Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Blessing for Holy Week

Take heart and hope from the promises of this Holy Week: when you feel good and glad, Jesus joins your parade of celebration.  When you gather at the table with people who love you, Jesus is there; he serves you the bread, and he offers you the cup.  When you pray in loneliness and fear, Jesus weeps and bleeds with you.  When you feel on trial and condemned, he stands with you as your advocate and friend.  When you have gone down, down as far as death, you have not gone past the reach of Jesus’ saving love.  In him you rise, and you live. Go into this week with the assurance that, whatever it brings, Jesus will bring you through it and into full and joyful life.  Amen.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Freedom from Self-Consciousness

Several years ago, I realized that, for a long time, I had been fighting-back tears whenever I would see children run gleefully around a playground or hear them squeal with delight as they played, or notice their wonder over wildflowers, squirrels and birdsong.  It would happen, too, when I listened to a choir of children sing at the top of their lungs without embarrassment or when I saw a kids’ soccer team take the field with buoyant energy.

For a good while, I assumed that the tears must have welled-up in me because I was grieving something I had lost in childhood but couldn’t quite name as an adult. 

Then I noticed, though--and I know this is odd--that I would also get misty-eyed when I saw big men (having been big most of my life)  doing outrageous things—sometimes consequential outrageous things and sometimes silly outrageous things.  When John Goodman would waltz around the kitchen on “Roseanne,” or John Belushi would sing and dance like a wild man in his Blues Brothers’ routine, or Willard Scott would dress up like Carmen Miranda or Ronald McDonald or take off his toupee on national television, or Luciano Pavorotti would sing without restraint, I could hardly contain an odd mixture of joy and sadness.

What, I wondered, did playful children and these big men doing outrageous things have in common?  For a few moments at least, they “forgot themselves”; they were free from the burden of self-consciousness.

Jesus said we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves; and it’s also true, I think that we should love ourselves as we love our neighbors.  It’s right and good to include ourselves in our circle of wise and tender care.  “Self-care,” though, is not the same thing as “self-consciousness.”

When we are mired up in self-consciousness, we worry constantly about how we will appear to others, what they will think of us, and what they will do to us.   We live cautiously and carefully, not taking risks, because we might fail, and not dreaming dreams, because they might not come true.   Self-conscious people learn to defend themselves and hold themselves back from life.  

When Jesus calls us to “deny ourselves,” he’s inviting us, in part, to let go of our “false selves.”  I also think he’s offering us the gift of freedom from the burden of self-consciousness; he’s pointing us toward the exhilarating experience of “losing” ourselves in marvels, mysteries, joys, and wonders which are greater than we but which graciously include and welcome us. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Toward All Thnigs Made New

As I make my slow way through this frequently labored and often labyrinthine Lenten season, I am grateful that Resurrection lures us toward the future which it has already opened-up. Light and hope stream into our present circumstances;  they show us that love is visible even in the dark, assure us that presence speaks through silence, and promise us that courage flows along with tears.  With the pull of the future, the magnetic power of Omega, and the open arms of the Risen One, today becomes the passage to eternity and ordinary things become tokens of miracle. I am sustained by the awareness that we  live, not toward nothing, but toward all things made new.     And I am so grateful.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Privilege of Listening

One of life’s crucial lessons is that we are responsible for how we use our ability to pay attention.  We are stewards of our capacities to notice, to focus, and to consider people, the world around us, and God.   We choose what to do with our attention, and failure to choose is itself a choice: unless we direct our attention, we are choosing distraction, diversion and confusion.  We’re opting for impersonal chatter and incessant churn rather than personal conversation and deepening intimacy.  We’re settling for noise instead of cherishing voices. 

Theologian Paul Tillich said: “The first duty of love is to listen.”  I would change only one word in that sentence: “The first privilege—not the first duty, the first privilege—of love is to listen.”  If I love you, I will listen to you.  If I say I love you but do not listen to you, you have every reason to doubt  the sincerity and depth of my love.  In practical, day-to-day terms love has to do with time and attention; and, for the most part, time and attention are about listening, genuinely listening, to the people whom we profess to love. 

Such listening is a vast privilege which some of us leave unexercised, because it can be costly.  It comes at the price of humility and vulnerability.  To listen is to admit: “I don’t already know everything I need to know—about myself, about the person sitting across from me, about the world, about myself and about God.”  It is to acknowledge that there are limits to my experience and therefore to my awareness.  It is to be more interested in being in relationship than in being right.  Listening is only possible if I am willing to let down my defenses, lay aside my preconceptions, put away my prejudices, surrender my prior conclusions, and open myself to the possibility of changing my mind, my heart, and my behavior based on what I learn.

Pastoral Counselor Wayne Oates used to say that he hadn’t witnessed a healing by the “laying on of hands” but that he had often experienced others’ being healed by the “laying on of ears.”  Such restorative listening is a gift we are graced to give each other.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Knowing Ourselves, Knowing God

We learn some things sequentially, a step at a time: first the basics, then intermediate challenges and, only later, greater complexity.  Like math, for instance: learn to count, to add, and to subtract; then, to multiply and divide.  After this basic arithmetic, take on simple algebra and whatever mathematical marvels are beyond algebra.  I have no idea what those marvels might be, by the way.  I treated math the way some people treat the required swimming test in college physical education: I waded around in the shallow end of geometry and calculus, took just enough strokes to show I wouldn’t drown in equations and formulas, and promised never to go near the water of numbers again.  For most of us, even people who like math, learning it is a series of more or less sequential steps. 

A visual artist might start with a big crayon on butcher block paper, move to tempra paints on newsprint, to smaller crayons in a coloring book or on standard white paper, to pencil and ink in a sketchbook, and to water-colors and maybe oils on canvass.  There will be lessons, apprenticeships, degree programs, discarded paintings, early shows that include pictures the artist later can’t believe she let see the light of day, as well as a few treasures which show future promise.  For the most part, an artist builds skills on top of skills, and the early steps have to come before the later ones.
There are a lot of things we learn that way—sequentially: from basic to intermediate to advanced.  But we don’t learn about ourselves, or about God, in that kind of predictable and orderly way.  There isn’t a course, complete with software, videos, and online support, which can guide you, step-by-step. into self-awareness and self-knowledge. And there certainly isn’t a manual, like one you’d use to prepare for the SAT or the GRE or the Bar Exam, to prepare you to be certified in the knowledge of God.  To know ourselves more truly and to know God more fully and deeply is a far more circular, labyrinthine, mysterious, meandering, and joyful adventure than any merely formulaic or step-by-step process could be. 

It’s also true that knowing ourselves and knowing God depend on each other.  God made us intricately, knows us intimately, loves us unconditionally, and delights in us eternally, which means, to say the very least, that God knows, values, and believes in us far more than we know, value, and believe in ourselves.  We can only know our identity—who we really are--by learning it in conversation with Holy Love.  That Love invites us to discover ourselves by discovering more of the vast, glad, and fathomless Mystery which is at the heart of all things.