Tuesday, May 8, 2018

paying careful attention to what is genuinely of the Lord - behold: part two...

Yesterday my reflection centered upon the importance of looking at my life - and all of creation - through the lens of Scripture. Since 1968 I have regularly found different stories, words, poems, prayers, and phrases in the Bible that ground me within the grace of God. 

+ For most of the 90s, it was Psalm 37: "do not fret... trust in the Lord... be still and wait for God patiently." 

+ When I was ordained into Christian ministry it was Matthew 6:33: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all its righteousness; then all these things shall be added unto you." 

+ In a dark night of the soul, it became: "Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." (I Corinthians 13:12) On the other side of that darkness I heard: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11: 28-30 The Message)

+ And for most of the past decade, Psalm 131: "
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore."

For the past three years the metaphor of "wandering in the wilderness" has given shape and form to my life. There are a host of insights and images that are available to those encountering the desert - and none of them are easy. The wilderness for Israel was a time of trust and uncertainty, cleansing and waiting, the foretaste of freedom alongside the bitterness of slavery. Henri Nouwen speaks of desert spirituality in a distinctive way that rings true to me. In The Way of the Heart: the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he writes of Christ's fasting in the desert as our paradigm:

Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant ('turn stones into loaves'), to be spectacular ('throw yourself down'), and to be powerful ('I will give you all these kingdoms'). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity ('You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone'). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter - the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.

His words speak to my soul. Wilderness for me has been about leaving the life I knew  and once loved for a season without clarity. It has been an anxious waiting to see where God might lead me next. There was more darkness than light, more fear than trust, more anger than peace, and more fretting than stillness. Jean Vanier hit the nail on the head when he said, "What I am discovering is that all of us must learn how to live with anguish and loneliness in a constructive and a good way. If we fill ourselves up with work, with projects, with alcohol, with drugs, with television, we may never find the real meaning of loneliness." (http://www.larchefoundation.ca/en/jean vanier/daily_thoughts) What I sense now is what my friends in the 12 Step Movement have taught for years: I had to become sick and tired of being sick and tired before I was ready, willing and able to welcome God's love for me in a new way. Only in that love am I able to rest upon the Lord's breast calmly.

Over the past week, as I walked quietly in the woods after reading parts of Vanier's commentary on the Gospel of St. John carefully, a new word has taken root in my heart: behold. It started to take on meaning for me as I realized that while I have read and reread St. John countess times, I only know the broad story. I haven't paid careful attention to the details. (And not just with John's gospel!) I didn't know that in the very first chapter, the Prologue, John offers a fascinating metaphor: "No one has ever seen God except the only begotten Child who is in the womb of the Father." (1: 16-18) Vanier writes, "Luc de Villers, a professor at L'Ecole Biblique de Jersualem, translates this as: 'Jesus is the only Child of God who came to lead us into the womb of the Father.'...  When John speaks of the Father, he is speaking of the Infinite. The Source of Life... that is why John speaks of the womb or innerness (in Greek kolpos) of the Father in which Jesus lives and abides." (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus, p. 21-22) I saw the forest, but none of the beautiful trees.

Nor have I appreciated that after Jesus asks his friends,"What are you searching for?" not only does he tell them to, "Come and follow," but he leads them to a wedding feast. "One could imagine that Jesus will lead his disciples into the desert, somewhere to meditate on the Torah and the Prophets, or to pray together. But, in fact, he takes them to a celebration and feast." (The Gospel of John, p. 13) Indeed, after I read that, I wrote in the margins of my book: pay freakin attention to these details! And that's when the word behold started popping up all over the place: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Or, Behold I bring you good tidings of a great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you this day is born in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord. Or as Mary said: Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let be unto me according to your word. Or in Revelation: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will to and sup with them and they with me. When Di called out later that day from her afternoon nap, "How about the word 'behold" for a way to understand this new season in your heart?" I finally had eyes to see and ears to hear.

So I've been doing some word study and meditation on behold in both the Hebrew and Greek texts. I'll share a few insights about this later this week before I head off to be with my L'Arche Ottawa community for our spring retreat. But here's one clue that is taking me deeper: In the King James Version of the Bible the word behold (in Hebrew or Greek) appears 1,298 times. In modern translations like the New Revised Standard Version, however, it shows up only 27 times - and none at all in The Message. If the heart of beholding is to notice and pay careful attention to what is truly important, and it is, what have we lost in contemporary culture?  One writer, Leah Zuldema, put it like this:

Do we know how to behold any longer? How to stop still, to cease all else, to give our full attention and searching gaze to what is before us? In our multi-tasking, fast-paced world, we are in the habit of looking everywhere at once - with the result that nothing and no one truly has our deep and undivided attention. We are so captivated - that is, held captive - by new ideas, activities, and social connections that we forget to stop and behold... we are in the habit of looking everywhere at once. ... and unable to see what is vital. (https://inallthings.org/lent-behold-behold-behold/)

Thus, my attraction to a year of beholding becomes clearer: in this first year after the wilderness - in my first year or retirement - rather than rush around in search of yet a new project or task, let this be a season of savoring. Of giving my new life my full attention. Of trusting that God is already making all things new in the desert if I pay attention to the details. Of quietness, rest and attending to the feast. Small wonder these words from T.S. Elliot have haunted me during my wandering in the wilderness:

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Poet and pastor of this era, Maren Tirabassi, put it like this in a prayer for this day: 

A prayer when there are too many distractions

God, who notices the mustardseed,
a woman’s touch on the fringe of a garment,
a kid holding out a lunch bag to share,
keep me present to this day.

Invite natural beauty
to surprise me with the smell of wind --
is that rain coming, neighbor cooking,
pollen to wake the bees
and make me sneeze?

Invite natural beauty
to my skin and my tongue
in the touch of a leaf or dog fur,
the taste of pure water.

Remind me to notice people
behind laptops in a coffee shop,
behind a bakery counter,
sitting on the curb,
at a bus stop,
behind the wheel in a stopped car,
and wonder about them
and pray for them.

Let me read the one email that matters,
give money to someone on the street,
(without congratulating myself)
tell someone leaving the house
that I love them,
stop, wake up,
and then say it again and mean it.

Strip off the veneer of my distraction
and let me enjoy food,
read a few pages of a book,
watch a tv show, listen to a song,
take the bridge across the stream,
smile at a stranger,
open my heart to the news

remember again to pray --
the old prayer that shut up the disciples,
and something unexpected
that banks the fire for pentecost. Amen

More soon...

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