The Spirituality of the Common Good

December 21, 2008

Sir Paul Reeves

St Thomas’ Day     Habakkuk 2:1-4     John 20:24-29


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and then executed by the Nazis said “a prison cell in which one waits, hopes and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.


Advent points to what God does in the shape of a baby born to a struggling young couple on the run and to the surprising discovery of God’s presence, when we least expect it, among the joy and pain of living. It also means waiting. Habakkuk gives us the Picture of the prophet at his watch post, stationing himself on the rampart, watching to see what God will say to him. It’s not a popular message.


In today’s busy world Advent does not get much of a look in. People are not prepared to wait. Yet there is a certain wistfulness, an echo that things need not be like this. In the midst of the tinsel and the celebrations and the staff parties it’s almost as if people are saying, “I don’t believe in God but I sure miss him.”


So hard edged, realistic hope that combines with a sense of trust and expectancy is in short supply. It worries me that in November our vote at the election was determined as much by our fears as by our hopes. Tapu Misa wrote in the NZ Herald of growing opposition to policies that benefit the poor, cynicism about welfare and support for more aggressive controls of an underclass perceived to be disorderly, drug prone, violent, dangerous and Polynesian and living in South Auckland.


She also pointed out that half of those in our prisons are mentally distressed and around half have alcohol or drug addictions. To Tapu Misa this suggested that health and social support had failed rather than these people were inherently bad.


I live in the leafy suburb of Remuera where householders build high fences and install security gates. There seems to be a need to feel safe by locking the world out. Nobody plays on the streets any more. And yet one of the principals of a finance company that crashed in a spectacular fashion and who is now facing charges in the court, lives half a mile away. The sad truth is violence takes many forms.


It’s too easy and it’s dangerous to categorise people as either bad or mad. I am a patron of the Mental Health Foundation, which over the past thirty years has made us confront divisive stereotypes born out of ignorance and fear. In a recent publication they quoted Sir Nathaniel Lee who said, “they called me mad and I called them mad and damn them they outvoted me.”


Some of us, idealistically perhaps, prefer to believe in what we call the common good. Progress comes when citizens realise that what is good for their neighbours must ultimately be good for them as well, when difference and diversity are seen not as sources of division and distrust but of strength and inspiration. Christians live by trust, hope, grace. We take risks and the road of faith leads through uncertainty. Rabbi Lionel Blue says that many think, “that the more religious you are, the more you should say no to people. But life is already difficult enough and religion is there to help people solve problems, not to make things more difficult.”


We should not get hung up on the issue of what religion is or is not. Even though I get frustrated sometimes, I love the liturgy and worshipping together but I don’t rate well on personal prayer and devotion. My spirituality such as it is comes through study and trying to be compassionate. My wife will tell you how sell I score in that regard. We get fixated and worried about belief but it’s not where I place my energy. I always regard the creed as a poem, not a legal document, a meditation on the mystery of God born out of the controversies of the early church. The essence of religious experience is showing compassion towards other living creatures, sharing our differences lovingly and developing our relationship with God.


It is compassion that will bring you to what we call a state of transcendence by dethroning you from the centre of your world and putting another in your place. That sounds like the common good, which I believe, we must all seek.


But if I think about it, I’m sure that meet God as a dear friend. That does not sound very profound, it may be an inadequate description but it works for me. Spirituality is not an easy word because it seems to describe something technical done by experts or an experience way out of our grasp.


Well here is the real test. Whatever is important to you, as you try to live faithfully, you must decide whether it is genuine and changes you for the better. Ask yourself does it make you kinder, does it make you more generous and does it help you learn more about yourself? If it does, then go for it.


Today we give thanks to God for Saint Thomas the patron saint of the vibrant community that once worshipped in Freeman’s Bay. We also have a thurible to dedicate to the memory of Douglas Miller, Vicar of St. Thomas’ and his wife Eleanor.


Douglas once told me that a certain bishop said, “Miller I can’t understand your mind.” Douglas replied, “I would be surprised if you could.” Douglas was a man of faith and great scholarship but for a moment let’s ponder on Thomas, one of the twelve. Doubting Thomas we call him because he was not around when Jesus reappeared to the other disciples after his resurrection.


Thomas wanted physical proof before he could believe this far fetched story. But Thomas was really better than that. When Jesus reappeared saying, “Peace be with you” and held out his hands, Thomas’ response was not to tick the box labelled “now I see,” but to express his faith, “My Lord and my God.” Doubt led to faith.


Contrast Thomas with Tarore the young girl asleep with a copy of Luke’s Gospel under her pillow when she was killed by a warring party near Matamata in 1836. It was an incident that persuaded Maori to ask for missionaries to live among them in Otaki and tell them of the God they read about in the book found under the girl’s pillow. Tarore’s grave is in a farmer’s field and to visit it is a moving experience. People put flowers on the grave and if they were like us they would pray for the health of our nation and the Maori people. It is Tarore’s innocence and trust which is at the heart of her faith that is so powerful even today.


Faith may seem simple but can also be complicated because it arises out of who we are. We can all feel a kinship with the doubting Thomas and with the unsuspecting Tarore.


Spiritually we are all like rivers, connected to our source and our destination as we travel through the world. The sense of trust that the entire journey is held in God’s hands runs deep within us.


In the words of Joy Cowley,


Life is like a river that flows towards the sea and deep inside my mind, 

the call of love grows stronger as I leave each day behind…

We’re moving with the current of this unseen mystery…

And I have questions to ask you my friend.

Where does the sea begin?

Where does the river end?

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