Thursday, 27 December 2012

Questioning our assumptions

What assumptions do you base your life on? After all, everyone makes assumptions about reality, so I wonder what yours are. We assume, for example, that everyone sees the colour red in the same way that we do, but how do you know that your red doesn’t look like green to me.

We assume that the sound of a blackbird singing sounds the same to us as it does to everyone else, but how do you know that I hear the same frequencies as you do? We assume that the feel of the heat of the sun on our skin feels the same to us as to the person next to us. But can you prove that?

Science is very good at assumptions, and I speak as someone who had a career in science before coming to holy orders, so I’m not just knocking down an ‘Aunt Sally’. Scientists’ greatest assumption is that surely something can only exist if you can measure it reproducibly; if you can prove it. So we have accurate scales that can measure the mass of the tiniest amount, nanograms or even picograms.

And by observing the movement of stars in the skies we can now determine, from how they wobble, not just whether they have planets, but how many and how far away they are from their parent stars. And by measuring just how much the wavelength of light from a distant galaxy has been stretched by the expansion of the universe as it’s travelled to our telescopes, we can determine how far away it is and how old it is.

All this is marvellous and useful information, information that I would not dream of denying the truth of, so don’t worry you’re not going to get a ‘science is pointless’ post from me, not ever. But science then goes further than that and assumes that everything that exists can be observed and measured in this way, and therefore if you can’t measure it, then it must be a myth or a figment of your imagination.

And we, living in our modern western culture, assume that the scientists must be correct because they’re, well they’re scientists, but it is still nevertheless an assumption. It’s an assumption that says that we have developed tools for reproducibly measuring the things which we observe and therefore if something cannot be observed, it cannot be measured and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But who says that the definition of existence is that it is something which can be observed and measured? That is a huge assumption, and it’s one which cannot be proved. There are numerous things that we can observe, but we are making a massive leap, a very big assumption indeed, if we say that if we cannot observe something then it doesn’t exist.

Science operates on the laws of cause and effect, but what if something exists which doesn’t operate by cause and effect? It is a large assumption to say that if something doesn’t obey cause and effect then it cannot exist. Why? Who says? On what do we base that assumption?

Many people have had an experience at some point in their life that they can’t explain in earthly terms. The reason we can’t explain these things is because they do not happen reproducibly. They fall outside our assumptions about reality.

For example, at the last church at which I worked we had a similar model to the one we have here, that people can request prayer with the laying on of hands at the altar when they receive communion. On two occasions when I laid hands on the head of a particular woman, I felt a hand being laid on my own shoulder. It was so definitely ‘there’ that I looked around thinking someone was standing behind me, trying to get my attention. But there was no one visible there.

It only happened on those two occasions, and there is nothing I can do to make it happen, to conjur up the same experience. It was not measurable or reproducible, and the only observation was made by me. But it still happened. I know I’m not mad. It has been experiences like that which have made me want to start questioning assumptions.

They are one-offs and fall outside normal experience, but is that any reason to doubt their validity? It is my belief that we cannot grow as people unless we question our assumptions. So when someone says that my experiences of God are in my imagination, or that I was mistaken, my answer to that is, prove it. I could list a number of occasions, some shared with others, when that which falls outside our usual experience of reality took place, when something spiritual, something ‘other’, happened.

Now don’t get me wrong, we need assumptions to make sense of the world. If we didn’t trust anything we’d descend into meaningless chaos. But we do still have to question our assumptions.

So what assumptions have you made about Christmas?

Perhaps you have assumed that Christmas is a celebration for an outdated religion, and suitable for the twenty-first century only because of its value to children. I suggest that this is an assumption based on the mindset I’ve just been criticising. We only think religion is outdated because someone else in society is saying we should have grown out of mumbo-jumbo.

But what if it’s true? What if God, who is Father and Mother, loves creation so much that God could see the only way to put things right was to come in person? I can’t prove it and we have to depend on the observations of others in the Bible, observations which don’t always agree, but to me it seems logical that if a God who is love exists, then this God would want to offer us a way to know him back, and to reciprocate the love he offers.

Another assumption we might make is, God can’t be real because if he was then wouldn’t he show himself in a way that can’t be mistaken? But the assumption made here is that if God showed up in a way that made his existence absolutely plain then that would sort everything out.

Kierkegaard challenged that assumption when he told this story:
Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden. How could he declare his love for her?

In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage…that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal… For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

If God loves us and wants us to reciprocate then the last thing that God can do is come to us from outside the creation in power. He would easily overwhelm us, but would we have the freewill to respond in love? I don’t think so. And so God took the other route and came to us from inside the creation as one of us. The simple act of being born as a human says more about God’s nature than any sermon.

The story of Christmas is one of God meeting us where we are because there can be no other way that gives us the freedom to choose whether to reciprocate, to choose to respond with love to the love which is offered.

So what assumptions did you come here with this morning? It may be an assumption that you’re worthless because of the way you have been treated by others. Look in the manger at the helplessness of God and ask whether God would give himself to be born for someone if they were worthless.

Or you might have come with the assumption that religion is for old people. Why then did God choose to be born as a child and grow into a young man who worked as a builder?

It may be any one of a hundred different assumptions. This Christmas is the time to challenge those assumptions. The idea of Almighty God emptying himself of all of his divine power in order to be born as a helpless child challenges every assumption we could make and inspires us to ask the difficult questions, questions like, ‘What if it’s true?’ Because if it is, then what?

Let me finish with a story:
There was once a man who didn't believe in God, and he didn't hesitate to let others know how he felt about religion and religious holidays, like Christmas. His... wife, however, did believe, and she raised their children to also have faith in God and Jesus, despite his disparaging comments.

One snowy Christmas Eve, his wife was taking their children to a Christmas Eve service in the farm community in which they lived. She asked him to come, but he refused. "That story is nonsense!" he said. "Why would God lower Himself to come to Earth as a man? That's ridiculous!" So she and the children left, and he stayed home.

A while later, the winds grew stronger and the snow turned into a blizzard. As the man looked out the window, all he saw was a blinding snowstorm. He sat down to relax before the fire for the evening. Then he heard a loud thump. Something had hit the window. Then another thump. He looked out, but couldn't see more than a few feet.

When the snow let up a little, he ventured outside to see what could have been beating on his window. In the field near his house he saw a flock of wild geese. Apparently they had been flying south for the winter when they got caught in the snowstorm and could not go on. They were lost and stranded on his farm, with no food or shelter.

They just flapped their wings and flew around the field in low circles, blindly and aimlessly. A couple of them had flown into his window, it seemed. The man felt sorry for the geese and wanted to help them. The barn would be a great place for them to stay, he thought. It is warm and safe; surely they could spend the night and wait out the storm.

So he walked over to the barn and opened the doors wide, then watched and waited, hoping they would notice the open barn and go inside. But the geese just fluttered around aimlessly and did not seem to notice the barn or realize what it could mean for them.

The man tried to get their attention, but that just seemed to scare them and they moved further away. He went into the house and came back out with some bread, broke it up, and made a breadcrumbs trail leading to the barn. They still didn't catch on. Now he was getting frustrated. He got behind them and tried to shoo them toward the barn, but they only got more scared and scattered in every direction except toward the barn. Nothing he did could get them to go into the barn where they would be warm and safe.

"Why don't they follow me?!" he exclaimed. "Can't they see this is the only place where they can survive the storm?" He thought for a moment and realized that they just wouldn't follow a human. "If only I were a goose, then I could save them," he said out loud. Then he had an idea. He went into barn, got one of his own geese, and carried it in his arms as he circled around behind the flock of wild geese. He then released it. His goose flew through the flock and straight into the barn -- and one by one the other geese followed it to safety.

He stood silently for a moment as the words he had spoken a few minutes earlier replayed in his mind:
"If only I were a goose, then I could save them!"
Then he thought about what he had said to his wife earlier.
"Why would God want to be like us? That's ridiculous!"

Suddenly it all made sense. That is what God had done.

We were like the geese -- blind, lost, perishing. God had His Son become like us so He could show us the way and save us.

So maybe it's time to start questioning some of our assumptions...

Crossing sacred thresholds

What thresholds have you crossed recently? Some of you, perhaps before going to a Midnight communion, would have had a few drinks in your local. Did you notice the difference as you crossed the threshold from outside going into the pub? From the cold you entered the warm. From the dark you entered the light. From the quiet outside you entered the noisy inside. From the one or two you became part of many, of the laughter, the celebration, the joy.

How about the last time you crossed the threshold into a church? What did you notice as you went through the door? Maybe you noticed absolutely nothing at all. After all most of us sleepwalk through our lives, barely aware of what’s going on around us. Most of us are so caught up in the sounds inside our own head that we don’t notice the differences when we go from one place to another.

Most of us don’t notice boundaries and thresholds, yet that’s where all the action happens. When you step through a car door suddenly you’re into a world of possibilities; when a baby is born she leaves one world and enters another; when you arrive at your front door you have little idea what will greet you. These are the boundary places and they are where everything changes.

And that brings us to the point of crossing over from December 24th to Christmas Day, because that, too, is a boundary place, somewhere where we cross from one space to another, a place in time and space where everything changes, if you want it to. But to fully understand that, and why tonight is special, let me let you into a secret. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December the 25th two thousand and twelve years ago.

As to what year he actually was born in, the jury is still out, but regarding the month, December is highly unlikely. The reason I say that is because the biblical testimony of angels appearing to shepherds in their fields could not have happened in December because in Israel December is just as much winter as it is here, and believe me, having been there in the spring, I promise you that it gets cold outside, very cold indeed.

And because of the temperature in winter and the winter rains it’s pretty likely that all the sheep would have been brought into pens since late October, not being put out again until March. So when was Jesus actually born? Well we can make an educated guess. We know from Luke’s information that John the Baptist was probably born in the spring and his Mother was 6 months pregnant when Mary visited her.

So Jesus was probably born something like three months later in early autumn. All of which begs the question, why then do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th? What’s wrong with September. I think it’s all down to boundaries again, to the spirituality of crossing the threshold into something new.

December 21st was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the longest night. It’s a special date because it is a threshold, a boundary. Up until then the sun was setting earlier and rising later and the days were getting shorter. And then everything changed, the process stopped.

And so on Christmas day, just four days later, the eagle-eyed may even have noted a very slight increase in light. Something is changing in the northern hemisphere. The light is coming back. That, I think, is why December 25th was chosen, because we have just crossed a boundary, the boundary between darkness and light. Every Friday at school assembly we pray a simple prayer with the children; Lord Jesus, Light of the World, be with us now.

He may well have been born in September, but in terms of the pure symbolism of dark and light, and the power of the symbolism behind crossing the boundary from one into the other, it makes perfect sense to celebrate his birthday on December 25th, just as the boundary into the return of the light has been crossed.

Jesus, the Son of God, enters our world and as he does so God moves us across the boundary towards the Light.

That challenges us with two more boundaries. We began our Midnight Mass at 11.30 so that during the address we are crossing over to the new day. Midnight is a boundary. You may have heard it called the witching hour. That’s purely because the same observation is made in a Pagan tradition, the understanding that the threshold from one day into the next is a place of power.

And there is another threshold to come in a communion service such as this. Following the creed, the prayers and the sharing of peace, I move up the church into the sanctuary area, and in doing so cross another threshold, another boundary, from the body of the church across the boundary marked by the altar rail, to the place where we consecrate the bread and wine.

In one sense God is everywhere, but in another sense there are holy places, sacred spaces like the sanctuary, but they’re not all in churches. My wife, Alison, and I visited a holy well in Cornwall, St. Clether’s well, a place sacred to both Christians and Pagans, and as we walked across the boundary into the enclosure around the well’s chapel there was a tangible sense of peace, of holiness.

Some of you may feel this when you walk into a particular grove of trees or a forest; others as they enter a particular church or a place by the ocean or a lake. But you have to be aware enough; you have to be awake enough; you have to have your spiritual senses tuned in to the moment, the place, the reality.

And so once we have consecrated the bread and wine everyone is invited forward, to receive a blessing if they do not wish to receive communion. My experience of the midnight service is that not all will come forward, and that’s fine. But if what is keeping you back is a sense that you don’t quite really belong because you’re not sure you actually believe this, then let your spiritual senses tune in that you may feel able to approach the boundary at the altar rail.

It is a holy place, a threshold, and thresholds are where all the action happens. And sometimes it is at the thresholds that we meet with God. So come and receive. If you don’t want communion, come for a blessing.

December 25th is at a boundary, because on Christmas day we remember how new light was born into the world. That makes this a threshold of excitement. Who knows what can happen next in the lives of any of us, but unless we cross the threshold into a new place, we’ll never know. Maybe this is your year to approach the boundary of a sacred space and time, and cross over.

And now, may the Lord take you to new places as the light comes back.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Orthodox belief - how much does it really matter?

It's been slightly strange writing something this week in the midst of 'flu, not knowing if I'd be fit to deliver it on Sunday.  It also took rather a long while, I guess because the brain wouldn't engage at all for the first half of the week and only slowly in the second half.  But still, here we are.  Many thanks to Nimue Brown and the comments she made in her blog which brought some direction to my rather addled thoughts...

Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Belief and Practice - Getting our priorities right
It has been a remarkable experience to be challenged by those who follow a more nature-based spiritual path. My new friends have demonstrated a respect for my beliefs as being different from their own and have given me spiritual insights that I don’t think I would have glimpsed were it not for them.  Yet this is not a new challenge, just a different one. In the past I became good friends with a laboratory colleague who was an atheist and with whom I had lengthy debates about belief. Similar conversations still happen on-line. We hone our beliefs by exposing them to questions, but I realise that in the current spiritual climate this is very difficult for many Christians because we feel undermined not so much by the beliefs of other religions but by the beliefs of those who claim to be of the same faith as we are, except they somehow feel they are more pure.

Some of us struggle with the loud voices in own institution as it makes what, for many, seem like remarkable statements about what it believes to be infallibly correct doctrine regarding whether women can minister as Bishops and whether same-sex couples deserve the same spiritual support and recognition in their covenant relationships as heterosexual people getting married.

It feels as if the church has become extremely defensive, and in being defensive it is clarifying ever more tightly what it thinks we should believe. This seems to me to be even more pronounced in the more conservative wings, both evangelical and catholic. When I grew up it seemed like the Nicene Creed was sufficient in defining orthodox Christian belief, but now there are such things as the Lausanne Covenant from 1974 which includes such wordily-exact belief statements as this:
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
Lausanne runs to fifteen paragraphs of beliefs. But that wasn’t enough. It was followed in 1983 by the Amsterdam Affirmations, another fifteen statements of belief, and then in 1989 there was the Manila Manifesto, which ran to twenty one points of belief. (Amsterdam Affirmations and Manila Manifesto - you couldn’t make this stuff up!)

The same thing seems to have taken a firm hold in our authorised liturgy. When the new prayer book, Common Worship, came out at the millennium I was still in training and found myself thinking how much of an improvement it was over the old ASB.

But now, after ten years of working with it in ordained ministry I am constantly frustrated by its determination to dot theological i’s and cross orthodoxy t’s in such a way that the texts are frequently cold and devoid of the life that congregations need in order to make spiritual links between their inmost selves and the Holy One who pervades all things. That’s one of the reasons why I frequently use some of the Celtic and other liturgies, because they have a vitality about them which many feel they can respond to. And then each time I consider this issue I feel a little chill of fear run down my spine as to how long it is before the orthodoxy police come knocking to check that I believe all the right things. Yet all of these different statements of belief seem to stand out in stark contrast to what we find in the Gospel reading.

There it is John the Baptiser who is loudly proclaiming the gospel, the good news, and the word which seems to be completely absent is ‘belief’. Now part of the reason for that was that the first century Jewish community had a totally different take on belief. It was all about being a part of a covenant nation.

They were in relationship with God together with little of the emphasis on personal belief that we find today. Belief was a given for a Jew. Instead John’s message was all about action. It doesn’t sound much like good news, given that the mental image Luke conjurs up is of a wild prophet yelling at people about how awful they are.

But leave that aside for now as that’s another address for another day. What is so vitally important here is the question that people asked, over and over again in this passage, which was this:
“What should we do?”
The crowds asked it, the tax-collectors asked it, even the soldiers of the occupying army of Rome asked it. “What should we do?”

What makes this so important for us is that they did not ask this question:
“What should we believe?”
You and I do not believe the same things about God as John’s followers believed. To be honest I suspect that many of us do not believe the same things about God as John believed. And later on in the story, when Jesus comes eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, it becomes clear from John’s consternation that Jesus did not believe the same things about God as he did.

But it appears that belief is not the question which is important to John. What we do as a result of what we believe is far, far more important to God than the finer points of orthodox correctness. Do you believe the right things, or does the belief that you do have cause you to love other people? And that love that you proclaim, does it cause you to act for the welfare of others or is it just words?

I actually don’t think God cares too much about whether we believe all the right stuff, and I am absolutely convinced that our getting something wrong is no barrier whatsoever to God acting in our lives. For example, in orthodox Christianity we state that we believe God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do indeed believe that, but do I believe that’s the whole story? Not remotely.

The Trinity seems to me to be just the best-fit model we have for the current evidence and revelation, but there’s no way in which it is the complete picture - it’s just the best we can do with what we can comprehend with our limited brains. Does God care? No. What God cares about is whether our knowledge of the three-in-one community of God leads us to recognise the need to support the whole community as a mirror of God’s image and react against the culture of the individual in modern society.

So this Christmas, don’t worry too much about whether Mary really was a virgin, or whether Jesus was really born in a stable. I don’t actually think God is too bothered if you’re unsure about those issues (and he certainly won't smite you for having questions). The important message is that God willingly came to us, an action which changes everything, and so we should respond by going to others. It is far more important that the message changes our behaviour to one of lovingly responsible caring than that we get the message absolutely correct.

Friday, 7 December 2012

True love or just the projection of self?


Philippians 1:3-11
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Knowledge and Love
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? He or she was wonderful, beyond perfect; how could you have ever lived without the object of your love. Every time you thought of them your heart did a little flip-flop and maybe, if you were really lucky, you’d get this warm feeling in the pit of your stomach. All the colours of nature shone more brightly and the world was a wonderful place to exist.

So, how long did that feeling last I wonder?

When I was a teenager I’d “fall in love” like this at the drop of a hat. I’ve always been a romantic at heart, just ask my wife, and so it didn’t take much for my head to be turned and for me to be hopelessly lost in how wonderful the young woman was. Yet it never seemed to last terribly long. Usually after about a month I was realising that this beautiful young object of my affection wasn’t actually the answer to all my prayers.

It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve begun to realise what was actually going on here. Psychologists have a word for it: projection. In every case my teen self was projecting on to the next pretty face all my innermost desires for what my perfect woman would be like. And the thing about projection is that what we’re actually projecting is ourselves.

We are hoping that this new person in our life is actually just like us, and then we get all disillusioned when we discover that they’re not. Phew, thank goodness that we all grow up and stop projecting. Except I don’t think we do, and I think that’s what St. Paul is trying to deal with in this passage from his letter to the Philippian church, which I promise to come to in a minute...

...because exactly this kind of thing happens in churches too. Vicars are especially aware of this when we go to a new parish. Firstly there’s the interview process when you hope that what you’ve achieved is to show people who you really are. Then there’s the arrival process, when you put down markers to your personality as quickly as you can, and the reason for that is that when you arrive in a new parish everyone projects their innermost self on to the new vicar in the hope that they will fulfil all their needs.

This is why there’s often a honeymoon period when the new vicar can do no wrong before people begin to realise who they really are. Then the real work can get started.

The same is also true of people who regularly move from one congregation to the next, looking for the perfect minister. Again the leader at the church which they’ve started attending is absolutely wonderful when they first arrive, but gradually disillusionment sets in as they realise that this church and this minister is not who they thought they were, or more completely, is not the projection of themselves that they were looking for.

All of this adds up to a lot of disheartened and disillusioned people wandering around with broken or bewildered hearts because no one quite meets their expectations, and this is what I think Paul is trying to address when he says these words:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
“That your love may overflow with knowledge”. That is so important. The most successful couples that I meet are almost inevitably people who are happy in their own skins and are therefore not looking for someone else on to whom they can project their desires for another person like them. I know that my relationships only began to mature when I realised that the people I loved were not like me, and should not be expected to be.

For example I know that Alison and I have huge amounts in common, and having got married young we kind of grew up together, but there’s nevertheless a lot we don’t agree on, and that’s ok because she is Alison and I am Paul and we have rather got to know each quite well over twenty four years. And because we keep on talking our love is based on knowledge.

But in a sense that’s rather easy. You see in a covenant relationship like marriage there are only two people. St Paul was writing to an entire church. Yet I think what he was saying still holds very true which was that they should love each other and that the love they had should be based on knowledge, not on projection. In order for love to grow within their community they had to know who each other was.

Take five seconds to think about the people you know. Some maybe you’ve known for years, yet have you ever had a drink together or had supper together? What about the people whose faces you know quite well but whose names completely escape you? Have you ever spoken at any level beyond platitudes?
And horror of horrors, what would happen if you actually plucked up the courage to invite them around for supper and it turned out that you had little in common. What then? Well that’s when the challenges really start. That’s when the rubber really hits the road because in the beginnings of knowledge you still have to go back to what St. Paul said:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
You don’t actually have to like someone to love them. Love is a choice. Love says, “No matter what you do, I will always be here for you and welcome you back.” And it is certainly true that the more we know about some people the harder it can be to love them. Yet still:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best...”
I think that the key word is “insight”. Do you remember that one of the most important commands Jesus ever gave us was that we should not judge each other? I remain confident that the reason he said that was simply because none of us can know the reasons behind the actions that some of us make. But we can have insight into each others’ natures, provided that we learn to love each other in full knowledge of who we are.

But that can never happen if we only treat church as something we just come to on Sundays. In order to grow in knowledge of each other so that our love overflows we actually have to spend time together socially or in homegroups. This is really important. We have to get to know each other and then, in that knowledge of the otherness of the person with whom we share bread, we must allow love to overflow. Knowledge is based on experience.

And that brings me to perhaps the most important part about this, and that is our relationship with the Divine. When you think about God, how do you imagine him to be? Or how do you imagine her to be? Have you ever even contemplated that God may not always engage with us as a male? I know that for some reading this there is nothing knew to the idea of the Divine Feminine, but maybe for others this is a new idea.  God presents both masculine and feminine traits in the Bible and in other traditions leading me to the conclusion that God is not genderless but genderful.

But is that your experience? If your love for God is going to be informed, which St. Paul suggests it should be, then that means you need to take steps to experience what God is like. Don’t just take my word for it, or what the Bible says, or what your own other spiritual path has suggested. I have to say that in my own spiritual journey the reason that this is so vital is because without experience we find ourselves back into the model of projection again.

Is it any wonder that, for example, in the Victorian era where fathers were often thought of as cold and distant, that God was also thought of as distant? And if you had an earthly father who was hard to please, does that affect your understanding of the nature of divinity?

When we spend time in the presence of the Holy One, when we actively put ourselves out to try and experience the nature of God, however we understand that, what we find time and time again is that God breaks through our projections and shows us aspects of God’s nature that are fundamentally different from what we expect.

Look for the sacred places in your lives, maybe in a religious building, maybe out in the wilds, or maybe in the presence of others. And consider making it your prayer that God would reveal Godself to you.

Projection gets in the way of many of our relationships; with lovers, partners, parents, spouses, friends and even God. May we learn to put in the effort to get to know the truth, and then learn to love the reality and not the projection.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Submission and Spirituality - Some thoughts for the start of Advent


Isaiah 1:12-20
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-end
9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

John 3:1-10
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ born anew');" 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, you must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

Submission and Spirituality
I want to begin with a statement that may sound a little surprising. Advent is about preparing to submit to the God who submits to us. Let me repeat that. Advent is about preparing to submit to the God who submits to us.

What I want to do with this is unpack it a little by thinking about what we mean regarding submission, and the place submission has within our religion, because it’s one thing to say that humans are meant to submit to God, and even that I want to question, but what about the idea that God submits to us? That, surely, is an outrageous thing to suggest. Or is it?

But first, what place does submission have to play in the role of our spiritual lives? You see everyone submits; it’s a part of the lives that we lead, so to ignore it as an aspect of our spirituality would be nonsense. Day by day we all do acts of submission. The only choices you and I have are as to what we are going to submit. We can choose, but one way or another we’re all going to submit.

You arrive at work and your supervisor asks for a piece of work rather sooner than you expected. You can choose to defy her, but you know it’s your job that’s on the line so you submit, perhaps wisely knowing that she’s only asking for it because she, too, is submitting to someone else’s request for something faster than expected.

Of course you may wish to advance up the company so that you’re calling the shots and not having to submit to anyone, but I would suggest to you that in this case all you’re doing is submitting to your own desire for power. Is it not odd, don’t you think, that even a desire for power requires an act of submission to that desire?

Or how about the relationship you have with your children? Surely here you are the one in charge? Children are supposed to do what we tell them or face disciplinary consequences, yet you, as a parent, are submitting to your own human desire to procreate, and when you teach them or discipline them you are submitting to a desire that you can help them to be the best that they can possibly be.

We may not like the idea because submission is not something we think of as something to be proud of, but the point I am making to you is that without submission there would be chaos. Indeed I would go so far as to say that this is precisely what the Anglican church is experiencing at the moment. Forty two out of forty four dioceses have expressed their desire to see women consecrated as Bishops. Seventy five percent of the population of the church have expressed their desire for this.

Yet the arrogant fundamentalist evangelicals and ultra-conservative catholics on General Synod choose not to submit to the desire of the people that they are supposed to serve and instead voted with their own preference. The result has been the appalling upset that has been caused, and all because the process of due submission to the needs of the many were ignored. Without submission there is chaos.

So, having established the need for submission in everyday life, what bearing does this have on our spiritual lives? Let’s turn to the Bible readings we’ve had to think a little more in depth about this because it seems to me that there is an evolving picture in the relationship between God and his people.

The reading from Isaiah is a clear example of a divine demand for submission to God’s selfless desire for the needs of the oppressed rather than the selfish human desire for one’s own wants. The rulers and leaders of the nation were thinking only of themselves and not of those further down and at the bottom of the economic ladder. To be honest, this passage could be read to the governments and bankers of the modern western world, and perhaps with the same warnings of consequence.

The commands are there in verse 17: “...learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. The consequences of submission are then laid out for us in verses 19 and 20:, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.”

In essence God says, submit to my desires for the good of all and you shall prosper in the land, but if you submit to your own selfish desires for yourselves I will strip it all away from you. The choice is not whether to submit or not; the choice is only with regards to what we submit to. Submission to the desires of God is an act of reciprocal love. Submission to self is an act of selfishness from which nobody benefits in the long run.

Touching briefly on the new testament reading, we can imagine the joy that St. Paul and his coworkers feel at the way in which the believers at Thessalonika are growing in holiness and suggest that the reason for that is their growing ability to submit to God’s desires for them.

But it’s the reading from John’s gospel which begins to tie this all together for us, when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born again. This is the ultimate act of submission when we think about it for the most helpless condition that a human can be in is as a baby. Much of what Jesus is saying about being born again, or born from above, or being born of the Spirit or wind comes down to this, a willingness to start again, to become vulnerable.

Becoming a follower of Christ is to be willing to become vulnerable, to start again, to submit to the knowledge that we begin as spiritual little children. And the miracle of all of this is that God is demanding nothing of us that he does not himself submit to.

We use the season of advent to prepare for the Christ Mass, the time when we celebrate God being born as a human, God submitting to being born as a vulnerable, helpless child, utterly dependent on his parents, Mary and Joseph, for everything. God demands no submission from us that he has not already subjected himself to.

And this is perhaps the greatest miracle of Christianity, and the factor which differentiates it from many other spiritual paths. In our faith we submit to the God who submitted to us. You see Jesus’s whole earthly existence moved him towards the day when, as his heavenly Father asked of him, he submitted to the will of the Jewish and Roman leaders.

Jesus could easily have come down from the cross on which he was hung. You can imagine legions of angels poised, ready to aid him. But he instead submitted to the will of the leaders. And the reason for that was his willingness to submit to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will be done, but yours”.

Jesus gives us the template for appropriate submission. We submit to God’s will because he asks us to. In many aspects of life we submit to things because there’s an exchange going on; we think that if we submit we will receive a reward. Maybe that’s why you submit to God now, because you think it’ll get you a reward. But what if I said that to submit for that reason is not an act of love.

We submit to God because God is God, not as an exchange, in the hope of receiving something.

But one last thought. Submission does not need to come unthinkingly, and God willingly listens to our protests. God plays fair with us. When God asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, God did not appear in all his overwhelmingly powerful glory, giving Moses no choice in the matter; he instead appeared in such a way that Moses felt able to say no.

Eventually Moses submitted to God’s will, but God met him part way; God rewrote the plan he had to cater for Moses’s insecurities.

Simply put, God asks for our submission but doesn’t demand it. If it had been me in the Garden of Gethsemane, I’m pretty sure I would have walked away...

...and God would have let me. (Although he’d have come running after me.)

So this Advent, let us prepare ourselves to submit to God out of love, not out of fear or out of a desire for gain through some kind of exchange. And remember, God requires nothing of us that he has not already submitted himself to.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Not of this world? How do we cope with loving this planet whilst following the one who says his kingdom is 'not of this world'?

John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Not of this world?
In some ways, for me this reading from John’s Gospel is really difficult to hear and causes a tension in my soul. There is for me here, if you like, something I would refer to as cognitive dissonance. This is when you have two ideas which fundamentally disagree with each other, yet you think they’re both true.

For example, I confess for a while that like many young Christians I went through a fundamentalist period when I believed in a literal seven day interpretation of the creation story in Genesis 1 with a date of just a few thousand years BC. I believed this because I was told the Bible was literally true and therefore if it said something was true, then it must be.

But then, as I grew in my understanding of science I began to read a different story in which there was overwhelming evidence for a creation that began 13.7 billion years ago, and is still continuing. So that set me up with a cognitive dissonance.

The Bible, I thought, was true, but science also, I thought, was true, but they disagreed with each other, and when you hold strong beliefs about two opposing views you discover how psychologically uncomfortable cognitive dissonance can be! One or other had to be reinterpreted. I chose to re-examine the creation story from a mythic perspective and found there far deeper truths and the dissonance vanished, it was resolved.

Yet now as I read this passage I find another dissonance. We took the youth group for a night hike through the countryside on Friday night and it was wonderful. We spent time in silence, learning to exercise our spiritual muscles, sensing the presence of God. You see I am in love with this world. I walk amongst the trees, run my hands through the wet grass, listen to the sound of reality singing and this is my home. I find the presence of God here.

But in this Gospel Jesus tells me his kingdom is not of this world. And this is difficult because the presence of God feels real here, but Jesus seems to be affirming something else. Or is he? This is a cognitive dissonance that needs to be resolved for Christians who love nature and also love God.

What does Jesus mean? What does he mean when he says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to abandon my love of the natural world because Jesus says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to look afresh at the sense of God’s presence that I’ve had over and over again and say, ‘Well if Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, then I must have been mistaken’? Were these experiences counterfeit?

No, I don’t think so. The first step to resolving this cognitive dissonance is to look at what Jesus says next; that will tell us what he really means. He says, ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’ It is that desire to fight on the part of the kingdoms of this world that puts the context on what he means.

You see I think we can resolve this dissonance because Jesus is talking in terms of power. In a few hours after saying these words he was going to lay down all the power of being the incarnate Son of God and submit to the powers of this world, and my intention is to say more about submission next week. What he’s therefore referring to is not the physicality of this world, but the attitudes of the rulers of this world.

What he’s talking about is that if he was going to be trying to establish a kingdom on earth as it is now, then his followers would be mounting a rescue attempt by force. The rebellion would already have started. Yet clearly they haven’t, and his intention was to let the powers of human government do with him as they chose. He would submit to them because he could only change things by doing so.

What Jesus is therefore primarily speaking about is a profoundly different attitude to life, one of service rather than ruling, in his kingdom. It’s all upside down where the first is the last. However, even though I believe that and hope that we can model that way of living here, it throws up another problem.

You see if Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, that implies that he is the ruler of an other world. How do we feel about that? For those of us living in the Green and following the Christ, how do we feel when he talks about another world? We rather like this one! Does God mean to discard it as unimportant? No, I don’t think so, but we do have to be realistic too. I think we have to take the long perspective on this world.

The hard thing for us to take on board is that this universe, of which our beloved country is but a small part, is already past its creative best. Scientists estimate that 95% of the stars that will ever exist have already been born. There is only about enough hydrogen left over for another 5%. The slow decline towards the cold, dark stillness has already begun.

In about a billion years our sun will have begun to heat up, scorching the earth. All that is green will be blackened. We can love it for now, and we should certainly treasure and cherish it because the Christian life is about service, not exploitation, and that applies in our attitude to all things, not just people, but this place has a limited lifespan. And whilst I feel sad about this, I most definitely do not feel hopeless, and the reason for that is my hope for the Otherworld, where Christ is already King.

So what is that place likely to be like? Here we’re into the world of educated guesses, so let me make some. I think we can assume that Christ’s resurrection forms a pattern, not just for humanity but for all of creation.

I therefore think of that place as like here, only more so, in the same way that Christ’s resurrection body was like his ordinary human body, only more so; more real, more able, and no longer subject to entropy. I’ve always struggled with the ideas of a heaven that’s full of clouds and where everyone plays the harp. Having one harpist in the family is plenty!

For many years I have loved C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’ in which heaven is more solid and more real than earth is. I know he’s drawing on Platonism there, but it seems to fit. Greener trees, a dew that’s even fresher and stars that shine brighter; everything that we love about this fertile ground, only more fertile. It seems to me that the best parts of the physical appearance of this world, those parts that are most welcoming to life, will be reawakened in the next.

But in case we get too sidetracked, it’s not just about physicality - it’s about attitude too. The character of those who wish to be a part of this new kingdom should echo Christ’s model of service rather than power. That’s the shape of the kingdom. Christ as monarch came to serve and so we should too. In fact I think that gives us a template for how we are to deal with the life on this planet. For too long we have exploited animal and plant life, yet if Christ came to serve, doesn’t that give us a template for an eco-sensitive spirituality?

And in exactly the same way, the character of the church should be the template for Christ’s kingdom to come. We should echo on earth what Christ’s kingdom to come will be like. The events in General Synod last week show how far short we’re still falling.

For Christians, Christ is King, and the kingdom of which he is monarch is not of this place but of the next. But the best of what is here forms the template for the age to come. I don’t believe resurrection is limited to humanity, but extends to all creation, so just as you, my sisters and brothers, are worthy of love, so is all life. And for me that resolves the cognitive dissonance.

So don’t be worried if you love the planet. Why should it not also be resurrected. If C. S. Lewis was correct then however transient this place is, we can learn a lot about service whilst we’re here and that will prepare us well for the next parts of our journey. In Christ’s kingdom the rulers serve, so let us learn to apply that here, serving not just each other but the other earthly residents with whom we participate in life.

Keep sacrificing - or not....


Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Who makes you feel guilty?
I don’t buy many newspapers these days since I discovered I could look at them online for free, providing I don’t mind the adverts. The fun of that is, of course, that I can read the Daily Mail, a paper on which I wouldn’t waste my money, without having to pay for it. And what an eye-opener!

If you’ve never done it, have a look at the Daily Mail’s online paper. I was have going to say that it’s about the equivalent of the Beano, but the difference is that the Beano isn’t spiteful. The Daily Mail’s online page is split so that in the middle of the screen you get what passes for their idea of news, and then down the right hand side of the screen are links to pages about the rich, the famous and the celebrities.

And I have to say it makes for pretty dire reading, and is genuinely spiteful. It’s as if the worst excesses of playground meanness makes it into print. The editorial team take it upon themselves to be the public judges of what constitutes the correct clothes to wear and the correct toning of the body and then uses paparazzi shots to look down on just about everyone, either for how they look or for what they’re doing.

The trouble is, however much we may in principle refuse to condone it, this kind of press influence changes us; it inflicts guilt on us because we don’t match up to the impossible standards they set. We’re not tall enough or too tall. We’re not skinny enough or too skinny. For us men, our bodies are not well enough toned and muscled, or too toned and muscled. For women it’s all about having the right sized curves.

It’s as if there is some kind of identikit of the perfect human physique and dress code and none of us have quite got it according to the Daily Mail and others like it. And all of that conspires to make us think we need to spend more on clothes, more on getting down to the gym, more, more, more and still we never quite look right.

And then there are our lifestyles. The rich and famous always seem to have such glamour in their lives, but for us there is a different path. We try and say that we are content but the newspapers keep saying, ‘How can you possibly be content with such a boring lifestyle? Shouldn’t you be jetting off to sunnier climates? Why aren’t you investing in that second house on the coast with all the rich people?’

And it’s just.. not... real...

Except however hard we try, we can’t help being influenced by it. How many of us, for example, are honestly happy with our body shape and the possessions we have? How many of us are truly content?

Still, at least we can sit in church and not worry about it hey? Except, unfortunately, even if we don’t like the tabloids, the church often still plays the same guilt game; the same, ‘You’re not good enough’ game. A member of my family goes to a church in North London that has a new minister who has a particular thing about preaching salvation and hell... every week. Every single week....

And it’s the easiest thing in the world to do to make a congregation feel guilty. I could do it now. Give me ten minutes and I could make most of us feel like filthy rotten individuals, without any hope and in desperate need of salvation. And I know exactly what the result would be if I did that week after week. I would end up with a church full of guilt-laden people who were forever on their knees wishing that they were better people, and willing to do whatever it took to get right with God.

That is, those who stayed would feel like that. Everyone else would leave, which perhaps unsurprisingly is the kind of story I heard many times from some of my Pagan friends, that they went to churches that were so life denying and which made them feel so guilt-ridden that they left.

Thank good ness it’s not like that here eh! Only...

Only... how often do you feel that you’re not really good enough to be here? How often do you look around the congregation and think that someone else is a better person than you? How often do other people seem more worthy Christians than you are? And it’s the same for vicars too, if they’re honest. The number of times I find myself leading a service and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I’m not good enough.’

So what do we do about it? For some of us perhaps it leads us to spend much more time on our knees praying. For some of us we put lots more time into going to church or to supporting some particular charity. Maybe we put more into the collection than we can afford because we don’t feel we’re good enough. Some clergy overwork, putting in ludicrous numbers of hours. And we do all this because we don’t feel good enough and so somehow we feel that what we most need to do is to work much harder.

And what we’re really doing is making a sacrifice. We’re sacrificing our time. Or we’re sacrificing our money. Or maybe we’re sacrificing our family on the altar of spending lots of time trying to be good enough. And it’s time we looked long and hard at what the Good News about Jesus is, and it’s right there for us in the reading from Hebrews.

I don’t really need to say much about it but to repeat what the author wrote. ‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’ This is not the time to go into the theology of sacrifice, or of the sacrificial elements of Jesus’s death. The important thing for us to take away is that his actions mean not that we are perfect, but that we are treated by God as if we are.

Let me repeat that because it’s of fundamental importance. The death of Christ doesn’t mean that you are perfect, but it does mean that God’s treats you as if you are.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. None of the self-sacrifices we do ever actually make us feel any better about ourselves. And there is nothing any of us can do to truly take away the guilt or shame that we might feel, either because we’ve done something wrong or because someone has convinced us that we are guilty of doing something wrong.

Jesus, in one action for all time, made it right between us and God, and it comes as a free gift because there is nothing we can ever do to earn it. Nothing.

So the church has no right to make you feel guilty. The church has no right to demand that you feel bad enough about yourself that you must make sacrifices the whole time. That’s Daily Mail level theology and it’s just wrong. The sacrifice has been made. The sacrifice to end all sacrifices. There is no need for any more.

What we do here or in some aspects of our own lives should flow out of gratitude that we don’t have to make self sacrifices. That means we should be moving towards lives in which our actions flow out of the love that’s growing in us rather than because someone is emotionally strong-arming us.

Look again at what Jesus says about the temple, perhaps the most amazingly beautiful and vast building dedicated to the worship of God ever. The disciples comment on it and he warns them that it will be destroyed, as indeed it was less than forty years later. Buildings, human edifices and institutions, all of them will crumble eventually.

None of these things are what make us right with God. The only thing that matters in sacrificial terms is that Christ put an end to the need for them. The guilt we feel, the shame that binds us, the things that you may have had said to you in a church to make you feel you need to give more, all of those were dealt with by Christ.

You do not need to make a sacrifice of anything to be ok with God. Instead you’re free. It’s over. It’s all been dealt with. All any of us can do is respond with gratitude as the enormity of what has been done for us fills us. We can’t buy God’s love, and we don’t have to.

Friday, 23 November 2012

"Forgive us Father for we have Synod": Statement about Women Bishops

The Vicar’s Statement Concerning General Synod’s Vote on
The Consecration of Women Bishops

Dear All

I feel it is important to give my views regarding the events which took place at General Synod this last week. But before that I would like to offer my heartfelt apologies to the women of this parish who may feel that the institution of the Church of England views them as second class citizens. All I feel that I can say is to underline that this is not my view and it is also not the view of the majority of General Synod. In fact almost three quarters of those present voted in favour.

So what happened?

Let me put it this way. The House of Laity in General Synod, in my view, has disproportionately high numbers from the fundamentalist evangelical wing of the church working in concert with the conservative Anglo-catholic wing, neither of which, for totally different reasons, believe that women should be in positions of authority in the church. Let me underline that this is not a theologically supportable position. So how did it happen? When people across the country were asked to stand for the House of Laity in the General Synod there appears to have been a general apathy in response meaning that those with extremist views, and I do mean extremist, were able to gain power. The result is that they have dishonoured the Church of England, made us look as if we are fundamentally out of touch with modern culture, and hurt a huge number of women. In addition they have managed to undermine the calling of a number of senior female members of the church who should be being consecrated as Bishops in the near future. You can perhaps sense my anger at this, and I have yet to meet a Christian who believes any good can come of this.

So what can you do?

Two things. Write to Bishop David Urquhart, the Bishop of Birmingham, at Bishop’s Croft, Old Church Road, Harbourne, Birmingham, B17 0BG, expressing your feelings and urging him to use whatever influence he has to push for a rapid response by General Synod to reconsider the legislation swiftly and without delay.  (Readers from other dioceses, your Bishop's details will be available on-line on diocesan websites).

Secondly, visit this website:
Sign the petition and make your voice heard, and pass the information on for others to sign.

Please act. Apathy got us into this situation and apathy will keep us there.

Again, my sincere apologies for the way your Church has let you down. Let us work together and pray for a swift resolution.

Paul Cudby.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Learning Nature's Lessons: Growing Whiskers

The following was inspired by the excellent book, ‘Reclaiming the Sealskin’ by Annie Heppenstall-West. I kind of started with her thoughts and then it took on a life of its own...


Matthew 7:7-11
Jesus said, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Ever wondered what’s under the earth? I’m not talking about far down, just a few inches into the sacred ground filled with who knows what. To us earth is simply brown, but to others it’s their whole world. Who needs sun, moon and stars when everything is provided by the earth under the earth? I am thinking here about the mole.

When was the last time you actually saw a mole? Have you ever seen one except on TV? Yet living out here in rural England it’s pretty clear where they’ve been, as they leave their mounds of earth as evidence to remind us that at sometime, when we weren’t looking, they were there. So close, living cheek by jowl with humanity, yet always out of reach in a world we cannot comprehend.

Hidden, under the earth.

Most small furry animals in this country are pretty shy, retiring creatures, yet the aware will see rabbits, squirrels and mice wherever the searcher can be still for long enough. But moles? They’ve gone a step further, bypassing the dangerous surface and the hunters who lurk. He rarely needs to leave his safe haven because in the earth under the earth all his needs are met.

There he is safe and in charge of a world that few understand, but in order to survive and to grow he has to search deep in the hidden dark recesses of the earth.

In our hunger for book knowledge maybe we’re missing some of the greatest teachers, such as the mole. His search for food in the dark earth should inspire our search for God, however we understand that name, in the dark recesses of who we are and the lives we lead. Imagine what it’s like for the mole searching for food. He never knows when he’s going to come across a tasty worm or grub. He has to be ready and he has to keep searching, because if the mole doesn’t keep eating every few hours he will starve to death.

And it begs the question for me, for us, how deeply do we dig, and how much energy do we put into searching? Are we really searching with our whole heart? Is it as important to us as food is to the mole that we sense the loving presence of the Holy One, drawing us on and out? In fact maybe the harder question each of us has to ask ourselves is, ‘What am I actually searching for?’

What are you actually searching for? We need to be able to articulate that need for ourselves before we actually ask the Spirit to provide what it is we’re looking for. So, what am I, what are you actually searching for?


When the mole finds a worm, how does he know? After all, his vision is very limited and for some species it’s non-existent. The same can be said about his ears and his hearing. The mole has to rely on other senses. The difficulty with being a human is that we depend on our eyesight as our primary source of information. Most of what we know about the world we learn through our eyes, and most of the information we record about what we’ve seen is in words or images that we can see.

But religious visions are very rare and are not the primary means by which God speaks to us. So when Jesus says, ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and door will be opened to you’, how do you process the ‘God’ information? How do we know when the Holy One is speaking? If you’re knocking on a door that you can’t see with knocks you can’t hear, how will you know when the door has been opened?

It is in the answer to this question that I think the mole has the greatest contribution to our understanding. With their long whiskers and many sensitive hairs around their noses, moles are very sensitive to touch. They know when something is nearby because they sense the vibrations. When something, or someone, is nearby they sense it brushing their surroundings.

And this, I think, is the key to discerning God’s voice. We need to grow, if you like, spiritual whiskers to become sensitive to God brushing against us, because I believe that actually God is continually brushing against us but we’ve allowed our ‘whiskers’ to become clogged, not taking care of them because we rely too much on our eyes and ears and on the continual flood of information in a technologically rabid civilisation.

Yes we can study, we can read, we can learn. But what we need is to grow whiskers. Theologians who tell you about God from their books are not nearly as enthralling as ones who tell you about God from the stories of their experiences. We want to experience God, but we don’t know how.

So if we have to grow whiskers, what might that feel like?  In some traditions people do what they call shape-shifting. This isn’t actually becoming the literal physical shape of an animal, but for some it involves going a number of steps beyond simply imagining yourself taking on the attributes of the animal and may become more of a spiritual and mystical engagement. But anyone can simply use their imagination and this can be helpful. In order to find new ways of discerning the sacred presence of God it could be a useful exercise to imagine what it must be like to take in information about the world without using your eyes or your ears. Imagine what it must be like to sense the world brushing past you, sending tiny vibrations that you pick up other than by your normal senses. Imagine the shape of a mole.

Sometimes this is how we can learn to hear God, by using the tools of imagination that take us outside of normal existence. Yes God can and does speak to us through our eyes and ears if we spend time in a quiet place, away from modern intrusions. But God also speaks to us silently. As the story of Elijah told us, (see last blog entry) after the violence of the storm, the earthquake and the fire there is the sound of sheer silence, and that is where the voice of God can be discerned.

But it’s not always heard; sometimes it is simply sensed in a way we find it hard to explain because it’s not sight or sound. So maybe we need to grow spiritual whiskers, attuned to the vibrations God makes, and let us learn to allow our whiskers to twitch as God brushes by.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Remembrance: Peace begins with who?

1 Kings 19:1-4, 9-13
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

What does this all mean for us?
At 11.00am on Sunday we keep two minutes of silence. I wonder where your mind goes during those two minutes. Some of you have fought in combat to preserve this country. In that silence maybe you remembered some of your fallen comrades, people who didn’t make it as far as the end of the war; people who haven’t been lucky enough to have lived long and full lives like you have.

Maybe some of you remember the faces of the people you killed, or the knowledge of what it must have been like for the families of those on the other side whose lives were changed by the actions your country demanded of you. Perhaps some of you were wondering with hope what will happen to world peace as a result of the US election.

Maybe you read the same newspaper article that I did about how a group of senior Israelis conducted a war game to decide what would happen if they launched a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But how many of you noticed peace? How many of you felt real, utter stillness? Because peace is what this is all about; the parades, the poppies, the uniforms, the medals, this is all about remembering the fallen and wanting there to be peace, and here we are, sixty seven years after the guns of world war two were silenced, and where’s the peace? Where’s the real peace? I want peace; you want peace; the politicians say they want peace, so where is it?

Tess Ward puts it like this:
We pray for peace in the world, but there can be none without peace in the nations.
We pray for peace in the nations, but there can be none without peace in the communities.
We pray for peace in the communities, but there can be none without peace between neighbours.
We pray for peace between neighbours, but there can be none without peace in the home.
We pray for peace in the home, but there can be none without peace in the heart.
When the fighting of this world overwhelms me, let me know that peace... begins... with... me.

Peace begins with me. It doesn’t start by me saying, ‘Peace begins with you.’ No. Every single one of us must first take responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me.’ Forget everyone else. Forget how they live their lives. If we want peace in the world, if we want peace for our younger people, that they may inherit a world free of strife, then it will only begin if every one of us learns how to say, ‘Peace begins with me.’

So when was the last time you felt peaceful? Or let me put it another way. When was the last time that you felt that utter peace that comes from encountering the Divine, the Holy One? I’m beginning to lose track of the number of people who have said to me over the years, ‘God never speaks to me. I’ve never felt his peace.’ The question I have to ask, over and over again is, ‘How hard did you search for it?’

We live in a world of such technological noise that it is no wonder that we never hear God. We can barely hear ourselves think. Those of us who spend hours on the computer, playing games or whatever, are we aware that scientific studies have conclusively proved that we are physically altering our brains by doing so? If we are allowing ourselves to become a species that is better at communicating with machines than with each other, how on earth can we expect to communicate with God?! If peace begins with me, then it requires that I, every one of us, searches for peace.

The American Theologian, Rob Bell, has done some research on the level of technological noise that intrudes on our lives. He tells of a recording engineer called Bernie Krause, who records nature sounds for films and television. Apparently back in 1968, in order to get one hour of natural sound, with no aircraft or car noise, it took him fifteen hours of recording time.

That was in 1968. Now, in our current time, to get the same one hour of recorded natural sounds with no intrusions from technological sounds takes him two thousand hours of recording time. Two thousand hours!

If peace in the world begins with peace in me, in you, how often do we turn off our mobile phones? How many hours do we spend watching TV? How long into the night were we on Facebook? When was the last time you allowed your house to be completely silent; no TV, no radio, no stereo, no computer?

If peace begins with me, with each of us, do we actually look like people who search for peace?

In the above reading the prophet Elijah was in difficulty. He had been on the winning side of a great battle, but now he was struck with depression because the leader of the other side, a woman named Jezebel, said she was going to come and kill him for what he had done to them. So Elijah fled into the wilderness.

And there, in the depths of his depression, an angel speaks to him. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Why have you run away? Why are you so depressed? Why can’t you see how things really are rather than how you think they are? Those of you who have suffered with depression will know how hard it can be to see true reality through the sense of utter desperation you feel.

Elijah felt alone, threatened and worthless. What he needed was peace. And so the angel said to him, ‘Go and stand in a cave on the mountainside for the Lord God is about to pass by. Elijah did as he was told. As the Lord approaches there is a mighty wind, beyond hurricane force, but God is not in the wind. And as God draws nearer, the ground responds with a huge earthquake, such is the response of nature to the unhidden presence of God, but God is not in the earthquake.

Following the earthquake there is a fire, sweeping across the landscape before him. But the Lord is not in the fire. And then... what? Well actually it’s very difficult to translate the words from Hebrew of what happens next. But our translation comes very close. The sound of God was the sound of sheer silence. The sound of stillness. The sound of peace.

Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. But the sound of God is not found in the TV, on the radio, in the sound of traffic or computer games. The sound of silence is not to be found in the background noise of the daily lives that we have got so used to. If God is not in the earthquake, the wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, is it any wonder that we don’t have peace? It’s simply because we have no silence, so we don’t hear the sound of God’s voice.

Because if we did, we might hear God say to us, ‘What are you doing.... here?’

It would be unfair of me to write this without telling you a story of what finding this peace can be like, so let me tell you a true story of something that happened to my wife, Ali, and I a few weeks back.

Over on the other side of Kidderminster from us there’s the Wyre Forest. Right back at the beginning of this year we went for a long walk there, and we just stumbled upon this amazing sight. In the midst of all the oaks there was a yew tree. That’s not hugely unusual. But what was strange was that there was an oak growing within the expanse of its branches.

Yews are sometimes called, ‘The Death Tree’ because it is so poisonous, yet here, remarkably, was this amazing phenomenon of a yew tree embracing an oak with her limbs, branches wrapped around each other as if in a lovers’ embrace. We subsequently found out that this almost unique pairing, this emblem of peace between two trees that would normally tolerate each other, was well known in the area. But there are no signs to it.

Three weeks ago we decided we wanted to go and find this remarkable pairing again. The way that God speaks in nature has become increasingly important to us in our spiritual journeys so we returned for another look. But the Wyre Forest is a big forest with lots of trees. It’s not so much like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s more like looking for a specific piece of hay in a haystack. Nevertheless, off we went.

Not far into the trees we came to a place where the path branched at a crossroads. So we stood in silence, and by this time we were far enough away that it was that technological silence: no cars. And there were no people nearby. Just us. And we were silent, just listening. And we were silent for a while. And in the sound of sheer silence there was a beckoning... ‘This way.’

There were no words, no sounds, just a perception in the sheer silence of nature, which is not at all quiet. It was very gentle, and to me felt distinctly feminine, but the sound of sheer silence beckoned us in a definite direction. It was perceptible, but we had to listen very hard, and for some time.

And so we walked, and we walked, for some time, and just before we arrived in the right place, though we didn’t yet know it was the right place, a young black stag ran across our path, and we stopped. And sure enough, there to our left, off the path, we found the yew and the oak, still locked in their embrace, reminding us of how there can be peace, peace even where nature would normally expect death. Even there, there can be peace.

When we look at the life of Jesus we find that time after time he leaves everyone and goes away on his own up a mountain where he is silent. It is only when we are silent and listen that we hear God speak in the sound of sheer silence, just as Elijah did. Hearing that doesn’t make us any more special than anyone else. It doesn’t make us more holy, and we don’t have to be holy to listen. God knows I’m not, yet in the sound of sheer silence, there was the voice. ‘Come this way.’

And once Elijah heard the voice of God he was changed by it. He was able to return and start again, to be courageous in the face of adversity. When we hear God speak in the silence, we cannot help but be changed by it.

Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. God wants to speak to each one of us. Look back at the story of Adam and Eve and you find God walking in the garden with them as the day drew to a close. One of God’s favourite things is walking with us, but we block him out continually with the noise we subject ourselves to.

If we want peace in this world, it doesn’t start with someone else. It doesn’t start with the politicians. It starts with each one of us taking responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me’, and then doing something about it. That means getting off our backsides, switching off the phones, the tv, the radio, the iPod, the car, the DS, and simply getting away from the technological noise and learning how to listen to the sound of sheer silence.

And as we learn to hear the voice of God, so we will learn peace. And slowly, bit by bit, we can change the world. But first it starts with me and it starts with you. Simply learn to listen to the sound of sheer silence, and you will hear the voice of God. Amen.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Perils of Power and Popularity


Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Imagine the situation and put yourself there as an observer. James and John asked Jesus if he would do something for them, and the response Jesus made was to say, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’ If Jesus said to you, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’, what would your answer be? I wonder how we would respond. We might think that we’d ask for something laudable, but in our more honest moments I wonder how many of us would be tempted to ask to have something for ourselves in the way that James and John did.

And if we had actually been there, what would we have thought of them? It seems the other disciples were angry with James and John, but I wonder why. Was it because they felt James and John had got it wrong, or was it because they imagined James and John to think that they were somehow better than the others; more deserving of power and authority?

What we find in this narrative is the old, old human story of people being driven to do something maybe unexpected or out of character because they’re haunted by a desire for a position of power and of recognition. I suspect that this comes especially to those who have formerly been powerless. It comes so naturally to so many humans that I suspect it’s built into our genome.

Certainly some of the other higher primates such as chimpanzees seem to be naturally drawn into fighting for positions of hierarchy. But I continue to find myself concerned with those who seek after power because I worry about what it’s going to cost the powerless. In the scramble for power, who gets left with the scraps?

It seems that examples of power being abused and the rich holding on to their wealth abound in the news. Two friends of mine are in support roles in primary school education. Both have had their hours cut by the government because of the need to save money.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that last year, Starbucks, a powerful and wealthy company, paid no tax into the UK economy last year. You may have heard of the economic idea called Trickledown whereby the government supports big business and the success of the big businesses trickles down to the little people who work on the shop floor. But if Starbucks managed to avoid paying any UK taxes last year, and the government cut the spending for the education of the littlest people of them all, our children, it seems like something isn’t working.

Jesus, James and John lived in a society where the gaps between the powerful rich and the powerless poor were even larger than they are today. The little people always stayed little and those in power tried very hard to hold on to it. In the face of that you have to wonder why two fishermen, James and John, asked Jesus if they could sit on his right and left in his glory. Hadn’t they seen enough of that to realise the issues with being corrupted by power?

We probably have to assume that the question was based in simply not being aware of an alternative to the hierarchy of rule because it was all they had seen in their religion and in their culture. And I think they had recognised something about Jesus. They had begun to realise that although he was living as a human, there was something very powerful about him; something of God about him. In my experience, if people want power but don’t have the abilities or the charisma to go and get it, then the next best thing is to cosy up to someone who already has it.

We can probably even remember this happening in the classroom. When we were at school there was always the popular child who had lots of people wanting to be friends with them. And likewise the unpopular people often don’t have many friends because being their friend associates you with being a loser. This is all because we think that if we make friends with the popular person then everyone will be friends with us too. I’m glad Jesus likes to be friends with losers.

The problem with this habit is that we keep it going into adulthood. If we want to rise up the corporate ladder, or if we want to be more important in our local community, then the easiest way to do that is to spot who is currently important, who is currently holding all the power, and try to get noticed by them. Being a part of the in-crowd opens the door for us to inherit power.

I think that’s what James and John were doing here. They knew that this life was transient, and that one day there will be a greater kingdom. And so they wanted to have power in this new kingdom and simply asked Jesus if he would give it to them. I don’t think their part of the world had ever come across the radical idea that Jesus was about to put to them.

So then Jesus makes a comment about politics. In effect he asks them to be observers and comment on the world they see around them. He points out how the rulers lord it over the people, and we have to ask ourselves, what has changed? The people in power and the wealthy big businesses go on making money for themselves and doing the best they can to make sure no one at the bottom of the pile gets any of it.

Meanwhile we have to watch cuts take place for the poor, the disabled and the children in our society. And Jesus says in response to James and John, ‘But it is not so among you’. In the church it’s supposed to be different. Whoever wants to lead can only learn to do so by being a servant. But I have to ask you, does it really look like that?

When we look down the church the two most obvious things are that the pews all point towards the front and there’s a high and elevated pulpit. In effect the very fabric of our church is saying, ‘Sit there in the pews and listen to someone who is so much better than you that when he preaches he’s literally standing six feet above contradiction, and you are forced to look up to him.

That’s one of the reasons why I often preach from the floor rather than the pulpit, and it’s why we always do the Well service in a circle of chairs. Now I do think things have improved dramatically. Some of the older people may remember a time when the pews in some churches had names on them, with the more important families sitting near the front.

The church looks like a hierarchy with the Bishops at the top, then the priests, then the readers, then the church wardens and finally the ordinary people. And Jesus looked at the powerful people and said to the disciples, ‘But it is not so among you.’ Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten what he said.

Yes, it is true that I’ve been trained and have put time and energy into learning about God so that I can help you all to learn about God and grow spiritually. But does that make me any better than you?

No, that is simply my calling, and you each have your own callings. But all of us are called by Jesus to serve others, and never, ever, ever to chase after power for ourselves. The world in which we live is full of people seeking power. But we are a part of an upside down kingdom where the leader is the servant of all the people. Isn’t it time we started to live like that?

Friday, 12 October 2012

The difference between soul and spirit, ego and the true self


Hebrews 4:12-16

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I want to work with just one verse today. The letter to the Hebrews is hugely rich and that means that sometimes you just want to look at one part of it and try and figure out what it means to us. The verse I’m thinking of is this one:

"Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Sometimes scripture is really confusing. ‘Only sometimes?’ you might question with raised eyebrows. OK, point taken, but this section of the letter to the Hebrews is particularly confusing in the way that it starts by saying, ‘...the word of God is living and active....’ Which word of God are we actually thinking about here?
For example at the beginning of John’s Gospel, when he’s describing the pre-existing Son of God before Jesus was born as one of us, he describes him as the Word. Is it this word that the writer means? I don’t think it is. The context doesn’t seem correct because it is after this first section that the writer goes on to refer to Jesus as high priest, so it seems unlikely that this word is meant to be Jesus.

Another phrase we might be familiar with is that after a passage is read out of the Bible the reader will often conclude with, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ So is that what the writer is referring to here, that the Bible is sharper than any two edged sword? Again I don’t think it is. The words that people have written about God are indeed able to make a huge impact on us under the influence of the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think that the writer is referring to holy scripture here.

Instead I think that this is more likely to be about God speaking directly into lives in ways that change us. Not everyone experiences this, although I am convinced we can if only we learn how to, but there is definitely a sense that when God speaks to us and we hear him speaking, not necessarily in words but in a sense of being conscious of something external to us speaking internally, then those ‘words’ can change us.

For me that voice of God can seem like a stillness descending, or more that by being quiet I become aware of an eternal stillness that has already settled around us. This is the voice with which, in the language of Genesis 1, God is able to speak into being whole new realities. The seven day creation story could easily be a metaphor for God speaking each of us into being.

Therefore when the writer refers to the word of God he’s not referring to Jesus, nor to holy scripture, but simply to the voice God uses when calling new realities into being within us. Incidentally my own experience of this is that God is indeed active and speaking and I find that it is almost as if from the moment God utters the first syllable of his intent, as if he’s taken just the in-breath and begun to speak, that all reality within me begins to shift. And when I say shift I don’t mean as in like an earthquake, but as if old ways of thinking, old ways of seeing, observing and understanding the universe simply become changed, renewed, created from nothing.

So that’s the first half of the verse and maybe we know what the word of God is in this context. Now let’s think about what it is that the word does. It’s described by the writer as being ultra-sharp, to the point where it can separate soul from spirit, two parts of ourselves that are so closely entwined that we tend to use the words interchangeably.

Clearly the writer to the Hebrews views them as being separate parts of the whole being that is you or I. So what does it mean to separate them? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I wonder if this is about receiving a revelation about what we’re truly like; it’s about separating who we think we are from who we truly are.  It’s about being given the grace to be able to stand back and observe ourselves in such a way that we can understand our motives. Eckhart Tolle has suggested that one of the greatest heresies of our time is the saying, ‘I think therefore I am.’ He suggests that it should be the other way around: ‘I am, therefore I think’. The reason it’s important to make that distinction is this, and this is vital: You are more than your thoughts.

Your thoughts are influenced hugely by your ego, that part of you which demands and demands like a baby bird calling out for food and which instantly starts crying out again the moment it’s swallowed what it’s just been given. The ego says, ‘More, more, more. Give me what I need to feel like I exist. Feed me, feed me, feed me.’

If we exist on the mantra, ‘I think therefore I am’, then we will be swept up by those desires and will assume that we actually need the things, the money, the sex, the power, that our egos tell us we need. If you like we could think of that as soul. But you are more than that. It is the you which can step back from those desires, observe them from a distance and recognise that you don’t need to have those things which is your true self, your spirit, that part of you which is in the image of the One who created you and is still creating you.

The issue is that it is very hard for us to do this. It usually doesn’t help having someone standing up in the pulpit (or writing an online blog) saying we all need to listen to the word of God who separates soul from spirit etc. The reality is that the most I can do from here is convince you of the need to actually spend time in God’s presence.  But let’s see if I can give you an example to illustrate what I mean, and also to show why it is that we need the word of God speaking to us to help us discern the truth. As a priest one of the most difficult things is to get used to being public property. Now some of you will know what I mean by this from your own roles.

So there are times when people thank me or praise me for a job well done, and naturally I feel good about that. But then I find myself questioning my motives for the next good act that I do. Have I done it because my soul, my ego, wants more of that lovely praise that it needs to justify its existence? Or have I done it for spiritual reasons because my spirit sees that someone has a need and responds to it? In the past I have preached about how we have to get used to having mixed motives for the good deeds that we do. Now I’m not so sure that we do have to get used to that. I think we can grow beyond it.

Instead I am beginning to learn within myself the difference between a soul action and a spirit action; between an ego action and a true-self action. And what I am finding is that it seems to be in terms of spontaneity. Now I have to be careful here and urge caution. Until we become more conscious of why we do things we must be careful of spontaneity because we tend naturally to do those things which serve our ego.

But gradually, as we allow the Spirit within to show us the difference between soul and spirit, so there is a gradual shift towards the things of the spirit. Then the actions of our spirit will tend to spring out naturally from us before the ego has had a chance to decide, ‘Is this going to make me look good?’ Our true spirit-self doesn’t calculate. However it is really only recently that I’ve begun to look for this so I may only have a part of the picture.

Nevertheless I think it’s vital to mention it simply to illustrate the point that there is a difference within us, the soul who wants good things for the ego, and the spirit of us which wants to be who it is and to selflessly help others to be who they are. It’s very difficult for us to get through the confusing tangled mesh of motives, but not so for the word of God speaking within us because God can see clearly our reasons for our actions and whether they are egocentric or spiritual.

The decision then lies with us. This is not an easy thing to ask of you. If you’re quite happy with your life and the struggles that go on in order that you get what you want done, then feel free to ignore what I’m saying. But if you’ve got to the point where you’re beginning to question why you act as you do, then acknowledge that as the word of God whispering truth to you, in effect saying, ‘You are more than your thoughts. You are more than your desires.’

The next step is up to you since I can speak only from my experiences. In order to find out for yourself you need to make time for your own experiences to take root.