Monday, May 18, 2015

You Belong

Osprey in flight

Our reading from the Gospel According to John is taken from Jesus’ long “farewell discourse” to his disciples just before his arrest and execution.  It is a poignant scene.  Jesus and his friends have gathered for a final meal together.  After dinner, Jesus washes his disciples feet – an act of humble service – and offers some final instructions.  It is a long speech, as if Jesus is trying to squeeze as much as he can into these last moments, and it is a repetitive speech, underscoring the urgency with which Jesus is trying to make himself clear; trying to prepare them for what is to come. He concludes the speech with a prayer on behalf of his friends.   Out text for today is a portion of that prayer.

The passage we heard read continues in this way:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”[1]

Jesus prays for us  - not just for his disciples back then, but those of us here today – that we may know that we belong and that we are loved.   He even says that, when we get this, his joy is fulfilled in us.  Jesus is telling us something profoundly beautiful in this passage: his joy is incomplete until we get it that we belong and that we are loved. 
What is more, Jesus tells us that we belong to God and that God loves us.  We don’t just belong here or there, loved by this person or that person.  Our belonging and our loving extend for beyond what we imagine.  Listen – through the words of Jesus, God is saying, “You belong to me.  You are my beloved.”   This is hard to understand, to get at a gut level, but we are connected to everything that is, for everything that is dwells in God and is permeated by the energy of love that binds all things together.

Alan Lightman writes about how he and his wife would carefully observe and record the life of a family of ospreys, who would return to their summer home in Maine each year to nest and lay their eggs.  After many years of observing these birds, Lightman began to feel as if he knew them.  During the winter, he and his wife would read their “osprey journals,” delighting in their documentation of this one extraordinary part of the universe. 

This was all very nice, until one summer when Lightman’s relationship to the ospreys changed.  “Then, one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest.  All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them.  To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs.  On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed.  My immediate impulse was to turn for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons.  But something held me to my ground.  When they were within twenty feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away.  But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact.  Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant.  It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land.  After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears.  To this day, I do not understand what happened in that half second.  But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.”[2]

I believe we’ve all had such experiences, though we may not remember them.  In fact, such moments of transcendent wonder are continually available to us, though usually we are too preoccupied to notice.  Lightman is an avowed atheist, a theoretical physicist who nevertheless has an ear for religion and a profound appreciation of the sense of wonder that is at the root of religion, philosophy and science.  Yet he bears witness to Gospel truth: we belong, we are connected to everything, bound my mutual love.   

It is worth reflecting on Lightman’s experience for a moment.  Notice that it was preceded by years of careful attention to what was right in front of him, to life as it presented itself to him in the particularity of the ospreys.  Lightman had a well-developed practice of paying attention.  One could even say that he was supported by a community of practice, the guild of scientists, who cultivate a methodology for paying attention that we call the scientific method.  He certainly shared this practice with his wife, at the very least.   

This practice opened him to the possibility of not simply observing the osprey, but of entering into communion with them.  Notice that the experience of communion he describes shares many elements of reported mystical experiences:  a fear of the loss of self or of death, a transcendent power (“something held me to my ground”), a wordless communication, and a profound sense of union. 

I’m reminded of Simone Weil’s comment that prayer is a form of attention.  It shifts our perception of who we are so that we are able to realize that we belong and that we are loved.  But it requires some practice to widen the cultural lens of perception that circumscribes and distorts our identity, our sense of belonging. 

This is why Jesus prays for us to be taken from the “world” and protected from the evil one.  In this context, Jesus is telling us that we don’t belong to the culture we inhabit: it no longer has the power to give us our identity.  This is very good news, because that identity is a lie.  You are not any of the roles or labels this culture tries to pin on you.  In the words of Sebastian Moore, “Sin is seeing yourself through other people’s eyes.”  The culture’s perception of us is at best incomplete, and, at worst, an attempt to destroy the truth that is in us.   Believing the lie leads to death.  Don’t believe it for a second.

The truth about you is discovered only in relationship to God, through the word God has spoken to us through Jesus: You belong! You are loved! We are lost so long as we seek our identity anywhere else.  Knowing who we are in relationship to God protects us from the distorted and limiting images our culture reflects back to us.  We are no longer easily manipulated or cowed.  This is why the culture hates those who realize they belong to God: because it can no longer control us.  Our loyalty and our love have grown too large to be contained by it.  The osprey become our sister and brother; everything belongs and is worthy of our attention, respect, and love.

As Richard Rohr describes it, “To pray is to build your own house. To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house. To pray is to recognize that it is not your house at all. To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House. And that One House is everybody’s Home . . . That is the politics of prayer. And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort. They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it. Our house is too big.”[3]

When we realize that we belong to God and that we are loved, the “world,” the belief system constructed by our culture, is no longer adequate to the range and depth of our sense of belonging and loving.  It no longer defines us or controls us.  Though we remain in the world, we do not belong to it.  We are free.  And yet, Jesus tells us, we are sent into the world to bear witness to the belonging and love we have experienced.  Salvation is not an escape from the world, but rather our participation in its subversion from the inside, out.  We move from seeing God as out there, to God dwelling in us, to realizing that we all dwell in God. 

Jesus’ prayer for us is an invitation to pray ourselves, to allow our prayer to transform our perception until we realize that we belong and that we are loved.   Trust your experience of the osprey.  Awaken to the wonder that is you and all around you.  Love the life you’ve been given.  It is precious and sustained by a fabric of being into which it is inextricably woven. 
The culture tries to tell us that we are separate, isolated, alone; ultimately insignificant, a mere cog in the machine, extensions of the desires of others.  Life is conflict, survival of the fittest.  The truth is something quite different:  we are one, we need each other, our life is intrinsically valuable as a necessary part of the whole.  When we realize this, the culture may remain the same, but we will discover a new sense of being at home, no longer defined by or against our culture’s violent lies, set free to love as we are loved. 

You belong.  You are loved.  You are sent to love one another as you are loved.  This is the truth that makes us whole.  Amen. 

[1] John 17:20-23.
[2] Alan Lightman, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), pp. 52-54.
[3] Quoted in Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, p. 306.