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A Challenging Peace

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

The season of Christmas is identified as one of peace. Unfortunately, our world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is violence across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named the Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with Jesus’ own words in Matthew? I believe the answer is in our understanding of peace and what it requires. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace – a non-violent peace built upon justice that we seldom see modeled or taught.

In war, “peace” comes when one side is beaten into submission and reluctantly surrenders to the other as a last resort. In business dealings between competitors, “peace” sometimes comes through acquisition, often as a hostile takeover. Peace gained by force is not peace, but only a delay in the conflict. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, when your only tools are knifes and forks, you have to cut something. In other words, when getting our way by force is the only way we know, the violence cannot end. The only peace we know is but a temporary reprieve, as the defeated attempt to rebuild themselves to a level of strength sufficient to strike back at their oppressors.

A lasting peace comes by willing surrender and carefully crafted consensus, and the peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Christ. The consensus required is one that respects, values, and includes all of creation in all of its wonderful diversity. It strives for unity of being, not uniformity. When all are recognized as being created in the image of God, none can be left behind or excluded. When we consciously submit to the higher knowledge and power of God, we willingly take our place as equals with our brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no longer a need for anyone to forcibly take, nor withhold, anything from anyone else. We understand our blessings are not ours to hoard; rather, our blessings are gifts from God and are multiplied in their sharing (see John 6:1-14). We live in an abundant universe, and there is plenty for everyone when no one stockpiles beyond their need.

In Matthew 10, Jesus uses the language of violence to clarify his purpose, saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. The context of the verse and the entire life of Jesus, however, indicate no violent intention on his part. Jesus’ words are a call to war, but to a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. These are the underlying causes of violence in our world. We have the capability to eliminate much of what keeps large swaths of humanity in bondage and desperate need. Do we have the will to do so, however? The perpetual habit of reacting to the violence instead of identifying and resolving the underlying causes gets in our way. I think it is to us – those with more than enough – that Jesus points his sword. Until we commit to eliminating the sources of violence, there can be no peace. True peace cannot come to any until it comes to all. And peace cannot come to all until everyone has their most basic needs met. Unless we follow Jesus’ command to love one another our reality will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

We cannot attain peace by physical or emotional violence, nor is peace possible in the absence of justice. There can be no peace until everyone has adequate shelter, enough to eat, and recognition as a child of God. This is the different sort of peace of which Jesus speaks. We wonder why others attack us, steal and beg from us, and in our wondering we answer our own question. We are why there is no peace on earth. Serendipitously, we hold the key to attaining peace on earth, uncomfortable and challenging though it may be.

 

My Face

My Face

 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Genesis 1:26a

According to the creation story recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was created in the image of God and according to God’s likeness. Not only that, the account is recorded as a conversation within the Godhead: “Let us make…” We assume this is a discussion among the persons of the Trinity, which is one of many biblical hints that God, while One God, is not a single being, at least not as we understand single beings. Rather, God’s core essence is relational. The Trinitarian paradigm describes a God that expresses in different but interrelated ways. Indeed, this series of Life Notes about The Faces of God has attempted to describe a number of the ways our one God manifests in our lives. The descriptors of those manifestations are familiar to us because many describe very human traits – lonely, sorry, demanding, militant, merciful, vengeful, intimate, calm, submissive, creative, and loving. If we are indeed created in the image and likeness of God, why would we expect anything different?

While I believe it is accurate to claim that we reflect aspects of God’s nature, I am not making a case for pantheism, which is the belief that everything is God. Rather, the more correct term for our relationship to God is panentheism, which is the belief that God is in everything. The difference is far from trivial. A pantheist would say “I am God (and so are you),” where the panentheist would say “God is in me (and also in you).” That I do not perfectly reflect God’s nature is an understatement and a relief. There is, however, a portion of God’s nature reflected in me. Richard Rohr, in his book A Spring Within Us, writes, “We cannot bear the impossible burden of being God, but we can and should enjoy the privilege and dignity of being with and in God” (p. 356).

The first faces of God for most of us are those of our parents (an illusion quickly overcome in adolescence). Imagine an infant gazing up at the loving faces gazing back at him or her. The parents are so much larger, so much more powerful, so much smarter and worldly, and the infant is completely dependent upon them. It must be difficult for an infant to imagine how these incomprehensibly vast beings could be so captivated by one so small, unworthy, and helpless. When parenting works as designed, however, a powerful bond forms between parent and child. For the rest of our lives, even once our parents are gone, we long for that intimate, accepting, caring connection, particularly during our toughest trials.

When we are in the presence of one we care deeply about, when we feel loved and accepted for who we are and as we are, we enter a state of heightened awareness of who and whose we are. In these experiences, God within us connects with God within the other. Sometimes, the connection is so powerful that we feel more like witnesses than participants. In those moments, heaven and earth merge, and we know the ground we are standing on is holy. Those moments cannot be forced by strength of will; they are gifts of grace that can only be received when and as given.

When we live with the knowledge that God lives in and through us we begin to understand that our bodies truly are temples of the Most High. God looks out through my eyes and sees God looking out through your eyes, and together we say, “Let us create in our own image,” and life springs forth from the relationship. When I identify with God living through me, my prejudices, my biases, and my judgmental vision fall away, and I see the world around me with a clarity not otherwise possible. And I know everything is just as it should be, right here and right now. Obviously, there is work to be done to help the world become as it will be; but for this moment, I can simply enjoy what is in a worshipful, contented way. The moment is always enough when we center ourselves on the presence of God in us.

One of the many faces of God is my face. Another is yours. Divinity lives within us as Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 36th and final in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

God the Spirit, Part 2

 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

The third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, which is a product of relationship. Relationship occurs when someone is in fellowship with one or more others. Reflecting on my marriage, there is a third something present that has grown out of our relationship, our love and care for each other, and the life experiences we have endured and enjoyed together for over 30 years. That spirit is unique to the two of us, it changes with us and our circumstances, and it is a manifestation of God the Spirit. A description of marriage found in Genesis 2:24 says the two “become one flesh.” That does not mean that either individual ceases to exist, nor is it exclusively a sexual reference. Quite the contrary, it can be read as referring to a third being – a spirit of the relationship that manifests from the connection between the two. Whenever you and I interact there is an us produced, and the essence of that us is the Spirit. We do not perceive this Spirit because we focus on the two people as separate individuals. As we become aware of the Spirit around and within us, we realize there is no such thing as separate individuals because we are all connected. As the apostle Paul writes in many of his letters, together, we are all one Body.

In our bodies, we have largely anonymous groupings of cells called connective tissue. It is everywhere in the body and connects skin, organs, muscles, and bones with each other. It functions to hold things in place as well as to exchange nutrients, water, oxygen, and wastes between the various activity centers in the body. We do not often speak of the connective tissue because most of our attention goes to the major organs. Just as our connective tissue fills the spaces between our bodily parts, so the Spirit fills the spaces between what we perceive as individual beings. In other words, we all are connected in and by the Spirit, even though we cannot see or touch it. We can feel it, however. The feeling of the Spirit may be comfortable among friends, familiar among family, and frightening with those who are threatening.

The Spirit is a product of interaction and proximity, and it is not limited to interfaces between people. The Spirit manifests in solitary walks in nature, while gazing at the night sky, or witnessing a stunning sunset. These, too, are interactions within God’s creation. Likewise, it develops between people and their beloved pets – the joy of being greeted enthusiastically by a wagging tail or the comfort of a purring cat asleep on one’s lap. We see it manifest in intimate relationships, but also among co-workers, students and teachers, parents and children, and everywhere there is conscious interaction. The Spirit is unique to each relationship, although the experience is not always pleasant. Some people walk into a room and seemingly suck every ounce of joy out of it. Their own pain and need is so great that their contribution to the collective spirit is negative. Fortunately, other folks enter a room and immediately brighten the atmosphere.

One way to picture the Spirit in our everyday life is to describe an electrical circuit. For electricity to power something requires a connection between two points, one giving and the other receiving. When the circuit is complete, electricity flows between one end of the circuit and the other and accomplishes a third something – powering our lives. When the connection is broken, our world goes dark. When two or more interact in giving and receiving ways, the Spirit will manifest – a circuit is completed and power is generated. Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love is the substance of the Holy Spirit, and we are connected by that love. The Spirit arises out of God, and the Spirit is God. It is incomprehensibly larger than we are, and yet we are intimately and inseparably woven within it. This love, this Spirit, is more real than anything we can touch, smell, see or hear. The Spirit of love surrounds us always, and in that love we live and move and have our being – forever and ever. Amen.

Note: this is the 35th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

God the Spirit, Part 1

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

John 14:2-26

The three persons of the Trinity of God are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One can describe God the Father as the unembodied creative force, the impetus behind everything created. God the Son, the creation, is the resulting life formed by the outpouring – the Word – of the Father onto the substance of the earth. The progeny of the unbroken relationship between Father and Son – Creator and Created – is the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it is nearly impossible to have an insightful discussion about the Spirit, or God for that matter, except in the context of relationship.

Perhaps more than anything, the relational nature of the Trinity trips us up as we try to understand something discerning about the nature of God. Here are a few writings that help me imagine God as dynamically relational, as opposed to the static, distant being I learned in childhood. First, Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century mystic, wrote:

             …the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.

            The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit.

            The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.1

Here we see the Spirit described as the product of a joyful relationship between the Father and the Son. Further, we live inside this dynamic, loving relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Although most of us are unaware of it, we all – individually and corporately – exist in the Trinity of God. A second image is in Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance2, where he writes, “the principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional…; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.” Later, in the same book (p. 82), Rohr writes “…you can know and love God on at least three distinctly wonderful levels: the Transpersonal level (“Father”), the Personal level (“Jesus”), and the Impersonal level (“Holy Spirit”). Finally, on page 98, Rohr paraphrases Richard of St. Victor, writing, “For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two. Because love is always a relationship…But for God to ‘share excellent joy’ and ‘delight’…God has to be three, because supreme happiness is when two persons share their common delight in a third something – together.”

The initial manifestation of the Spirit grows out of the mutual love between the Father and Son within the totality of God. The Spirit within us is a product of our relationship to and in God, as well as a manifestation of our relationships with others. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples the Father will send the Spirit after his departure. This means that while God was present in the bodily form of Jesus with the people of his time, God would continue to be eternally present within everyone in the person of the Spirit.

The reason the Spirit is so difficult to perceive, aside from the fact that it has no physical nature, is that it is the unembodied product of relationship. We tend to underestimate or ignore this third something that appears in all our encounters with others. As we open ourselves to a closer relationship to God, we sense a presence that never leaves us, that gives substance to our faith, and that gives hope when there is no tangible reason for optimism. That presence is the Holy Spirit, our divine teacher, spiritual companion, and Advocate.

The Spirit of God is also referred to as the Wisdom of God. In Proverbs 8, wisdom is described as something of immeasurable value that we should desire more than anything else. “For whoever finds me (wisdom) finds life and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:35). Our Trinitarian God imparts its wisdom through the Spirit dwelling within us. Of course, we must build a relationship with and an awareness and acknowledgement of that Spirit in order consciously to benefit from its presence.

Next week, I will explore familiar ways in which God the Spirit manifests to us.

Note: this is the 34th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 1 Meister Eckhart, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Matthew Fox (Bear and Company: 1983), 129.

2 Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, Whitaker House, 2016. Page 28.

 

God the Son, Part 2

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Luke 1:26-28

A virgin is one who is pure. Mary, the mother of Jesus, modeled untainted, non-desecrated earth – a willing and surrendered canvas upon which God could create. One can picture her in a way similar to the “formless void” of the earth described in Genesis 1:2. Just as the spirit of God overshadowed the amorphous earth to give birth to creation, so the spirit overshadowed Mary, and she gave birth to Jesus, Son of God. The tangible birth of Jesus substantiates the ethereal creation account in Genesis. It helps to make creation and God’s work in our world personal and relatable.

We often confuse the Son of God and the Christ. Christ is a designation for one who has attained an exceptional awareness of their relation to God, as in Jesus the Christ. It means anointed, or to make sacred, or to dedicate to the service of God. In Eastern philosophy, Christ Consciousness is attained when one perfectly unites their essential physical and spiritual natures. Recognizing we, too, are children of God – products of spirit and earth – it is getting in touch with the spirit within that saves us. Such knowledge rescues us from the fear that we can ever be separated from God. Here is how we become lost: We grow enamored with our material existence early in life and lose sight of our spiritual, eternal nature. When our lives are out of balance on the physical side, as most lives are, we identify with earthly, non-permanent stuff. Do not get me wrong, there is true beauty and pleasure in the things of the earth. They are impermanent, however, and so cannot provide the security we seek. Referring to our physical natures, Genesis 3:19 says, “…for out of (the ground) you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The spiritual side of us, however, never dies. That part of us comes from God and takes on an earthly body for a time. When our body gives out, our spiritual essence lives on.

As long as our spirits are embodied, physically, we are living in the Son of God – God’s creation. Our access to and relationship with God is through the Son. Unfortunately, we continue stubbornly to focus on our temporal, physical natures. We think we are our jobs or homes, but jobs and homes are lost every day. We think we are our possessions, which wear out, break, or are stolen. We think we are our thoughts, which distractedly flitter and flutter in every direction. We think we are our bodies, which wither and die. Is it any wonder we become such insecure, frightened beings?

The Christ is creation when its spiritual essence has opened into conscious awareness. Jesus of Nazareth displayed that realization, whether by birth or by growing into it, becoming the perfect combination of earth and spirit we are to aspire to. Because we live in the Son of God, we are known and loved completely, just as we are. When Jesus looked upon the suffering people in his midst, he encouraged them not to identify with their pain or their problems. Rather, he encouraged them to look at themselves through him, to have faith, to believe in his reality, knowing his was their reality, too. It is as if he were saying, “I know you, and you are so much more than your suffering. Your pain will end, but your life in me will never end.” It is in the Son of God that we live and move and have our being. God in us, Emmanuel, is our true identity and our eternal nature, and that cannot be taken from us. As we increase our ability to manifest our divine nature, we become instruments for God to work through on earth.

In some ways, our task is to become like Mary, ready and willing to surrender completely to the urgings of the Spirit. And one day, by the unfathomable grace of God, the Spirit may overshadow us and manifest the Son of God, the child of the Most High, the Christ within us – Emmanuel.

Note: this is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God. 

 

God the Son, Part 1

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1:1-4

Any attempt to capture in words that which cannot reasonably be explained, let alone understood intellectually, will ultimately seem futile to both the reader and the writer. Such is the case with the mysterious and primal reality of the Trinity. We can only talk around this foundation of our faith. Further, I address the three persons of the Trinity separately in order to point out distinctions in the ways they manifest to us. In reality, the three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are a single Unity that we call God. They are inseparable, interdependent, and constantly in dynamic communion with one another and with us.

God the Son is the Incarnate (embodied or manifest) Word of God, as opposed to God the Father, who does not have a physical body. God the Father enters into and shapes the material reality of the earth to create life as we know it – humans, plants, animals, hills, rocks, trees. Creation, in its many forms, is the child of God. As with our discussion of God the Father, God the Son necessarily implies a relationship. In other words, for there to be a Son (or daughter), there must also be a parent. What I attempt to describe is a relationship more than a specific being, and our lives are an integral part of that relationship.

To use sexual imagery, God the Father – the divine masculine energy – penetrates the formless void of the fertile, maternal Earth (see Genesis 1:2), and creation results. The Father is the creative force, the Mother is the receptive Earth, the Son is the resulting creation – God’s offspring, God’s prodigy. The ultimate example of the impregnation of earth by spirit manifested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the perfect combination of body and spirit, being 100% God and 100% human. Jesus’ seamless integration of divine and human natures makes him our Savior, our Messiah, the Anointed One. It is the lived experience that we are both body and spirit that “saves” us because, as Jesus so graphically displayed on the cross, only the body part of us suffers and dies. That which rises from the earth falls back to the earth. The rest, however, lives on.

The Genesis account of creation provides the image of God speaking creation into being. In John’s account of creation, the Word is created reality. That Word, in its ever-changing forms, has been one face of God since the beginning. John says, “All things came into being through him.” In addition, John writes, “What has come into being in him was life.” The words in and through are keys to understanding the Word, or the Son, or the creation of God. We come into being through the Son and live in that incarnate aspect of God. This is why we often close our prayers by saying, “In Jesus’ name” or “Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We live, physically, in the manifested reality of the Son of God, even as we are influenced by the non-manifest energies of the Father and the Spirit. We cannot know this intellectually, we can only recognize our participation in this Oneness experientially.

In a dynamic, ongoing process, the creative impulse of the Father penetrates the fertile womb of the Earth and creation results: light separates from darkness; the waters above part from the waters below; dry land divides from the waters; vegetation appears; seasons, stars, sun and moon rule the day and night; birds fill the skies and fish fill the seas; animals of every kind spring up from the earth; and humankind appears. The Creator creates, and the created gazes back in awe. This, then, is one way to picture the unfathomable relationship between us, God the Father, and God the Son. Creation – the Child – is the physical manifestation of the Spirit of God in everything created. The Christ is the Spirit clothed in flesh, completely aware of its Oneness (body and spirit), embodied in the stuff of the earth, and perfectly displayed in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.

Note: this is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

 

God the Father, Part 2

 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

There is a profound but subtle point in referring to God as Father. It is that for there to be a father, there must also be children. In other words, for the reference to hold there must be a parent-child relationship. This, then, is the characteristic most overlooked about God – that we are in close relationship to God. It is our choice to acknowledge and pursue that relationship or not, but either way, we are related.

My daughter, Grace, was born seven weeks before her due date. She was very small, even by infant standards. I could literally hold Grace comfortably in one hand, with her bottom at the base of my palm and the tops of my fingers securing her head. It was a reverential experience to hold this tiny, beautiful, perfect human being in my hand. I was an enormous being by comparison – stronger and infinitely more powerful. She, in her weakness, however, held complete power over my heart. Much as I vowed to protect both of my children from harm, they got sick, scrapped their knees, and had their hearts broken. For my part, I suffered alongside them, albeit not physically. In one of his Living School lectures, James Finley said, “God is the presence that spares us from nothing, even while it sustains us in everything.” This is the promise from our divine parent – not that bad things will never happen to us, but that we will never be alone in our suffering.

To refer to God as Father causes many of our brothers and sisters to turn away because their earthly experience with one or both parents was so painful. A parent-child relationship is not a relationship of equals. At least in a child’s early years, their father is probably the biggest, strongest being they know. That strength can be used to protect and provide security for the child, or that strength can be used to inflict unspeakable suffering. Too many parents are so wounded and broken themselves they cannot allow their child to have any emotional power over them – they cannot get in touch with their natural protective, nurturing instincts. Often, their own abusive parents victimized them. Some parents use their power over children to strike back at the world that struck them in their most vulnerable state. It is a heartbreaking and difficult cycle to break. The worst of the abusers end up in jail, but the abused children are still left to abuse their children one day unless and until they are healed in a way that transforms their pain.

It is the inequality of the relationship and the vast power discrepancy that makes a parental figure especially intimidating. It is difficult to feel safe if there is any hint they may use their power to harm us. Many times in the Bible we are exhorted to fear God. I think one purpose of this is to recognize the immensity of God in relation to us. The parent always has the upper hand, and we are always vulnerable in their presence. Trust is required if there is to be any sense of mutual giving and receiving.

The reference to God as Father cannot be dismissed as irrelevant just because many of us earthly fathers fall short in caring for our children. That we are in a relationship with God, one where the awesomeness of God looks upon us as an enamored parent lovingly gazes upon their precious child, is an image we are clearly to discern from scripture. The good parent uses their greater power to protect, nurture, teach, and empower the child. They are loving, patient, and kind. They defend their children against as many threats as possible. This is supposed to be the norm, not the exception. The parental model is God the Father/Mother, not because God keeps bad things from happening to good people, but because God the Parent never abandons and never stops loving his/her children. A child may not understand why their parent loves them, but they know when they are loved. A child cannot earn parental love, but they can respond to that love in loving ways. A loved child becomes a loving parent, and this is one intended outcome of any parent-child relationship, including our relationship with God the Father.

Note: this is the 31st in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.