Wednesday, April 4, 2018

the gospel of john: a lens for making sense of my commitments (part one)

NOTE: On and off over the time between Easter and Pentecost I am going to think creatively about the Gospel of John. I want to draw on a variety of solid scholarship - and poetry - to connect some loose ends that have been waving around my soul for at least 40 years. Maybe more. This will be my unhurried attempt to listen to the sacred text in partnership with a variety of partners including Jean Vanier, Amy-Jill Levine, Ray Brown and John Sanford. This is one way for me to to stay engaged in the larger life of the church. It is also a way for me to better make sense of my life commitments as they ripen in retirement.

During the past three years, different colleagues have mentioned to me the work of Cynthia Bourgeault. Both an Anglican priest and theological scholar, Bourgeault has been exploring how the Christian doctrine of God as Holy Trinity both guides the wisdom of the cosmos and gives shape and form the the mystic's path of embodied compassion. Her articulation of the "law of Three" - affirming, denying and neutralizing activity - shares a spiritual kinship with both the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in Scripture as well as the theological construct of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other examples of the law of three might include Hegel's understanding of time as the inspired movement from thesis to antithesis towards synthesis; or the materialist analysis of history according to the Marxist dialectic. The three jewels of Buddhism - seeking personal refuge in the Buddha, practicing the truth of Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and doing so in community, Sangha - are yet another paradigm of three that helps seekers discern patterns and meaning within the mysteries of existence.  The feminist archetype of the Triple Moon - maiden, mother and crone - is still another way the law of three organizes the wisdom and energies evoked by the moon's waxing, full and waning phases to bring order to the chaos.

Three weeks ago, in the middle of band practice, we paused to talk about what our own search for patterns of order has revealed. Where have we found clues that offer a measure of meaning or purpose? What wisdom has accrued in our respective ups and downs? We both held an awareness of the synergy "the law of Three" holds albeit from different perspectives. Going deeper, we spoke of how as musicians we resonate with a dropped D tuning on our guitars (lowering the bottom E string a full step below standard tuning.) In Western music, this key is often used for rejoicing. It grounds the listener in the beauty of life while pointing to the possibilities still to come. Think Bach, Schubert or Mozart. Or "The Wind" by Yusuf Cat Stevens. It was intriguing to discover that we both loved this vibration and go to it often.

In my Christian tradition another organizing lens that brings order out of the chaos is the liturgical seasons. Each of the discrete seasons express part of the wisdom human beings have distilled from reality: Advent/Christmas/Epiphany ask us to practice patience, trust and anticipation; Lent evokes the mystery of suffering, darkness and uncertainty in our experience; Easter points to the still and small presence of the holy that breaks through our failures in unexpected ways; Pentecost holds the promise of inspiration and peace beyond our control; and Ordinary Time invites believers to apply the unforced rhythms of grace to our everyday lives. Other spiritual traditions use the movement of liturgical feasts and fasts to celebrate a wisdom born of order, too. Think of the journey of wisdom honored through the Jewish year of feasts and fasts. Or Islam. From keeping sabbath to ordering our days with prayers at morning, noon and night, liturgies can be another tool to train us in discerning patterns of meaning.

Which brings me to one of my own spiritual, intellectual resources for discernment: taking the time to write down my personal questions and insights concerning my faith commitment. It seems that I have done this at least twelve times over the course of 53 years. Starting with my confirmation class in 1965 and call to ministry in 1968, I have been intentional about clarifying for myself what I believe and why. Like St. Bob Dylan testified: I will know my song well before I start singing. Mostly what I have learned over this time, however, is how much I don't know at first. I may just have a tune. Or a poem. Or a hunch. With enough time and patience, I can then start to clarify what I suspect these clues mean. And in doing so, I move towards a conscious affirmation of faith. These writings have included various visions of ministry statements shared with each of the four congregations I have served, preparations for being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a doctoral dissertation, a proposal for sabbatical, and my reflections on a call into retirement. 

Now, as yet a new phase of spiritual engagement is taking shape, I am drawn

again to the task of clarifying for myself what I believe - and why. As the Bard of Vermont puts it: "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” He adds that it important to pay particular attention to those moments when tears appear:

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. (Beyond Words)

During the days between Easter and Pentecost, I will be using the Gospel of John to help focus my search for clarity - and here is why. In his commentary on St. John's gospel, Drawn to the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John, and the companion synthesis, The Gospel of John/The Gospel of Relationship, Jean Vanier reworks the Prologue of chapter one into this brilliant, theologically profound poem:

In the beginning
before all things
communion was:
communion between God
and the "Logos"
- Wisdom.

In part two of my reflection I will take these words deeper as they bring order to the chaos and hope to my broken heart. I will also playfully share some thoughts about the equally stunning second part of this poem:

At one moment in time
the Widsom/Logos
became flesh
and entered history.
Sacred Wisdom came to lead us all
into this communion
which is the very life of God.

Grace and peace until then.

1) St. John's Bible: The Gospel of John
2) Robert Lentz: Holy Wisdom

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