Friday, July 29, 2011

Gen 32.22-31

A little while ago I read an article that tried to put some of the recent discoveries in quantum astrophysics into terms simple enough for lay people to understand.  Actually, I can’t say it absolutely succeeded – I was left baffled but at the same time astounded and intrigued.  The dry scientific language at one point went off the rails altogether, as the author noted with an exclamation mark: ‘Physics has turned into metaphysics!’ – the equally arcane branch of philosophy and theology that deals with the problem of existence.

The gist of it, though, is this – that the nothingness of empty space is not nothingness at all – the absolute emptiness of deep space, in which even inter-stellar dust clouds consist of at most one or two molecules per cubic kilometre, is not empty at all, but as physicist John Wheeler describes it, ‘the seat of the most violent physics’, a froth of activity in which particles and anti-particles continually pop into and out of existence.  Empty space, in other words, crackles with activity, constantly generating the stuff of existence – nothingness paradoxically turns out to be pregnant with somethingness, the raw processes of primal creation happening literally in the last place you’d expect, in the darkness and void of empty space.  This, perhaps, has something to do with that other hard concept astrophysicists try not very successfully to explain to the rest of us – the phenomenon of ‘dark matter’, theoretical matter and energy that must exist – in fact must make up 83% of the mass of the entire universe – in order to account for the gravitational and electrical and nuclear forces that glue the observable universe together.  Dark matter seems to be everywhere and yet it can’t be seen or felt or measured, just – like the five-sixths of an iceberg that lurks under the surface of the ocean – surrounding us like a shadow creation upon which the visible, measurable part of the physical universe depends for its existence and within which the violent processes of creation continue to churn.

It seems a good metaphor for that other subterranean process of creation that I’ve been talking about over the last few weeks, the shadow side of our own selves - the unacknowledged and unfamiliar depths of our own selves, and the inexplicably tangled profusion of light and dark that makes up our own inner motivations.  The good that we do in spite of ourselves, and the evil that all too often grows out of the fertile soil of our best intentions.  Perhaps the shadow side of human nature is like the quantum vacuum of creation, that place of apparent emptiness where we struggle for coherence and integrity and where, I have been suggesting, God’s grace and holy spirit is most at work within us.

Jacob, today, brings us back to reality with a jolt.  The parables of Jesus that we have been reading over the last few weeks have reminded us in a profound way that God works not just through the wholesome parts of human nature but also through the unwholesome aspects, that God is at work in the weeds as well as the wheat.  And right alongside, we’ve been reading through the cycle of stories from the Old Testament that tell how God makes a covenant with a family that becomes a nation, these mythic-sounding stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob which, like the ancient mythology of Greece, describe human personality almost in depth-psychological terms, warts and all, the dangerous desires, the loves and the lies and the compromises of being human.  And the Jacob saga has been reminding us, just like Jesus’ stories, that God works in the shadows of human life just as much as in the light, that God blesses ratbags and that God’s blessings come to fruition in and around the conniving of cheats.  This, you might think, is an idea that is both disturbing and comforting.  God’s blessings, it seems, aren’t dependent on whether we deserve them, and sometimes they don’t come in the way we think they should.

So, here’s the story to date.  Jacob – whose name means ‘heel catcher’ – the one who takes what belongs to his brother Esau by trickery and who defrauds his father into giving him the inheritance rights and the blessing that should have belonged to his older brother – Jacob is on the run out of town and has a dream in which God appears to him and makes him a remarkable promise.  The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac promises to be the God of Jacob too, even though strictly it isn’t fair.  And doesn’t Jacob know it.  Jacob’s long stopover in Haran with his cunning uncle Laban must have rubbed it in.  What goes around, comes around.  The branch of the family that stayed in the old country turns out to be just as sharp and conniving as the immigrant branch in Canaan, and here Jacob finds himself on the receiving end for a while.  Only for a while, because ultimately Jacob turns out to be the better conman, and at the end of 20 years skips town under slightly forced circumstances to head back home with more wives, concubines, livestock and children than he could ever have dreamed of.  He’s finally arrived, Jacob is now a nomadic lord in his own right. 

But Canaan is where Esau lives.  Going home means running the risk that Esau would still like to get even for that original con that Jacob had been trying to put out of his mind these last 20 years.  And as he gets nearer, Jacob sends out his spies who report back, Esau is coming to meet you with 400 men, in other words, with a military force.  The old Jacob rises to meet the challenge, first dividing his own caravan into two so if Esau attacks one group the other might get away.  Then he starts sending presents, small groups of slaves with sheep, goats, camels, all up over 500 animals, and he instructs the slaves to say, ‘oh, just another small gift from Jacob’.  Like Puss in Boots sending the powerful king another small present from the Marquis of Carabas.  With any luck, Esau is going to think Jacob is a whole lot more powerful and well-connected than he really is.

But then comes the moment in the middle of the night, when Jacob is all alone.  Even the women and children have been sent across the river towards Esau and an uncertain reception, but for some reason Jacob stays behind by himself.  Could it be that he is afraid?  At any rate, he is clearly dreading the encounter with his brother, and he is preparing himself for the worst.  Have you ever had a night like that, when all your chickens have come home to roost?  Jacob can’t stop thinking about what he did all those years ago – and then, the narrator tells us, a man came to him and fought with him all night.  A matter of fact report, we only gradually become aware that it is God himself who struggles against him.  Is it supposed to be metaphoric, just a symbolic way of saying Jacob is having a sleepless night?  I don’t think so, I think the story is telling us something real, that God is with us at the lowest point, but also that when we struggle, when in the dark places of our own soul we struggle against ourselves we are struggling with the God who takes our struggles seriously, the God who risks something in the outcome of our struggles.  But God never wrestles without a purpose, and for Jacob – as it usually is for us - the issue of the wrestling is his shame, his guilt and his fear.  In her book, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister sees Jacob’s struggle as a symbol of the spiritual struggle we all have to endure to become who God intends us to be.  We all need to endure change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability and exhaustion.  We all need to struggle in order to be transformed.

It’s a struggle which, remarkably, God can’t seem to win, even though God’s human opponent is wounded and will always afterwards walk with a limp.  You can’t struggle with God and expect to come out unscathed.  Jacob, who seems to have superhuman strength, can’t get the better of God, and surprisingly, God can’t get the better of Jacob either.  Jacob the heel catcher is good at hanging on, and insists on a blessing before he lets go.  Wouldn’t you think he’s had enough blessings already?  But according to Joan Chittister, Jacob is doing here what all of us have to do to become whole.  Jacob knows the blessing he needs, because in wrestling with the one who gave him life he has confronted the dark side of his own success, and the blessing God gives him is a new name – Jacob the heel catcher becomes Israel, the one who contends with God.

This new Jacob is physically crippled, but he’s finally grown up.  He’s no longer damaged.  That’s something you’ll never hear in churches that preach the gospel of prosperity.  That the wounds you get in life are what heal you, or as St Paul puts it, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness’.  The place where you are broken is the place where you are in contact with God.  That part of your life that maybe only you know about, that old failure you’ve spent years overcompensating for, that addiction you can’t shake, that old grief you can’t forget – turns out to be where you go to wrestle with God.  What maybe you always thought of as a barren and empty corner of your life turns out to be a place of blessing, the place of deepest creativity and healing.  Where you are wounded is where you go to find the blessing that only you can give.

Like you and like me, this new Jacob limps.  But he’s learned how to live with the past.  He’s learned how to live with uncertainty, with ambiguity, with fear and with hope.  When morning comes he limps across the river to meet his brother.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pentecost 6A - Gen29.15-28/Mtt 13.44-58

One of the very best films in the 1980s was the French movie ‘Jean de Florette’.  We first meet the main character – Ugolin - after his discharge from the army, when he returns to the village of his birth to live with the old man who is his only surviving relative – Ugolin has the idea of growing tulips, and so they set about it with frightening energy – these two men are poor, their life is incredibly hard and we watch sympathetically as they tend the small plants with care and even love – but tulips are thirsty and Ugolin and his uncle soon realise they don’t have enough water – just when it looks as though their dream is doomed to failure Ugolin stumbles on a natural spring – not on their own land but on the next-door farm that has been inherited by a city slicker played by Gerard Depardieu – determined to get the rights to the water they block up the spring with a bagful of cement and watch their new neighbour breaking his heart and ruining his health carrying in water with his little donkey all through the hot summer to keep his crops watered.  Eventually Depardieu’s character dies, and Ugolin and his uncle, playing the concerned neighbours, buy the precious field at a bargain price – a few blows with a sledgehammer, the water flows again and in the last scene of the movie the tulips are magnificent.

It’s a morality tale that leaves you feeling a bit queasy, because you end up not quite sure whose version of morality you are supposed to be recognising.  Whose side you are supposed to be on.  It’s a story that refuses to tie up the loose ends, and so it leaves you trying to work it out for yourself.  Can anything good come out of behaviour that is morally suspect?  Listen to some of Jesus’ stories for today, and work it out for yourself.

‘This is how God’s kingdom happens, Jesus tells us, ‘it’s like a man who finds a hidden treasure in a field’.  ‘What sort of treasure?’, we ask.  ‘I don’t know’, says Jesus.  ‘It doesn’t matter.  Old coins maybe.  Maybe someone buried them there when there were foreign armies around.’  ‘Anyway, so the man who finds them covers them up again, and goes away and checks his bank balance’. 

‘What – so he can buy the treasure?’

‘No, so he can buy the field’.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like?  Seeing something you want, and gaining it by deceit?  These days, we call this sort of thing insider trading, we send people to jail for behaving like this.  So, the kingdom of God is like being sneaky and dishonest?

Well, maybe Jesus’ story is meant to be an example of what God’s kingdom isn’t.  Maybe the whole point of the story is that God’s blessings aren’t blessings at all unless they are opened up for everyone to share.  That springs are meant to flow, not to be blocked up with cement.  If God’s kingdom is about inclusiveness and forgiveness and radical hospitality – where does that leave us when we unexpectedly stumble over God’s blessings in our lives?  Are they for us, or are they for sharing?  One thing this story tells us for sure is that God’s kingdom is a wild card, when it breaks in on our world, everything that we thought was fixed and settled is on the move again.

So Jesus says, ‘I’ll tell you another one’.

’Oh’, we say.  ‘Alright’.

‘God’s kingdom is like a farmer who deliberately plants a mustard seed in his field – not the domesticated sort, not Keen’s mustard but wild mustard - just about the most pernicious, noxious weed that ever haunted an ancient farmer’s nightmares – God’s kingdom is like somebody who goes out the back and plants dandelions in the lawn, and they spring up healthy and strong, and the snails come and have a field day.

‘Oh’, we say.  ‘We don’t get it.’

‘Well try this one.  God’s kingdom is like a woman making bread.  She starts with three kilograms of flour and she mixes in just a teaspoonful of yeast but it works its way through the whole lump of dough.’

Well, we’re pretty sure we get that one.  That one sounds easy – just a little bit of God’s grace, or God’s forgiveness or whatever, turns a whole lump of uselessness into a nice big fluffy loaf of bread.

Small turns into big.  You think the kingdom of God is powerless, you think it’s so small you can’t see it at all, but it turns everything upside down.  Tiny bit of yeast – bread rises up twice or three times its size.  God’s grace is transformational – when you catch a glimpse of it – when you see just for a moment where there is some love in a situation that is unlovely, when you catch a glimpse of hope in a situation that you thought was hopeless, and you recognise that as God’s kingdom breaking in – then just watch because something you thought was set in concrete is about to get broken open and transformed into what God always intended it to be like.

Or is Jesus really just telling us it’s about the mess?  That God’s kingdom is about what we generally think of as disorder?  Why else would Jesus tell us God’s kingdom is like insider trading and sharp practices?  That God’s kingdom is like planting dandelions in your lawn?  And then we notice that this is the only place in the whole of the Bible where yeast seems to be getting a good rap.  Everywhere else in the whole Bible, even when Jesus talks about it – yeast represents rottenness and contamination.  Remember, this is before the days of freeze dry Tandora yeast in little packets, natural yeast is a sort of mould that blows in on the wind and bubbles up and produces nasty smells.  Bread is supposed to stay good and flat like the bread of the Passover that reminds the Jews of how God brought them out of Egypt.  You put a little bit of this messy bubbling yeast in your good flour and it contaminates the lot.  It upsets the apple cart.  You thought you knew what you were getting.  Proper buffalo grass lawn.  Proper lavash bread.  But in comes the wild card, something unexpected, and you get a backyard full of waist-high dandelion, you get a high-rise loaf that – well, actually it smells rather good, but it’s not what you expected.

Is this what Jesus is telling us?  That God’s kingdom breaks in most especially where things aren’t neat and tidy?  That God’s kingdom happens in the mess and compromise of everyday life?  Could he be saying that the kingdom of God is like an infection you can never quite get rid of, like an outbreak of weeds you can’t control.  Like an infestation you never could have planned and certainly didn’t want that turns out to be unkillable, and it gets into all your well-laid plans and changes everything in ways you can’t predict.  That God’s kingdom can transform us sometimes by working against our obsession for neatness and order and control.  And that it breaks in whenever we choose life, whenever we dare to believe in the future, or in one another.

Take Leah, for example.  Jacob, of course, didn’t want to, not for a moment.  Our Bible translation that we read from in church puts it too kindly, Leah, we read this morning, had lovely eyes.  Well, the actual Hebrew word is raq, which translates better as ‘weak’.  This girl is short-sighted, like the girl we all remember from grade three who wore glasses so thick they looked like the bottoms of coke bottles.  Jacob didn’t want her, he’d fallen head over heels for Rachel and here his wily uncle Laban has outsmarted him.  Well, let’s not feel too sorry for Jacob, the con-man who’s just been outsmarted at his own game.  But spare a thought for Leah.  Destined to go through life with everything looking fuzzy (it was long before glasses were invented).  The wife of a husband who didn’t love her, and the daughter of a father who palmed her off as a practical joke.  The patron saint of losers, or if she isn’t, she ought to be.

And yet?  It’s through Leah, the unlovely and unloved wife that God’s promises and God’s blessings come true.  Leah turns out to be the mother of ten of Jacob’s sons, the great-great grandmother of David and great-great-great-great grandmother, more or less, of Jesus.  It’s the wild card, the spores of yeast have floated in through the broken window again.

You see, there’s nothing holy about the kingdom of God, if by ‘holy’ we think we mean uncontaminated, set apart, clean and special and reserved for Sunday best.  The kingdom of God – according to the scruffy story-teller wandering around the fishing villages and the farms of Galilee – is busy springing up right in the middle of the most suspect corners of our private lives and forcing its way up like a weed through the cracks of our failures and peccadilloes and secret regrets.  So tangled up with our own mixed motives and so hidden in the ordinariness of our mundane lives that we don’t even see it.  The kingdom of heaven is hidden because it’s right there in plain view, in the last place we’d expect to find it.  Resistant to Roundup, unkillable as couch, no respecter of boundaries, of convention or of shallow pretences of religion, God’s kingdom is unstoppable.  Expect to see an outbreak of it in your neighbourhood sometime soon.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Pentecost +5 (Gen 28.10-19, Mtt 13.24-30, 36-43)

In the wonderful little tale by fantasy writer, Ursula Le Guin, a bright but undisciplined and self-centred young boy called Sparrowhawk is sent by his poor family to become an apprentice wizard.  Sparrowhawk, who possesses a wild magical ability far in excess of his teachers, and an impatient arrogance that prevents him from accepting their discipline, is given the secret wizard-name Ged.  In this world knowledge of the true name of a creature or a person gives power, so a magician’s true name is never used.  On an impulse, one day Sparrowhawk steals an ancient book from his master and reads out a powerful spell that – even though, or perhaps because he doesn’t perform the magic correctly, releases a destructive shadowy force into the world.  The remainder of the story, as Sparrowhawk slowly and painfully learns to accept the discipline and acquire the humility that comes with responsibility and maturity, he is haunted by the memory and the destructive side effects of his youthful folly.  The good that the young man tries to do as a trained magician and protector of his village goes awry.  Wherever he goes and whatever he tries to accomplish Sparrowhawk is pursued by his nemesis who wreaks terrible destruction.  Eventually the young magician realises he must devote the rest of his life to hunting down and destroying the evil he let loose in the world.  He pursues the creature over land and sea, always one step behind, obsessed with his goal – battling the creature and suffering dreadful injuries while the evil he unleashed seems only to grow in strength.  Until one day, sailing across the endless ocean, Sparrowhawk encounters the shadowy demon alone.  Walking on the water, the magician approaches the evil he created, and – suddenly knowing the one word that will give him the power over his creation he speaks his own name: ‘Ged’.  The two incomplete halves then become one, a complete person.

It’s a powerful story, because in a sense it is the story of every one of us.  We are divided, the conscious, disciplined side against the unruly side, the rational, reasonable side against the creative, passionate side.  We divide our own nature by what we don’t want to recognise in ourselves, and we project – that is to say, we see in other people what we don’t want to own up to in ourselves.  And we can spend most of our lives refusing to accept our own unconscious self, what psychologist Karl Jung called the ‘shadow side’ of our own self.  Which makes us incomplete, we miss out on half our God-given identity, we come to believe that some aspects of our own selves are unacceptable, uncontrollable, even unspiritual, and we become critical of others who seem to embody the aspects of ourselves we are unable to acknowledge.

In the Gospel story this morning, Jesus tells us about the light and the shadow of our own selves.  The weeds are not someone else – the weeds and the wheat are all tangled together, entwined at the very roots inside us, the not-so-neatly categorisable profusion that we call our inner selves, and let’s face it, only God can sort us out.  Seems to me sometimes we can’t even tell which parts of ourselves are the good bits.  We get it so wrong, sometimes.  But the parable tells us that God works with us as we are, weeds and all, God tends and nurtures and loves us as flawed and divided as we are.  And the story tells us that God can do we can’t – that in God’s own time the life-giving, healthy and good parts of us will be remembered and gathered into the heart of God, while what is selfish or immature or destructive is forgotten.  We can leave that up to God.

Our Old Testament reading from Genesis continues the story of the patriarchs – those deeply human, imperfect men and women through whom we see God’s promises being woven into history.  We haven’t read all of the Jacob story so far, which I think is a pity, because the most interesting thing about Jacob – is that Jacob is a ratbag.

Last week we began reading about Jacob and Esau who is his twin brother, everything Jacob isn’t.  Think of Jacob as the quiet boy, good at school, always got his head in a book, polite to his mum.  Esau would be the footy player, hangs around with the rough kids, always got dirty knees, outside playing with the dog when he should be tidying his room.  Something like that.  Jacob’s mum dotes on him, sure he’s going to grow up to be a doctor.  Esau, she thinks, will probably end up on the dole.  Their dad isn’t so sure, he likes Esau’s energy, he loves his wild son who goes out hunting and comes back smelling like the bush.  Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jacob is the good little boy and that Esau is the one who goes off the rails.  Sure, Jacob is more than a bit scared of Esau, who in the way of footy players mutters oafishly about what he’s going to do to Jacob when he catches him.  Because Jacob is a manipulative, selfish, nasty piece of work.  His name itself means ‘supplanter’ – someone who takes what rightfully belongs to somebody else – and I’d like to say he quickly learns his lesson, but in fact for years yet Jacob is going to be a conniver, getting ahead through sharp practices and making enemies along the way.  Esau is the shadow side of Jacob, his twin, everything Jacob isn’t, and much of what he should be, as we’ll find out in due course.  Jacob has got a long way to go before he can be reconciled with his own best self.

We missed out the part where Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from his dying father, which is a shame because it’s a good yarn.  We already read last week how Jacob tricks his not-so-bright brother out of his birthright.  In chapter 28 of Genesis, just before we came in this morning, Jacob’s father Isaac is on his death-bed, old and blind, and in the way of ancient peoples knows he has to pass on his blessing to his eldest son.  The understanding was that blessings were indivisible and powerful, dad had just one blessing to give, and it belonged to Esau.  Except that Jacob, with mum’s help and connivance, dresses himself up in a hairy goat skin and brings the dying Isaac a meaty dish just like Esau would have done when he got back from hunting, and tricks the suspicious, dying old man into blessing him in the place of his brother.  Which means Jacob inherits the lot, and Jacob has what is more important, the blessing of his old man.  Esau gets nothing, and as his father tells him before he dies, will have to battle his way through a hostile world.

So today, Jacob the ratbag is on the run.  His mum has got him out of town, telling the old man that, now he is the official heir, Jacob is going to have to get himself a suitable bride from back home, not one of these ragamuffin local girls.  But this is where we come in.  Jacob the liar, the cheat, the out for himself alone, selfish brainy idiot, is out in the middle of nowhere, far from home and far from his destination in the middle of the desert - because he is afraid of his brother.  He’s not thinking about anybody else, not even his doting mum, he certainly isn’t thinking about what God wants – an un-person in a no-place, an immoral and irreligious scoundrel, Jacob settles down for the night in the empty, fearful, trackless desert.

Did I mention God loves ratbags?

Ancient people, it seems to me, were wiser than we are about dreams, those insights and hunches and guilty feelings we successfully hold at bay during the rush and bother of day to day that creep in irresistibly in the vulnerability of sleep.  The ancients knew that dreams connect us with deeper truths about who we are, and they paid attention to them.  Jacob dreams of what our translation of the Bible calls a ladder, more likely something like a ziggurat, one of those steps and stairs Mesopotamian pyramids, with God’s messengers ascending and descending on it.  He dreams, in other words, that God’s life is connected to our life, that God is with us wherever we are, even when we are noplace at all, even when we are totally disconnected from everything else, when we have burned all our bridges and alienated everybody and are utterly on our own – God is with us.  And he hears God’s promise – this is now the eight time God has repeated the promise of descendants and land and the becoming of a great people – ratbag Jacob in the middle of nowhere with nothing under his head for a pillow except for a rock is the recipient of a divine blessing so beautiful and so absolute that we still read it now and feel reassured.  Jacob, the trickster who stole a blessing is told that through him all the nations of the world and all of time will be blessed.  Jacob the runaway and refugee from his community’s retribution is told that he is going to be the link between his community’s past and its future.

Jacob responds, when he wakes, in typical fashion.  Impressed, he decides this religion idea has got something going for it.  The lectionary writers cut him off in mid-sentence, unfortunately, we don’t hear the bit where Jacob says, ‘alright, God, if you do all this for me and so long as you make sure I get rich and prosper, then I’m your man.  I’ll even tithe’.  The recipient of a blessing that reaches through the centuries and generations, that ripples outwards to embrace the whole family of humankind, Jacob is still out for the main chance, still out for number one, still a ratbag.  Jacob has a long way to go yet.

Just as well – just as well for all of us, really – that God sees in us what we can’t see in ourselves.  Just as well God loves ratbags.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Pentecost +4, Romans 8.1-11

A comment that I hear from time to time – especially from people who, on finding out that I am a priest, feel they need to make some explanation for why they don’t come to church – is ‘I’m interested in spirituality, just not in religion’.  When, as I occasionally do, I ask what they think the difference is, I get a fairly wide variety of answers but a remarkable consistency.  Religion, I am told, is about what you do on Sunday, spirituality is for the whole of your life.  Religion is about believing stuff, spirituality is about how you live.  Religion is about guilt and being told what to do, spirituality is about making the inner connection.  Maybe part of the problem is that the Church has all too often seemed to shy away from talking about spirituality, which even the great theologian Karl Rahner once described as, ‘a mysterious and tender thing, about which we can speak only with difficulty’.  Or as a less kind person once described it, hitting the nail squarely on the head, ‘the Church’s best kept secret’.

Everybody has a spirituality.  Some of us just don’t know what it is.  Your spirituality is your hidden centre, what lights your fire, the secret code of your life around which everything else is organised – or perhaps disorganised.  Money can be a powerful spirituality, a negative one, a subterranean pull that can subvert your most generous and loving impulses.  Alcohol and food and sex can become demonic forms of spirituality, as can all forms of addiction including retail therapy.  Good and lifegiving things that become negative forms of spirituality when they occupy such a central place in our lives that our whole personality and all our relationships are be twisted into place around them.  Your spirituality is what forms you, day by day and year by year, for good or for ill.  And freedom consists of choosing your spirituality wisely, giving yourself to a lifegiving spirituality that forms you through gentle discipline and encourages you to grow in the virtues that build resilience and generosity and strength.  We all have a spirituality, the trick is being intentional about choosing a spirituality wisely, and nurturing it reflectively.

St Paul has been talking about the psychology of religion, and the maddening capacity we all have as human beings to subvert out own best intentions - and where we finished our reading from the Epistle to the Romans last week he has just concluded that an approach to religion as a system of do’s and don’ts is doomed to failure.  The way of Jesus, Paul claims, has got the power to do what the Law can never do, which is to actually change people’s lives, because we experience ourselves as loved into the sort of people God created us to be.  And he builds on this in this week’s instalment – in fact he goes further because he says for those who live in Christ there is no condemnation.  Not just because we are assured of God’s love and forgiveness, though that is a major help.  But there is a more active principle at work, and that is the principle of the Spirit.  Life in the Spirit breaks you out of the vicious cycle that leads you deeper and deeper into the impasse of your own self. 

Now, this should be really good news to my friends who prefer spirituality to religion, because the distinction they are making is exactly what St Paul is talking about.  Not only is the life-giving relationship with God through Jesus a whole new deal compared with the futility of trying to work your way through the rule book for its own sake, but Paul is claiming there is a mystery ingredient - the Spirit which when we open ourselves to it bears unexpected fruit.  The active ingredient that transforms lives from the inside out, so that when we are living in relationship with Christ we experience our lives as more free, more fully alive, and more open to new possibility than ever before.  And St Paul contrasts this with what he calls life centred on the flesh – perhaps this is another way of referring to what I described above as negative, addictive forms of spirituality.

But what is this life in the Spirit, or to put it another way, what is this liberating Christian spirituality, and how do we get it?  First and foremost, I think, to be ‘spiritual’ in the Christian sense - or as St Paul puts it, to live according to the Spirit - is to know, and to live by the knowledge, that there is more to life than meets the eye, that there is a deeper dimension to reality.  And it means to know, and to live by the knowledge, that in a real and immediate way God is present to us as the source of ongoing personal and communal growth and renewal. This energising divine presence is what we call the Holy Spirit, and in the language of the New Testament the word for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us is ‘charis’, which we translate as grace, or gift.  And Christian spirituality comes from the life-changing response of intentionally accepting and learning to live by that gift.

There are of course many non-Christian forms of spirituality, positive life-giving spiritual traditions in each of the world’s great faiths, authentic traditions of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu spirituality from which as Christians we have much to learn.  And there are many paths of Christian spirituality that have different emphases and recommend different ways of prayer and meditation: Augustinian, Ignation, Franciscan, Benedictine to name just a few.  Different Christian denominations emphasise different approaches to spirituality – the wonderful silence of Quaker meetings, the class meetings of early Methodism, the praise and talking in tongues of the charismatic movement and of course the Eucharistic spirituality of our own Anglican tradition.  But there are some important shared characteristics of any authentically Christian spirituality.

Firstly, that Christian spirituality is Trinitarian – grounded in the life of the triune God that we address as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which means our spirituality is grounded in the community of divine love that we understand as the ground of all existence, the loving goodness that the Christian faith understands as characteristically oriented not towards God’s own life but towards the life of all creation through the self-giving outpouring of love.  So these are the fundamental marks of Christian spirituality, a spirituality that is communal and shared rather than individual and private, and that orients us towards others in self-giving love.  Christian spirituality is fundamentally social and relational and even political, because we are each intimately linked with God and so also with one another. We understand our shared life as grounded in the God who loves us into being, and who at the end of our lives receives us again in love.  So Christian spirituality increases our capacity for empathy, sensitising us to the needs of others and driving us to oppose all forms of injustice and suffering.  

Next, Christian spirituality is incarnational, which means that it leads us to see all creation as grounded in God.  The Christian view of reality is that it is spoken into being by God, an expressive Word of God and filled with the purpose and power of divine love.  Creation spirituality is the spirituality of seeing all created things and living creatures as related, held together by our common origin in the creative love of God.  And that in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh, creation is made holy and joined to the life of God.  Which means that living creatures and the life-giving systems of the earth can never be viewed as commodities or as disposable, because in Christian spirituality they are sacramental, ordinary objects revealed as unique and unrepeatable words of God.  So Christian spirituality is uniquely and wonderfully materialistic, understanding human life to be inextricably linked with the life of creation.  As we come to feel the suffering of others as our own, so we come to understand the suffering of the whole earth as nothing less than the suffering of Christ.  Concern for the environment, for Christians, is not a feel-good option but a spiritual response that comes from our increasing sense of kinship with all that is.

Lastly, Christian spirituality is necessarily transformational, never oriented towards the past or towards the preservation of the status quo, but looking toward our true end, which is to grow into the men and women we were created to be.  This is where we understand the Holy Spirit to be most active, in healing, reconciling, drawing together all that human institutions and human sinfulness have kept separate, sustaining hope, creating unity and bringing joy.  The Holy Spirit keeps us wonderfully and creatively unsettled and uncomfortable, orienting us toward the future as that part of our lives that still longs to be unfolded and completed.  Christians are future people, not past people, our spirituality engages us with the world that is becoming and alerts us to the signs of God’s presence in what is new, and to the challenges to enact God’s priorities.

I hope it is fairly clear that I think Christian spirituality is not the pursuit of super-Christians or of religious sisters and brothers or even, heaven forbid, just of parish priests.  But that Christian spirituality is the effortless act of breathing in and out the love of God, the joy of keeping company with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and the freedom of giving assent to the wonderful, unpredictable and surprising work of the Holy Spirit within us.  Our work of giving permission is crucial, because what we become, through the bubbling away of the Holy Spirit, is always surprising, opening us up to new experiences and taking us in new directions that we would never have thought of by ourselves.  So we need above all to stay open-minded, learning the virtue of flexibility and watching out for the new directions in our individual lives and in the life of the Church that are the sure-fire marks that the Holy Spirit, not us, is in control.

Which, when you think about it, is our best guarantee that all will be well.


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Pentecost +3 (Rom 7.14-25)

I wonder if you remember this song from your childhood? I always thought it was Winnie the Pooh’s all too frequent lament – Alison remembers it as Noddy, an equally naughty sprite – when I Googled last week the Internet told me it was Peter Rabbit. 

               ‘Why did I do it?

               What can it be?

               There’s naughtiness in everyone

               but twice as much in me!’

Alison also remembers her brother Mark believing firmly, as a little boy, that the song had been written just for him.  I guess it could be any one of us, it’s a song about human nature, and St Paul tells us this morning that it’s definitely about him.

St Paul is skating on thin ice, he is arguing that the gospel he proclaims, the gospel of Jesus, can do what the Jewish religion based on the Law of Moses could never do, and that is to actually change people, inside and out.  But it’s a subtle and easy to misunderstand point he’s making, he is trying to show the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Law but at the same time he needs his listeners to understand that he isn’t criticising the Law, and he sure as heck isn’t criticising them – so he does what any good preacher does to avoid a mass walk-out – he lays it on as thick as he can, criticising himself!

It’s an argument that still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, because it’s not quite as simple as claiming that the old religion was a religion of do’s and dont’s, and the new religion, Christianity, is a religion of freedom and love.  Because Jesus himself insists on the Law, he even summarises the Law in a particularly uncompromising way when he gives his version of the two greatest commandment – love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.  How do you do that?  Or when he says blessed are you when you claim nothing, when you weep with these who mourn, when you are humble in spirit; blessed are you when you show mercy, when your innermost thoughts are pure, when you live the way of peace.  These are commandments, aren’t they?  How are you going with living the way of the beatitudes?  And we’ve still got the Ten Commandments.  How are you going with the one about not coveting?

I don’t think St Paul is doing anything quite as simple as recommending the new religion over the old religion; in fact, he probably didn’t even think of his gospel as a new religion and he thought of it as fulfilling rather than replacing the Law of Moses.  On the other hand I do think he is trying to shoot down a particular sort of spirituality or a particular approach to religion that says you can change or you can become acceptable to God by following the rules.  And the trouble is, that sort of approach to religion is just as prevalent in Christianity as in Judaism, just as common in the 21st as in the 1st century.  St Paul laments what happens to him when he sets out to live like that – I remember when I studied the Epistle to the Romans during my priestly formation a big debate over whether Paul is talking here about himself before his conversion on the road to Damascus or is he saying this is his present reality? but of course the real question is about us and our own spirituality.  Does this portrait of best intentions versus ingrained habits ring true for us, and if so, what are we supposed to do about it?

St Paul’s point is simple and insightful.  If we approach religion – the Way of Jesus which is the practical outworking of the Jewish Torah – as a set of rules to be followed then inevitably the effort to follow the rules turns into its own contradiction.  As generations of schoolboys have discovered, rules are there to be broken.  Human nature which is invariably focused on its own self-fulfilment always discovers that rules end up prompting rather than preventing what they try to prohibit.  You can’t ban marijuana, for example, without making it a symbol of individualistic self-determination, dark and devious and infinitely desirable.  Which is why for example I think the approach to tobacco consumption taken by health authorities over the last 20 or so years is dead right.  It’s not banned, you can smoke if you want, but it’s not sexy now that the association between smoking and bad breath, yellow teeth and the ugly consequences of mouth, oesophageal or lung cancer have been graphically and indelibly drawn.  So smoking has dropped from just over 80% immediately after World War II to just over 20% of the adult population now, because it no longer fits with the idea most of us have of a good time.  On the other hand, many a drug education program has inadvertently provided the exact opposite of what it intended – a good introduction to the illicit excitement of the drug scene.  Real transformation comes not by listing all the things we have to do differently, but by experiencing ourselves as set free from the things that limit us.

Paul has no argument with the goodness of the commandments of the Law of Torah.  His point is that when we focus on religion as a fence set up between a whole bunch of shoulds and a whole other – more exciting – bunch of should nots – then we are setting ourselves up to fail. We want to do good, we want to be the sort of people who we all recognise easily enough, men and women who exude a quiet and apparently effortless goodness.  But it seems to me our difficulty results from mistaking the effect from the cause, focusing on the behaviour and failing to see that discipline cannot be acquired without love, transformed lives can’t happen without a transformed understanding of who we ourselves are in relationship with God and with each other.

As human beings we are disfigured by sin, which is to say that we have an internal struggle between the leadings of our own best selves and the powerful impulse to look out for number one. To be human is to be torn between our desire for reconnection with what gives us life, which is God – and our impulse to control and dominate, which ultimately is related to our fear of death.  Which is to say that human nature twisted by sin has the tendency to be divided against itself, to be morally impotent.  We subvert our own best efforts to live in accordance with God’s law, and no amount of encouragement to live in the way we know we should live is going to do any good – until we can recognise and bridge the inner contradiction of our own selves.

There is a temptation to read this and think, ‘well, that’s it then!  If it’s built into us, what hope is there?  Why bother?’  And many Christians, sadly, settle for lives that are disfigured by guilt and shame.

But here Paul’s argument finds its true ground, because he says that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, God has offered us a new ending to the story of what it means to be human.  The conundrum is still the conundrum.  But there’s a new narrative, a new trajectory for human life from death to life and from sin and guilt to forgiveness and freedom.  And what makes the difference is relationship, forgiveness that cancels out guilt and frees us to know ourselves as loved and begin to live in a loving way towards others.  The way to change human behaviour – we actually already know this – is not by telling people how they should change but by loving them until they have the strength and the freedom to change.  People change when they know for sure that they are loved beyond their experiences of inadequacy, or their guilt or perhaps their false guilt that prevents them from seeing any good in themselves.  Unconditional love gives people the strength to imagine and work towards a future that is no longer dominated by the failures and fears of the past.

The best sort of argument is the one that reminds us of what we already know – isn’t it? That points us towards a conclusion we recognise and that makes it possible for us to change direction.  That leads to what the New Testament calls metanoia – the change of heart and change of direction.  And this is what St Paul is offering us, because we are born knowing this, and knowing that our lives are cradled in a network of human relationships that sustain us and enable us to live and grow toward new possibilities, knowing that the universe itself is sustained by life-giving love.  Somewhere along the way in our lives we forget, and we take the burden of our own limitations and disappointments on our own shoulders, and we forget that the love that creates and sustains us also orients us towards others in love, and so we learn to live competitively and defensively.  And it’s a vicious circle, because deep down we yearn for wholeness and we long to live in relationships of trust and openness - but what prevents us is that we’ve grown a hard shell of compounded shame and guilt and self-protectiveness.

And so St Paul reminds us of what in fact we already know.  That the one who can break through that shell is the one who made us in love and who knows us more fully than we know ourselves, the one who demonstrates his intention for our lives in the pattern of Jesus’ life – and who in the miracle of forgiving love that we call resurrection makes possible our own response.

All we ourselves need to do is recognise that this love is personal, that it is the ground and the context of our own lives, and to understand that if we agree to accept it, the first thing to be changed by it – is us.