Tuesday, 29 July 2014

In our weaknesses there are sighs too deep for words.

For all those who run out of words, or who have run out of Churches because there are too many words...

Romans 8:26-8
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

And from Matthew 13:
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Not good enough for Church?
I met a character not so long ago who has begun thinking about Christianity again after many years away. His comments to me were very telling in that he was wondering about going to church, but that he didn't feel good enough. I tried to explain to him that few Christians think they are good enough, and that this perception of ourselves is a reminder of why we follow this path in the first place. But it came as an important reminder to me of how the world at large often perceives us; as people who think they are holy.  In my experience the reality is a long way removed from this. Many of the Christians I know still cannot get their heads around why God would be concerned with them. In fact it goes further than that; many Christians simply feel bad enough about themselves to the extent that they don't ever dare ask God for something in prayer, simply because they can't imagine how God could possibly love them given their knowledge of themselves and the weaknesses they have.

And into this psychospiritual space St. Paul writes: 'The Spirit helps us in our weakness'. This is what I want us to explore because it is only in taking on board the gravity of those words that we can begin to comprehend what Christianity is about and why it's actually good news.  Yet so many of our churches don't seem to appreciate this.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness. Those tears you shed when God feels so distant? The Spirit helps us in our weakness. That person that you find yourself always saying the wrong thing to? The Spirit helps us in our weakness.

The character at work or the neighbour at home that you cannot help arguing with? The Spirit helps us in our weakness. The habit you can't break? The Spirit helps us in our weakness.

That, unfortunately, is not the general perception within so many churches. After generations of leaders who have laid so much guilt on us, we find it very hard to actually believe this. We think, 'Why would God want to help me? I don't deserve that'. Over and over again we get it wrong with what I call churchianity.  We allow or even make people feel guilty for not living up to a particular standard and yet it is St. Paul, no doubt writing from a position of experience, who writes that it is when we are in the midst of our weaknesses that we so closely encounter the Spirit of God.

Take hold of this, honour the words and let them take root within you, it says that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. It emphatically does not say that the Spirit won't help us until we've conquered our weakness. This is what makes Christianity so important. This is why the teachings of Jesus are like a pearl of great price whose value is beyond all possessions, because in it the knowledge that whoever we are, wherever we are in our spiritual journey, however vulnerable we feel, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.

And it's not just to do with the things that we do wrong. It's also to do with the things that simply go wrong, because they do, all the time. We greet each other with smiles and 'How are you?' 'Oh I'm fine thank you, and how are you?' and yet the reality is that most of us are carrying some kind of burden, and some of those burdens are huge. And St. Paul affirms that The Spirit helps us in our weakness.

But how? Well consider our own lives. Accidents may have happened that have left us with a whole lifetime of difficulty. Abuse or bullying can leave a distorted lens that we may view all of life through. Our health may have deteriorated leaving us wondering how we are going to cope either now or in the future, or simply mourning how things used to be when our body worked properly.

What kind of help do you want when these things happen? Do you want someone to explain it to you and why it had to be this way? That's what we call theology. 

 Or do you want someone who puts her arms around you and truly weeps with you from the depths of her belly because She fully and completely understands? That's the Holy Spirit.

I had two responses seven years ago to the death of my sister. One was the, 'It'll be OK, she's in a better place now', kind of thing that left me wanting to respond very angrily. The other response was simply to be held in the midst of my grief by friends and family members who wept with me. That's what I really needed, because sometimes there are no words.  You see when life gets that bad we no longer have any words left to pray. We don't know how to. We might be so angry at God at the events in our lives, or we might have been rendered completely unable to say anything. Not only does the Spirit help us in our weakness, but St. Paul goes on to say that She does so with sighs too deep for words.

Yes, rationally I may want an answer as to why, why whatever you or I have gone through has happened. But in our deepest selves what we most want, what we really need, is simply comfort; someone who is with us. Why do you think men dying in the trenches called for their mothers? They didn't want to know why the war was killing them – they just wanted the one who had borne them to be there in their pain.

In the midst of suffering our spirits run out of words, and the best comforters don't try and talk us through our suffering, they just weep with us with sighs too deep for words. And with the Spirit, those sighs carry the depth and the profound loss and degradation of our humanity right into the heart of God in ways that we cannot imagine.  Yes I want to understand, but in the darkest places that we all inhabit at times in our lives, we just don't want to be alone, and we're not, because the Spirit is with us, helping us in our weakness and sighing with us with wordless love that penetrates into the heart of the Father.

In the midst of this St. Paul seems to write something troubling, that all things work together for good for those who love God. After everything I've said so far that hardly seems likely - how can anything good come from our darkest encounters and experiences.  Yet in the midst of our pain, or grief, the Spirit of God entwined within us, communicates that pain into the heart of the Father. God truly knows and his response is to work alongside us to bring something of value out of what we have been through. Please recognise that I am not saying that God caused the pain, but that God wishes to bring something out of what happened. 

Again I know this from my own experience. Nine years ago I would have focussed on the theology of this passage, on trying to unpick predestination (because philosophically St. Paul is not actually making sense here...), but for those in the midst of pain at the moment, that wouldn't have helped.

What you've been through; what our family went through, was never the direct will of God, but the Spirit was with us in our weakness and She sighed and wept with us into the heart of the Father, and through that experience each of us came to appreciate more what life is like for so many people, in order better to understand and be present in ways that help rather than as people with nothing more to offer than meaningless platitudes.  Something good was brought into existence.

The last words belong with the poet Janet Morley who has captured this divine encounter beautifully:
Poem: From “All Desires Known” by Janet Morley

…and I was nothing but letting go and being held
and there were no words and there
needed to be no words and we flowed…
and I was given up to the dark and
in the darkness I was not lost
and the wanting was like fullness and I could
hardly hold it and I was held and
you were dark and warm and without time and
without words and you held me.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Fourth Sunday after Trinity: The Flesh and the Spirit - It may not be what you think...

My apologies (again) that it's been a while since I last posted anything on here.  Hopefully this will make up for it...

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Flesh and Spirit 
A few years ago a group of us were going to Scotland on holiday. One of our number was, if you like, the advance party and had arrived three days before the rest of us. She sent Ali and I a lovely message which basically said, 'I've found this amazing cycle path through the forests. You can go really fast but it's quite bumpy. I have also made the discovery that when you take water with you on a mountain forest trail, make sure it's still water and not sparkling...'

I have this lovely mental image of what must have happened. Now hold on to that picture as we start to consider the first part of Romans 8. Like the sparkling water on a bumpy trail, it is potentially explosive and requires some very careful unpacking, not least because, as I hope I can show, if we mistakenly take what St. Paul has written at face-value, we will have to disagree with him, that flesh is evil and spirit is good. That's not to say that he was wrong, but more that we may be misreading him.

Now at first sight this passage looks like a fundamentalist's dream. This is the kind of passage that is beloved of those who desire clear and solid teaching that makes for an easy life in terms of knowing what's right and what's wrong without having to ask any searching questions about ourselves.  It's also the kind of passage that makes it easier to point the finger away from ourselves at other people who we might say live life according to the flesh whilst we can think of ourselves as being spiritual because they do things we classify as wrong whilst we don't, or at least we try and act as if we don't. In other words, in the wrong hands this passage can be a weapon of exclusion.

So first of all let me try and reassure you. To interpret it so simply as 'spirit equals good, flesh equals bad' bears little relation to reality. If we were to do that we would be reading St. Paul as if he's writing here as a dualist, that is as someone who believes that the human person is composed of two parts, the body, or flesh, and the spirit or soul. This was a fairly typical Greek-influenced view that many people still subscribe to in our modern culture.

But this, I believe, is deeply flawed. I think that our bodies, our minds, our spirits and our souls are all mutually interlinked parts. If someone is unhealthy physically, it can have all kinds of effects on their non-physical self. We know that states of mind can have clear effects on our bodies; that, for example, someone who is happy, contented and properly rested seems to have a better immune system than someone who is depressed, tired and stressed.  So to simply say that those things which give pleasure to the body are likely to be sinful, whilst those that give pleasure to the spirit are inherently holy, is a distinct oversimplification. I believe our task this morning is therefore to try and understand the subtleties of this flesh vs spirit and what it means for us today and in our daily lives.

What I want to try and explore with you is that when it comes to the flesh and the spirit, it's not absolutes, but is in fact all down to context. I don’t know about you but some of my deepest spiritual experiences have flowed out of something physical.

That's a part of what lies behind Forest Church. Many people can talk of a place that inspired them, and places are very physical. Others could probably talk of an intimacy with a loved one that was so deep it was spiritual. We are, after all, physical beings. We believe that God came for us in the flesh.  In fact much of the Christian message is based around the idea that Jesus physically died and was physically resurrected, although his new body was more than a reanimation and was instead something far superior to this mortal flesh. Nevertheless, he was physical. I do not therefore believe that we should think of ourselves in dualistic terms as either of the spirit or of the flesh, and nor do I think that's what St. Paul intended.

To pretend we can live in a simplistic black and white interpretation of human nature is a dangerous thing. If we believe it, then we will be forever covered in shame and guilt, which is a long way from the good news about being set free in Christ. What’s more, we can be all too easily liable to be preyed on by those who try to exert influence through using the power of guilt to control us, as opposed to helping us grow through love and encouragement.  So the challenge to us is to decide how we can interpret this passage in a way which is meaningful for life as it is lived out in in the real world rather than some kind of cartoon sketch of Christianity which makes everyone feel guilty.

In order, therefore, to understand what he is actually saying, let me remind you a little of the passage preached from last week from the preceding chapter in Romans:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Basically St. Paul is saying that his experience of the Christian life is just like ours. He knows what is right but keeps doing what is wrong.

And yet...

...at the beginning of today's reading he says that there is now no condemnation. But if that’s what he says he finds in his own life, despite what he says about succumbing to the flesh, what then does he mean when he talks about living according to the flesh or living according to the Spirit?

To me this question makes it clear that this is deeper than a simple behavioural matter. I think our next clue comes in this verse:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

The key word in there is ‘mind’. What is our mind set on? What does it feel like to have our mind set on the things of the flesh, or to have it set on the things of the Spirit? The reason I ask this is because I’m fairly sure that some of us will be struggling with guilt and self-condemnation because we’re sure that we’ve got our minds set on the flesh. So let’s think a little about what this means.

Those of us who are, or have been married, or who have long term committed partners, may be worried that the desire we feel or have felt for our other halves means that we have our mind set on the flesh, so let me reassure you first that this is not the case. Physical desire in the context of a committed relationship is a gift from God.  It’s meant to be there because it is all about the couple, and indeed those who have been together for many years may well have discovered the spiritual side to their physical relationship. Strangely, something that we may think of as being of the flesh is actually of the Spirit.

This is what I mean about thinking in terms of the context. Something physical can actually be deeply spiritual. But of course something physical can also be deeply damaging.

Those who use others for their own ends, for their own physical gratification, can be catastrophically destructive. The case surrounding Rolf Harris is just one example of someone famous, but the truth is that there are huge numbers of people who are trying to recover from abuse at the hands of someone else, quite often someone they know.

Can you see, therefore, that something which is physical may be very holy, or may be neutral, or can be completely evil? So something being 'Of the flesh' doesn't necessarily mean that it's something physical. For example we can do the same thing if we focus on ambition: it can be of the flesh or of the Spirit. For instance, over the years I have seen two types of ‘climbers’ within the priesthood.

There are those who recognise, in all humility, that God has given them gifts which will enable them to take on senior leadership roles. They have, with their servant hearts, allowed themselves to go forward and apply for senior roles. That is the way of the Spirit.

I have also seen those who have needed recognition for their own selves. They have also gone forward for senior roles but out of a need for importance, and that is to set the mind on the ways of the flesh. Are you beginning to see, therefore, that it is not what we do, but how we approach what we do?

Remarkably it can also be the same with spiritual things. Just because we say that something is spiritual doesn't necessarily mean that it is 'Of the Spirit' in the way that Paul means. I have met many people who seek after spiritual experiences, not because they wish to draw nearer to the one they worship or honour, but because they get a kick out of the experiences.

What's more I'd have to say that there is a darker side to the spiritual world that is very willing to give the occasional spiritual hit if it keeps someone addicted to the high and allows the spiritual agent some control over them.

And we have seen this in the church too. A few years ago there was a huge outburst of a controversial charismatic experience in Canada at a Vineyard church in Toronto. It became known as the Toronto Blessing, and people would travel there from all over the world to, if you like, catch it. To my mind too much of that was about chasing after the spiritual experience, not seeking after the presence of God.

A spiritual experience that allows us to lay self aside and draw nearer to God is a genuinely spiritual experience, but one which makes us want another 'hit' is actually of the flesh even though it's spiritual!

Ultimately I think Paul's message comes down to this: To set the mind on the flesh is to set the mind on personal wants for the greater good of me, myself and I. To set the mind on the Spirit is to aim to grow in God and lay aside my own desires, hopefully for what is for the greater good.  That may mean prayerfully, cautiously, permitting oneself to be in a senior position because, in all humility, you know you are the right person for the job. But if you see someone else’s job, and you covet their responsibility and their public visibility, that is a sure fire way of knowing that your mind is set on the things of the flesh.

I honestly believe that it's therefore actually quite easy for us to work out which direction we're heading in, and maybe even whether a particular course of action or behaviour is of the flesh or of the spirit. In life we tend to direct our energies towards trying to answer two questions: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want?’

Generally speaking ‘Who am I?’ is to set your mind on the way of the Spirit. It is asking a deep question that will take a lifetime of asking. 'Who am I?' is a prayerful question that is addressed with an outward direction.

If we start to answer that question, and as we start to hear the answers that God gives us, so our ego-fired desire for recognition will begin to wither, and we become more ready to serve out of the knowledge that we are loved children of God.

But the other question, ‘What do I want?’ is to set your mind on the way of the flesh. This is the question whose only answer is, 'I want more'. This is the way of destruction, destruction of the self and destruction of others.

So there are two ways through life, the way of the spirit and the way of the flesh, but they are not as easily defined as some would prefer. Instead they require us to do some work, and to ask ourselves some difficult questions.