Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God, me, and a rope

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Take a rope and hold one end in your hands. Imagine that God holds the other end. What does your relationship and communication with God look like? Are you the one constantly pulling on the rope, trying to get God's attention, hoping that he will give you what you need, trying to drag him closer to you and your situation? Or does it feel like the Almighty One is doing most of the pulling, making demands on you, insisting that you move, yanking you out of your comfort zone all the time? Or maybe somewhere in the craziness of life you feel like you have accidentally dropped your end of the rope and now you can't find it. The connection seems lost.

Henri Nouwen believes that loving (or rightly relating to) God involves moving from illusion to prayer. And what is the illusion? Or more accurately, what are our illusions (plural)? We might think that we are in control, that it is our story we are telling, our drama we are living. Or that it is up to us to make things happen. Or that God is a hard task master, easy to displease. Or perhaps that God is like us and has our attitudes, prejudices, temperament, biases, limitations, etc. Or that our life and the lives of others must be defended as property instead of received as gifts. Regarding this last point, Nouwen says, "By acting on the illusion that the world belongs to us as private property which nobody ever can take away from us, we become a threat to each other and make intimacy impossible." Perhaps you can add a few other illusions to that short list, illusions which keep us from developing intimacy with God. Unmasking illusions is hard, ongoing work. Just this past Sunday, during our communal gathering, I spent most of the worship time battling the illusion that our humble faith community is falling apart because we are incapable of getting things right. This illusion relies on the assumption that we are the ones responsible for building the Church when in fact, Jesus indicates that he is the one who does this important work.

Some of us do not suffer much from nagging doubts or thoughts of incompetency and failure. Instead, we are prone to illusions of grandeur; we believe we are doing something great for God. Both extremes are distortions of the truth, a remaking of God based on our own perceptions. Nouwen states that, "The idols of our dreams ... are humbling reminders that we still have a long way to go before we are ready to meet our God, not the God created by our own hands or mind, but the uncreated God out of whose loving hands we are born." As followers of Jesus, we want to come out of the landscape of illusion and enter into meaningful, intimate communion with God. In other words, we want to learn how to pray.

So what is prayer? Once again I turn to Nouwen to offer some clarity: "The God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many 'safe' gods to the God whose love has no limits." The paradox of prayer is that while it is a gift, a communion which only God can initiate, it is also a skill which we must practice and as such, it can be challenging, demanding work. Nevertheless, communing with God is meant to be natural, as much a part of us as breathing. Nouwen states: "We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness (the Latin word for anxiety is angustus - narrowness) and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God's breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God's inner life, and by which we are born anew."

Moving from illusion to prayer is not only an internal posture; there are certain practices, readily observable in the lives of those who regularly pray and commune with God, which can guide us. Nouwen lists three:

1. A contemplative reading of Scripture (receiving the words as a seed). Nouwen explains: "Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil."

2. A silent listening to the voice of God (learning to be still). "Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner voices more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God." Nouwen notes that reading the Scriptures makes silence more fruitful and keeps it from being stale. Similarly, being still makes room for the God-breathed words of Scripture to do their re-creative work.

3. A trusting obedience to a spiritual guide (embracing submission within the community of God). Those of us within the Evangelical tradition might not be too familiar with the idea of having a spiritual director, but some type of ongoing, loving feedback is important if we want to make sure we are not deluding ourselves. On our own, we are tempted to equate our speculations and desires with the will of God. We need someone to guide and encourage us, as well as someone to discourage us when we are tempted to make rash and unwise moves. Spiritual guides can assist us in discarding our illusions and can also keep us from developing new ones. Spiritual guides come in many forms: trained spiritual directors, wise friends, trusted leaders, historical figures, traditions, even examples of prayer and the writings of the saints. It is up to us to look for them and to heed them. Spiritual guides are all around us if we but open our eyes and trust the Spirit of Jesus to lead us. In an age where individualism is over-emphasized, we must remind ourselves that we do not walk this path alone. We are part of a holy community and as such, we must learn to trust the Spirit of Jesus in the community to aid us, correct us, and teach us.

In Psalm 46 we read: "Our God says, 'Calm down [be still, be quiet, cease striving], and learn that I am God!" (Psalm 46:10, my additions). The Hebrew word which is often translated "be still" is raphad, and it comes from a word which means "to slacken." We can apply this idea of slackening to the image mentioned at the beginning, that of a rope being held by two people, one at each end. If we stop pulling on the rope and instead, take a step toward the person on the other end, the rope goes slack. The connection is still there, but the tension is gone, the pulling is gone, and the two parties are closer together than they were before. The illusion is that the connection between God and us requires a constant pushing and pulling, that it is a never-ending struggle (and at times it definitely can be). But prayer is not a tug of war, it is not a power struggle. When we are still, when we cease striving, when we let the rope slacken, we find that he is closer to us than we imagined.


This is part three of a series called The Three Interconnected Loves. You can read part one (Loving Yourself) here and the second part on Loving your Neighbour here. Many of the ideas are drawn from Henri Nouwen's excellent book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

Monday, May 09, 2016

loving my neighbour

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I have been teaching a mini-series in our faith community dealing with the three interconnected loves found in the answer to the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" Jesus' reply is this: "You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second great commandment is this: Love others in the same way as you love yourself. There are no commandments more important than these" (Mark 12:30-31, The Voice).

You can find a summary of my first talk on loving yourself here. Now I turn my attention to what it means to rightly relate to our neighbour, or to the other. It is imperative to remember that we cannot neatly dissect these three relationships; how we relate to ourselves is directly related to how we perceive God relates to us and likewise, how we relate to others is directly related to how we believe God views the other. If any one of these relationships (to ourselves, to others, to God) are out of whack, the others are affected. I have been reading a book by Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith. It is her attempt to review and reclaim some of the terms which have been hurtful and unhelpful in their use within religious settings. One of the chapters is titled, "Hell," and she makes a rather shocking statement which directly ties together our relationship with God to our relationship with the other. She writes: "How human beings treat each other has everything to do with our concept of hell." [1] Really?

What she is saying is that if we view God as a cold, harsh judge who declares certain people in (you deserve to enter heaven) and certain people out (you deserve to be cast into hell), we will treat others in this same, cold manner. We will either accept people into our circle or reject them based on our assessment of their goodness. Is this what Jesus calls us to do? Let's look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is telling some parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. He first talks about the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom and then about the master who left his servants with talents to invest during his absence. After these stories we find another metaphor in which the Son of Man, the King of glory, is compared to a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. The emphasis has often been placed on the statements of judgment: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" versus "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." However, I believe that the point of the story is not to show us a glimpse of the final judgment, but to describe the actions of sheep who know their shepherd's voice; in other words, it is another description of what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. It is about how to love (rightly relate) to the other.

Jesus says: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The language here is that of hospitality: treating others with kindness, having a welcoming attitude, and offering the basic necessities to the marginalized and outcasts of society. We also see the language of proximity: those who are welcoming and generous are seen as coming closer to the King of glory (come). Those who do not extend hospitality are depicted as becoming more distant from the King (depart from me). Finally, there is the language of recognition: Jesus indicates that the Son of Man, the King of glory, can be seen in the other, especially the outcast, the poor and the needy. We are invited to recognise Jesus in these unlikely (and perhaps unlikable) forms, and to love God through loving others. Kathleen Norris writes: "Christ will recognize us at the judgment if he already knows us, if he has seen our faces as we served the outcasts of this world; the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. The promise is that we will recognize him as well, as we have already met him in these others." [2]

As Christians in the Western world, we can assume a position of superiority all too quickly. Jesus is quick to condemn this attitude. In Matthew 5, he says, "If you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell [gehenna] of fire." Norris comments on this: "I shudder to think of all the times that I have dismissed other people in this way, at least in my thoughts, which count. It may be permissible to identify another's behavior as foolish, particularly if it also forces me to reflect on my own foolishness. But to say, "you fool," is to negate God's presence in a creature God has made. It is to invite God's absence, which is my definition of hell." [3] Strong words. We would do well to heed them.

Henri Nouwen indicates that as followers of Jesus, our relationships to others should move from hostility toward hospitality. Our vocation is to convert the enemy (hostis) into a guest (hospes), a loved one. When we see Jesus present in others, we seek to reveal the promise they carry within them as image-bearers of God. In rightly relating to others, we are called to create space where change can take place, both in ourselves and in them. We are to do what Christ has done for us, and that is to love without the assurance that we will be loved back. "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Nouwen also notes that in order to truly appreciate hospitality, we must become strangers ourselves and be willing to give up the position of host. This means that we are willing to relinquish home turf and situate ourselves outside of places of comfort and plenty; we are willing to embrace discomfort and need.

In contrast to the assumption that we need to have much in order to be hospitable or generous, Nouwen suggests that poverty makes a good host. He outlines three areas where we can practice poverty and thereby, become more hospitable to others [4]
1. Poverty of posture: "We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, 'Please enter - my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,' we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give."
2. Poverty of mind: "Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other."
3. Poverty of heart: "When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for the stranger."

I started off my talk by tossing out a few names and asking people to say the first word that came to mind. I mentioned Justin Bieber, an inebriated street person outside the library where our church meets, our current Prime Minister, and the person sitting next to us. It was no surprise that there were kind words spoken about some and rather strong and distasteful ones spoken about others, but according to Jesus, all of these people are our neighbours. The lonely, needy, and hurting among us may indeed be the outcasts of society, but they may also be the rich and famous. The very briefest look at the lives of famous people from the past few decades, those whom we tend to idolize, will reveal that they too are broken and hurting, in need of healing and wholeness and friendship, just like the rest of us.

How do we relate rightly to (love) the other? By recognizing Jesus in them and making space for them at our table, in our minds, and in our hearts. Why? Because this is what Jesus does for us every day.

[1] Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 312.
[2] Norris, 314-15.
[3] Norris, 315.
[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 73-75.