Monday, October 3, 2016

Over vs Through

I bought an Italian Parsley plant a few weeks ago. I put the pot in a sunny window, gave it water, and hoped it would thrive there. I snipped leaves off for several recipes that first week.

All seemed to be going well with my little plant until I returned from a weekend retreat. Yellow leaves greeted me on my arrival, even though there was still water in the dish under the pot. I got the scissors and began to trim the dying leaves, which took almost all the leaves off the plant. I wasn’t sure the plant would survive.

But just a couple of days later, I noticed lots of new leaves. The severe pruning allowed the plant to be healthy and grow. Had I simply repotted the sick plant, or just continued to water it, without any pruning, I am convinced it would have died completely.  

That little plant reminds me that avoidance of difficulty, or glossing over one’s pain (think Monty Python—“It’s only a flesh wound”) does not create the opportunity for growth that going through difficulty, enduring the pruning, or feeling the loss makes for us.

When we are seriously wounded, healing takes time and attention. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it. The leg has to be set, protected and immobilized, so the bones can knit back together. The inner wounds of bullying, betrayal or rejection are no different. Wounds take time and attention to heal. Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist is just as unhealthy as wallowing in self-pity.

A friend told me that cancer was the best thing to happen to her. She let go of her go-go pace, allowed her body to rest, and spent time with God. Her spiritual growth through the process of chemotherapy was tremendous, and she is a different person now—filled with a peace and wisdom that only time, reflection and stillness can bring. She told me how she felt sad watching others who, while undergoing chemotherapy, tried to maintain their lifestyle at the same level of activity as before their treatment. She said they missed the gift that their treatment offered—to go deeper with God. They were focused on getting over cancer. My friend focused on going through.

To go through, we have to let go. We have to relinquish our timetable, our sense of control. When we go through loss, pain and wounding, when we allow the pain to teach us, we learn that there is much we no longer need. Pruning makes space for something new, something that cannot grow without enduring the difficult.

Jesus fully went through his suffering. He drank it, without any self-pity, to the last drop. He died, the ultimate pruning, but he rose from the dead. And how did the disciples know for sure it was him? Because he rose with his wounds. He bore the scars in his resurrected body, a constant reminder of the suffering he endured.

Jesus, my parsley plant, and my friend remind me of the gift of going through, of allowing the pain to give us new life.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doing Good vs Being Good

For the next few weeks, I’m facilitating a study at my church on the book Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. As I’ve been reading their description of the Biblical prophets, I’ve thought about the difference in doing good and being good.

As Claiborne and Haw note, “The prophets are weird. They set themselves apart from the normalcy of civilization and its pattern of destruction and war. Their vocation is to interrupt the status quo.” When you think of some of the things the prophets did, you realize they were less concerned with appearances than many of us who call ourselves “church folk” are.

Hosea married a prostitute. Isaiah walked around naked for three years. Ezekiel cooked over human dung, which violated Israel’s purity codes. They would not have been called “good” by the culture in which they lived. But they lived lives of obedience to God, in contrast to the “good people” who fit in by following “the rules.”

The prophets focused on doing good. They were in close communion with God, and they trusted God even when God called them to do what put them at odds with those in positions of power. Claiborne and Haw say, “It can embarrass us to read of their antics, but what they do is not nearly as embarrassing as the things we do, which their actions expose so we can see that another future is possible.”

We become desensitized to evil when evil promotes our “good” agenda. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says: “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” We rationalize all sorts of things when it serves our purposes to do so. Cheating in business can be excused as needed to take care of our family. Slandering another may be our way to preserve our reputation so we can continue to use our influence “for good.”

The prophets, ancient and contemporary, remind us that when pride, power and self-preservation become our gods, being good becomes more important than doing good, and whatever good we actually accomplish is not pleasing to God, who honors the powerless, not the prideful.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Letting Go

I have a hard time remembering that I cannot control much (if any) of what happens to me. It’s one of those things I know, but I still get frustrated when things don’t go as I think they should.

It hit me last week. One of those “A-ha” moments as I recalled the most familiar part of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

There is more to the prayer than these lines, but there is plenty here. And while it is a prayer I am familiar with, last week it went from my head into my heart.

The persistent theme of my life lately has been letting go. In my reading, journaling and in multiple instances of life I have encountered the prompting to let go. Suddenly last week, the beginning lines of the Serenity Prayer hit me like something I was hearing for the very first time.

To accept what I cannot change, not grudgingly, but with peace, is a challenge. When I get frustrated at another’s behavior, when the actions I’ve undertaken with pure motives are misunderstood and criticized, being able to let go with serenity requires discipline.

In a recent discussion I was reminded of one way Jesus did this. When a rich man comes to find out what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The man goes away sad.

Jesus lets him go. He does not run after him, even though Mark 10:21 says that Jesus loved him. Jesus lets him make his own decision, even though the man’s decision is to walk away. Sometimes love looks different than our expectations. One might think that if Jesus loved the man so much, he would run after him and try to make sure the man understood the cost of his decision. But Jesus gives him the freedom to make his own choice.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen contrasts attachment and commitment. I think what she says is relevant to being able to let go, to accept what I cannot change. She says that attachment closes down options, while commitment opens them up. Attachment leads to entrapment, while commitment leads to greater degrees of freedom.

Jesus was committed to the rich man, but not attached to him. The rich man was not committed, but instead was attached to his reputation as a moralistic rule follower and to his possessions, and this limited his options. He was entrapped by his image and his stuff. Jesus loved the man enough to give him the freedom to remain attached. This way of love may not seem like love to us, but time and again Jesus gives people the openness to choose for themselves. If we love as Jesus did, our hearts and lives and love become more open, and we may be better able to let go and accept what we cannot change.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Slow Small Steps

One of my favorite stories of the desert abbas and ammas reminds me of the slowness and smallness of progress in spiritual growth. A hermit told a brother who was discouraged about his lack of progress in keeping the monastic rule about a father who told his son to clear a field. The son, discouraged at the amount of thorns and thistles, lay down and slept instead. His father found him asleep and asked him why he had done nothing. The son said the task was larger than he could do, but the wise father said that if he would clear only the place he slept each day, the work would advance slowly and the son would not lose heart.

We sometimes think we are not progressing because we don’t clear our inner field all at once. The spiritual journey, however, is not a sprint but a marathon. The thorns and thistles have to be cleared away a little at the time. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter 6, Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to not grow weary in doing good. As I reflected on that verse this morning, I saw within myself the thorns and thistles of a lingering resentment. My first inclination was to berate myself for the resentment, but then I thought about story about clearing the field, and I realized that this was the “patch” that needed my attention at this moment.

We live in a culture that does not value slowness and smallness. Consequently, we get discouraged when the only way forward is through slow, small progress. I’ve seen it with folks who are recovering from surgeries or health issues and I’ve also seen it in people who have had a significant spiritual awakening. We tend to grow impatient and frustrated when healing is prolonged and when the spiritual high has descended into ordinary time. And when we come upon an inner patch of thorns and thistles, we may choose to shrug our shoulders and go to sleep, preferring to numb ourselves against the acknowledgement that we are not all we imagined ourselves to be.

I’m grateful that God’s expectations of us do not move at our Western culture’s go-go pace. Grace is about slow, small progress. I won’t even say it’s about steady progress, because the journey of spiritual growth is not linear. It happens in its own time, but it only happens if we keep at it.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Spiritual Blindness

. . . it is possible for some Christians to live and work in a shockingly unjust society, closing their eyes to all kinds of evil and indeed perhaps participating in that evil at least by default, concerned only with their own compartmentalized life of piety . . .
                                                                                --Thomas Merton, in Life and Holiness

We who are financially secure first world Christians can easily fall into the delusion that we are “good people” because we avoid what we think of as big sins, such as murder or theft. We can fail to see that we are part of systematized injustice because we are often so far removed from the injustice as to be unaware of our economic contribution to unjust practices.

We purchase food and consumer items made or harvested by people who are not paid a living wage. We support businesses that exploit the environment. We overspend on ourselves and balk at providing assistance to others, arguing that they “deserve” their difficulty and that we “deserve” our luxury.

We can become desensitized to the ways we mistreat others while priding ourselves on our service to the church, our work in the community, on our morality, or on the compliments we receive for the work that we do.

I’ve been reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul admonishes the Galatian Christians for losing sight of the grace they have received and relying instead on their own morality as measured by obedience to the Jewish law. Paul says “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4) He points out how they “bite and devour one another.”

When we are more concerned with image than substance we can easily become blind to the ways we participate in evil. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is preceded by what we might call the fruits of human nature. Here’s what Paul says: What human nature does is quite plain. It shows itself in immoral, filthy, and indecent actions; in worship of idols and witchcraft. People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups; they are envious, get drunk, have orgies, and do other things like these.

The temptation is to look at this list and say, “I don’t practice witchcraft. I don’t have orgies or participate in indecent actions.” But read the list again and consider some of the other items like ambition, anger, jealousy and separating into groups that exclude others. When we combine prideful morality with acting according to human nature, we blind ourselves to our need for grace.

We grow spiritually as we are able to receive the gift of grace and respond in gratitude by choosing to live in love. Grace invites us to see ourselves as we really are, and to know that God loves us as we really are. Grace is the cure for spiritual blindness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Choosing the Starting Point

When my older son was small, he enjoyed Disney’s Winnie the Pooh cartoons. There was much to learn from the behaviors of the different characters. Pooh’s simplicity, Tigger’s energy and Piglet’s winsomeness give us a glimpse of the positivity and pitfalls of various character traits. The character whose personality seemed to me the least desirable was Eeyore, the donkey who seemed always to see doom and gloom.

How we choose to approach life says much about our discipleship. When our starting point is doom and gloom, distrust, name-calling, or other forms of negativity, we hinder, if we don’t block completely, the ability to be transformed ourselves and to be transforming agents for God’s kingdom. Like Eeyore, if our initial response is negative, we are like horses wearing blinders. We only see what we want to see, and we miss the invitation to grow.

When others around us begin with the negative, it can be a drain on community. I’ve worked with folks whose initial response is critical—of others, of the situation—or who are distrustful of others within their community—be it work, or church or neighborhood. There are times when criticism is warranted, and where discernment leads us to be wary or distrustful of others, but that should only come after a process, not a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s better to choose gratitude, hospitality and openness as one’s initial response. The damage done by leading with a negative, critical, distrustful attitude can be difficult to repair. It certainly affects our ability to be effective representatives for the faith we profess. When we label, exclude, name-call and denigrate others, we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we break God’s heart.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What Matters

Today’s liturgy for Morning Prayer in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals described the life of Franz Jagerstatter, of Austria, who was the sole conscientious objector in his village to the annexation of Austria to Germany under Hitler. Jagerstatter was not part of any resistance movement, just an individual whose Christian faith could not be reconciled with fighting for Hitler’s army. Religious leaders in his village encouraged him to conform and serve, but Jagerstatter maintained his faith, and was imprisoned and beheaded for it.

Jagerstatter was simply a person who loved God and chose to live (and die) guided by that love. That we know of him at all, because he was a peasant laborer, is surprising. Through the centuries, there are those who choose the unpopular way of Jesus, choosing to live lives motivated by love, by powerlessness, by foregoing the values of the culture and instead surrendering to the downward mobility of the gospel message. Because they understand that real power comes through weakness and that strength comes through surrender to the way of Jesus, they are the unseen, unspectacular yeast that works its way through the dough and rises, despite efforts to suppress them by those who put their faith in power, influence and riches.

People who know what matters do not have to shout or threaten others to be heard. A friend once told me that silence speaks louder than criticism, name-calling and moralistic diatribes. What matters is to live outwardly congruent with what is in one’s heart. True authenticity is not motivated by what others think about you; it is living an undivided, singly-focused life. The courage to be faithful and authentic, even when authenticity and faithfulness is unpopular and misunderstood, will stand the test of time, long after power, influence and riches fall away.