Pain is my teacher

“Pain is my teacher.” Say what? I said, pain is my teacher, not my friend. There’s a difference. A few days ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, running down my spine, preventing me to turn and bow my head properly. Yeah, prayer was almost impossible! So was humility.

This is not a post about S&M. I will leave that for later. I don’t like pain. Pain is not my friend. I fight pain. I try to kill it. Give me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and anything else I can throw at it, especially the strong, funky stuff.

I went to a massage therapist who asked me to sit with the pain and learn from it, as she was guiding me. Pain is an indicator, a signpost to many kinds of disfunction – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that I am not paying attention to. Pain invites me to pay attention and learn from it. Killing it is useful only because you need to function – I didn’t take time off work – but that is not enough.

That is so counterintuitive. Sit with the pain? Learn from it? Pay attention to it? No, no, kill it! Give me the big guns, kill it dead! And if we can’t kill it, distract from it. Right?

Well… no. The therapist’s invitation reminded me of several sermons I preached about the cross – namely about the requirement to pick up our cross daily if we are to follow Jesus. There is something about being a disciple that requires a different approach to pain.

I noticed my first reactions to that pain. I was angry and upset. “Why is this happening to me?” Notice I said it’s happening TO me, not that I did anything to cause it. No responsibility there. I rebelled against it, got angry with it, wanted it gone. I turned my pain into suffering, and not the good kind. I think we do that a lot with necessary pain: We turn it into unnecessary suffering by bitching and moaning about it, and refusing to take any responsibility for it or learn from it.

As part of the therapy, I was invited to sit with the pain, to pay attention to my body, to what it’s saying to me, to regain control over my muscles. That requires presence, and in this case it was painful. But only when I accepted the pain and began to pay attention did it begin to subside; not immediately, but soon after. When I realised, after paying attention, that I was doing all sorts of things that caused that pain, the pain began to make sense. On top of that, our bodies are depositories of emotion. Often we have to work very hard at being present to figure out the source of unaddressed pain. (Physical pain doesn’t always have a physical cause.)

Then I realised that a good minister, a good preacher will invite people to do the same with the pain that comes in their lives. They will teach and invite people to listen to their pain, to pay attention, to not run away from it or distract themselves from it. It is not enough to say to someone in pain that Jesus loves them. People may demand spiritual pain killers, and a minister may have to administer some of those. But that is not enough. They also need to be taught and lead sensitively in learning from their pain. Is this what Jesus meant by ‘the way of the cross’? I think it is, in an existential sense. We made the cross to be about setting ourselves up for being killed or victimised, as if we are actually looking for pain as an indicator of spirituality. That’s masochism, and not spirituality.

Pain is my teacher. Pain is not my friend. I’m not looking for it. But when it comes to me, it comes for a reason, to tell me something. “Have a seat, pain, let’s have some tea…”

Disciples panic, Jesus sleeps

Here’s my latest sermon on one of the biblical narratives where we miss the point by reading it through hollywood glasses: you know, a crisis is afoot and everyone is in trouble, here comes the superhero to save the day, and everybody lived happily ever after? You know the drill, right? See what you make of it!

Sermon – The ultimate Artist

John 1:1-18

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 2nd January 2011, Second Sunday after Christmas

My daughter's response to the sermon.

It is perhaps fitting to start the year with one of the most profound and baffling Biblical passages in the New Testament, especially when it starts with the words: “In the beginning”. It is also one of my all time favorites. If there was a holy of holies of Biblical texts, this would be it. I also love preaching about the Word made flesh, because I am passionate about bridging the gap between the spiritual world and the material world, and exposing this dualism farce that almost derailed Christianity in the last two centuries. It’s perhaps more of an obsession now, than a passion.

But this challenge of Christianity is nothing new, of course. The reason I thought last week’s passage was so important in reminding us that Jesus was Jewish, is that we often tend to look at Christianity through Greco-Roman lens, rather than through Jewish lens. This was a major problem in the first few centuries of the Early Church.

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Sermon – A Saviour is born

Luke 2:1-20

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 24th December 2010, Christmas Eve

Christmas is that time of the year when preachers usually go into imagination melt-down. Virtually every year at Christmas we have to preach from the same passage, so it is quite difficult to know what we can say that is new and fresh. Everyone knows about the baby born in a stable, the shepherds, the choir of angels, the wise men and so on. Is there anything surprising about Christmas anymore? Haven’t we already said everything that can be said about it?

Every year we hear that Christmas is not about pine trees and tinsel, or about buying and receiving gifts, but about the baby Jesus being born in a stable. We are urged to think about the Son of God being born into the world, and to not allow ourselves to get distracted by all the commercial hype around Christmas. That is a good message in itself, but it’s getting a bit old now and I have to admit I am getting tired of hearing it. It’s like a broken record. Is there anything new and surprising about the birth story of Jesus?

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Sermon – The Word became flesh

John 1:1-18
Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, January 3rd 2010 – Second Sunday of Christmas.

What a privilege it is for me to the one to preach the first sermon of the New Year! I’m very excited about this assignment, especially since it’s not immediately after Hogmanay, so we’re all fully awake, well rested, and ready for the new year. I can see the excitement and anticipation on your faces!

Of course, because it’s the first Sunday of the year, we are all thinking about what the new year will bring. Also, it’s the time for making new year resolutions. Any big plans this year? Anything exciting in store?

I’m never good at new year resolutions. I don’t like to make promises I know I will never keep. “Oh, this year I will not drink coffee. Just tea!” Yeah, right! Who are you kidding? “This year I will be nice to my wife, to my kids, to my parents, to my in-laws, to my supervisor…” Yeah, sure. We’ve heard that before! You can try, but you know you’re going to fail at some point. You see what I mean? Resolutions are very difficult.

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