how is it with you soul?
One of the differences between rural ministry and that in an urban context was that in rural communities, Sin was visible, a public category. In a rural context it was rare for a funeral ‘tribute’ to be an entirely glowing word about the saintly character of the deceased. Or if it was you would hear much in the pub afterwards – ‘well that was a white wash if ever I heard one’. The fact that people – all people were sinners was undeniable. Everyone was too well known, even if they lived as recluses. Because of this the word sinner wasn’t one with overly negative connotations
But our world is dominated by the urban – large towns and cities are the places most people now live. And they are places of anonymity, of privacy. In a city one is not a public figure – one is largely unknown. And this shapes our public discourse, even in the church. ‘Sinner’ is not a category we tend to apply, we don’t tend to meet them in the street,
because in truth we meet very few people in the street, for all the people we see. And so we may listen to many sermons, read many ‘Christian’ blogs in this day and age and find no mention of sinners or Sin, or indeed the crucifixion of Jesus for our sins.
As I have commented before, the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become curiously absent in accounts of what it means to be Christian, and indeed our understanding of God. We might say ‘the Cross reveals the Love of God’, but try explaining how without mentioning our need of saving from our sin, and you run into trouble. The Love of God is revealed in how God deals with those who do not love Him, by dying for them on the Cross, bearing in himself the wages of Sin, that is Death, the destruction of the Soul. Sin destroys souls
So It is little surprise that the disappearance of Sin, has seen the disappearance of the Soul. The bishop’s charge to a new parish priest ‘Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’ seem quaint to the modern ear. The Cure, the care of Souls . . . Souls??? In this season of Lent – how many of us, or how few will take the opportunity of confession – to lay bare our Souls?? Well here’s someone . . .
Lucy – the great Soul physician is approached by her brother Linus – he is deeply troubled by the state of his soul. ‘Lucy, I don’t want my heart to be half love and half hate – I want to be all love!’ This is ‘classic cure of souls’ territory. Someone knows and is honest about the state of their life before God. Their Soul. Linus is far far more alive than most of our contemporaries. He is troubled by the Sin that lurks within him. I wonder what counsel we would give. We might imagine trying to talk someone out of this bizarre worry. ‘Who do you hate – what did they do to you? Why, Linus you are so right to hate them!! How did they treat you? You have every right to be bitter? Why did you lie – Oh I so understand – I would do the same in your case . . . Our life before a holy God, our Soul is denied. ‘Guilt? Shame? No! We must do all we can to eradicate these foolish notions Those are so passé!!’ So we ignore those troubling thoughts, symptoms of the state of our soul – we become more insensitive to Sin, and we end up like the Pharisees, Self Righteous . . . not needing and cure of our souls. Pharisees are those who have denied Sin and their souls have withered . . . As Jesus points out – those who chose not to identify themselves as sinners, found themselves outside of the mercy of God. The denial of what was going on within them, meant they would not come into the light.
Jesus associated with sinners – and he still does. Of late we have tend to respin this truth by saying ‘Jesus was with the marginal and oppressed’, but the gospels tell us he was a ‘friend of sinners’, that is he hung out with those who knew their condition – who knew they needed a doctor. He wasn’t against the ‘Self-Righteous’, he just called on them to be honest about their condition – he invited them to join him. ‘You say you haven’t committed adultery? But you have looked with desire at a woman? Come and join the sinners!’ ‘You say you haven’t murdered? But you will call someone an idiot. Come and join the sinners!’, ‘You say you do not love money? But you cry out for what you call justice when your parents give their entire inheritance to your siblings – Your heart is full of greed – come and join the sinners!’ Come to where I am . . . Lent is a time for coming to Jesus with our Souls . . . recognizing, as we face Easter that Sin as a condition is so death dealing that only the death of the only begotten son of God can deal with it . . . yet tragically there are few in the church who have the wisdom to begin to speak to how we respond to it in our lives . . . Lucy for example . . .
We are at the beginning of Lent – a season in which we prepare our souls and bodies together for Pashca – for the Great Feast of Easter – For God’s act of redemption in and through Jesus in which he saves us from our Sin – and in the divine mystery saves the entire cosmos . . .
In Lent, we are invited to go with Jesus into the Wilderness, to lay aside all things, to come to a place where the true nature of our Soul is laid bare. It is in the wilderness that Jesus in his humanity is faced with that which truly threatens his Life, His Soul, and no less threatens ours.
Satan . . . also curiously absent from most accounts of faith . . . is revealed . . . whispering words in the ears of Jesus . . . perhaps Jesus is driven there by the Spirit, because in the wilderness, away from a multitude of disctractions . . . Satan has nowhere to hide. His schemes are seen for what they are.
Yet Satan’s words seem so reasonable – you’re hungry? Turn stones into bread! You want people to get your message? Do something Spectacular like jumping off the temple! You want the kingdom of God to be brought in? Worship me, and you can have the whole world just as you like it, none of the pain, none of the suffering – none of the Cross . . . And after all isn’t that our definition of the Kingdom of God?? None of the pain, none of the suffering – none of the Cross . . . how reasonable Satan sounds
you hate? – you have good cause! You’re resentful? Who wouldn’t be, you poor thing! You deceive? Don’t we all? no, it is not greed or covetousness, these are your rights!! . . .
Those of an earlier age were wiser. They didn’t listen to this voice, they Fled from this to Christ and took up the medicine of the Cross, the Soul disciplines for each deadly sin. Firstly, Lent was always a time for Confession – for the wilderness experience of laying the soul bare, in the company of a wise brother or sister who would provide counsel and support. Struggling with Gluttony? Fast. Struggling with Avarice? Give more money away to the poor. Above all Pray that you enter not into temptation – learn the humility which drives away pride and sends you to Jesus . . . For each of the deadly sins, those things which we allow to grow in our hearts, to the ruination of our Souls, there was a discipline, which would in time lead if not to their immediate eradication, at least to their diminishment.
A priest tells a story of when he was first ordained. He had been ordained straight from college and had never earned any ‘real’ money. When his first pay cheque came he sat down to write out a cheque to the church for a tithe. In the past of course 10% of not very much wasn’t very much – but 10% of his first pay cheque . . . As he wrote he sense resentment growing up within him, against the church, his church . . . so he quickly tore the cheque up, and wrote one for twice the amount. Satan has not afflicted him in that way since
This ongoing work, the struggle against sin, our participation in the sanctifcation of our souls was what we used to call discipleship – it was written into our baptism liturgy – ‘fight the good fight of faith, lay hold of Christ who has taken hold of you, and do not grow weary in your battle against Sin the World and the Devil, remaining Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life . . .’ As we begin Lent – our hearts and minds are directed to the Last things – the death and resurrection of Jesus, the final judgment and in that light, the state of our Souls. The Good News is that Jesus has gone into that place of temptation ahead of us, come out triumphant, and he the great Physician of our Souls will strengthen all those who comes to Him as sinners, in faith.
Glory to God
In the previous post, we began to set the scene for Lent, reflecting on how in an historical blink of an eye ‘Wants’ had multiplied, and almost unregarded, so had needs. The pronouncement of the Wayside pulpit, ‘Wants are many, Real needs are few’ . . . whilst in a sense self evidently true, sounds less obvious when we consider our contemporary existence.
Just a couple of simple examples will suffice. Consider the internet. How often is it assumed that one has a connection to it, and email address, perhaps our banking is ‘done online’ as is the assumption here in New Zealand where I live. School curricula are set upon the understanding that pupils not only have internet access in the home, but a [necessarily expensive] device with which they can access it whilst at school. Someone who does not have these things is understood to be ‘deprived’.
Unusually, my family has no television – again, but perhaps less so since the internet multiplied our media choices, this is considered a deprivation. We get pitying looks from time to time 🙂 I am asked ‘did you see . . .’ quite often . . . and my college principal at seminary told us we should be watching soap operas otherwise we wouldn’t be able to connect to the everyday lives of our people . . . You Must keep up to date, you Must be connected . . . wants become needs and multiply over and over
As society becomes ever more technologically demanding, our existence is increasingly dependent upon our connections into the systems we have set up. In an age which shouts ‘Freedom’, ironically we have become ever more chained to a pseudo physical necessity . . . there is more and more and more that we ‘cannot do without’, (and that before we pay even the slightest attention to siren voices of a host without number, who would sell us their wares. We find ourselves unable to do without more and more, which inability leaves us open to yet more voices calling to us regarding that which we ‘cannot do without’
Thus Lent is reduced as I suggested, to no more that depriving ourselves of those things which would seem to our forebears like unimaginable luxuries, and of course telling the world via Facebook how we are suffering from our withdrawals . . . We construct ‘Freedom’ through greater and greater complexity, and are caught in a web of our own designing
In Starkest contrast, as Equatorial noonday Sun to darkest Arctic Night, the Wilderness, the place of nothing, of emptiness, above all of Simplicity and thus the arena of our truest apprehension of God and thus ourselves, seems not only terrifyingly strange, but repellent even . . . It is as if at some level we have constructed OUR world deliberately to hide from God. Buried ourselves, called for the mountains to fall upon us. As if, we had deliberately grown a maze in which we could hide, thinking like a child, if I can see no-one, I cannot be seen. As if God might get lost in it . . . indeed if we might ourselves get lost . . .
‘Going without . . .’ is a phrase understood in our culture as a sign of ‘deprivation’, which, it is hard to deny, goes against the spirit of our age. Many years ago I remember passing one of those wayside pulpits – a notice board with a ‘thought for the week’ plastered upon it. It said ‘Wants are many. Real needs are few’ Its truth struck me even as a young boy and has remained with me, yet looking back over forty years, comparing my life now, even with life in the early 1970s – one cannot help but reflect that ‘Wants’ have vastly multiplied, and many have become ‘needs’.
This Lent I am unhooking from at least one of those ‘Wants’ become ‘needs’, that is my connection to the internet, a daily check of email and this occasional blog apart, and all forms of technology which have accrued over the intervening years. So for example, books will be for me made out of paper, and sermons hand written. The season of Lent is a time of preparation – a time of discernment. “How are things with my soul?”, is a question which Lent invites us to ponder . . . but to do that requires deprivation. The sated soul cannot know its own condition, buried under the excess we have come to call ‘enough’.
Last year during Lent, I restricted my eating. Not I hasten to add, to the point where I found myself tired or even remotely suffered, but through various practices, ate simply enough and no more. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is a day of easement of Lenten practise, and as it is in England, Mothering Sunday, we feasted. I ate and drank no more than was usual prior to the Fast – a ‘decent’ sized roast dinner, some apple pie for desert, and shared a bottle of wine with my wife. I paid for this excess over the next 36 hours, and it taught me a severe lesson. That to which I had become accustomed was, under circumstances of ‘enoughness’ more than that with which my body could cope. Buried under food, I had lost sensitivity to my condition, to the point that what I had thought a ‘reasonable meal’ made me quite ill.
As ‘going without’ is a state to be pitied in this day and age, so too ‘enough’ is a concept we struggle with, insensitive as we have become to our condition. ‘Deprivation’ in Lent usually goes no further than cutting back on those things which we once saw as luxuries and very occasional treats which have become part and parcel of our everyday consumption. ‘Chocolate anyone?’ It might seem a rather bleak prospect having ‘just’ enough.
How we are shaped in living whilst naively imagine we are choosing how to live our lives . . .
In Lent we remember Jesus driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, away even from his own culture’s ‘enough’, to a place of what appears as utter deprivation, yet it is not. All he has is sold to buy the field.
Buried under what we call ‘life’, and perhaps more deeply buried than ever before in our age, is Life. As St Luke records, ‘Jesus returned [from the wilderness] in the power of the Spirit . . .’