Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

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

When There Are No Burning Bushes: The Absense of God

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

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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...

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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.

Prayer of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi

Image by dawnzy58 via Flickr

It seems fear of the stranger and justification for it are all around us. The Christian Gospel calls for something else. St. Francis understood this  Here is a prayer attributed to him. May it be our prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

.

O Divine Master,

grant that I my not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

(United Methodist Hymnal # 481)

When others allow fear of the stranger to gain a foothold in their spirits, and anger directed at others to define them, let us not forget who we are and to whom we belong.

Hope for Peace

Some thoughts after hearing about the controversy over building an Islamic center near Ground Zero in NYC:

Perhaps be-

neath this com-

plex too often bro-

ken world a

seed of hope

silently pulses

perhaps

beneath shards

of concrete & bro-

ken glass & shear-

ed steel beams

seeds of peace

are unfolding

thick fibrous roots

pushing into the fertile earth

pushing fragile shoots upward

toward the freshness of air

perhaps.

***********

May God grant us peace.

A Call to Prayer

I just read an article in the NY Times (7/22/10) around which I think we would do well to turn our prayers. The current violence in Somalia is such that the number of refugees is expanding, and the places of refuge for them are shrinking.

The World Cup soccer games were a source of pride and joy, until violent thugs  placed  bombs among the spectators, killing many. The violence continues. Somalians now constitute the third largest group of refugees in the world, behind (sadly) Afghanistan and Iraq. More that 50,000 Somalians have found refuge in the U.S. since 2004.

Uganda has been perhaps the major provider of refugee for those fleeing the violence. An organization known as the “Joint Venture” operated in Uganda, helping refugees find resettlement, often in America. That agency has now closed its doors, leaving many people wondering if there is any place or any one to turn to for help and hope.

There are many things we are not able to do. But we can pray. We are called to be people of prayer. Let us place the people of Somalia, Uganda, indeed all the displaced persons seeking refuge before God. God hears our prayers. God is the God who hears the cries of the marginalized and persecuted people.

Lord, this day we place before you the people fleeing horrific violence in Somalia. Be with them. lead them to safety. Protect them. And protect refugees everywhere. People who have lost and left everything, and wander in search home and safety.

We pray: stop the violence. Bring peace. We know that human beings break the peace and not you. We know the violence belongs to us and not to you. Convert us to the ways of peace, which is the way of Jesus Christ who came preaching peace. Turn the hearts of those who somehow think such violence is holy away from such evil.

Most of us reading this live in peaceful places. We have challenges, and do sometimes experience the fearful evil of violence. But mostly we live in peace. Open our hearts that we may share this privilege with those who long for relief and refuge.  Help us not to claim this privilege for ourselves, but rather find in it a foundation to serve others in your name.

May the children be safe O Lord.

Amen