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.