Monday, March 26, 2012

The New Law

The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the old law – the external law that accuses, judges, condemns, and punishes.  It serves to keep order and that, surely, is no small thing in the chaos of our world.  The old law is religion as a form of social control.  Its authority stands over and against us.  It changes nothing. 
The new law is within us, written on our hearts.  It subverts us from within, makes us new from the inside out.  The new law is religion as a path of transformation.  It unites the giver and the receiver of the law.  It changes everything. 
The difference between these laws is best illustrated by a story; a true story, told by Lutheran Pastor Walter Wangerin about his son, Matthew.
Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I'm not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn't get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects ... in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.  
The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, ‘Look, I'm bringing the kid back, and he's going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of -- chastise him?’ I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, ‘Matthew, Matthew.’ (She was very good. She's an excellent librarian!) ‘Do you know what you have done,’ she said, steel-eyeing him. ‘You'll never do that again, right?’ 
 The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn't know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books ... one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. ‘He'll never steal comic books again,’ I thought. ‘Look at this conflagration, doesn't it remind you of hell?' 
 The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at [the seminary] in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books! 
 So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew's bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him. 
 The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don't know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that.  'Cause he was so stiff.  He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is ... in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.
Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, ‘Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?’ (And he had stopped!) I said, ‘Yea, I finally spanked you.’ He said, ‘What!’ And he looked at me. He said, ‘No.... It's because you cried....’
Here after, let every accuser of my son reckon with the mercy of God, and fall into a heap, and fail. For love accomplished what the law could not, and tears more powerful than Sinai. Even the Prince of Accusers shall bring no charge against my son that the Final Judge shall not dismiss. Satan, you are defeated! My God has loved my Matthew.[1]

You see, the new law was already written on the inside wall of Matthew’s heart.  He had only to see his father’s grief, his desperation, his fear of what would become of his thief-son, for Matthew’s heart to be broken open to this new law that was already there.  He realized then who he was all along; not a thief-son, but a bearer of divine compassion, a child made in the very image and likeness of God. 

We are never so much like God as when we are vulnerable to the wellspring of compassion that can overflow us at any moment.  It is when we touch into the Source of this compassion that we know as we are known by God, defined not by the worst thing we’ve ever done or failed to do, but by a measureless love that is more than equal to the depths of our need.   No comic book, however rare, could ever come close to satisfying the desire awakened, and fulfilled, by this love. 

It is not the condemnation of God that awakens the new law within us, but rather the pathos of God.  Only a God who suffers can save us.  Here we come close to the mystery of the Cross:  “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.   And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.”[2]  The accuser is revealed to be Satan, not God.  The law that condemns is revealed to be a purely human construct, not a divine commandment. 

It is Christ the Innocent Victim, the One who demonstrates absolute solidarity with our suffering world, whose self-giving love draws all things into a compassionate embrace.  It is the God in tears who cries out to God, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” who awakens that same compassion in us.  Here lies the glory of the Cross: love is stronger than death, and subverts our distorted desire by drawing us into imitation of Christ the Forgiving Victim.   When we are willing to give ourselves away in love, then we are free indeed. 

We all have our equivalent of Matthew’s greedy accumulation of comic books, our distorted forms of desire that grasp at life and try to make it our possession.  The old law, with its condemnation and punishment, only reinforces the grip of distorted desire as it seeks an escape from the cycle of transgression, judgment, and shame.   Only the law of love, in the form of forgiveness, can release us from this death dealing cycle and restore our true nature as children of God.  His father’s tears accomplished in Matthew what his repeated punishments could never do.  They set him free to love by awakening the compassion that was already there in the depths of his heart.

As we near the end of our Lenten journey and draw near to the foot of the Cross, we are invited to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnate God, who infiltrates the world and our hearts, transforming our distorted desires from within and opening up the way for us to claim the law of love written on our hearts.  The Christ lifted up on the Cross is glorified, not in condemning us, but rather in uniting us with Him in His compassionate embrace of the whole world.  Our meeting Him there is no punishment. It is a surrender to love that changes everything.  Amen.

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Manger Is Empty, pp. 116-132.
[2] John 12:31-32

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dying So That We Might Live

Like all the great wisdom teachers, Jesus tells us that we must die so that we can live.  All the wisdom traditions agree that the greatest barrier to spiritual growth, to the fulfillment of our longing for wholeness, is our attachment to our self-image and our preoccupation with protecting and defending it.  It is in the movement of self-surrender, the sacrifice of ego to become united with God, that we discover our true identity and creative power.  We have to die so that we can live.

This is illustrated beautifully by a story from The Way of Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist teaching.[1]  A master carver named Ching was commanded by the Duke of Lu to make a bell frame:  an elaborately carved wood sculpture to hold a very important ceremonial bell.  Several weeks later, Ching presented the Duke with the finished work.  The Duke was amazed.  He had never seen anything so beautiful.  The people were certain it must be the work of spirits.  The Duke said to him, “You are a genius! How did you do this?”

Ching confessed that upon receiving the assignment from the Duke, his heart was agitated.  Despite his well-deserved reputation as a master carver, he was afraid of disappointing the Duke.  He had to begin by acknowledging his anxiety about his reputation and his fear of failure. 

He said, “I am no genius.  I am only a simple carver.  But there is one thing.  When I am going to make a bell frame, I meditate for three days until my mind is clear.  After three days, I think no more of rewards or honors. 

When I have meditated for five days, I no longer remember praise or blame, success or failure.  When I have meditated for seven days, I suddenly forget my limbs, my body; no I forget my very self.  I lose consciousness of the court and of my surroundings.  Only my skill remains.

In that state I walk into the forest and examine each tree until I find the one in which I see the bell frame in all its perfection.  Then my hands go to the task.  Having set my self aside, nature meets nature in the work that is performed through me.” 

In his answer, Ching says nothing about tools or techniques to do the work.  He talks instead about what Parker Palmer calls the “work before the work”; the inner work to free himself from being driven by gain or success, praise or blame.   Stripped of ego, of all that was false or simply extraneous to the work, nature met nature as the work was performed through him. 

Notice the use of the passive voice, "the work was performed through him," not "I performed the work."  Ching acted from a place of self-surrender to a reality greater than himself, and became an instrument of its power, rather than acting from a place of self-will in which he sought to wield power in defense of his self-image.

As Ching surrenders through his meditative practice all the constituents of his self-image are slowly dissolved: his desire or being moved by what attracts or repels him, pain or pleasure; his will or sense of volition, of what he can or can not control; his relationships to people, institutions, and things from which we derive value; even his body, perhaps that most basic element of self-image.  And not only are these elements forgotten; so too were his judgments about them, his self-evaluation.  None of this has the power to move him.

He returned to a natural state of undivided wholeness, a child-like sense of union with reality, while retaining his adult skillful means.  This is the “work before the work”, the dying that we must endure before we can live.  It is the work of spiritual transformation, conversion, whereby we come so say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”

Notice too, the way in which Ching engages the “work after the work.”  He truly sees the trees: he has a wide-open awareness of reality that penetrates to the core of things while eliminating all that is irrelevant.  He intuitively knows how to respond to the demands of the situation; the work is performed through him.  His increased self-knowledge, his understanding of the social and psychological sources of his fear, free him from anxiety about self-image so that he can “forget the court” and surrender to what is necessary in the present moment.[2]

“Nothing burns in Hell but self-will.”[3]  It is our fearful clinging to our self-image that prevents us from surrendering to love, the creative power of God.  Self-image in itself is neither good nor bad.  It is simply a necessary part of being human so that we can function in the world.  The problem is when we make our self-image an idol, the source of our life, and refuse to surrender ourselves to the true Source. 

The admonition to die so that we can live is not a counsel of perfection.  It is, rather, an invitation to self-surrender in acceptance of our imperfection AND our creative capacities.  Free from self-preoccupation, from being driven by praise or blame, we can become usable for God.  We can then sing the words from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that is how the light gets in

We can gain the whole world and never live, never know the truth about ourselves and the freedom and joy that comes with self-surrender.  The light that shines through the cracks of our imperfect offering are the beams of love spoken of by William Blake:  “We are put on earth a little space/That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”[4]  Bearing love – both in the sense of carrying it, bringing it forth to others and in the sense of enduring it, suffering the pain of love’s vulnerability – is what makes us truly alive.  

The “work before the work,” the inner work of self-surrender, is the means by which we learn to bear the beams of love.  It is the imperfect offering that makes the world whole.  We must die so that we can live. 

[1] I’m indebted to Parker Palmer’s exploration of this Taoist story in Chapter Four of his book, The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).
[2] Gerald May discusses these effects of contemplative prayer in his essay, “To Bear The Beams of Love: Contemplation And Personal Growth” in The Way Supplement, Number 59, Summer 1987, pp. 28-30.
[3] From the Theologica Germanica, quoted in Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), p.
[4] Quoted in May, “To Bear The Beams Of Love”, p. 31.