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Creative Stillness

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Mark 4:39-40

One of the few Bible verses I ever successfully memorized as a child was the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” This Psalm draws an analogy between the way a good shepherd watches over his sheep and the way God cares for us. The second verse reads, “…he leads me beside still waters.” Still waters are important for sheep as they need to drink, but can easily drown in a strong current. A good shepherd makes sure the water quenches the thirst of the sheep without stressing or endangering them. A lack of stillness stresses us, too. A hectic life feels like being sucked into a whirlpool, with no easy way to stop being pulled beneath the surface. Too often we become human doings instead of human beings. While it is important to complete the work that is ours to do, it is equally vital to seek regular stillness in order to renew ourselves. Too often, our schedules go out of control because we fail to recognize the importance of rest in our lives.

Like silence, stillness has an internal and external manifestation. Just because there is calm in our external environment does not mean there is stillness within. When our internal dialogue continues to judge and criticize, we are not still. When we rehash past regrets and energize feelings of guilt and inadequacy, we are not still. When we review the things we have yet to accomplish today, we are not still. Stillness only occurs in the moment and cannot occur when our mind strays outside of the moment.

Stillness is not the same as sleep, however. The opening verses of the Bible describe a scene of anticipatory stillness, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2). The earth was not inert; rather, the earth was waiting. There is a significant difference between stillness and inactivity. It is one thing to prepare for God to act in and through us but quite another to be lazy, slothful, or unmotivated. There is a heightened awareness and an invigorated aliveness to the stillness from which God creates. The earth may have been a “formless void,” and darkness may have “covered the face of the deep,” but there was tremendous energy waiting to be unleashed by God’s Word. When we seek God in stillness, there is a sense in which we surrender ourselves as a formless block of clay for God to shape and mold. We surrender, not in the sense of being squelched against our will, but to the excitement of knowing God will work in and with us to birth something new.

Many believe creation was a one-time event, thousands or billions of years ago. Creation, however, is a continuous occurrence with every new day and in each fresh moment. Our bodies completely remake themselves with new cells every few years. In spite of the cold, the trees outside my window are breaking bud, preparing for their spring rebirth. With an outside temperature in the teens, a cardinal was welcoming the sunrise this morning. Bluebirds have returned, striking a stunning contrast against the snow remaining on the ground. Life is not something that happened long ago and is now in a slow demise towards its ultimate death. No, new life is happening now! It is relentless and unstoppable. Everywhere and in every moment, creative energy lies in wait in the anticipatory stillness of winter or of darkness or of depression, illness, loneliness, or whatever hell we find ourselves in. Lurking beneath the misery and hopelessness is a spark waiting to be kindled into a flame to burst forth and rebirth itself from the ashes of the old. New life cannot wait to explode forth.

Seeking stillness in a busy life is challenging. Sometimes, such quiet time must be scheduled. A calm environment is helpful, but far more important is finding a time and space where we can sit quietly and disengage our mind and body from the activities of the day. Slow, deep, attentive breathing is always a good way to begin. Being still before God is not laziness. Being still before God prepares us for the next phase of creation, which is already welling up inside of us.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Come and See

 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”  John 1:38-39

In John 1:35-42, Jesus walks by John the Baptist and a couple of his disciples and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John’s two disciples begin following Jesus, who turns around and asks, “What are you looking for?” The men ask where he is staying, and Jesus says, “Come and see.” This directive to Jesus’ first disciples two thousand years ago remains a directive to those of us wishing to follow Jesus today: Come and see.

To “come” implies we must leave wherever we are, and to “see” means to open our eyes, heart, and mind to what is revealed in our coming. Those who wish to see must first come. Another important word in this story is the word translated as “staying,” which can also be translated as abiding. There is a way to consider this encounter that I find instructive. When John’s disciples saw Jesus, identified as the Lamb of God, they immediately wanted to know more. Something about Jesus intrigued them. Perhaps they saw something in him they were missing in themselves. Therefore, they asked where he was staying. Personally, I think what they asked was more along the lines of Where do you abide? The difference is significant because if, indeed, the disciples were drawn to Jesus, they would want to know about his spiritual nature, or certainly something deeper than his physical habitation.

Where we abide can refer to our state of consciousness and/or a state of relationship. It is our go-to mode for living. It is where we reside internally, as in the center point from which we live and move and have our being. Jesus, as the Lamb of God, was in a relationship with God that these men wanted to experience for themselves. Thus they ask, where are you abiding? Those of us who seek to follow Jesus will eventually ask the same question. If this interpretation of the story is reasonable, the journey Jesus invites us to is an internal journey more than an external one. Jesus invites us not to a different geographic state, but to a different state of conscious awareness.

Jesus tells the men, “Come.” That means to leave wherever you are. In this case, it meant for the disciples to leave their current lives, including leaving their mentor, John. For us, it may mean many things, but wherever it is Jesus invites us, it is not our life as it is today. To come somewhere is to leave one’s current abode. Jesus might as easily have said, “Leave!” The command requires an affirmative decision, followed by action on our part to accomplish.

Finally, Jesus says, “See.” Only after we have come to where he abides can we begin to see what he wishes to reveal. To witness the inner reality of Jesus is to experience what it means to live in unity with God. It is not enough to listen, nor is it sufficient to read or talk it out with others. We only experience this divine reality by trusting, following, and committing to this new type of freedom, this new state of being.

Here is the problem for many of us: our lives are like a hamster wheel in that we confuse activity with progress. We are worried and distracted over many things and overwhelmed with the day’s demands. We run faster and faster, but at the end of the day/week/year we have progressed no farther along any road upon which we wish to be traveling. This is completely discouraging because no matter how hard we work, neither the scenery nor the schedule changes, and the only tangible result we have to show is total exhaustion! I understand Jesus’ invitation to come and see as one to step off the hamster wheel, leave the cage, and enter a new, expanded reality. How we actually do this, from a practical standpoint, is another matter that each of us must figure out for ourselves – just as Jesus’ disciples had to figure out how to leave their former lives in order to attain a new one.

Either way, all who want off their current hamster-wheel-abode are invited: Come and See!

This is the 7th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.

 

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A New Body

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. Luke 24:36-39

After Jesus rose from the grave on the morning we celebrate as Easter, he appeared to his disciples a number of times. All four Gospel accounts of the post-resurrection days record appearances of the risen Christ. Based on those accounts, however, the body of the risen Jesus is clearly different than before. Often, his closest followers do not recognize Jesus until he speaks to them. He enters rooms through locked doors. He appears, and then disappears from gatherings of his disciples. He reprises his walk upon the sea. Jesus rose from the dead, but he did not return in an identical body. His new body resembled the old, however, and it still bore the holes and scars from his crucifixion. He eats and converses with his followers, as he did in his previous life, but this is not the same Jesus.

In his final hours on earth, Jesus suffered a litany of the worst types of torture imaginable. One of his closest friends betrayed him to the religious authorities, who promptly convicted him of blasphemy in a sham trial. He was beaten, scourged, humiliated, and mocked. He suffered inconceivable physical and emotional abuse. Finally, nailed to a cross for hours in the hot sun, he died. And when it was finished, he rose from the dead and returned to earth. Jesus returned to earth changed, however, and with a new body.

There are many profound lessons from the death and resurrection of Christ, one of which is that there is new life on the other side of suffering. While we do not always return to an earthly life, there is always life on the other side. And we are always changed as a result of our struggles. We may look similar, but our bodies and spirits bear the marks of our experiences. Often, we rearrange our priorities, and what was important before, fades into obscurity. That type of rebirth is one purpose of death – when something needs to change or grow, something else must die first. Like a chick, persistently and exhaustingly pecking its way out of the egg; like a mother giving birth; like Jacob wrestling with God; like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. New life comes at a cost; our souls reach for a higher experience, and a new life emerges from the old. Jesus showed us – on the cross and out of the tomb – that there is always life on the other side, often in a new body.

Come home to church this Sunday. There comes a time to begin again.

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