Leaf Peeping

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecc. 3:1

One of the pleasures of living in a region in which the seasons change is experiencing the beauty that each season offers. There are few things more pleasurable than driving through New Jersey farmland in October. Corn stalks are tall and changing. The trees are changing. Rich earth tones transform the landscape: reds, copper, yellow. It’s a season for leaf-peeping, for stopping at farm stands, for purchasing fresh apple-butter, pumpkins, gourds.

One of the paradoxes of the season though, is that its beauty is actually due to the dying of the leaves. Shorter days and cooler temperature result in a process called senescence. There is an increase in enzymes that break down the leaf’s cells. There is less chlorophyl causing the green to fade. Other pigments become prominent, carotenoids, tannins, and anthocyanins, producing the brilliant red, yellow, purple, and brown colors. Slowly the leave’s veins close down. The leaves separate from the branches and fall to the ground.

Autumn has its own unique beauty. Its beauty is also a reminder of what Buddhists name impermanence. Nothing remains the same forever. Everything changes. Each transition, each season, has its own beauty. One thing passes away, and in its passing, gives birth to something new.

The teacher of Ecclesiastes begins to reflect on life with the observation that for everything there is a season. Life does not stop. It ebbs and flows. To cling too tightly to the present moment makes it more difficult to receive the gift hidden in the next. Such is the nature of the life we are given. One challenge that comes with being human: to embrace and fully enjoy the beauty of what is, knowing that it will inevitably change, to remain open to the beauty of what will come next.

We enter the season of the harvest. The work of ploughing, planting, tending, watering, waiting is over. Growth is full. It is time to gather.

Soon winter will be here. Then Spring returns, and summer.

Faith teaches that God is in every moment and in every season, that in God nothing is lost forever.

Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

A New Mind

Jesus Christ Crucifix

Image via Wikipedia

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom. 12:2

With this verse Paul makes a transition from writing about theology, ideas about God, to a discussion about how Christian people are to live. Finally, to be a Christian is not primarily about our ideas about God, but about a way of life informed and inspired by the reality that God has come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to be Christian involves a transformation of the mind, so that one is able to see, know, discern, and one hopes actually do, what is the will of God.

Paul writes that the mind is to be renewed, made new, brought alive. The mind here is not something located in our brains, the thing we think with.  It is the center of our selves. It is the seat of our personalities. It is where our feeling, thinking, and willing come together. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is a call to be completely changed and made new, from the inside out. Only through and inside that process, can we begin to see what is good.

Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ, identifies three different transformations that the Spirit works in us: from fear to trust; from arrogance to humility; from autonomy to service. He suggests we are converted from fear to trust as our faith in God becomes a source hope and confidence in life as a whole. We move from arrogance to humility as we wake up to the fact that we are not the center of the universe, and the servant love of Jesus takes root in us. We move from autonomy to obedience as we realize that serving the love of God in this world brings much more joy and satisfaction than being a servant of our desires. (As Bill Coffin wrote: there is no smaller package than a person all wrapped up in him or her self.)

Paul writes, and I would affirm, that apart from that transformation, we are not able to see or do the will of God. We can only operate out of our desires, experience, and prejudices. Our biases act like glasses through which we view the world. We have our buttons and people tend to push them. This is why Jesus warns us not to try to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye; we have a bean in our own, clouding our vision. Jesus and Paul promise that God will cleanse our eyes, transform our minds, enabling us to see more clearly what is good and pleasing to God. Paul places that before us as the ongoing transformation within the life of a believer.  It is the work of the Spirit within us. It is our challenge to work with and not hinder that work.

Life in church is one important way that we help each other become transformed people. Regular weekly worship, time in prayer and reflection, time serving others, sharing in Christian conversation, all are vehicles through which the Spirit touches and renews us.  I am grateful to each and every person who has helped me in my faith walk. It is my prayer that we continue on this wonderful path together.

See you in church,

Pastor Bill

Moving Toward Easter

c. 1632

Image via Wikipedia

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!” Luke 23:42

I remember visiting a woman I in a nursing home many years ago.  It was my first visit with her. I introduced myself saying: “Hi Mrs. Smith, I’m Pastor Bill, the new associate at your church.” I will never forget her response. She turned toward me with tears in her eyes and said: “How good it is that someone remembers my name! How good it is that someone from outside this place remembers my name!”

She was the last surviving member of her nuclear family. Her children lived a number of states away and did not get to visit with her very often. It was so important to her that she had not been forgotten, that her church, someone from her church, someone from the outside world remembered her, and called her by name. She was not forgotten.

One of the most celebrated attributes of God is that God remembers. In the third chapter of Exodus God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) God remembers all three. God remembers their names. God hears the cries of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God will redeem them. (Ex. 3:7-10)

Many years later, when Israel is in exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel feel abandoned, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:15-16) The people of Israel have not been forgotten. Their names are carved in the palm of God’s hand. God will redeem them.

From the cross a thief cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He will not be forgotten. From the cross Jesus promises redemption. He will not forget.

There is a real difference between dis-membering and re-membering. To dis-member something is to take it apart. It is to separate the parts from the whole. To be dis-membered is to be removed from the group, the community, to be cast off, to be forgotten. The work of Jesus is re-membering. Jesus remembers, restores, redeems, makes whole.

The Gospel is packed with stories of Jesus going to, touching, healing, and remembering people who have been dis-membered, cut off, pushed to the margins of society. He touches lepers and cleanses them. He hears the cry of the poor and the blind. He heals the sick, claims prostitutes and tax collectors, remembering that they too are children of God. One of the earliest Christian hymns (Phil. 2:5-11) celebrates that Jesus takes the form of a slave, the most oppressed and forgotten of all people, so that no one is lost, or left behind, or forgotten. From the cross he promises to remember the thief crucified next to him.

We are living in tumultuous times. We can begin to feel as if we are forgotten. But the good news of the Gospel is that we are not forgotten. We are moving toward Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is the story of how far God goes to remember and restore us. Jesus goes all the way to a place so dark it is called the place of the skull. He even enters the grave, the darkness of death. And God remembers and raises him from the grave! His victory is our victory! God would have it that no one is forgotten or left behind. And that is good news!

Pastor Bill

Why Worship?

Remember flight, The bird is mortal

Image by HORIZON via Flickr

Worship is perhaps the most important act of the church. It is true that there are many other things of importance in which the church is involved, and must be: works of mercy, feeding the hungry, serving the homeless, visiting the sick, working for justice, education, nurture, teaching, etc.  But worship uniquely defines the church, and all other work flows out of its worship. But why worship?

Stephen Dunn is a marvelous poet who frequently writes about his struggles with religion. In one of his poems he develops an image of worship and comments on it in a way that I think speaks for many people I have met. If this is the image of worship which they hold, then I can understand why they would prefer to avoid church. He writes:

“For birds salvation isn’t very complicated –

a good meal or two, a few life or death maneuvers

in hostile skies. And how lovely that they don’t

need an invisible Bird-of –All-Birds to bring

twigs and worms to, that they aren’t supplicants

before their own creation.

That error seems to be exclusively ours.”

(from “The Mistaken,” Stephen Dunn, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 191)

I love Dunn’s poetry He enters deeply into the mind and heart of the contemporary experience. He embraces life in all of its concreteness. So it is that he applauds the simplicity of birds because they are fulfilled simply by being birds, without any need for what he considers to be a constructed and imaginary reality beyond this one.  The live out of who they are. That is salvation enough.

Worship then, at least in this poem, is a somewhat silly act of bowing before and offering sacrifices to something that is not real. It diminishes the worshiper. It is as if to worship is to apologize for the simple fact that we are alive. It is an “error” that Dunn says “seems to be exclusively ours.”

Worship as I experience it, is something quite different. I am not diminished by my worship. I am enlarged by it. I do not fall down to apologize for my existence, but come before a beauty and mystery that draws me into itself and fills me with awe. In worship I enter a space in which I discover that life itself is deeper, more mysterious and wonderful than I have imagined it to be. In worship I discover that I am more than who I imagined myself to be; I open to the deepest realms of the Spirit, which are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity.

Christian theology proclaims that God is love. In worship I connect my life to the center of all things, which is the very essence and fire of love. And I do it with and in the presence of others.

There are two other contemporary poets who express things much closer to my experience. I share with you some of what they write.

One is Denise Levertov. The poem I would share is “Primary Wonder.” She writes:

“Days pass when I forget the mystery.

problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then

Once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything at all,

let alone the cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than the void: and that, O Lord,

Creator, Hallowed One, You still,

hour by hour sustain it.”

(“Primary Wonder.”, from Denise Levertov,  Denise Levertov: Selected Poems, a New Directions Book, 2002, 192.)

With Levertov, there are those moments when suddenly I am drawn into the mystery of God who  sustains all things. Worship is not a forced apology for my existence, but a deep breath in which I breathe in something of the holy.  In worship I find myself caught up in the One who is larger and more beautiful.

Mary Oliver is another poet who speaks powerfully of her faith. She writes:

“Lord, I will learn also to kneel down

into the world of the invisible,

the inscrutable and the everlasting.

Then  I will move no more than the leaves of a tree

on a day of no wind,

bathed in light,

like the wanderer who has come home at last

and kneels in peace, done with unnecessary things;

every motion; even words.”

(from “Coming to God: First Days,”  Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press,2006, 23.)

Again, as is it is for Levertov, worship is not a diminishment, but an enlargement of life, and a celebration. It is the deep breath taken in awe before great beauty and in the presence of something sacred and holy.

Worship is the most important thing we do as a church. In worship we come with awe before the beauty of God who calls all things into being and sustains them in love. Everything else we do flows out of our worship. We breathe in. We breathe out. We worship. We serve. And we do it together publically.

My prayer is that we come together often in worship. It is a gift.

I wonder how Stephen Dunn would respond to Thomas Merton, who once wrote in his journals that the cow grazing in the field praises God by being perfectly itself.

Pasor Bill

Work for Peace

9.11

Image by drp via Flickr

In truth, I struggle each year as Sept. 11 approaches. The day begs that something be done to remember and to respond to the evil and tragic violence acted out almost ten years ago. The question is how do we do that and do it well? What do we do?

Clearly the day has special significance for those who lost loved ones, friends, and neighbors that day. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers.

That day violence was no respecter of persons. People of many religions and none, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, agnostics and atheists, people from many nations and cultures, all died because of this act of hatred and terrorism. And the circle of violence expands. We all were wounded.

I am convinced that the best way to honor this day is to stand as clearly as I can against all forms of terrorism and everything that feeds it: fear, pride, intolerance, racism, repression, enmity, hatred, and violence itself. I am also convinced that the place in which I must first take this stand is in me.

Kierkegaard concludes his wonderful book The Works of Love by observing that the place where the battle for love is most difficult and must be fought with intensity is in our hearts. It is not in the world where the battle line is drawn: it is drawn in us. We become people who love, or we will never love as we should.

He is not arguing for a passive stance in the world until we reach some inward spiritual perfection, but rather he is observing that the root of hate, violence, and indifference is in us. And there we must fight for love.

The same is true if we are to be people of peace. We must do the things that are necessary in our communities. But we cannot neglect the inward, inner, spiritual work. The way to fight terrorism is to work for peace. To work for peace we must become people of peace. What Mahatma Gandhi once said remains true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I have no great wisdom of my own, so I share with you a few words on peace that come to mind as I remember Sept. 11. I hope they touch and challenge you as they do me.

From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“I’ve decided that I’m going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe in something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”

“I’m convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never ending reign of chaos.”

“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

(Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Newmarket Press, 1987, 71, 90)

From Thomas Merton:

“Only love, which means humility, can exorcise the fear that is at the root of all war.”

“Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men, and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

(Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, Crossroads, 1995, 34, 38)

Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Aware of the sufferings caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning the ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation , social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness  and learning ways to work for the well being of (all life)…I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of the other species of the planet.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others, and to relieve others of their suffering.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax Press, 2008, chapter 2.)

Jesus of Nazareth: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”  Matt. 5:9

How might we honor this day? Let us remember and pray for all who lost their lives that day, and in the wars that followed. Let us pray and work for the end to the senseless violence and acts of terrorism.  Let struggle against everything that feeds such violence in others, and especially in ourselves.

Miroslav Volf, who lived through the ethnic violence in Serbia, writes: “A more difficult question remains: what resources will help us resist the temptation of violence.”   (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 249.)

It is a question each of us must answer.

Albert Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Norman Cousins: “I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in, in terms of the life I lived and what I did.” (Howard E. Robles, compiler, Reverence for Life: the Words of Albert Schweitzer, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 41)

How might we best honor the day? By deciding like Schweitzer, that we will make our lives an argument for peace.

Pastor Bill

A Letter from The United Methodist Bishops on 9/11: http://www.gnjumc.org/fileadmin/news_events/letter_from_bishop_archives/Statement_September_11_2010__2_.pdf

To access the letter: copy and paste the address in your browser.

When There Are No Burning Bushes: The Absense of God

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

Image via Wikipedia

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. — Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979[1]

In my last post I wrote about those wonderful moments in which God feels so close that we can feel God’s presence in our bones. I also wrote that I thought the difference between us ordinary folk and the great saints is that for them the world is filled with burning bushes and the reality of God is transparently, perhaps blindingly clear.

I have thought about that a little more. I have realized that that is not quite true. The great saints of the church often speak and write about another religious experience, often devastating,  but no less real: a spiritual dryness in which God is nowhere to be found.

I remember first waking up to the reality that the spiritual life is not always joyful or exciting. I have shared about the many years that I denied God and the joy of returning to a life of spirit and worship. I was so excited I was insufferable. I could not pass by a church without walking inside to see the sanctuary and spend time in prayer. On my days off I would visit Catholic churches, and would literally spend two and three hours in prayer. I was driving my wife a little crazy.

Then suddenly something changed. I started getting bored and restless. I could not sit more than fifteen minutes in prayer before getting fidgety. I went to my Priest, Father Immanuel, and asked him about it. I thought maybe I had lost whatever it was that I had found. I didn’t understand why my prayer time felt so empty, or why church no longer excited me. He laughed, and said “Good. Maybe now God can use you!”

Father Immanuel taught me something I had not known at that time: our relationship with God  is  exactly that: a relationship. It goes through the same kinds of phases that our human relationships go through. Just like falling in love with my wife, I had fallen in love with God. The first exciting flush of romance had come to an end. Now came the building of something with more substance, something enduring, something that required commitment, endurance, faithfulness. Both in my relationship with my wife and in my relationship with God, there are wonderful moments when romance is real, but there is something deeper that endures and is richer: real love, person to person, person for person.

We’ve all known people who fall in love with love rather than with a person. When the initial flush of romance recedes, they begin to look elsewhere for that emotional high. Some people go from relationship to relationship, chasing that feeling, the excitement of romance. Sadly, they may never experience the beauty of mature love. Romance is fun, but real love, mature human love, is intended to be directed toward the person, not the emotional high of romance.

Life, love, and faith all include harder, more difficult, and even tragic experiences.

Richard Felix writes about the last years he spent with his wife, Vivian, who died from cancer. In a wonderful book The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God, he writes candidly about the emotional and spiritual turmoil of the experience. He quotes from Vivian’s diary:

I am trying to rejoice and praise you in the midst of my difficulties and fears, but at the same time I don’t like it and I want everything to go back to how it used to be – When all was well with my world. Now my world and my future are different. I will live with cancer as a reality for the rest of my life.[2]

We know that these things are devastatingly real. We can wonder where God is in the middle of all of this. Some find God very close. For others, God seems distant, if not absent. We can feel angry at God, disappointed and even betrayed. For many, the reality of suffering makes belief in God difficult if not impossible.

Mature faith, faith that endures, must somehow grapple with the reality of suffering, our own, and that of others. Mature faith even challenges us to embrace the suffering of others in the work to end it; there is where God’s love needs to be expressed and experienced most.

The mystery we inhabit includes the reality that God does not protect us from suffering, but rather walks through it with us. It is often in suffering where God is most present, even when we are not able to see, feel, or sense it. Something deep in us and in our relationship with God changes when we discover God with us in the middle of the dark and even tragic experiences.

Vivian wrote in her diary: “Jesus I cling to your cross – if this is your cross, let me take it joyfully and be worthy of the cross you have chosen for me.” [3] I don’t know that I have her vision or courage, but I hope I can learn from her, and others I have met like her.

Even apart from the tragic side of life, those who seriously pursue a spiritual life experience those periods in which God simply seems far away, and prayer itself is difficult and without consolation. The saints like Mother Teresa write of devastating periods of spiritual darkness. St John of the Cross wrote an extended prayer/poem on this side of the spiritual life titled “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

I do not consider myself to be anything close to saintly, or to be a model of the spiritual life. I am an ordinary pastor trying to be faithful and to serve the church. Please know that I do experience periods in my spiritual walk, sometimes extended periods, in which my prayer life feels dull and is difficult. It feels as if I am talking to myself. Studying scripture is dry. Church is good, but not terribly exciting. I would guess that those who read this know what I am talking about.

Most of the great spiritual writers say that this is normal, to be expected, and is perhaps even an important experience through which we mature in faith and grow closer to God. Periods in which there are no burning bushes to be found, when God feels painfully absent, are woven into the texture of our spiritual lives.

Gerald May, another writer on the spiritual life suggests that this experience is essential, if we are to grow closer to the living God, rather than stay attached to images we carry with us that need to be left behind. He writes:

It is not God who disappears, but only our concepts and images, and sensations of God. This relinquishment occurs to rid us of our attachment to those idols and to make possible a realization of the true God who cannot be grasped by any thought or feeling. At the time though, it seems like abandonment or even betrayal.[4]

These periods of spiritual dryness are important to our spiritual maturity and growth. Old things must give way to new. They are times of purging and pruning.

The same way caterpillars enter a chrysalis phase, and snakes shed their skins, to mature in faith we have to shed what no longer fits, to let go of some things we hold dear,  to change. We cannot stay locked into the same images and experiences of God; God is more than all of them. We cannot cling to our feelings. We must learn to cling to God. Maturing is not always easy.

What are we to do when we are experiencing spiritual dryness? Most recommend being gentle with ourselves. They advise not forcing ourselves to do more than we are able to, but to continue with our prayer, our worship, our work, and to trust that God is still present in us and to us. God is at work in the silence, deep within our spirits. Times of refreshment will return.

Thomas Merton writes this:

The Christian contemplative, even when he fears that his prayer is hopelessly sterile and distracted, contradicts his own fears by the very intensity of the anguish by which he longs for God…Continue to seek God in love….and you will find Him.[5]

In these periods of dryness, more may be happening in us that we know. We may be maturing in our understanding of God. We may be letting go of older things that are no longer sufficient for us. God may be drawing us toward things that are deeper and richer.

What counts, finally, is faithfulness and trust. Just as there is great beauty in human love that endures over a lifetime, so there is in a life of enduring faithfulness to God.

I write this post to correct an overstatement that might lead people to think that the religious life is one of pursuing religious highs. Those experiences can be wonderful, but they are not what this faith walk is about. In the end it is about growing in the love and knowledge of the living God. It is about becoming fully alive and fully human. It is about learning how to love. And the path is not always easy.


[1] Time Magazine, Aug. 23, 2007, Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith” Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html#ixzz0yOrWoa1O

[2] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  41.

[3] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  43.

[4] May, Gerald, A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth: The Dark Night of the Soul, Harper, 2004. 146.

[5] Merton, Thomas, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, Harper, 2003.  102-3.

Experiencing God – Burning Bushes

Artist's rendering of Charlton Heston as Moses...

Image via Wikipedia

I still remember seeing Charlton Heston play Moses in The Ten Commandments for the first time. I was ten years old. The scene that captured my heart occurred early in the movie. Moses is tending his sheep near a mountain. He sees a bush glowing with fire, but not being consumed by it. Curious, he walks closer to get a better look. Then he hears a deep melodic voice, the voice of God: “Remove your sandals from your feet for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5) Suddenly he is in the very presence of the Holy One of Israel. He removes his sandals, comes forward and kneels before God. That scene fixed itself in my heart and imagination. It excited me. It still does.

Faith clearly is to be expressed in how we live. Ethics is central to any religious system. I love the study of Christian ethics. However, deeper than the ethical expression of our faith is the mystical experience of God. Somehow we experience the reality of God. Somehow we know we have been in the presence of the Holy One. The experience may be gentle or overwhelming. I might be overcome by it in the present moment, or only remember it, looking back at some experience. But it is real. Like Moses, we know we have stood, if only for a moment, on holy ground.

I remember a few experiences in which I was suddenly aware that I was in the presence of the sacred.  I was fifteen and standing at night under the stars at Sunfish Pond. It is a small glacier lake set on the Appalachian Trail above the Delaware Water Gap. The sky was filled with stars and the stars were reflected in the Pond. Suddenly I became aware of another presence. Not separate from me, but somehow filling everything, or perhaps more accurately, everything was alive with this presence. I did not hear a deep melodic voice nor see a burning bush, but I clearly felt words: “All of this is mine. You are mine. Never be afraid. All belongs to me. You belong to me. Be at peace”

I have only had a few experiences like that. Mostly I do not. But those experiences have changed me. Even in my many years as a radical secular humanist determined to deny God and to rid the world of hunger, my experience at Sunfish Pond stayed with me, reminding me that there is more to life than I could see or touch.

I also know that this is not a unique experience. Most people I have talked to have had similar experiences. They may name it differently, claim it differently, but they are aware of moments when they were in touch with something larger, beautiful, even holy.

I like what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says about this. He says that burning bushes, entrances to the holy, are all around us:  “You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You have already been there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time.” (Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader, Jewish Light Publishing, 1998. 18)

God is not out there and beyond, but is closer to us than our breathing. What happens is that sometimes we wake up. I think that the difference between us ordinary people and the great saints, is that they live much more open to the sacred than we are able to manage. The whole world for them is a burning bush. But when we do wake up, everything changes. Everything is somehow different.

The ethical flows out of the mystical. We do not try to be good. That never works well. Rather we try to live consistent with our experience of God. For me, as a Christian, the fullness of God is found in Christ. The path that I try to walk (laughingly inadequately) is the one I find through him. The path he sets is one of sacrificial love of neighbor and even the enemy.

St. Augustine is said to have asked the question, if God is everywhere, how do we get closer to God? His answer: when we love! Real encounters with God do not call us out of the world, but deeper into it. Faith does not lift us above the struggles of the world, but challenges us to enter into them, even to embrace the suffering of others; there is where the love of God would take us. There is where love most desperately needs to be expressed.

Remember Charlton Heston and the Ten Commandments. From the burning bush, Moses is sent to confront Pharaoh, and to redeem the people of Israel from the slave houses of Egypt.

Part of the mystical experience is a desire to somehow offer ourselves to God. Having tasted something of the goodness of God, there is a natural desire to drink more deeply from the cup of God’s beauty. We may fear the urge, resist the desire, but in our better moments, we know it is there.

St. Ignatius of Loyola expressed this desire in one of his most powerful prayers:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,

my memory, my understanding and my whole will ill.

All that I am and all that I possess you have given me.

I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to Your will.

Give me only Your love and Your grace;

with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

(http://www.next-wave.org/apr99/Ignatius-prayer.htm)

One of the great paradoxes of faith, is that when I surrender myself to God I discover that I am enlarged, not diminished. I become more fully myself, not less. As Jesus taught, when we lose ourselves in love of God and as servants of God’s love in this world, we finally find ourselves.

I don’t know why that is true, only that when I am at my best and able to do that (unfortunately, not too often) I discover that it is true.

Then I remember Charlton Heston at the burning bush. Once more I am ten years old and in awe before the Holy.