Monday, January 19, 2015

The Invitations to Love

One of the formative teachers in my life is Rose Mary Dougherty, a Roman Catholic sister and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.   Rose Mary tells a delightful story about a recurring dream. For many years this dream seemed to show up to announce some kind of transition in her life, though she did not always see it at the time. In the dream she was trying to decide whether or not she should enter a religious community, and would go from one wisdom figure to the next, listening to each person’s opinion.
Years later she had this same dream again. Only this time as she approached each wisdom figure to elicit their advice something told her not to ask. Finally she came upon a young boy about five years old. To this child she posed her question, “Do you think I ought to be a sister?” He looked at her for a long time and then responded simply, “Do you wanna?” Rose Mary acknowledges that from this moment on she began to encourage herself and others to listen to the “deep wannas” of our hearts.
I believe that God the Holy Spirit is communicating with us at a profound level all of the time.  Most of the time, I’m unaware of what is being communicated, but the divine call is like a continuous radio signal.  It is always being transmitted, but I’m not always tuned into the right frequency or there is a whole lot of static obscuring the transmission.  Even so, the “deep wannas” of our hearts, what Rose Mary also calls the “invitations to love” are always there for us.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  We can learn to dial in.
Spiritual awaking is about getting in touch with our “deep wannas” and becoming willing to trust the invitations to love.   Spiritual guides and wise teachers have their place, but as in Rose Mary’s dream, their role is to direct us back to our own experience of God, to listen to the still, small voice within. 
We could only be so lucky to have such a wise teacher as the young boy, Samuel, found in his mentor, Eli.   Eli was the priest at Shiloh, and Samuel was his servant at a time when “The word of the Lord was rare” and “visions were not widespread.”  When God’s call comes to Samuel, he doesn’t recognize it at first; he is sure it must be Eli who is calling.  It is so much easier to seek confirmation from recognized authorities than to trust our own capacity to listen.  Eli wisely perceives what is going on, and gently counsels Samuel to give expression to his desire for God, instructing him to pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Good spiritual leaders do not say, “Listen to me” – they say, “Listen to God. Tell me what you are hearing!  Perhaps you have a word for me.”  Sometimes, God speaks to us through the voice of another.  We need the help of others to hear those things that we cannot, or would rather not, hear.  Later in the story, Eli implores Samuel to share with him what he has heard from God.  Samuel is hesitant to presume to speak for God – and rightly so.
Samuel is afraid, too, because what he has to say is not easy for Eli to hear, but it is a liberating truth.  Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, abused the privileges of their priestly office and used their position to exploit others.  They were bent on a path of destruction, and there was nothing Eli could do about it.  This was Samuel’s message to Eli.  When Eli hears this news, he replies, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” 
Eli is willing to entrust to God’s care what he can not control – even the fate of his own children.  This is a hard truth, but it is a liberating and, ultimately, healing truth.  In helping Eli to understand this, Samuel was responding to an invitation to love.  By his willingness to listen, he was able to speak a hard truth with compassion. 
To my mind, this is a very tender scene of great vulnerability – Samuel and Eli are wide open to God and to one another.  It demonstrates something of the way our attention to the invitations to love is a compassionate and unifying force in our lives, even when it isn’t easy.  We don’t always know what the consequences will be when we are willing to respond to God’s call in our lives, but it will inevitably lead us to a deeper engagement with life in the world, to become more fully ourselves, to become more fully alive. 
One of the most beautiful, but rarely mentioned, aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s witness was his willingness to listen to God’s call and respond to the invitation to love that he heard.   Early in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was unexpectedly thrust into leadership when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.  He was 26 years old.   He almost immediately became the target of death threats, and his family was continually harangued by threatening and obscene phone calls:  sometimes more than 40 in a day.  You can imagine the emotional toll this took.
As part of the boycott, the black community organized a carpool system.   The Mayor soon ordered Montgomery police to arrest the carpool drivers.  On the afternoon of January 26, 1957, Dr. King was one of the first motorists to be arrested, his first experience of being in jail.  When he was finally released later that evening, he returned home after his family was already asleep.  The phone rang.  It was yet another caller telling him that if he wanted to leave Montgomery alive, he’d better do it soon. 
Dr. King’s resolve was broken that night.  He sat at the kitchen table, staring at an untouched cup of coffee, and tried to think of a way to resign without seeming like a coward.  Reflecting later on this moment, Dr. King noted that, although he had been raised in the church, he had never really had a personal experience of God.  But that night, he found himself praying out loud, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right.  I think I’m in the right.  I think the cause that we represent is right.  But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now.  I’m faltering.  I’m losing my courage.”
Then it happened:
“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world’ . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.  He promised never to leave me alone, never to leave me alone.  No never alone.  No never alone.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”[1]
Dr. King repeatedly returned to this touchstone experience of God’s presence in the long struggle for freedom that would end for him on April 4, 1968.   This one experience gave him the strength to love that sustained him for the rest of his life.  It was enough.  Touching into our desire for God, acknowledging the “deep wannas” of our heart for even a moment, can change everything. 
We live in a cynical culture that thrives on irony and satire.  We seesaw between taking ourselves too seriously and taking nothing seriously, and risk failing to take the reality of God seriously at all.   Such an environment makes it difficult for us to trust our desire for God, to listen to the invitations to love.  Perhaps Nathanael is the perfect disciple for our age. 
Nathanael’s cynicism matches our own.  When Philip tells him that he has found the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth, Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nathanael exhibits the typical urbanite’s disdain for country rubes.  It’s like expecting the Messiah to come from, I don’t know,  Modesto!  Nathanael is skeptical about this invitation.   Why would anyone want to meet Jesus of Nazareth?  I love Philip’s response, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.”  Don’t take it from me – see for yourself!  And when Nathanael encounters Jesus, his skepticism quickly turns to credulity!  Just like us post-moderns, believing nothing, he’ll believe anything!  How quickly we fall for anyone who pays attention to us and flatters our conceits. 
Jesus admonishes him, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. You will see for yourself how God will confirm the truth of the invitation you have been given.”  Jesus in effect tells Nathanael to keep paying attention.  Keep listening.  God will yet show you so much more.   Trust your desire for God and stay open to the invitations to love. 
God is communicating with all of us on a deep level – all the time.   Sometimes, the message comes to us through other people.  The invitations to love find some way to get through to us: one way or another.   Maybe your being here today is a response to just such an invitation.  St. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem in the fourth century, writes about how God’s invitations are at work in our lives – even when we don’t know it.  He describes those who have come to prepare for Holy Baptism as photizomenoi – those being enlightened.  But he admits that folks may be there for different reasons.  He writes,
“Perhaps you have come for some other reason? A man may want to please a woman and may come for that reason. The same may be true of ‘a woman. . . or a friend [may come to please] a friend. I take whatever is on the hook, I pull you in, you who came with an evil intention but will be saved by your hope of the good. Doubtless you did not know, did you, where you were going, and did not recognize the net in which you have been caught? You have been caught in the church’s net! Jesus has you on his hook, not to cause your death but to give you life after putting you to death . . . Begin today to live!”[2]

Maybe you came today because a friend asked you.  Maybe you are here to celebrate the blessing of our new solar panels – wonderful!  Maybe you came to see the bishop – terrific – now I’ve got you on the hook!  You’ve taken the bait, now here is the switch:  Trust your desire for God.  Listen to the invitations to love.  It will change your life.   It will change the world.  But don’t take it from me.  Come and see. 

[1] Dr. King’s experience is described in David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr. And The Southern Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), pp. 55-58.
[2] Quoted in Susan B. W. Johnson, “A Word and a Calling,” Christian Century, January 1-8, 1997, p. 11.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Continually Renewed Wonder

Reading the scripture texts appointed for today reminded me that Biblical faith paints on an outsized canvas.  Its claims are astonishingly large in scope, and this is true right from the very first words of the Book of Genesis, the opening words of the Bible.  Walter Brueggemann has characterized the creation story of Genesis as among the most important, best known, and most frequently misunderstood scripture texts.  I would have to agree with him.  I think what we tend to miss in reading this text, and Biblical faith as a whole, it the sense of sheer wonder that it is meant to evoke. 

The Bible is continually pointing us back to our own experience of wonder, and the creation story is the first and clearest case in point.  It is simply wonder-ful.  It reminds us of what Annie Dillard describes so well in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:  “The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.  After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever fresh vigor.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go!”[1]

The Bible opens with a hymn of wonder.  The first part of Genesis, chapter 1:1 through chapter 2:4, is a liturgical text, created by Jewish priestly scribes living in exile in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.  While it draws from ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies, it is not a mythic text per se.  It does not deal with the eternal structures of the cosmos.  It is certainly not a scientific text, concerned with how the world came to be.  It takes the form of doxology, a hymn of praise to the Creator who creates Creation.  It is a proclamation of faith.

What, then, does this faith affirm?  It proclaims the intrinsic and irrevocable relationship between the Creator and the Creation at the heart of reality.  Neither can be understood without the other.  The Creation is not accidental or aimless, but exists by the will of God and develops according to God’s intention.  God is revealed in Creation as One who delights in its beauty, bestows upon it his blessing, and promises to bring it to its fulfillment.

Notice how the relationship between the Creator and Creation is described in this hymn.  There is a certain ambiguity in the Hebrew of the opening verses of Genesis that is illuminating, but difficult to capture in English translation.  The conventional translation is the familiar, “In the beginning, God created,” an absolute claim for creation as God’s action.  But it can also be rendered, “When God began to create,” a dependent clause closely related to what follows and emphasizing creation as an ongoing action. 

What follows is the description of an already existing chaos in which a wind from God vibrates over the waters.  Then God speaks and Creation begins to emerge out of chaos.  It seems to me that this ambiguity is a fortuitous, if not intentional, interpretative clue.  God is both Creator in the sense of absolute Source of all that is, but also is Creator in the sense of continuing to work with the chaos of an emergent universe to make it a Creation, a place of order, bounty, and awesome wonder.

Israel’s theologians in exile proclaim faith in the power of God in the face of the power of the Babylonian empire.  In the midst of their forced relocation, cultural disorientation, economic insecurity, and tragic loss, the priestly authors of the creation hymn are speaking a word of reassurance to their fellow exiles.  God is still the Creator and God is still working with and through the chaos of the world to bring it – and us – to the fulfillment God intends.

What is more, these theologians affirm the graciousness of God whose power works by way of evocation.  God’s Creative Word is a command exercised in the form of an invitation:  “Let there be light.”  This “letting be” is more than a “causing to be,” implying spaciousness within the Godhead, a making room for the Creation to emerge.  This culminates in the creation of the Human Being in the image of God, charged with responsibility for the rest of the Creation.   The Human Being, which images God collectively as male and female, is given both authority and freedom to exercise this responsibility.

So the Creator speaks, but the Creation listens and is given space to respond to God’s gracious call.  There is a certain tension here.  The Creature can respond in ways that accord with God’s will – or not.  The Human Being is called to be a partner with God in the care of Creation. God’s promise to bring the creation to its fulfillment is brought into question.  Will God be faithful to the promise?  Will Human Beings be faithful in their response?  The stage is set for the Biblical drama that will unfold and that enfolds us.

Walter Brueggemann’s brilliant commentary on Genesis captures well this tension:  “Sin is only and always a resistance to God’s gracious will.  It is the compassion of God which makes sin possible . . . God’s sovereignty is not yet fully visible.  Creation is not yet fully obedient . . . But the narrative lives in hope.”[2] 

There is tension here, but also the grounds for genuine hope.  Not only is God the Creator, the Creature is free within the limits of finitude.  God doesn’t simply command, but invites and blesses, working with the chaos of the world and the willful resistance of the Human Being to bring Creation to its fulfillment.  Israel’s theologians are whispering to their fellow exiles and to us, “No matter how bad it gets, God is painting on a much bigger canvass than the Babylonian empire.  We have some room to maneuver and trust that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Look around you.  The Creation is still pretty amazing.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go!”

In the confusion and loss of our lives, Israel’s theologians invite us to look again at the big picture; not to deny the reality of suffering – the chaos is really there – but to see it as part of a larger work in progress.  Will we allow ourselves to be consoled and empowered by continually renewed wonder?  Might it not be possible for us to expand our vision beyond our narrow preoccupations, however pressing they may seem?  Can we hear God’s creative Word anew and reclaim our vocation to care for Creation as bearers of God’s image?  “The creation of the world is not only a process which moves from God to humanity” writes Nicolas Berdyaev, “God demands newness from humanity:  God awaits the works of human freedom.”[3]

Many years ago, my spiritual director at the time turned the tables on me by asking, not if I trust God, but rather, “Do you believe that God trusts you?”  God overcomes our resistance not by authoritarian commands or punishments, but by embracing us in our finite but real freedom, by continually awakening in us our desire for God and God’s gracious desire for the whole Creation. 

God’s Spirit just keeps blowing over the chaos to see what it will stir up in us.  In Baptism, we symbolically enter into the chaotic waters to receive the gift of the Spirit’s power at work in us.  Baptism is not an escape from the chaos, but a commitment to enter it creatively, trusting that God’s Spirit is already blowing there.   Baptism is our way of putting our money on God in the contest between God’s promise and the Creature’s resistance.  We also take the risk of making promises in keeping with God’s promise, betting that God trusts us as well.  Some days it is hard to know whose trust is more foolish – God’s or ours! 

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.[4]

Christopher Smart’s poem reminds us that God bet the whole farm by becoming human.  However risky it is to trust God, what is even more astonishing is that God becomes one with us in Jesus.  The more I come to know Jesus, the more I agree with St. Paul that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”[5] 

Trusting in that wisdom and strength, we renew our commitment to keep the promises we have made in Holy Baptism.  That is a good and even a joyful thing to do, but even that is too small a thing for God.  Our promises are held in a much larger reality, the reality expressed in the hymn of praise sung by the theologians of Israel:  “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”[6]   The renewal of wonder is the foundation for the keeping of our promises.

[1] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 32
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 20.  My reading of the Creation story is indebted to Brueggemann.
[3] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 33.
[4] Quoted in The Living Pulpit, April/June 2000, p. 32.
[5] I Corinthians 1:25.
[6] Genesis 1:31a.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Spiritual Awakening

On this Second Sunday after Christmas we are given Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus for our reflection.  Of the four Gospel accounts, only Matthew and Luke provide birth narratives, and these differ in some significant ways.  Each Evangelist tells the story differently in order to explore different theological themes.

The overarching theme of Luke’s account is one of expectation and adoration.  The annunciations to Mary and Zechariah, the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, and the angelic epiphany to the shepherds create a mood of increasing anticipation of the birth of the Messiah.  They help us to get ready for this momentous event.  

And when the child is born, we are not disappointed.  The joyful adoration of the shepherds, the contemplative adoration of Mary, and the prophetic adoration of Simeon and Anna when the baby Jesus is presented in the Temple all reinforce the sense that the world is about to turn.  This is the child for whom we’ve been waiting.  Nothing will be the same.  This is good news of great joy for all people.

Matthew’s account is quite different.  Joseph, rather than Mary, is the focus of the angelic announcements.  His dreams about the birth of the Messiah, however, are filled with misgiving and danger.  Here, the overarching theme is one of opposition and resistance.  Joseph must overcome the shame and dishonor of this quite unexpected pregnancy, and navigate the political machinations of King Herod, for whom this birth is a threat.   Apparently, not everyone receives the birth of this child as good news.

Whereas, Luke’s birth narrative ends with the triumphant presentation in the Temple (with a later appearance of the boy Jesus there for his bar mitzvah providing a brief coda), Matthew’s narrative ends with the Holy Family escaping to Egypt as refugees from Herod’s brutal slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem; returning only after Herod has died and then to Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem to avoid the jurisdiction of Herod’s son, Archelaus.  Luke gives us triumphant fulfillment of a long awaited promise.   Matthew gives us subversive resistance in the service of an uncertain future.

What are we to make of these two accounts?  It is important to remember that while Jesus is an historical figure, the stories of his birth are not biographies.  They are more true than that: yhey are myths.  They are not grounded in historical facts but in interior truths that have been projected onto the screen of mythic narrative, objectified so that they are available to inform our own spiritual development.  As myth, what connects both Luke and Matthew is their focus on Jesus as the mirror in which we can observe the birth of the divine in us.  They are concerned with our own spiritual awakening.

And both Matthew and Luke connect spiritual awakening with the experience of joy.  For Luke, it is the good news of great joy announced to the shepherds.  For Matthew, it is the wise men, overwhelmed with joy when the star brings them to the baby Jesus.   The birth of Jesus is about the birth of joy, about getting in touch with the divine ground of our being.

One way to understand these stories is as complimentary accounts of spiritual birth or awakening.  In Luke, there is an undercurrent of anticipation that erupts in unexpected epiphanies – to Mary, to Zechariah, to the shepherds.  Here, joy just comes upon them with little or no preparation.  Sometimes our experience of spiritual awakening can be like that.  It bursts into our awareness.  Suddenly, we wake-up and feel the joy of being fully alive in God. 

But sometimes – perhaps more often than not – spiritual awakening is an arduous process.   Unlike the joy of Luke’s account, which moves directly from epiphany to adoration, the joy of the wise men and of the Holy Family is hard-won.  Their joy is found in the midst of long and risk-filled journeys.  The joy of spiritual awakening is discovered and nurtured in the midst of conflict and suffering.  That is the difficult truth of Matthew’s version of the story.

Matthew wishes us to ponder the ways in which our spiritual awakening may be co-opted or sabotaged by others - or ourselves - much as Herod seeks to undermine the birth of Jesus.  We may run with joy directly to Bethlehem like the shepherds, or we may be fiercely determined to follow the star in the face of great opposition like the wise men. 

Sometimes, our spiritual awakening leads to exile, following the subversive path of the Holy Family in a culture that does little to support spiritual growth.  We may find the experience of spiritual awakening and the transformation it entails to be a threatening prospect.  Like Herod, we may try to kill it before it takes root in us or in others.  We’d rather settle for familiar pains and pleasures than be changed by the experience of true joy.

Most likely, our experience resonates with all of the above.  It isn’t easy to persevere in the expectation of spiritual awakening, or to preserve its fruits; except of course, when it is easy – because sometimes it is!  We both desire spiritual awakening and we resist it. 

When the joy spiritual awakening overwhelms us, we would do well to realize the gifts that the wise men offered to Jesus.  Gold is a precious metal, a symbol of royalty, and a reminder of the great treasure of spiritual awakening.  It is of unsurpassable value, the Great Pearl, the Lost Coin, the one thing necessary.  It is the realization of our divine maternity – we are children of God.  Hold on to your identity.  We are so much more than we think we are.

Frankincense is a sweet-smelling resin, an offering of incense, a symbol of thanksgiving.   Make thanksgiving a continual offering to God, the source of joy that undergirds us on every step of the journey.  Hold on to gratitude. 

Myrrh is another resin, a bitter spice often used in embalming.  It is a symbol of suffering and death.  Do not be afraid.  Joy transcends and includes the reality of finitude and mortality.   Hold on to reality – all of it – even the hard parts. 

The stories of the birth of Jesus are our stories.  They are mirrors in which we perceive our own spiritual awakening.  We may travel different roads to get there.  It isn’t always easy.  But in the end, it all comes down to joy – the joy of discovering Christ born anew in us.