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Living Beyond Words

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

It is common to have a narrative running nonstop in our heads. Most of us are more present to the descriptions of our experiences than we are to the actual experiences, and we do not even notice ourselves doing it. The problem is obvious – our descriptions are one step removed from reality. Language is one of the first things we are taught as we grow, and by the time we reach adulthood we have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the detached reality our words describe. We forget that words are metaphors. They point to or describe something, but they are not the thing itself. For example, the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm speak of lying down in green pastures and resting beside still waters. Comforting words, yes, but they are only mental representations of the experiences they describe. God meets us in our experiences, not in our descriptions.

In the book of Exodus, as Moses and God conversed on Mount Sinai, Moses told God the Israelites would want to know God’s name. God answered, “I am who I am.”[1] The people wanted a description of God, a box within which they could place God, some way of limiting God’s nature to something tangible and controllable. Many sacred writings throughout the ages have affirmed that God cannot be known; only experienced. The same is true of our lives on earth – they cannot be lived by description. A contemplative life, in particular, seeks the experience that inspires the description – the life beyond words.

God experiences life in and through us. In other words, God experiences you through me and me through you, which is not to say any of us are God. The true self within –the best, purest, and most holy self we know we can be – is where God resides. It is the part of us that was never born and will never die. It is the part that will live on when our earthly body gives out. This true self is not, however, cause for feelings of superiority because what is true of you and me is true of everyone else, too.

Our words, however, tell us we are not equal and that we are separate beings. Our life descriptions, supported by our egos, tell us we are better than this person, although maybe not as good as another. Descriptions necessarily compare, divide, and define this and that. We assess things not by their similarities but by their differences. By the time we become adults we are so convinced we are independent beings, separate from everyone else that ignoring our neighbors, leaving family members to work out their own problems, and not flinching at the genocide occurring across the globe become the accepted norm. Because we do not see our interconnectedness, and because the words that describe our lives are inadequate to capture any semblance that we are truly one body, we lose the lived experience and responsibility of oneness – one with God and one with each other.

Our words separate all kinds of things that are actually of the same essence, and we are deceived when we believe them. For example, we define light and dark, day and night, north and south in relation to each other, by what we consider their opposite. In fact, they are different states of the same reality. The same is true for Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, we are all one in Christ. Our oneness is NOT metaphorical, even if the words we use are. Even good and evil, in the larger picture, are parts of the same process of growth and evolution. No process of growth occurs without suffering, which often feels like evil when taken out of its larger context.

We are not our descriptions of ourselves; our true essence resides where our experiences meet the part of us that is one with God. Of these experiences, Jim Finley writes, “What is so extraordinary about such moments is that nothing beyond the ordinary is present. It is just the primal stuff of life that has unexpectedly broken through the mesh of opinions and concerns that all too often hold us in their spell. It is just life in the immediacy of the present moment before thought begins.”[2] Once we find that place, even for a moment, we know our true life, indescribably rich, resides beyond words.

This is the 14th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Exodus 3:14.

[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart. Sorin Books, 2000, pp.  24-25

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 22: Unity ≠ Uniformity

 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23

As a young adult, I was fascinated with Eastern philosophy. A common theme was unity, or oneness. Writers spoke frequently of becoming one with God, or with one’s environment, or with others. In marriage, scripture tells us two lives become one flesh. In my western mind, I thought the whole concept of oneness was repulsive. Why would a single drop of water intentionally fall in the ocean and lose its uniqueness? I remember reading once, about marriage, that the ultimate result of two people becoming one was two half-people. Cynical, yes; but it is a reflection of the western emphasis on individuality, making one’s own way, and expressing one’s distinctiveness.

Interestingly, the point in my life when I was ready to enter into marriage was the point when I had grown tired of my individual expression. I did not like what I had and had not achieved in life, I felt stagnant and stale, and I was more than ready to give up the life I had worked to build for a chance of reaching for something better. Marriage changed my life in wonderful ways too numerous to count, but it hardly stole my uniqueness. Rather, unity in marriage provided a larger context of support where I could develop and express my individual gifts more completely. And that is the point about unity that is often overlooked: unity does not imply uniformity. Unity is about fitting one’s uniqueness into place along with the distinct qualities of others to create something greater. Think of the pieces of a puzzle – each piece has a unique coloration, shape, and place, but when the pieces are fit together as one, the result is far beyond what any one piece was capable of producing.

Striving for unity requires a leap of faith. A person must be willing to risk the self they have identified with in order to attain a larger purpose or goal. The math of unity is 1+1+1=111. There is very little logic to it, but we know two or more people working in unison toward a common purpose can accomplish more than can be accomplished individually. The power of relationship is the immeasurable wildcard. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) It is an early definition of fellowship, and it implies that a supernatural force develops from oneness.

Every trait that made me unique in my single days I retain today, so I lost nothing. Instead, I found a greater context within which to express that uniqueness.

Unity does not equal uniformity. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes—April 18, 2013 

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  John 17:20-23

The passage above comes from the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John.  Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, minutes before he will be betrayed and murdered.  He prays for himself to successfully complete his earthly work.  He prays for his disciples, who will establish his church.  Finally, he prays for us—those who will believe through the Word passed to us by his disciples. There is a common theme in this intimate prayer: Oneness.  Many times throughout his ministry Jesus declares that he and God are One.  And here, in the Garden, he prays that we—two thousand years in the future—will be completely one with each other.  He (Jesus) in us, and God in him, all together as One.

So, what does it mean to be One?  In Genesis 2:24, referring to marriage, it is written, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Could that be the sort of Oneness Jesus refers to?  I am married, but my wife and I are very different and unique individuals.  Yet we are one, according to Genesis.  Certainly, we have all seen how the lives of folks in committed relationships become intertwined by bonds that are painfully difficult to try to break.

There are bonds uniting us all that are beyond our ability to perceive, not just in marriage, but in humanity.  I believe Jesus is referring to a Oneness that is an absolute reality, regardless of whether we are consciously aware of it.  And that sort of Oneness helps bring perspective to some of the more difficult passages in the Bible.  For example, we are told to care for the poor and less fortunate.  If we are truly One, no one can truly prosper until all prosper because we are all interconnected.  It is true in marriage that a couple suffers or prospers together, and it is equally true of humanity.  Such shared fates may not manifest in obvious ways, but I believe they are there nonetheless.  Jesus recognized the importance of affirming that connection, even if we cannot see it.  We are all unique expressions of the One.  But we cannot separate ourselves from that source or our fellow beings; we can only ignore the connection—at our own peril.

Life worship is downtown at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary. Tom’s sermon is “The Power of a Helping Hand,” based on Luke 10:25-37.  West campus worship is at 9:00 and 11:00.

Come home to church this Sunday.  Experience the power of One…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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