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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Niceness and the God of Merd?



             Acts 16.9-15
             Psalm 67
             Revelation 21-10-14, 21.22 – 22.5
             John 14.23-29

Too often Christianity is little more than a slightly “godified” reflection of the society around us. We adapt the narratives and mores of the society we live in and then do little more than dress it up with a little bit of goddiness. Of course I include myself in this … we are all almost inescapably entangled in what I like to call the dominant paradigm, the dominating attitudes and behaviours of our society and our media. It ain’t easy to escape, and I for one know that my attempts to do so are by are large reasonably pathetic, reasonably token. That of course is why over and again I return to the theme of practising the presence of God, exposing ourselves to the narratives of scripture and liturgy, hoping that somewhere, sometimes, like a sieve, we will despite our leakiness retain some of the God-nutrients that flow by us.

So much of our society is nice. “Nice” is not altogether a complimentary word in my vocabulary. Nice so often fails to dig beneath the veneers of our society. Nice sends Helen Steiner Rice lyrics, which, while she may have been the “ambassador of sunshine”, do not dig deeper into the vicissitudes of human experience. Nice has very little to say when we receive the death knock from our doctor, or watch the television news and wrestle in our utterly bewildered minds with the past complexities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi and Rwanda, Auschwitz, or the present atrocities of Syria. Nice perhaps even means our media steer us away from the deeper questions, so that we become inured to the suffering in the world around us. Nice cauterises feeling. Atrocity dwells just beneath the thin veneers of civilization, as many of our hate-filled bumper stickers and other messages to boat people remind us.

It is not only Christianity, of course, that has swallowed the pills of niceness. It is a human malaise, as our media reflect. How often I am engaged in conversations with those whose religious faith, not wholly disconnected to Christianity, is something to do with being on the whole rather nice to people, but ignoring the fact that we are, even on a tiny scale, well and truly capable of losing niceness, well and truly capable of brain explosions that send our veneers of niceness skidding into the shadows. These lapses may be minor – me, as I have said, behind a 67 kmh driver without a car in sight on the overtaking-impossible curves of Tiger Brennan Drive, muttering unChristlike imprecations – but they can, as our television news reminds us night after night, be very deep indeed. Thomas Paine, the great US humanist atheist declared sombrely ‘my religion is to do good, my country is the world’. Yet, as Paul the Apostle so clearly saw, there is so often within us the volition not to do good. “I do the things I do not wish to do”, wrote Paul, about the human condition. Not terribly nice at all.

The greatest truth of Christianity, I have from time to time contended, is its doctrine of sin. It is that that takes us deeply away from niceness into the heart of being human. It takes us away from our own strength into the need, the desperate need for a source of strength beyond us. More even though than the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it takes us beyond a Higher Power, “out there”, into the higher power who, in the events of the life of Jesus, dives deep into all the awkwardness and unpleasantry of being human, and only there begins to breathe hope and what we might salvation.

It was this that the author of the fourth gospel was telling us as he recalled the Jesus sayings about the Spirit, the one referred to in John as paraclete, comforter, advocate. The entire gamut – if I may put it that way – of human unpleasantness is invaded by Christ, in all time, is touched and healed, though with the slightly inconvenient rider “for as long as we allow it to be.” The wrestlings of Christian thinkers of the past twenty centuries to make sense of this have been inevitably inadequate, but it is imperative that we hold on to this strange and mysterious truth that John was pointing us towards, that in the coming of the Comforter all that we need of the invasion of Jesus into our lives is made available even to us, even far away and long removed from the events of Jesus’ life and teachings and death and resurrection. It is imperative too that we surrender ourselves again and again to this Christ who touches the deep places of who we are, and who, even if we are often kicking and screaming in resistance, shapes us slowly into what we might by the grace of God become.

Every now and again, by the grace of God, we encounter those who are so transformed into the likeness of Christ that they remind us that the darknesses of our television news, or of our hate-filled bumper stickers and simplistic news-bites, or even of our own lives, are not the final word on being human. Niceness is good, but tragically niceness falls short. It must be over and again our prayer that we surrender not to niceness but to the ugliness of the Christ who reaches into the deepest darknesses of human existence and breathes there his Easter light. Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me, said Jesus. But this is not just the language of niceness, and it is for that reason that Jesus (or John) goes on to speak of the Comforter and Advocate who will draw near. It is by the Spirit of Christ that we can be transformed from the darknesses of our failure to the possibilities of a God-filled life. May God help us so to be.

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