Monday, 30 July 2012

I find myself in you

Starting from a position where you are being asked to interpret these kinds of miraculous events as literal history remembered (where the event being literally true is critical) is problematic. Either you don’t believe that these kinds of things ever happen so you then you are forced to dismiss the stories out of hand as nonsense, or you kind of just about able to convince yourself that these things may have happened. But that usually doesn’t get us much further on because we end up just gawping at a miracle – exactly what Jesus didn’t want to happen.
The third option is to see the question of whether they were historical events or not as pretty much irrelevant . Once that question is safely parked, because in truth it is unanswerable, we can concentrate on the spiritual message they are meant to convey. These signs are vehicles for spiritual truth. And John’s gospel pointedly never uses the word miracle to describe these things anyway. He uses the word “signs”.
Now signs by their very nature point away from themselves to somewhere else. That is what a sign is and what it does.  Where do these signs lead us. To where are they pointing?  
Well in John’s sign of the feeding of the 5000 he is pointing us towards the spiritual meaning of the communion service that we are here sharing this very morning. In John’s gospel there is no account of the last supper and Jesus breaking and sharing bread, and yet the gospel is nevertheless all about what the Eucharist actually means.
In the simplest spiritual terms I can come up with, the significance of the 5 loaves and two fish is that this was everything the boy had. Absolutely everything was given. In a spiritual sense our whole minds bodies and spirit are put at the disposal of God. How I interpret that in practical terms is that we learn that actually we are not the centre of the universe, the true centre of the universe which is also our true centre is the divine mystery that we name God. We sacrifice self interest to gain something much greater – which is in fact turns out to be a greater sense of self located in God.
In dying to self interest we find a greater sense of life. The only way to test this theory is to actually try it and put it into practice. To use the picture language of the story, our lives are to be given, and then blessed by God and our life and talent and potential is unlocked and multiplied and is shared out amongst many people.  In God’s hands , what little we think we have can be used to great and lasting effect – if we have the guts to actually let go and do it.
And this problem is the subject of the second sign – the walking on the water. There is significance to the fact that in the story It was dark.  For the disciples were in fact in a spiritually dark place – just as we can be so often. The storms on the lake are a metaphor for all the storms of life that batter us and frighten us. Psychologically the root of all fear is the fear of death and oblivion.
The spiritual message of Jesus is “Do not be afraid. I AM”. In the midst of all of life’s dramas and tragedies, joys and sorrows, in the midst of all that frightens us, including death itself, God IS.
In the story, after being frightened not only of the storms of life but also frightened of the message that was coming towards them, they were mired in confusion. It was only when they perceived and understood – in the image from the story “when they wanted to take him into the boat” that they immediately reached safety. Immediately, the boat reached the land.
In understanding that God stands in and through all of life’s challenges, in that moment of clarity, “he who hears my word and believes on the one that sent me (I AM, God) has eternal life. He has eternal life NOW. He has already crossed over from life to death.”(5:24)
It is that conviction, that God stands at the centre of life, so we can only trust in his loving care, that we then can offer our lives to be blessed and shared out for the benefit of many and find a truer deeper, richer sense of who we are.
Like so much spirituality. It is just so simple and yet also not easy. Simple but not easy.
Training our minds to see life in a different way so that new way becomes our automatic default position is a lifetime’s work. What tends to happen in my experience is that we get flashes of wholeness and peace but we can’t hold on to it for very long. At the first sign of trouble we can revert to our lost and fearful ways all too easily. But through spiritual practice, continually reinforcing a different way to see God and the world, of which this Communion service is an example, we make progress one little bit at a time, with the hope that the next time trauma breaks into our lives we will have better tools to cope much more easily. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Love in a hopeless place

I have written before of a watershed moment in my spiritual and religious development which happened to me in my first ever trip to Romania, not as a priest but to help in a children’s hospice for kids dying of AIDS.
I looked into the eyes of a little girl who couldn’t speak, was mentally and physically disabled. Had full blown AIDS and was soon to die. It was looking into the eyes of that little girl, innocent yet suffering and not even going to make it to her teenage years that all faith in a healing God drained from my body.
Most of you will know that the first funeral I ever took was of a nine year old Romanian boy called Logan who died of AIDS and was buried on a dusty hillside in this grimy industrial town called Cernavoda – a name which literally means Black Water.
But that wasn’t the only spiritual experiences I had on that seminal visit to that country that would see me four years later pack my bags for Bucharest.
There was another, that I won’t go into now that told me in a very deep way that “God is”, and that despite everything I was meant to be in that place. It wasn’t that God was not a reality – it was that my understanding of the nature of God had to be smashed open and put back together again in a new way. A belief in a God that heals had to be radically altered.
About four years after these experiences on post ordination training I wrote an essay entitled “why God doesn’t heal” which earned the comment from my tutor, who now works in Durham as it happens as probably the most depressing piece she had ever read. (I wear that accolade as a badge of honour). Unbeknownst to me at the time she has a disabled child.
This is by way of saying that my relationship with healing stories in the Bible is shall we say rather ambivalent. And yet I do believe in healing in a holistic sense with a faith that could move mountains.
Healing for me implies peace and wholeness in a much wider sense than the mending of bones and curing leprosy.
Spiritual wholeness and peace are where these stories lead us. Wholeness and peace depend on incorporation. The whole tenor of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning is basically one of “Once you were separate, now you are a part of it”. “Once you were without God, now you are in God”. His narrative uses the Jewish/Gentile division as his base line and then tells how we are now all one, children of the same covenant.
I used to ask myself where God was in that orphanage in Cernavoda. God, in St’ Lawrence’s hospice was a Scottish nurse called Lorna Jamieson. She worked all the hours God sent , in terrible conditions with hardly any resources, to try and alleviate the suffering of those children. She brought as much healing and peace as she could muster to make sure that they spent the last days and hours of their lives in as little pain as possible and knowing that they were loved.
I knew then that this was true Christian healing.
And Lorna could love like that because she felt loved. Her resources came from deep within her, enabling her to go on against sometimes almost insurmountable odds.
It is those internal spiritual resources that I am nowadays trying to cultivate both is myself and try and share with others as much as I can.
To enable ourselves, to empower ourselves we need to be able to dig deep and plumb huge reserves out of which we can operate. This is why I push contemplative prayer and meditation. This is why I try and communicate spiritual concepts that I have actually experienced as being true. 
Jesus wanted his disciples to retreat to a deserted place to re-charge their batteries. Retreats like this are wonderful and helpful, but what about when the retreat is over and you have to re-join the rat race. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take that place of refreshment and resource with you and be that calm refreshing place and draw your resources from there in the midst of life.
To find and live out of that centre, which is God, is the goal of the spiritual life and in finding that centre is the spiritual practice that enables us to find and live out of that centre. It is there that we find the healing, the wholeness and peace, which results in the kind of compassion exhibited by Lorna.        

Sunday, 8 July 2012

You are not alone

“I was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows”.
Paul is trying to describe his conversion experience on the road to Damascus
And according to Paul, this conversion experience which he also writes about in 1 Corinthians is an equivalent experience to what the disciples experienced in the resurrection “appearances”.
If in the broadest sense these experiences are what are known as “theophanies”  basically meaning an experience of the divine, which in the Bible is communicated as an “appearance”. So was this then the same thing that Jesus experienced at his baptism?
I would say yes because the result was the same. They all experienced an intense feeling of “connection”, a better word for our purposes is “communion” with the divine.
It was expressed in different ways. Jesus expressed it as an intimate familial connection, so that he referred to God as Father, and then encouraged us to do the same and address God as “Our” Father.
The disciples expressed their sense of connection with the divine in Christological terms, and talked of being in Christ, through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Whatever words you use, they are, I would say describing that same sense of connectedness with the universe that is the common property of all creation, but a connectedness that human beings have largely lost.
Another common theme is that feeling connected with the divine leads in all cases to feeling a close connection with other people because God is common to all people and all things. So Love of God and love of neighbour are two sides of the same coin and one melds into another.
Holy Communion service  is an expression of our connectedness with all things, all people, and the divine. It is the antidote to the alienation and fear that stalks and blights so many of our lives. And because Christianity is at heart a sensual incarnational religion being touched by God is mirrored in human touch as I believe Neil was saying last week. Being held by God has flesh put on its bones when you are held by a person.
In this same ball park, It has also helped me enormously to think of Sin in a completely different way than it is commonly understood. The central premise of Christianity is that it offers atonement – which is union or a reconciliation or communion with God. Reconciliation is the antidote to separation not evil. Sin, for me, is the state of separation from God and existential loneliness I talked about a few moments ago.
Sure enough, bad things, “evil” things you might say naturally flow from this state because evil things have their root in fear and self interest but the primary problem is separation or at least a perceived sense of separation from the divine.
Jesus discovered that this perceived state is actually an illusion and that the kingdom of God is within us.
Jesus wanted to bring together what was separated, even if that separation is only a misconception and invites us to go beyond our minds to see that too.
 Knowing that we are actually intimately connected to the source of all things and all things that emanate from the source is the result of these wonderful ecstatic revelations that people like Jesus, Paul and others are experiencing and which then subsequently transform their entire lives.
A flat two dimensional understanding of your own life, alone and disconnected from everything else looking forward to oblivion when we die is transformed into a fullness of life, eternally connected with everything and everyone else.
It is a challenge to think that it could all be just so simple. That the secret to life in all its fullness is about a change in perception, When you attune yourself to the truth of the universe, it liberates your very being. You might want to call that salvation, you may want to call it enlightenment, or atonement. The point is, that it is within our grasp, our gift, to transform ourselves by going beneath our minds to perceive that truth and by adopting practices that reinforce that truth.
Not everyone is ready to receive that truth of course. Jesus recognised that some are so blind that they will never see, and he referred to them as being spiritually dead. “Let the dead bury their own dead” he once sarcastically said and he warned that talking to some people was like casting pearls before swine so don’t waste your time, just accept what you cannot change.  And here too in this story we have instructions just to shake the dust from your feet from people who are not ready to hear.
Don’t be so anxious. The truth remains true no matter how many people accept it or deny it. And what is true has to become true for you – true to your own experience, or remains just another fancy or clever idea alongside many other fancy ideas.
Once you take something like this seriously, and start to practice spiritual practices that work for you, that truth starts having the power of truth for you.  And there is the challenge – to not just change our minds but through adopting spiritual practices to allow our change of mind to permeate and transform our entire lives – our body, mind and spirit.