The Way of Christ–Descent into Humility

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If anyone is still out there following this blog…a friend of mine asked me to say a few words on his blog, which I have gladly done.

You can find my meager contribution here:

The Uncommon Journey

I may periodically post to his blog site, and I will let you know when I have done so.  I encourage you to visit this other site and to subscribe to Keith’s blog.

Christ is in our midst.

Deeper into the Desert

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

“Little Giddings”
(No. 4 of “Four Quartets”)
T.S. Eliot

I started this blog nearly three years ago as a way of publicly recording my wanderings in the desert with God. I fancied myself as a western Poustinik…one called into the desert by God and whom would then periodically return with a message for the village. Being a Poustinik felt like my role in the church in which I was an associate pastor.

There have been significant changes in my life since I started writing here, changes which have included two major job changes and a move to another state. Perhaps you notice from the dates of the blog entries that I have only posted twice in the last year. Circumstances in my life have brought me to a point of working out of the vocational pastorate. But, that is not why my blogging has greatly decreased.

Over the past couple of years I have been discovering Eastern Orthodoxy. That journey has culminated (can one use that word with a journey that is really just beginning?) with me and my wife being received into the Church on Holy Saturday. We have finally come home.

We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true Faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

This is from a prayer sung during the Liturgy. The Orthodox believe the fullness of the faith–the fullness of God–is found by participating in the ancient Church. I’m not going to try to defend that statement; I don’t feel a need to. I simply believe it is true because the Church Herself proclaims it. I am experiencing it.

The Orthodox also believe that God is incomprehensible, but that you have the know Him to know that. Like Eliot’s poem, I have been exploring God for many years now, including sixty hours of formal, post graduate study. With Eliot’s traveller, I feel like I have arrived back at the beginning of my exploration: an infant in Christ.

The Orthodox Divine Liturgy is the very real journey from this world into the kingdom of God itself worshipping the Trinity with all the heavenly hosts, and then returning to this world. In my participation in this journey I have realized that I am only beginning to glimpse the incomprehensibility of God, only beginning to realize just how little I know Him and His revealed nature.

Before Him, before the men and women past and present who have given their lives to Him in a way that is so far beyond anything I have done I simply have nothing to say. Rather, I need to be quiet and listen and experience God through Him and His worldly saints.

I pray God draws me deeper into the desert, deeper into Him. Perhaps I’ll write here again here one day. Only God knows.

Journey Into Humility

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Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. -Apostle Paul, Philippians 2:5-8

I know a man, once at the top of his profession.  He has a long list of credentials. He travelled the world as a representative of the world’s largest company in his industry. He worked with other companies and governments on matters of international regulation.  At times he had individual’s lives in his hands.  Now, he works in what most consider as an entry level job in his profession.

I know a woman, considered an expert in her field.  She held a prominent position in one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world.  She knows state and federal law applicable to her field.  She has spoken at national conventions and has consulted across the country. She has coached and influenced the lives of hundreds.  Now it is hard for her to be accepted into an occasional volunteer position in her field.

I know a man, once a spiritual leader of hundreds, ordained by his denomination.  He has years of advanced study behind him.  He has taught at the university level and led spiritual retreats across the country.  He now attends a beginners class with other new believers in his own faith.

Humility is a curious thing.  Someone once said that the moment we think we are humble we have lost it.  We often think of a humble person as one who does not seek to be noticed and if noticed is quick to deflect praise and give credit to another.  The humble person might say, “I didn’t do anything special,” or “I didn’t do anything anyone else would’t have done,” or “I didn’t really contribute anything, Jane did much more than I did.”

I think this is humility, but that it is so much more.

Let’s go a little deeper and consider cleaning toilets.  I have cleaned toilets for Christ.  In my zeal to help another, I have cleaned toilets on occasion.  And I have come to see the pride in that: “Look at me, everyone, I am such a good Christian that I clean toilets.”  There is no humility in that attitude!  But, what if the only job you could get is cleaning toilets?  What if, despite all of your years of schooling, your vast experience and expertise, your accumulated wisdom, etc., what if all anyone would hire you to do is to clean toilets?  This is a different level of humility.  Would you take the job or would you consider it beneath you?  If you took the job, would you do it daily as though you were doing it for God?

Deeper.  Imagine a private screening of your life story, but you see your actions through the eyes of others.    You see and hear the real story behind the story, how hurtful your actions have been, how self-centered your life really is…the lasting pain you have caused another.  My first response would be to quickly look around to ensure no one else was watching my movie.  Could you stand to watch as the all scenes unfolded or would you hide your eyes during the painful moments and relish the joyful ones?  Would you have the courage to not rationalize away all that you saw, but to face who you are?

Still deeper.  Think of what it would be like to reveal to another human the darkest side of yourself through the stories of the deeds and thoughts you have just witnessed.  Facing the shame of who we are is hard enough in the privacy of our own minds; however, would you have the courage to reveal it to another?  Not just to reveal the things you could bear revealing, but to reveal the deepest, darkest part of you?  What would it do to us?  Would we feel crushed?    Or…would we feel sorrow in the depths of our soul?

It is here, I believe, that humility and repentance become one.

But this is the one to whom I [God] will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.

True humility is an emptiness of self so that one can turn to and be filled with God (repentance).  It is realizing that we are nothing but dust with the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit in us making us into the image of God Himself.  It is realizing that, as dust, we cannot even fully grasp the fulness of our own wretchedness.  However, it is not, ultimately, self-abuse.

St Gregory of Sanai says it well:

…true humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force oneself either to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. Although all such things are the beginning, the manifestations and the various aspects of humility, humility itself is grace, given from above. There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end.

Image and Likeness

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Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
From the story of creation, Genesis 1:26

I’m sitting in a small beach house on the Gulf of Mexico and calling it work. Really, I am working…you will have to trust me on that. It is just that right now the work involves waiting on a client.

While I’m waiting I have these few minutes to enjoy God’s creation and to ponder what it means that we are made in God’s image and likeness.

Some biblical commentators have suggested that image and likeness are the same, that the writer of Genesis says the same thing twice and in two different ways to make the strong point of our value as humans.

I recently came across another explanation that I find more theologically satisfying.

“In the beginning…” as the Book says, God and the first humans were united; humankind was by Grace what God is by nature. All was “good” until our first parents fell for a lie. The consequence of their disobedience of God changed humanity; our respective natures, God’s and man’s, were no longer united. Without God’s Spirit within us we became bound to the dust out of which we were created rather than bound to our Creator. To speak like the late Carl Sagan, we became the stuff of the creation rather than the stuff of the Creator.

God’s words from Genesis 3:16–

For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Our union with God now broken, there was no way for us to remain in the Garden of Eden, the garden of perfect harmony with our Creator. We had to leave. It remained that way for us for untold years, and, left to our own devices, there was no way to return, no way to reunite human nature with Divine nature. Separation of our nature from God’s, and being nothing but dust, would have been our eternal fate had God chosen not to act on our behalf.

At the moment of our separation from Him he announced that He had a plan for our restoration to Him, a plan to rescue us from being bound to the dust which is the world. Then one day, over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born and God’s rescue operation was made evident in the person of a baby.

One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus was both God and man, both human and Divine. I think we so often focus on Jesus’ death that we forget the significance of His birth. At the moment of His conception and manifest in His birth, human nature and Divine nature were reunited. Jesus became, as the Bible tells us, the second Adam. This has the most profound implication for us! Because of His birth it became possible for each of us to be reunited with God. With the birth of Jesus, the potential now existed for us to return home.

This potential is how the early Church Fathers came to understand our being made in the “image” of God: it is the potential for our “sanctification,” for our two natures, God’s and ours, to be united (called Theosis). And it is this potential that gives us value as humans over any other living thing: we are created in the image of God. Each of us humans has the potential to have our individual nature united with God’s nature. There are some who would try to confer “personhood” on apes or dolphins or other creatures based on intelligence, language use, etc.; however, no other creature has the potential to be united with God; humans alone are created in the image of God.

With this understanding of “image,” here is a great quote from the late Archbishop Dimitri of Dallas I want to throw in at this point:

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

If this potential of united natures is “image of God,” then what is “likeness?” It is simple, really. If “image” is the potential of union with God, then “likeness” is the actualization of that union. To actualize the potential, we must do two things. First, we must give God permission to begin drawing us into His life.

There are a lot of fancy theological words bandied about regarding Christianity. The bottom line is that God wants to invite us into His life, an unimaginable life of unconditional love. The ancients characterized this communal life of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, as a Divine Dance (perichoresis). God draws us into His life and wants desperately to teach us the steps of the dance.

This, then, is the second thing we must do: we must learn to cooperate with Him as He teaches us how to live life with Him, to dance the Divine Dance. And He is a gracious and patient dance instructor.

The most remarkable thing is that God wants this for each of us. After all, it is God’s desire that no one should spend an eternity dancing alone, disunited from Him. However, not everyone wants that sort of union with God.

So, look around you. Every human being you see bears the image of God. From the most kind person to the most hated terrorist, every one of us is an icon, an image of the living God. Every human being has inestimable value to God. Imagine a world in which we treated each other that way. Better yet, imagine a world in which this potential is fully realized. One day we won’t have to imagine this actualized world…it is God’s promised kingdom come. I pray that by God’s Grace within me, I will see you there.

Not Willing that Any should Perish

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The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
  –From Peter’s second letter; 2Peter 3:9

I’ve been wondering lately about my view of my life and my sense of time.  More specifically, I’m coming to believe that my view of my life is too narrow and my sense of time too linear.

For a while, and in this blog you have read it, I have believed that the ultimate goal of life is relational union with God.  “Union with God” can be said differently: to know Him, where “know” is the most intimate knowing of another person; or, to be one with Him; or, to participate in the life of the Trinity; or, to partake of His Divine nature; or, to join the Divine Dance (Gr. perichoresis) with the Trinity.  We struggle to put words to it because it is a mystery.  Not a mystery in the sense that we must puzzle it out; rather, a genuine mystery in that no human really knows how it happens, only that it does and is the goal of our existence.

Over the past few years I have been pretty good at noticing God at work in the circumstances of my current life as He works to draw me into relational union with Him; I try to notice and cooperate as moment-by-moment he teaches me the steps of the Divine Dance with Him.

But, what if the “moment” is more than I have previously thought?

I’ve begun thinking about my linear view of time within the specific context of the ultimate goal of my life.  And, I’m thinking about this for a reason: I’m in the middle of a radical life change of direction.  So, within the context of the ultimate goal for my life and my immediate, upcoming change, here is what I’m thinking…

For a number years I’ve been praying along with the ancient Israeli King, David, that God would do whatever He needed to in my life in order to rid me of the distortions and attachments and wounds within me that hinder my relationship with Him.  Or, as a past writer, Julian of Norwich, would have put it, I pray that I might be “oned” with God.  It is a dangerous prayer, but I have meant it, at least as I have understood what it meant.

I have been alive nearly two score and eighteen years.  All this time I have viewed my life as a linear journey through time which has brought me to this point.  But, what if time collapses to a single moment, a moment which contains my birth, my lived life, and my death, all simultaneously?  And, what if God, aware of my later life prayer to do with me whatever is necessary to bring me into relational oneness with Him, actually began to answer that prayer from the moment of my birth?  Wouldn’t that change how I view my path through life?

This is not as preposterous as it might first sound.  For at least the first thousand years, the Christian Church believed this.  Even today, when celebrating the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, we say, “Christ is risen,” not “Christ has risen.”

Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that as we participate in the Divine Liturgy, what the Western Church might refer to as Sunday morning worship, all of time collapses into the present moment.  All that was, is, and is yet to be is fully present in the moment…all of past history and future events are occurring simultaneously in the present.  Another mystery, to say the least.

I have occasionally said this about important moments in my life: “All the events of my life have brought me to this point.”  But I have meant that in an autonomous sense.  Let me try  to give an example.  I say about my meeting my wife that I had to take the path through life that I did so that our paths would cross on that day more than 27 years ago.  She had nothing to do with any of my life decisions that ultimately brought us together prior to our meeting; it was all me.  She played no role in it, it was all me up to that wonderful day.  Sometimes we attribute such things to “fate.”

I believe that this autonomous living is how I have thought of God’s involvement in my life prior to my turning to Him fifteen years ago.  I now realize that I have believed I moved through life making choices until I finally made a choice for Him, and there He was waiting for me.  Not too different from the way I would say I met my wife.  Whether fate, dumb luck—whatever the mechanism—I have generally thought of my life-before-God as life-with-no-God-involvement-until-I-turned-to-Him.  It is a common enough teaching of the Church.  I have taught it!

But, what if at the moment of my birth (actually, from the moment of all creation) God knew that in my fifties I would be desperately praying for Him to rid me of the junk in my life that keeps me from being oned with Him?  The implication is this: rather than God sitting back waiting for me to turn to Him, I now believe that from the moment of my birth He was active in my life answering the prayer He knew I would pray more than fifty years later.

For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether…
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
–A Psalm of King David

In other words, I’m moving toward believing that God began answering my prayer of oneness with Him the moment I prayed it; but because all moments exist together, His answer included all of my life before I prayed the prayer.

Yeah, I know…this brings up all kinds of questions of my free will and God’s will for me…a debate with a long history within Christianity.  But the intertwining of two free wills, God’s and mine, is nothing if not also a mystery.  Goodness, the intertwining of mine and my wife’s respective free wills is mysterious enough!!

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, as I look back over my life at the decisions I’ve made, good and bad, at least from my perspective, and the resulting path I’ve taken, I have a choice of how to assess it.  On the one hand I can believe that I was slogging through life alone until I finally turned to God.  On the other hand I can believe God was in my life always, working at answering my “future” prayer to be oned with Him.

If I believe the former, then I can easily fall into regret for decisions made and the path I took.  Then I make myself feel better by saying that God will “redeem it” for some future use.

However, if I believe the latter, that God was at work all of my life answering my prayer, then my entire life is an answered prayer. Because of my own free will and my refusal to acknowledge Him for more than 40 years, He answered my “future” prayer the only way He could, which is the path of life I have lived.  Therefore, my life path is not something to be regretted and “redeemed”; rather, it is something for which to be utterly thankful.

Choose Life

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I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…

—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

The debate over homosexuality is a hot-button issue about many things: moral right and wrong, human rights, love, happiness, natural law, the definition of marriage…

As important as these issues are, I don’t believe they should be the focus, at least not for Christians.  The debate over homosexuality should be a discussion about one thing and only one thing: what brings us life.

And this focus should apply not just to homosexuality but to all behavior, sexual and otherwise.

Here’s a question: Why did Jesus die for us?  If you have ever been to Sunday school or watched a sporting event you know about John 3:16

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Life.

Jesus said later in the same book of the Bible that He came so that we might “have life and life more abundantly.”  Sadly, that is not often the message of Christians.  Too often we reduce Christianity to a list of moral rights and wrongs rather than an invitation into abundant life with God.    We wag our fingers at Christians and non-Christians alike when we see what we believe is unbiblical behavior; we judge and scoff at and scold people for not being “good.”

When we reduce Christianity to a list of rights and wrongs we say that Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection were God’s way of making bad people good.  Sadly, we turn God into some kind of supernatural Santa Clause who keeps a list of who has been naughty and nice and doles out eternal presents or lumps of coal.

Like many of you, I don’t want to worship that kind of god either.

But…what if Jesus’ death was not about making bad people good?  What if it was only about offering life to dead people?  If the latter is the case, then the Bible can be no longer viewed as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth; rather, through its stories God tells us and shows us the way that people fully alive with Him normally live, and Jesus’ life is the exemplar.  Further, the Bible shows us of God’s eagerness to be with us and the lengths He will go to help us to participate in His life.

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, Jesus came to offer life to dead people.

I know a little something about living without God—living as a dead person with my dead-person behaviors.  I wanted to be the master of my own universe, to fulfill all of my own desires.

I know from my own experience that dead people act out because they don’t know any better, it is simply “natural” for them to act this way.  You Christians sometimes got mad at me, but I didn’t know any better.  Rarely was I invited into life; rather, it was pointed out to me that I was acting badly.

It doesn’t matter whether the dead-person behavior born out of greed, pride, gluttony, power-mongering, anger, or lust (homosexuality or premarital heterosexual sex)—and the list goes on and on—dead people will naturally do the things of dead people.  Sure, dead people can perform good and great acts, too, but even those acts come from the vestiges of God’s morality since we are all made in His image and will not in and of themselves bring life to the dead.

Sin is not the things we do that are wrong, where “wrong” is defined as acting against biblical rules.  No.  Sin is our state of being separated from God.  When God calls us to turn to Him and  then to obey Him, He does so only because wants to unite us to Himself, He wants to bring us into a relationship with Him where we will find the abundant life He has for us; therefore, following His way for us to live is simply the way people fully alive in relationship with Him try to live their lives.

God is inviting us into the fullness of abundant life; He is not an all-powerful Killjoy…

God is inviting us into the fullness of abundant life; He is not an all-powerful Killjoy trying to ruin our fun and quench our desires.  Obeying God does not prevent us from enjoying life.  Quite the contrary!  Obeying God frees us to live the abundant life He wants for us.  We are oppressed only when we allow ourselves to be held captive by our attempts to satiate our own unbridled passions and desires.

This is the heart of the Bible message: God only wants for us to be our best, to be fully alive, to become the person He created us to be, which only occurs when we are in relationship with Him.  This is real Love, His for us.

But, participating in God’s life takes effort, just like any relationship worth having.  I must put forth effort into changing my old, dead-person habits for the sake of our relationship, relying on the power of God’s Holy Spirit within me to increasingly transform me over my lifetime into a person fully and abundantly alive and participating in His life.

Yes, I still battle many of my old, dead-person habits.  And lately, it seems, God has been unfailing in pointing out to me just how much I still act like a dead person.  Curiously, His pointing this out gives me hope because it reminds me of His love for me and that I can only find abundant life with Him.  And it helps me to have compassion for the still dead people and for other dead-acting Christians and makes me want to offer them the same hope I am finding with Him.

God is calling each one of us out of dead-person life and into a life fully alive with Him.  God is love and can only act toward us out of love; however, His love for us precludes Him from accepting something less for us that He has intended.

So, the choices in our lives, Christian and non-Christian alike, are not about right and wrong and who has the moral high-ground.  All of our daily choices of behavior really boil down to a single choice that we repeat every moment of every day: it is the choice between behaving as a human being alive with God or behaving as one dead and apart from God.

Respond to God’s invitation.  Choose life.

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…

—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Waiting

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Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord    (Psalm 27:14)

Waiting is hard for most of us.  It takes patience.  The ticking of the clock (do clocks still tick?) can seem interminable.  And, perhaps it is increasingly hard because we are not used to waiting much anymore.  With our mobile devices it is easy to distract ourselves from its tedium.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to reflect on waiting…

If current science is correct, the universe was created somewhere around 13.8 billion years ago.  Ex nihilo is what some say: “out of nothing.”  Correct, in the way it is meant, but the will and Word and action of God are hardly “nothing.”

God spoke into the nothingness.  It sounded like a BANG!

And God began to wait.

Corridor of Time

Created matter cools ands clumps together.  Stars form, live, and die.   One day a mass of hydrogen ignites and an average yellow star appears—we call it “the Sun.”  Matter begins to orbit around this star.  Finally, some 9.3 billion years after The Beginning, there was Earth, “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep.”  9.3 billion years. Tick, tick, tick…  Write down the number 29.  Follow it with 16 zeros.  That many seconds ticked by between creation of the universe and the formation of Earth.  Tick, tick, tick…the waiting seems interminable; God’s patience, unimaginable.

Another 1 billion years of seconds pass; tick, tick, tick…a 3 with 16 zeros.  First life appears.  Still He waits…

Still another 3.3 billion years tick off; a 1 followed by 17 zeros.  Tick, tick, tick…the precursors to Adam and Eve walk Earth.  Still He waits…

Again, God speaks, and man and woman appear in the mist of antiquity.  Tick, tick, tick…a 4 followed by 17 zeros between BANG! and the appearance of mankind “created in His image and likeness.”  Still He waits…

God created us to share in His life and in His love, to “partake of His divine nature.”  Write a 4 followed by 17 zeros; that is how many seconds have ticked by since The Beginning.  The number is too big to comprehend.  Put it another way: only in the last 0.0007% of Time between The Beginning until today has mankind, as icon of God, existed.  Tick, tick, tick…  99.9993% of Time God has waited for us.  He is not in a hurry.

 ———————————

At 8:15 on the morning of April 16th, 1924, she entered the world.  Since The Beginning, each of her days was written in God’s book “when there were yet none of them.”  He had plans for her welfare and not for evil, to give her a future and a hope.  Then, for 13.8 billion years God awaited her conception.  He knew the exact time and place she would arrive into the world.  With each tick and tock He thought of her.

Ninety years ago she was conceived and it has been eighty-nine years since her birth.  She was intricately formed exactly as He had intended.  Eighty-nine years: write a 28 followed by 8 zeros.  Tick, tick, tick…each second of her life is precious to God.

The 89 years is drawing to a close.  God’s beautiful daughter lies unresponsive: one day, two days, three days, now four…345,600 seconds have ticked by since she last talked….it is we who now wait.  And we wonder, “Why do You continue to wait, God?”  We plead, “Take her now.”  God remains patient, unhurried.  He has waited 13.8 billion and 89 years to hold her.  When finally He draws her to Him, He will hold her for eternity, seconds without number.

BANG!, said God..it is now 13.8 billion and 89 years later and almost time for the Lover and His beloved to be united face-to-face.  For all of eternity.  God waits patiently for her; it is we who can’t wait.

 ———————————

Physical death came last night, just six weeks shy of ninety.  It has been 13.8 billion and 89 years since God first thought of His most beautiful daughter. Now she has come home to Him.

435,000,000,000,000,000 times the clock has ticked as He waited for her.  They are finally together; Lover and Beloved now united.  That is Love beyond measure.  She is more alive than ever.

 It is our turn to wait to see her.

Tick Tock

Wow!

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wow /wou/: expressing astonishment or admiration.

The Boardwalk At Trouville-Monet

The Boardwalk At Trouville-Monet

Recently I visited the local art museum to view an exhibit focused on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s.

This particular exhibit contained many works from the greats of that time period, such as, Degas, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and van  Gogh.

At first, I was moving slowly through the exhibit pausing in front of each work with an audible and involuntarily, “Wow!”  The genius of each artist was evident even to me.

With each passing gallery my pace began to quicken; I was pausing less at each work.  Toward the end of the two-and-a-half hours I noticed my initial “Wow!” response had faded.  Sure, I would occasionally come across a work that stood out in some way and I would get another shot of Wow!, but, for the most part it had faded even though I was still standing before works of true art by rare geniuses.  Mostly, though, I was getting tired.  There was no longer enough Wow! to keep me engaged and energized.

We humans are fickle creatures, aren’t we?  We are forever seeking Wow! and then more Wow!  I think this points to the central problem with Wow!: we eventually become numb to the initial precipitating Wow! experience and begin looking for more of it—whether in the form of the next adrenaline thrill or the next great novel or a new way to read something in the Bible or the latest generation of smartphone or…wherever.  Like a drug to which we have built up a tolerance, we need a greater and greater Wow! fix to keep our interest.

I noticed something else at the museum.  After viewing the exhibit, our small party of four gathered in the middle of one of the larger galleries to discuss our thoughts of the exhibit and our plans for dinner together.  As we talked, I found myself beginning to stare at several of the nearby impressionist paintings.  Being able to so easily view them together from a distance of about 20 feet allowed me to see them in a way I had never seen them before and to immediately understand impressionism in a new and profound way.  My first response was, of course, Wow!  We continued to stand in the gallery and I began to enjoy the extended time to engage with these few paintings in this new way—I was no longer seeing the paintings; rather, I was experiencing the paintings.  And then a strange thing happened, my Wow! began to change to a quieter and prolonged “wow…”

My Wow! had given way to awe.

My Wow! had given way to awe.

awe /ô/: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

Wonder” is such a terrific synonym for “awe.”  Perhaps you recall a day when you noticed a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset, one so remarkable that it stopped you in your tracks.  Likely you couldn’t help but stare at it, not thinking about it but experiencing it in wonder.  Standing there, staring at the beauty before you, doing nothing but being in the experience of the moment is, paradoxically, a deliberate act of contemplation.  The “awe” you felt can only come from such deliberate contemplation.

Have you ever been curious why the so-called Christian mystics focus on contemplation of God as the way to God?  It is easy to believe, from our modern standpoint, that contemplating God is an archaic practice for those with nothing else to do.  It is a waste of time, we tell ourselves, because we are not doing anything for God.  Not so.  I believe the act of contemplation is indeed the path to God exactly because of my experience at the museum: without contemplation I only think or hear about God and maybe it gives me a sense of Wow!  I look to God for a Wow!-inducing miracle and then, like those who saw Jesus perform miracles and wanted more, I, too, continuously seek more and more Wow! from God.  However, when I slow down to contemplate God I begin to experience Him more deeply, to experience Him with fear and wonder…to begin to engage Him with a sense of awe.

Contemplation requires time, and, sadly, time is something we have so little of, or so we believe.

The biblical writers often write with a sense of awe:

O Lord, our Sovereign how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8)

Ancient Israel’s King David took the time to contemplate creation around and above him and was clearly in awe of God as he wrote these words.  In those final minutes at the museum, as I began to contemplate the art around me, I found myself in awe of the work and the artists…and of God, their creator.  Contemplating something from God had drawn me into contemplation of God.

Without God’s help, we are simply incapable of seeing Him and contemplating Him.  In the 1300s, a monk from the East, St Gregory Palamas, wrote this about God’s initiative toward us:

[Because we are incapable of seeing God, He] illuminates the mind alone with an obscure light, so as to draw a man to Himself by that within Himself which is comprehensible, and so as to evoke his wonder at that which is incomprehensible, and through this wonder to increase his longing, and through this longing to purify [his desire for] him.  (The Triads)

The light is God, and the mind (nous) of which Palamas speaks is not the brain or the mind as we think of it now.  He speaks of an inner organ of vision with which we are all able to see into the spiritual realm, a sight that has been obscured by the sin of mankind.

God is all around us and is ever inviting us, wishing that none of us turn from Him.  However, because our spiritual vision is so poor, we can only begin contemplating Him with our our senses or intellect through things that we “see,” such as great art.  Thankfully, as we seek Him He is at work in us, His children, clarifying our inner sight so that we might increasingly behold Him in awe.

Next time you see someone staring at a flower, at a sunset, at a two-legged image of God, at a work of art, or even staring off into space apparently wasting time, perhaps it is me contemplating God and experiencing Him in awe.  Come and sit beside me for awhile.

Head’s Down

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Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every bush afire with God.
And every bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes of his shoes
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries…

    —Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Leigh,” book 7

“Head’s down” is an old phrase used in aviation, specifically among pilots, to indicate that the pilot is busy with something inside the cockpit, such as reading a checklist or looking at navigational maps.  In an airplane with two pilots, one might say to the other, “I’m going head’s down to program the navigation computer for landing.”  It can be important for the other pilot to know because other than when flying in the clouds (a relatively short time in an average flight) it is critical for both pilots to be “head’s up” and looking out the window; after all, it is ultimately the pilots’ responsibility to see and avoid other airplanes as well as prevent an unscheduled encounter with the ground.

pierPilots are not the only ones who periodically operate head’s down.  Recently, a women was walking head’s down, intently browsing on her cellphone. Distracted by what she was doing, she walked off a pier and fell into the ocean.  Rescuers found her floating on her back holding her cell phone out of the water.  I’m sure you know that this is only one incident in a growing trend of people walking, driving, dining, or in any number of circumstances, being distracted by their phones.  Increasingly, it seems, we are a culture that moves through life with our collective heads down.

It is easy to point at technology as the cause; however, I think it has only made a common problem worse.  I think we have always been head’s down people.  But now I’ve switched the meaning of “head’s down” just a little.  Rather than being attentive to something right in front of us, I intend “head’s down” to mean our radical self-absorption.  Mankind, by nature, is generally a self-absorbed, head’s down creature.

Lately, out of the circumstances of my own life, I’ve been wondering about Moses.  Perhaps you know his story, found in four of the first five books of the Bible (Exodus – Deuteronomy).  Born a Hebrew slave, his mom placed the infant Moses in a basket  and set him afloat in the Nile river.  She did this to avoid his death at the hands of Egyptian soldiers ordered to kill all infant Hebrew boys as a form of population control.  The basket was found by the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him as her own.  He grew up in Pharaoh’s house.  As a man, the Bible tells us, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave and then fled to Midian to escape the death penalty.

If Jewish legend is to be believed, Moses grew up to be a man of great education and influence in Pharaoh’s court.  After killing the Egyptian at the age of 27, he fled to Ethiopia and served as their king for forty years, eventually unseated because he was not Ethiopian.  It was then at age 67 that he moved to Midian where he become a shepherd, married Zipporah, and had a family.

Here is where my imagination takes over.

As a shepherd, I imagine him in the desert feeling like a caged animal.  He once had it all: a powerful man in Pharaoh’s court and then the the king of Ethiopia.  He had the world at his feet.  Now, he is a shepherd.  I imagine him emotionally exhausted and unhappy, consumed with the what-if’s of the past and scheming to achieve his desired future: a return to prominence.  I can see him in my mind’s eye, alone with the sheep “in the back of the desert”, so head’s down, so self-absorbed with his own misery, that every day for years he walked past God in the burning bush without noticing.  And God let him walk by each day, inviting him with flames but never calling out to him to stop.

In the Bible, God often uses the desert as a teaching tool.  Again and again, people, including Jesus, find themselves in the desert facing the greatest battle of all, the battle with themselves.  For Moses, I imagine God using the desert to begin to transform him from someone who lives head’s down in the inner torment of his life as a shepherd and into someone who lives head’s up.  Only on the day he was first able to begin to look past his circumstances—the day he finally went head’s up—was the day he saw the bush literally afire with God, and he stopped.  And only when he stopped did God speak to him (“when the Lord saw that he stopped to look, God called to him…”).

Barrett Browning is right.  The Earth is crammed full of heaven.  Every bush is aflame with God.  Rather than take off our shoes, we are so busy with our Blackberrys (smart phone or other self-absorbed distraction) that we no longer notice God—not that we ever did—and we walk off the piers in our lives suddenly finding ourselves floating in the ocean, holding up our phones, waiting for someone to rescue us.

In our radical self-absorption we miss God at evercampfirey turn and we wonder why we are so often cold and wet.  Perhaps it is time for each of us to find a piece of desert, to enter our own cell and let God teach us to live life head’s up, with our eyes on Him alone.

Come, remove your shoes and sit for awhile by the warmth of a bush afire with God.

The Cell

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In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses to ask for advice. The old man said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

Nearly 1700 years ago the small vanguard of what would grow to more than 100,000 people left civilization and moved into the deserts of Egypt and Syria.  They were the first monks (from the Greek, meaning “single” or “alone”); we know them today as the Desert Mothers and Fathers.

When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion the Roman persecution of Christians ceased.  Being a Christian became easy, even fashionable, so much so that these Christian women and men left for the hard living of the desert.

These early monks lived in caves or small dwellings, known as cells. They lived radically isolated and simple lives practicing a disciplined (ascetic) life that we would consider quite extreme by today’s standards.  Yet, their lives were attractive to many—even then people would travel great distances for a word of wisdom from these monks.

This kind of simple life can be attractive to us, particularly in our frenetic world.  We long for the slower pace.  But I’m not talking about seeking after a simple life for the sake of escaping the pace of the world.  What drove these women and men into the deserts was not their desire to escape society and live simply; rather, it was their desire to directly confront the root cause of all battles…ourselves…and this was their chosen battlefield.

You see, must have been from a the cell that Pogo’s creator finally met the enemy and discovered he was us.  It was from his literal prison cell that Solzhenitsyn came to understand that the line separating good from evil does not run between countries or classes of people or political parties but through the heart of each of us.

But to enter one’s cell without the Christian God is to join the path of a downward spiral to the nothingness of Sarte’s existentialism, the place of ultimate hopelessness.  By contrast, the great hopefulness contained within the writings of these early monks remains with as much veracity today as it had 1700 years ago.

Here is something I have learned: you do not have to become a monk living in the desert or a monastery to experience life in a monastic cell.  Life in a cell can be had in the desert or in the midst of a bustling, modern city.  There is a cell awaiting each of us if we would only seek it.

The path to eternal life is difficult.  The gate of entry is narrow and the path is hard.  I am coming to believe that eventually, in this world or the next, each of us must learn what our cell has to teach us; more correctly, to allow God to shape us into the image of His Son, Jesus, who is leading us into life with the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit.  There is no other path.

Perhaps you know of such a person, a monk-in-the-world; they can be recognized as ones who strive to live with God at a different pace and with a different set of priorities.  You might even envy their life.  Be careful of what you wish.

What is a cell?

A cell is more a state of being than a geographical place.  When we decide to respond to Jesus’ invitation to seek our true selves in Him we move into our cell.  But what does this really mean?  It means that we begin to learn to stop hiding from God in fear.  We begin learning to step out from behind the things that we believe define us or we let distract us; things, such as job titles, street addresses, school names on our diplomas, emails, the number of zeros on our paychecks, prior accomplishments, the shape of our bodies, names on the labels on our clothes, task lists, immersion in the lives of favorite celebrities, constant music, TV shows, 401(k)s, cell phones, texting, number of Facebook friends…these things and more feed our false identity and distract us with their allure.

What awaits us in our cell?

In our cell there are several beings present.  We often think of the monk living a solitary life.  This is not so.  God (the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit) and the Devil and his minions are in our cell with us.

In our cell we discover that the battle takes place within the very being of the ourselves with God encouraging, beckoning, and strengthening and Satan taunting, accusing, and attacking.

In our cell we discover that in each moment we face a choice, “With whom will I side in the battle?”

In our cell we learn that we can choose poorly and there are consequences.

In our cell we ask the most profound questions of life.  Questions such as, Who am I?  What does it mean to be human?  What lies beyond this life?  From where does my worth come?  How do I really measure a successful and productive life?  In what (or whom) do I actually trust?  Where do I find hope for today?  What will tomorrow bring?  How do I know whether this path is the right path?   Am I really loved by God?  How much longer?

In our cell the lies we have believed all of our lives are gradually exposed.

In our cell we revisit the precipitating events for our deepest wounds.

In our cell we confront head-on temptation from the eight deadly thoughts that torment us: gluttony, lust, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride.

In our cell we experience physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship.

In our cell we learn that no woman or man can survive their cell without the presence of God; we are simply unable to withstand the company of our sinful selves on our own.

What does our cell teach us?

In our cell we learn to distinguish between the voices of God and Satan.

In our cell we learn how to choose God, and when we choose poorly we find God who is always calling to us, helping us, and urging us to turn back toward Him.

In our cell one by one the questions we had begin to dissolve as we draw closer to God Himself.  We ask. He answers, “I AM.”  Mysteriously, that answer begins to satisfy us.

In our cell we gradually begin to learn that Truth is a Person and not a set of rules.

In our cell we come to understand what it really means that by His wounds we are healed.

In our cells we find new memories of our past traumas in which Jesus was indeed present though we knew it not at the time.

In our cells we learn disciplines that help us cooperate with God as He gradually digs out the roots of all temptations and our heart of stone is gradually replaced by God’s heart of flesh.

In our cell we learn that mysteriously through the work of the Holy Spirit our perseverance in the trials changes our character, and we find real hope.

In our cell we learn that we are God’s beloved son or daughter in whom He is well pleased and we begin to hear Him singing over us.

The real beauty of the cell

Each of the lessons from our cell is the Holy Spirit’s way of teaching us a new step of the Divine dance with the Trinity.  As we are able to grow in our confidence in our ability to move with God to the rhythms of His grace we begin cooperate with God and allow Him to work in us, gradually we are stripped of all that we have learned to hide behind and we will once again stand before God, clothed in His righteousness and unafraid.  True self being led gracefully across the dance floor by the Trinity.