Friday, 10 May 2013

Actions and consequences - blurring the lines between good and bad.

Sometimes I find that when I look back on my actions I find that something good has come out of an unwise choice.  Did that make it a 'wise' choice in actuality?  I don't think so.  But our actions have consequences we cannot foresee...
Acts 16:16-34
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.  But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Actions and Consequences
There is so much good news to reflect on here, but I feel that there is another story going on as well, the one which Luke tells us almost inadvertently about how badly things can go wrong when we let loose with a bad temper, particularly if we are engaged in something spiritual.  So let me begin with a story. Many years ago, when Ali and I were first married our musical tastes were somewhat more narrow than what they are now and we played in a heavy rock band. Unusually we were a four piece made up of two men and two women. Ali and I were joined by a brilliantly creative guitarist who I had known since college. Our four piece was completed by a young woman on bass guitar and backing vocals who Ali had been at youth group with. So we had a lot of history together and worked well as a team. We were all on faith journeys and were haltingly and unsteadily growing as Christians as well as musicians.

It was exciting for us because we were just beginning to get noticed, and then our bass guitarist dropped what seemed at that time like a bit of bombshell. She had decided to go back to university and would we mind not gigging very much while she finished her degree. My response was, let’s say, not altogether charitable.  There followed an exchange of letters in which I responded out of what I wanted and what I felt the band should be doing rather than out of compassion for her needs. In the ensuing split our friendship was shattered and she was deeply hurt. I had reacted out of anger because of what I wanted rather than out of compassion for what she needed. I’ll come back to this story later.

So let’s turn to that reading from Acts, and you may recall that in my last post I mentioned St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the speculations surrounding it. Some church people, fairly typically, have assumed that St. Paul was struggling with some kind of sexual issue. Others have suggested that it may be that his eyesight was not as healed as he suggested after his blinding encounter with Christ on the Damascus road.  But I still feel the evidence suggests that the thorn in his flesh that he was referring to was a problem with anger. Now it is interesting to note that God was able to use that anger to bring something good out of it, i.e. the salvation of the jailer and his family, but there is an innocent party in all this who simply disappears, never to be heard of again.

I am, of course, thinking of the slave girl.

Now we need to be quite clear in our terminology here as to how we describe her. Although she is often referred to by commentators as a demon-possessed woman, that is not what Luke calls her. Remember that Luke is always quite clear about what he means, but translators and commentators sometimes muddy the waters.  So translations tend to say either that she had a spirit of divination or a spirit by which she told the future but what Luke actually says in the Greek is that she had a spirit of a python, and whilst that sounds odd to us it is actually very specific when we look at what it actually means. It refers to the Greek deity, Apollo whose symbol at his Temple at Mount Parnassus was a snake.  There were there the Delphic oracle readers who were usually young women. When in a trance state they could be asked questions and would give what would be thought of as answers from Apollo.

Now we should in no way interpret this poor slave girl as being remotely on a par with an Oracle at Parnassus, but she was thought of by Luke as being possessed by the same Python spirit and it was through this that she told fortunes. Two things stand out for me in this. Firstly St. Luke makes no comment about the nature of this spirit. He doesn’t call it an unclean spirit. Nor does he call it a demon.  Given his usual attention to detail we should be cautious not to jump to any conclusion there either. Luke was of his culture. This woman had the spirit of a python and through it she told the future. That’s all there was to it.
I think that actually it’s more important for us that we acknowledge her social status. Basically she had none. She was a slave so she had no rights of her own. She ‘belonged’ to someone else and they made money out of her. She was used.  If you remember from the last post I wrote about Lydia who was a rich independent woman trader in expensive purple cloths. The slave girl is at totally the opposite end of the social spectrum. She has nothing and Luke gives her no name. So what happens next?

She latches on to Paul and Silas and follows them around. From not too far away she bears witness to them saying, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way fo salvation.’ She is bearing testimony to their testimony. It is interesting that she uses the phrase, ‘Most High God.’ This is more-or-less a catch-all interfaith phrase.  For the Greek they would think it meant Zeus. For the Jew it referred to Yahweh. Either way people would know what she meant. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that this title goes back a long way and followers of both religions would have recognised and owned it.

So she follows them for some time, calling out who they were and what they were doing. We have no idea what the girl’s owners were doing at this time. Maybe Paul and Silas were drawing a crowd through their words and she was aligning herself to them so that they were able to make money by offering her fortune telling abilities. Maybe she was under a compulsion because of the spirit. We just have no idea.  I don’t know that was what was on Luke’s mind as he told this tale. But for whatever reason, Paul, being very much annoyed by this woman, and without asking her, casts the spirit out in the name of Jesus. It matters not whether we think of the spirit as an evil spirit, an animal spirit or the spirit of a dead person. It was given no choice but Christ’s name and the intent behind it meant the spirit had to leave.

But this is what disturbs me:
Paul acts out of anger.
Paul asks the girl nothing about her own opinion.
Paul treats her with nothing like the respect that he treated the well-off Lydia, and Paul’s actions, however we want to judge them, make her worthless to her owners. She is no longer of any value to them.

And so she simply disappears.

Paul reacted out of anger, not out of compassion and when we react emotionally rather than spiritually then people can get hurt. We have no idea what became of this young woman but I suspect that if she went on to become a believer then Luke would have told us, given his eye for detail. Instead we are left with the sad open-ended fear that the slave-girl’s future would have been pretty bleak. 

Now of course many people would want to point at what happens next. Paul and Silas are arrested on totally trumped up charges, they get beaten into a bloody mess yet still praise God in jail through their bruises. A miraculous earthquake and Paul’s quick thinking mean that the jailer becomes a Christian and another believer and his household is added to the fledgling church at Philippi.  But I want to suggest that this is the grace of God working with the consequences of Paul’s actions rather than the will of God from the outset. It seems unthinkable to me that given all the evidence from prophecies in scripture and from the lips of Jesus about how God was on the side of the poor, that he would have caused the downfall of the slave-girl in order to save the jailer who was probably a fairly well-off retired Roman soldier.  Instead this seems to me about how God works in the midst of our worst impulses to bring about the best outcome.

Let me return to the story I began with about the band. After a little while we recruited a new bass guitarist, and following a change of direction we recruited a fiddle player. Shortly after that we were offered a record deal with a small independent label.  The new bass guitarist and new fiddle player fell in love, married and had two children, and we still play together and the band continues as we work on a new album. In other words, out from the ashes of my angry response God was able to bring something quite beautiful.

But nevertheless I am still left with a sense of hollowness, a wondering of what ever happened to our original bass guitarist.  Did she ever return to her spiritual journey? Was God able to bring something good out of that mess for her?

So for me this story is a reminder of the need for our actions to be rooted in a deep and calm spirituality; of being people who respond first and foremost with love and compassion rather than anger. We can be truly grateful that God is able, in God’s grace and love, to bring something good out of the difficulties we weave.   But we should never forget that our actions have consequences, and a sharp retort out of anger can change someone’s life forever. Our tongues have a lot of power. May we learn to use them wisely.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Steamrollers and listeners.

Sorry, two readings to go with these ideas, but if you only have time for one, read the first one.
Acts 16:9-15
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.  I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Steamrollers and Listeners
It can be difficult to know what we should do about communicating our faith. Many of us have experienced the person with the steam-roller faith, that is they seem compelled to mention Christ in every conversation and appear determined to tell you what you should do in any given situation, regardless of whether you believe what they believe.  For people like this they present as operating under some kind of compulsion to speak about their faith. The reasons for that can range widely. There are those who speak from a sense of guilt that Jesus called them to be witnesses and so they feel they must speak about him all the time or they’re letting the side down.

At the other end there are those who just seem completely unaware that they may actually being doing damage simply because they are determined to show everyone that what they believe is right, but are often speaking at the wrong time. But for many of us who don’t talk about our faith all that often, we are left with a feeling of guilt because we see these men and women of faith and think we ought to be like that, yet we feel too timid to say anything.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is the third way, the mature way of listening and speaking wisely into a situation because we have sensed somehow that we are being prompted to speak because to do so would help. So this is about listening.

Who remembers the infamous Poll Tax I wonder? It was around the time Alison and I were getting married, in the late 1980's, and it was one of the defining moments in the decline of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and a clear example of a government that had lost touch with the country it was meant to be governing.  To the Cabinet it seemed fair that everyone who resided in a constituency should pay the same community charge for the services they were receiving. But when one spoke to the people of this country it became steadily more clear that they disagreed, and that payment should be according to ability to pay.

But the government refused to listen.

The Poll Tax riots ensued and general opposition steadily grew. Yet still the government refused to listen. By the time of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation she was defending a policy that only 12% of the population wanted according to a survey in the Times in April 1990. Her successor, John Major, in his very first parliamentary speech, announced that the community charge was to be abandoned in favour of the council tax which took account of the value of a property. Now there were many reasons why Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister came to an end, but it is widely felt that her unwillingness to listen to others, as exemplified by her refusal to change course on the poll tax, was a key reason for the withdrawal of support from her by her own party.  As such she shows us a pretty good example of how badly wrong things can go when we don’t listen, and how it is possible to weave for ourselves a web of self-deception. I wonder what leads to this? For some people is it perhaps pride? In his book, ‘Mere Christianity’ C.S. Lewis said
"A proud man is always looking down on things and people: long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you."
With that in mind let’s take a look at the reading from Acts where we have this curious story of how St. Paul and his co-workers found themselves in Macedonia. St. Luke tells of how Paul and his team were not permitted by the Holy Spirit to go into Asia to preach. Luke doesn’t give us any background to this, he just simply says that they were forbidden.  As they continued on their journey they attempted to enter Bithynia, but were again thwarted, this time, he says, by the Spirit of Jesus. Again we don’t know exactly what that means, but clearly the Lord wanted them elsewhere. So they continued on their missionary journey, arriving in Troas and it was there that Paul had a vision. You may remember that last week we heard about Peter having a vision leading him to the Gentiles. Now it is Paul’s turn, and so he is convinced by this vision of a man from Macedonia pleading to come and help them that this is where they are being called to go.

Notice the huge contrast between Paul’s actions with respect to listening to God and those of Margaret Thatcher with respect to listening to the people. Paul remained in touch with God. His prayer life had led him to the point where his spirituality was deeply in tune with what the Holy Spirit was calling him to do and I am convinced that this was at least in part because of his humility.  If I am honest I do not believe humility to have been easy for him. In his second letter to the Corinthian church St. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh sent to test him. He writes of how he prayed that God would take it away from him, and God refused saying that his grace was sufficient. We don’t know what his thorn in the flesh was but I would speculate that it was anger and a bad temper.  There are, after all, numerous occasions in the New Testament stories, both in Acts and in his own letters, where it becomes apparent that Paul was an angry man, and sometimes it got the better of him. But God said he should live with it. Why? I suspect it’s because it kept him honest and humble.  St. Paul had to accept that there was a part of his nature that he seemed incapable of being in total control of. And because of that fault he was always reminded of his imperfection, and so he continued to listen. One way in which he describes his relationship with Christ, in his second letter to Timothy, is as being under a commanding officer. And so Paul, with all his faults and foibles, looked up to Christ and listened.

This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to in the Gospel reading, that those who love God will listen to God and that God will take up residence within them, referring to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate that he would send.

Look at the difference it made in St. Paul’s life. He listened humbly to the voice of God within, the Holy Spirit who was willing to lead him, and he was willing to be told not to go to the place he wanted to go and to listen to where else he should go instead.

Now we might wish to speculate why Paul and his team were disallowed from going either into Asia or Bithynia, but I think we may be missing the point in doing so. I don’t think that this was so much about being told where not to go, but more a case of the Holy Spirit making it slowly clear where he was to go. If Paul had carried on regardless then it’s likely that he would never have reached Philippi. Why was it so important that he should go there? Well it seems to me that the Holy Spirit’s intention was to take him where She had already been at work, preparing hearts and minds to receive the message Paul had to bring.  And this is a key thing for us to understand, and it is also another way of undoing our pride. The work that we do as a church is not about us. It’s not about the survival of an institution. It’s all about following the Holy Spirit into places where She has already gone ahead of us.

This, I believe, is what we see in the next part of the story. Paul and his team, having received their instructions, are now left to use their own good sense, and so they went to where they thought would be a place of prayer, down by the river outside the city, and it there that they met Lydia.  We don’t know a great deal about Lydia except that she was probably not actually a Jew. Had she been then Luke would have probably called her as such, but instead she is referred to as a worshipper of God, so perhaps she was drawn to Judaism but hadn’t actually taken the steps to become a Jew.  It seems likely that she was of quite high social status since she was in control of her own household, able to invite men to come and stay, and she had her own business.

But it is the fact that she was already a spiritual searcher that leaps out to me.

This was someone who was already, of her own will, engaging with the Holy Spirit. Though not a Jew she was already convinced that there was one God. In essence she was ready to listen.  The result of Paul’s obedience, of his listening to God, of his willingness to do as he was asked, was that Lydia became the very first European to embrace Christianity. Such was her commitment that after Paul and Silas had been arrested, on being freed she welcomed them back into her own house.

So what does this have to say to us?

Well simply it poses the question, how willing are we to listen to what God is asking of us? Are we humble enough to look up to God and to be prepared to go where we are called rather than rushing in to every situation? Do we speak too quickly, or maybe not at all?  My belief is that the Holy Spirit is working in people’s hearts and She calls us to speak about the good news that we carry within us, but, and this is important, we need to be listening closely so that we go to the people who wish to listen.

All of us have at some point experienced someone who has steam-rollered their faith over us. I expect that at some point in time many of us have even been the steam rollers. Sadly I know I have. Sometimes in our enthusiasm about what we believe we feel compelled to say something at a time and a place where we may not actually be called to speak.  It is hard for us to understand sometimes that we are not to speak the Good News, but it is very clear in this story that on two separate occasions God made it absolutely clear to Paul that he was not to go where he thought he should and was not to speak until he was in the place where he was called to speak.  If someone is not ready to listen, or more specifically, if their spirit has not already searched for or communed with God’s Holy Spirit, then our insistence in telling them what we believe may damage a possibility of them meeting with God when they are more ready.

Knowing how to communicate our faith to others depends on us being good listeners, and ultimately that is what this passage challenges us about. We have God living within us. Are we going to be humble enough to listen? Or are we going to go our own sweet way?  We are, every one of us, meant to be willing to share our faith, but it should be under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. For those who feel compelled always to speak, they should put aside the sense that we are in the right and must therefore speak truth to people whether they want to listen or not. For those who don’t ever speak, they should learn to be ready to.

We believe that the way of Christ is the right way, otherwise we wouldn’t be walking it, but there is a time to speak and a time to keep silence. If we are too timid to ever speak then we should ask for courage, but  if we feel under compulsion to speak, then we should ask for wisdom. We are supposed to live out what we believe first and foremost. But when the Holy Spirit prompts us, we should speak. But first we must learn how to listen.  Remember, the first commandment is to love God. The second is to love our neighbour.

If our words and actions are not rooted in those, then we should keep silent.