Sunday Sermon – No Room For Doubt

“Who among us—everybody, everybody!—who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith?  Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them.”  These were the words of the current Pope, Francis, probably the most popular Pope in recent memory.  He is not alone in expressing thoughts on a subject often neglected and yet always present underneath the steely certainty of so many pronouncements on faith.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Mother Theresa, to name but a few, have all uttered similar recognition of an underlying reality.

If we are honest, many of us would identify more closely with the plight of Thomas, one of Jesus’s close companions when he said that unless he felt the holes in Jesus’s side and hands he would not believe that he was risen from the dead.  There are only two other mentions of Thomas, both in John’s account.  Significantly, the first showed that he was present in the death defying encounter with Lazarus, who was given his life back four days after his untimely death.  The second was his reply to Jesus who told his disciples that they knew the road he was taking; Thomas’s response, “We have no idea where you are going.”  Poor Thomas, it seems no one else was willing to give voice to the doubts they must have had about following their radical friend.  And, having witnessed the powerful reality of the resurrection of Lazarus, he still has real doubts concerning the return of a living Jesus following his brutal crucifixion.

Those who profess to follow Jesus Christ have nothing more to go on than a belief that what was written so many years ago is at least largely true, coupled usually with  an inner response that is logically difficult to define, but we call faith.  For many, this response is reinforced by events and experiences that further confirm these responses and allow a deepening of conviction.  What we don’t spend much time examining, are the many conflicting ideas, experiences and failures that undermine and seek to weaken our resolve.  What do we do with the claims of those who do not share this faith, that we are deluded, weak, needing some reassurance of our immortality?  How do we deal with the countless times our prayers have seemingly gone unanswered?  What do we do when, like Thomas, we feel like we don’t know where this is all going and our past experiences are severely tested by the death of a loved one we thought God would heal?

There is little room given to these often unspoken fears and doubts, and yet Thomas and those I mention earlier, point to a healthy realism we might all do well to emulate.  I have the feeling that a greater acknowledgement of our inner fears and doubts, especially from those who lead the Christian community, might release so many of us from a feeling of letting the side down, from somehow disappointing the God in whom we have put our faith.  So much contemporary theology has centered around our level of faith determining how prosperous we might become, how effective our prayers might be, that to have any doubt will simply negate any positive outcome from our petitions and desires.  If we pray harder, fast longer, never doubt, then the healing will come, but when it doesn’t, somehow we have failed to move God enough as our faith fell short.

As I think about Thomas and his open acknowledgement of not knowing where this story was leading, and his stubborn refusal to say the right thing in the absence of proof, I think of the response of Jesus.  Far from chastising Thomas, he invites him to experience the proof he craves.  Surely, the mere presence of the physical Jesus should have been enough?  But Jesus allows him to experience tangible proof through touching the very wounds he said were necessary to restore his faith.  He then goes on to address the rest of us who have never had the benefit of the physical Jesus and encourages us with the promise of how much more encouraged we will be for believing without touching.  There are moments when we all have doubts about everything we believe.  Open acknowledgement does not have to undermine our faith, but, like Thomas, allows us to further our journey and deepen our faith for there was no condemnation for Thomas and so also not for us.

Sunday Sermon – All You Need Is Love Part 3

I admit, last week tended to move into the expansive and the divine, leaving us a few planetary systems away from what it might look like when we humans get hold of love.  That being said, I was wanting to lay a foundation for how that kind of unconditional love might apply in our own relationships.  I admit, it is patently idealistic.  But surely the purpose of idealism is to give us something to aim at even if we fall short in the realization.  I want to pick from the ideal and apply it in a more human context.  Let’s start by looking at that famous entreaty of Paul’s in the letter to the Corinthians

“Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.”

  •  Choice.

I feel this is a key to the expression of love.  I have often heard it said that love is a choice and not just feelings.  Most of us know that the first flush of passion or admiration will at some point give way to the shortcomings and negative aspects once hidden from view.  I am not in any way diminishing the wonder of emotions and how they play a beautiful part in the proceedings, but for love to flourish long term, it comes down to choice.  Realistically, this is not just one choice, but a series of choices made time after time.  Last week I majored on the choice our divine author made when choosing us, choosing to allow us freedom and ultimately choosing to become like us in order to rescue us.  The letter written above mentions choice after choice in the pursuit of this kind of love.

  • Control

I believe this is a key to love growing or dying.  Talk of ‘forcing ourselves on others’ finds its expression in the person who seeks to possess and control rather than letting go and promoting that person’s freedom to be themselves.  I feel the driver behind this is contained in the line ‘Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have’.  This is the desire by one or both parties to a relationship seeking their own happiness and fulfillment from the other and inevitably leads to one person seeking to change the other.  Happiness and fulfillment should emanate naturally from a healthy relationship where it grows from mutual preferment but without obligation.  I realized after many years that the only person I had a responsibility to change was myself.  The irony is that this promoted change in those I loved when it was not demanded or expected.

  • Preference

The notion of preferring the one we love to ourselves and our interests is probably the most challenging of all.  Talk of laying down our lives for those we love starts becomes very idealistic and unattainable.  However, as I mentioned at the outset, without ideals, what do we have to aim at.  There could not be anything clearer than ‘Love cares more for others than for self’, though who can claim to achieve it?  My take on this challenge focuses once again on choosing to allow the loved one to be free from our expectations and demands, free from our attempts to possess or control and as much as we are able, to promote the other’s life journey.  And yes, for these relationships to be truly fruitful, it requires an interaction on both sides such that growth and dreams fulfilled happens to both parties in the relationship.  Where this is one sided, there can still be love, but it will not flourish in the same way.

  • Commitment.

To finish for this week, I can’t help but draw attention to the permanence expressed in the last 3 lines of Paul’s words.  A commitment to stick with it, to see it through when things are not as we hoped is clearly something enshrined in the concept of marriage and the broader context of family.  This ideal is not always as easy to live out and when a relationship is unable to promote the kind of love we are talking about here, the letting go and releasing may well be the most loving outcome.  This may not be ideal, or even what both parties want, but in love there cannot be formulas and rules.  Institutional norms like marriage may be broadly aiming for the right kind of commitment, but every relationship is unique.

These principles, I believe, offer real opportunities for ‘love’ to grow and flourish, but their outworking will be different for every relationship where they operate.  Idealistic?  Yes perhaps, but I hope it encourages a fresh look at how we can nurture a precious foundation for our lives together.

Sunday Sermon – Please Forgive Me!

“Please forgive me”… “Oh I forgive you, don’t worry about it”. How many times have I heard that? Or perhaps more pertinently, how many times have I been a party this exchange or something similar?  But is this really forgiveness?  It took me a long time to see that forgiveness achieved quickly with a few words, often involves one party begging and the other condescending.  Perhaps more importantly, I came to the realization, with some help from David Augsberger (Caring Enough to/not to Forgive), that forgiveness granted as a favor to the ‘offending other’ is no more than a form of control.  This never really achieves the real goal intended and often leaves the difficulty unresolved.

The Lord’s Prayer certainly implies forgiveness moving in multiple directions; from God to us and from us to others. But I want to focus on the mutual act of forgiveness that doesn’t allow flippant granting of release without true reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation is the true reward for all parties concerned when the journey to forgiveness is fully engaged. Here is something that looks more like “forgive me as I forgive you.”

Probably one of the most well-known and profound stories told by Jesus was that of the ‘Prodigal Son’. If you have don’t know the story, you can find it in Luke chapter 15. There is much to be gleaned from this story, but I want to focus on the attitude of the father when his son returns, destitute and expecting to be no more than a servant. The father comes out to meet him when the son is still far off in the distance. He then treats him as an equal and reinstates him with extravagant celebration as his son. Now, I am not sure I wouldn’t have had the same petulant attitude as the older brother to this turn up for the books, but I believe the story has a vital message to convey.

First of all it begins with love. Love is a choice, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, which takes no account of wrongs. Before forgiveness can happen, those involved must choose to love, and unconditional love puts value on the individual, takes no account of past wrongs and accepts the person just as they are, warts and all.  The father in our story starts right there before any questions, accounts, explanations can even start to happen.

Once love has been chosen, the real work of forgiveness can begin.  I have no proof of this, but I would like to think that the father accepts he had a part to play in his son leaving with his share of the inheritance. Perhaps he didn’t feel valued, perhaps he had in some way pushed his son away.  His attitude, in meeting the son as he arrives, conveys his willingness to enter in to the ultimate reconciliation. He also senses the son’s contrition and sorrow as he approaches this opportunity for healing.  His shame has brought him to an end of himself and he is humbled to believe his rightful position would be as servant in his father’s house.  But this is not where his father sees him.  It is on these grounds that the real work of forgiveness can take place.

Without this two sided approach to forgiveness, the wounds and pain inflicted seem almost certain to blight their futures.  Now, don’t get me wrong here, I don’t believe that every journey of forgiveness ends in fairy tale happiness.  There is no guarantee that relationships will be restored to their original state.  Those who were married may separate.  Those we were close to may be more distant.  Friends inevitably come and go.  Sometimes there are real opportunities for greater measures of trust and togetherness.  I have experienced this in my own life where I sadly gave opportunities for forgiveness and was met in a place of  reconciliation.  Whether relationships are restored completely, move on to higher levels of intimacy or simply go their separate ways, forgiveness opens a door to the future that can otherwise stay closed and hinder what may lie ahead.

Lastly,  the celebration of the father in the story for the return and reconciliation with his son puts a seal on the transaction.  The father wants there to be no ambiguity about where the son stands and though the prodigal’s elder brother may be struggling,  it also draws the whole household into the transaction that has taken place.  For those who seek to walk once again in step, to grasp the opportunity and the other’s hand in seeking out that future together, forgiveness is no ‘one off’ occasion and sometimes draws others into the work of reconciliation.  So, till the next time, when, once again, we have the opportunity to bring an end to pain through the journey to mutual forgiveness, I look to choose mutual forgiveness and not the one sided version that I have so often been tempted to accept!

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31

Sunday Sermon – Shame on You

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Carl Jung.  I am so grateful for the feedback I received on last week’s sermon on confession and was challenged to meditate on the impact of shame on our lives.  If you read last week’s treatise, you will remember that confession is a key to releasing us from guilt and shame, but what is shame and how does it impact us?

Our earliest introduction in the bible, in Genesis 2:25, states “Now the man and the wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.”  Then in Genesis 3:10, just a few statements further on in the story, the man speaks to God, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid.  I was afraid because I was naked.”  What happened?

In this allegory, we find a transition from ignorance to a very real perception of imagined wrongdoing and the sense of moral failing.  The first important lesson from this story is that God is not the accuser here, but the man feels the sense of shame he had not felt before he and the woman had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At the risk of being somewhat controversial, the implication is clear that had they not eaten of this fruit, they would have remained in a state of blissful ignorance and would have been incapable of guilt or shame.  But they would also have been incapable of making any kind of moral judgement.  It is my conjecture that real freedom was being granted to mankind and the presence of evil, personified by the serpent was necessary to release this ability to choose.  It would also necessitate the entrance of Jesus who “because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews12) in order to give us the power, in our turn, to be free from shame.  It was bound to happen, and was always intended.

So what is shame?  One dictionary defines it as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”  So, this again emphasizes the source of the emotion as coming from within; a realization that impacts self-worth and value that causes pain.  Another definition links this emotion to the conscious realization of failure.  Without conscience and the guidance of perceived moral failure, we would potentially all run amok both in our personal lives and in the lives of others causing untold collateral damage.  Quite different from a conviction or even feelings of guilt, shame is, I believe, a crippling and destructive influence that can do untold damage to self-worth and our ability to relate to those around us.  As I mentioned last week, confession and sometimes real forgiveness is needed to find freedom from this emotional prison.

“You should be ashamed of yourself”.  “Shame on you.”  These are phrases we have all heard at some point and they illustrate the last point I want to make on this subject.  To my mind, there is no place for shame that is inflicted by others.  Shame, as I have already suggested, is crippling emotional baggage, and when inflicted by others, it was suggested by a friend that this is primarily a way of controlling another person.  I found myself in agreement.  It is one thing to be consumed by our own sense of failure and be held in the grip of shame, but quite another to be made to feel that shame.  It is not our responsibility to be the moral arbiters of others, however much we may feel the responsibility to do so.  As I pondered this subject this week, I realized I had, in some manner been responsible for doing this as a parent, husband and friend.  Even the use of those phrases above convey powerful emotional holds over those to whom they are directed.  I am sure I have used them on occasion.  May I be forgiven.

I believe it was the purpose of Jesus to enable us to stand naked and risk exposing our true selves to those around us but without shame.  I do not believe that it was intended we lived in ignorance and without the ability to make moral choices.  For this reason, we all have the capacity to feel guilty for our wrong choices. We have the capacity to be overcome by shame in the light of our failings.  We can find freedom and healing from the impact because Jesus threw aside his own immunity and suffered the shame of the cross.  For those wounded and controlled by shame dished out by others, I encourage you to reject those judgements and find the grace to forgive.  I believe forgiveness properly experienced by both parties involved enables freedom from this form of control.  In the meantime, I am grateful for the conscience awareness of when I mess up and I will determine to be more diligent in not putting shame on those around me. (Next week just might turn to the subject of forgiving!)


Sunday Sermon – I Must Confess….

“No old woman!  You are accused of heresy on 3 counts.  Heresy by thought, heresy by word, heresy by deed and heresy by action, 4 counts.  Do you confess?”  (Monty Python).  No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, but most of us don’t need the Inquisition to remind us of our failings and shortcomings.

Following on from last week’s post about judging, I felt a natural progression to today’s subject ‘Confession’.  Whilst I am not talking about sitting in a dark wooden closet with a faceless priest on the other side of a screen, the Catholic church have certainly latched on to something with the act of Confession.  I am not an expert on the efficacy of saying multiple Hail Mary’s, but the bible is certainly supportive of the practice of confessing or sharing our ‘sins’.

“Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed” (The Message).

First of all, I find the word ‘sin’ has a lot of baggage with those who have been put off the message of Jesus. There is too much emphasis on sinners and going to hell, on which I have some big questions, but I’ll leave that for a Thursday post.  Sin is a really short word used in scripture for all the ways we have messed up our lives or the lives of others, usually because we put self first.  The sad thing about the impact of these messes we create is the impact they have on our own lives.  According to this verse, in the book of James, the impact of confessing or sharing these messed up things is to enable us to live together ‘whole and healed’.

It is no accident that the secular world of psychology puts huge emphasis on encouraging people to share their deepest secrets and hidden fears, shame and guilt among other things.  It would seem that James was on to something important when he exhorted his readers to get it out in the open.  But why would this simple practice have the ability to make us ‘whole’ and ‘healed’?  And what prevents us from eagerly sharing everything to garner these powerful results?  This is obviously no magic formula, but there appears to be a lot of evidence in both religious and secular circles that there is much to be gained.

I don’t know about you, but I find it so much easier to talk about others’ faults and failings than my own.  Time and again I find myself sitting on messed up stuff that I would rather take to the grave than tell anyone about.  OK, I haven’t robbed a bank recently, nor have I let down the neighbor’s car tires.  But there are hidden attitudes, feelings, unhealthy thoughts that, frankly I would be ashamed to share with most of you.  I don’t need the Spanish inquisition to tell me what makes me feel bad, but I might need them to get it out of me!

The thing that stops me sharing is the very thing I shared last week about the judgment culture we have created that causes me to worry about what you think about me.  If I fear that you will reject me, think worse of me, or perhaps even share my hidden failings with others, then I will simply keep these things to myself.  When I went through a particularly dark period in my life and almost destroyed everything good that had happened to me, I found the relief and healing that James talks about.   It didn’t happen overnight, and it was not an easy road to travel, but involving others in my shame and guilt was a key to restoration.

Now, I am not talking about willfully wronging others and then using confession as a get out of jail free card.  Nor am I advocating the kind of confession that implicates the one listening in some proposed fault of theirs,  “I need to confess my resentment towards you for the way you have treated me!”  A step in our being made whole could very well involve forgiveness, but the simple act of confession should, in itself, open the door to breaking the hold of some of the most powerful negative influences.  At times, we can all be held hostage by the effect of guilt over what we have done to others, shame over the poor choices we make.  We harbor resentments, blame, hurt and crippling anxieties.  I am still learning how to do this myself, still affected way too much by what others might think, but I urge you to join with me in taking the plunge and find that person, or persons with whom you can open this door to healing and wholeness.