way of Jesus—would not want to be called Christians. They have given up on Christianity. Well, they have given up on Churchianity. I don’t blame them. Far too many of the Christian churches have so grossly distorted the teachings of Jesus, and far too many so-called Christians are so damn unappealing, that the ‘sheep’ want nothing to do with Jesus. That is sad, because Jesus was a revolutionary.

The separation of sheep and goats takes no account of race, religion or ethnicity. It takes no account of what people believe or don’t believe. The separation is solely on the basis of what people do and don’t do with their lives. Deeds, not creeds.

Advent is all about the coming of the kingdom. Jesus envisioned a beloved community of all humanity living in peace with one another. The good news of the Gospel is that you don’t have to be a card-carrying Christian to seek, work for and hasten the coming of that kingdom.

Have a wonderful Christmas, all of you.



Image opposite. Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and the goats. Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk, United Kingdom.



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Friday, December 2, 2016

MINDFULNESS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Mindfulness and the kingdom of God? Really? Well, yes. Let me explain.

The kingdom of God is a Biblical concept, in particular, a New Testament one. The phrase, the ‘kingdom of God’, does not appear as such in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) -- the Jews were, and still are, expecting a different kind of kingdom -- but you will find the phrase in many, many places throughout the New Testament.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on the kingdom of God, explains that the kingdom of God means not so much a goal to be attained or a place – although those meanings are by no means excluded – it is rather a ‘tone of mind’ and an ‘influence which must permeate [our] minds’ if we would be one with the Divine Life and attain to its ideals. The kingdom of God refers to the rule or reign – the sovereignty – of God in our hearts and minds. The kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality all at the same time. It’s a very powerful concept, full of meaning and beauty and wonder.


The Bible says that the kingdom of God is within [or among] us (Lk 17:21). Who or what is God? Well, God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and God is Spirit (Jn 4:24)  and that Spirit is LOVE. Another way of understanding Spirit is as pure Be-ing. So, if you think that God is a giant man 'up there' or 'out there', some supra-personal Being with a face, body, arms and legs and a penis – sorry to be crude – then you are horribly mistaken. The concept of a personal God has misled and confused many, yet the concept is valid if properly understood. First, each person's understanding of the Divine is personal. Secondly, the heart of Christianity is personality in the sense that our personality is to be moulded by the Divine. Thirdly, it is a key assertion of Christianity that God can be known as a person--as a loving Father or Mother. ‘Anyone who has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9). So, who or what is God? As mentioned, God is love and Spirit. In other words, God is reality, truth, life and love in the most absolute, infinite and eternal sense. God is pure Be-ing, and we have our be-ing-ness in God. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). Jesus gave the world an entirely new conception of the Divine, and for Christians Jesus was and ever remains the supreme revelation we have of God as love.

The kingdom of God – also referred to in Matthew’s Gospel as the ‘kingdom of heaven’ – is the realm of divine ideas, producing their expression in us and others as the fulfilment of the nature of the Divine. The kingdom is a ‘heavenly’ one – that is, one of ideas, ideals, values and things not-of-this-world. The kingdom is an ideal state of society, an ideal way of being and living – our highest good. In their classic text The Mission and Message of Jesus (New York: E P Dutton and Co, 1938) by H D A MajorT W Manson and C J Wrightall of whom were eminent scholars and theologians, H D A Major writes in Book I, on pages 36-37:

‘For Jesus the Kingdom was not objective, but subjective. Its sphere was in the minds and hearts and souls of men. Where God reigns in a human personality, there the Kingdom of God has come on earth, and it is for this kind of advance of the Kingdom that Jesus taught His disciples to pray.’

Now, if you have trouble with the word ‘God’, then substitute for it words such as life, truth and love – in fact, anything representing the highest good. And if you have a problem with the word ‘kingdom’, then substitute for it words such as ‘state of mind’, ‘presence’ and ‘positive influence and power’. It’s not the word or phrase that matters but rather the reality behind the word or phrase. Never forget that.

The Reformed Church minister Dr Norman Vincent Peale [pictured right], in his book The Tough-Minded Optimist (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1961), on page 66 of the Fireside edition, writes:

‘… The Kingdom of God is a powerful recreative force deep down in your personality waiting to be summoned forth. When you do summon it and put it to work in your life you will live with so much power that nothing can really upset you again, at least not to the point of defeating you.’

Dr Peale often wrote and spoke about the kingdom of God. And why not? After all, the subject was the very heart of Jesus’ teachings. Peale would often say, ‘All of God’s values of strength, peace, health, and happiness are built into you. All of the riches of God's great Kingdom are potentially resident in your mind. Let them operate freely. Release them into abundance.’ In his book The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952), on page 62, Peale wrote in reference to the kingdom of God that we have ‘within our minds and personalities all the potential powers and ability we need for constructive living’. Got the idea?

Yes, Jesus’ parables were all about the kingdom of God. Take, for example, this one. ‘First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens’ (Mk 4:28). The kingdom of God is like that, said Jesus. Then there’s this parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches’ (Mt 13: 31-32). Now, that is the kingdom of God in action and expression. The kingdom starts with an idea and a presence – the Presence – and it grows and grows.

Mindfulness is a lot like the kingdom of God. It is a dynamic presence – a watchful, mindful presence and choiceless (that is, nonjudgmental) awareness of the content, both internal and external, of the action of the present moment, from one such moment to the next. Mindfulness is in this world, but not of this world. Mindfulness affords insight and self-knowledge. It is a state of power and oneness with the flow of life within you and outside of you. It is a state of pure be-ing-ness. Mindfulness can be secular or religious, but if it is divorced from the ideals to which I have referred -- especially the ideals of love and compassion for others, indeed for all living things -- it is an abomination. It is something to be shunned. Mindfulness must be more than a mere system or technique (ugh) of mental cultivation. True mindfulness embraces all things and recognises the fundamental unity of all life. True mindfulness empowers a person to be a better human being. Well, it can be that way.

A mustard tree

Mindfulness is not inherently Christian, but neither is the kingdom of God. Did you hear that? Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, and he taught the idea of the kingdom of God to Jews and to some who were not Jews. None of those to whom he spoke were Christians as there was no Christian Church then. However, you don’t need to be a Jew, or belong to any religion for that matter, to experience the reality of what the Bible refers to as the kingdom of God. You don’t even need to believe in God as such except in the sense of standing on the side of love, which is God. ‘Those who do not love, do not know God, because God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8). It follows that those who love know God, even if they are not explicitly aware of it. So, those who have love in their hearts experience the blessings of the kingdom. Wow, how’s that for heresyBut it’s true. My authority for saying that is the life, ministry and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Bible. If you are seeking love, life, truth, peace, health and happiness, then the kingdom of God is for you – and is yours, right now!

I am firmly of the view that what I have said above is one hundred percent Biblical, but I suspect that it is still more than enough to give Christian fundamentalists apoplexy. Never mind. I don’t write for them. I don’t truck with them and they don’t truck with me. I have been a fierce and tireless opponent of religious bigotry and narrow-mindedness all my life, and I am not about to stop now. Too many so-called Christians preach a ‘gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’ – their commonly used expression – which, with its butcher-shop theology, is about as far removed from the ‘gospel of God’ (cf Mt 1:14) proclaimed by Jesus as you can get. They have a religion about Jesus as opposed to the religion of Jesus. The latter is the religion Jesus taught and by which he lived and died. That is the true Christianity.


The essence of the 'gospel of God' -- the real good news of the kingdom -- preached by Jesus at the very beginning, and right throughout the entire period, of his public ministry is encapsulated in this verse from the New Testament: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15). The nature and substance of God is love. Where God rules in peoples' hearts and lives, love rules. That means there needs to be an inward change of mind, affections, convictions and commitments -- a complete turnaround in one's life (repentance, to use a Biblical word). And what of 'faith' -- faith in God? Put simply, faith is the living and lived response of a person to the revelation of God as love in the person of Jesus. It is not something intellectual. It is something lived out in one's daily life. 'Do this and you will live' (Lk 10:28).

When you come to experience the fullness of life in a truly selfless, self-sacrificing way – living deeply and mindfully, and loving and growing spiritually more and more with each passing day – you are then living in the kingdom of God. In the words of theologian H D A Major, the kingdom is 'the summum bonum [that is, the highest good or ultimate goal] of the individual' (The Mission and Message of Jesus, Book I, page 37).

The kingdom of God is a way of being and living – a state and tone of mind. So is mindfulness. Both are in the world but not of the world. Both can be yours – right now!






Friday, November 18, 2016

MINDFULNESS AND ART THERAPY WORK WONDERS FOR REFUGEES

I truly believe that one can judge the moral decency of a society by looking at how well that society attends to the needs of the sick, the elderly, the marginalised and others in great need of assistance such as refugees and asylum seekers. Many Western nations do not measure up well by that yardstick.

A combination of mindfulness and art therapy is being used to help refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong, according to a recent article in The Arts in Psychotherapy.

The article describes how a program which provides workshops on art making and mindfulness meditation has supported individuals in moving forward after traumatic experiences. The authors of the article state that the ‘overlap between art therapy and mindfulness in this context represent the realities of the suffering of the participants as well as the possibility of working towards enhancing coping and resilience.’


Both mindfulness and art therapy have been used with survivors of trauma for some time now. The article published in The Arts in Psychotherapy looks at how a combination of the two can help refugees and asylum seekers acknowledge human suffering and traumatic life events while at the same time recognises the resilience that exists and the search for healing, health and growth.’

The two activities are inherently therapeutic and when used in combination there appears to be a synergistic effect, facilitating the expression of feelings associated with trauma, suffering and the problems associated with coping (for example, anger, rage, vulnerability and depression).



Journal article: Kalmanowitz D and Ho, R T (2016). ‘Out of our mind: Art therapy and mindfulness with refugees, political violence andtrauma.’ The Arts in Psychotherapy49, 57-65. 



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IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog. In Australia, for immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, and for information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) or go online via sane.org. In other countries, call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.





Friday, November 4, 2016

MINDFULNESS IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION (Part 2)

‘But mindfulness is Buddhist!’

I hear those words from time to time from a Christian, usually an evangelical.

Now, as Richard Nixon used to say, let me make this perfectly clear. Mindfulness is not Buddhist. Well, certainly not exclusively or inherently so, and even as respects Buddhism mindfulness is only one aspect of one particular tradition in Buddhism. Mindfulness is universal. It is grounded in the human experience of living fully from one moment to the next.

You can find mindfulness in all religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity. What’s more, you can find mindfulness outside of religious and spiritual traditions. 

For the most part, the mindfulness that I teach is outside mainstream religious and spiritual traditions, although I do draw from a number of those traditions where I think they are making a valid point, that is, a point of universal importance and one that is generally in the nature of a self-evident truth. Of course, a self-evident truth is not always readily apparent or discernible to people. However, once a self-evident truth is properly understood, you are justified in affirming it as true.

In a previous post I looked at mindfulness in the Christian tradition. In this post, I want to focus on some good advice from the Bible. It’s from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). It is from both the Jewish and Christian traditions, but the advice is good for all of us, even for those who claim not to believe in a God.

The Hebrew Scriptures advise us to know God by becoming still: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10).

Who or what is God? Some dubious theological construct, one that some people have made up in their minds in an attempt to explain the mystery of life, but which doesn’t actually exist in objective reality? Well, the Bible elsewhere refers to God as the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). For me, ‘God’, when I use the word, which is not that often, refers to the one universal Presence and Power active in the universe, the medium (that is, order or level of reality) in which all things have their very be-ing-ness. God, if you choose to use the word at all – and you need not – is the Supreme Being, and we have our be-ing-ness, our very existence, in that Being.

Back to Psalm 46:10. There is so much in that short verse. The first thing to note is the importance of being still, if we are to come to know and experience the larger reality that the Bible refers to as ‘God’. In explaining this verse to people I sometimes break it up like this:

‘Be still and know that I am God’

‘Be still and know that I am 

‘Be still and know …’

‘Be still …’

‘Be …’

If you experience the verse – note that word ‘experience’ – that way I truly believe that you will come to know and experience what some choose to call God. You can call it whatever you like. It doesn’t really matter. As J. Krishnamurti used to say, over and over again, ‘The word [in this case, God] is not the thing.’ It’s the reality – the experience – behind and beyond the word that really matters. Indeed, it is all that matters.

One of my spiritual mentors was the late Dr Norman Vincent Peale. He helped millions of troubled people in his long lifetime. He gave some wonderful advice on how to still the mind and the body. He often said that you cannot still the mind until the body has become still. First, still--- that is, relax---the body, and then the mind will follow. Dr Peale wrote, ‘Sit still, be silent, let composure creep over you.' Then you will be still. That's why Psalm 46:10 says, 'Be still ...' It's not a matter of do-ing but be-ing.

Jesus preached the 'kingdom of God' (referred to in Matthew’s gospel as the ‘kingdom of Heaven’). For me, the Kingdom of God is that state of being and consciousness that is often referred to as the eternal now. There is an eternal, that is, atemporal, quality about the now. It is forever new. The present moment has its unfolding in the Now. The past is no more than the expression of a present reality, being a present ‘window link’ to the eternity of the Now. Any memories of the past are a present reality. It’s the same as respects the future, for any ideas about or hopes for the future are present ideas and hopes. You see, the present is simply that which presents itself before us in and as the Now. So, the present embraces past, present and future. What's more, the kingdom of God is not only a 'place' of inner strength and power, it's also a repository of stillness and quietude.

Back, once again, to Psalm 46:10. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ First, the ‘knowledge’ spoken of is not book knowledge. Not at all. It is an inner knowing. Secondly, note those words ‘… I am God.’ Now, I am not saying that you and I are God, although I do say that you and I, as well as all other persons and things, have their be-ing-ness in God. Now, those words ‘I am God’. God is the Great I Am, that is, the presence and power of pure Being. What’s more, that pure Being is the very be-ing-ness of the person that you are.

When you enter the silence, you are approaching the very presence of be-ing – that is, sheer existence … the very livingness of life itself. The state of mind experienced in the silence is not one of passivity or non-action. No, it is a truly awakened state of mind and be-ing-ness in which all things are experienced as new and fresh in the omnipresent eternal now. 

In time, and with regular practice, the action of being fully and choicelessly present in the moment from one moment to the next – the essence of mindfulness and living mindfully – will quicken and intensify.

The essence of Christianity is the experience of coming to know God – the larger reality – in the form, and through the person, of Jesus. What’s so special about Jesus? Well, among other things, Jesus lived and was fully grounded in the eternal now. His strength, power and peace were the result of his being at-one with the source of all life and being, and his living fully in the eternal now. That is why he said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). Now, as I see it, Jesus was not saying that his kingdom was on some supposed ‘higher’ order or level of reality. No, the kingdom of which Jesus spoke is one that that we enter when we live in the eternal now. It is the very reason why Jesus said that he had come.  ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). Abundant living. Living mindfully in the eternal now. Living selflessly. Living lovingly.

‘Be still and know …’



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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

STUDY SHOWS MINDFULNESS IMPROVES EMOTIONAL HEALTH

Neuroscientists from Michigan State University (MSU) have now presented clinical data suggesting the practice of mindfulness can help anyone deal with intensely emotional situations in a calm and balanced way, whether they are ‘naturals’ at meditation or undergo a crash course.

‘Our findings not only demonstrate that meditation improves emotional health, but that people can acquire these benefits regardless of their ‘natural’ ability to be mindful,’ said Dr Yanli Lin, lead author on the study. ‘It just takes some practice.’

The team asked 68 participants to either listen to an 18-minute audio meditation guide or a control presentation on learning a new language. Each person was then shown upsetting images, including photos of corpses, while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) which recorded their brain activity. All participants were female; the authors argued this meant they did not have to account for gender differences relating to regulating emotions.


The resulting scans showed ‘a significant reduction in LPP response to negative stimuli over time’, the authors wrote in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. LPP stands for ‘late positive potential’, and refers to emotion-related activity in the brain’s visual cortex and how it is processed.

Previous studies have shown that LPP ‘reflects a global inhibition of activity in visual cortex, resulting in the selective survival of activity associated with the processing of the emotional stimulus’. It is part of an emotional coping mechanism, and in this study it was argued that it proved those who meditated could control their negative emotions and recover quickly.

The Michigan team found the results in the group that meditated were similar to those found in prior studies on ‘naturally mindful’ people, ‘suggesting that the benefits of mindfulness can be cultivated through practice’.

It seems that, like most other things, practice is the key to success. In that regard, the researchers found that when individuals were specifically instructed to ‘be mindful’, when looking at the distressing photos, the LPP was not impacted at all, ‘indicating that deliberate engagement in [a] state [of] mindfulness may not be an effective form of emotion regulation in meditation novices’.


Study: Lin, Y et al. ‘Deconstructing the Emotion Regulatory Properties of Mindfulness: An Electrophysiological Investigation.’ Front. Hum. Neurosci. 07 September 2016 | http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00451



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IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog. In Australia, for immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, and for information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) or go online via sane.org. In other countries, call the relevant mental health care emergency hotline or simply dial your emergency assistance telephone number and ask for help.