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Blessed are the Merciful

 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Matthew 5:7

As with a number of the other Beatitudes, this one seems almost too trivial for serious discussion: that those who show mercy will receive mercy in return. It is another in a long series of illustrations of the law of sowing and reaping, so common in Jesus’ teachings. We reap what we sow. In the current example, when we plant mercy, we harvest mercy.

Mercy and justice are often used interchangeably. There is a familiar fable that goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The fable distinguishes between short and long-term assistance. Many people consider mercy as addressing immediate needs and justice as targeting longer-term solutions that reduce the immediate needs for mercy. Ultimately, both are important, but the way we approach needs for mercy is often different from how we address issues of justice.

The oft-missed starting point for consideration in being merciful is identifying what a person actually needs. Unfortunately, many of us feel better equipped than we actually are to determine the true needs of another. Until we have established some sort of a relationship with the person, we cannot know. If a person is hungry, a meal may be sufficient. If they are hungry and diabetic, however, taking them to Dairy Queen may not be a merciful solution. If they are hungry and homeless, a meal and shelter for the night will be required. If they are lonely, a merciful person will offer company. The point is that we cannot show deep mercy to another without first becoming vulnerable enough to join him or her in their moment. In fact, according to Richard Rohr, we cannot know anything until we first love it1. Love always precedes knowledge. In other words, true acts of mercy go beyond handing money to a homeless person on the street and certainly deeper than donating money to a charity via payroll deduction (not that those types of mercy are not important, too). Acknowledging and assisting with one’s immediate need is one thing; acknowledging and knowing her or him as a unique person of value, as a child of God, is quite another. Yet, honoring and bestowing dignity on another, regardless of his or her current circumstance, is foundational to showing mercy. This requires more than money. It requires time and attention, and often is what is most needed. Sometimes, it is all that is needed.

A couple of chapters beyond this Beatitude in the book of Matthew, Jesus gives us the Golden Rule, which could as easily be named the Rule of Mercy: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) When I am in need, help me where I actually hurt, not where you assume I hurt. Knowing a person well enough to know their need is a mark of love and often leads to the realization that his or her need is my need, too. True mercy grows out of love and relationship and requires an interpersonal connection to first be established. Ultimately, acts of mercy are exercises in self-awareness and, thus, can be unintentionally self-serving. It is God in us reaching out to God in another, becoming one in our mutual need. As such, mercy is not for the faint of heart. If we cannot see God in another, however, how will we ever recognize God in ourselves?

Clearly, mercy requires a heart for others. The most important mercy-skill, however, may be the ability to genuinely listen to another, preferably without interruption. Being heard has become a rare experience because listening has become a lost art. Certainly, we should still give money to those who ask (see Matthew 5:42), but to become truly merciful beings, we will need to ask questions and listen carefully to the responses. We must not only become advocates for others, but also advocates with others, standing side by side with them in their suffering. In this Beatitude, Jesus promises that in the end, lives that are characterized by a deep and sincere commitment to mercy will attract mercy back to themselves like a magnet.

This is the 15th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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1          Richard Rohr, What Difference Does the Trinity Make? Audio recording. https://school.cac.org/mod/book/view.php?id=8116&chapterid=1000, accessed April 9, 2018.

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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.

 

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Three Faces, One God

 Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV)

The Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – is a foundational pillar of Christianity, even though the term does not appear in the Bible. Furthermore, if we removed all references to the Trinity from Christian thought, the practice of most Christians would not change at all. This is a testament to how difficult the concept is to grasp in a tangible way. It is humbling to attempt writing about a mystery that so defies expression in words. Yet, this series of essays on The Faces of God will not be complete without at least a cursory nod to the Trinity. Indeed, the faces of God expressed throughout the Bible and throughout human experience are manifestations of the persons of the Trinity.

One reason the Trinity is so difficult to understand is our misunderstanding of the nature and being of God. Many of us grew up with the image of God as an old, angry, white male with long, white hair and an unkempt beard. That is a very limiting image, and to the extent that is our picture and understanding of God, to that same extent do we miss the immensity, the love, the relational nature, and the personal intimacy of God. The concept of the Trinity begins to crack that old image by presenting God as three persons. One God, but one God manifesting in different ways. A less than perfect example that helps me is to recognize that I am one person serving many distinct roles. I act as a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, friend, co-worker – sometimes all in the span of a few hours. I relate and appear differently to others in my different roles, but I am one being. If someone only knows me as an employer, he or she may not experience the love and tenderness I express in other roles. When we limit our understanding of God to a single expression, we miss the infinite diversity and endless possibilities of the one we call God. We all wear many faces, so why would the God who formed us be any different? Three persons, three faces, three roles – one God.

In the coming weeks, I will express my limited understanding of the three persons of the Trinity as individuals, but understand up front – they are all 100% God, and they are one God. The three faces of God are no more separate from each other than my various roles are from my essence – they are simply different expressions of it. What differs in the persons of God is how we experience God. In his devotional, A Spring Within Us, Father Richard Rohr summarizes the Trinity in this way (p. 258): “God for us, we call you Father. God alongside us, we call you Jesus. God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.”

Besides the multiplicity of the expressions of God, I hope to convey a sense of God as constant motion or flow, ever moving, ever changing, and always inviting us to join in the dance of life. As we enter that flow, we experience life as good and natural; our yoke becomes easy. To the extent we try to hold onto our lives as they are, resisting growth and change, to that same extent do we separate ourselves from the security of this loving flow, the ever-evolving beauty, and our participation in the intimate relationship awaiting us from inside this mysterious, Trinitarian God. When our image of God restructures as a relational interaction of three or more persons, we recognize our personal invitation to participate in mutual giving and receiving, in shared evolutionary movement. We experience together the joys and pains, the beauty and barrenness, the on-going birth, growth, death, and resurrection of all that is and ever will be. We are co-creators and co-experiencers with God. Until we begin to understand God’s true nature – God’s relational nature –we will mistakenly experience God as separate, aloof, limited, and unpredictable.

Our lives manifest in ways similar to the changing seasons. Winter contains within it spring, summer, and fall, and we contain all that we are from before the moment of our first breath. Life is an awakening to possibilities that have existed since the dawn of creation, a divine dance with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. The Trinity invites us into a dynamic relationship as participants in this eternal celebration of life.

Note: this is the 29th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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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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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?

uncovering-god-book-and-cd-covers

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 5: Sin is Separation

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

At an early age, I learned I was a sinner. I believed my thoughts and actions were unacceptable to God, and the only thing I could do about it was try to hide my awful nature. I pretended to be a “good, little boy” to friends and relatives, and especially to people at church, so they would consider me one of them – the “good” and the “chosen” – instead of the wretched misfit I thought myself to be. I am not certain how I came to believe I was such a terrible person – I suspect it was at church. I do not recall my parents instilling an aberrant self-belief, but sin was a weekly topic in the church where I grew up. That God knew my every thought and watched my every action convinced me I would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. As an adult, I accepted I was not worse than other folks I knew, so if I were condemned to hell, I would be in good company. I realized that everyone sins, and sin is a common and shared characteristic, more than something I alone struggled with.

Today, however, I view sin differently. I read once that sin is separation, and that concept opened up an entirely new understanding of sin for me: Sin is what sets us apart – apart from God and apart from each other. When I sin against you, I do something that divides us, something that harms our relationship. In order to restore our relationship, I must confess my sin (admit I did wrong), repent (meaning “turn around” or change or apologize), and seek your forgiveness (ask you to reengage our relationship). That sounds like a pretty natural and common progression in any relationship worth maintaining.

Traditionally, we track the “original” sin to the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve defying God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “punishment” was expulsion from the Garden, where they had enjoyed a direct, unfettered relationship with God. In other words, they separated from God. I now believe the original sin was not the eating of the fruit, but the leaving of the Garden itself – their willful separation from God. The very act of a soul taking on flesh and blood and becoming human is an act of separation – a sinful act, if you will – because as humans we enter a reality that appears individualistic and separate. From our human vantage point, we cannot see God, and we cannot see our interconnectedness with each other. We believe ourselves to be separate, independent entities, and that separation is the illusion at the root of most of our problems.

At times, we Christians are quick to point out the sins of others and equally remiss in pointing out the divine grace and forgiveness that is as close as their next breath. In the very act of judging another, we commit sin by driving a wedge between another and ourselves.Sin – creating division with others – is its own punishment. God need not punish us further. In fact, God reaches out to rejoin with us. When I was a child, I had a miserable self-image because I did not feel worthy to be in close relationship with others. Yet, close relationship is what we were created for, and is the reality behind the illusion. Without it, we are miserable.

Sin is separation. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Love Does Not Rejoice in Wrongdoing

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing… 1 Corinthians 13:4-6a

The last of the unloving traits listed by Paul is to rejoice in wrongdoing. Most of the time when we do something wrong, we already feel ashamed. To have our mistake be the reason for someone else’s happiness just multiplies our frustration and sadness. Likewise, to rejoice in something we did wrong to another is equally unloving, especially if it was something we did intentionally. Rejoicing in the misfortune of others is cruel, and yet it is all too common. Much gossip is of this nature. The competitive part of me enjoys seeing someone else make a poor judgement that allows me an advantage in a game. I do not believe that, in itself, is wrong. It would be unloving if I did a happy dance in front of the other, however.

 Often, we rejoice in the wrongdoing of another as a way to lift ourselves up. Particularly when it is a person we believe has a better life than we have. We think, “Ha! Now you know what my life is like!” None of us, however, can know the life experience of another. It is too easy to judge the circumstances of another through our own biases. Easy, yes, but usually inaccurate.

The problem with lifting ourselves up at the expense of another is that we are intimately interconnected. None of us can truly rise above life’s circumstances unless and until we all rise. It is like being in a boat with someone and laughing at the hole in his or her end of the boat. Ultimately, everyone in the boat is going down.

In marriage, two lives become one life. One person cannot “succeed” in a marriage if the other is not also successful. That would be like saying my right hand lived a full, happy life, but the rest of my body failed miserably. In many of his letters, the apostle Paul refers to the church and its members as the body of Christ. He writes in Romans, “…we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Finally, on his last night on earth in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays that we all become one with him, just as he is one with God. Contrary to popular belief, our fates are tied. Acknowledging our interconnectedness can solve many of the world’s ills. Loving relationships require unity. If we rejoice in the wrongdoing of another, we cannot be in union with him or her. Love demands that we lift others up, not tear them down.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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