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March 11 - Spirituality or Superstition?
The Marks of a Healty Religion
Readings Numbers 21: 4-9 John 3:14-21

In his book "The Song of the Bird, Anthony DMello writes as follows: "Man finds himself alone and lost in this vast universe. And he is full of fears. Good religion makes him fearless. Bad religion increases his fears.

A mother could not get her little son to come home from his games before dusk. So she frightened him: she told him that the path leading to their house was haunted by ghosts who came out as soon as the sun went down. She had no more trouble making him come home in time each evening. But when the boy grew up, he was so afraid of the dark and ghosts that he refused to get out of the house at night. So she gave him a medal to wear and convinced him that as long as he wore his medal the ghosts would have no power to harm him. So he now ventures forth into the dark clutching his medal.

Bad religion strengthens his faith in the medal. Good religion gets him to see that there are no ghosts.”

By and large, superstitious thinking leaves us at the mercy of whatever forces we give away our power to. In this space we can loose the ability to develop our courage. At the mercy of dark, mysterious energies, the best we can do is clutch whatever talisman gives us hope, and venture out fearfully into whatever darkness surrounds our current circumstances.

We do actually find superstition in various places in the Bible. One such eerie event is the poisonous serpent story in Numbers today.

Think about it- there are a number of countries that still apply the death penalty for various offences, typically murder, rape and drug trafficking. I for one am deeply grateful that Australia is not one of them. I also know that in certain totalitarian states, one can get disappeared for dissent. Yet I know of nowhere that one can be legally killed by the ruling authorities for complaining. Yet the scribe of Numbers tells us, without batting an eye, that God had many people killed by an infestation of poisonous serpents; just for speaking against God and Moses. Knowing what you know of God, does that not seem somehow strange?

Again, the writer seems to believe that it was the complaining that caused the serpents to go on their deadly rampage. Well, it is not too much to believe that a group of people could set up camp in such a hostile environment right over the top of a serpents’ nest; and suffer many casualties as a result. But to link this natural disaster to supernatural, to divine punishment; is that not stretching the point beyond credulity?

I know that people do this. Something bad things happen, and sooner or later someone says "What did I, or what did we do to deserve this?” This can quickly turn to a convenient blaming of the victim, as happened in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In Sydney, the Rev Fred Nile called it the "Wrath of God” syndrome, thus implicating homosexual people for what he saw as evil sexual desires. I even heard recently that a preacher in the USA linked another natural disaster- it could have been an earthquake- to a state government initiative to relax the law regarding abortions. This is superstition of the most dark and destructive kind.

Superstition can also be benign, such as when people think that a positive or lucky outcome in their lives is the result of some good deed done earlier in their lives. Remember Maria in "Sound of Music”? Amazed by the successful outcome of her relationship with Herr Von Trapp, she sings "…somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good!” In this delicious moment, she conveniently forgets all those times when she failed to get to chapel on time because she was too busy bringing the hills alive with the sound of music.

Let’s be honest. We are all susceptible to magical, superstitious thinking. The sun shines on our wedding day, and we say God is being good to us. Or we get the parking place we prayed for, or Australia beats South Africa in the first test in Durban. If only we engaged our logic, we might remind ourselves that others

needed the rain, and someone else did not get the parking place, and did God really take David Warner’s side in his stoush with Quinton De Kock? Athiest and journalist Peter Fitzsimons hits the roof every time a golfer thanks God for giving them the victory. "Is this the God you believe in?”, he thunders. Does God really having nothing better to do than fix golf games or cricket matches, or arrange the weather for our personal convenience?

Getting back to the story of the biting serpents in Numbers, do people really get cured of fatal poison by looking up at a totem? Personally, I would be looking for anti-venom any time.

I do though want to move away from the implied dualism in the title "Spirituality or superstition”. "Or” is a divisive little word. This OR that. Right or wrong. Black or white. Us or them. On reflection I realize that while superstition is at best questionable and at worst, destructive, it can itself be a primitive or crude form of spirituality. What I mean is this. The writer of the Numbers story may have had some weird ideas about how God deals with people, but at least, God’s perceived action is at the heart of the story. I see this as the early part of a quest to unravel some of life’s mysteries, like why bad things happen to good people and vice versa.

So I have to question my own earlier assumption that the serpent story had little value in informing our spirituality. After all, the Writer of John’s Gospel got something important from it. "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What John, a deeply spiritual writer does is lift from the serpent saga the part where grace appears. He may or may not believe in the power of a talisman like a bronze serpent, but he uses the analogy to proclaim the life-giving power of the lifting up of Jesus.

The risk here, of course, is that we can just swap one superstition for another, albeit a more sophisticated one. Just how does Jesus’ "lifting up” or crucifixion, save us from our sin? Is it just by looking at him? Some would say yes. I say that if it were that easy, there would be a lot less sin in the world, particularly in those who claim Jesus to be Savior and Lord.

My conclusion, in reflecting on the relationship of these two biblical passages, is that superstition and spirituality are not an "either or”, but rather a continuum from primitive to more sophisticated, from seminal to mature, from casting around in the dark to seeing the light of day.

And so I do not want to condemn any superstitious tendency that you or I or prone to exhibit from time to time. I would rather say that while our superstitions can at best only ward off our real or imagined demons for a while, they do not of themselves bring us life. It is only as we move from fear to faith, simple to more complex understandings about life, from primitive interpretations to knowledge that comes from prayers and deep reflection that the fullness of life in Christ begins to unfold for us.

The road to deeper spirituality is, as Jesus reminds us, not an easy one- but, like the road to Jerusalem, it is a critically important choice. And it is well worth the effort, if we can only save ourselves too many deviations and detours that lead us nowhere and consume all our spiritual energy in the process. Here are a few closing thoughts about the way forward:

1. It helps if we let go the idea that the Bible is a magic book that has the right formula if only one can find it. The Bible is not magic, even though some writers make superstitious interpretations, in their sincere efforts to make understandable the mysterious ways of the divine. The Bible points us to salvation; to eternal life, to fullness of life, to transformation of our hearts and souls. It does so, with deep, inspired insights into the divine mind, and some acute descriptions and analysis of the complexities of human behaviour.

2. Progress happens when we take and reinvest the energy that fuels our superstitions, our magical thinking in something more profitable. This, my friends, can be very hard. I have mentioned before the rigid belief of my golf partners that because I am a minister, when I hit the ball into the trees, it rebounds onto the fairway far more often that theirs do. Even when I try to keep track of the good and bad bounces, they refuse to listen. You cannot shift prejudice with logic, and magical thinking is like a medal or security blanket, which by clutching to it, helps keep the ghosts at bay. We have to let it go.

3. We find new life when we embrace the positive compassion and care of the God who so loves the world, including you and I, that God is willing to forgo even a part of Godself for our sake. Stop asking fruitless questions like "What did I do wrong that caused me to have such bad luck?”. Stop amplifying negative attitudes and behaviour to the point where this is the only way you can explain your suffering. I love the story of Forest Gump, who whatever happened to him, took it without complaint and turned it into a positive. He never blamed himself. He never blamed others. He never blamed God. He simply said "Shit happens” and kept running forward. The gospel of love invites us to take a new look at who we are, and start living as if we actually deserve to be alive, actually deserve the good people around us. Start living as if God was on your side, instead of making every complaint come back to bite you.

4. Over Lent and Easter, we may profit from prayerful reflection on how Jesus actually saves us from our worst selves. The cross is not a magical act, but a deeply courageous, compassionate sacrificial demonstration of what it means to love. And when we finally grasp that, we will be inspired to respond to the giver of that love with compassion, mercy and love of our own.

It is my deep conviction that God does not want us to be helpless receptacles of a medal of talisman that we clutch in the darkness to save us from our fear. I am sure, on the basis, of the deep spiritual insight of John chapter 3 that God wants us to receive God’s abundant spiritual blessings, gifts of grace and sources of energy that we carry with us in our hearts wherever we go. And so we become the bearers of the spirituality we so eagerly seek. For, in the words of another writer called John, "Perfect love casts out fear”. AMEN


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