Monday, 30 November 2009

Making sense of the supernatural

Clergymen (and women) are often involved in some weird and unusual things in the course of their day to day ministries. I recall once in a previous parish being contacted by a concerned mother and asked if I could help. She explained that her 3-4 year old daughter had an 'imaginary' friend who she used to talk to in her bedroom. The parents had thought very little of this, putting it down to part of a child's natural development, until one day the child became frightened and told her mother that this 'friend' had tried to bite her. The little girl was so frightened that she would not go back to her berdroom and so the mother, not knowing what to do, contacted the local priest - me- and asked if I could bless the room or something. Not really knowing a great deal about this sort of thing other than a few books I had read on the subject, I went along and said a few prayers of blessing in the room where the incident took place. A day or so later I contacted the woman and asked how things were going. The little girl had gone back to her bedroom and was happy again. This imaginary friend who used to come to play with her had gone now and all was well again.

I remember thinking how unusual this event was but gave it little more thought and reflection at the time. Now however, thinking back, there are a number of questions the whole incident raises which have no easy answer, other than a religious one.

First, who was this imaginary friend? A figment of a child's very active imagination or something more sinister?
Second, was there some kind of psychological reason for this - some kind of low-level mental illness that had only just started to manifest itself and which, perhaps in later years, would become more full-blown schizophrenia or such like.
Three, was there some other scientific or 'natural' explanation that could account for this that I and the parents were/are unaware of?

These, and others like them, are all legitimate and necessary questions to ask and one should not immediately jump to any supernatural explanations for such phenomena. However if the so called 'friend' was a figment of the child's imagination, why did it go after prayers?

The same could be said of any psychological explanations. I did not interview the child, I only spoke to her mother, and as it was the child who had seen/experienced the phenomena, any attempt to assign a psychological cure does not make any sense unless it was the child I had counselled. But even then a three-four year old? You could possibly explain it on the basis that the mother managed to reassure her daughter that the priest had been and "chased the baddies away" but why would this assurance be more viable than the mother's previous attempts at calming her daughter's fears?

As to scientific or 'natural' explanations and having spoken to others who are more of that particular mindset, I have received nothing that would satisfy me as being adequate to the case in question.

Which leaves us with a religious or Christian explanation. For the Christian the categories of natural versus supernatural are not helpful as the former tends to be equated with the notion of 'real' and substantial, while the latter equates to 'unreal/imaginary' or insubstantial. For the Christian all is 'natural' as God made it and to draw any division between the seen and unseen or the world of the spirits (i.e. angelic beings, God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit etc) and the world of 'man' is to muddy rather than clear the waters. There is more going on in the world than what can be seen with the eyes and for the Christian the world of the angels etc is as 'natural' a part of life as the world of trees and eathquakes. The Bible refers to such beings without a hint of doubt or embarassment and although it does not go into great detail, it tells us enough to awaken us to the presence of both good and fallen angels (demons) and calls us to ensure that we know how to both defend ourselves against them or rid ourselves of them.

In Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus he councils them to "put on all the armour God gives you, so that you will be able to stand up against the Devil's evil tricks." He continues, "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this dark age." (Ephesians 6:11-12 Good News Bible). This incident then can only point towards something along these lines and therefore only such weapons that the Church possesses, under the authority of Christ, are in the end effective against them.

I can find no other explanation for such occurences (there have been others) than the Christian one. If that is the case - and I believe it is - then there is a war going on where sides have to be chosen. If it's good versus bad and God is on the good side, then I know where my loyalty is. What about you?

The power of prayer

It's funny how you can live with a truth for many years but not fully comprehend it real meaning until a moment of 'insight' opens it up and you finally understand it in its depths. One recent example I want to share is the power of prayer and how it works.

Before moving to my previous parish I was inspired by an address the incumbent gave once at a conference where he told the story of the parish and how it grew under his ministry. He told of being there 5-6 years but with minimal success until one day, having read a book on prayer (I forget which one) he decided to tithe his time and devote a tenth of each day praying. So for two hours and forty minutes each day he gave himself to prayer. Within a space of time things began to happen and his church grew and blossomed and the congregation size trippled.

Since then I have always looked at prayer as being important but without realizing how. I merely saw it as a tool to bring about renewal and growth - just as it did in my predecessor's ministry - but I went no deeper than that. I have often reflected on this but seemed to progress no further than seeing the connection between prayer and the growth of the congregation in his church. Now, finally, I think I understand how it happened. Through giving himself more to prayer my predecessor got closer and closer to God and as he did HE changed. He developed a greater sensitivity to the voice and promptings of the Holy Spirit. God's thoughts became his thoughts, God's ways became his ways and God's will became his will. There was a coming together of the two - my predecessor and God - to such a degree that they became, sort of, one.

Jesus tells us about this in John's gospel, chapter 15, a passage that has always fascinated me. Here Jesus likens the relationship of the disciple to Him/God as a branch to a vine:

"Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; ift can do so only if it remains in the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, then you will ask for anything you wish, and you shall have it."
(John 15:4-5,7 GNB)


Here, especially in the last verse, Jesus explains what in fact happened with my friend and colleague. He 'remained' or (NIV) 'abided' in Jesus. This led to him being able to "ask anything" he wished - although it was not in fact 'he' who asked but this new 'he/God' partnership - which led him to see things happen and change. Prayer was not so much the key to changing the parish as it was, first of all, the key to changing him.

The power of prayer is to bring us closer and deeper into God so that God can finally work His will in us, and through us, for His world, starting where we are. Just as the 'light' in Matthew 5:14-16 can only be light if it is connected to the source of all true light i.e. Jesus, and the salt in Matthew 5:13 can only remain 'salty' if it is made salty by the true salt itself i.e. Jesus, so life can only produce life it it is connected to the source of life, God Himself.

Of course we must not, as we often do, turn this into some sort of 'formula' for parish/church renewal. This is not some kind of mechanical device. No. It must always be personal in terms of being real and genuine. But God has so designed us that we need to maintain and develop in our relationship with Him if we are to achieve anything of spiritual and therefore real and lasting, value. So the lesson I have learnt from all of this? Pray as much and as often as you can. And when you do, pray as if your life depended on it, because it does.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Temptation

Temptation is all the rage nowadays. In fact it has become, with pride, one of the modern 'virtues' of our present society. How would our world exist without a real in-depth understanding of how temptation works? I mean, who would be able to sell anything? Saatchi and Saatchi have made an art of it (and lots of money too) and television advertising would disappear without some sort of notion of how to entice people into parting with their hard-earned cash. They all know that temptation is a powerful tool in making people do something they would not ordinarily do or buy something they may not usually think twice about buying. They know that there is a weakness in our fallen human nature that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, can "resist everything except tempation".

When John and the other New Testament writers talk about the 'world' being under the power of the Evil One, it is tempting (there is that word again) to tone down the language or understanding they bring to the whole issue of power struggles, but I think they are wiser and more sophisticated than we give them credit. They know all too well how human nature works and how the enemy of our soul works. Without wishing in any way to sound complimentary, the Enemy is very clever. Just take an excerpt from today's morning television. One guest is brought on to help people to be more careful this coming Christmas and to avoid getting into more debt. His advice was to stay spend within your means and to budget so that you will not spend the rest of next year paying back what you have borrowed. His concern, which I believe to be genuine, was that parents keep a sense of persepective and think long term not just of the mad moment. It was a good item and left you feeling that here was television being helpful and responsible. So far so good until the main presenter turns to the very next item of the show which was to exhibit to, and excite the audience with, the newest fashion accessories for party dressware! On the one hand they give but with the next they take away. Spend less. Be responsible. Resist temptation one minute. And the next? Spend more. Indulge yourself. Give in to it!

Temptation is endemic in our society and cleverly disguised within the advertising which is a normal part of everyday life. The world is indeed infiltrated by the enemy who exploits large parts of it at will. It's subtle and very clever. The bait dangles on the rod. Will we bite?

Boldness in prayer

Reading Luke 11:1-11, especially the following verses: 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midn...