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.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Our REAL place in creation and why we often get it wrong

18th Sunday after Trinity


Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.’ Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’

‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’

If I try very, very hard, I can resist the gravitational pull of the earth with a reasonable number of press-ups. Or I can watch the moon and the sun working in concert to bend and distort the entire planet and shift billions of gallons of ocean by several metres every day.

If I exert all my strength I can pull a reasonable sized bough of a tree in one direction, and then get it to move in the other by letting it go so that the whiplash moves it back beyond its starting point. Or I can sit amidst the trees and watch the wind casually sway not just the one bough but the entire forest.

When I was at my peak of fitness, which was never all that good, I could run a mile in seven and a half minutes, whereas in the same seven and a half minutes a ray of light will have travelled one million, three hundred and ninety five thousand miles.

I occupy maybe one square metre in a visible universe that has a hundred billion galaxies, each containing a hundred billion stars, give or take. And so I find myself very much in tune with the sentiment, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’ How is God even aware of me?

Well that one I can answer from the same scripture, ‘... and he sustains all things by his powerful word’. I believe God is sustaining me, you and everything. I exist because I am in the mind of God. But nevertheless, in the scale of things, I am tiny and insignificant, and one of the things that I’ve begun to learn is that it’s a good thing to recognise that.

For the time being each of us carries an important role in our homes and community. But I look at the big wooden board out in our church’s lobby inscribed with the names of every vicar dating back more than seven hundred years and I find myself realising that in years to come that’s all I’ll be to people in the future; just a name on a board of long dead clergy. ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?’

It’s important that we take this to heart because it is only when we acknowledge our humble place, our tiny space, that we can begin to grasp the enormity of the truth that the One, the Ultimate, The First Cause who is before all things is actually mindful of us, and so much so that he came himself as one of us to taste death on our behalf so that our deaths are not final but simply doorways. We live, and we never stop living.

It is only in humbly recognising our place in creation that we can begin to appreciate the awe-inspiring love and work of the One who seeks us out. My fear, however, is that the depths of this appreciation can get lost when the focus of this Hebrews passage shifts from God to us, and our place in the universe

All this hard-won humility can quickly go up in smoke when we hear these words:

“You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honour, subjecting all things under their feet.’ Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.”

Now I have a major problem this verse because it’s simply not true, a fact that the writer acknowledges in the next verse. We have no control over the tides or the wind. If a volcano wants to blow its top, we’re powerless. Almost everything is outside our control, but when the author says that this is yet to happen, there is a part of us that can’t wait for it to be true, for us to be able to control all things, and I think that says something to the dominating mind-set of the western world.

To me this part of the reading portrays a very hierarchical and male image, of desiring to control, and it’s one part of the way in which we justify the appalling treatment we dish out to our planet, its resources and the other creatures with whom we share this living space.

At the root of this is our perception of God because we still keep thinking that God is male and does things in manly ways, and we men often like to control and direct. I’m not suggesting that women don’t, but men seem to have a particular need to be seen to be in charge, to be in control. As I get older so I find I have to kick harder and harder against this impulse as I become more aware of it.

I believe that in order to remedy this mind-set we need to start thinking about God in bigger terms, so let me give you some Old Testament verses that tell the other side of the story. We often think the Old Testament is the part of the Bible where we’re told that God is always an angry warrior who likes to smite a lot. Listen then to these:

In Hosea 11:3-4 God is described as a mother: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

In Hosea 13:8 God is akin to a mother bear: "Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder...” In Deuteronomy 32:11-12 God is like a mother eagle:  “Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”

Deuteronomy 32:18 tells of God who gives birth: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Isaiah 66:13 speaks of God as a comforting mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

In Isaiah 49:15 God is compared to a nursing mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” and in Isaiah 42:14 God is as a woman in labour: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”

We need new spectacles to look through in our understanding of scripture because the old ones are very one-sided and male oriented, filled with images of domination and control because that’s what comes naturally to men. But that is only a part of the story. When we bring in the feminine side, rather than being in control over nature, like a father wielding discipline over his son, we become instead nurture-participants, like mothers who hold the family together, drawing out the best in each one.

This passage in the letter to the Hebrews is a powerful one, but it can also mislead us into reinforcing our image of consumer led domination of the world. So let us allow nature to speak to us with the voice God gave her so that we see our proper place, the small humble space that we occupy.

Instead of seeking to control and dominate that which is in our charge, let us instead seek to nurture and grow. There needs to be a huge change, a paradigm shift if you like, in our spiritual understanding of the world of which we are a part. So let us not shy away from seeing our position in the world, and celebrating our smallness.

Because if we’re this tiny and God still knows more about us then we do and cares for us, that will remind us off the immensity of God’s awareness, and that despite our smallness, we are still valued for who we are by the One who holds all things in existence. Amen