Monday, August 13, 2012

Growing out of God

I've been struck lately by various "famous" people talking in interview about how they "grew out" of believing in God. Derren Brown talking to Chris Addison on Radio 4's Chain Reaction about how he used to be a "real happy clappy" evangelical and Jonathan Edwards on some piece of interview about the Olympics talking about how he was "over-zealous" about his faith when he was younger but how he got over it when he gave up serious sport.

Now of course the whole idea of maturing and going through stages of spirituality is not new, I'm hoping to look at ideas about faith development by the likes of James Fowler in a piece of research I'm doing for my ordination training and part of me is inclined to change the course of it slightly to look at this issue. If you don't know much about some of these theories, the Church of England has recently published a report on Faith Development (with particular reference to older believers) called Going on Growing which has a good summary of the various schools of faith development in its appendix.

I suppose these comments made me think about how we are preparing new Christians to progress to more mature levels of faith and spirituality without losing faith. Dealing with those inevitably difficult and imponderable questions to which there are no easy answers can cause many people (as Derren Brown himself discussed) to rationalise yourself out of faith. This time of questioning can begin in teenage or early adulthood or even later. How are we doing at helping people live with difficult questions or even how are we seeking engage them in exploring responses with depth rather than offering easy answers. 

I think perhaps we need to be more open about doubt. Remember when Mother Theresa's private papers revealed that she had extended periods of doubting? Some people saw this as undermining her position as an example of a strong Christian and yet others drew a sigh of relief to hear that it wasn't "just me". I think Rowan Williams' very mature approach to faith, offering deep theological reflections on issues has help offer wider society a view of Christianity as something more than "blind faith" and perhaps we need more of that.

Many new Christians come to faith by being convinced of a strong certainty about God - yet how do we KEEP these people on track when doubts assail them? Of course it's difficult to come to faith without some sense of certainty but those of more mature years perhaps come to faith for different reasons. How are we doing at helping those beyond the certainty phase come to faith?

No answers at yet but I'd be interested to hear any other thoughts!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon 12th August 2012

This morning's sermon. The readings were

Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2 John 6:35& 41-51 (see below)

 In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul sets us a challenge about how we should live and act and of course challenges are all over our televisions at the moment. Heading one of these challenges about not speaking negative I need to say this carefully but I’m not a great sports’ fan and so the Olympics is not something which generally inspires me. To be honest I’m really looking forward to the closing ceremony this evening more than much of the sport. My favourite bit of the Olympics so far as been the opening ceremony.

I loved its recognition of history (well a history of sorts) for its celebration of many things which reflect this country in literature and technology, in music and dance, in honouring those who have achieved great things and in upholding those who demonstrate great potential. For me the lighting of the Olympic torch by a group of young people who might one day be great Olympians was particularly special. The way each of those individual petals came together to be one was such a powerful symbol. I’m sure most of you won’t have failed to notice in the opening ceremony that it reflected the words of Jerusalem with its green and pleasant land, the dark satanic mills and the building of a kind of new Jerusalem symbolized by Glastonbury Tor (where Joseph of Arimathea is alleged to have planted his staff which then grew into a tree marking where he buried the Holy Grail) where all the flags of the world were placed together. There were also two hymns included in the music Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer sung by a choir of Welsh children and a beautiful rendition of Abide with Me by Emily Sandé accompanied by a juxtaposed energetic dance troupe to commemorate the victims of the July 7th bombings the day after London was awarded the Olympics for 2012. A bizarre element was the revealing of the inventor of the internet Tim Berners Lee and the words THIS IS FOR EVERYONE.

 It was not a very overtly expressed theology. There was not explicit mention of the centrality of the Christian faith to our heritage as a nation but to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the heart of the Christian faith beat through that opening ceremony. For me that remains the highlight of the Olympics so far. As I said, I’m not much of a sports fan.

There is a tiny exception to that. One which I think I can safely say none of you will guess. I’ve always rather enjoyed watching a rather peculiar sport, namely the pole vault. Now when I was younger I watched it out of sheer fascination that ANYBODY would pick up a long pole, run very fast, plant the pole in the ground and try to launch themselves over a bar. Later, I rather grew to enjoy watching people hopelessly flinging themselves off this pole and then falling haphazardly on the ready mat beneath. It seemed so much like some form of slapstick comedy. This year, I sat down to watch it (as there is little else on the TV but the Olympics) and I found it a rather different experience.

Instead of finding it comical I found myself unable to distance myself from the experience of the women who were jumping. Now as it is such an obscure sport, I’m going to dare to suggest it might need a slight explanation. Each competitor may choose at what height of bar they start competing. So there might be four or five who start trying to get over a bar set at 4.3m and trust me that looks pretty high (14’) and if they succeed at that height they move on to the next and some people might only start trying at 4.5 or 4.6 m. Each contestant attempts a height and CAN FAIL twice in a row at one height or fail at one height and move on to another height and fail and still try again but if they fail a third time in a row they’re out.

The conclusion of the pole vault event then is rather curious. Not the glorious powering to victory of Usain Bolt or Mo Farah but successive contestants failing to get the height set and be eliminated. In this year’s women’s Olympics final the last two jumps by the two remaining competitors were both fails. The woman who won gold successfully jumped 4.75m and then failed to jump 4.8 three times. The woman who won silver, a young girl from Cuba equaled her own personal best and the national record of 4.75 but then also failed to reach 4.8 and having more failed attempts earlier than her competitor finished second but did so with a smile and the support of the crowd! Now I’m sure there are many other sports just as convoluted and complicated which some of you may have watched this week. Something more complex than the simplicity of six people running a race and being placed 1st 2nd 3rd and so on. But for me the pole vault involves the inevitability of failure. Each competitor strives not simply to do their best but to show that they cannot do any better. They push themselves to beyond what they can do - and fail.

What St Paul asks of the Ephesians may seem much simpler than some of the huge challenges you might have seen some athletes facing during these past weeks of the Olympics but this challenge from St Paul is something else –

Put away from you all bitterness 
and wrath 
and anger 
and wrangling 
and slander, 
together with all malice, 
AND be kind to one another, 
forgiving one another. 

Paul’s challenge is something incredibly difficult and YET, unlike those Olympic races, triathlons and heptathlons, something which we CAN all try to do and which we are all expected to aim for even if we must, like the pole vaulters, sometimes push ourselves beyond what we can do - and fail. Trying to control our anger or our malice can be a real challenge for some. Speaking gently of others, forgiving others is something we can all fail at. Yet having failed we can, like the pole vaulters try again and succeed and move on to try again to cease wrangling or to be kind. And of course – we can fail more than three times and still carry on trying! If you remember the story of Peter and Jesus, Peter is told he needs to forgive his brother seventy times seven – not just three and the good news is that forgiveness, that new start is there for each of us.

I don’t think Paul’s words are merely about BEING NICE. Is he suggesting perhaps that it is more difficult to be drawn to God if we present a negative attitude? Certainly I find it harder to connect with God if I’m at odds with other people. Paul’s exhortation to the people at Ephesus is not just asking everyone to BE NICE. There is something more fundamental about acting in the ways he describes than communal harmony. It is about enabling ourselves to get closer to God and, unlike some of the races, our striving is more like the pole vault. We are each trying to do our best and go beyond our best. It isn’t just those that win gold medals that succeed in God’s kingdom. It is the striving to do all those things that St Paul talks about, not the winning, that enables us to become a person who can connect with God.

The GOOD news for us of course as Jesus says in verses missed out in the gap in our Gospel reading anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; to echo back to the opening ceremony “This is for everyone” The good news of God’s love for us is not like competitions in the Olympics in which there are select winners. ANYONE and EVERYONE has the opportunity but with that opportunity comes the responsibility to live up to that great challenge which does of course require training, and support of others. Putting aside bitterness doesn’t come without work.

Being kind to people requires effort. Controlling our anger is something some of us have to work on more than others but I don’t think any one of us can demonstrate grace without regularly connecting with other Christians for support and connecting personally with God. Being tenderhearted of course requires us not to be soppy but to be vulnerable. Forgiving others, far from being yet another thing we must do, in fact underpins so much of all this challenge. If we can train ourselves to have the strength to forgive others, we have a chance of putting aside bitterness, wrath, malice, wrangling and slander

And if we can manage that then we can put aside “evil talk” allowing that which comes out of our mouths, to be as Paul says
“only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” 
And of course this grace of speech is also not just about being nice. Paul also talks about speaking the truth and this can sometimes mean we need to challenge people. Of course this must be understood in context with his other command not to show malice and to build people up so it’s a fine balance.

Someone who has put this into words is our Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy who has written a poem called Translating the British, 2012. At its heart is a challenge to the government and the banks as well as celebration of all those people who have won medals but it begins and ends like this
Translating the British, 2012 
A summer of rain, then a gap in the clouds
and The Queen jumped from the sky
to the cheering crowds.
We speak Shakespeare here,
a hundred tongues, one-voiced; the moon bronze or silver,
sun gold, from Cardiff to Edinburgh
by way of London Town,
on the Giant's Causeway;
we say we want to be who we truly are,
now, we roar it. Welcome to us
We've had our pockets picked,
the soft, white hands of bankers,
bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
we want it back.
We are Mo Farah lifting the 10,000 metres gold.
We want new running tracks in his name…

(She goes on to name many athletes and concludes) 

We saw what we did. We are Nicola Adams and Jade Jones,
 bring on the fighting kids.
We sense new weather.
We are on our marks. We are all in this together.

(For the full poem see here)

 Fabulous words. Of course the Olympics has been a time of all kinds of people gathering together but next week the challenges will be individual ones for each of us. So where for you will that challenge be this week. What will be the leap you have to make in kindness, in putting aside malice or anger? Who do you have still to forgive that is stopping you from meeting with God? And if that all feels too tough a challenge remember we can fail and try again. With Jesus: We sense new weather. We are on our marks. We are all in this together. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Texts for today

Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2 25
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35& 41--51 35
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”