Benediction Online

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Spirituality is not for Sissies

Recently both Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres have been very excited about a book called ‘The Secret’. I have not read it, but from all the publicity that I have read about it, it seems to be another reiteration of the metaphysical teachings about the way our thoughts affect our lives. Put very simply, what we imagine can become reality and what we focus on tends to expand. Using visualization and positive thinking to create the world you want is often described as spirituality. But in comparison with the understanding of spirituality contained in today’s lessons it is superficial and simplistic.

Our first reading comes from the section of Isaiah known as the Suffering Servant poems. I think that in a very few lines it encapsulates deep truths about the spiritual life. These are not however easy, palatable truths. Lois, our oldest member, often says ‘Getting old isn’t for sissies,’ and as those of us who are aging can attest, it certainly isn’t. Real spirituality is not for sissies either.

So in this passage the Suffering Servant says that morning by morning he listened to God and was not rebellious. In other words, every day he opened himself to God and was obedient to what he heard. Step number one in Christian spirituality – daily attention to God and obedience to God’s call however we hear it. I wonder how many of us manage that faithful, daily observance of turning to God and opening ourselves up to the instruction of the Holy Spirit. Even following The Secret requires regular practice but so often we think that God is like a can of beans in the pantry, on reserve until one day we can’t think what to have for supper and pull it out. When we really need help then we’ll turn to God and of course God will be there.

That’s superstition not spirituality. Spirituality is like a muscle. If you don’t use it you lose it. Spirituality is the result of regular disciplined prayer, worship and acts of compassion. It’s not a warm feeling when you look at a sunset or listen to beautiful music. True spirituality is not for sissies.

The Suffering Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.’ When we hear those words we immediately apply them to Jesus Christ. They are familiar to us from the wonderful alto aria in Handel’s Messiah and from reading them each year in this context. But they were not originally written about Christ. Millions of our Jewish sisters and brother read them today and don’t even think of Jesus. They remind me of Job whose life fell apart in the most dramatic and terrifying way.

Suffering happens. And suffering is a component of deep spirituality. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that people who suffer are more spiritual than those who don’t. What I am saying is that when you are being transformed into the beautiful, Christ-filled person you were created to be, it can hurt. Suffering happens. Suffering transforms. Perhaps transformation may be grace-filled but the kind of transformation that happens when the Living God takes hold of you is rarely easy. It’s not the kind of transformation that’s going to make the Oprah Show because often it’s difficult to talk about and it’s not very pretty.

The Suffering Servant, Job, Jesus… each one of them was obedient and each one of them was let down by their friends. Each one of them experienced physical pain. Each one of them suffered. Each one of them gives us a picture of spirituality quite different from the popular ‘Secret’ where good things always happen to good people.

From his experience of imprisonment and torture, the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, brought us an understanding of the ‘dark night of the soul’. A time when it seems that God has turned God’s face away. A time when everything secure falls apart. The dark night is an excruciating but necessary step of the spiritual journey when we experience a state of profound emptiness. It is, according to St. John of the Cross, the true beginning of the path to union in love with the Divine. Spirituality is not for sissies.

Returning to the reading, the Suffering Servant does not despair but says ‘The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced… he who vindicates me is near.’ He who vindicates me is near. This verse reminds me of Job’s statement, again made famous by Handel, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’. In the midst of tremendous difficulty they both say with absolute faith that ultimately they will be vindicated, ultimately they will be acknowledged as the men of integrity that they are.

There is a parallel in the language they use, ‘he who vindicates me’ and ‘my redeemer’ are both terms from the courtroom. Our best interpretation would be ‘my defense attorney’. My defense attorney is at hand – it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Redeemer does it? This is where they apparently part company with Jesus, because Jesus is in a kangaroo court with no defense.

But is it really different? In the moment they are both defenseless just as Jesus is defenseless against the High Priests and later Pilate. This seems to me to be a deep spiritual truth which is best articulated in the Buddhist tradition but is demonstrated in Jesus’ approach to these last days. Defenselessness is the deeply spiritual response to attack and to suffering. Defenselessness means not fighting the situation, not fighting the pain, not fighting the shame but allowing ourselves to hold it gently and faithfully knowing that we don’t have to fight back we don’t have to defend ourselves because our Redeemer lives.

In fact, fighting back only makes things worse because it creates a tit-for-tat situation, whether we’re fighting external enemies or the enemies of our thoughts, behaviors or physical pain. We have seen that played out in Los Osos over the last decade. One group does something and another group sues, then there’s a countersuit, then there’s an attempt by one group to force their way forward followed by a counterattack and so on.

Now there is a difference between defenselessness and passivity. We are not called to be doormats. We are not called to just do whatever anyone else says, or passively put up with whatever happens. The Suffering Servant was obedient even though that led to suffering, and accepted the suffering as part of his relationship, his ongoing covenant with God. He says ‘The Lord God helps me: therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint’. He was not cowed or disempowered by the actions of hi tormentors. By choosing the path of defenselessness he remained fully in his own integrity.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have given us examples of creative defenselessness in the political sphere. They did not fight in a traditional way, but in a way that was consistent with their deep spirituality. We are each called to be Gandhis in our own lives. He was a man with a deep meditation practice which sustained and inspired him. Often he would meditate for two hours each morning. He was obedient to the call he heard to help liberate his people in a peaceful, non-violent way. Even when he was imprisoned and in great difficulty he remained calm and centered, knowing that ultimately he would be vindicated.

Although he was not a Christian, Gandhi is an example of Christ-like action and contemplation but Jesus is our supreme example. We know that he prayed and longed not to have to go through with the crucifixion. I am sure that he would have loved the solution suggested by some people, that at some point he simply walked away, using his miraculous abilities to save himself from pain. But spirituality is not for sissies and that is not what we believe really happened.

We believe that Jesus was obedient even unto death and then was vindicated by God. This is our example, and so, in the words of Paul,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.


  • Thank you for a very thoughtful sermon. I appreciate the insights into the reality of our journey with God. Blessings.

    By Blogger Hope-Full, at 11:49 AM  

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