Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Covenants and the reason why the death and resurrection of Christ make sense if he was both human and divine.

One of the conversations I often have is over whether Jesus was just a good man or whether there was something more about him.  Plenty of my friends hold to the view that Jesus was a human containing the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.  Traditionally, however, Christianity has gone further than that, and has held that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, a difficult thing to get our heads around.  The question is, why has the church always been so insistent on this?  Well, having been a scientist for many years before becoming a priest, I've always appreciated answers that make a degree of logical sense.  Sometimes I find that theologians push that particular boat out too far, losing the air of mystery that must accompany divinity.  But sometimes it helps us understand why we believe something if it provides us with a reasoned explanation for a belief.  So that's what I've tried to address here, why I believe Jesus was divine and human.

Sorry there's two readings from the Bible, but I need to have something from the Old Testament in order to make sense of the New Testament.


Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,

Luke 13:31-end
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Divine and Human?
Although we’re only into our second week in Lent I want to look forward to Easter, to help us understand more of what it is that defines Christianity, and why we say Jesus was divine as well as human. The Christian Bible is in two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, but they could equally be called the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s almost as simple as the Old Promise and the New Promise, but the word Covenant is stronger than Promise.  A covenant is a binding and solemn agreement between two parties, an example of which is a marriage. This is a good time to remind ourselves of the Old Covenant that was broken by the Israelites and then the Jewish people, from whom God intended to engage with the rest of humanity, and why a New Covenant was required, and what was needed to make it unbreakable.

The reading from Genesis is a little obscure to most of us but describes a terrifying encounter that Abraham has with God, although this is before God changed his name, so at this point he’s just plain old Abram. Now just before the events of this story Abram has been in a battle to set his nephew Lot free, and Abram and those who fought with him have been victorious.  Following this victory Abram has a vision where he encounters God, and God tells him that he will always be Abram’s shield. Whilst this is a reassuring promise to hear, what’s most on Abram’s mind is that he’s still childless. He’s quite a wealthy man but has no one to pass his possessions on to. There is no one to look after him in his old age and there will be no one to bury him appropriately when the time comes.  He actually sounds a little petulant, especially as this story comes on the heels of such a great victory in battle, but this aspect of human nature, immediately complaining even when something good appears to have happened, usually reveals that there is a deep pain gnawing away at the soul. A positive outcome cannot lead to gratitude if another deeper pain hasn’t been resolved.  So Abram complains to God, ‘But you still haven’t given me any children.’ He is in such despair about this that he tells God that he’s resigned himself to adopting one of his slaves, Eliezer, so that he can become his heir.

God’s first response is one of assurance, telling Abram to try and count the stars and explaining that he will have that many descendants. And then we come to the covenant, an act that looks so bloodthirsty to us, but it’s worth understanding the imagery. God reminds Abram that he brought him all the way to this land and had promised the land to him and to his descendants.  Abram more or less responds that he wants God to be honour bound to his word when he says, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I am to possess it?’ This is the kind of language that a junior partner in a business agreement might use towards a senior partner. To us it seems rather absurd to ask God to do something that made him honour bound to keep his word, but this was the culture in which Abram lived and God rarely seems to have a difficulty in working with us within the bounds of our local culture (a point worth remembering and perhaps debating elsewhere).

In order to make a covenant in that era there was always something to do with some kind of sacrifice. Covenants required the shedding of blood, and so it was referred to as, ‘Cutting a covenant’. An animal would be slaughtered and the participants in the covenant would walk between the two halves.  It was then binding. In other words there is no way that God, though the superior partner, could have walked away from the covenant. And so Abram did as he was told with the animals. Then Abram falls asleep.

The next part is disturbing. The presence of the Lord comes before the dream vision, and Abram experiences God as a deep and terrifying darkness.  Please take note of that. In this modern age we are brought up with an expectation that whenever God appears it will be accompanied by a warm spread of love, with the accompanying belief that any negative experiences are of the devil. But that’s not always true. God is unfathomable, and however much he has revealed of himself, there are times and occasions when the presence of God will feel like a terrifying darkness. That’s just how it is.

And then God’s presence walks between the slaughtered animals, signified by the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch. Why those symbols? They have a prophetic significance because they remind us of the presence of God going ahead and behind of God’s people when they escape Egypt; but that’s long into the future. That hasn’t happened yet.

The deep significance of all this though is that it is only God who walks between the animals. Abram doesn’t. This is a one-sided Covenant. God will give the land to Abraham’s descendants, and so he did. Now this is a vast swathe of land, and it is not all part of Israel, but don’t forget that the Arabs also trace their lineage back to Abraham.

Now I have explained all of this to help us understand the nature of Covenant, and the covenant we’ve looked at here was an unconditional promise to Abraham, that in the future, come what may, he would have descendants and they would inhabit the land. But God went on to make another covenant, a more important one, and this one required both parties to sign up.  In this covenant, outlined beginning in Exodus 20, God is the superior party and he outlines the ten commandments and a number of other ways of living that the Israelites must obey. That is their side of the Covenant. In return, God will be their God and will protect them and go before them, ensuring their success in the land.  More or less the rest of the Old Testament revolves around the people of Israel, and then later on just the tribe of Judah, and their abject failure to keep this covenant. The result was that God eventually took the Promised Land away from them for a time as they were taken into exile.

The uncomfortable truth we have to face is simply this; that whatever two-sided covenant God made with his people, they were never able to keep their side of it. They were unable to live the way God had told them to live and kept turning away to follow other gods. Clearly whatever God’s plans were for a nation that would follow him, they had to involve a critical new element.

And that brings us to the Gospel reading where Jesus is warned that Herod is going to try and kill him, and Jesus makes it apparent that he knows he must go up to Jerusalem to die.  Why? Well to help us in our Lenten preparation for Easter we need to remember that when he is giving the disciples the Eucharist, Jesus refers to the cup of wine as marking the New Covenant in his blood. In other words Jesus knew that he would establish a new agreement between God and humanity by his death.  The issue with the New Covenant is that it is again an agreement between two parties, one of them God and one of them human, but this time with a difference to ensure it would be kept even though humans are no good at keeping covenants with God. God would have known that if he’d forged a new covenant with us, we’d just have broken it, same as we broke the others. We’re no good at keeping our side of the bargain.

So what if he found a way around our inability to keep our side of the agreement?

That, you see, is the whole point of the idea of Jesus coming to us. In the Christian creeds we celebrate the experience that the early church had which was that Jesus, though human, was also divine. Once we understand that we can see how the new covenant works.

Jesus comes from God, being God, and sets in place a New Covenant. The human terms, the rules by which we live, haven’t changed from the Old Covenant. The divine terms, however, have.  God is now offering an intimate familial relationship, not one of a superior king to a vassal king. This is no longer one who is content to be 'Father-Sky', distant, aloof and frightening.  So God is giving more of Godself whilst requiring only that we keep the terms of the Old Covenant.

Just in case you’ve forgotten half of Exodus, and pretty much all of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Jesus summed it all up that our side of the New Covenant is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It’s easily stated but difficult to live by. This is still not a covenant we can keep.  Jesus, however, being both divine and human, can keep the covenant even when we can’t, and indeed that’s what we believe he did, living a life that was blameless.  Those who are baptised as Christians are referred to as being ‘in Christ’, so what that means is that even when we break our side of the agreement, because he is our human representative who keeps the covenant with God, the covenant remains intact.  This is why it’s called the grace of God, because God has found a work-around, a way in which a new covenant can be kept because he keeps both sides, his side and ours. It almost looks like cheating, but that’s the whole point of grace. It’s still a two-sided covenant, but God keeps both sides because Christ was divine and human.

An interesting question might be how would we wish to respond to that? Does it mean we don’t even have to bother trying because it’s all ok in Christ? No, I don’t think that’s the point; that would be simply taking for granted the depths God plumbed in 'cutting' the new covenant. But I do think that the events surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection are there to keep us within the new covenant when we get it wrong, when we make mistakes, when we’re not true to the callings we each have, when we fall short of who we were went to be.  (As an aside - despite the church's track record of trying to make people feel weighed down with guilt and shame because of their 'sin', the definition of sin is simply one of missing the target, like an archer whose arrow falls short.)

My response, therefore, is one of gratitude, that Christ knew what it would require of him to forge a New Covenant, and yet he still went through with it.

I’m not saying, by any stretch, that this is a complete understanding of the new covenant, but it does at least help us to understand a logical reason behind why Christians insist Christ was divine and human. If he had been merely human, could he have kept the covenant? .No one else has managed it. But as a divine human he was able to keep it on our behalf, and so no longer does God appear as a distant king or 'Father-Sky'; now he comes near as a parent, and it should not escape our attention that the description Jesus gives of his longing to offer protection like a hen covering her brood is a distinctly mothering image. And that is the intimacy afforded by the New Covenant.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Who the devil are you? Ah....

I used to think I knew exactly who the devil was.  I'd read the books which taught how the Bible made it clear that the devil was a fallen angel, originally the archangel Lucifer, who through pride had rebelled against God and been thrown out of heaven where he did his best to fight against God.  All very cut and dried, and all rather dualistic.  Then rather than reading more books about what the bible taught concerning the devil, I actually read what the bible itself said.  And of course the story is much less clear than I had been led to believe by those who like their theology to be all cut and dried with no jagged edges...

Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. In all that time he ate nothing, so that he was hungry when it was over. The Devil said to him, "If you are God's Son, order this stone to turn into bread." But Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Human beings cannot live on bread alone.' "

Then the Devil took him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world. "I will give you all this power and all this wealth," the Devil told him. "It has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. All this will be yours, then, if you worship me." Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!' "

Then the Devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, "If you are God's Son, throw yourself down from here. For the scripture says, "God will order his angels to take good care of you.' It also says, "They will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.' " But Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " When the Devil finished tempting Jesus in every way, he left him for a while

I feel like I might be taking my life in my hands with this one. You may have heard of the saying, ‘Speak of the devil and he’s bound to appear’, well I’m betting on that not being true because I intend to do precisely that. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard a sermon in church about the devil, and, given that he’s got a leading role in this part of Luke’s Gospel, it seems appropriate to use this opportunity to say a little something about him.  But first some background. The timing here is important. Jesus has just been baptised and is full of the Holy Spirit. Now if you’ve ever been involved in a charismatic or pentecostal church you may have found that they dwell on the idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit, often and as much as possible. But I find myself wondering whether, if they looked at this passage closely, would they feel so keen on the idea?

You see rather than dwelling in that luxurious state of feeling blessed by the presence of God, known by some as the spiritual warm-fuzzies, Luke makes it absolutely clear that the first job that the Holy Spirit undertakes is to lead Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In fact if you read this account in Mark’s Gospel you find the language is much stronger.  Mark’s description is of the Holy Spirit driving Jesus into the desert. We don’t often look on this as being a favourable follow up to receiving God’s Holy Spirit, but maybe we should. After all if we believe that the Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us to do something, then we shouldn’t be surprised if, before we set out to that, our motives aren’t tested first to make sure we’re not doing this for selfish purposes.

So make no mistake, Jesus being in the wilderness, in a weakened physical state to be tempted by the devil, was the will of God. And on top of that I believe that this is not for show. I believe that these were real temptations and Jesus really could have sinned. He really could have fallen short of the perfection we assume.  Some may be shocked by this but remember the Christian affirmation is that Jesus was fully God and fully human (more about that in the next entry), so if his experiences were to mean anything then they had to include the possibility that he would fail.

So we come to the devil, but who actually is he? Well perhaps first of all I need to say who he is not. The devil is not a character who plays pipes, has horns and goats feet with cloven hooves. That character is the wild Pagan god of nature known as Pan, and it was the idea of the medieval church to portray the devil as Pan in order to try and frighten country folk away from the old religions. So the devil is not Pan.  Nor is the devil a creature created by God to live in hell and torment people who aren’t believers. Dante and Milton et al have a lot to answer for. In fact the latter part of the Revelation to St. John seems to indicate that hell is a place reserved for the devil and his demons to be consigned to at the end of this age, where they are destroyed.

This is, of course, made more confusing by the letter of Jude verse 6 where the writer refers to fallen angels, ie demons, being kept in everlasting chains until the day of judgement.  If that is so, then we would have to ask where all the demons that Jesus and the disciples cast out came from. And this kind of confusion sets the scene for us because it shows that the bible does not have a consistent picture or a complete revelation of who the devil actually is.  Is this because the intent is to show that God defeats evil and we shouldn’t therefore get too worked up about it?  But again I don't think scripture necessarily works as consistently as that.  Having said that, the model of the Old Testament is not, as some might imagine, dualistic, with a battle between good and evil. In fact it is fairly explicit in its monotheism, that all things are under God’s charge.  So when the devil appears in the Old Testament, usually under the name Satan, which means the accuser, he is actually an agent of God. You might like to think of him as the witness for the prosecution. Two examples spring to mind. In the Book of Job he is the one who brings Job to God’s attention, but he has to ask God’s permission to test Job.  And in Zechariah 3 we find a prophetic picture of Joshua the high priest standing before God while Satan is stood at Joshua’s right hand side hurling accusations at him. Is he evil? It’s difficult to tell. He seems to be doing a job, that of prosecutor, of accuser, but he is nevertheless rebuked by God when he does so.

Even in the New Testament we find similar things, where Satan seems to be being used as a tool of God. For example this very reading has the Holy Spirit taking Jesus out into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. But also we find verses like Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus says,
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Again there is the suggestion that Satan has still had to ask permission of God to do this. And then St. Paul mentions Satan a couple of times as tool of God such as 1 Timothy 1:20
“among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
So why then do we call him a fallen angel, and where does this idea of his being in opposition to God come from? Well this is quite a tricky one to sort out. I don’t wish to negate the idea that there is a progressive revelation of who the devil is in scripture, but some suggest that the idea of him being an angel who fell because of the sin of pride is hugely influenced by dualistic religions in the area, such as Zoroastrianism, that had opposing forces of good and evil. And as I said earlier, Judaism was not dualistic. That is not to say that there was no opposer, but that even then it was subject to God.  So some interpreters look at passages such as this from Isaiah 14:12-15 and say they are about Satan.
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!  How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God;  I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. 
Now that certainly sounds like our interpretation of the devil being an archangel who was full of pride but who was then thrown out of heaven and cast down to the earth because of that pride. That is until we read earlier in the passage where in verse 4 Isaiah says,
‘You will take up this taunt against the King of Babylon.
So is that meant to be a prophetic picture of what will happen to the King of Babylon in return for what he did to the Jews? Probably, because that’s the context of this part of Isaiah. Could it also be about an archangel being thrown out of heaven? Well, yes it might be because prophecy often works on several levels. Certainly some of the prophecies we use about Christ in the Old Testament were not originally written about him.

‘Well’, you may say, ‘wasn’t the devil the snake in the Garden of Eden.’ Once again that is an interpretation of a story. In the original story in Genesis the snake is just that, a talking snake. But the snake clearly acts to sift Eve, to test her, to tempt her, to lie to her, and she fell for it. The action of the snake is the action of Satan, but the story is about a snake.

What I am trying to say, I guess, is that the person of the devil, of Satan, is not as easily described as some works of systematic theology assume. Scripture is simply not clear enough, and this may simply indicate that it is not God’s intention for us to take too much of an interest in him.  Unlike some of my contemporaries, I do believe in his existence. I do believe that he is an accuser. But likewise I know that more often than not I give him plenty of ammunition! I think it’s worth pointing out that the excuse, ‘The devil made me do it’ holds no water. Each of us has responsibility for our actions, and I’m quite capable of screwing things up with no need for outside intervention!

My own conclusion is that we have to be careful not to let early middle eastern dualism colour our interpretation of scripture too much. The picture painted there seems to be of an accuser who nevertheless has to obey God and has to get permission before doing anything. He seems to be used by God, such as in this story, but I get a feeling that with time we get a creature who is steadily consumed with the accusations he makes.  At some point his permission to enter heaven seems to be revoked, with Jesus referring to him falling, like lightening, to the earth, and John in his Revelation, chapter 12, inferring that he was cast down to the earth and as he fell he enticed a third of the angels to follow him.  Ultimately, near the end of Revelation, we read of the devil, being cast as the one who deceives, being thrown into the lake of burning sulphur. Whatever else this means, one thing is sure, in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no one to accuse us. Evil is defeated. And that, I think, is what is foreshadowed in the reading.

I know that there are many people of different faiths who see the devil radically differently, as one who can play tricks on us to help us see ourselves as we are and to grow, or as the shadow side with whom we can relate in order to better become who we are, but to be honest I find those things in God and the way he treats me.  I don't feel the need to find that elsewhere.  For me the devil exists but, unlike with the rest of us, he has no accusations he can level against Jesus when he tests him. And Jesus refuses the temptations, which are essentially short cuts to popularity, and chooses the narrow way, the hard route, and in so doing his defeat of the temptations lays the groundwork for the future.

I don't feel the need to dwell on the devil because frankly God hasn’t given us enough material to work with if we want to stay focussed just on the bible, and that absence should perhaps act as a guide to what’s important. To me, looking at Christ as the one who is on my side, the good news, the hope, is that the witness for the defence wins the case on our behalf.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Being our own spin-doctor: the ways we avoid seeing the truth

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Being a Spin-Doctor
Spin is a wonderful tool in the world of journalism. A professional genealogical researcher discovered that ex-president of the USA George W. Bush's great-great uncle, Thomas Bush, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. The only known photograph of Thomas shows him standing on the gallows.

On the back of the picture is this inscription: "Thomas Bush; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times, caught by Pinkerton Detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889." A lady e-mailed the White House for comments. George's staff of professional image adjusters sent back the following biographical sketch:

"Thomas was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Thomas passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.
The ‘truth’ can be doctored very easily in order that it says what we want it to say rather than what is really truth. Now the above story may or may not be true, but it’s a great story. The difficulty I think we face is that we are forever filtering the truth through our own lenses, not being aware of the distortion we’ve introduced. We are unconsciously very good spin doctors.

Have you ever sat in a room with people, trying to sort out or mediate a difficult situation, and asked yourself, ‘What am I missing here?’ Or have you ever watched someone having an argument with someone else and thought, ‘Why can you not see yourself in the same way that others, that I, can see you?’ And then, then if you’re feeling really screwy you start to ask yourself, ‘Hang on, am I seeing you that way because my vision is somehow mucked up?’

None of us sees the world as it is, not as it truly is. We only ever see our version of events, from our own perspective, through the ‘glasses’ that we’re wearing. But that is not to say that the truth isn’t accessible, only that in order to see it, we first have to see what it is that’s getting in the way of the truth. What is it about our own story that distorts the other stories we’re taking part in?  How is it that someone who is almost universally loved can be filled with self-loathing whilst someone can be so full of themselves that they fail to see what people really think about them? 

This is the kind of imagery that St. Paul is playing with in this portion of his second letter to the church in Corinth. He begins by citing an example from the Old Testament, of how the face of Moses shone with the glory of God when he came down from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets on which was written the ten commandments.  Moses wasn’t aware of this unusual side-effect of being in God’s direct presence, but for the Israelites it was disturbing. The story in Exodus makes it plain that they were afraid to come near him when he was like this. Moses’ response was to leave his face uncovered until he had finished telling them what God had said, then he would put on a veil over his face.

In essence St. Paul seems to be saying that the Israelites didn’t want to see God’s glory. They were afraid of it. The veil hid it from their eyes. Perhaps we might say that the truth was too bright to look upon. And that’s what truth is like - it’s bright, and sometimes uncomfortably piercing, and maybe that’s why we veil it in our own alternative truths, so that we don’t have to face up to anything uncomfortable.  Or sometimes we don’t want to see the truth because we have already made up our own mind about it, in essence we have veiled our deepest self from the reality as God sees it for the sake of an easier to swallow reality that we feel more comfortable with.

Truth is hard to bear. Truth can hurt. But truth can also heal. I sometimes wonder about our own patron saint, Mary Magdalene. The story is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, but what does that mean? Maybe it was literal demons, or maybe it was the kind of inner-demons that keep us awake all night, worrying about what people think about us, or the kind of self-loathing that so many in our society suffer with.  We don’t know what Mary Magdalene went through, but I wonder whether her healing was simply that Jesus showed her what she looked like through his eyes, through the eyes of God. Maybe what happened was that he allowed her to see herself as God saw her. Maybe, just maybe, when the veil was lifted and she saw the truth it was like a gentle, healing light which cleansed her soul from the lies she had told herself about what she was like.  We don’t know. All that we can know for certain is that it is much harder to see the real truth than we like to believe. St. Paul’s example of veiling is that of Jesus’s own people not being able to see him for who he is, but then he gives us a route by which we truly can see things as they are when he says these words:
“...but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
Now I believe that to be true with all my heart. The trouble is, so do many other groups within Christianity who differ in belief from me substantially! As I’ve got older and, I hope, grown in my relationship with God, so I’ve found myself believing that God’s values may well be different from my own. He seems to be far more concerned with people receiving justice than he is about, say, their sexual relationships. Certainly the weight of scripture bears that one out in terms of the number of references to justice.  It feels to me as if the Lord has begun to remove the veil I put on in my adolescence which puts huge weight on the rightness or wrongness of various kinds of relationship and has instead directed my gaze at how unfairly some people are treated by their own state or by another country.  Yet I have sisters and brothers who proclaim the same faith who have no problem with the idea that God may use their nation to beat down another, yet will scream and shout about how God comes in judgement on anyone who is having sex outside a married relationship with the intent of having children. To me that seems all wrong, but to them I expect I seem all wrong.

This came up again only this last week with the news that in the US, information was sent out to musicians and singers at an awards event about what was permissible for them to wear, and that breasts must be covered at all times. This from the nation which produces some of the most violent and exploitative television in the world and allows people to carry assault rifles! Which veil are they looking through?

Yet it begs the question, if Jesus lifts the veil of truth, how come we all disagree so much with each other? That’s a question to which I really wish I had the right answer. I hold the views I have about faith, different religions, the value of science, human sexuality and so on because I believe that the Lord has been steadily lifting the veil for me since we began our journey together. And if I’m honest I have to recognise the likelihood that a decade from now those views will have continued to evolve as he continues to lift the veil.  And recognising that point, that our views could and should change, is perhaps the most important step in all of this. What you believe now, about God, about yourself, about other people, could and should change; that is the mark of a living faith, that your beliefs don’t stagnate. Recognising that particular truth is what instils a kind of humility in us, because it drives us to say:
“This is what I believe the Lord has unveiled for me - but I might be wrong. There may be more.”
‘I might be wrong.’ When was the last time any of us owned up to that truth. ‘I might be wrong.’ You see it is only when we admit that to ourselves that the Lord can begin to lift a veil for us.

So the questions we should perhaps think about asking ourselves are these:

How much of a spindoctor am I about myself?
How much of my own spin have I come to actually believe to be truth?
When I declare either good things or bad things to myself about my soul, am I prepared to accept that I might be wrong?
When I declare theological truths to be certain, do I have the humility to accept I might be mistaken?

We are living in uncertain times. I think that’s one of the reasons why people have moved towards more conservative or fundamentalist positions since it is much more comforting to adopt an absolutist position that can’t be challenged. Essentially we fall back on the weak argument, ‘I’m a proper Christian and you’re not so I’m right and you’re wrong.’  But we aren’t called to that. The Lord is my rock on whom I wish to build, but the humble truth is I can’t always see the foundations clearly, and sometimes I’m mistaken about them. We should allow our life experiences and the beliefs of others to challenge our own presumptions. If we are correct, then our beliefs can cope with being challenged. Each of us needs to approach the Lord ourselves with a prayer something like this:
Lord, I want to see clearly. Please show me.
‘Show us the Father’, said the disciple to Jesus, and Jesus responded, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ Show us the truth.  Let us see it clearly in you as, day by day, you lift the veils in our lives.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Calming storms and owning up to having monsters - an occasional insomniac's tale...

This was one of those times when I could really have got caught up in wondering who or what Jesus was addressing when he calmed the storm.  It would have been easy to got into all kinds of theology, but instead I thought it might be worth while simply being honest with the text, and with ourselves...
Luke 8:22-25
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

Where do your monsters come from? We all have them, the fears that sneak up on us in the middle of the night and find us tossing and turning as, half asleep and half awake, we try and figure out how best to fight with our troubling internal demons. In our semi-comatose state, even with the best of our intentions we find that our common sense has fled and is replaced by sweat; by our sodden nightwear clinging to us.  However together we may seem to the outside world, and whatever facade we put on in order to function, pretty much every person I know has episodes like these and for some they are less ‘episodes’ and more a mode of current existence. They usually come when we are under a significant and prolonged period of stress since those are the times which make us look deeply at our faults and failings, trying hard to comprehend what happened to get us into this predicament.  But whatever it is, the result is the same: we feel abandoned to a fate we are no longer in charge of. This, in fact, is the key for when these night ‘visitors’ are likely to come; when we feel no longer in charge of our destiny, perhaps because the responsibilities are more than we feel able to cope with, or because someone is taking our freedom, and with that comes the loss of the sense of any degree of control over our lives that every person needs.

These feelings tell a story that is akin to being adrift on a boat where, despite your skills as a fisherman, the boat is no longer in your control because the storm has become too much to cope with, exactly as per the position the disciples found themselves in.  The seas were higher than their boat was designed for, and so, in fear of being completely overwhelmed, they cried out that they were in mortal danger to Jesus, who was exhausted and hence fast asleep. Jesus awakes and rebukes the forces of the elements and calm returns.

Now we can do two things with this story. At face value it reveals to us Jesus as someone who was so in touch with the spiritual forces of the natural world around him that he was quite at ease telling them to sit down and shut up, which is my paraphrase of the Greek used. Luke’s version of the story doesn’t give us Jesus’s actual words, but in the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus commanded, ‘Peace! Be still!’ and the wind and waves obeyed.  The intriguing thing behind that is that it seems to be a personal address meaning something like, ‘Be muzzled!’ or ‘Be gagged’, almost as an address to a puppy or a dog. It suggests to me a command to something behind the storm, or that the storm was itself being addressed. Now to much of the modern church this seems a rather unusual idea, but amongst those who feel an affinity for the personality of our natural world it is not remotely so.  For many there is the strong belief that nature spirits are a part of the weave of life in this world. For others they take a different view that the waves and the storms can be addressed directly; that the waves are a god. For Christians either possibility is intriguing, maybe disturbing, because they fall outside our world-view, and I think we should allow ourselves to be challenged by the possibilities. What is interesting is the personal way that Jesus responds to the danger and the instant response.  In other words Jesus, quite simply, tells the storm and the waves to be calm, to stop making such a racket... and they do. We can interpret that as Jesus speaking to spirits behind the elements, or to the elements themselves, or if you prefer a scientific worldview, Jesus was simply telling the physical world to do his bidding. Whichever you prefer, the result is the same, the natural world responds to the voice of its creator.

So that’s the face value look at what happens. But what about if we treat the story as a myth, a fable which is trying to teach us something. (I should add that treating something as a myth doesn’t mean you don’t believe it happened, it is simply another way of reading.) What you will find in the commentaries over and over again is that the story is teaching us that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives. We only need to have faith in him and he will still the worrying and the fretting. 

Isn’t that wonderfully simple.

But it also inadvertently suggests that if you cried out for help and it didn’t come, then that’s your fault for not having enough faith. I have to say, in general, that my experience is one of tending towards the sleepless nights whilst trying to figure out a solution to an issue that has arisen, and wishing I had a little more faith than I currently do.  You will find people whose testimony is that when they trust the Lord they find he will take away their fears. And I also know that this is the witness of the more popular parts of scripture, that if we trust God, then it will all be ok and we will be stilled. Perfect love drives out all fear and all that. But my love is not perfect, and as an occasional insomniac I can tell you, it is not as easy as that.  I alos know that there were some unlikely character, like Moses, who simply stoof up to God and said pretty much, 'No, I'm too scared'.  Sometimes God compromises to help us in those times when we're really going to struggle.  (Exodus 4 tells the story of God compromising to Moses.)

You simply cannot turn trust on like a tap. Look at it reasonably and you see that the disciples were in this boat with Jesus asleep and the waves about to swamp them. They don’t tap Jesus gently on the shoulder and say, ‘Pardon us Jesus, but could you just have a quiet word with the sea as it’s getting a little choppy.’
No, they scream at him, ‘Help, help, we’re all gonna die!!!!!!’ That’s the kind of biblical reality we need to recognise. It is only when we’re honest with the story that we can be honest with ourselves. If the disciples, in the real physical presence of Christ, were terrified, since we have only his spiritual presence to work with, I think it’s ok to let ourselves off the hook just a little.

But only a little, because now I am going to refer to his rebuke, ‘Where is your faith?’ We can’t quite get off the hook here, because if we’re honest with ourselves, when it is all going wrong, where is our faith? Personally I think that this is about actively developing trust, and forgiving ourselves when we’re not capable of biblical faithful heroics, and not beating ourselves up for not having faith in the first place. It’s also about learning to hear the voice of God in the dark places.  I remember a former student colleague who, when things were bad got quite low, but when things were going well she would say, ‘Isn’t God wonderful.’ Somehow we need to transcend our feelings. So when I talk about developing trust, the key word is ‘developing’. A picture develops as the painter transfers her creativity to the canvas. Growing in trust of God is like painting a picture.

So I think it’s meant to be rather like the creative process. First of all you need to see inside you what it is you wish to have, i.e. trust in God. A painter, unless working entirely from the unconscious, begins at least with an idea, even if it’s only a word they wish to transform into an image.  But the next thing they have to do is pick up a paintbrush, and then they must dip it into the paint, or the picture will be stillborn within them. So it is for us. If we wish to develop trust, we need first to imagine what that trust might look like. Then we need to pick up the metaphorical brush, which is to paint the first step, a step which I think is the simple act of believing that it is possible to trust God, whatever the circumstances.  And then we have to trust God for something small. I make no promises that the small thing we’re trusting God for will come right in the end, but the very act of trying to actively trust takes us one step along that path.

The word disciple comes from the same root as discipline. Growing doesn’t come easy, and sometimes we have to work hard at it. But then I remember how a parent rejoices over their child’s every act of development and realise that God feels the same way about us. One wave at a time I believe it’s possible to grow and trust.

One wave at a time...