Month: July 2019

Singing praises while feeling low

A sermon based on the lectionary for this week: Psalm 30 and Galatians 6:7-16 exploring how we can continue to praise God despite poor mental health. (The links take you to Nathan Nettleton’s paraphrase of the readings which spoke to me particularly this week)

Preparing my sermon has been particularly difficult this week. We’ll be holding a meeting after church about future and whether we might be able to adapt what we do on a Sunday morning to help us to grow in the depth of our discipleship and in numbers. Trevor’s chairing and I asked him if there was any particular theme it might be useful to address to support that meeting. Not particularly he said,  but “we might have a focus on God’s love and goodness towards us and a real opportunity to worship”.

This seems quite innocuous, except that it’s not particularly in tune with how I’ve been feeling recently. For perhaps five years or so I’ve struggled on and off with my mental health. Quite a lot of the time I feel fine but every so often I go through patches when I just feel low and drained. I find it difficult to concentrate and start to feel very tired quite early in the day. Given this there are often days when I don’t achieve very much and this can make me feel worse. Feeling tired I can be tetchy and irritable and my family suffer.

Over the period when I’ve experienced these feelings I’ve got to understand them more but I still don’t know what triggers them. There’s an element of feeling helpless and devastated when I look at the challenges that face us in all in the 21st century, climate change, Brexit perhaps. It didn’t help to go into Manchester on Wednesday evening and be confronted with all those people living rough on the streets. It doesn’t help[ that my mother is in hospital with much, much deeper depression than I have. But there is something internal as well, something darker, which I can’t explain.

I do know that given time, a couple of weeks perhaps, I’m likely to start feeling better, again without really knowing what drives this. Then I’ll be relatively fine for a period. It doesn’t feel serious, just like having a minor physical ailment that recurs every so often and knocks the sparkle out of life. It does mean, however, that leading a service of worship focusing on God’s love and goodness and offering the congregation a real opportunity to praise is a challenge.

I’m not alone of course. The statistics estimate that at any one time as many as 1 in 6 of us has some sort of “common mental disorder” (that’s the official term). I’m sure many of you will recognise the symptoms I describe. Some will be feeling like me now, others will have been through periods like this in the past. Many may have family members who are affected. An increasing number, like me, will be finding that this is the way life is, and learning to live with it.

Although the statistics suggest an increase in mental health problems within our society it is something that has always been there but has been hidden or has manifested itself in different ways in the past. Today’s psalm was written by someone who clearly knew ups and downs in their life. There is nothing in the psalm to suggest whether this was physical or mental (or indeed whether it had anything to do with health at all), but the words speak to me. I see in them a reflection of my own situation. I also hear, in them, a note of hope. The psalmist is someone who has experienced darkness in the past but has felt rescued by God and he gives thanks correspondingly:

You turned my tears to laughter;
you set my dragging feet dancing;
you dusted me off and dressed me up for a party.
So now I’m singing your praises
from the bottom of my heart,
and no one can shut me up!

I may not feel good about myself now, but I have hope that with God’s help, it won’t be long before I start to feel better and am more in the mood for celebration.

One of the risks of responding to the psalm in this way, and of a certain more general strand in Christian thinking, however, is that we respond to our situation passively. We can get trapped into thinking that all we have to do is to offer our situation to God and wait for him (or her) to act. This is almost exactly the opposite of what modern psychology prescribes. The worst thing that most people with mental health problems can do is give in to the feelings of hopelessness and despair and wait for something to happen. Rather than abandoning ourselves to God we need to open our lives to him and work with him. What is required is not passive surrender but active engagement.

The passage we heard read from Galatians earlier is, at one level, a collection of throw away lines that Paul assembles to encourage the readers after he’s given them a particularly harsh talking to about a completely different issue. But just as in the words of the psalmist I recognise a description of how I am, so in Paul’s words I see a description of what I can do about it.

What you put into life determines what you’ll get back.

This is not a gospel of passive acceptance of where we are, of allowing God to do all the work. It is an invitation to start thinking about how we can make a contribution to life.

If your investments are all in your selfish impulses, they’ll pay out a dividend of degradation and misery.

If when we are low we give into the demons and allow ourselves to sink to where they are dragging us then we will only get worse.

But if you invest in the way of the Spirit your investment will yield rich dividends.

If despite how low we feel we can invite God back into our lives then we are on the road to recovery. The paraphrase uses the concepts of investment and rewards whereas a literal translation would speak of sowing and reaping. Whichever, the important message is that if we do small things now then we set ourselves onto the path to a better place sometime in the future.

If we don’t lose patience, but stay in for the long term, we will be richly rewarded.

If we expect dividends immediately, we will be disappointed. People with mental health conditions very rarely just snap out of it, but if they start taking small steps, moving in the right direction, they can get better. Once we start to walk with God, God will start to walk with us. It is, as Paul says, a matter of patience, and we can trust that if we stay in it for the long term we will be richly rewarded.

The final relevant point that Paul makes in this section is that the key to improvement is to move away from introspection.

Let’s take every opportunity, then, to contribute our energies to making the world a better place for everybody.

The fundamental task of Christians as individuals and the church is to work for the coming of the Kingdom. In the passage that was set from this letter for last week Paul makes the commandment to love our neighbour the single most important test of everything we do. It is through giving for others that we find ourselves. Probably the most restorative action that anyone feeling low can take for themselves, is to do something caring for someone else.

And as a starting point, let’s especially care for our co-workers in the community of faith.

The easiest place to start is with those who are closest to us, our families, our neighbours our colleagues and our co-workers in this community of faith. Let this community be a place in which we can all support each other. Importantly let’s value what each and everyone has to offer. It’s very tempting to be most accepting of what is offered by those who are dynamic and thrusting and forceful, but let’s also be receptive to accept from those who are timid and lack confidence. Let’s welcome the meek, because they will inherit the earth.

There is hope even for those who feel at their lowest. There is hope for me, who’s only feeling a little bit down. The psalmist talks of passing from that place of despair and death to one of hope and healing. This is not some fiction, it is lived experience of how God can restore once we have invited him into our lives. It is an experience that was real to the psalmist 3,000 years ago and can be just as real in our lives. If we don’t experience it today then we can still hope for it in the future. I can give thanks and praise in anticipation.

Paul maps out the pathway to that healing. We need to open ourselves to God and to work with him. Our expectation should not be of immediate, miraculous, recovery requiring nothing form us. Instead we are offered an opportunity to start to walk with God and each other. The progress we make with each small step may be imperceptible, but over time and with patience, those steps will mount up and bring us closer to coming Kingdom. Our lives will be restored and one day we will sing God’s praises once more. Let me give thanks and praise now for that promise of a brighter future.

Testing the beliefs we’ve inherited from our past

This week, Methodist Conference accepted (by a large majority) a report proposing,  that we should:

  • Be open and positive about sexuality and relationships. We hope to enable the Methodist Church to speak openly, positively, and joyfully as well as wisely about relationships and sexuality as one aspect of God’s gracious goodness and of who God has made us to be.
  • Value all relationships of grace. We invite the Methodist Church to value all committed faithful loving relationships that bear the marks that we can see in the love of Jesus, and are within the law of the land. We encourage the Church actively to offer greater dignity, inclusion and restoration in the community of God’s new creation to those who cohabit, are single, or are developing relationships, irrespective of sexuality and gender.
  • Widen and justify the understanding of marriage as being between two persons. We offer to the Methodist Church a theological reflection on marriage as a particular form of ‘gospel’ relationship between two persons, and propose that we take steps to enable same-sex couples to get married in the Methodist Church. At the same time, we recognise that not everyone will agree with this and so we ask that the Church seek to protect the differing convictions of those who do not agree.

The report will be reflected upon and prayed about at a local level before a definitive vote on these provisions that will be held at next year’s conference. 

This sermon was preached last Sunday, before the vote, and based upon the lectionary reading, Galatians 5: 1, 13-25.

The lectionary is racing through Paul’s letter to the Galatians at the moment. It seems to be going particularly quickly because how much we read from Galatians in any particular three-year cycle is dependent on the timing of Easter in the third year. If Easter is late, as it is this year, then we don’t get to read much of Galatians. Blink and you’ll miss it.

This may or may not be a bad thing. I say this because Galatians is either one of the most important letters Paul ever wrote or is almost completely irrelevant to the modern church. To explore which we need to understand a little of the context in which it was written.

Galatians may be the earliest of the letters in the New Testament. Paul was probably writing towards the end of his second missionary journeys to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now part of Turkey. He had visited the cities on his first two journeys and had helped establish “churches” there. On those journeys he developed a particular way of operating. When he went to a new town, he would base his activities at the local synagogue. His approach is very similar to how many of us would respond to a move to a new town – we’d probably go to the church, the place where we feel at home and expect to find like-minded people.

There was generally a mix of people at the synagogue. There would be some people who were ethnically Jewish, whose families had emigrated from Israel at some time in the past. Some might have been persecuted, some might have been economic migrants. They preserved their Jewish culture and identity principally through adherence to a code of laws that covered just about every aspect of their lives. They assumed that their relationship with God depended on how closely they followed these laws. Along with them would be non-Jews who were attracted to Jewish ideas about God, they were known as god-fearers. The ethnic Jews apparently encouraged these non-Jews to join in with many of their activities but they were still considered them as separate outsiders.

Paul was adamant that the death and resurrection of Jesus defined a new way of relating to God as individuals which made the distinction between Jews and non-Jews irrelevant. Ethnicity was not an issue. God was for everyone. Perhaps more importantly a personal relationship with God superseded the requirement to adhere slavishly to the law codes. Paul, thus, encouraged these communities to treat Jews and non-Jews as equal before God. The Jews could continue to adhere to the law if they wanted to, but the non-Jews didn’t have to. Having set these communities up in this way, Paul then moved on.

The letter to the Galatians is clearly Paul’s response to hearing news that this way of living was breaking down. We don’t know how he got the news or exactly what he was told, but it is clear that the ethnic Jews were insisting that if the god-fearers wanted to continue in the community they were going to have to start adhering to the Jewish law and, more specifically, that the males would have to be circumcised. Paul let rip; he was furious. The letter to the Galatians is a short  and an angry letter with a specific focus on this one issue.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not the letter is relevant to us today. It was written in a very specific context. If the letter is taken simply as advice to a group of Christian communities in first century Galatia about whether non-Jews should be required to adhere to the Jewish Law, then it is almost entirely irrelevant to us in Bramhall today. We, as Christians, see no requirement to follow the Jewish law and there is no pressure on any male to be circumcised. These are purely historic concerns. If this is how we view Galatians, it would be in everybody’s interest to forget about the letter altogether whenever Easter occurs in any given year.

But we can look at the letter it a different way. We can see it as Paul’s more general advice on how to deal with any religious beliefs which we may have inherited from previous generations and the culture in which we have grown up. The book becomes highly relevant if we read it like this because many of our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in the culture in which we grew up and many have been passed onto us by our parents, both biological and spiritual.

The starting point is for us to be honest and accept that the beliefs that the church has held to over the years have been bit of a mixed bag. Much of what the church has believed in the past has been true to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Along with this, however, are many beliefs which, in light of a modern understanding of God, we now see as at best distracting and often quite simply wrong. The church accepted slavery as inevitable part of God’s created order for nearly 1800 years, for example. Just over 100 years ago the countries of Europe slipped into the most devastating war there has ever been all believing that the Christian God was on their side. Over our own lifetime the  way we view certain parts of the Church’s historic teaching have changed. Methodists now celebrate the gifts that women can bring to ordained roles in the church (even if other denominations do not). Most of us now accept that divorced people should be offered a second chance through remarrying in church. Our understanding of God, and the way we live out our lives in response, has changed.

When we look back, we are forced to accept that the faith we have inherited from past generations is a mix of the good and the bad, the true and the false. On this basis, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, becomes incredibly relevant in providing us with tools to look back on that inherited faith and discern which elements we should hold to and which we should move on from. So, what is that advice?

Perhaps the most obvious thing to state is that he does not simply dismiss that inherited faith. He sees it as something that the Jews should continue to honour, but they should honour it by testing it seriously against the new understanding of God as revealed in Jesus. Those parts of our tradition that pass that test we should continue to celebrate, but we should move on from those that fail.

So what is that test? Earlier in the letter Paul has repeated his understanding that our relationship with God is based primarily on how God loves us (as demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). He sees our response to this as reflected in and how well we love our neighbours. He sees this as “summarising” or “fulfilling” those huge volumes of the Jewish law. Paul’s teaching here is very close to Jesus’ repetition of the commandment to love each other as you love yourselves or his gift of a new commandment, that we should love one another as he has first loved us. The test of the faith that we have received from previous generations is firstly then, whether it fulfils the commandment to love our neighbours.

But Paul sees faith as more than just intellectual assent to ideological beliefs. He sees faith as something that leads to radical transformation of who we are and how we act. If we allow that Spirit to dwell within in us then we will exhibit its fruits, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When we look at those beliefs that we have inherited we need to judge them in the light of the people they help us become. Are they leading us towards love, joy, peace and kindness?

The final point that I think is relevant today, is that Paul is telling the Jews to welcome people who have very different lifestyles to their own. I don’t think there is anywhere in the whole of Paul’s letters where he tells the Jews that they should stop adhering to the law. If that is what works for them, brings them closer to God, results in the fruits of the Spirit, then by all means continue. But, and this is a really big “but”, don’t assume that this is the only way to honour God. Jews had to accept that the non-Jews might honour God through lifestyles that were quite radically different to theirs but of no less value in the eyes of God.

The report that is to be debated at Conference this week, and which we will have an opportunity to discuss in various forums over the coming year, can be seen as an application of Paul’s teaching as embodied in the passage we’ve heard read this morning. First, it offers us an opportunity for us to examine the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians – an opportunity to discern which of those we should continue to hold, and which we should decide to move on from. Secondly, it offers a test to help us make this decision: What best expresses our love for our neighbour and what allows ourselves and that neighbour to be open to the gifts of the spirit? Thirdly, it offers us an opportunity to welcome into our community people who love God but who’s lifestyles may be different to our own. It does this without this requiring us to give up those lifestyles that have allowed us to live God filled lives until now.

So in the rest of this service and throughout this coming year let us pray for a vision of how God’s church should move forwards in a way that honours what we hold most precious from the past but also welcomes those who love God in different ways and have different lifestyles. Above all let us pray that whatever decisions are made, they will express our love for our neighbour and open channels for all people to have their lives transformed by the blessing of God’s Spirit. Let us, through sharing our different views, unite to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom.