Saturday, February 17, 2018

Listen to Your Soul

According to a rabbinic parable,[1] when God was creating the world, God shared a secret with the angels:  human beings will be created in the image of God.  The angels were jealous and outraged.  Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift when they are flawed mortals?  Surely if humans find out their true power they will abuse it.  If humans discover they are created in God’s image, they will learn to surpass us!  So the angels decided to steal God’s image.

Once the divine image was in the angels’ hands, they needed to pick a place to hide it so that humans would never find it.  The held a meeting and brainstormed.  (I imagine they used flipcharts and markers!)  The angel Gabriel suggested that they hide God’s image at the top of the highest mountain peak.  The other angels objected, “One day humans will learn to climb and they will find it there.”  The angel Michael said, “Let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.”  “No,” the other angels chimed in, “humans will find a way to dive to the bottom of the sea and they’ll find it there.”  One by one the angels suggested hiding places, but they were all rejected. 

And then Uriel, the wisest angel of all, stepped forward and said, “I know a place where they will never look for it.”  Then the angels hid the precious holy image of God deep within the human soul.  And to this day God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it; so close, and yet so far away.

The Christian mystics express a similar understanding of the soul as the seat of the image of God in us.  In one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart, wrote that “[T]here is a power in the soul which touches neither time nor flesh, flowing from the spirit, remaining in the spirit, altogether spiritual. In this power, God is ever verdant and flowering in all the joy and all the glory that He is in Himself. There is such heartfelt delight, such inconceivably deep joy as none can fully tell of, for in this power the eternal Father is ever begetting His eternal Son without pause. . .’[2]  According to Eckhart, Christ, who is the image of God, is continually being born in the soul.  

St. John of the Cross tells us that “The center of the soul is God; and, when the soul has attained to [God] according to the whole capacity of its being, which is the strength and virtue of the soul, it will have reached the last and the deep center of the soul, which will be when with all its powers it loves and understands and enjoys God.”[3]  St. John is inviting us to look deep within ourselves, in the center of the soul, to satisfy our desire for God.   Listen to what your soul is saying to you.  Why is that so hard to do?

The rabbinic parable offers some clues.  The angels were “jealous and outraged.”  Human beings were thought unworthy of such a precious gift.  The angels wanted it for themselves.  When we are consumed with guilt and shame, feeling unworthy of this gift, and when we are consumed with envy and rivalry, focused on the regard of others, it is hard to listen to the soul.  We don’t even try to connect with the image of God within us.

In his correspondence with the churches in Corinth, St. Paul writes something astonishing.  He says that we should no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, but rather in terms of the image of God that they bear “in Christ.”  When we are “in Christ,” it is like we are a new person.  The past no longer defines us.  God doesn’t hold our trespasses against us!  In Christ, God is reconciling the world to Himself – including you and me.[4] 

God became human in Christ Jesus – allowing him to become “sin” or separate from God – so that we might become the righteousness of God; so that we might become transparent to the image of God in us.  Our transparency to God is made possible, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, through "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself."[5]  In the face of Christ Jesus, we see reflected the image of God in us.  Thou art that!

The question of whether we deserve this gift is moot.  God shares God’s life and love with us because that it what it is God’s nature to do.   The question is, will we listen to what our soul is saying to us?  Will we accept God’s forgiveness and the invitation to become transparent to God’s love?

Fear of being unworthy gets in the way of listening to our soul.   So, too, does preoccupation with what other people think about us.  This is what Jesus is getting at in his teaching about receiving our reward from God in secret, rather than in public from other people.  We get caught up in envy and rivalry, looking to others to reflect our identity and secure our reputation, rather than looking within, in secret.

The word “secret” here is mystikos in Greek, with the connotation of mysterious or even clandestine.  Our identity is hidden in Christ, in the soul.  It is mysterious and can only be discovered as we listen to our soul.  We are like secret agents operating undercover, while people mistake us for someone other than who we are.  The reward we truly desire is communion in God’s life and love, which is always available to us in secret.  We need only stop seeking for ourselves outside of ourselves, and listen to what our soul is saying to us instead. 

The Christian mystics of every generation are emphatic about this: fulfillment comes from receiving our identity from God alone.  “The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of Divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken, the bird cannot fly.”  And yet, paradoxically, St. John of the Cross also says, “Now that I no longer desire all, I have it all without desire. [6]   

When we entrust ourselves entirely to God, we receive more than we can ask for or imagine: the heavenly treasure of communion with God in which all things find their being.  We can relate to people and situations with a sense of freedom, no longer outsourcing our identity and happiness to them.  When we are in touch with our soul, we will know how to deal with circumstances that used to drive us crazy!   This was the source of St. Paul’s serenity in the many difficult circumstances he faced in his life and ministry: “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[7]  This is the language of the mystics.  It is the peace which surpasses understanding, the peace that the world cannot give.  It is the fruit of listening to what your soul is saying.

During the season of Lent, I invite you to consider the following questions, suggested by Rabbi Naomi Levy,[8] to help you reconnect or deepen your connection with your soul.  What has my soul being trying to say to me that I’ve been ignoring?  Set aside some time to listen, free from the usual daily preoccupations and pressures.  Whether it is 10 minutes in the morning or a five-day silent retreat, take all the time you need to listen to your soul.   You may be surprised by what you hear.

What activities and experiences nourish my soul?  Imagine your life as a diet, and examine the balance of soul food vs. junk food that you are consuming.  Don’t spend life eating that which does not satisfy, when you can feast on the bread of heaven. 

What does my soul want to heal that my ego is too stubborn or afraid to acknowledge?  “In the inner stillness where meditation leads, the Spirit secretly anoints the soul and heals our deepest wounds.”  You may not even be conscious of what needs healing, but God is.  Become willing to rest in God’s love and you will be healed at the deepest levels of your being.

What does my soul want me to do?  The temptation is to rush into action out of guilt or pride, rather than taking the time to discern what is mine to do.  Ignore the voices telling you what you should do.  Listen instead to the invitations to love that your soul is whispering.  You may well be responding to those invitations already.  Give yourself credit for it!  Obedience means “to listen.”  Listen to your soul and allow it to guide you.  This is the meaning of holy obedience.   This is the key to the observance of a holy Lent.  Listen.

[1] Naomi Levy, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), p. 31-32.
[2] Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises, trans. and ed. M. O’C. Walshe (Longmead, Shaftsbury, Dorset, Great Britain: Element Books, 1979), 1:74.
[3] St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, st. I, v. 3.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
[5] St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies V, preface.
[6] St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul.
[7] 2 Corinthians 6:10.
[8] Levy, p.32.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Rembembering Nancy

In Memoriam:  Nancy Waller Newmeyer
Memorial Homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
The Rev. John Kirkley

On behalf of Bill, his family, and the people of St. James, thank you for the gift of your prayers and presence as we celebrate the life of our beloved sister, Nancy.   Nancy was a remarkable woman.  In her own quiet, self-effacing way, she was a powerful woman.  What made her so remarkable was the way she exercised her power: with great humility and profound dignity. 

It really hit me that Nancy was gone when, after she died, I went into the kitchen downstairs and discovered that the dishwasher was full.  Every week, Nancy would stop by the church and put away the clean dishes left in the dishwasher from the past Sunday’s coffee hour.  I never asked her to do it.  She never told me that this is what she did; I just happened to catch her doing it one day.  I imagine she had been doing it for years before I ever came to St. James.  She just knew that it had to be done, that it would make life easier for others, and so she did it.  

A couple of years ago, a young mom in our congregation was going through a difficult divorce and needed a place for her and her daughter to stay temporarily until the court decided who got to keep their apartment.  Nancy immediately opened her home to them, and I’m sure Bill did as he was told – happily. Bill is fond of telling me, “John, my wife is a saint.”  He is right.  She was always doing things like this that most of us never even knew about.

Nancy was the kind of person who gives Christianity a good name; and these days, that is saying something.  She didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.  She followed St. Francis’ dictum, “Preach the Gospel always.  Use words if you have to.”  Nancy didn’t have to.  Her actions spoke volumes.  Whether supporting people with disabilities, restoring the Presidio’s landscape, advocating for public education, affordable housing and immigrant protections, arranging flowers or cleaning the kitchen, Nancy walked the talk without needing to say a word.  She showed up.  And she kept showing up:  for Bill, for Thomas and Carla, for her grandchildren, for her students, her friends, her neighbors, for the City of San Francisco, for St. James.  I don’t know how she did it, but I suspect her faith played a big part.

Nancy was private about her faith.  I will never forget one evening, however, during a study group here at St. James.  Folks where asked to share about how they prayed.  When it was Nancy’s turn, she said, “Oh, I don’t know.  I just talk with Jesus throughout the day.”  I didn’t let on, but I almost fell out of my chair. 

There was a spiritual depth to Nancy that she didn’t talk about much.  Which is one sign that it was authentic.  It wasn’t about her.  It was about being transparent to the power of God’s love shining through her just as it shines through Jesus.  She didn’t want us to see Nancy – she wanted us to experience the inexhaustible power of divine love.  She just got out of the way and let it flow. 

Scripture tells us that we are dust and to dust we shall we return.  For Nancy, this wasn’t a threat.  It was a promise:  a promise of homecoming.  As dust, Nancy knew herself to me intimately and eternally connected to the whole of reality; she was comfortable in her own skin; she was at home in the world.  As Carl Sagan once observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”  

When we were discussing scripture readings for her memorial service, Nancy was particularly drawn to the reading from the Gospel of John: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

Jesus invites us to trust that in God’s “house” there are many rooms and a place has been prepared for us.  We are at home already, here and now.  When we die, we simply move from one room in the house to another.  In some mysterious way, returning to stardust is a movement into the very heart of God’s own life, God’s own house.  Nancy embraced being dust; being stardust.  This was the source of both her great humility and her profound dignity. 

The Gospel that Nancy lived was a deep trust that she was at home in the world, at home in God.  This was the source of her serenity, her liveliness, her generosity, her humility, her dignity, and her strength.  She was aligned with the power that birthed the cosmos, the love which energizes the universe as a single emergent reality that is moving toward greater complexity, creativity, consciousness and joy.   Her life was one great explosion of love into the world, and it continues to expand in ways known and unknown to us.  You are stardust, Nancy.  You always were and you always will be.   May we remember that we are stardust too.