Thursday, September 22, 2016

THE SENSATION OF: I AM



Jacob Needleman's theology/philosopy was introduced to me by a favourite professor, Dr. Astrid O'Brien, while studying in New York's Jesuit Fordham University.

- I used select pieces of Neeleman's wisdom when teaching adult students in my weekly Bible studies in Moscow, Russia and Kiev, Ukraine 1991-95 while serving as a Salvation Army officer (pastor and church planter)

**********

In the present debates both sides tend to treat God as a purely external entity accessible only by faith—faith defined as belief unsupported by evidence or logic. My book presents the idea of God as representing a conscious force within the human psyche which is accessible through careful inner self-examination. The process of inner self-examination brings about a knowledge that is as rigorous and supported by evidence as anything science has to offer. At the same time, this point of view redefines faith as a knowledge that is attained not only by intellectual means, but also through the rigorous development of the emotional side of the human psyche. Such emotional knowledge is unknown to the isolated intellect and has therefore been mistakenly labeled as “irrational.”

This “new” idea of God proposes that all the characteristics traditionally attributed to the purely external God are, in an important sense, attributes of this inner force of consciousness. When this inner energy of higher consciousness is experienced, it then becomes clear that such an energy permeates the entire universe. In this way, it is through self-knowledge that the existence of an external God is verified and understood.

Q: You were once an atheist. Can you pinpoint a particular time or event that caused you to re-evaluate your beliefs?

A: When I started my career as a professor of philosophy I was required to teach a course in the history of Western religious thought—much against my existentialist and atheistic inclinations. In order to teach this course, I had to do a great deal of research in the writings within the Judaic and Christian traditions and I was astonished to find in those writings philosophical thought of great power and sophistication. These writings completely blew away all my opinions about what I had taken to be the irrationality or immaturity of religious ideas, opinions which were and still are fashionable in many intellectual and literary circles today.

But even so, somewhere in myself, I was still unconvinced—down deep I was still an atheist when it came to my personal, intimate feelings. It was only when I embarked on a personal work of guided self-examination that I experienced a glimpse of a reality that could be called “God.” As my personal explorations continued, I experienced this quality of inner reality more and more and could no longer doubt that the meaning of God lay in this direction. At the same time, these undeniable experiences lit up and were in turn illuminated by all the philosophical and historical knowledge I had by then amassed and I began to understand in an entirely new way the teachings of both Judaism and Christianity as well as the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. I was again astonished that nothing of this understanding seemed to be in all that I had heard about religion and God when I was growing up and when I was being educated in some of the best universities in America.

Q: What spiritual or philosophical ideas did you encounter that made you reconsider the teachings of Judeo-Christian and Eastern religions?

A: There were very many such ideas, far too numerous to mention. Here are
just a few:
–  The idea that God needs man (Judaism) as a uniquely free being who is yet at the same time under supreme obligation.
–  The idea that scripture is deeply allegorical and symbolic, with many levels of highly sophisticated philosophical and psychological meanings. Many of my atheistic leanings were due to my literal interpretation of scripture, which, in numerous places paints a horrific picture of a presumed just and loving God.
–  The idea that Jesus Christ was a highly developed human being who was a great teacher and that the idea that he was also God needs to be taken in a much more nuanced way than was commonly presented. In Judaism, for example, a highly spiritual human being was often referred to as “son of God,” without thereby implying he was God Himself in the form of a human being.
–  The idea that there exists such a thing as genuine mystical experience (as opposed to many self-deceiving claims throughout history) and that these experiences really validate through direct evidence the fundamental teachings of religion.
–  The idea that all authentic religions, Western and Eastern and throughout the whole world and human history, converge in genuine mystical experience (which may also be called higher states of consciousness). The differences between religions are only differences involving the pathways that lead toward the practice of directly experiencing higher levels of perception and understanding. All religions are paths to a metaphorical mountain-top variously named Wisdom, enlightenment, self-realization, the kingdom of heaven, righteousness, etc. Differences that lead to violence and persecution are based on a corrupted relationship to the teachings and practices of religion.

Almost all of us have had experiences during our life when we sense with great clarity and power a tremendously heightened state of presence, of being there, an immediate and unforgettable sensation of I am.

Q: You believe that atheists and believers alike have been visited by an inner experience that points to the existence of God. Can you describe or explain this experience, and why it is that so many don’t recognize it as significant?

A: Almost all of us have had experiences during our life when we sense with great clarity and power a tremendously heightened state of presence, of being there, an immediate and unforgettable sensation of I am. Perhaps it is a moment of great danger or even impending death, or a moment in a strange place or foreign country, or a moment of indescribable joy or a moment with no apparent cause at all when suddenly we are stopped within ourself and feel our sense of identity more intensely, calmly and purely than anything our everyday life has to offer. Such moments occur more frequently, perhaps, in childhood. These are the only times in one’s life that we actually remember; all the rest of our life being much more cloudy and merely inferred. But the great moments of pure presence are vividly etched in our memory as though they happened yesterday.

Our culture does not know how to interpret these moments, these experiences. Maybe they are called “peak experiences” or “mystic moments” or “breakthroughs”—we lack any precise words for them. In fact, they are, so to say, “messages” from our genuine Self as though saying to us: “I am You. Let me into your life.”

The work of cultivating such experiences until they become more accessible is part of the essential nature of genuine spiritual discipline. These are moments, at the very least, of approaching the experiential verification that there does exist something Higher within and perhaps also outside of ourselves. Moments at the very least of approaching what the religions call God.

Q: How does our present confusion about the concept of God reflect a widespread psychological or spiritual starvation? How would you guide someone who is confused about the concept of God?
A: Every human being is born with an intrinsic yearning to understand, to contact and, eventually, to serve something higher in ourselves and in the universe. Plato calls this yearning eros. It defines us as human beings—even more than our biological nature, our social conditioning or our ordinary reasoning capacity. Our modern world-view tragically misperceives and wrongly defines what it is to be human. We are conditioned by our society to believe happiness comes from pleasure, or from getting things or power over people or money or fame or even health and survival. None of these sometimes very good things can bring ultimate meaning to our lives. We are born to be deeply conscious, inwardly free and deeply capable of love. The longing for these things is the definition of what it means to be human. At the present moment in our culture this yearning for meaning and consciousness, this yearning to give and serve something higher than ourselves, is breaking through the hard crust of our widespread cultural materialism and pseudo-scientific underestimation of what a human being is meant to be together with an equally tragic overestimation of what we human beings are capable of in our present everyday state of being. The intensity of the present confusion about the nature and existence of God is a symptom of this yearning within the whole of our modern culture.

As to how I would guide someone who is confused about the idea of God, I would suggest that he or she begins identifying what one might called “philosophical friends,”—people with whom one could seriously examine our thought about God through listening to each other, reading important and useful books together and trying to think for oneself while familiarizing oneself with the ideas of some of the world’s great thinkers. Cultivate openness without gullibility and skepticism without cynicism.

And, as soon as possible, be on the lookout for someone whose whole manner of speaking and being makes, as it were, a “sound” that draws your mind and heart. And then, little by little, try to see if that person can be of real help on the way to genuine self-knowledge and insight about what God is and is not. In this realm, more than any other even, the paradoxical marriage of both openness and scepticism is essential.
Jacob Needleman is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University.

He was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has also served as Research Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, as a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, as Adjunct Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of California Medical School and as guest Professor of Religious Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris (1992).





Monday, September 12, 2016

Muhammad Khurram’s surname means ‘a happy person’ and that’s what he is, despite trials, tribulations and a life of insane violence. Born in Pakistan, near the capital Islamabad, he was brought up in a world where the truth is determined by the barrel of a shotgun. Once, a Taliban commander ordered him to shoot a handcuffed and blindfolded man. Oddly enough, this was to be the start of his journey with God, explains Menno de Boer.

‘Where I come from, the Taliban determine what’s true or not. These extremely fantatic Muslims are always right, other opinions don’t count. Anyone who dares to think differently will be punished or killed. Everything is permitted in the name of Allah.’

It starts at school. 
Muhammad’s father was a strict and devout Muslim who spent thirty years with like-minded Muslims in Saudi Arabia. Though not active himself in the Taliban’s war to install Sharia (a strict religious legal system governing Muslims) everywhere, his father supported the Taliban’s ideas.

At home and at the Madrassa (a religious school where Islam is being taught) the extreme rules of Muslim fundamentalism are instilled from a young age. ‘Brainwashing starts at school’, Muhammad says. ‘The extremists have a large influence on schools in Pakistan and they use lessons to train children in their way of thinking. For example, I witnessed children, eight years of age, being put in a room with a lot of chicks and ordered to trample them to death in the name of Allah. That’s how children get used to taking lives. From here on, they push their boundaries further and further.’

Life as a Taliban warrior
‘So I grew up in a world of violence and extreme views. I have to be honest, heroism appealed to me. When you have a gun, you feel like Rambo. For a young man that’s quite cool. I didn’t like the way the leaders behaved, though. They thought they were always right, no matter what. I asked questions. I thought, “Why are you right and someone else isn’t?” The leaders thought I asked too much questions. Not appropriate. You just had to follow orders.’

Life as a Taliban warrior, with assaults as a daily activity, dragged on. ‘The battle to be right all the time takes many victims, especially among your own people. Most of the assaults were in mosques where moderate Muslims worshipped. The question of whether there was a god who wanted prosperity, peace and happiness for mankind became more and more important for Muhammad. ‘I started to doubt if such a god even existed,’ he says

‘This doubt disappeared when, after finishing my training I was forced to kill a man—a Pakistani Muslim journalist who was on his knees before me, handcuffed and blindfolded. “Shoot him”, was the first command I got from my leader. I hesitated and thought, “God, where are you?” But I had to shoot him.  I couldn’t refuse. I pulled the trigger and…nothing. “The gun doesn’t work”, I told my commander. I pulled the trigger again and it still didn’t work. The commander said, “Take mine”. I pulled the trigger and again it didn’t work. I realised, God is here! The commander looked at me and said, “there’s something strange about you”. We walked away and, unfortunately, I learned that the prisoner was later killed by another Taliban warrior. But there my journey with God started.’

The Netherlands 
After years of hopeless violence, Muhammad couldn’t take it anymore. ‘I fled to the Netherlands and in my last conversation with my mother I said to her, “I won’t be coming back, you know it, don’t you?” She knew. That was the last time we saw each other, six years ago. I had enough money. I earned a lot in Pakistan. It was in a bank account in Dubai. With the money I was able to start a new life in the Netherlands. I bought a nice apartment, got a job and started a relationship.

New Years Eve 2010, I was in my apartment looking out over the city where I lived and prayed to God: ‘I know you are there. I want a perfect connection with you’. He answered my prayer in a remarkable way when the police came to my apartment in June 2011 telling me my stay in the Netherlands was illegal. I had to come with them. I was imprisoned between murders and rapists and lost ‘it’ for a while but also my apartment, my girlfriend and my job. Everything was gone.’

The dream
‘Three months later I was sitting in a silence room in prison and cried. A Roman Catholic priest stepped in, laid his hand on my shoulder and said, “Everything will be all right. Even Jesus was punished when he wasn’t guilty of anything.” I went back to my prison cell and fell asleep, even though I never sleep at that time of day. I had a dream. I was in a somewhat misty space. There was a table with food on it and there were people in long gowns walking around and making music. To the left of me there was a small group of people. Two of them came towards me. “Someone is calling you”, they said. I walked towards the small group that started to diverge. In the centre of the group I saw a man sitting. Could that be Jesus? The man looked at me and smiled. Then I knew, it’s him. “At last, there you are”, he said without moving his lips. I was the only one who could hear it. Putting his hand on my shoulder he said, “Don’t be afraid. You are not alone”, he assured me. Then I woke up.’

‘The next day I was called out of my prison cell, got my cellphone back and was released. Outside the prison walls I called my lawyer. He was surprised. “Your file is still here. We haven’t been able to work on it yet. How is it possible that you’re out?” Muhammad had lost everything but was confident. Everything in your life happens for a reason. God takes care of balance.’

‘That dream gave me inner peace. In a second dream I was baptized in his presence,’ Mouhammad shares. Meeting Jesus in his dreams changed his life. He decided to become a Christian. ‘That made me an apostate muslim. That’s why in Pakistan a fatwa (a religious conviction) was issued against me. If I’m forced to go back I will have to answer to a court and most likely be executed because apostacy from Islam is punishable with the death penalty.

 The Salvation Army
After a short period of wandering around homeless, Muhammad came into contact with a Salvation Army corps. ‘Soup, soap and salvation,’ he smiles. ‘Now I want to fight in another army—an army where we battle to save other people. When I think of what others have done to me, I’m sometimes still angry, but I pray for these people. I want to tell everyone, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and atheists about God’s grace that is there for them too.’

And what would his message be to Pakistan? After thinking for a short period the former Taliban warrior says, ‘Throughout history, God has spoken in different ways and shown that he exists. God wants a relationship with us. Be glad God gives us life and free will. Respect this and know that you’re not God.’

When Muhammad talks about Jesus his face starts to shine with happiness. ‘He has changed me forever. Jesus saved me and died for me on the cross and carried my sin away. It’s my favourite part of the Bible. He conquered death. That’s what Christians celebrate. Knowing I don’t have to pay for my sin myself is such a difference from the religion I was brought up with. Islam tells you, you can earn heaven by strictly following the rules or by blowing up yourself or others. Jesus blood paid for everything. His ressurection not only showed that he lives but that he is the Lord over life and death.’
Muhammad says he sees Jesus in other people too. ‘In their love, their kindness and their tolerance. If you have received Jesus’ love, you want to share it with others. That’s my mission. Being there for people and tell them about Jesus.’

His future is still uncertain. ‘I know what I want. To work in the service of God and man as a Salvation Army officer. Unfortunately, that’s not possible right now because they keep refusing to grant me my residence permit. Till then I’m here and living on the promise Jesus made to me in my dream. Despite everything, I am happy now. I was a soldier of death but now I am a soldier of life. Through Jesus.’


Reprinted with permission from The Netherlands War Cry.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


The Lesson of History

March, 1918
Colonel Karl Larsson sent a report to the Swedish SA publication; Stridsropet – (The War Cry in English)
The circumstances in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) were at this time insufferable. The officials reported that there were up to 980 cholera cases daily, to which were added small pox, typhoid fever, and typhus. The deaths were so numerous that we had to abstain from all funeral ceremonies. In order to bury a child who died in our children’s home, our staff is having to wait at the church graveyard from early morning to late at night. Horses that starved to death would remain on streets for up to ten days before they were transported away. During that period starving dogs would tear large chunks from the carcasses. Hundreds of people died of starvation. They were frightful days. In addition to Captain Olson’s death we had three Swedish officers, including the War College Principal, all sidelined with various illnesses. We feared that they too had been affected by smallpox.

In 1915 Larsson had written in 'All the World': "There is no other organisation which meets the need of the Russian people and is in harmony with Russian mentality as ours. But we must hurry in order to take advantage of the changes which are likely to follow the war."

Quoting this in his later book, Karl Larsson added: "Sadly, help was too long in coming. Our history in Russia would perhaps have been different had this not been so."

General Burrows is determined not to repeat the same mistake. "We cannot and must .not let that happen again," she said. "The Latin phrase 'carpe diem' means 'seize the day' or 'catch the moment'. We could say 'redeem the time' in scriptural language. And we must do so."

SEVENTY THREE YEARS LATER-
No sooner had the General issued her red alert than the world’s largest military aircraft, fifty three C5s, with US Air Force insignias, began to lift off from the Rhein Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany bound for Moscow, Russia with a ETA three hours later. To the uninformed Muscovite the scene of the massive lumbering, descending US Air Force aircraft, one touching down only minutes behind  the other, must have been an overwhelming and intimidating sight. World War III?
Waiting on the tarmac of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport were some twenty or so Russian military officers and hundreds of conscripted soldiers dressed smartly in their Red Army winter uniforms and standing at attention. They flanked a small group huddled against the wind and swirling snow, dressed in civilian clothes. And next to them were two others in heavy dark uniform overcoats, with the insignia ‘C’ on their red epaulets, Captains Sven and Kathie Ljungholm representing the Salvation Army’s total official strength in Moscow. The SA would be taking delivery of several thousand tons of food-stuffs and other humanitarian aid, the only organization entrusted to do so by both President Bush and President Yeltsin. Eighty thousands Muscovites would receive a daily warm and nutritious meal in the 47 Russian restaurants manned by or overseen by SA staff and volunteers.

The Lesson of History

March, 1918
Colonel Karl Larsson sent a report to the Swedish SA publication; Stridsropet – (The War Cry in English)
The circumstances in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) were at this time insufferable. The officials reported that there were up to 980 cholera cases daily, to which were added small pox, typhoid fever, and typhus. The deaths were so numerous that we had to abstain from all funeral ceremonies. In order to bury a child who died in our children’s home, our staff is having to wait at the church graveyard from early morning to late at night. Horses that starved to death would remain on streets for up to ten days before they were transported away. During that period starving dogs would tear large chunks from the carcasses. Hundreds of people died of starvation. They were frightful days. In addition to Captain Olson’s death we had three Swedish officers, including the War College Principal, all sidelined with various illnesses. We feared that they too had been affected by smallpox.

In 1915 Larsson had written in 'All the World': "There is no other organisation which meets the need of the Russian people and is in harmony with Russian mentality as ours. But we must hurry in order to take advantage of the changes which are likely to follow the war."

Quoting this in his later book, Karl Larsson added: "Sadly, help was too long in coming. Our history in Russia would perhaps have been different had this not been so."

General Burrows is determined not to repeat the same mistake. "We cannot and must .not let that happen again," she said. "The Latin phrase 'carpe diem' means 'seize the day' or 'catch the moment'. We could say 'redeem the time' in scriptural language. And we must do so."

SEVENTY THREE YEARS LATER-
No sooner had the General issued her red alert than the world’s largest military aircraft, fifty three C5s, with US Air Force insignias, began to lift off from the Rhein Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany bound for Moscow, Russia with a ETA three hours later. To the uninformed Muscovite the scene of the massive lumbering, descending US Air Force aircraft, one touching down only minutes behind  the other, must have been an overwhelming and intimidating sight. World War III?
Waiting on the tarmac of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport were some twenty or so Russian military officers and hundreds of conscripted soldiers dressed smartly in their Red Army winter uniforms and standing at attention. They flanked a small group huddled against the wind and swirling snow, dressed in civilian clothes. And next to them were two others in heavy dark uniform overcoats, with the insignia ‘C’ on their red epaulets, Captains Sven and Kathie Ljungholm representing the Salvation Army’s total official strength in Moscow. The SA would be taking delivery of several thousand tons of food-stuffs and other humanitarian aid, the only organization entrusted to do so by both President Bush and President Yeltsin. Eighty thousands Muscovites would receive a daily warm and nutritious meal in the 47 Russian restaurants manned by or overseen by SA staff and volunteers.

Monday, August 15, 2016

He had a Corinthian spirit about him; an especially high criterion of triumphing in the Army’s war against circumstances.



In the days following Major Göran Larsson's Promotion to Glory I shared the news with friends around the SA world. There was an immediate outpouring of tributes filled with a very deep affection for the man, and in which many attributed the word ‘hero’ in describing Göran.

Göran was truly one of my heroes. He had a Corinthian spirit about him; an especially high criterion of triumphing in the Army’s war against circumstances. – He was a unique man, a life enhancer with a passionate belief in the little man, a  Salvationist faithful in his conviction caring about the unsung, unseen majority.

General Wilfred Kitching had this to say about heroes:

"It is said that every young man has his hero! If so, are we anyone's hero? The officer who is a 'soldier ever inch', who fearlessly attacks evil, loves the people, frequents their haunts to rescue them, persistently visits public houses to establish contact with men and is a friend to every boy and girl he meets in the street - that officer soon becomes a hero to some young Salvationist. And many young men and women have had their imagination fired by another's inspiring leadership in Army adventures. In many corps, richly endowed characters wander along life's highway, doing next to nothing with their lives - till their eyes are touched and their imaginations kindled. A hero appears!”


I've lost count of the many times he traveled to post-Perestroika Russia, in the scorching heat of summer and in bitterly cold winters. Göran shares from his visit to Siberia in chapter 25.

He coordinated and delivered humanitarian aid, medical equipment, food-stuffs and more, to aid a Salvation Army officer couple struggling to re-establish the Army in Moscow, under often extremely difficult circumstances. On one such visit he arrived traveling in a huge truck in the middle of the night. We managed to find a night watchman who unlocked a storage shed some 40-50 yards from the dirt road, and there Göran and I, with the help of a two others called up at 01:00, trudged, carrying heavy beef carcasses through two foot snowdrifts until the truck was emptied 4 hours later at dawn, with snow still falling.


And, he often brought with him teams of workers, including musicians and workers from his Stockholm SA corps. He was a key encourager and supporter who brought with him the spirit of the servant Christ, sharing it with hundreds of us. No task was too difficult and no assignment too lowly for Göran.

And once, when it appeared to Göran that the Swedish government wasn't pulling its weight in providing aid to the Russian people, when compared to other countries and international bodies, Göran decided their apparent indifference warranted a more direct attack. He requested that I make a hasty visit to Sweden to join him in an important meeting.

On my arrival at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport he drove us straight to the Parliament building and marched me into the Prime Minister's office to participate in a pre-arranged meeting. There we shared the army's Russian story. The next day, on my return to Moscow, I received a message that the Swedish Ambassador wanted to meet with Kathie and me; the meeting resulted in an immediate investment in our work bringing tons of necessary aid!


Lubyanka, KGB Headquarters Moscow, Russia

Göran also became a hero to many Russian Salvationists and other Christians he encountered.

I recall a visit to the KGB headquarters and Göran 's request for documents and proof of the prosecution, suffering and execution Christians, including Salvationists, had suffered in the early days of Stalin's reign. They insisted such records didn't exist, but Göran would not be discouraged or deterred. And it was only subsequent to his courageous refusal to 'back down' that the KGB officers acknowledged that SA officers and soldiers had indeed been among those persecuted by Stalin's henchmen.

Göran and his wife Chris served as Regional Commanders in Latvia, until his health deteriorated to such a degree that he had to return to Sweden for more sophisticated oncology treatment. During his 3-year battle with cancer his engagement in the salvation war never wavered. 

Telephone calls, Email notes of encouragement and articles to be shared through my blog became essential weapons in his armament when his condition no longer permitted visits outside his quarters. Göran remained an enabler, sharing regularly.  And his and Chris’s love for TSA's work in Latvia continues to be an inspiration to me to this day.

Yes, a hero to countless people has laid down his sword and now wears the victor's crown. Well done Göran and may we, like you, aspire to serve God as bold, courageous and victorious servants of Jesus Christ!


Copyright © 2016 by Sven Ljungholm

RETURN TO BATTLE IN RUSSIA – AND BEYOND

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