To God through the Roof
January 16, 2011
When they could not come to Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. And when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralysed man was lying.
Reading from Swedenborg
The idea that God “comes down” is very often used in the Word about God where there are phrases like “the Most High” or “God in the highest.” This though is language based on appearances or on the way it seems to us to be, for God doesn’t dwell in the highest but in the innermost things of life, and therefore in the Word “most high” and “innermost” are identical in meaning and interchangeable.
(Arcana Coelestia 1311)
If you know anything about AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), you’ll know that it’s a program of recovery based on twelve steps. The second of the twelve steps is about coming to believe that a higher power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. But the first step is admitting that we are powerless over our own addiction. The whole program has to do with recovery, and it follows a clear spiritual sequence that also openly keeps mentioning God. But AA people realise that some Jews are alcoholics—so are some Anglicans and Buddhists, of course, and atheists—so they use this powerful phrase “higher power” to deal with the idea of God.
It’s a great phrase, because it comes naturally to us to think about God being higher that we are ourselves, especially, of course, if you yourself have some kind of weakness or addiction or blind spot. We’re here, and God is up there. Or, perhaps even better, I know what I am like at times, and I also know there is a much better way of being, to do with love and goodness—an ideal, the ideal. I’m not anywhere near it myself, but I know it’s there, and because of the gap (mind the gap!) it feels like it’s up there on high. It feels like God or this ideal is literally higher than me.
Well, I wouldn’t quarrel with that, because it’s a very helpful model, especially if you are dealing with something like addiction. You look to something higher or to an ideal. We all do—you don’t have to have alcoholism for that. We all generally want to be a better kind of person, a better husband or wife, father or mother, friend, human being. We try hard, we do our best, and we set our sights. But the trouble with that is that we often fall short and see the discrepancy only too clearly. We all went to school and did exams in our first part of life, and we knew we could get an A+ but we got a B- or something like that, and we’ve been carrying that kind of idea ever since. So what I’m saying is that this idea lacks something. It’s not enough. It’s not “wrong,” but it’s only partly right.
Life is about being. Let’s just put it like that. If you say life is about being the right kind of person, it keeps this discrepancy going. You could say life is about being you, but that’s a bit of a worry too, because it sounds like just being what you’re like and how you feel, and that’s not right either. It’s partly right, though. Who you are is so important. So let me have a go at completing that sentence “Life is about being …” Life is about being who you are when you are reflecting, displaying, mirroring, manifesting, and being something which we call God. Notice I’m not now using this phrase “higher power,” just the word “God.” And while we certainly aren’t like that all the time or much of the time, we can be like that some of the time when we let ourselves be. It might be just ten seconds on a Friday afternoon or a moment of loveliness on a Tuesday. God comes through us in some way, and we are completely right. Now that is a good way of putting it—God comes through us. And just for a moment we are actually glorifying God, an idea we would normally run away from or deny we could ever do. “It’s too much like Jesus,” we say.
There’s a wonderful story of some ladies who were doing a Bible study on the book of Malachi (at the end of the Old Testament) and they read about God being like a refiner of silver. This puzzled them, so one of them said she’d find out what it meant. She went to a silversmith and asked if she could watch him. He took a wadge of silver and held it in a gas jet flame and watched it constantly. It got white-hot, and suddenly he took it out. She said, “Why do you watch it non-stop?” He said, “Because there’s a critical moment. Too early and it’s not ready; too late, and the silver’s spoiled.” She said, “How do you know when that moment is, then?” He said, “It’s easy. It’s when I can see my own image in it.”
Now I want to go back to that miracle of the paralysed man whose friends brought him to be healed by Jesus, but they couldn’t get in because of the crowd. So, they took him up on to the roof and made a hole and lowered him down to where Jesus was. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Wonderful. Ingenious. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Now, what we usually do with that miracle is link it with a kind of lateral thinking: “If you can’t get in one way, there’s another way. It’s to do with your mind. You must raise your mind and think higher up. If you do, you will see things differently, and then you will get in and be healed.”
Well, yes. That’s fine, and I have no problem with that. But it’s still in that area of the difference between where I feel I am and where I want to get to, that I mentioned earlier. To me, it’s still not quite enough. That explanation is saying that the roof is like our mind because the roof is higher and our mind can think higher, so we should change the way we think. We should stop thinking about all the problems there are (that’s the crowd at the door) and think about God leading and managing and guiding events providentially and bringing good out of every evil. If you do that, you will certainly have a better understanding, an accurate picture of life with a keen and true appraisal of things from a spiritual and rational consideration. And it’s good to have that, to see the unseen realities of life. But it’s a bit cold, intellectual, and thoughtful. The worry is that seeing it as you now do leaves you feeling you’ve got it. My relationship with the Lord is to come to understand Him.
Over the years I’ve come across books in which wise people—often ministers—have ruminated on the meaning of life. I’m afraid I call them “pipe-smoking whimsies.” It’s philosophy. We don’t do philosophy. We do living spiritual growth and change. We are based on the Lord who is present with us and in us. It’s called love and goodness—not our version of those, but the Lord’s power to give us His own love and goodness so that we have it—and even more, so that we actually feel it. How can we sing a hymn like “Be Still, for the Glory of the Lord is Moving in This Place” and only think about God as a set of theological statements?
So this miracle of the paralysed man and gaining access through the roof shouldn’t simply leave us thinking, “Aha, they raised their minds and got in from higher up, so we should too.” Perhaps the image is so strong that it’s all we sometimes take away from the story, but if we do, we’ve stopped halfway through the story and ignored several vital things. We’ve not really fully appreciated the point that Jesus is already there inside the house but can’t be got to. We’ve not really fully appreciated that the paralysed man eventually picks up his bed and, amazingly, walks to his own house free from paralysis. The roof bit took over. But these other things are perhaps even more important than the roof! The roof is simply the means to the end. Of course you can’t find God if you’re going round in circles saying, “Why me, why this, why now?” or wringing your hands over life’s unfairness, et cetera, et cetera. It’ll crowd the doorway. You need to find another way in. That new way is a means to the end— which, of course, is to be healed. And to be healed is to feel right because you’re feeling that God and you are now together. Not cosily, not intellectually, but completely. Jesus was always there inside the house. God is always there inside you, and when you discover that and feel it, you too can pick your bed up and walk to your own house. You are no longer paralysed.
But we even have to be careful about that— this feeling of being free from paralysis. I’ve been emphasising the limitations of ideas and thinking and philosophy, but I also need to point out the limitations of feeling that because your paralysis has gone, it’s going to stay like that for ever. That’s where some versions of the Christian message get out of balance. It’s the “evangelical crusades” approach: you have this deep conversion experience, and from then on it’s guaranteed and taken out of your hands. Sorry, but no. You are going to feel paralysed at some point again, maybe paralysed with some new fear or feeling, and you’ll need to go up on to the roof again and down into the house to re-find God, and you, and you and God. And you’ll do that regularly. It’s a process. And maybe as you repeat the process, it will get a bit easier because you know the need. But you’ll always be doing it. If you go to AA, you’ll meet alcoholics who know they are always going to be alcoholics, but their success is in knowing that’s how it is for them, now and now and now.
We’re told that when we think of God as “highest,” it’s just a way of putting it because it appears like that to us; really God is innermost. Isn’t that helpful? God is always right here. I have a theory about this healing of the paralysed man. When he was healed, Jesus said, “Arise, take up your bed and go to your own house.” And we think, “Off he went, down the road.” But perhaps it helps to think that the house where the healing happened was the man’s house and he went round to the door after he was healed, saw the crowd, felt paralysed by that, got taken up on the roof and down to Jesus, healed and told to pick up his bed and go to his own house, so he went round to the door and so on—over and over and over again. Now that makes sense. Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth