Sunday Sermons continue

Today I am going to address a common if perplexing phenomenon of our human experience. It happens when we seem to going along in our lives quite happily, or if not, at least coping quite well. We then arrive at a place where we suddenly get stuck. Our usual coping mechanisms seem to no longer work, and it as if there is no acceptable way forward. At best, this is a time of disquiet; at worst, an experience of significant desperation.

The renowned psychiatrist Karl Jung gives some insight into this experience when he says that the answers to the critical questions of our lives change as we move from the first half of life to the second. This is based on the insight that the tasks of our earlier lives are focussed around our outward journey- growing up, starting out on our own, working, earning a living, perhaps establishing a new family, and so on. These tasks require a lot of our energy and focus, and do not necessarily leave a lot of time and space for inner reflection. Whether or not we succeed in attaining all of the things we are striving for, we come to a time when the resources we have for this journey are no longer sufficient to keep us going.

People such as Richard Rohr have described this process in terms of a typical male spiritual journey, where the so-called mid-life crisis is one sign that something has changed. Former solutions no longer work. It is like a lock has been changed but we still have the old key; or that the goalposts have shifted. Rohr now realises that this is not purely a male experience. Women also go through it, though perhaps sometimes in a different way.

A typical way in which this experience can be felt is as an impasse; when we get stuck in our crisis, come to a critical fork in the road, and it seems that whatever way we choose to move forward, the pain and loss will be unbearable. The way this impasse is finally resolved makes all the difference in the world to our journey onward from there.

Mark tells us a story about a man who had an encounter with Jesus at this very crucial point in his life. He begins: "As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him.? (10:17). Let us immediately dispel the first assumption that has grown around this story. The commentary in the latest Insights magazine says " Here is a story about a wealthy young man?? I cannot find a reference to the man being "young?, either in this account, or in the parallel passages in Matthew, which calls the person "someone?, or Luke, who calls the person "a certain ruler?.

Does it matter? I think so. My estimate is that the man is either 42 or 43. I say this from my experience and observation about the stage when many men fall apart. I do not think that the typical "young? man, intent on his outward journey of both making money and keeping the law, would be having the doubts of the man who came to Jesus. They typically come a bit later, at a time when all seems nicely in place and secure, and then the unsettling question comes creeping in- as it did for tennis star Christine Evert at the end of her playing career, when she asked plaintively "Is this all there is??

Note the urgent, anxious tone of the narrative- he "ran? up to Jesus. This is no idle chat. This is a pressing need. And, he "knelt? before Jesus. This is a sign that he knows that in spite of his committed adherence to the law, there is a crucial question to which he does not have the answer. (This humility is not typical of the young.) And he senses that Jesus just might be able to enlighten him.

As I reflect on my own early Christian life, I see the parallels with this man?s journey.

My Christian conversion was based, not on an emotional, or spiritually spectacular experience, but a logical assessment of the claims of Christ on a person?s life- the call to follow him. I had to decide at that time to reject other ways, such as a career that would potentially leave me rich and comfortable, in order to follow a more self-sacrificial path. The biblical texts that were front and centre at the time were ones like Mark 8:34b-35 "?if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.? I revelled in the writings of theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?s "The Cost of Discipleship?. I loved his scorn for the concept of "cheap grace?. My early preaching really had only one theme, albeit dressed up in all sorts of ways to fit the occasion, and that was "commitment??. There was nothing biblically wrong with the message, and it probably helped some people, but I assumed that everyone else needed to have the same focus as me.

In my enthusiasm, in the first few months as a probationer minister, I sent out a pastoral letter which contained an exhortation to the whole address list that church membership was about the need to have an active commitment to the life of the church. The poor fellow who came shortly afterward to conduct our stewardship campaign nearly had a fit, because some people felt judged and alienated at the very point when we were about to ask them for a pledge of money for the next three years.

The first time my "commitment? obsession got the wobbles was when I found that, in spite of my deep feelings about the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, I could no longer stay there and fight. My final sermon, addressed to the theological student body at Rhodes was entitled "Commitment- the intractable hobby horse?. It was a confession that I could not stay on the journey that I had been calling on others to commit to.

The next such crisis came when, at age 42, other crucial commitments fell by the wayside. That was when things really fell apart, and I was driven to my knees in more ways than one.

Jesus, probably has fair insight into the heart of the anxious rich man kneeling before him. In answer to the plaintive question "What must I do to attain eternal life?, Jesus innocently lists for him some of the commitments that a devout Jew would be expected to adhere to in order to remain part of God?s kingdom. "But teacher, I have kept all of these since my youth.? The outward signs are all in place. What is driving this man?s discontent is coming from deeper within.

I do not want us to get too hung up on Jesus? response to the man about giving away all of his money. Most people look at this and agree that it all seems to hard, and find ways to rationalise their need to keep a healthy balance in the bank. The real issue here, as far as I can tell, is not primarily about wealth, but about running up against something in our life that we cannot get past. Hence, the mid-life impasse. The committed man hears the call to follow down a road that just seems too hard.

The next bit is crucial, hinting, improbably, to the way forward. Mark tells us that "When he heard this he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.? (10:22)

Behold, another assumption- that by this action, the anxious man shows that he had decided that he cannot do what Jesus asked of him. But the text does not say this! It says that he went away shocked and grieving because he was wealthy. Does that mean he is grieving the inability to carry through with his commitment, or does it mean that he was grieving the letting go of what had formerly given meaning and purpose and security to his outward journey?

A critical question here for us, when we face such an impasse, is ?What do I need to let go of in order to fully embrace new life in all its fullness. What is getting in the way of my progress in the life of the kingdom??

I have not lost hope for the rich man in this story. It is common for people to have to sit in this difficult space for quite a while before they can move on. Counsellors commonly see people who can only make the necessary changes when it becomes absolutely impossible to stay any longer in the former untenable space. This is normal human behaviour. He may well have been able to successfully grieve the loss of the security of his wealth, in order to be free to reinvest his energy following more closely in the way of Jesus.

Nor can anyone really predict how we or anyone else are going to resolve the impasse that arises when we feel an inner impulsion to move on to new and abundant life. Some people make it. Some do not. Some rise up and follow. Others hang on to the old ways. Now that might sound a bit fatalistic, but there is yet one more jewel in this passage of scripture that gives hope to even the most intractable of dilemmas. When Jesus reflects with his disciples on how hard it is for a rich person to let go of the attachment to their wealth, their despairing response is "Then who can be saved? In this response thy show that they have seen that it is not just attachment to wealth that is the stumbling block, but that everyone has some sort of attachment issue or another, like the stumbling block of the rich man, which, on the face of it, seems impossible to get past.

Then Jesus proclaims the good news: "For mortals it is impossible, BUT NOT FOR GOD. For God, all things are possible.? (10:27)

Here is an insight for which we also need to thank the apostle Paul, who himself, a committed Pharisee, needed to be knocked off his high horse in order to see the truth about Jesus. We are actually, in the end, saved by grace. Our commitment to the ways of good, such as the commandments, can get us quite a long way, But at the crucial point, when our ego energy fails us, when we come running up to Jesus, anxious and out of answers, the good news is this "My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is sufficient for our weakness?. It is then that we can begin to relax, like a new swimmer who has just found out that the water can hold them, and be free to embrace the way of Jesus without the old encumbrances.

And, since God knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts; since all our struggles are laid bare before the divine presence, "Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.? (Hebrews4:16)

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