Sunday, 29 January 2012

Does a cloud die?

When I was told that Lorna’s husband Wallace had died and that Lorna would be with us today I was sorely tempted to bin the sermon I had already written and write another but then decided to go ahead with a small re-write because of the central nature of its subject matter.
By far the most interesting of those two readings is the one from Hebrews. Even though I don’t believe in the prescription to the problem offered by the author of Hebrews ( a prescription that fits the Jewish mind set of the day and fits into their cultural context) the diagnosis of the problem is as sound as it is universal.   
The human problem identified by Hebrews is death – or more properly the fear of death where death is seen as oblivion. He plainly regards the Jesus event in these terms when he writes that through Jesus he has “freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
 Death and the fear of death sits in the gut of most of us. We don’t pay it much attention most of the time, it only really surfaces when someone close dies or we ourselves stare death in the face, and even then most of us are desperate to push it back into the back of our minds once the crisis is over, where it just sits there brooding, and affecting our life and our happiness at the more dangerous subconscious level.
This year since Alex’s death I was determined not to push it away but face death and look it in the eye, however painful it might be. There are many different levels of perception, but this year I have  through encounter with meditation and spiritual teachings beyond the bounds of the church been enabled to touch a deeper reality, sometimes only fleetingly, and see death on a more philosophical level .
On the surface, in the common understanding death is annihilation, and certainly the pain of separation and loneliness burns, and that pain will burn no matter what you believe – after all even Jesus cried when Lazarus, his friend died. But at a deeper level, both birth and death are illusions.
The first law of physics is that nothing can be created and nothing can be destroyed. This means there is exactly the same amount of matter, or stuff, in the universe now as there was at the time of the big bang. Not one ounce has been added and not one ounce has been taken away ever since. Universes have been created and destroyed – millions of people have lived and died – empires have risen and have fallen, but through it all not one thing extra has been added and not one ounce taken away from the universe.  Think about that for a second. Where does this leave our notions of birth, of something new being created and death where something is obliterated and enters oblivion.
Neither can be true. On a deeper level of perception birth and death are illusions. We don’t come from nothing and go to nothing, we come from something and go to something else. Nothing can be created and nothing can be destroyed.
You have heard me draw an analogy with waves on the sea before now, and have used other analogies like our living in God as like a fish lives in the water. Well I was listening to a great spiritual teacher on Thursday who drew another picture. He challenged the listener to ask themselves a question, “Can a cloud die?”
When conditions are right the cloud does disappear but it doesn’t go to nothing it becomes rain or sleet or snow – it doesn’t enter oblivion – it transforms into something else. And where did the cloud come from. Did it appear out of thin air? No it came from the evaporation from seas, lakes and rivers, which transformed into the cloud.
The great spiritual teacher I was listening to talked of the Christian concept of God’s Grace and he said that this concept is actually the same as great understanding. Understanding these simple truths of the universe will give us peace. The central characteristic of Grace is that it has nothing to do with our own efforts or beliefs. Understanding birth and death as illusions at a deeper level of perception is true both scientifically and spiritually.  What they are, are transformations from one thing to another thing.  It is through this sense of perception that I have managed to find a measure of peace, and happiness. That is how I interpret the resurrection of Jesus – a transformation from one state to another state.
“Listen I tell you a mystery” says Paul in Corinthians, “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
It is this very sense of peace that Jesus was pointing to in his perception of unity with God. This way of seeing was written about in the New testament with Jesus who said “The kingdom of God is within you” and most poetically of all in John 17. Unfortunately hijacked by the ecumenical movement, this has absolutely nothing to do with institutional unity but talks of a spiritual union on a much deeper level of perception.
“I do not pray for these only, but also more those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you Father are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me, I have given them, that they may be one just as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.”

Monday, 23 January 2012

Choose life!

All three readings this evening deal with death in different ways. In Habbakuk, all is death and things are falling apart – the fig tree and the vine traditionally represent the people of Israel and in his concluding verses he laments that “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines etc.”...... “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” So it is a spiritual, social and moral death that has beset the people of Israel that he laments, yet amidst all of that he still finds hope and peace in God.
In Corinthians, Paul is talking of physical death, and here we must remember that at the time of writing he was expecting the imminent end of time when God would bring all things to a close, so he excitedly says “we shall not all die, or we shall not all sleep”. But of course, he was mistaken and we will certainly all die which makes what he says all the more poignant. He talks of death as a mystery, and it is a mystery. I don’t know about you but I get tired of hearing people tell me that they know exactly what is going to happen when we die, what it’ll be like etc.  It is a mystery, but that isn’t to say we don’t have a little insight.
Paul says “For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality”. And just before this extract we heard today he says “I tell you this, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the imperishable inherit the imperishable” which incidentally leaves the Christian idea of the  resurrection of the body in mid air – unless you interpret that doctrine as a spiritual body.    
Which leads me to the gospel of John where words attributed to Jesus had perplexed me for years.
“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.
Not exactly a great rallying call to attract the masses is it? “Hate your life and look forwards to death!”
Since the death of my wife Alex I’ve had an awful lot of time to think about and come to terms with death. To understand what Jesus meant by “losing” your life I had to first encounter Buddhism for spiritual insight. Jesus is talking about the ego. Paul also talks elsewhere of “dying to self”. And in so dying to self  - the perishable - you find the real you, you find real life, you find Yahweh at the centre who is the true you, the imperishable as Paul calls it. In dying to self, one realises the ground of our own existence and the ground of all existence is the same. In dying to self one finds the source of all things at your centre who is the true you that can never die. In dying to your ego and reaching down within yourself in silence you find yourself. You find the light that enlightens every person as John says earlier at the very start of his gospel.  
And that is true healing, because you intuitively know that this part of you can never die. Death loses its sting. You are ultimately neither totally your body nor your ego.  You realise that we don’t come from nothing and go to nothing – we come from something and return to something. Our life is like a wave on the sea. When a wave forms, it doesn’t appear from nothing, it is the sea taking on a certain form for a short while. When the wave loses its power it doesn’t die, it simply returns to what it always was, the sea. In Biblical poetry we read “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(Jer. 1:5)
Only in finding God who transcends religion, have I, like Habbakuk, found a certain peace no matter what is happening around me. I can just smile at it all.
What is happening around me is simply form – like waves on the sea. A good example of this is that this is a service premised on Christian unity. In fact the Christian church would find it hard to be more fragmented in the world, and probably full visible unity will never happen in the world, but I can just smile at that safe in the knowledge that actually we are all united already on a much more fundamental and spiritual level. Our earthly divisions are transcended by a transcendent God.  Our institutional differences are of no importance or consequence on the grand stage of life.
Finding this personal connection with the transcendent God is what Jesus is talking about. Hating life means hating this version, this parody of life that is a life cut off from its life source. Cut off because we are caught up in ourselves and see all life as separate and compartmentalised rather than as a wonderful unity. Dying to self, you find life.
In typical fashion after saying all this Jesus says “If anyone serves me he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.
The father, the source and ground of all things will be there and will be found if we follow Jesus and look inside ourselves to look beyond the perishable to find the imperishable I AM, the light that enlightens every man.  

Water into wine

Turning water into wine is the keynote signature sign of John’s gospel – the first and most important sign that all other signs refer back to – and it is the sign that encapsulates the Christian gospel without tying it down to specifics. It is wonderfully open and pregnant with possibilities and potential.
The water that is our life will be transformed into fine rich wine when God is recognised as being an intimate part of life.
Water that is transformed into wine is a visual representation of “life in all its fullness”. It is a story of before and after, of old and new. Very cleverly it says also that the old religion of Israel of rites and obligations and ritual cleanliness represented by the six stone water jars will also be transcended by a way of relating to God that is personal and unmediated by priests and sacrifices.
There are six stone water jars used for ritual purification, and six is significant because six in Hebrew thought is the number of imperfection. Imperfect religion will also be transformed. Our way of relating to God is water that will be transformed into wine.
The old order is also represented by Mary his mother. Blood ties and family obligations were extremely important in first century Palestine. But they were also restricting. People are often a bit taken aback by the way Jesus speaks to his mother in this story. “Woman, what have you to do with me?”
In the new order of relationships to be ushered in, the restrictive nature of family bonds is to be broken. If you remember the story from another place when Mary and his brothers and sisters came looking for him, he looked at his disciples and said, “Who are my mother and sisters and brothers – these disciples here, those who do the will of the Father are my mother and sister and brothers”.
Jesus is not anti-family. What he is in fact saying is that those special familial bonds and obligations of love and support are not to be restricted to mere blood family ties but extended to include our neighbours. Our relationships are the water being transformed into wine.
Our perception of who is our neighbour is transformed. We are all brothers and sisters because our understanding of God is transformed from being a distant deity to that of a Father so people are our brothers and sisters. Our perception of humanity and reality is water that is transformed into wine.
This keynote sign is a symbol of the Christian gospel. What is Christianity? It is to experience God as Father and to have the water of our own lives transformed into fine wine, that we might have fullness of life. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

Walk this way

I want to highlight one or two of the little phrases here that might help us in our own walk with God.
First of all Jesus says to Philip  “Follow me”. This is significant because the early Christian movement was primarily a way of life, a way of being, a way of living in a vibrant relationship with the Divine. Before being known as “Christians” we were known as “the way”. A way of walking the path of life modelled on the way that Jesus walked.
Jesus was the model of that special and close relationship with God. Follow me means emulate me. Do as I do. Be as I am. As the eastern Orthodox would say “God became man so that man (us) could become God”.
Without labouring the point I just want to say that Jesus did not ever say “Worship me” he always says Follow me. In fact there is nowhere in the Bible where Jesus asks people to worship him but there are over 20 occasions when he instructs people to follow him. The Roman Catholic theologian Richard Rohr cause a collective intake of breath in Liverpool cathedral last year when he said that worship of Jesus is a poor substitute for following him
If we want to follow Jesus in the way he prayed then we must surely do as he apparently told the disciples to do and we are asked to emulate him and pray to our Father in heaven.  
Biblically, authentic Christian prayer is to the Father alone just as Jesus’ prayer was – directed to the sourceless source of all things – the I AM . Later Christian thought adds “Through the son” which for me means in the way that Jesus modelled for us, a close personal relationship with the Father. And completing the Trinitarian formula we often add either “in the power of” or “in union with” God’s Spirit which is the name we give to the active animating creative presence of God.
Two other phrases leap out at me also. Son of Man and Son of God.
Son of God is also I would argue much misunderstood. Son of God is not a phrase Jesus ever used about himself. Even in today’s offering from John, Jesus is addressed as Son of God by Nathaniel yet without affirming or denying it, when Jesus answers him he eschews that title and again refers to himself as Son of Man – which in the Hebrew idiom means like a human being or more simply “a human being”.
The title Son of God is a bit tricky. It doesn’t necessarily confer divinity at all. It is a title that is given to someone who embodies divine qualities – someone who is so close to God that they make God real, a true incarnation, something that we are invited to do also as we follow his lead. It is a title given to human beings, perhaps exactly the point Jesus is making in his exchange with Nathaniel?  We should also remember the political force of using a title like that because one of the titles of Caesar was also Son of God. The effect is to say. Who best embodies the qualities and character of God, Caesar and the unjust militaristic empire, or Jesus and the Kingdom?
To emphasise the genuineness of the close personal relationship with God Jesus reaches into Israel’s tradition and makes a comparison between himself and Jacob’s in the book of Genesis who envisioned a ladder reaching between heaven and earth. This alludes to the fact that Jesus sees himself as offering a bridge, a way, a ladder in this case that connects between earth and heaven, between God and man.
To follow Jesus in the way is to set up our own bridgehead between ourselves and God, to become what we already were – sons and daughters of God, that intimate connection between earth and heaven which is in fact one place and was always connected in reality. Realising this essential fact about life is the epiphany that Jesus experienced at his baptism when he heard those words that encapsulate what epiphany tells us. “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 

Monday, 9 January 2012

Taking the plunge

The Old testament reading set for today is from Genesis and writes of the “Spirit of God” moving over the face of the waters.
In Mark, at John’s “baptism of repentance” Jesus has a momentous experience of that same Spirit. And in the post Easter book of Acts Luke is careful to again mark the difference between John’s baptism and having an experience of God’s Spirit. So the connecting theme is “the spirit of God”.
And of course, although John the Baptist reportedly says “and Jesus will baptise you in the Holy Spirit”, Jesus actually never baptises anyone physically in his ministry so something less prosaic and more spiritual is being envisioned here.
In fact the relationship between the Christian rite of baptism and the Holy Spirit is a confused one. In the Bible baptism is directly associated with the Spirit as at Jesus’ own baptism, but also the Holy Spirit precedes baptism as when Cornelius and his household were immersed in the Spirit and so Peter consented to baptise them, and in our story in Acts today the Spirit comes after water baptism when Paul lays his hands on people.
So the Spirit (that means – an experience of God) can come before, during or after water baptism.  In John Jesus likens the spirit to the wind. “The wind blows where it wills” (3:8). You can’t tie God down or neatly package him, which is why all religious systems, dogmas and doctrines always fall short in the end.
Plainly being baptised in the Holy Spirit means an inner experience of God unconnected with baptism in my view. This experience can come at any time and can be explosive or gradual and take us in different ways.
In my own experience God was not made known in signs and wonders, no speaking in Tongues or prophesying – although like many people I pretended to speak in tongues in order to fit in and be like everyone else in the evangelical/charismatic church I attended when I was younger.
Instead, my experience of God resulted in a sense of connectedness and peace, and a growing sense of compassion. Not the finished article but a start of a journey in the right direction. I experience God in silence. I can’t second guess how anyone else experiences God because everyone is different, but the fruits of these experiences will be positive if they are genuinely of God. Anyone who in the name of God becomes hateful, superior, life denying, or murderous has not had a genuine experience of God – they have actually had an experience of man- made substitutes for God like various so-called Holy books or hand me down doctrines and exclusive religious God clubs.
In Paul’s famous list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians he writes of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” As being what grows from experience of God’s spirit.
As I say a work in progress then, certainly in my case. But being serious that is a valid point because fruit doesn’t just appear fully formed on a tree all juicy and sweet does it? It has to grow from something small and unripe and inedible, and only after being fed and watered in fertile soil and bathed in warm sunlight can it grow.   
The soil and light are provided by regular experience of God in private prayer and meditation, and also in community worship where we are immersed in God’s spirit together.  These are two ways in which we can experience God in a focussed way, individually and corporately, but always personally.
Of course you can experience God in myriad other ways as well, in nature, in life generally, but private prayer and public worship are the focussed opportunities to find fertile soil and light to nurture our walk with God, that will, if we choose to enter into them produce the fruit of God’s spirit in our lives.
All worship is fashioned to provide an encounter with God, and the primary form common to all denominations is the Holy Communion. Here we meet and encounter God in words, in silence, in song, in prayer, in each other and in bread and wine. 
Individual and corporate focussed encounters with God can be approached in two ways. We can dive in and surrender ourselves to the present moment, committing ourselves to it, or we can remain slightly apart and just splash around in the shallows, never committing ourselves too much to it, paralysed by a fear of the water.
But we’ll never learn to swim, to trust and be buoyed up in God’s presence unless we show a little courage and commitment ourselves to take that plunge. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Ringing the changes

Luke 2: 15-21

In this gospel narrative Jesus is circumcised as all Jewish boys were required to be under their religious laws.
When even Jesus himself was circumcised it becomes much clearer to me just how radical the early church was in abandoning the rite so quickly and emphatically (along with kosher food rules and ritual cleanliness etc), especially as in their religious scheme of things it represented entering into a covenanted relationship with God.
But even in saying that word covenant I begin to see the inherent problem. Nowadays we would use a word like “contract”. As a group the Jews had a contract with God. You do certain things and I (God) will do certain things in return.
The paradigm is one of requirements and rewards. Quid pro quo. But then along comes Jesus and  he ushered in a new way of dealing with the divine. No longer was it a case of requirements eliciting a positive response from God. It was based fairly and squarely on a deep experience of a transcendent God and a life lived in a dynamic working relationship with the divine. That relationship was an intimate one, so intimate that Jesus referred to the source and ground of all things as his “Father”.
You see that the dynamics have changed completely. Dealing with God is no longer about being a member of a club or organised religion – no longer about fulfilling certain conditions or following certain rules to get a reward at the end, like God is a cosmic slot machine.
God is about you and your relationship to him and to all things. It is intimate and here and now. It is not about pleasing him to get a positive result, it is about entering in to a relationship with him and living life in co-operation with him in both the good times and the bad times.
So for that early church, they were bold and radical. Out went circumcision, food laws, Temple sacrifices, ritual cleanliness, and observance of strict rules to be replaced by an intimate inner knowing of, or communion with God’s spirit which is what Pentecost represents.  Hierarchy was out because we were all children of the same God – brothers and sisters – made in the image and likeness of God.
Unfortunately the Christian church over the centuries has abandoned Grace in practice, (whilst continuing to pay lip service to it) and tried to re-invent Christianity as just another religion of requirements and rewards, of following rules and requiring membership in order to win a reward when we die. It was never meant to be like that.
God is your birthright. He is yours. The Roman Catholic Franciscan writer Richard Rohr puts it like this. He is the first word on your lips when you are born and the last word on your lips when you die. This is so because God’s spirit is like breath and the Hebrew word for God – I AM – Yahweh – was originally like a breath. Yah – Weh. When I meditate I focus my mind on my breath with is focussing my mind on the name of God
But I’ll leave the final words to Paul and his short offering today;
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts crying, “Abba! Father”.  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”