Dying Before We Die, Part 1
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. Romans 8:13-14
Many people fear death more than anything else, including spiders and snakes. This is understandable since the life we perceive through our senses is the only life we know with any certainty. Whenever a loved one dies, our senses no longer receive evidence of their presence, so we assume they either no longer exist or they have traveled somewhere far away from us. We do not know, and not knowing makes us uneasy. When someone dies, he or she is just gone, leaving us with grief and questions. We feel sorrow for those who die young and celebrate those who live into their 90’s and beyond, as if our physical existence were more about the quantity of days than the quality. We cannot get a logical handle on death because it defies logic, and that makes us squirm.
Christian mystics talk about death regularly. So did Jesus. Scientific, irreversible, physical death occurs once for us, and most of us go to great lengths to deny its nearness and delay its arrival. We are not anxious to come to the end of the only life we know. And that is exactly the problem with the education most of us receive – the life we know is but a small part of the life we are. The apostle Paul names two aspects of existence. In his letter to the Romans, as well as in other writings in the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” making clear that both were present there and then, just as they continue to be present here and now. The word flesh is Paul’s code word for our ego’s interpretation of the concrete world of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It is easy to read Paul in a way that assumes he condemns the world of flesh, but that understanding is incomplete. Paul wants us to know that our ego’s view of the world of the flesh is only one part of our life. It is the impermanent, temporary part. It is also a beautiful, seductive part that can tempt us into actions that are inconsistent with and antagonistic to the larger, immortal, and invisible part of life, which is the realm of Spirit. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” This is the death we know is coming, the death of the flesh. If we identify solely with our ego’s experience of the flesh, our physical death will be the end of the little we know ourselves to be
On the other hand, according to Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. This poses a difficult dilemma to reconcile – the tangible pull of the flesh vs the ethereal speculation about the Spirit. In fact, the dilemma cannot be reconciled; it can only be accepted, embraced, and lived. Fortunately for us, dying to “the flesh” does not have to mean physical death. Paul encourages us to live in the flesh, tempered with the knowledge and perspective of the Spirit. Our physical existence is a tangible manifestation of the Spirit, so the two are not separate. The flesh is not evil, nor is our ego, but they can be misleading and the cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering, both to ourselves and to others. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (emphasis added).
Dying before we die does not mean ending our life in the flesh before its time. Rather, it means letting go of our attachment to and identification with that which has no permanence. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Dying before we die is resetting our priorities, being intentional about what we choose to treasure, and saying “Goodbye” to that which serves no eternal purpose. In this way, our lives are made whole – body and spirit as one – and we become children of God. Both body and Spirit are beautiful and together create the fullness we long to experience in this phase of life.
A contemplative life seeks an inclusive balance between the flesh and the Spirit, experiencing and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh within the context and under the guidance of the Spirit.
This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.
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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.
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.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.
Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.
Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.
Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.