In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Spirituality is a word much on vogue these days. And like many vogue words, it has many meanings, for it is a very vague concept. We hear about Celtic spirituality, and Buddhist spirituality. You hear of people whose spirituality doesn’t seem to have much connection with religion- for example, there are those who say they find the sacred when they climb high mountains.For many people, spirituality is simply the word they use to talk about what are really religious things. ‘This is my personal spirituality’, says the actress in the Sunday newspaper colour supplement. Rarer to find someone who talks frankly about religion or faith, because for lots of people, using the word spirituality is a way of saying, ‘Yes, I’ve thought about religious issues, but I want to avoid religion’. How many people have said to me over the years, ‘I believe in God, but I don’t agree with organised religion’. To which I want to reply, ‘Well, you should try disorganised religion!’
The trouble is that ‘religion’ has become a bogey word. It has become associated with fundamentalism, with making women second-class citizens, with being against science, with campaigns against equality for gays. In other words, it’s just not seen as progressive. And for that, we have to take a lot of the blame. It’s as if parts of the church have forgotten that the message of Jesus is supposed to be good news.
People think spirituality is ‘religion-lite’- a slimmed down religion, with not doctrines or organisations or, really much commitment- and certainly without a connection to any religious organisation, like the Church. In fact, of course, the spirituality industry has its doctrines and beliefs. It has commercial organisations behind if, for it has become a money-spinning business. There are books, conferences, events which will introduce you to angels, or healing crystals, or all kinds of what might seem to me and you to be weird and wonderful beliefs, but which obviously seek to fill a vacuum for those who now have little connection to traditional religions.
A survey done this week on behalf of Christian think tank Theos shows why the spirituality industry is thriving. The last census showed that just 59% of people in England and Wales consider themselves as belonging to a religious group. But the Theos survey found that, ‘over three-quarters of all adults (77%) and three fifths (61%) of non-religious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”‘. So we may be living in a post-Christian culture on these islands, but it is not by any means an atheist or secular culture. Rather, there is great diversity of belief, and an openness to something beyond the material world. This is a great opportunity for the new age and alternative spiritualities, and they are making the most of it. But it is also a great missionary opportunity for Christianity.
Christians, however, are hampered by the prejudice of those who say that they are interested in spirituality, and not religion. That’s a pity, and a misunderstanding, for spirituality is central to the great religions of the world. I would go as far as to say that if Christianity has to rediscover the importance of Christian spirituality on order to speak afresh to our generation. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.
Today’s Bible readings give us some clues about the ingredients of a truly Christian spirituality. The passage from Second Timothy is about the Bible. The Gospel passage is about prayer. Those should be good places to start to think about our own, Christian, spirituality. So let’s think for a moment about them each in turn.
And let us begin by admitting that for many people find it difficult to see the Bible as a resource for their spirituality. That’s despite the fact that the Bible is full of spiritual resources. There are many prayers in the Bible (not just the ‘Our Father’ which the Bible tells us Jesus taught to his disciples). The Bible has its own hymnbook, the Psalms. And the greatest hymnwriters and spiritual writers were soaked in the imagery and stories of the Bible. But in order to release the power of the Bible to assist our spirituality, we need to use our imagination. For the Bible is a book of stories and images and ideas, full of things to spark our imagination as we think about our spirituality. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’… bringing me through the valley of the shadow of death to cool waters and green pastures- what a beautiful image!
But for many people, it’s not at all obvious that the Bible something they can use in a spiritual way. I think that’s because that too often, we forget to be imaginative when we read the Bible. For example, in 2 Timothy 3.16 we read:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.
And so it is. But we have to watch that we don’t think that ‘teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living’ causes us to boil the Bible down, so that all it consists of is a list of doctrines and dogmas, of dos and don’ts- which is, sadly, what many people have done to the Bible. Odd, because the Bible is above all a book of stories, telling the grand story of how God has interacted with human beings. You wouldn’t read a story book as if it were a car maintenance manual. So why don’t we let the stories of the Bible speak to our imagination, as well as our intellect? Treat the Bible, not as an instruction manual, but as a work of art. Let it speak to you- not just to your mind, but to all your being. That way, you might find that the Holy Spirit will speak to you from the pages of the Bible in a much deeper way.
But the reading from Second Timothy reminds us that for Christians the Bible is central to our spirituality. And so it has been. Hymns are products of the spirituality of those who wrote them. The best Christian hymns are full of Biblical imagery and quotations. Consider ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise’. That first line is almost a direct quote from the first letter to Timothy in the Authorised Version, chapter 1, verse 17- ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever’. Most hymns can be taken apart, line by line, and you can trace their origins back to something in the Bible. Often the poets and the hymn writers have been much better at bringing the Bible alive, connecting it to our spirituality, than the theologians and the scholars. We need to be creative, use our imaginations, let God speak to us from the Bible to all our personalities- not just our minds, but our spirits as well.
The Gospel today is a story- a parable of Jesus. As usual, he has taken a familiar situation from everyday life, and used it to say something very deep and important about God. For Jesus understood the importance of imagination. His stories are works of art. He can take a rather unpromising idea and use it to great effect. He talks about an unfair judge. This reminds me of the story of the lawyer in the High Court in Edinburgh, who, in pleading in mitigation for his client, told the court how much a week his client had to live on. ‘How much?’ said the judge, ‘I spend that amount on my lunch’. So why are judges are paid so much? Well, part of the reasoning is that that way they should be incorruptible. It’s no use trying to bribe them, because they are well off enough, thank you very much. Well-paid judges, so they claim, help to ensure that the law is administered fairly.
But it is not always thus. Certainly not in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Jesus says, ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people’. I think we can take it that this man was susceptible to a bit of bribery. So even if you had a good case, unless you were willing to pay, you might never get a hearing. ‘And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, “Help me against my opponent!” For a long time the judge refused to act…’ for this was just a poor widow woman- she had no clout. But she was persistent: she kept on and on at him, and ‘at last he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don’t, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!”‘. And Jesus says to his listeners, ‘Do you hear what this corrupt judge is saying? Even someone like this can be persuaded to listen to the plea of someone in need’. If even a bad man can be persuaded, imagine what God is like. ‘Now, will God not judge in favour of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will judge in their favour and do it quickly’.
This little story about from a corrupt legal system becomes, in the hands of Jesus, a masterful illustration to remind us of what God is like. God will not be slow. God is reliable. God will listen to us. These are all factors which should inform our spirituality.
There is a lot of what is known as spirituality out there today which is, frankly, superstition. The letter to Timothy thinks that the time will come when people will ‘give their attention to legends’ Well folks, I think that time has come. We live in a world where people are, I think, incredibly credulous. We can put a man on the moon, send probes to Mars and find planets orbiting distant stars. We understand more about the science of astronomy than ever before, and yet, very often one of the best paid people on any daily newspaper is the astrologer. For there are still many people who believe that the stars can influence your destiny (although there is not an ounce of scientific evidence for it). I think it is very sad that people put their future in the hands of astrologers, when at any time they could turn to God. Put away your tarot cards, throw away your crystal balls. There is a much simpler way of dealing with your worries about the future. Jesus taught that God will listen to us: ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, as the old hymn has it.
For one mark of a genuine Christian spirituality is that it will be a confident spirituality. Jesus tells us that we can rely on a loving God. We are not in the hands of fate. The stars do not determine our destiny. We don’t need to learn what the Tarot Cards mean so we can get a glimpse of the future. No- we have a God who will listen, who loves us, who will be there whatever lies ahead of us. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:
For I am certain that nothing can separate us from [God’s] love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38-39).
It’s so simple. Perhaps it’s too simple for many people. But a truly Christian spirituality will be a straightforward and confident sort of spirituality. For our God is one doesn’t need bribed or nagged. You don’t need to be through a great spiritual rigmarole in order to get in touch with our God. For the Bible assures us that the immortal, invisible, inaccessible God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has come to us in a teller of tales, an artist of parables, a carpenter who healed the sick, made time for the outcast and who despised those who made religion complicated, or superstitious, or who tried to sell God’s grace. The God of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t require an exotic or complicated faith. We just need to be confident that God is there for us, and that we can rely on him to hear our prayers. That is a truly Christian spirituality.
Ascription of Praise
To the only God,
who alone is all-wise,
be glory through Jesus Christ for ever! Amen!
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2010 Peter W Nimmo