forward and back
The run up to Christmas was full of personal setbacks and a difficult week, but the Christmas service itself seemed to simply erase all that angst in one stroke as I allowed myself to immerse in the images, music, and sense of connection to the people in the room. We think of our spiritual journey as one solid path that we’re either on or off, and once on, should stay on if we only have enough faith. But life and scripture tell a different story: that the spiritual journey is not one path, but one moment—a moment we either choose to be connected or choose not. That being on the spiritual Way of Jesus is stringing enough of those kingdom moments together to form a kingdom necklace, and that our progress along the Way is always marked by two steps forward and a step back.
We all tend to look for anything where we expect it to be. Makes perfect sense. Works for car keys and laundry detergent, but not so much when you’re looking for truth. Truth has a way of showing up in the most unexpected places, and if you’re only willing to look where you already believe it to be, you’ll miss it every time. How in the world would anyone think to look for or see in the face of a dirt-poor infant the truth of all that Jesus was? And yet the Magi did—advisors to their king, co-regents, scientists, religious leaders. And Galilean shepherds did—the uneducated poorest of the poor. And twelve hundred years later, Francis of Assisi did—a rich man’s son voluntarily living a pauper’s life. What do all these varied people have in common? What allowed each of them to see beyond and beneath the surface of things to a timeless truth?
behold how they love
It’s hard enough to communicate spiritual experiences and truth when we’re honestly trying. But what about when we’re not? When consciously or unconsciously, we’re hiding behind spiritual platitudes and practices to justify our actions or inactions, to gain some advantage or outcome…? It can be tricky because it’s easy to convince ourselves that the language we speak and religion we practice and believe is “right” and spiritual in itself, but once again, Jesus is telling us something different. When at the last supper he told his friends he was giving them a new commandment—to love each other as he had loved them; that everyone would know they were his followers by their love. How literally are we to take Jesus’ actual definition of followership? How literally did his first followers take his new commandment and definition?
When we say to each other, just give it to the Lord, surrender your life to Jesus, or let go and let God… When we say, ask Jesus into your heart, pray about it, or you need to find God’s plan for your life…do we really know what we mean? And even if we do, does the person we’re speaking to have a chance at the same understanding? And even if they do, do they have any idea how to accomplish them? We can call them platitudes, but that makes them too easy to dismiss. They all carry truth—at least they were true when experienced by the person who coined them, but afterward, when put into words, they became pointers that will only be true again when re-experienced by the hearer. If we’re going to be honest about our spiritual communication, we have to admit that words have limits, and dig deep to make sure we’re getting past mere mental concepts to the concrete experiential steps that are the only way to the truth we seek.
When it comes right down to it, the main effects of an authentic spiritual journey are gratitude and humility. From these two attributes flow every other attribute we may associate with our spiritual progress. Why? If humility is defined as an undistorted view of ourselves and our relationships with God and each other; if gratitude is defined as an undistorted view of the moment we’re in, that it contains everything we need in the moment and is enough, then these two attributes are the reflection of the experience joy and contentment of pure presence. So, how do we get there? Here, a character who doesn’t normally get a lot of attention can come to our rescue…John the Baptist.
Praying the Way
Most of the questions we ask about religion and scripture and theology are really the same question over and over, because all of our questions and difficulties center on the one question of unconditional love and acceptance. In other words, we want to know if God is keeping a light on for us… But the answer we crave, the one that will really set our anxieties down, can’t be found in anything made of words. Even our scripture can only point to the truth, a truth that has to be lived to be believed at a level that transforms. Jesus knows this, of course, and so gives us a model prayer that when understood from the Aramaic context in which it was delivered, becomes a prayer not to be recited in words, but a sequence of actions to be lived out.
Julian of Norwich
Through the study of the mystics and contemplatives we’ve been conducting both on Sundays and midweek, we’ve covered several historical personalities. Several of them have been studied by staff and members of our community, and several of those chose to present in first person, even dressed for the part to bring home the fact that these storied saints of the church were simply flesh and blood people who answered life’s circumstances with a fierce desire to know God completely. Here, Nina Dreyer, one of our staff and licensed social worker and psychotherapist, takes on the persona of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English anchoress, mystic, counselor, and the first woman to write a book in the English language. Her story, though extreme, contains the same shape of the journey that can be applied to our own stories here and now.
When Jesus speaks of Kingdom, he’s not speaking of a place or a territory. He’s talking about us, all of us living a particular quality of being that translates into a particular quality of life—a habit of being. Some sociologists call any habitual way of being a habitus. But Jesus’ habit of being has a quality defined by presence, connection, the ability to see both the seen and unseen components of life—to see the overarching connection of everyone to everything and each other that is not apparent without this quality. It is a complete change of our way of perceiving the world and life and how we react to it. It’s a new way of living life that includes and transforms all our ingrained habits, skills, and attitudes—a new theory of everything that changes everything we experience. Jesus spends most of his teaching time describing this Kingdom habitus in terms of its effect on the quality of life it creates. It’s the only way it can be described at all.
A friend tells me he wants to take his motorhome up to Canada and stay for at least three months or more because he can’t stand being a part of the U.S. anymore. I figure it’s because of his politics, but as we talk, what comes out is a real grieving over the state of all relations in our country: race, political, religious, social, cultural, generational…he’s ashamed to be a part. Though we do talk about how many hours a day he spends watching cable news, he has a point. What’s happening in our country? The short answer is fear. People are afraid of not maintaining their quality of life or that of their children. And scared people build walls. Real ones and mental ones. Emotional ones. Religious, political, social, and cultural ones. And as soon as we build a wall, we create enemies of those on the other side. Even if we don’t mean to, it’s the nature of walls.
Proof of Love
In one of our studies last week, someone asks the age old question—maybe first question we humans have asked about ourselves and life: how can I believe or trust there’s a God or any higher power that cares about me and my well being when there is so much evil all around? The oldest book in the Bible is focused on this question. An entire branch of philosophy focuses on this question. Polytheism and atheism are answers to this question because if you have many gods, some good and some bad or no god, problem solved. But for those who believe in one God, all good and all powerful, and yet evil exists—pick any two but you can’t logically have all three. Even Satan doesn’t get God off the hook. If God can’t stop Satan, he’s not all powerful, and if he won’t, not all good. Is there a way to understand God that maintains what theists believe about one God and yet never shrinks from the realities of daily life?