Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church,July 27 2014

Diving Deep: The Inner Work of the Spirit
[Matthew 12:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39]

            Last week we meditated on the middle part of Paul’s discussion of what it means to be children of God & what it means to follow the Spirit’s guidance.  We learned that we can’t avoid suffering, because it is a necessary prerequisite for experiencing God’s glory. Today we conclude our study of Roman’s 8, the climax of what it means to the Apostle Paul to be LOVED BY GOD.  This passage is the “prime rib” of Paul’s letter to the Romans. As we digest this passage, we are diving into the deepest waters of Christian faith.  Let us pray.
            Lord God, we confess upfront we’re afraid to dive into spiritually deep water where we are over our heads and cannot touch the bottom. We avoid the deep inner work of the Holy Spirit, because we must encounter ourselves, unmasking our false selves:  our ego, our ambitions, our insecurities. We have to take off the masks we wear every day to see what you see. You already know us as we truly are, but we are afraid to look.  Nothing is hidden from you, O God. Give us the courage to dive into the deep, knowing you will catch us, hold us, and cleanse us. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
            When you have tried your hardest and failed, when you are at your wit’s end and are ready to throw in the towel of your faith, when circumstances continue to block your progress and you feel empty and unfulfilled,. Romans 8:26-39 is God’s GIFT to you. It is your rock to stand on, your shoulder to cry on.  It is a life-line, a hope chest, an indestructible inheritance. Thanks be to God.  Let’s look at this GIFT Paul offers us.
            Romans 8:26 begins where people in AA and NA and other 12 Step Movements begin:  I am powerless.   I’ve tried my best and failed over & over again.  Paul writes:  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” 
            The Spirit begins working, when we acknowledge our powerlessness.  When we finally say:  I don’t know how or what to pray.  I’m finished. I’m done. I’ve tried everything I know to do. Nothing works.  At that moment in our lives, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
            Until you have REALLY FAILED at something in your life, you don’t know what this Scripture means. It’s pretty hard to get to my age without having failed miserably at something somewhere.  Perhaps it’s a marriage, a death in the family, the untimely loss of physical health or employment, or the betrayal of a friend.  You come to a moment in your life when you LITERALLY CANNOT EVEN PRAY.  And then… Paul tells us… the very Spirit of God intercedes on your behalf with sighs too deep for words.
            And God listens. God knows our hearts and knows the mind of the Spirit, but what does it mean for the Spirit to intercede according to the will of God?  The Spirit prays for what is truly BEST for us, something we cannot even imagine and certainly do not know how to ask for.  The Spirit doesn’t want us to have a “temporary fix” to tide us over until we are empty again. The Spirit seeks the highest and the best for us, according to God’s will.    
            In Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water, which compares the spirituality of Jesus with the Twelve Steps, Richard says Jesus always went where the pain was in his ministry.  “Wherever there was human suffering Jesus was concerned about it now, and about its healing now.”   Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, noted that most human beings run from pain, rather than facing it.  Powerlessness, or the condition of being “shipwrecked” spiritually is not a condition anyone wants to embrace, so we don’t.  Bill Wilson calls it a state of “denial.”  It’s the “I’m fine” response most of us give when someone asks:  “How are you?”
            Wilson says most human beings are not able to be transparent and honest about their inner beings, so all of the pain and negatives in our lives get buried in the unconscious.  If we truly want to experience the liberation we talked about as children of God last week, God’s Spirit needs to reach that hidden level of our lives, the unconscious, the buried pain, or nothing really changes.  If we do not allow God to go “deep” – with the Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words, all of our “religiosity” is just something we “wear” – it is not who we are, because we haven’t allowed God to touch us that deeply. We haven’t allowed God to heal the buried pain, which Carl Jung and Richard Rohr call our “shadow selves.”  It is in the depths that healing takes place.
            When we finally, finally get to this place of letting go of the steering wheel of our own lives, of letting go of control, letting go of our tight grip on what we think is right and of our own rightness, something beautiful & amazing happens to us, which the Spirit’s sighs & deeper-than-words prayers unleash in our lives. And that is described by Paul in Romans 8:28:  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Is it possible the worst failures in our lives are actually our greatest blessings?  Is it possible to eventually say: “Thank God for that terrible pain and tragedy in my life, for without it I would never have known the depth, breadth and width of God’s love for me?”  Had I never been thrown into that dark abyss, I would never have known what it feels like to be “caught by God” in the middle of that frightening freefall?
            When David and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I was in that kind of abyss – an abyss of anger – of having lost a job I had thrown my whole self into – in a way that felt unjust & undeserved.  The partnership ministry we were sharing as Co-Regional Liaisons for South Asia was cut short by circumstances beyond our control.  David was “hired up” as Asia Coordinator and I was ignored & treated as invisible by the people who I thought were my people, by the people I trusted and served.  That anger boiled & simmered until I finally had the opportunity to sit down with three people I once trusted to honestly share the pain for which they were partly responsible.
            They listened. I talked. I acknowledged that I needed to share this anger in hopes that I could put the anger in a box and set it on a shelf and move on with my life.  One of the three, a friend of David’s, said reflectively:  “I wonder how many boxes of anger I am sitting in on the shelves of peoples’ lives.”  I appreciated his acknowledgement of his “role” in my career.  They listened for three hours. In that honest, painful encounter, God began the work of healing in my life.
            In that freefall experience of “losing myself” – I was swimming in deep water with no place to put my feet, but God sent me “new people” to be my people and eventually brought me here to St. Pauls as your pastor.  David longed for the day when I would no longer be “angry” – it was a difficult period in both our lives. For months I stubbornly declared I would NEVER thank God for that experience, and yet today I can and do thank God for it.
            In the rear view mirror I see God’s promise fulfilled:  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” 
            I hate to tell you this, but we are not conformed to the image of God’s Son through our successes: through our numerical increases, through our “winning” of converts to our cause, but through our losses, our failures, and our deaths to our own egos and agendas.
            The Good News is this: once we experience such losses, the Spirit’s sighs too deep for words become the wind in our sails, because once we “lose everything” and make that “leap of faith” – diving into the depths without a life preserver – we learn firsthand the words of Romans 8:31ff:  “If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
God catches us, holds us and heals us in those profound experiences of vulnerability! Now the Risen Christ, sitting at the right hand of God is praying for us.  What more could we possibly need???
 “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword…..  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This promise only becomes fact for us when dive deep beneath the surface of our own lives. When we are able to face our own shadow selves and leap off the ledge into the arms of Christ.
Frankly friends, I’ve leaped many times into God’s unknown: flying to Korea to start my married life in a completely different culture with absolutely no known support system in place, taking three young girls to Pakistan with absolutely no known support system in place, leaving two daughters in America indefinitely by following God’s call to India without knowing whether they would sink or swim. In each case I have not regretted it when I look at my life through the rearview mirror.
Some of you heard Rebecca Young’s stories on Thursday night. She was mesmerizing, radiant with the love of Christ, full of good news about her work at the seminary in Jakarta, Indonesia. She talked about how the “tsunami” on Sumatra island, actually brought peace to warring tribes, as they discovered their common humanity and vulnerability.
 What you didn’t see or hear was what she confided to us before her program. She has been experiencing such pain and rejection in the past 2 or 3 years, that she is asking:  “Is God rejecting me? What is God trying to teach me?”  David and I simply listened, ached in our own hearts that a child of God, this beautiful, called and equipped to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ would have to suffer so deeply in her inner being. And yet, the Holy Spirit will continue to work EVEN THIS for good in her life, because she DOES love God and IS called according to God’s purpose.  Without diving deep, healing is only skin deep.  Will you join me in walking to the ledge…will you dive deep into the abyss of your own life and let God catch you, hold you, heal you?
Let us pray.

 

           

 

Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, (Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), xvii.