Friday, August 19, 2011

Post deletion

I have decided to remove a previous post about derisory emails I received yesterday, because I have learned who the person emailing me was. The need for a public record no longer exists, and therefore I have hidden the post, and made it private.

For those of you who have responded - sorry that your kind and wise responses were necessarily deleted also, but thank you for chiming in with grace.

Pastor Phil :-)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias (Part 3 - seeing in lock-step)

Most of us know that there are forms of madness*, which cause the senses to feel, see, or hear things that appear to be religious phenomena. While I believe that mental disabilities and mental hyper-activities may cause some of these occurrences, I also believe there are legitimate spiritual phenomena, and that these phenomena are more common than much of Western civilization acknowledges.

Yet, I also believe that many otherwise sane people are experiencing things they believe are spiritual phenomena, and are not. These are intuitions, and sensations of "hearing" the voice of God, which are incorrect, and the reasons for these experiences can be many. Two broad and overly sweeping categories are listed here:

Individual thinking, bias and chemical responses

Some years ago I wrote a a short series of articles I entitled "Is it Adrenaline or is it God?" Our excitement over our own creativity, future plans, and personal preferences have the potential for giving us positive physical and emotional feelings which can be mistaken for the move of the Spirit of God. Similarly, negative responses rising from fears, strong dislike, or something as benign as personal preference creates measurable responses, and Christians have the propensity for taking these feelings (both physical and emotional) as evidence of an interaction with the Spirit of God.

During the First "Great Awakening" of religious revival in America (1734 - c. 1750) Jonathan Edwards who is credited for initiating the revival wrote a treatise on the subject of Religious Affections in which he outlined the nature of spiritual experiences and religious emotional states. Part 2 of the book highlights at length that religious affections in and of themselves are not a sign for good or for bad concerning the validity, the holiness, or the interaction of God in the process of spiritual experiences.

So it was, that long before the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements Christian leaders were concerned about the capacity for individuals to experience emotional states they believed were the evidence of God, and for these conditions to be either personally or perhaps even devilishly initiated.

This kind of deception, whether personally achieved by self satisfying biases or by demonic subtlety may be either minor and inconsequential to communal faith and peace, or deleterious and robust in its effects.

This is obviously a category of human experience highly subject to bouts of "madness." Having seen the news with tragic stories of people moved by voices in their heads, and/or confidence of God's will being behind their actions, society at large often wholly rejects all expressions of divine experience. Yet as Jonathan Edwards reminded us almost 300 years ago, religious affections do not give us evidence of the truth or the goodness of an experience.

The simple point is this: Individuals do mistake personal preference for spiritual phenomena. Yet, this fact does not negate all spiritual experiences.

Group think and bias

Based upon the same assumptions I hold (that God is able and willing to speak to humanity, and is actively doing so today), combined with the Biblical injunction that every word should be accepted at the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians are regularly verifying each other's spiritual experiences.

For years I have heard pastors talk about a coming great religious revival. People I know have set dates for this great revival, which was supposed to begin in Fill-in-the-blank-ville and eventually spread to fill the whole earth. Those dates have come and gone with greater frequency than dates set for the Rapture, or a daily change of underwear.

Strangely, those who challenged the dates were treated with disdain as though their lack of faith might somehow hinder God's will. Yet, when the dates have come and gone, no one held the leaders who declared these dates to any accountability. The same leaders have gone on to declare other dates, and the same people who followed their false declarations followed them into new and exciting promises of glory.

Jeremiah dealt with this same problem. He was a prophet of gloom, bearing sad tidings of coming trouble. He lived among people who relished hearing words of promise as we all tend to do. It appears that he was one of only a few declaring the words of impending war and trouble. The prophets around him declared good news and victory for Israel. (see Jeremiah 14)

Jeremiah's day was an example of group think driving the experience of the supernatural. False prophets had visions and dreams, and declared those experiences to be the voice of God.

Today, Christians follow leaders who pack together and agree with one another. They listen to the same teachings, and follow people with whom they agree the most. The leaders gather in similar groups of like minded thinkers. Some of them hold high-powered meetings, and others gather in special conclaves to discuss their theology. These gatherings carry some of the same dynamics of adrenaline surging excitement that comes with personal bias - only now it appears verified by a large group of people.

Is it any surprise that Christians have often had similar spiritual phenomena, come to similar conclusions, and then go on to set dates and make predictions which turn out to be false?

People who agree with one another, and are afraid to challenge the veracity of spiritual experiences are not good gauges of that which is true and that which is false. Their common hopes, their common fears, their common biases lead to a common group think, and common group satisfying validations of perceived spiritual phenomena.

The verification of 2 or 3 witnesses is meant to cover witnesses to a crime, or an issue before court, or accusations against an elder in the church. It is not meant to be an automatic verification of prophecy or any other spiritual phenomena. To allow it to become the high water benchmark of the validity of spiritual experience is to place followers into the precarious position of feeling compelled to jump on the bandwagon and shout, "Amen!" Once this occurs, unscrupulous individuals step forward to generate excitement, influence, and often money among those who faithfully, and sometimes stupidly are stumbling towards glory in search of a glimmer of hope.

All the while church groups appear to walk in lock-step validating the words of their leaders who declare they have experienced God in supernatural ways, and the world looks on in disbelief. Unfortunately, this is more common than we might imagine. Yet on the hopeful note: such false examples of group think driving and validating spiritual phenomena does not invalidate the possibility that God is still speaking today and that true spiritual phenomena are occurring. I am convinced they are occurring, but I am not convinced that we are capable interpreters of these experiences.

* as a fan (but to some degree an amateur critic) of Michel Foucault's book, The History of Madness I am using this rather outdated sounding and politically incorrect term purposely, but not derogatorily. I am not confident that all mental disabilities and mental hyper-activity fall under the medical model, which is eagerly attempting, and perhaps has fully succeeded in co-opting all forms of "madness" or "insanity" into categories of "mental illness."

Friday, August 05, 2011

Prophets of Hope, Prophets of Warning, Prophets of Phenomena

Spiritual phenomena occur - or at least we can be certain that many of us experience things which we consider to be radical experiences of interaction with the unseen world. This set of posts is not meant to be some kind of compendium of experiences and evidences of the validity of spiritual phenomena, rather this is simply a response to the fact that everyday people experience things they do not understand. These experiences come with communication, and this communication seems to come from another place than this world.

I admit to beginning with an assumption as previously stated that God is communicating with people, and desires to do so unbiasedly with all people. Those who know God are best positioned to be interpreters of those experiences, and this sets the people who know and understand God in a unique position - as prophets of spiritual phenomena.

It was Halloween. Actually, it was one of the days during the month-long Halloween season in Salem, MA. The Gathering had set up a tent for Free Dream Interpretation. A young man dressed in a black cape, carrying a tall staff was visiting Salem with a group of friends. He stopped to experience the booth, and I was monitoring the line. I ended up interpreting his dream that night. (The full story can be found in this post.)

What began as a mysterious and fearful dream, became a worldview changing experience of communication from an unseen realm. This young man began with the belief that everything in the spiritual realm was safe and good to experience, but his dream of black helicopters chasing him and his friends through the canyons of Red Rock, CO became a communication about the potential malignant capacities of unseen powers.

A dream was a warning for this young man. In my thinking the dream was clear and an obvious communication of warning. Yet, for this young man, his own worldview blocked his understanding of the meaning of the dream, and as I shared my interpretation of the dream his worldview changed in an instant - or as the scriptures might say - his "eyes were opened."

This is an example of those who know their God and His ways become interpreters of spiritual phenomena, and in doing so become prophets to their generation. In this case, I became a prophet of warning.

For seven or eight years we have been interpreting dreams in *Salem each October. Teams of our friends sit with people and interpret dreams filled promise and hope, and we begin with the premise that God desires to bless people and speak hope into their lives. We become prophets of hope for the dreamers.

Yet, people are coming not only with dreams, but with experiences of open visions, of personal miracles and healing. There are even moments when our interaction with the people who come to us become a moment of spiritual phenomenon.

Carlos Z sees visions of people in various settings, and these visions often end up as descriptors of their lives and the struggles they are facing. I have seen a number of people amazed at the accuracy of his visions. He is one of many who have become prophets of phenomena, and voices of the unseen God to the people of this world.

This is the challenge of each of us who claim to know our God and have studied His ways, and claim to hear His voice: Can we envision ourselves as interpreters of the meaning behind spiritual phenomena? and consequently prophets of both hope and warning?

*This same ministry of dream interpretation and of spiritual blessings occurs each year at the Burning Man Festival. In three weeks we travel to spend a week as prophets of phenomena to the Burners on the Black Rock Playa.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Interpreters of Spiritual Experience

Spiritual experiences are rocking people's lives.

I know of a Neo-Pagan who had open vision of Jesus appearing in the middle of her living room on the cross. I sat for coffee with Fiona Horne, one of America's most famous Witches, as she retold her story of "the Christian God" speaking to her through a falcon. It landed on the ground in front of her, spread it's wings and spoke as man. Fiona retells this story in her book describing an event during the time she was filming "Mad, Mad House" for the Sci-Fi channel.

These are the kind of stories which rock your world and leave you grasping for footing, or reaching for answers.

Spiritual experiences are like clues to crime scene. They hint an answer, but remain mysterious without a fuller body of evidence, or a confession of a perpetrator. Spiritual experiences are like pieces of a puzzle. They are small glimpses of a larger, beautiful picture; but by themselves they are odd shaped pieces of color. They are like sign posts to a destination. They may give hints as to their ultimate meaning, or point the direction, but are not the actual destination.

The value of legitimate spiritual experience is great, as is a sign post on a long lonely stretch of road to a destination one has never before traveled. But, experiences are often few and far between, and this may be purposely so, as part of the plan of God.

There are people on earth who though they have not reached the ultimate destination on that path toward God, have seen more clearly ahead into the distances. Scripture gives us a clearer picture than our experiences often - if interpreted well, and those who know the scriptures, and know their God will see the path of spiritual growth and enlightenment more clearly than those who have only mystical experience to navigate by.

Believing that this is true it leads to me to believe that those who know the scriptures and know their God (the two are not necessarily connected) have the potential to become interpreters of the mysterious spiritual phenomena, which often confound people experiencing them today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias (Part 2)

Part 1 of this post makes the assumptions that God is willing and wanting to communicate with everyone, and that there are no special skills, or devotion standing in the way of God communicating with anyone. There appears to be need to devote oneself to a life of service to God, but He may at any time simply interact with us because He likes to do so. He is not biased in such a way as to choose one group of people over another to communicate to - or so it seems.

Now of course, I am taking into account that the Old Testament is a covenant with the Jewish people, yet even in this covenant, God gives miraculous dreams to Pharoah, and Nebuchadnezzar; and He speaks through Balaam and Balaam's ass (his donkey for those of you who are thinking something else.)

In saying this I am NOT saying that special devotion does not trigger a closer relationship with God. I believe that it does. Yet, I do believe that God has, does and will continue to make Himself known in a variety of phenomena to people in this world. Those people will come from a variety of backgrounds.

Therefore, I must be ready to acknowledge that there will be people who experience "weird" things, and that those weird things might in fact come from God. (I do believe that they might in fact come from somewhere else as well, but that is another post.) I also need to acknowledge that there will be people whom I would not expect to have spiritual phenomenon occurring in their lives. If I can not get past this point, then I will be carrying a bias unlike the bias of God.

The bias of God is toward you, toward me, and toward all people. He is concerned and wanting to touch all people. At least, my theology and my experiences tell me so. Experiences of some of my friends and the people we meet in Salem, MA and at Burning Man tell me this as well.

If my bias tells me that certain people are only mad, or only are hearing from the devil before I have heard them out I am sure that my bias is not God's bias, because His bias is for people and not against them. On the other hand, once I have heard them out there is an opportunity to decide the source of the spiritual encounter.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias

My personal story of initiation into spiritual phenomenon taints my own views of the activity of the Spirit, and presses these views toward a more open interaction from God with humanity. Because I had what I believe are dramatic encounters with God prior to committing my life and my life's work to His purposes, I am convinced that God is acting in other people's lives in a similar manner.

This conviction is formed through a number of reasons:

Reason #1 - I am not special.

There is nothing which separates me from the rest of humanity. I am not special to God anymore than anyone else. I do not hold some special key to the Kingdom, nor do I have access to things unavailable to others. At least I certainly don't think so. The rest of humanity stands on even footing with myself, and are limping lamely together toward glory: some of us purposefully, some of us stubbornly, some of us ignorantly, some of us turning to flee it's fearsome brilliance, but all of us beginning with the same love of God hovering over us.

God is equally determined to express His love to you as He is to me, and I am convinced He is in the process of doing so regularly.

Reason #2 - I did not learn special skills to attain these phenomenal* spiritual experiences.

My experiences happened to me. I did not enter a state of meditation to attain them. I did not study for years to attain a spiritual skill making these experiences possible. I may have been a seeker of truth, but not any more so than many others. God came to me in my searching.

In believing I am not any more special to God than anyone else it levels the playing field and makes God accessible to everyone. By acknowledging the simple fact that it was not my own skills which brought about my experiences, but rather that it was God's loving pursuit of me, this also levels the playing field. A person does not need to be especially skilled in the arts of spiritual discipline to experience God. There is a loving God Who desires to make Himself known to all of us, and His desire is with equal passion toward all of us.

Reason #3 - I did not express special commitment.

My commitment to the God Who came to me did not precede the experiences, but rather followed them. He appears to have sought me out more intentionally than I sought Him. Because of this, I am convinced that the experience of (what I believe are) legitimate spiritual phenomena does not always come with disciplined pursuit, and intentionality. I believe there are times that misdirected pursuit somehow finds the mark of the Divine, because God steps in to make Himself known. This was my experience, and I believe that it is often true for many others.

These basic values I take away from my experiences with spiritual phenomena set the stage for my missiological praxis, and my response to a world of people who experience things which "Blow [their] mind." It is my hope that my views, which are a response from both scripture and experience give me a bias favoring all people, and not simply those who are of my tribe and committed to Christ in the same manner that I am. It is my hope to base my opinion about the spiritual experiences of others on the merit of the experience alone, and not on heritage, learning, a perceived special status with God, or stated commitment to Christianity.

Have you had experiences which have blown your mind?

* this word is used in the sense of being cognizable to the senses.