Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Union and Wisdom

We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it; by an interpenetration of it and ourselves. It gives itself to us, just in so far as we give ourselves to it; and it is because our outflow towards things is usually so perfunctory and so languid, that our comprehension of things is so perfunctory and languid too.    –Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People

This wordy quote actually makes a lot of sense. Underhill defines mysticism as the art of union with Reality. Before you dismiss this as some vague and esoteric practice akin to “navel-gazing” she goes on to assert that union is a natural part of life, because union is what happens when we devote ourselves to something or someone. When we surrender ourselves to a thing or a person, we unite with it.

Union is much more than being an observer, as playing tennis is much different than watching a tennis match. I am not likely to be changed by being an observer, but to participate in an activity is to open myself to becoming different. Participation is surrender, whether or not we consciously recognize it as such.

I wonder if the ease with which we dismiss tragedy around the world through our own “perfunctory and languid” comprehension is what keeps our knowledge limited to the level of “sound bites” and social media messages. Although Underhill lived well before our modern forms of information transmission, I believe her words apply to our time: Wisdom is the fruit of communion; ignorance the inevitable portion of those who “keep themselves to themselves,” and stand apart, judging, analyzing the things which they have never truly known.” How often are we exposed to “talking heads” who judge and analyze people and circumstances without truly knowing the objects of their analysis? How often do we do likewise?

Communion, uniting ourselves with one another, is necessary if one is to develop wisdom. We have to do more than be an observer, standing apart from people or situations. We have to get our “hands dirty” by giving ourselves to one another. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, our observation and analysis are insufficient to make us followers. Like Jesus, we have to give our lives to others if we want to be united to Christ. This can be as simple as being fully present to another, fully involved in their joy or sorrow. A simple act, but one that requires us to lay aside our schedules, our to-do lists and our desire to “fix” another and simply be present, listening and loving the person in front of us. It’s what Jesus did every day.

May I spend less time analyzing and more time pouring myself out in communion with others, that I may be united with Christ.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pride and Poverty of Spirit

When our children were young and played outside, we waged an ongoing battle with fire ants. If we put the crystals out that were supposed to kill them, they moved their mound to a different part of the yard. Those elusive anthills seem an apt metaphor for the way pride operates within me. When I think I’ve tackled pride in one area of my life, it pops up in a different area.

I wonder if that is why Jesus’ first words in the Sermon on the Mount are these: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3) Poverty of spirit is not something joyfully embraced in our culture of self-sufficiency and busyness. One of the first questions we often ask each other is “Are you staying busy?” To answer that question with a no is to be viewed as ineffective or even useless. My own reluctance to respond with a no, even when I am not “staying busy” reveals my inability to quash pride.

To be poor in spirit is to rely on God for everything, even for validation of my worth as a person. I may say that I rely on God, that I trust God with my life, but just ask me if I am staying busy and suddenly I want to be validated, not by God, but by people. One of the spiritual practices of Saint Therese of Lisieux was to welcome unjust criticism. If I seek to be validated by others, my life will always be in a state of rootlessness as I attempt to meet the expectations of others. To be able to welcome unjust criticism, I have to be rooted in Christ and draw all my life from him. While I recognize this as true, I confess that I am not there yet. Those anthills continue to show up with the persistence of a whack-a-mole game!

Several years ago I read Finding Our Way Again, a book by Brian McLaren. The book is a good introduction to the ancient practices of faith, practices that root us more deeply in the heart and mind of Christ. The watershed moment of the book for me was an example McLaren gave of a way to fast from pride: by not defending oneself when criticized. To recognize that justification or defense of my behavior was a prideful response was a turning point for me, and the beginning of a continuing struggle to address this in my life.

 It takes incredible discipline for me to not try to make my motives understood clearly by others when I am criticized because I am misunderstood. I expect this will be a battle I wage for the rest of my life. But without poverty of spirit, I know I cannot hope to live into the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Until I can get Ann out of the way, there is no room for Christ to come and dwell within me.

This quote from Meister Eckhart encourages me toward poverty of spirit and away from prideful seeking of approval: I much prefer a person who loves God enough to take a handout of bread to him who gives the handout in the first place. Why? Because the giver buys his honor; but the beggar sells his.

I pray that I can grow content to be the beggar, the misunderstood and dishonored poor in spirit. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Language That Translates and Transcends

Language can be a barrier to relationship. I’m not only talking about the difficulty when I cannot speak Spanish to someone who knows no English. Sometimes language is a barrier even when two people are speaking English to each other.

Openness, welcome and love transcend barriers that language creates. Relationships where these are present thrive even when one person speaks only English and another only Spanish.

On our first day in Monte Cristo, the three of us who would be teaching hygiene lessons took a walk through the community—our translator Blanca, Martha and me. Two women from the village accompanied us. Hilda and Maria became our dear friends that week, accompanying us daily to the school each morning to help us with the hygiene teaching there. As we walked together down the road to introduce ourselves to the people in the community and invite them for afternoon hygiene lessons, we were simply five women walking and talking and laughing together. The love that bound us together was not inhibited by a language barrier.

Becoming vulnerable by sharing love with another is costly, because love causes us to bear the pain of another. When I hear people downplay or deny the oppression and injustice experienced by others I wonder if their denial or callousness is an effort to avoid bearing the pain of others. We felt the burden of pain in Monte Cristo on Wednesday when the first well failed. But we also celebrated with this community we loved on Friday when we had a working well. Love causes us to share pain as well as celebration.

When we invest ourselves in loving relationships, we begin to learn that we are not all that different from each other. Watching Maria and Hilda interact with the children and faculty at the school, I thought about the ways I’ve seen parents involved with their children’s schools here at home. Listening to women in Monte Cristo talk about ways to improve their community, I remembered times when my own neighborhood came together to address community issues.

Cultivating such relationships during the week we spent in Monte Cristo likewise expands my capacity to love people I will never meet—especially mothers in the many places of the world who suffer hardship, danger and frustration. We are not so different from each other, wherever we live and whatever we look like. We love and work, we dream and laugh, we cry and hope. Whether we admit it or not, we are all interrelated and interdependent.

Love transcends barriers, whatever those barriers may be. Love transforms us as we give ourselves to one another. Love is the best language we can speak.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reflection on Philippians 4:1-9

Here's the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry newsletter to accompany our sermon series on Philippians.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free To Be Joyful

What makes a sunrise or sunset memorable is the presence of clouds. Clouds capture the purples, pinks, oranges and gold of a sunrise or sunset. Because of clouds, we can be stopped in our tracks by the breathtaking beauty of dawn or dusk.

In life, however, we prefer an unclouded sky. The clouds of difficulty, disappointment and loss aren’t something we welcome with gratitude when they show up in our lives. And yet, those clouds are what make the good times especially sweet for us.

I believe that is what happened on Friday of our week in Guatemala. We were in the village an extra day, drilling a second well after the first well failed. While water poured out of the new well with vigor, praise poured out with equal vigor from Estella, the homeowner who had donated the land for the well and who had endured all of us using her latrine, filling her yard with mud, gravel and equipment, and the constant noise and activity of the drilling project. After experiencing the disappointment and possibly wondering what she had gotten herself into, Estella was a picture of pure, unbounded joy, soaked in fresh water from head to toe! Seeing her joy was the best moment of the trip for me.

The freedom to express praise and joy must make God happy. Children are quick to express their joy but I confess I haven’t always been as free in celebrating God’s generosity toward me. Something about the week in Guatemala seemed to flip a switch within me, for even before Estella’s joyful celebration on Friday, I found myself more willing to discard “appearances” to simply be fun and have fun. That freedom seemed to bubble up from my heart, leading me to think that maybe I was catching a glimpse of what it means to have the uninhibited faith and joy of a child.

Estella’s unbridled joy was the exclamation point on the nudges toward freedom I experienced during the week. By Friday, I wasn’t simply wading into the water of joy and freedom; I was soaked in it along with Estella!

Psalm 36:7-9 expresses a life freed for joy: Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy.

Estella drank from the river of pure joy the Friday we finished the well. God’s faithful love should be sufficient cause for me to live a life of pure joy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reflection on Philippians 3:4-14

Here's the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter that accompanies our sermon series on Philippians.