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.

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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

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

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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.

To Embrace Life

Periodically I come across a writer who speaks to what I believe to be the beauty and power of the Christian faith. I have come across two who are from very different traditions, yet whose writing resonates with the same deep grasp of the gospel. One is Jurgen Moltmann, a Lutheran theologian. The other is J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite.

For both, the gospel is not primarily about what happens after this life is over, but is the story of God’s deep plunge into this world to embrace life, this life, this created life.

Both speak to the power of God’s Kingdom, which is yet to come in all of its fullness. But rather than letting this life disappear into our expectations for the future, both argue that the hope of the Kingdom transforms how this life is to be lived, now, present tense.

Moltmann writes:

Christ’s resurrection comprehends God’s ‘yes’ to life and God’s ‘no’ to death…’Jesus is the defiance against sin and misery’ (quoting Christopher Blumhardt).

The origin of the Christian faith is once and for all the victory of the divine life over death: the resurrection of Christ. ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’: that is the heart of the Christian gospel. It is the gospel of life.

Jesus didn’t found a new religion; he brings new life to the world.”

( Jurgen Moltmann, Son of Righteousness Arise: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, Fortress Press, 2010. 77)

Moltmann clearly grasps the powerful embrace of life in the coming of Jesus into the world. His life, his death on the cross and resurrection, and God’s promise of a Kingdom in which all the contradictions and struggles of this life will be overcome, not only open up hope for renewed future, but even more, offer a renewed power for living now.

The cross then, is not an expression of God’s anger at sin that needs to be appeased, but rather of God’s compassion for those who find themselves placed on crosses, and a protest against the evil and violence that continues to crucify and claim victims. The resurrection is God’s victory over everything that stands against life, including death itself. It promises a new future to all and a new way in this life: the way of Christ, the way of peace.

In a world of that knows too much of death, Christ opens up and offers a life that cannot be stopped. The call to follow him is an invitation to embrace his way of life. In Moltmann’s words, he comes not to start a new religion, another cult, but to bring new life to and within this world.

J. Denny Weaver speaks in much the same way, writing:

While Jesus’ mission for the reign of God may have made his death inevitable…neither the purpose nor the culmination of the mission was to die. God did not send Jesus to die, but to live, to make visible and present the reign of God

Rather than cooperating with divinely sanctioned violence, Jesus countered the violence of the powers…rather than meet it (evil and violent power) on its own terms, he made visible the fact that the rule of God does not depend on violence…The resurrection showed the power of God to overcome even the annihilation of death.”

(J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, Eerdmans, 2001. 74)

Like Moltmann, Weaver understands Jesus’ life death and resurrection to be God’s definitive ‘no’ to death and ‘yes’ to life. Jesus enters the world to make visible and real the way of life that God makes possible. He overcomes and transcends everything that would stand against life. He invites us to a life energized by the Spirit, rejecting the violence that surrounds us, embracing his way of compassion and peace.

I am excited by Moltmann and Weaver. Both speak to the power of the gospel, not as a thing that leads to a new kind of cult, but as an invitation to a new way of life.

The Christian faith is not about an escape from this world or this life with all of its struggles and contradictions. The Christian faith calls us to embrace this life, all of it.

To be Christian is not to be part of some exclusive club of the saved, but to be part of a people who make visible the power of God’s love in this time and place, a way of life and peace.