A few weeks ago we were driving to London and we stopped for a morning coffee at a roadside inn somewhere near Oxford. For once it wasn’t raining so I was sitting outside and made some vague comment about the ropey weather to a man sitting nearby. Ah! he exclaimed - you know why it is don’t you? Well not really, I confessed. He was clearly going to tell me. Someone has just found, he explained that there’s a big planet which no-one has ever seen before coming between us and the sun so we’re not getting as much warmth any more so it rains more. Right, I murmured, but how is it we’ve all managed to miss it, this planet? Silly me, he put me right - it’s because it’s only there in the night.
It can be a bit scary encountering an alternative world view like this so I extracted myself as politely as I could and drove on just as it started raining again.
Earlier this week we were driving again, to the south coast this time and we caught Radio 4’s Monday afternoon offering called Beyond Belief. Which this week was motivated by that extraordinary story of the couple who had murdered the Congolese lad who was in their care because they apparently believed he was a witch. There were a number of contributors but at the heart of it were the pastor of a church which sees witchcraft as a real and present danger and an academic theologian who has made a specialism of cases involving these beliefs.
The pastor was unapologetic in asserting that the Bible condemns witchcraft and it should be dealt with. He would recognise those principalities and powers we heard about in the epistle reading. At the same time, to be fair he clearly ran a well regulated church with a full range of CRB checks and child protection training. The theologian was equally clear that he considered any suggestion that a child was a witch or could be in any way possessed by a witch is an invitation to child abuse and should be treated as child abuse.
The miracle was that with such polarised views a civil and informative discussion emerged. It doesn’t always happen in a religion which ranges from extreme fundamentalism to what shall we say, skeptical anglicanism? Credit to the BBC in handling it and leaving us with the unsettling question - what happens when the battle with principalities and powers is not well regulated?
A third reflection from our recent activities - while on the south coast, Friday evening in fact, we were treated to a show featuring a touring Chinese circus company. My goodness - they could seem to fly in the sky these guys. The range of circus skills defied belief and the pace, the colour and inventiveness of the production was beyond description. Just a fantastic achievement. And randomly, at one stage a phrase from our gospel reading flickered through my mind - the flesh is useless - a phrase out of context perhaps but I thought really? Not with these folk - they’re putting on a genuinely life affirming show.
And when you think of all the things people do - the brave things, the clever things the kind and good things - this saying of Jesus does seem a little harsh. It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. It’s not only hard to understand, it’s easy to misunderstand - are we really all so useless? I can begin to sympathise with those who began to drift away.
And yet, when the spark goes out of life what’s left isn’t much. I was pondering this a couple of weeks ago as the budgie we inherited from my mother finally went to the great cage in the sky. A bird that could squawk over a room full of people in its prime was a much diminished pile of feathers and bone and of course we’ll all arrive at a time when our joys and achievements, our kindnesses and our good deeds will be behind us.
And then what? It suddenly occurs to me that maybe Jesus was doing his best to work it out. He really thought he was on to something - some idea involving continuity of life in God which he was struggling to explain. And was he disappointed when people didn’t choose to stick with him? When he asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” we tend to think of this as him testing them but why do we think that? Why not take it as a genuine question? “Do you think I’ve got it wrong as well? In which case he might have been quite relieved that the people who’d heard most from him and who had listened to him most carefully did actually think he was on the right track and were prepared to continue with him.
There’s an interesting side-issue there about why Judas didn’t take the opportunity to leave at that point but perhaps we should save the politics of betrayal for another occasion.
You may have got the impression that I struggled with the readings this week and you’d be right. But struggle is good - truth doesn’t come from believing however many impossible things it is you’re supposed to believe before breakfast; it’s more likely to emerge from facing things honestly. The flesh is useless - I can see what he’s driving at but then again the flesh is not useless, humankind is amazing in so many ways.
Is that contradictory? Well yes, but so what? I’m quite a fan of Canon Giles Fraser as you may know and I was glad to see this week that he isn’t certain either. His article this week is headed “I believe in God, I don’t believe in God” Sub heading - There’s nothing wrong with holding self-contradictory views. In fact it’s the path to wisdom.
If you’ve got a bit of time, do have another look at these readings and see what you make of them. There’s God’s journey with his people, or vice versa; there’s how to live in this life and there’s teaching on the life eternal. All the stuff of true religion and I’ll be surprised if you don’t murmur a few “yes buts” along the way. But don’t worry - it’s the path to wisdom.