Religious, Spiritual or Not; We’re Secure in the Grip of Grace: Rev. Dr. John T Mathew

These are days when people, without being part of a particular community of faith or organized religion, self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) or ‘spiritual but nor affiliated’ (SBNA). However, it is true that during the unremitting pandemic protocols, employees and employers to had to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission to protect yourself, your family and your community. Imagine our elderly confined to long term care homes or hospitals with no hope of seeing our loved ones! Three years in, a pandemic juggernaut created a global Intensive Care Unit where millions of humans are abandoned on the curb outside our houses of mercy.

Saint John reports that aneerie exercise at the pool of Bethesda circumvented a sick man for 38 years (John 5: 2-9). The transgressors are dawdling custodians and a vulpine angel. The paralytic’s brazen reply to Jesus’ no-nonsense grilling corroborates that the managers of the pool had fenced the outpatients off so that they would outmaneuver one another.

The sickness upended his life for decades; yet he was not let down, being thrown on the curb waiting for his turn. Pulling no punches Jesus asked: Do you want to get better? The strung-out patient chalked up to assail the daunting drill at the pool. In other words, ‘don’t point the finger at me, Jesus; lay the blame on the angel or the status quo.’ When Jesus de-spiritualized the healing process, the sick man complained about a depersonalizing arrangement. Jesus turned this healing story into an all-out assault on those who claim to be the healing agencies.

The severity of viral infections and vaccination programs alienated both abject and affluent nations where people are forced out of the tonic pool to bite the dust. For the hard-up being hurled into a hostile world, often flouted, is an albatross that bedevils all living creatures. Categorically we have no give-away of sacred secrets being let go into this life regarding time, place, gender, pedigree of cultural, social and religious walk of life.

The de-densification of worship places and the upsurge in remote participation and simulated interaction over the past couple of years has been onerous for both leaders and sponsors. The faithful are ditching the sanctuaries; pandemic malediction reminds us that we need our community to enjoy our being; our disgraced hubris to reject others is not helpful for our health and wellbeing. Snub, ostracism and public shaming are tools to cancel culture verdict to destroy human dignity.

The regimented Bethesda hangout gagged its adherents. Jesus launched a blistering attack on the hobbling holdovers in charge of the healing ministries. We travel intentionally with no final destination through life to figure out a journey of self-discovery. All living creatures go off the rails; all humans are peripatetic or on an outing of moving about from place to place; however, don’t we all have that proclivity to get lost, wander, go adrift.

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night
(William Blake)

A chauvinist snapped when a woman volunteered to represent her denomination at an ecumenical forum: ‘Keep her in her place’. The 21st century church clones the 19th century German system: ‘Let women adhere to the three K’s, – die Küche, die Kirche, die Kinder ’ (kitchen, church, and children). The church must denounce misogynists who promote subordination of women. The raison d’etre of a faith tradition is to create a Bethesda – house of mercy, a caring community for the faithful, never a carking club of control freaks. Jean-Paul Sartre’s play ‘No Exit’ reminds us: ‘Hell is other people.’

Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach predicts an ontological shift from faith to evolution.

‘Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night’

‘Thrownness’ began in the blissful Garden of Eden when the first couple were extirpated. Abraham and Sara walked off their sheltered turfdom. Their children were displaced slaves in Mizraim. Moses was thrown in the creek. Baby Jesus was flung into a forlorn Bethlehem in the dark Roman settlement, sent away as a child to Egypt and the people of Nazareth tried to throw him over a cliff. Finally, Jesus was hurled out of Jerusalem to be crucified in Golgotha – on an excruciating Roman device by losers – an introvert emperor Tiberius and a spiteful governor Pilate who did not know Yahweh or the immortals and deities of the ancient cultures.
Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay prods:

‘So, Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down today.
Nothing gold can stay’

In our ‘cancel culture’ sickness, an original social root canal, many good people were shown the door to captivity. King David was disciplined for bad behavior. St. John was exiled to Patmos, a forlorn island under emperor Domitian. Galileo advocated the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun. He was thrown into jail for life by Pope Urban VIII for charges of alleged heresy. Mahatma Gandhi was sentenced to six years in prison by the colonial rulers in his own native land. Martin Luther King Jr. was sent to jail because he led peaceful protests. Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison.

Jesus cherry-picked his twelve disciples; nonetheless he had a top brass of James, John and Peter who witnessed Jesus’ dazzling triumphs and his dismal trials. One megachurch pastor, who was ousted recently. told his unwary listeners that “heaven moves” and “angels pay attention” when he preaches!

We are informavores and we are informed of the rise and fall of empires, dynasties, civilizations, cultures, nations, ideologies etc. The claimed Holy Crusades massacred millions of people whose beliefs were not unholy but different. Imagine the millions slaughtered during colonisations of indigenous people! The number of the defeated is forgotten; however, we celebrate the memory of the victors. However, religious history is far more depressing than the history of humankind.

Sure, it is human to make mistakes, to miss deadlines, and to fall short. The sick man stoked distrust in the Jewish healing systems! His pushback did not make Jesus stand down.

The church, overladen with divisions, distortions and heresies, has gone on the fritz from the day of Pentecost. My first church history lessons unmasked granular details on the assassination of Cardinal Beaton, who had at least six children with his French mistress Marion Ogilvy.

Archbishop William Temple ordered his missionaries in India never to read the unfettering Song of Mary, the Magnificat, in public. Temple had known that his people were the mighty, proud, evil colonizers in Mary’s Song Luke 1:51-53, who ransacked, robed, raped and buried children and women all over the globe. Despite his sneaky suspicion of a tsunami-like power of Mary’s song in the world, little did Temple know that the first-century Nasaranis of Malabar had been singing the seismic song in their weekly liturgy centuries before the outsiders ‘discovered’ my backyard. Temple’s Raj wilted like lettuce within a thousand days!

Jesus who was busy breathing new life into broken and dying people could have avoided the sick man on the curb. The Hebrew word Beth- hesda means “house of mercy” or “house of grace.” In Hebrew and Aramaic, it could also mean “shame” or “disgrace.” We must choose either to be a house of mercy and grace or a house of shame and disgrace.

The healed man was grateful; however, the Jewish bureaucrats tried to snitch the healer on to the imperial authority. Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher championed the concept of geworfenheit (thrown-ness)

The 1960s classic song ‘Riders on the storm’ reminded us:

Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone,

About eight months in the thing called Corona, I was invited to give a Memorial Lecture on the future of the church in a post-pandemic world. Having learned of its lethal leverage, I said ‘No’. When disasters happen, it is human to hope for a quick-fix to hop over the messiness we created. All four Gospel aretalogies or ātmastuti recorded in third person do not mention a fight or flight situation Jesus ever set off. He did not evade the sick man the way I would nervously cross the street to avoid an unmasked pedestrian these days mimicking the priest and Levite. Nor did he vituperate the menacing management of the pool. Instead of dancing around an exigent situation, Jesus rushed to take care of a sick man.

When you feel either chucked out of the good graces of family and friends, remember that you are always in the divine grip of goodness and grace.

Don’t let Martin Heidegger’s thrownness (Geworfenheit) or Gautama Buddha’s duhkha (suffering), self-inflicted as well as imposed, determine or define who you are. Carl Yung had it right when he said, ‘I am not what happened to me; but I am what I choose to become.’ Jesus not only breaks into our sinuous life experiences but upholds all of heaven and earth together in the miracle of healing presence. Remember the sacred mythical bird Garuda known also as Phoenix keeps being reborn from its scorched nest.
Do you have any recollection of ever waking up during the night with an ambiguity that honed your numinous naïveté? We are distinctively outfitted with a plethora of healing energies to investigate such opacities to the hilt in life.

The primary role of religion is to help grapple with mysteries in life; certainly not to offer quick-fix answers to inexplicable queries on suffering, death or lethal virus infection.

After the Monsoon rains, the sunlit sky; after the sunset, the sparkly sky in the dark. When you get scared out of your wits, act in response with gratitude and share the good news with those who down and out so that they may receive energy and enthusiasm to move on.

For one, I got used to being thrown out all my life in academe and sacellum; thankfully the healer showed up and made me stronger to pick up my mat and walk away. We ought not slobber over or treasure anything to be irreplaceable.

Faith with no meaning and purpose is like success with no significance and spur in life. In our pandemic captivity, the religious healing pools ought not emulate the Bethesda admin which did not recruit and retain top talent. When we find ourselves waking up gasping for air on the edge of the pool, Jesus always shows up on time and intervenes with the promise of new life. The banished disciple in the lonely island of Patmos concludes his vision with an invitation: “Come, whoever is thirsty; accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it.”

This healing narrative ensorcelled me as I battled health issues in the cocoon of my early days. That’s when my mother helped me rustle up my endorphins by drubbing her own mantra of élan vital into me. ‘No one is snubbed on the curb to wilt away but everyone is kept secure in the grip of grace’! Learn to fly by the seat of your pants; shake a leg; 38 seconds might be forever so long to lie in wait in the shadows for an angel to show up!

The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada. Besides serving several urban and rural congregations in the province of Ontario, Canada since 1975, he also taught in the Department of Religious Studies, Huntington/Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. Mathew was awarded the Merrill Fellowship at Harvard University Divinity School; he was Pastor-Theologian at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ. He served at St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen (Church of Scotland) as Ecumenical Guest Minister (2010) and Interim Minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (2015-2017).


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