Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

The Sickness That Destroys

In Mark 2.1-12 the paralysed man carried by his friends to Jesus and let down through the roof gives us a picture of ourselves. It is that we often paralysed in all kinds of ways until Jesus' word of forgiveness and healing lift us up and restore us to full life.

Our own disabling may have a whole variety of causes.

It may be physical - the result of illness or accident. Or it may be or the frailty of old age, or a handicap carried from birth. It might not be our own infirmity, but that of a family member or close friend which imposes a restriction upon us, however gladly we accept it.

But physical disability is only a tiny part of the many reasons why we may suffer a loss of the fullness of life which is God�s will for us, a loss which we see symbolised in the paralysis of the man in this reading from Mark's Gospel.

There is also the mental and spiritual lethargy which used to be called accidie or sloth and which so easily spirals into depression. In medieval Europe they called it "the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday" (a quotation from the psalms) because it is a condition which seems so often to strike us down in what ought to be the prime of life. Today we might call it "the mid-life crisis" - but it is the same thing.

Another paralysing condition is loneliness. Not the welcome solitude which we all need from time to time in order to reflect and plan and be still with God, but the sense of isolation that leads to a bitterness of spirit and an inability to accept friendship, even when it is held out to us. Like poverty among riches, this is a loneliness that imposes itself in a crowd or even among a friendly bustling congregation in church. This cuts us off most absolutely and destroys our whole social dimension.

Or perhaps the paralysing problem is loss of faith. By this I do not mean the eager questioning which is the mark of a positive and confident religious life. Nor do I mean the honest doubt which from time to time leads us all to question this or that aspect of faith and practice. These are part of every Christian�s journey.

But there is another loss of faith, a loss of confidence and trust, which leads to hopelessness and despair. It is not the kind of doubting which asks questions. Rather, it dare not ask for fear of what it might receive; it dare not seek for fear of what it might find; and it dare not knock for fear of where the opened door may lead. In this condition there is paralysis indeed.

All these examples so far have been fairly obviously negative things, but we might equally be paralysed by seemingly positive aspects of our lives, perhaps - and paradoxically - by our very busy-ness. Holding down a job, looking after the kids, singing in the choir, looking after visitors and so on. Just belonging to a flourishing and active church can often be so time-consuming and exhausting that there is no energy left for the simple business of living. That too is a kind of paralysis.

It is in all these conditions - and others like them - that Jesus addresses us with his words to the sick man: "Cheer up. Your sins are forgiven." Sin is not only, or even chiefly, the breaking of God�s law in the sense of doing wicked things. It is in a wider and more profound sense a falling short of the abundant life that God wills for us. The reason we fall short is our human weakness - both individual and corporate, both physical and spiritual - and Jesus� word of forgiveness is the power of God by which we can overcome this weakness.

So we come to church to hear that word for ourselves. Whatever is paralysing us, whatever crippling weakness or deliberate sin is holding each of us back, we can lay it before Jesus and hear his answer, which both comforts and commands: Your sins are forgiven. Arise, and walk.

But that takes courage. There is a kind of protection in being disabled, and a terrifying responsibility in being made whole. Sometimes we simply would rather stay paralysed.

Recently this truth was brought home to me in some powerful words of Nelson Mandela, read out by one of the congregation of my church. I give them here as a kind of gift - a spiritual gift - which we received and I now share with you:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? 

Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won�t feel insecure around you. We are born to make manifest the Glory of God within us. 

It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates

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