The world wants a god who is nice, who is love, not too intrusive, who says 'So long as you believe, I don't really mind what you do!' There is certainly no place for a god who has a set of rules to live by; that's an infringement of my personal liberty.
So when Jesus says,
I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division’
that doesn't fit with our modern tolerant society.
And, yes, I struggle with these words of Jesus. It's then that I have to go back to what scientists and mathematicians call 'first principles'. I start by looking at creation, the world around me. And when I consider the rich diversity of plants and animals, sights, smells, colours, I have to say that there must be a Creator, someone who has put it all together. That
Creator has shown, and continues to show, great love and exuberance in and for all that He has created. And if I am part of His creation then He shows a great love for me. As Creator there are rules by which the created ‘live and have their being’. It is consistent with this view that should be rules by which I live my life, rules to enable me to live in relationship with Him.
But God knows that it is not possible for me to follow His rules in my own strength. So He sent His Son, Jesus, to take on Himself all the things that I do wrong.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to God but by Him. Peter said before the Sanhedrin
'Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved…’
Salvation is through the Cross, through Christ's death and resurrection. As the Christian singer/songwriter Larry Norman put it;
You can't hitch hike to heaven
or get there by just being good
the rules were laid down years ago
when the spikes went in the wood.
“You’re going to think me mad, but...”
As a parish priest I used to be delighted if, occasionally, someone confided in me a spiritual experience they’d had, a word of inspiration received at some critical moment, or an unexpected answer to prayer, or even some apparent communication with an angel or a deceased relative. Or maybe they might open up about how they struggled with something or other in the Bible, or with the whole concept of faith. Such conversations were enthralling. I used to feel amazed that someone trying to make sense of his or her life was willing to risk telling me about it.
Collectively, however, we have a problem with inner life, spirituality, faith or whatever you want to call it. A person about to share something fragile nearly always began by saying “You’ll probably think this a bit weird, but....” Spirituality is the last taboo. You can go on till the cows home about sex. Even money is a reasonably OK topic sometimes, among some friends. But not your inner life, not soul, not how you make sense of it all, not the beliefs you live by, or question, or the experiences that have made you who you are....”Whoa! stop right there! We don’t do God!.”
There are good, understandable reasons for this. But other cultures are nowhere near as embarrassed about inner life as ours is. Something described as Spiritual Accompaniment, or Spiritual Direction, or Soul Conversation, or Soul Space, or Soul Friendship, goes on, and has gone on, all around the world, forever. It happens here, too, but furtively. Absolute trust is, of course, essential (“Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”)
Today someone might seek such tender trust during a visit, say, to a reflexologist or a reiki practitioner. Then again, spiritual conversations can and do occur entirely spontaneously. Your “accompanier”, your giver of the word of inspiration that sets you free, may be some friend you meet for coffee or a stranger on a bus.
Curiously, churches, who you’d think might be in the business of encouraging “soul space”, have often seemed to share the general Western wariness around this topic. Every Church of England diocese, for instance, has a list of approved/recommended providers of Spiritual Accompaniment, but you’ll really have to search quite hard to find it. For your information, our Suffolk diocesan list is held by Caroline Redman, firstname.lastname@example.org, and the corresponding Norfolk diocesan list by Canon Andy Bryant, email@example.com. It is, or course, perfectly feasible, and recommended, to approach your parish priest. As above, I used to love it when people tackled me with “soul” matters.
So much so, that on retiring in 2015 I immediately began a two-year Diploma course in Spiritual Accompaniment run by the Norwich Centre. I deliberately chose something “interspiritual”, i.e. not presuming any particular religious framework; and the participants in my cohort included Christians of various feathers but also therapists and practitioners with roots in paganism, Buddhism, holistic spirituality, shamanism and so on. There was a vibrancy and truthfulness about this group of people. We all learnt much from one another, as well as from our tutors.
I now spend a little time most weeks practising this ministry of listening to people, probably not very well...but there’s a bright shiny diploma hanging on my study wall which gives me confidence and may perhaps reassure visitors! Listening to another human being as we both seek to make sense of this strange, perplexing, beautiful, tragic, amazing, mystifying life remains the most wonderful privilege. A good thing indeed... not in any way a crazy thing.
In case you think the above some kind of sales pitch: there are providers of spiritual accompaniment who are obliged to charge a fee or ask for a donation, but others, such as many retired clergy (myself included), offer their ministry, such as it is, without charge.