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Dying Before We Die, Part 2

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a

Nature has no edges. Sharp, straight edges and clear lines of demarcation are human, not divine inventions. In my former work as a landscape designer, much of my work was to soften the edges created by the human need for distinct lines of separation. As such, it should come as no surprise that dying is not a precise occurrence. The medical definition of physical death is the cessation of all vital bodily functions. Sometimes, however, people come back to life after having been pronounced dead. Some have quite interesting stories to tell of the experience. I was told after my father’s death that some bodily functions would continue for some time, like hair growth. I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with my mother and grandmother as they passed from this life. Both transitioned over a period of weeks as they gradually withdrew from their material interests. Awakening and finding themselves still in this reality was not always a pleasant experience for either of them. They were becoming familiar with their new destination and were ready to move on.

We all are dying all of the time, even though our final, physical death may be many years away. Death is an on-going process. An estimated 50-70 million cells in our bodies die each day through a natural process called apoptosis. The inescapable cycle for all earthly life is birth, growth, decline, and death. Each stage is its own wonderful process and occurs in its own time. And the stages overlap. We see and accept the pattern all around us, but we have difficulty seeing or accepting it within ourselves. Each new day births with a sunrise, matures its way to sunset, and dies into night. The passing of a single day does not diminish the number of days. Seasons move deliberately from spring to summer to fall to winter – birth, growth, decline, death – only to repeat the cycle over and over again. What we know from nature but deny in ourselves is that death is not the end of life. Rather, death moves life to its next phase. Death is transformational, not terminal. The cellular and structural combinations forming everything around us must decline and die in order for its elements to be reborn as something new.

Our souls draw physical elements from the earth in order to embody themselves for a time. When that time is complete, the soul releases the physical elements back to the earth and both soul and elements move on to a new adventure. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. We cannot stop the sun from rising any more than we can prevent our own maturation. All things happen in their own sovereign time. When we let an unhealthy addiction die, when we move beyond an emotional wound, when we cease clinging to the tyranny of a painful injustice, we die before we die. We take control of something that has been controlling us. We recycle the energy that was required for the maintenance of the old and free it for something new. The season for that is over; now is the season for this. It is all part of the beautifully relentless cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. Our life is an endless series of second chances. All are glorious gifts from our Creator.

A contemplative life tunes itself to the natural rhythms of our physical and spiritual being through contemplative practices. We assess the parts of our lives that are no longer useful, and in the spirit of dying before we die, we allow those parts to be recycled as their season passes. In this progressive and eternal context, there is no good or evil because, together, all things move us toward the perfection of God’s creation. In the Revelation to John (21:5), Christ says, “See, I am making all things new.” Our pain, our suffering, the injustices of the world all work to set the course upon which our collective life is relentlessly heading. Those combinations that move us toward a more inclusive and just existence are strengthened, and those working in the other direction are recycled. Nothing is wasted or lost. It seems a slow process, but in the context of eternity, there is no rush. Rather, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Peace! Be Still!

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. Mark 4:39

Jesus had been teaching to a crowd on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Evening came and Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat when a “great windstorm” arose and threatened to swamp the boat. His disciples woke him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus got up and rebuked the wind, saying to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stopped blowing and “there was a dead calm.” Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

How many times in life have we felt beaten and drenched by the winds and rain of life’s challenges and wondered, “Lord, do you not care that I am perishing?” Serious health issues, suffering loved ones, job insecurities, troubled relationships, bills piling up – name any issue and many people experience the feeling of drowning under that particular pressure. Difficult times seem to attract more difficult times. Old wife’s tails like “God will never give you more than you can handle” are discouraging, at best, if not patently false. Even so, Jesus looks out over our situation and says, “Peace! Be still!” In my experience, the seas have always calmed, although seldom on my timeline. During the calm after the storm, I hear Jesus patiently whisper, “Have you no faith?”

And yet, this is our journey. Iron is sharpened by iron, and our faith is strengthened by our challenges. Anyone can be faithful when life is easy. Life, however, is never smooth for long. Our emotions rise and fall like the waves, turbulent and rough one moment and smooth as glass the next. We tend to believe we have life under control during our moments of calm, only to experience something that sends us flailing in the waves again. We become victims of our emotions, unless and until we learn to rise above the turbulence of our surroundings to the dead calm of Christ.

A little-understood fact of life is that there is no security, no stability, and no calm outside of our total reliance upon the provision of God. There is no bank account large enough, no home solid enough, no body healthy enough, no relationship strong enough to stand against every storm that may come. There is no insurance policy comprehensive enough to assure the restoration of life to a previous state. Everything of the earth deteriorates and dies, as has been true for billions of years. Our world is in a state of constant flux as God creates and recreates new life in its stunning diversity. If we are unwilling to consciously change with our surroundings, we will be worn down like a boulder stubbornly fixed in the middle of a raging river. The wearing down over time, however, will not be the fault of the river or the rock – it is simply the nature of creation.

Perhaps when Jesus looked out over the stormy sea and said, “Peace! Be still!” it was as much a command to his frightened disciples as it was to the sea. “Trust me – I’ve got this,” may be another helpful translation. Yes, life will be rough. But it is our own resistance to what is that makes it so. It is our lack of faith that is on display, not God’s lack of care for who we are at our essence, which is eternal.

Some changes to our world – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires – cause immeasurable suffering to many of the individual lives who inhabit it. But life, as a whole, survives and thrives. Individual life on earth was never intended to be permanent because the earth must continually redistribute the elements that compose our bodies and all of creation into new life forms. We are blind to the grace of every circumstance because we mourn what we believe we have lost instead of rejoicing in what is gained.

Jesus’ words, “Peace! Be still!” are a directive, calling us to trust God’s sometimes-raging river. When we strap ourselves in and commit to enjoying the ride wherever it takes us, we are less likely to be consumed by the seeming tragedies that occur along the way. We, too, will perish in God’s stormy sea one day. Paradoxically, only then will we truly know the peace of Christ. Until that day, faith is our best option.

This is the 38th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Those Who Mourn

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Matthew 5:4

The second of the Beatitudes seems almost too obvious to warrant serious consideration, that those who mourn will be comforted. If it were so obvious, why would Jesus bother to say it? Perhaps the answer, as is so often the case, is that the truth in the statement is deeper than it appears. For one thing, one does not have to look far to find people who mourn who are not being comforted. After my father died, I mourned (poorly) for years. Yes, there were many who stepped up to comfort me, but what about the sleepless nights, the dreams, and the times I simply wanted to share something with my dad? He never met my wife or my children. He was not present to congratulate me on graduations or other achievements. Where is the comfort when one heart mourns for another and there is no one near to ease the burden?

Interestingly, mourning manifests from different causes. We most often think of mourning from the loss of a loved one by death or other separation. Mourning can also occur from life-altering events over which we have no control. In addition, mourning happens with regret over past behavior, although this type of grief is often pushed beneath our conscious awareness. In the book God For Us1, Lauren Winner offers several fascinating insights into suffering. She writes, “There is something light in mourning – or at least something lightening – precisely because there is something true in mourning. To mourn the consequences of sin is, oddly, to edge very close to joy, because any encounter with the truth, even the truth of sin, has some hint of the lightened joy that comes when we allow ourselves to see things not as we wish they were, but as they really are; and a hint of joy that will come when sin is no more.” When our mourning stems from past behaviors, it is something that weighs heavily on us in such a way that we know we are carrying a heavy burden, but we cannot consciously pinpoint the source of the load.

The larger point is that proper mourning is important to our well-being and wholeness. When we are not allowed – by ourselves or others – to fully mourn our losses and regrets adequately, we find ourselves living in an ambiguous shadow of gloom. Being sad is an emotion and is not the same as mourning. True mourning names and exposes the source, the pain, and the way forward. It reaches deep within to bring everything associated with the pain into conscious awareness where it can be acknowledged and, eventually, healed. When done properly and patiently, mourning is transformative. Clearly, professional assistance is usually required.

One reason we tend to rush through our mourning is the sense of vulnerability and insecurity it brings. To acknowledge our weakness from and powerlessness over our life’s circumstances, or even over our own behavior, forces us to rearrange our understanding of life. That same vulnerability, however, is what opens us to comfort, rebirth, and resurrection. Thus, the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The fact is we cannot be truly comforted until we have actually mourned. Further, mourning is not a one-time event, but a process that takes however long it takes – weeks, months, or years.

In his book, The Prophetic Imagination2, Walter Brueggemann, writes about our nearly pathological resistance to acknowledging or even discussing the certitude of death – our own and that of those we love. In reference to this Beatitude, he says, “Only those who embrace the reality of death will receive new life. Implicit in his (Jesus’) statement is that those who do not mourn will not be comforted and those who do not face the endings will not receive the beginnings.”

Hidden within our mourning is new life – a fresh beginning – just as the freshness of spring lies hidden within the desolation of winter. There is no way to get to spring, however, except by going through winter. Not only will those who truly mourn be comforted, they will be blessed by the process.

This is the 12th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1  Lauren F. Winner, God For Us. Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. Paraclete Press,       Brewster, MA. 2014. Page 75.

2  Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2001. Pages 56-57.

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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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The Bridegroom

He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:29-30

Here is an unexpected face of God: the bridegroom. In its context, the passage above is John the Baptist speaking to his followers who are wondering if they should now follow Jesus. John confesses that his own ministry must now decrease so that of Jesus can increase. John was the warm-up act, but Jesus would now be the star of the show. This was not reason for sadness but for rejoicing. In fact, John says that hearing the voice of Jesus made his own joy complete, and therein lies a lesson for us.

We live in obsessively individualistic times, and the idea of willingly taking a back seat to anyone seems absurd. Many of us act as though the universe revolves around us, which in a sense is true, but only in a very limited sense. Anything and anyone that might remove us from our privileged pedestal is a threat. Certainly, one of the biggest and most frequently occurring threats is that of change. Our ego does not like change, except for when it is someone else who changes to accommodate our desires. In order to allow Christ to increase in our lives, however, our ego must be coaxed out of the limelight and corralled into its subservient place.

The biblical analogy of Jesus as the bridegroom positions us – including those of the male gender – as the bride (“He who has the bride is the bridegroom.”). Although this reference is not widely used in the Bible, it is particularly interesting and thought-provoking. In Genesis (2:24), speaking of marriage, the author writes: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Could it be that Jesus left his Father in heaven to come be one life with us? I think that is exactly the implication. A marriage implies a close relationship – so close that the two lives become one. The New Testament references to a wife submitting to her husband (Titus 2:5, for example), so troubling for so many, may stem from the need for us, as the bride, to submit to the Lordship of Christ, the bridegroom.

In this context, masculine and feminine refer to an orientation to another and not a gender assignment. Any of us can choose this orientation in a particular situation regardless of our gender. Although some feminine traits may come more naturally to those born as a woman, we all possess unique combinations of masculine and feminine characteristics. In Ken Wilber’s book Integral Spirituality (p. 15), he writes, “…the healthy feminine principle tends toward flowing, relationship, care, and compassion…” The inference is that in order to receive the invitation of the bridegroom, we need to be in a flow with the divine, to be in right relationship with God and others, and to have those relationships characterized by care and compassion.

God in Jesus manifested as a perfect union of physical body and spirit – 100% human and 100% divine. With the Christ as our bridegroom, we are invited into what some contemplatives refer to as a mystical marriage. It is mystical in the sense that it is not a typical physical union – we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch this bridegroom. We must develop a broader set of perceptual capabilities – spiritual senses – in order to consummate this union. A mystical union is one where two lives unite, yet retain their individual natures. Jesus’ humanity did not diminish his divinity, nor did his divinity diminish his humanity. He retained all of both. A new being is created – reborn, if you will – that is neither, yet both. The face of God as bridegroom invites us into a mystical union where we do not lose the traits that make us who we are, but which strips those traits of the distortions that limit their use for higher purposes. In other words, we become far better and holier versions of who we already are in Christ.

The bridegroom awaits…

Note: this is the 25th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Fiery Face of God

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Exodus 3:2

Fire is an amazing phenomenon, almost like something outside of the rest of creation. Its sustenance requires three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Combining these three elements is not sufficient for a fire to actually manifest, however. There must also be an ignition source – a spark to initiate or invite the fire to begin. Fire, like electricity, is neither good nor bad; rather, fire can produce either good or bad results. Fire can heat a home, cook a meal, and provide soothing light; fire can also reduce a home to ashes or burn a person beyond recognition.

God manifests as fire in numerous places in the Bible. In Exodus, God appears to Moses as a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. God leads the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:22). Psalm 29:7 proclaims, “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” The New Testament author of Hebrews writes, “…for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). You get the picture: one of the faces of God is fire.

The ancient science of Alchemy used fire to purify metals like gold and silver. The art of the practice was to apply the right amount of heat to a substance in order to burn away the impurities without consuming the precious metal. Considering alchemy in an allegorical sense, God is the divine alchemist applying fire to us in order to burn away that which is unhelpful in us. The difficult, challenging, and painful times of our lives can be seen as a divine torch, burning away our narcissism, humbling us, and sometimes driving us to our knees in a cry for mercy. While I do not believe God rains hard times down upon us – we do that to ourselves – I do believe God takes what remains and stands ready to remake us anew. In the sense that one of the faces of God is fire, that fire is a resurrecting fire. Unfortunately, some measure of destruction is necessary for resurrection to occur, so the initial phases of the rebirthing process often feel more like a punishing fire from hell.

A legendary bird, the Phoenix, was said to live until reaching a certain stage of decline when it would simply burst into flame, reducing itself to ashes, only to rise again as a new creation from those very ashes. It is a mythical example of the pervasive cycle of life: birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. A more down to earth example occurs annually in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which are burned to black stubble every spring, only to be reborn to an iridescent green a short time later. The centuries-old practice of prairie burning purges the old growth, replenishes the nutrients in the ground, and clears the way for the rebirth of the prairie.

The analogy of God manifesting as fire assures us that our God is not an emotionless bystander. Fire is symbolic of passion and action. God’s love for us is fierce and tenacious. We do not consciously experience the fiery love of God because we are seldom in a state of sufficient awareness to recognize it. Regardless, God’s love burns brightly for each of us. The creator in God recycles all the elements of the earth in a never-ending dance of recreation, molding new combinations and rebirthing the old. Nothing is wasted, ever – no experience, no element, no being. When necessary, God manifests as a consuming fire, forcing the old to release the elements of its construction in order to allow a new creation to enter.

One face of God is fire – feel the burn…

Note: this is the tenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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