Monday, October 19, 2015

the mystery of God: tenderness transforms confusion into clarity...

"Ministry," writes Henri Nouwen, "is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God." Now I am so down with that understanding of ministry that I want to start dancing! Since our return from Montreal, I have been.searching for both a new way of understanding whatever ministry I still am called to share with others, and, a new set of shared commitments within the community. To borrow a brilliant phrase from Diana Butler Bass, these new commitments, however, must be shared commitments born from below because the era of "top down" religion is over (or at least dying a slow and painful death before our very eyes.)

I have known since leaving Montreal that my personal/professional calling has changed significantly. As Nouwen observes, just as Christ invites us never to treat others as characters or "roles to be used," I wanted that for myself, too. I wanted and needed to be understood and loved in community as a full person - just James as I keep saying - rather than fundamentally as "pastor James." So, upon returning from sabbatical, I changed my business cards to show this more grassroots and complete sense of self. At my first council meeting, I also shared with our leadership team that when I was first summoned to serve in Pittsfield, I brought with me a plan for our renewal: it was born of prayer and study, to be sure, but it was a plan inspired by my own critical reflection on our context. It was not, at first, a shared or even cooperative plan. Rather it was a tug of war wherein I labored with love and stubbornness to yank a loving but resistant congregation into the the 21st century. It was a prayerful act of the will to move from fear and nostalgia into new possibilities. Along the way, trust was built and a foundation for cooperation emerged - but not at first.

Nine years later, we are in a very different place. Not only do I no longer have the energy or interest in playing the role of "the man with the plan," but the very community has changed as well.  Now we are simultaneously in a place where we can help one another "open our eyes and ears to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful. Our work in shared ministry is to proclaim to others what we have experienced in prayer: we are all much more loving people than we realize." (Nouwen)

Yesterday, both during worship and while at the CROP Walk, I glimpsed again the possibilities of our new reality. And as one of my favorite people said, "You can see it in all the pictures taken at the walk. So many smiles. So much love and joy at being with one another in service to others!" In his book re: Spiritual Formation, Nouwen reminds us that "the training and work of spiritual formation requires an articulate not-knowingness and a receptive emptiness through which God can be revealed."

Just as theology asks us to empty our cup so that we can open our min to the incomprehensible things of God, spirituality asks us to empty our mind so that we can open our heart to receive life as a gift to be lived. Even more than our mind, it is our heart that needs to be empty enough for the Spirit to enter and fill it. This process for self-emptying and spirit-filing is called spiritual formation - the gradual development of the heart of God in the life of a human being (and dare I add a congregation?) aided by contemplative prayer, inclusive community and compassionate ministry.

The essence of this work, for those who pray from the heart, is to first encounter a personal transformation where what appears opaque in the world becomes transparent. This is what we are initially called to consider: learning how to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Our commitment is to become open and empty through contemplative prayer in order that we might "see and make visible that which is hidden from ordinary sight." St. Paul uses the word "mystery" - μυστήριον - mysterion - which often confuses contemporary disciples. It is not a detective story to be solved by intellectual work nor a collection of obscure facts available only to the cognoscenti. Christianity is not a Gnostic religion. It is a grassroots spirituality where all of God's blessings are free, open and available to all. 

+ In I Corinthians 2: 7-8:  we speak of the wisdom of God as a mystery, even a hidden wisdom, that God has ordained before the beginning of time.

+ In Romans 16: 25: the preaching of Jesus Christ reveals to us a mystery that has been obscure throughout time.

+ In Colossians 4: 3: in prayer God reveals to us the mystery of Christ.

+ In Colossians 1: 26-27: We pray to God that which has been obscure since the beginning of time - which is Christ in you - might become your hope.

What Paul is talking about is learning to discern the light in the darkness.  Nouwen calls this
discovering how what is opaque can become transparent. It is a sacramental vision that sees and trusts the eagle in the egg, the presence of the Lord in the bread and wine, the grace and living image of God within each person. It is what Jesus embodied as the Word made Flesh and  is at the core of a grassroots, vibrant ministry in the 21st century.

The practice of contemplative prayer reveals to us the true nature of things; it unmasks the illusion of control, the possessiveness of possessions and the pretense of the false self. For those who practice contemplative prayer, the world no longer is opaque or dark but has become new and transparent - the new earth shining with its inherent character. To live spiritually in the world is to unmask the illusion, dispel the darkness and walk in the light...The Spirit of God shows us (all) how to move continuously from opaqueness to transparency in three central relationships: our relationship with nature, with time and with people.

In another writing, Prayer Embraces the World, Nouwen puts it like this:

Prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing; it is letting the warmth of Jesus' love melt the cold anger of resentment; it is opening a space where joy replaces sadness, mercy supplants bitterness, love displaces fear, gentleness and care overcome hatred and indifference. But most of all, prayer is the way to become and remain part of Jesus' mission to draw all people into the intimacy of God's love.

And in this, there is a NEW ministry and mission within and among us. It is NOT preserving a building or fumbling with a budget. It is not fortifying a burial society for those addicted to the past nor becoming a club of like minded souls in the present. Rather it is cultivating and sharing a heart for God - and living in ways that share God's heart with a hurting world - one person at a time. "I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself,in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 2:2)

Such is the essence of tenderness - God's mystery revealed in Jesus - and such could become our common call into ministry.

thanks to:+  Rebecca Maaia for the pictures @
+ Dianne De Mott

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