Sound of Silence

 

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

Periodically I feel as if I am standing with Elijah outside the cave on Mt. Horeb. His life is a bit more dramatic than mine. He has just killed all the prophets loyal to Queen Jezebel. The Queen has sworn to find him and to kill him. He has run away to save his skin. His path has led him to a cave on the Mountain of God. He lodges there. He waits.

He hears a voice. The text says “the word of the LORD” came to Elijah. The voice asks him what he is doing there. He rants: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts. For the people of Israel have forgotten your covenant…killed your prophets…I am the only one left and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells him to go outside the cave and wait; the LORD is about to pass bye.

Elijah waits. A strong wind rises, tears and breaks rocks. But God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, and then fire. Rock shattering wind, earthquakes, and fire are great images for the presence of God and God’s presence is often associated with all three. But this time God is not found in them.

Then Elijah hears something. The hebrew is translated in different ways. He hears the sound of something like a soft breeze. Some texts name it “a thin silence,” others “a sheer silence.” This silence is not the sound of emptiness. It is the silence of presence. When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave; he knows he is in the presence of God.

Someone once said that if we are to embrace the spiritual life we eventually have to become comfortable with periods of unknowing and silence; we enter into a relationship with God who enters into a relationship with us, and yet always remains beyond our knowing. We use many words, and our words are important. Yet God remains beyond our words.

It sometimes happens that the images we have of God, the knowledge we have accumulated, the stories we have cherished begin to crumble. The things that moved us, inspired us, comforted us, begin to feel empty. We may feel as if we are loosing our faith, or that our faith was unreal. The truth is not that the stories and images are not good or helpful, or that our faith was or is unreal. It may simply be that we are moving closer to the one who is spoken of in the stories, but is so much more than the stories. The stories, the words, the images must give way to the reality of the living God.

Thomas Merton underscores the importance of this for our religious practices. He writes:

“If there is no silence beyond and within the many words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious idolatry. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the truth only in silence and Love. Where this silence is lacking, where there are the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet.” (Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, p. 20)

It is so easy for us to fall in love with the busyness and activities of the church. We need to be careful that we do not fall in love with our own busyness and our own words, and forget that God is the center of all that we do. There are times in which we must stop, be silent, and listen to God, who meets us in silence. The stories we tell, the images we use, the words, are important. Even the work we do. But at some point, like Elijah we must stand outside the cave on our own Mt. Horeb. There we discover the presence of the One who meets us in silence.

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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.

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.

I’m Back

It’s been awhile, but I am back to blogging. A new look. A new theme. A new beginning.

I remain convinced that faith is about becoming more human, more alive, and perhaps even more vulnerable.

So much of what we experience can dehumanize us. Faith is a path of resistance.

It is not a path to a life beyond mediocracy. It is not a passion driven embrace of a purposeful mission statement. It does not help us move from good to great.

It is a reclaiming of an essence.

Reread Jesus’ parables. He deconstructs all concepts of what is good and what is great. He cracks open our concepts so that we might glimpse a different paradigm.

I look forward to our conversation.

Bill

Recovering the Inner Life

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkan...

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  – Paul, Romans 12:2

Awhile ago  Dr. Phil broadcast a show on the prevalence of cheating in our school systems and beyond. I was fascinated by his conversation with one young woman who was very open and clearly pained by her own cheating. Why did she do it? No new revelations: she felt enormous pressure to achieve a high standing in her class and all the awards that were signs of success (straight A’s, Honor Society, varsity letters, class president, etc. etc.) Those things defined success for her. They defined her as a worthy or an unworthy person. Achieving those markers had become more important to her than her character, or real learning. So she cheated to gain an edge, to get what she believed she needed.

Her self image, her self esteem, had become defined by these things which have very little to do with who she is. She defined herself by things outside of herself, and in comparison to others. She looked very successful, but in fact was very unhappy.

The truth is that she is far from alone. Studies show that most people cheat in business, sports, etc. as adults also cheated in High School. Cheating is more common and on the rise. The reasons are essentially the same: the thing I believe I need has become more important to me than character, integrity, or the quality of what I am doing.

I write this, not to rant on cheating or cheaters, but to notice one sign that our culture tends to be very externally directed, defining life and what is good, by things that we get or have. It tends to let go of the important world of our inner lives. Even though we know better, at some level we come to believe that happiness, success, etc. is more about what we have and less about who we are.

So, people are driven to get the newest gadget, the next car, the next promotion, to go on the next more exotic vacation. People, even cultures, become rich in things, as Jesus taught, and impoverished in spirit. That we become angry, reactive, and aggressive, even violent, is no surprise. That developing deep, life long committed relationships is very difficult, is no surprise. That addiction is epidemic is no surprise.

The apostle Paul, like every great spiritual teacher, points in a different direction: who we are is enormously more important than what we have. Happiness is an inner capacity, not an external achievement. Paul writes very clearly that we are not to be conformed to the patterns around us, but are to be transformed, renewed in mind and spirit. We are to let the Spirit work on us and in us, to renew our inner lives, our minds and hearts. That renewal will transform us, so that we can then know what is good, and experience life as God would have it for us.

The key that opens this lock is not outside of us, but inside of us. The things that lead to deep and joyful life are things like compassion, generosity, a peaceable spirit, personal integrity, the capacity to forgive, the capacity to love.

Spiritual teachers speak about the value of having less, and not getting addicted to the need for more, the beauty of the ordinary, the power of serving others. Spiritual teachers speak about the infinite value of who we are before God, and the relative unimportance of what we have, or how we might impress our neighbors.

As we enter this new year, what will you do that will focus on your spiritual growth and maturity? What will you do that will open your spirit to the very Spirit of God? Will you be conformed to the culture that would have you get more, newer, bigger, faster things? Will you listen to Paul who advises us to take a different path?

I think Emerson said it best: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. “

Pastor Bill

(Source of Emerson quote: http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/2160.html)

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.