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.

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.

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.

Moving Toward Easter

c. 1632

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“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

Beginning Lent

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We enter one of the more solemn and beautiful seasons of the Christian year, the season of Lent. It begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The season coincides with the arrival of Spring, the return of warmer days, the budding of trees and first flowers.   It is a season in which we are invited to prepare spiritually to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday includes these provocative words attributed to Jesus:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where  thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)

We tend to get this backwards. We think that our treasure follows our hearts. Jesus says otherwise. He says that our hearts follow our treasure. Even when we know better, our hearts tend to cling to our stuff. So he warns us to be careful about the stuff we invest in and gather around us.

I like the way an Amish grandfather speaks to his grandson about this in the Harrison Ford movie Witness. He warns his grandson: “Be careful what you take into your hand. For what you take into your hand you also take into your heart.” So it is that Jesus warns us to be careful about what we take into our hands. He advises us to invest ourselves, our time, our resources, in the things that really matter; to build our treasure in that which is life giving, good, and eternal.

Lent is a season in which we are invited to get real with ourselves; to check and evaluate what we are invested in, what we are devoted to, what we have taken into our hands.  Are we taking more care of people and relationships than things? In the middle of all of our concerns, are we treasuring our relationship with God, who is the source of life and all that is good?

The question is not about how we feel, but about what we do. Someone said if we really want to know what is important to anyone, we should study their check books and their calendars. If we examine how we spend our time, how we use our money, what we make sure we do each day, what we put on our calendars, what does this tell us about our treasure and our hearts?

In this season before Easter, let’s accept the invitation to do that kind of reality check. Are we centering our time, resources, presence, in the things that really do matter most to us, or have we gotten a bit sidetracked? Let’s commit to investing in the things, and especially the people, who do matter most. Above all, let us return to God, who is the center of all things.  Let us be devoted to the way of Jesus Christ. Let this not be with just words or feelings, but in the things that we do each day.

All God’s Peace,

Pastor Bill

Recovering the Inner Life – 2

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi’s statement speaks more truth than we often realize.   He speaks a basic and often unrecognized principle:  when we change ourselves, in a very real way we change the world around us.

It follows that if we want to change the world around us, we need to look first within ourselves; there is where change begins. If we want a kinder world, we start by being kind. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by becoming more peaceable. If we want less racism in the world, we need to confront the racism resident in ourselves. As we change, we become agents of change.

To experience this try a simple experiment: commit to a full day of practicing random acts of kindness. Smile at strangers. Say hello to people you usually walk by. Hold doors open for people. Treat somebody to lunch. Let someone get ahead of you in line.  Then the next day commit to random acts of unkindness. Don’t smile. Scowl a bit. Complain to whoever will listen. Let the door close on the person behind you. Complain to strangers about how slow the line is moving, and how poorly the cashier is at his or her job. Get angry at the stupidity of other drivers. Notice what happens and how you feel each day. Notice how people react to you and around you. I am very willing to bet your experience on those two days will be very different. The world around you will be different.

Richard Rohr, a writer on Christian spirituality, addresses this in his book The Naked Now. He writes about this approach to change: “We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.”

He also provides some examples of what that might involve:

* If you want others to be more loving, choose to love first.

* If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your inner world.

* If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.

* If you notice other people’s irritability, let go of your own.

* If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.

* If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.

* If you want a more just world, start by being just in small ways yourself.

* If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.

* If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will see God beyond you.

(Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Crossroad Publishing, 2009. 160-1.)

Jesus taught the same lesson to his disciples, and to all who follow him in every age:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back…. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” – Jesus, Luke 6:37, 38, 45

What we give out somehow manages to return. He taught that those who are merciful, practice kindness, extend compassion, live generous lives, who do not find it necessary to strike back, who bless and do not curse, will both reflect the nature of God into the world, and even though they will experience difficulties, will ultimately discover that what they have given to others will be poured back to them.  He taught that we act out of the condition of our hearts, and called on us to have the kind of heart that reflects the very love of God.

What does all of this mean? I think it means that our inner lives, our character, the state of our souls, the well being of our spirits, are tremendously important. It shapes our lives and our experience. It makes a major difference to those around us. It makes a tremendous difference to the character of our communities. Angry, spiritually immature, reactive people will create unhealthy and unhappy families and communities. In the same way healthy, mature, gracious people generate healthier places to live.

We give such extraordinary attention to the things around us, how much we earn, what kind of cars we purchase, what kind of smart phone we use, where we go on vacation. Are we willing to give that kind of attention to what lies within us? To becoming better, wiser, more mature people?

If we want to lead happier lives, or to live in a more loving family or community, we need to nurture the capacity for happiness and for love within us. It really is that direct.

Gandhi is right. If we want to change the world, we do need to become the change we want to see.

Pastor Bill

Why Worship?

Remember flight, The bird is mortal

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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

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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...

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.