ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 15, 2014
A CRY FOR HELP
Psalm 88: 1 – 9; Romans 5: 6 – 11; Luke 1: 46 – 55
A paradox is a statement containing two conflicting ideas that are both true. Lewis Carroll illustrated the meaning of a paradox with this story: A woman and her child are at the beach. The child is playing in the water while the woman is relaxing on the sand. Suddenly, a sea serpent emerges and grabs the child. The woman, jumping up and running to the water, yells, “Let my child go!” Well, the sea serpent is a philosophic type and has been to the best universities in the world. He says to the woman, “If you tell me a true statement, I’ll let your child go unharmed. If, however, you tell me a false statement, I’ll eat your child for dinner.” The woman thinks for a moment and then answers, “You will eat my child for dinner.” The sea serpent ponders the woman’s statement: “Wow, I’m going to yum, yum–eat the child for dinner–but wait, if I do then the statement is true and I must release the child unharmed. Wait again! Releasing the child makes the statement false, so I will have the child for dinner!” While the sea serpent tries to resolve the dilemma, the woman runs up, grabs her child, and hurries away.
The Christian faith is full of paradox. Jesus died and he is alive. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God and the world is much the same. God is one and God is Triune – three in one. The Holy Spirit lives within us and God is far beyond our knowing and understanding.
Another contradiction of our faith is that spirituality is physical. People tend to think of spirituality as something ethereal or other worldly. It’s true, God is Spirit and things like faith, hope and love can barely be defined, let alone touched. And the first thing Jesus taught us – even before he could speak – is that spirituality is only “spiritual” in as much as it is incarnated or embodied. To draw a parallel, spirituality is like health. We cannot hold “health” in our hands yet we all have health; we may have good health or bad health, but it’s something we can’t avoid having. In the same way every human being is a spiritual being. The question is not whether we ‘have spirituality” but whether the spirituality we have is negative and destructive or positive and life-giving. Like our health, our spirituality doesn’t exist apart from our bodies. Escaping our bodies won’t make us more spiritual any more than it would make us healthier. For our time on earth our spirituality takes place in and through our bodies. It is revealed not only in our beliefs but in our behaviours and actions. To live as a Christian is not to escape this realm, but to live in the here and now.
Yet even when we attempt to incarnate a healthy spirituality we enter the realm of paradox. Peter declared, “You are “a holy people” (1 Peter 2:9) and yet we’re far from holy. Two weeks ago I shared with you a personal prayer in song format, “Gracious Spirit, dwell with me, I would gracious be”. I’ve prayed that for some time, and here I am: no more holy, gracious or Christ-like than before. The more I strive to be holy, the less holy I am; the higher the bar, the greater my failure to reach it. The incongruity of this runs deep. When I was young I read these words of Jesus, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48) I was deeply struck. My mother was a perfectionist and so I was primed from an early age to become fixated with perfection. My goal was to avoid anything less than excellence; failure in any area of life, including my spirituality wasn’t an option. Given that standard I was never “good enough”. I let God and myself down all the time. At the same time my attempts to be perfect gave me a sense of superiority which led me to think less of others. They too were “never good enough”. Paradoxically, my drive for perfection, the desire to be closer to God – pulled me away from God. It caused me to reject myself and others instead of loving as God would have me love. Christians are called to spiritual ideals – life standards which we can never reach. We relate to St. Paul who said, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:18)
It’s that “Catch 22” dynamic that prompted the monk in this story to respond as he did. Abba Poeman was one of the Desert Fathers – ascetics who committed themselves to live in the desert in the hope of discovering what it means to be followers of Christ. One day a man came to visit Abba Poeman. He was anxious to hear the monk’s advice but as soon as he began talking the monk turned away from him. Confused, the visitor went to ask another monk what was wrong. The monk in turn asked Abba Poeman who replied, “He is from above and speaks of heavenly things, but I am of the earth and speak about earthly things. If he had spoken to me about the passions of his soul, I would respond, but if he speaks to me about perfection, I know nothing about it.” Christians live with the very real agonies and ecstasies of the soul. We cannot escape them with pious thoughts or attempts at perfection. Elimelech Lizensker said, “Only God is perfect. If we believe we are perfect, holy or pure it’s a sure sign that we’re not.”
The first bump on the road to redemption is self-deception. Jean Paul Sartre spoke of self-deception or “bad faith” as the “attempt to flee what one cannot flee – to flee what one is.” Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31 & 32). Of course what he didn’t add was that first it will make you miserable. Pretending we are or can be perfect is like building a dam. Only instead of using concrete our dam is built of shame, control, and self-sufficiency. Sometimes we’ve built it to hide behind – so no one, especially God will see the real “me”. Sometimes we build it out of a good desire to please God which somehow goes awry. Either way, we exhaust ourselves trying to keep it in place. Just as a dam holds back a tremendous amount of water, our dam is holding back a deep cry for help. It is the cry of the Psalmist who prayed, “God, you’re my last chance. I spend the night on my knees before you. Save me, take notes on the trouble I’m in. I’ve had my fill of trouble; I’m camped on the edge of hell. I’m written off as a lost cause, one more statistic, a hopeless case.” (Psalm 88: 3 & 4)
Simon Tugwell wrote, “The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong.” One of the first inklings we have of something being “wrong” is that we’re not in control. We’re powerless. We’re empty. We’re stuck. A Rabbi was asked why the Ten Commandments spoke of God bringing his people out of Egypt rather than of God who created the heavens and earth. The Rabbi explained. “Heaven and earth! Then man might have said, “Heaven – that is too much for me.” So God said, “I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now come here and listen to me.” Our imperfection, our need, our short-comings, our humanity show us that we are stuck in the mud. We were made from the mud and we cannot escape it. From the mud we cry to God for the help that God alone can give. We seek help for what we cannot face or accomplish alone; we acknowledge our own powerlessness. We admit we’re not in control, never were and never will be. When we come to that place of emptiness or surrender we realize that on our own, we’re lost. The honest acceptance of our selves as flawed, imperfect people is paradoxically, the first step to new life, freedom and joy. The thing is: God knows we’re stuck in the mud even before we do. God understands that tragedy and despair are inherent in the experience of essentially imperfect beings. When God hears our cry, he fishes us out of the mud.
The good news is that God doesn’t scorn our quest or despise us for our imperfections. He knows them all and loves us regardless. The mud that shames us, that makes us hate ourselves, touches God’s heart with compassion. Our imperfection is the crack in the dam – the chink out of our soul’s armour; the wound – that let’s God in. God enters not at our strongest, most perfect point, but at our most vulnerable. God comes through the wound. Anthony Bloom speaks of this paradox, “The moment you reach rock bottom, the moment you are aware of your utter dispossession of all things, then you are on the fringe of the kingdom of God, you are nearly aware that God is love and that he is upholding you by His love. At that point you can say two things simultaneously. You can pray out of your utter misery, dereliction and poverty, and you can rejoice that you are so rich with the love of God. But only if you have come to the point of discovering it, because as long as you imagine you are rich there is nothing for which to thank God, and you cannot be aware of being loved.” It is this same truth that we hear echoed in the words of Mary when she realized that God in his love for us was entering our wounded, imperfect world through Jesus, “His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattering the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.” (Luke 1: 50f)
The paradox of the Christian faith is that God is closer to sinners than to saints. Anthony de Mello tells this story, “God in heaven holds each person by a ribbon. When you sin, you cut the ribbon. Then Jesus comes and ties it up again, making a knot and thereby bringing you a little closer to your heavenly Father. Again and again your sins cut the string – and with each further knot God keeps drawing you closer and closer.” .