Sunday, June 24, 2012

Surprised by God

When the going gets rough turn to wonder. There is a place of refuge in the storm. It is found in the capacity to be surprised by God.  If our hearts remain just the slightest bit open, we will not fail to be surprised by a love the reframes our experience of suffering and gives renewed meaning to life.

If we look deeply at our own lives, we know this to be true. 

For me, the touchstone experience of this truth was a dream I had when I was about nine years old.   It was a difficult time in my life, when the depths of my father’s alcoholism and the acuteness of my awareness of it were coming to a head.  Like so many children at that age, I somehow felt responsible for his behavior, ashamed and scared all at the same time.  Life felt out of control.  And it was.

The turmoil I experienced was heightened by the image of God I had internalized as one who is inaccessible and judgmental.  Looking back, I imagine there was some relationship between the lack of connection I felt with my father and my image of God as distant and rejecting.  At any rate, the circumstances did not make for a happy boy.

Then I had this dream.  I was in heaven, standing at the far edge of a great crowd of people gathered before the throne of God.  It was judgment day.  I felt small and afraid.  I knew somehow that this couldn’t be good.  And yet, I felt inexorably drawn toward God despite my fear.  I found myself pulled through the crowd until I stood alone before God.

Now, God looked like someone straight from central casting in a Cecil B. DeMille film:  White mane of hair and flowing beard down the front of his robe!  But that wasn’t what was important.  What was important was that God stood up, wrapped his arms around me, and whispered in my ear, “Everything will be alright.”

God surprised me. 

When life got rough, in spite of myself, without even intending to, I instinctively turned to wonder and was met by the God of my dreams, the kind of God I’d always wanted but dared not hope for:  Wish fulfillment or reality?  Perhaps both.  All I know is that ever since, I have never encountered a circumstance that was beyond the reach of God’s love.  I continue to be surprised; in part, because I continue to forget that God really is like that.

Secure in our experience of the awesomeness of God’s love, we can lean into life’s difficulties and find the means to respond creatively with our hearts wide open. When we respond with fear and rage, our vision narrows and our hands are clenched.  When we turn to wonder, our vision expands and our hands are open to receive what we need to cope.  The challenge is to stay open, vulnerable, and receptive when it is so tempting to retreat behind defensive walls and isolate ourselves from the very love we most desire; the love that changes everything because it changes our perception.  

The one constant in a world where storms come and go is our capacity to be surprised by God.   Resting in God’s love, the gift-character of life comes into focus and we realize that everything belongs.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Remembering the Mississippi Martyrs

On this day in 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered while participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi.  These brave young men are icons of the biblical imperative to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God."  That is what God requires of us; this is what it means to do good.

Not all of us are called to witness at the cost of our life.  But we can be inspired by James, Andrew, and Michael to consider what we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of justice, mercy, and communion with God.  What can I do, however large or small, to bend the arc of the universe a little bit closer toward God's love and justice today?

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyrs Andrew, James, and Michael:  Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in their triumph may profit by their example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Living Free Today

The Practice of the Presence of God is a spiritual classic from the 17th. century.  It records the practice of a French monk, Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection.  For nearly 40 years he lived mindful of the presence of God in each moment.  How did he cultivate this mindfulness?

It was observed
That when he had failed in his duty, he simply confessed his fault, saying to God, I shall never do otherwise if Thou leavest me to myself; it is Thou who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.  That after this he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.
Br. Lawrence didn't carry the burden of guilt.  He quickly acknowledged his faults, made amends, and moved on.  Free from the weight of the past, he was open to God in the present moment.

Furthermore, it was noted
That the most excellent method he had found of going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men . . . and, (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of God.
Br. Lawrence knew that comparison is the death of joy.  His focus was on acting from a place of conscious contact with God, rather than worrying about what others thought of him (or what he thought of them!). His every action became a prayer in so far as it gave expression to his love of God.  He saw himself and others through the eyes of God.

Do you want to live free today?  Entrust your faults to God's forgiveness, then let it go.  Lean back into your love for God - and all things in God - and stop worrying about what other people think.  Move through the business of the day mindful of that love, and even the most mundane task can be suffused with the presence of God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Prayers and Prayerfulness

I love this quote from the chapter on "Prayers and Prayerfulness" in Br. David Stendl-Rast's book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer:
The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer.  Eventually, even our prayers will become prayer.  Some people find it easier to eat and drink prayerfully -  mindfully - than to say their prayers prayerfully.  Should this surprise anyone?  Why assume that our prayer life starts with saying prayers?  If prayerfulness is our highest degree of aliveness, the starting point might be whenever we spontaneously come alive.  Does it seem easier to recite a Psalm with recollection than to eat or drink or walk or hug with that same wonderment and concentration?  It may well be the other way around.  For some of us, saying prayers wholeheartedly may be the crowning achievement after we have learned to make every other activity prayer.  (p. 48)
What does prayerfulness look like for you today?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Turning to Wonder

"When the going gets rough, turn to wonder." This is one of the Circle of Trust touchstones we use at St. James, group process guidelines developed by Parker Palmer. It is an invitation, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, to maintain the capacity to be surprised. Surprise opens us to new possibilities when we feel stuck. It reminds us that that we live in a world that is literally awe-some.

When Jesus calmed the storm, his disciples were "filled with great awe." Jesus surprised them and they turned to wonder! Have you ever been surprised by wonder when life got rough? I'd like to hear about it as I'm pondering this bible story for next Sunday's sermon.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Perception in the Forgiving Mode

It is only retrospectively, in light of who we are becoming, that we understand who we have been.  This is so obviously true that we rarely think about it.  It requires change of a certain order of magnitude for it to become conscious.  How many of us have had the experience while raising our children of eventually realizing, “My God, I’ve become my parents?”  Suddenly, the narrative of our childhood is understood in a new way. The capacity to make new choices about how to relate to the past and to the future becomes available to us. 

Sometimes the understanding gained through retrospective insight can be painful to assimilate.  It is only after getting sober, or after the divorce, or after returning from combat duty that we are given the wherewithal to ask ourselves:  “Did that really happen? Was I really like that?  How was it that I made those choices?  If only I knew then what I know now.”  Yet there is a certain joy in coming to accept the past, however painful, when seen in the light of the transformation it has occasioned. 

As we follow the way of Jesus, our experience of the Risen Christ creates change of an even greater order of magnitude.  It brings us into a new way of life and a new sense of community that radically alters our perception of reality.  Jesus describes this change of perception in a familiar parabolic saying, 

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.[i]

“That is to say,” notes James Alison, “all our knowledge of each other is projective and relational:  our knowledge of someone else is inseparable from our [relationship] to that other person, and what we know of them depends on a real similarity between the other and ourselves such that we can properly project from our own experience and begin to understand the other.”[ii]

Jesus raises the question: What is the mode of projection whereby we encounter others?  Is it based on denial of our similarity, such that we see problems in others in an accusatory mode, or is it based on a sense of similarity, such that we see problems in others in a forgiving mode, as analogous, if not identical, to our own problems?  The first leads to a process of mutual antagonism and spiraling conflict. The second leads to compassion and the potential for cooperation.  The result is insight and an expansion of community.[iii]

This is what we find in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus is gathering a radically inclusive community of men and women from across social classes, sectarian affiliations, and political perspectives.  They are all learning together, eating together, and experiencing healing together, despite their manifest differences and failings. 

Jesus simply invites people, irrespective of their circumstances, to join him in the process of co-creating the world energized by God’s life-giving Spirit.  Jesus assumes that others, like him, actually desire to realize their creative potential in the image of God.  He draws people into a movement whereby they become conscious agents of God’s power to reconcile and heal.

Notice that there is no confession of wretchedness, no beating of the breast, or putting on sackcloth and ashes required to join this movement.  There is just the offering of a healing touch, the sharing of bread, and the invitation to do likewise.  It is only as one becomes drawn more deeply into this transforming way of life that one begins to discover that one has been forgiven; that the past is truly past; and that the harms we’ve caused or endured do not have the power to exclude us from this movement.

Too engaged in the joyful project of renewal to be scandalized by other people’s behavior, the log gently becomes dislodged from our eye so that we can see ourselves and others as Jesus does: as people basically like him, absolutely beloved of God and given the power to share in God’s project of making the world new. It is as we come to forgive our brokenness, rather than condemn it, that we realize the power to heal. 

For those still caught up on the accusatory mode, where identify is forged over and against those we condemn, such indiscriminate love is crazy.  No wonder Jesus’ family thinks he has lost his mind!  No wonder the authorities try to demonize him![iv]  Accepting such love is threatening, because as it dissolves the log in our eye we are forced to confront the awful, liberating truth that we are no better, and no worse, than anyone else. 

It is at this point that may choose to seek to escape, deny, or control the continuing process of creation. We freeze our experience of reality, remaining bound to perceptions that reinforce our sense of victimization and entitlement to justify our condemnation of others.  On the other hand, we may consent to the process of being made new and allow ourselves to be carried into the forgiving mode, whereby our true identity emerges as we realize our intrinsic relatedness with others.  We can joyfully accept our brokenness as but the prelude to a wholeness that is far greater and vastly more encompassing than we could have ever perceived while the log was still in our eye.

[i] Matthew 7:1-5; cf. Luke 6:39-42.
[ii] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p. 242.  Alison is commenting on the parallel saying in Luke’s Gospel.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Mark 3:19b-35.