17 September 2017 – Spirit and Spirituality

The Contrast Between Religion and Spirit

God is Spirit and not religion.  Spirituality is the life in something.  Without it the practice (of religion) is not really valid.  Religious practices were intended to be helpful in accessing spirit, but must not become an end in themselves.

People get process-orientated and lose sight of the goal.  This is true both in the church and in the business world.  In church there is the added element of fear that if we get the process wrong we might be in eternal trouble.

Architecture (e.g. cathedrals), music and art can bring a sense of awe that takes you beyond yourself to something more.  But they must never be themselves identified with God or God’s nature.

The experience of the Holy Spirit is the distinctive feature of Christianity.  The Spirit enables people to communicate with God spirit to spirit – even beyond mind and understanding.  (See, for example, Speaking in Tongues).

Are Christians more loved by God than other people? What is distinctive to you about being a Christian?

God loves everybody; but as a Christian I appreciate that God loves me – and I am to tell other people this. Be clear then what God means to you.

Being Christian gives us a hope beyond this life.

God doesn’t love Christians more. All sorts of people can be good inside and do good and kind things.  So what about faith in Jesus? How is that important?

It’s how we do things that’s distinctive  – in love and in forgiveness:  God is in us and through us.

People can be led to good deeds by conscience, but when you know and love God you know (and you hope people recognise) that it’s God working in you.

A sense of God’s calling helps you avoid getting resentful. Corrie Ten Boom always had an underlying joy that God would provide – even in times of great suffering.  Perhaps other people don’t have that reassurance that God is there – even in death.  It’s said that Muslims, even if they have done all the required processes, still fear that Allah may reject them.

There are also people of no religious faith who respond with kindness and goodness, and the Matt 25 parable about the sheep and the goats seems to suggest that compassion and kindness is the final criterion of judgement for all people.  Again how do we link that to a need for religious faith (in Jesus)?

See also the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  The owner says don’t pull out the weeds because it might harm the plant.  You don’t know in the end what God sees and should not judge people because they are not “one of us”.

On the other hand as Christians we can be inspired by Jesus and enjoy the relationship we can have, and boast of a distinctive motivation for action. Yet sometimes the outward action is sadly lacking.  It can be all in the head.  The fruit of the Spirit comes out from within us.

If you don’t belong to God through religion, then how do you belong to God?

The model of family is helpful. Parents love their children for what they are. Yet through the years the relationship with parents deepens as the child interacts with the parents. So God loves all his children but when his children respond to God they enter into a deeper relationship: which is God’s goal.  Love is not one-sided – we have to be responsive.

We also need to convince other people that interacting with God is the most wonderful thing in life.  Some of God’s children, through whatever reason or experience, have rejected the God-package.  We should find out where people are by respectfully listening to them and finding points of commonality rather than confronting them with dogma. We need to demonstrate our relationship with God through doing love.

All the pictures of spirit are flowing – water, wind, fire, etc.  God who is spirit is always moving us on. God can’t be contained and we should never be satisfied or complacent.   How can we communicate what makes God real for us?

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25 June 2017 – What are we to make of the Bible?

Our Discussions on the Theme

“What are we to make of the Bible?”

The discussion ranged around the four questions on the previous week’s handout.  These were:

Did God (and if so how did God) write the Bible and how do we judge what is the “Word of God”? : How would you justify thinking that God spoke more clearly in the past (eg in the Bible) than through the Spirit today? :  How important is factuality in the Bible stories? What if at least some are “community stories” designed to convey a truth?  : Do we just pick and choose what is “Biblical” – for example women participating in church is OK, but homosexuality is detestable to God (and punishable by death)?

The first four responses below are some advance-feedback from one of the home groups (1-3) and from someone who was unable to be present on Sunday (4):

  1. “Ours is a living faith, so understandings are going to change with life”
  2. God’s word in the Grenfell Tower situation might be “Justice for the Poor” (who seem to have been disregarded).
  3. God is primarily in us and we judge the validity of things through God in us.
  4. On “Factuality”
    1. Treating things as “community stories” might be the start of a slippery slope to denying everything supernatural about Jesus – even his resurrection.
    2. While we might regard something like the creation story as a community-based explanation of how the world began, the stories of Jesus are presented as the testimony of those who experienced him.

Comments made: (On the slippery slope) Should we refuse to ask questions on the basis that we fear where the answers might lead? (On the story/ factuality debate) the structure of the gospels parallels the lives and events of certain Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah. Is this by accident, by miracle, or by design – to make a point about Jesus?  And what is that point?

In our Sunday discussion the following issues came up:

  1. Point 4b (above) was seen as reinforced by the fact that Luke (at the beginning of his Gospel) claims to have made a careful search of the facts and to be presenting a definitive account of Jesus’ life.
  2. When we quote scripture we need to quote it in context and not just extract words and phrases that back up our own ideas. The same could be said for the Bible as a whole.  Is there an over-arching message of the Bible?
  3. It might be claimed that surrounding cultural issues (like priestesses in pagan cults) gave rise to the ban (in 1Cor 14) on women speaking in church and for their submission to men. On the other hand, in 1Tim 2 Paul insists that the submission of women is a theological matter relating to the Adam and Eve story where “the woman” succumbed to temptation and pulled the man down with her. Thus they should never be in authority over a man!  This might be very hard to receive as “God’s Word” in today’s society.
  4. It was pointed out that much division had arisen historically over the interpretation of scripture – each party thinking they had “God’s Word” on their side. See especially the Catholic/ Protestant divide over the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of Communion.  It was noted that this was actually a political power struggle over whether the Pope ruled or (as in our case) Henry VIII: so it’s a good example of how we use “Biblical Authority” to justify our own side in more basic issues – and especially power.  You will not find agreement to the “theological” question if that question is a cover for a political one.
  5. In the secular world the Bible has no authority whatever, so to quote it can turn people off immediately. This has been evidenced among our own young people who can be energised by a speaker’s insights into life, but turned off when the speaker starts trying to “prove” things from the Bible.   We need to realise that there is cultural resistance to “Biblical Truth”.

We finished with a “case study” on how we discern the “Word of God”: looking at the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery.  The Pharisees accurately quote the “Word of God” (Lev 20.10) which demands that she be stoned to death. But Jesus side-steps this by asking who is righteous enough to enact the penalty.  So, is the Word of God judgement and rejection or is the Word of God compassion and forgiveness?  Or again, is the Word of God about divisiveness and cheap power-politics: or about understanding., reconciliation and forgiveness?  Beware of people who ”prove” their ideas from the Bible.

18 June 2017 – Spiritual Direction by Robin

On Tuesday of this week I finished my 24-week course in “Spiritual Direction” on which the church was kind enough to sponsor me financially.  The course has run in blocks since September and it has been an enjoyable year where I have made good friends with the other 16 participants and two tutors (all but one of whom were female! – which is interesting).

“Spiritual Direction” is a rather unfortunate title as it seems to imply giving people instructions on what to do.  While that might be the approach of a few “directors”, the recommended approach is quite the opposite.  The question is, “How do you see the spiritual direction of your life?  (The way your life is progressing spiritually and with God).  There’s no point in asking someone else to tell you what to do: we don’t really get anywhere in life until we “own” our own life-situations and attitudes – and our relationship with God.  We learn – with occasional help from a “senior friend” (director) – to develop our life-approach  both to God and to the problems life throws at us.  Self-awareness, honesty, God-awareness and faith are perhaps the key components.

A spiritual director will see a “directee” (I didn’t like that word but you get used to it!) once in about 4-6 weeks.  The service is especially helpful for people who are themselves in leadership and where someone completely outside of their situation can listen to them describe situations and reflect back what they say, asking pertinent questions to stimulate new thought and new approaches.  The “director” needs to be someone skilled in “hearing” what the person is saying – not just the surface talk but the underlying assumptions and attitudes; and skilled in helping the directee to identify and consider these things.  I have been seeing a director myself for more than two years now and I have found the process extremely helpful.

So much of the training course was about developing listening skills.  In fact nearly every week the afternoon session was devoted to “triads” where one person played the director, one the directee and one the observer.  The main purpose was, of course, to give practice in direction, but in these sessions we were encouraged to share real issues from our own lives to give the director something real to work on.  It was often quite moving to see how, even in these “practice” sessions people came to new and helpful awareness of their situations – and directors gained confidence in their skills.

But alongside this, our morning sessions covered a wide range of relevant topics.  We looked at basic questions of who am I? (one whole day was spent in listening to one another’s spiritual journeys to date).  Who is God? The nature of the spiritual, the classic spiritualities of Ignatius, Benedict, and Francis and some of their spiritual practices.  We also looked at Spiritual Direction in relation to personality types, psychology, depression, spiritual darkness, sexuality, physicality.  Many of these are disciplines in their own right but all have a significant relevance to helping a person find their spiritual orientation and direction. We looked at the use of the Bible and prayer and worship in Spiritual Direction.

There was a homework task each week either to be handed in to the tutors or to be kept in our course files. On two of the course days we had appraisals by our tutors and discussion over how we were coping with the study-material, the process of listening, and our own spiritual health.

It’s been quite intensive – and now it’s all over – which is very sad in a way.  But I have hugely valued the opportunity to develop my skills in this way and I hope to be able to use them both in the rest of my time at CBC and in my “retirement” – whatever that word means!

11 June 2017 – The Holy Trinity

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday. The idea of God as “Trinity” is expressed in the phrase “One God in Three Persons”.  However it’s not so easy to understand what that seemingly simple statement means; partly because it is an entirely unique concept and all analogies with it are inadequate.  The diagram to the right expresses the idea.

Background   The idea of Trinity emerges in the 4th Century as a response to a long period of disagreement as to how to interpret the Bible’s use of the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the relationship between them. – and to do so in  way that fitted the prevailing Greek philosophies of the 4th Century. The debate also sits at the point in history where the Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. He saw the faith as a potential force for unity in the empire and so he wanted a single, unified definition of Christianity (which had not been the case till then).  Constantine put considerable pressure on the Bishops to sort the matter out and even locked them in a room without food for several days.  The resulting “Nicene Creed” (which basically expounds Trinitarian doctrine) became and remains today the standard expression of orthodox Christian doctrine – to which people had to give assent whether they understood it or not.

What is the idea of Trinity about?

It says that:

There is exactly one God

There are three really distinct Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Each of the Persons is truly and equally God

Misconceptions:  that there are:

Three individuals who together make one God

Three Gods joined together

Three properties of God (like ice, water and steam).

Thus the “monotheism” (only-one-God) of Judaism is preserved while also recognising that whatever “person” of the God-head we’re talking about, we’re talking about the fullness of God.  We do have to be careful not to read the Trinitarian doctrine of the 4th Century back into the scripture text. It is not true to say that “The Bible clearly speaks of: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”  The Bible doesn’t use that vocabulary at all!

So how important is the doctrine of the Trinity?

We’ve been speaking recently about metaphors and how all God-language is metaphor.  The Trinity can be a powerful metaphor reminding us that, even though God is “one”, the best picture of God involves relationship.  My fairly simple picture of Father, Son and Spirit is that God is essentially Spirit (not material and not religion) and that the content and meaning of “spirit” is to be found in the relationship between a father and his son (as understood in those days).  Much of this meaning is about nurture, empowerment and inheritance; openness, service and sacrifice

But more than that, this model also speaks of how human life shares in the God-head.  The “Son” is not only divine, but human; and he represents humanity in the Godhead. Jesus’ prayer in Jn 17 is “May they be one ….. just as you and I are one: I in them and you in me, …”.

So regardless of its original philosophical complexities, Trinity language gives mystical insight into the unity between God and us, and indeed all things (which were made through him).  It is the language of worship rather than logic and mathematics. It is a statement of faith: that God is as relational being reaching out to draw all things into the God-life. God is not separated from us but is one with us..  We originate and belong in God!

4 June 2017 – What Can We Say About God?

What You Said on the theme, “What Can We Say About God?”

  1. GOD WITH US. We were reminded of the name “Immanuel”.
  2. GOD THE BEST BOSS – An extended analogy (from Jim)

In an industrial society we might liken God to the perfect boss: the founder of the world’s best company. His desire is to help people to help him with his project.  This boss doesn’t fire people or punish them, but rather asks, “How can I resource you and facilitate you to do your job and to develop personally?  He will tolerate no discrimination of race, gender, sexual orientation – or any kind at all.

The corporate vision is for a world where people love each other.

  1. A BEST FRIEND – always there, ready to support you in all you do, but not breathing down your neck all the time.
  2. A LIVING, LOVING PRESENCE: a father, counsellor, guide, healer.
  3. A PARENT who wants the best for their child: a parent who knows how to maintain a good balance between independence and intervention.  God’s purpose for his children is that we should grow up to mature adulthood in Christ – not merely be dependent infants.   But we’ll always be learning!
  4. GOD AS GRACE. enabling forgiveness, kindness, not paying back like for like. He disciplines with grace. There is no place for bitterness.   Grace helps us to address difficult relationships.
  5. GOD AND TERRORISM. We mentioned the recent terrorism events. How might God view these?  On the one hand he might be appalled.  But there are deeper issues of how the perpetrators get to such a point of anger and hatred?  We need to get behind the pain and frustration. Who was there when the formative problems were brewing?  God sees the whole picture and loves everyone without exception
  6. GOD’S EMERGING IMAGE. We noted the response of people who ran forward to help at the scene. Also, off-duty staff came into hospital: people were given free taxi rides, etc; These weren’t necessarily religious people but people showing self-giving on the basis of humanity. Something of God, in whose image we are made, comes out in people at such times.
  7. GOD AND SUFFERING. Following on from 8. we touched on the problem in general of suffering, pain and disaster. It’s easy to blame God for not preventing it.  Often good comes out of hardship and suffering. We don’t see the whole picture from God’s angle.
  8. GOD IN CONTROL? Alongside 9. we questioned whether the “puppet-master” idea of a God who sits up there controlling world events is a viable one. It causes many interpretive problems and what do we ultimately gain from the idea of an all-controlling God?

The possible role of opposition from controlling  “spiritual powers” was also mentioned

  1. EXPERIENCE v DOCTRINE. It’s important to bear witness to what you believe you’ve experienced of God and not be over- anxious if you can’t answer deeper (theological) questions. However, it is also very important to establish an ongoing habit of reflecting on the experiences you have

All doctrine ultimately arises from people’s experiences of God and their reflections on it.  Such reflection is a function of the faith-community and not simply of individuals.

The Bible can also be seen as a long-term body of experience and reflection on God.

28 May 2017 – Doing Theology

The word “theology” has different effects on different people.  Some welcome it and have experienced the excitement and uplift of investigating their faith through the sharing of ideas both from the Bible and from life experiences.  For others, “theology” may have overtones of the “ivory towers” of universities and they may fear being made to feel inadequate or ignorant in theological discussions.    Again, there are others who may actually have been taught to despise “theology” and to see it as opposed to “Biblical Truth”.

But the word “theology” simply means “Thinking about God” and whether you’re listening to a sermon, or engaging in a Bible study, or thinking about how to apply your faith to your daily living – you’re doing theology.  Who  is God and what does God mean to my life and to life in general?  That’s the basic question of theology.  Of course that opens bigger questions like,   Where is God? What is God’s agenda or big desire for things? Who am I in relation to God?  What is God’s relationship to the universe around us?  And so on.  In fact we all do have opinions about these things – and so do many other people outside of church circles.  Open-ness in discussing and debating about God is quite a powerful tool in evangelism as you can see in a number of places in the book of Acts –perhaps most clearly in Acts 17.16ff (Paul in Athens).

For many of us our introduction to theology began in Sunday School when we were taught the stories of Jesus and were told what they “meant”.  Theology is about meaning.  It’s about getting hold of God-concepts which inspire us and motivate our lives.  Jewish rabbis would take passages of scripture and continually debate and discuss their implications and meaning.  From this they formed a large body of tradition – in the same way that court rulings create “precedents” today.

One of the features of Jesus was that he “taught with authority and not like the scribes and teachers of the law”.  This means that Jesus, as the greatest spirit-filled human, had fresh insight into the living heart of God and was able to bring out meaning in a new way.  He often did this by his provocative stories (“parables”) which actually challenged people to  think for themselves.  There are two points here:  one is the need for the Spirit of God to give you insight into reality (truth) and the other is the ability to speak the language and concepts of people around you.

My own experience of theology is of coming from a place of fear of not being able to do it, through a very particular experience of the Holy Spirit, through many years of discussing and contemplating and questioning and reconstructing.

Sometimes we need to allow even the most treasured old ways of thinking to fall away in order to embrace new ones which shed more light.  Sometimes that’s like the various stages of making a jigsaw – you tip the pieces out on the table and you’ve no idea where anything goes.  Then you might try and make the border.  Then you might make little islands of picture as you find pieces that fit.  Then the islands begin to fit – and sometimes you’ve got them in the wrong place and you have to move them!  But as time goes on the picture appears and there’s a great satisfaction. (With God the search always goes on)

Some would say there is more satisfaction in “Living the Questions” than in searching for certainty.  You can become more certain of God while becoming less certain of any particular description of God.  But the process of theology is life-inspiring and motivating.  Engage and Enjoy!  (PS You won’t offend God!)

14 May 2017 – Christian Aid Week – Belief in Action

In our Christian Aid service last week we heard of the plight of refugees who have been helped by Christian Aid.  It’s very hard for us to empathise with their situation as we live in the security of the UK.  We can’t really grasp the horror of fleeing from your home in Bower Way as armed thugs acting in the name of God are systematically blowing up the houses in the street:   and here you are now walking with your children and perhaps an elderly relative in a wheelchair along the A4 hoping to somehow reach a sea port where you will be able to get out of Britain and seek refuge in France or Belgium or some other nearby country.  All you have left is what you could stuff into a few bags before you left.

But such is the plight of many people in today’s world as religious fundamentalists and heedless autocrats wage war on their own population.

Christian Aid has brought life and hope to many such refugees and we heard the testimony of two or three.

We went on to think about the relationship between belief and action.  We read the story from Matthew 25 about the final judgement and noticed that there is no reference at all to what people “believed” in terms of creed or doctrine.  In fact those who are rewarded with eternal life are simply people who showed compassion and kindness – and it turns out they didn’t even realise that God considered that a service to him.  So we thought about the proposition:

It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you act with compassion and kindness.

Would that be entirely true?  Does it really not matter what you believe?  For example, what about the need to “believe in Jesus”?  Or what if people didn’t “believe in Jesus” but acted with sacrificial compassion – could they be “saved”?  We noted that “faith without works is dead and can’t save you”.

But then we also considered the idea that:

Good works can’t save you:  it’s what you believe that matters

It’s certainly true that Paul emphasises that we are not saved by “works of the Law” but only by God’s grace – through faith.  However, “works of the Law” is a term that would mean trying to approve yourself to God by doing good works – and perhaps especially religious observances and rituals.  It doesn’t mean that sacrificial action towards others is irrelevant.  Also, the English word “believe” comes from a root which means “by the way you live”.  So, again “faith” (or belief) which does not lead to action is meaningless.

In the end belief and action are part of an ongoing cycle where the two continue to inform and challenge one another. What we believe about God will challenge us to act in particular ways and what we find ourselves doing will cause us to reflect on and develop our idea of God.  If I believe God is love then that will challenge me to act with the same depth of love that I have experienced in God. Equally if I have to make choices on (say) how to treat someone with compassion in a given situation, the decisions I make will feed back into what I find believable about God.  This is quite important because we should never make God out to be less compassionate or understanding than we are ourselves.

So Christian Aid can challenge us about the need to respond to needy people in the world: and those who get involved in the life-problems of others may find themselves re-assessing simplistic moral and theological positions in the light of reality.