Some songs are pretty much perfect.
Melody, lyric, arrangement, tempo, voice and instruments merge: no element drawing attention to itself, creating an immersion, an environment for an experience…an experience that writer, composer, and performer all grasped intimately enough to convey to each other first and us eventually. Driving home today, a song just like that comes on again for the first time since the last time quite a while ago, and it takes me where it always does…turn down the lights, turn down the bed, turn down these voices inside my head…smiling through the windshield at half-remembered pain, toothless now, as her voice rises…I can’t make you love me if you don’t; you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t…
How do love relationships ever even get a chance? How among the thousands of faces you see every day, do you find one you realize you can love, which also among those thousands of faces, finds yours and sees it in the same way? At the same time? In the same timezone? Seems odds are hopelessly against, and life bears out that we will often find faces we can love but never ourselves reflected there…here in the dark, in these final hours, I will lay down my heart, and I’ll feel the power, but you won’t…
There’s a wail that comes up, silently at first, when the final cut comes, the full realization that this face is not yours to love…morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right, just give me till then to give up this fight… We all know this pain—it’s as close as the next song, muted only as much as time and healing allow. And if we know it…does God know it too? Is that even possible? I’ve come to understand that this pain is a necessary part of life—that love from another is only as valuable as it is freely chosen. That if it can be bought or in any way coerced, it is a transaction and no longer love.
And so I’m thinking this perfect song, passionately about unrequited romantic love, could as easily be sung by God to each one of us. Our relationship with God has always been portrayed in intimately human terms by those who know him best. Does that metaphor extend to God as well? Did God personally risk anything by creating us with the capacity to refuse? Can his heart break like ours when he doesn’t see the relationship he wants in the face he loves? Maybe God could make us love him, but maybe he won’t, because if he did, we would no longer be us, and love would no longer be love: deprived of the one thing both need to be what they are…a choice freely made.
I can’t know if God feels the pain of unrequited love, but I’m convinced he knows that for love to be real, it first has to set the beloved free. Like a perfect song: love, loss, hope, rejection, pain, fulfillment merging, none drawing attention to itself, creating an immersion, an environment for an experience…the reason we are all here singing.
When you think about it, the only way we can distinguish something visually is by its edges. We see the edges that outline, define, limit, separate one thing from another. Without edges, how could we say we are seeing anything at all? And when it comes to what we can think about, can mentally conceive, it’s the same: hanging on to edges… Definitions, memories, beliefs, biases, hopes, fears, expectations all form the edges of what we can possibly imagine. We love edges, crave them and cultivate them. They give us something to cling to, a sense of belonging and comfort.
The challenge of living spiritual lives is learning to see the infinite embedded in our finite moments. The infinite has no edges…by definition. An edge limits, and once limited, is no longer infinite. The message of Jesus preserved in the gospels is the good news of an infinitely loving Father living among our moments. If the message accurately reflects that Father and that love, it must be made of words without edges. Without limit. There is something beautifully disturbing about Jesus’ teaching. Beautiful because it hunkers right down at the fire of an infinite love; disturbing because there are no edges to which we can cling. Neither informing nor defining, it simply calls—and we either freefall into his infinite space or we do not.
Fearing the disturbance, we draw our own edges around Jesus’ words through sheer familiarity or the pretense they’re contained in a book with edges, a book we imagine we understand. But if we let the book fall fully open in our laps, let our eyes relax to softer focus, Jesus’ words escape edges, expanding impossibly to suggest a truth bigger and more radical than we could ever conceive on our own.
The freedom of clinging to nothing that limits—the experience of life and love without edges.
If you think about it, there are four ways we typically approach God in our churches today: intellectually, emotionally, liturgically, and legally. All four describe ways of ascent toward God—studying, feeling, reciting, obeying—and all are valuable as parts of a whole. But there is another way, a fifth way, the contemplative way that comes to us from our most ancient Christian traditions and directly from an eastern Jesus before any of those.
Contemplation—understood as simply being present to God’s presence, the practice of a content-free mind directed toward awareness of God as a living reality—points to a stripping away of everything that blocks God’s presence from our moment; it’s a descent that must precede any ascent. Turns out we don’t value the way of descent much today—we don’t even generally recognize it as a viable spiritual formation. Our western churches speak fluently of the spirituality of ascent, but miss the fact that the way of descent complements and completes the other four just as Jesus tried to explain: “If you cling to your life you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”
When I speak of this way of descent, questions arise as people try to get their arms around a tradition that we have largely lost in the modern era. But questions and answers fail here since the contemplative way sidesteps the intellectual, being experiential without being emotional, practical and structured without being ritualistic or legalistic or in any way based in judgmental notions of reward and punishment. This is really hard to explain in words. The best explanation is to simply set out—begin to experience the contemplative descent that eventually infuses and fulfills the ways of ascent.
Twenty five years ago I first encountered this contemplative way, and it was as hard to understand then as it is to explain now. The more I understood, the more I suspected it was the missing ingredient in my life, but it wasn’t a cognitive suspecting or understanding that changed my course, it was a physical doing. Because though contemplation is a way of living all our moments, a basic attitude toward life and spirituality, it is also a discipline that must be practiced, and it wasn’t until I started practicing that I moved from understanding to knowing. (more…)
I don’t envy people my age who find themselves dating again…or still. Dating is hard enough at any age–like being on permanent audition–but the older we get, it seems our attitudes and eccentricities, like our skin, become increasingly non-elastic. Actually it’s probably an advantage to know that what you see in your date, for better or worse, is what you’re going to get; you can make your decision based on what really is rather than hope to be. Or not to be.
As a pastor if I didn’t believe people could change, I couldn’t do my job. But getting older, I’m realizing that I may be using the wrong word. Anyone who’s raised children knows that there are little personalities set early on in each little body that you as parent had absolutely nothing to do with implanting. It’s as if we’re hardwired by age six or seven with those personality pairs: introvert/extrovert, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving and basic attitudes like optimism and pessimism, ambition, perseverance, passion…where does all that come from and once established, does it ever really change?
In the Gospels, Peter and Paul are practically psychological case studies. Their personalities were so strong that they are still vibrantly preserved after two thousand years of copying and translating ancient texts. Peter is impetuous and headstrong–always the first to speak and act: jumping out of his boat to walk on water and again to quickly reach Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach, blurting out answers to Jesus’ questions that as often earned rebuke as praise, refusing to have his feet washed, and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. And that’s just the canonical gospels. In non-canonical literature like the Gospel of Mary, Peter picks a fight with Mary Magdelene earning a rebuke from Matthew, and as tradition tells it, insisted on being crucified upside down to avoid any perceived parity with Jesus. He was the same before and after Jesus called him; before and after finding his faith.
Paul is passionately loyal to the institution of his faith as a Jew, persecuting and killing the Jews he believes are heretically following Jesus. After his conversion he is passionately loyal to the institution of his faith as a Christian, planting churches, fearless speaking truth to power, and facing a never ending string of physical and emotional firestorms. He was the same before and after his Damascus visions; before and after finding his faith.
It seems who each man was at age seven was who he was as he took his last breath. Popeye would say, I yam what I yam, yet at the same time, each man would have been barely recognizable to the casual observer before and after something profound happened in their lives. Maybe people can change, maybe they can’t. But we all can be transformed. Peter’s impetuousness and Paul’s passion never changed, but those traits were absolutely transformed, channeled in completely different directions once they began to understand who they really were. Their brush with Jesus, with complete integrity and oneness of purpose created a spiritual heat that once embraced, began burning off layers of falseness and fears accrued over a lifetime–until only who they were born to be eventually remained. Free from fearful obsessions and compulsions, impetuousness was transformed from irresponsible to inspiring and passion from persecution to perseverance.
Do people really change? Your date may be wondering, watching you from across the dinner table. It’s the wrong question. Are you transformed? Are you someone who has faced the furnace? Has the heat and abrasion of your passage along the way removed enough of what is not really you to let the seven year old come out and play? At the moment of transformation, our greatest liabilities become our greatest strengths, and our greatest ability to hurt another becomes our greatest ability to bless.
At the moment of transformation, the question of change is moot.
So I’m on my way in to an event at our faith community. We’ve got a well-known guest musician coming in, there are additional details to deal with, I’m running late, and nearly out of gas. Not a good combination. Of course the gas station is packed, and I’m stuck amidst confused lines trying to maneuver into the one that will put the pump on the right side of the van. I feel tension mounting and time ticking as I finally get a receipt and swing around to escape. One more gauntlet to run: the car wash next to the station is also full tilt, and just as I’m about to make the street, a freshly washed sedan pulls out in front of me from the drying area. Hitting brakes, last straw poking last nerve, I look down from van height into the sedan to see a small round face pressed to the driver’s window looking up at me from behind thick glasses.
And he’s not just looking but hugely, face splittingly ginning and waving and it’s a full beat or two until I realize that he’s a car wash employee, and his round face is Down Syndrome. I feel tension deflate; the frustration and anger and things I wanted to shout out the window lay on the floor as I realize his grin and hand are saying: Look at me! Isn’t this great? I get to drive these cars, can you believe it? He couldn’t have been more excited, prouder of himself if he’d won Pulitzer or Presidency. Pure unadulterated elation for what most of us would be ashamed to admit.
When my wife became pregnant with our youngest child at 42, the first thing the nurse asked with the positive test still in her hand: Do you want to keep it? The possibility of Down’s or spina bifida, the complications of pregnancy and child rearing later in life–did we want that?
We all have our notions of what is pointless in life. Substandard jobs, disabilities, birth defects contribute. What is a pointless life? One that doesn’t lead to the outcomes we desire? Is life all about outcome? We live that way. All our moments lined up and pointed at distant outcomes that define our experience herenow, defer our experience of anything at all in favor of ever receding expectation. When Jesus’ followers berate a woman for pouring expensive perfume over Jesus’ head, wasting what could have been sold and given to the poor, Jesus berates them back saying: You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. Is caring for the poor pointless because there will always be poor among us? Is there any value to acts that begin and fully end herenow and don’t point to discernable outcomes?
If we can’t find value apart from outcome, we will never find contentment. Never enter Kingdom. Never breathe from our heels or smile from our ears because we get to drive a car forty feet across a parking lot. We’ll never learn that moments don’t point or lead anywhere, only our minds do that, taking us with them out of the only perfect place we’ll ever occupy: this here, this now.
We need to redefine pointless.
Pointless is not a life that doesn’t lead to expected outcome.
Pointless is never once living as if you’d rather be a Down Syndrome boy driving a freshly washed car than a frustrated pastor on the way to a gig.
Can two contradictory things be true at the same time? Reflexively and logically, we say no, of course not. But more deeply, while there may be just one true thing at the bottom of the dogpile, we often experience that truth in different ways that all feel true at the time…and more importantly, that give us more of a sense of the scope and nature of that one truth.
The ancient world understood this in ways we have since lost. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the writers of Judeo-Christian scripture were much more Judeo than Christian. Much more Eastern than Western, more ancient than modern. That as ancient, Eastern, Judeos, they looked at life and the world much differently than we, and that those differences are coded right into the language they used.
Scripture states that God will never leave or forsake us, yet both David and Jesus wail, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A verse in Exodus states that Pharaoh hardened his heart against allowing Moses to take his people home, but a few verses later, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Which is it? Why are these contradictory statements allowed to stand? Ancient Jews didn’t practice non-contradiction in their spiritual lives. They knew that truth looks one way from God’s perspective and another from our own. That a successful spiritual journey requires the ability to hold seemingly contradictory and paradoxical truths together in one embrace. Unresolved. Unharmonized. Yet unified and somehow complementary. Just like life.
The Scriptures speak of God as Father and yet also as spirit. We don’t have much trouble accepting this seeming contradiction as we simply spiritualize our understanding of Father and move on. But less famously, these same scriptures speak of God as Mother, and two thousand years of paternal programming makes Mom very hard to swallow–even emotionally blasphemous for many.
I’ve often heard pastors and televangelists talking about what God wants. What he wants us to do or feel or say or [mostly] give. I’ve always thought it fairly presumptuous to claim to know what God wants from our perch on the little blue ball way over there on that edge of the second galaxy to the right…but then I hear myself asking a study group what they thought God’s highest value is, and when they don’t come up with exactly what was in my head, telling them exactly what was. And if my hypocrisy didn’t sink in at the moment, the next week one of the attendees pulled me aside to say that he’d related the exchange to another pastor who told him that it was pretty presumptuous to think I had any idea of God’s highest value. Karma is a witch.
Is what God wants and his highest value the same thing? I guess we can suppose God would also want his highest value, but I think there’s a distinction as well. For at least four thousand years, Hebrews have been rubbing up against the God they have shared with us for the last two thousand, and all that experience impressed on them one outstanding feature: Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God is ehhad–one. Or better translated, multiple things functioning as one–a unity. When Moses encounters the burning bush and asks who it is that speaks from the flames, the answer in Hebrew is hayah asher hayah, or I am [that, which, what, that, when, where, how, because, in order that] I am. Asher is the original multipurpose device. Moses’ God is calling himself pure existence, pure being, pure presence–a presence like gravity pulling all things into itself, into unity.
When Jesus was asked to identify himself, he said over and over that he and the Father were one. That no one needed to see the Father because they could see him and that everything he did was only because it already had been done by the Father. Unity is the four thousand year long thread that runs through the expression of the experience of our God. And so I presume that if unity is God’s preminent feature and function, that it must be his highest value as well, his will. His will be done, unity be done. Is that what he wants? The difficulty lies in the way we ask..what God wants.
It may well be presumptuous to ask what God wants. How could we possibly know? But I don’t think it’s at all presumptuous to ask how God wants. Turns out that God’s most distinguishing feature, the one that changed the course of the Hebrew nation and the world’s history, is not a what at all–not an outcome or event or object; it’s a how: a way, a process with attitude, a motivating characteristic or essence. With the right how, any what will do. With the right how, we can face our own burning bush moments with the trust that only unity–multiple things functioning as one–can muster. That’s a distinction worth making, an expression of an experience worth presumption.
Message delivered @ theeffect, 5/6/12. Here for audio message.
Since we’ve been streaming our Sunday and Tuesday gatherings, I’ve gotten way behind on posting the audio recordings and short synopses of Sunday messages on our site. I’m going to pick up where I left off here, and write the synopses in such as way that they stand alone, with the option to link to audio recordings for more. Here we go…
When you’re holding a sheet of music manuscript in your hand, we commonly call it the music. But what are you really holding? Music? The staff, barlines, noteheads, and all those other glyphs are a system of conveying certain intentions to vibrate–but nothing more. Someone, somewhere, somewhen heard music vibrating either in the mind or in the air and wrote it all down as a means for someone else, somewhen and somewhere else, to vibrate as well. What you’re holding is only the intention, the possibility of music. You have to play the music to have the music; you can’t keep it in a drawer. It’s yours only as long as the last vibrations hum in your ears, after which you hold mere intention once again.
Same with Scripture. Is the Word of God really the ink dried into the pages of the book you hold? Or are those glyphs merely the ancient record of someone’s intention to vibrate at the frequency of God? It’s all about presence after all. We understand when it comes to music, you must be present to win–you must be immersed in the vibrating air, pressed against those vibrations as they play out. We understand less that a book must be played too. Or better, that the book plays us. When we bring our presence to the words, we become the instrument that plays the music, vibrating as author intended and experienced.
Presence is all we have to work with. It’s the needle in the groove of the vinyl record, the laser point on the CD that is present to the moment of unfolding, that unfolds the moment by its presence–or not. It’s fascinating to me that on the cross, drowning in his sea of pain, Jesus refuses the mixture of wine and myrrh soaked in the sponge at the end of a stick. I can’t be sure, but I think it’s because even though it would have dulled the pain, it would have also dulled his needle, his presence to the moment. And it was an important moment. All moments are…if we’re present. We keep trying to think our way through–considering the meaning of words and music we’ve never played. Thinking about something is not being present to it–the moment we reduce anything to a glyph in the mind, it stops being the thing itself; stripped of presesence, all that’s left is intention, possibility.
Jesus said to win your life you first had to lose it. Let’s get lost. Good and lost. Let’s stop thinking and start practicing presence…stop reading notes and start playing the music.
Message delivered @ theeffect, 4/22/12. Here for audio message.
On the first Sunday after Easter, it’s not too soon to ask how the Resurrection has affected our lives. Has it made a difference? As people of professed faith, it’s not enough to ask ourselves what we believe. We need to know what difference it makes that we believe. If faith without works is dead, then Resurrection as cause without effect may as well never have happened–and for any of us without such effect, it hasn’t happened…yet. To see the Resurrection as an event that happened at a certain place and time in the classical past, is to miss the significance of a deeper truth. When Mary and the women come to look for Jesus that Sunday morning, they find God’s messengers instead asking, why do you seek the living among the dead? That question is the central question of our lives. Mary is looking for Jesus where she expects him to be–in a graveyard. We all do that. We look for things where we expect them to be, and in our search for the merely plausible, we miss what’s entirely possible. Our beliefs limit what we are capable of seeing. The moment we settle on a belief, set it in stone, let it become static and unmoving, that belief is dead, no longer among the living–and Jesus is not there. God’s spirit, ruach [wind, breath, spirit], is always described in motion, just as wind and breath are by definition always in motion or no longer function as wind and breath. If we look for Resurrection only in the past, in the pages of Scripture, in church, in religious practice, we are looking for the living among the dead. Jesus is always in motion and where there is motion there is life, and where there’s life there is Resurrection–the living Jesus. If we can’t find the living One in every face and embrace, then we have missed the difference it makes when we finally stop looking for things only where we expect them to be.
Message delivered @ theeffect, 4/15/12. Here for audio message.
At the beginning of holy week, we take a look at Palm Sunday from the point of view of all the different groups of people who watched Jesus enter the city that day. Riding through Jerusalem’s gates on the foal of a donkey not only fulfilled certain prophetic scriptures, it also unmistakably signaled to the watching cultures that Jesus came in peace. To bring war or insurrection, he would’ve ridden a horse. The symbolism was unmistakable, but everyone mistook it anyway. The waving and laying of palms before a king [the symbol of triumph throughout the ancient world] and the hosanna that was being shouted by the people [literally: hoshiiah na–save us we beseach you] was enough to set both Jewish and Roman leaders’ teeth on edge. For everyone understood that this was how the common people and the Zealots were seeing Jesus–as a political and military messiah come drive out the Romans and re-establish the promised Hebrew throne. So the Romans and Jewish authorities both saw him then as a threat to their respective power bases and planned accordingly, regardless of Jesus’ teaching and the symbolism of his entry that day. And what of Jesus’ closest followers? What did they see? They were still fighting over their own positions in the coming Kingdom, and mistook the unmistakable Jesus as well. The most important question we can ask ourselves is what we expect of Jesus as he rides into our lives each day. Is he the one we expect to wipe away our obstacles and difficult circumstances in life? Is he a threat to our power base, our sense of who we are and how we survive? Are we looking to ride his coattails into some greater position for ourselves? Jesus was very clear about who he was and who he still is. We need to make sure we’re not mistaking his unmistakable signs, and blinded by our expectations, seeing only what we wish to see.
Message delivered @ theeffect, 4/1/12. Here for audio message.