Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Path of Treasure–Heart–Self

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

When I was first out of college I worked on the staff of a large Episcopal Church as a Children & Youth Minister.  Jim, the priest who had direct oversight of me, was a nice enough guy - sincere, dedicated, evangelical, but not without his quirks.  We went out to lunch once or twice a week and for the longest time Jim wanted to go to a particular establishment because it had video games and he was deep in the throes of a Pac-Man addiction.  I remember watching him play and listening to him say of the ghosts, “Dang, these guys are really after me today.”  One day in the office I found Jim reading the business section of the newspaper, pouring over the stock report.  It seems that a parishioner who worked for an investment firm encouraged him to buy some stocks and now he was keenly (and I mean keenly) interested to know how they were doing.  A few weeks after this began Jim suggested we go out to lunch.  “How about we go to Wendy’s,” he said.  Well, that was a surprise because we had never eaten at Wendy’s before and, to the best of my knowledge, it did not have video games.  When we got there he enthusiastically encouraged me to order up: “Why don’t you supersize that?” he asked.  “You ought to get a frosty too.”  But then when I got to the condiment bar he began to chastise me, “Do you really need that much ketchup?  Salt isn’t good for you.  You really don’t need a straw with your drink.”  Have you figured out what was going on yet?  Yes, Jim had bought stock in Wendy’s and at some level he believed encouraging me to place a bigger order helped his investment while taking two packets of ketchup diminished it. 
I think of Jim and that episode every time I hear Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jim was living out a fundamental truth in life.  He never paid any attention to the stock market and never ate at Wendy’s until he invested some of his treasure there.  There is a stewardship implication to this.  People sometimes ask how much money they should give to church to support God’s work in the world.  My response is this: give at least until it gets your attention!
What we have to invest and where we invest it matters greatly.  We can use it to direct our hearts toward God or we can use it to direct our hearts away from God.  Jesus says it is just that simple.  What do we have to invest?  Well, money of course.  We also have time and how we use it is an investment (ever sit through a terrible movie and at the end say, “well, there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back”?).  We can invest energy, effort, work into something or someone.  We can invest emotion.  The more we invest of ourselves in people or things, the more we care about them.  Given this, Jesus asks a basic question: do the things you invest in and the people you invest in draw you closer to or farther from God?
This is a good question to ponder on Ash Wednesday; on a day we remember our own mortality and recognize that we only have one chance to live life and then ponder are we living it well.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes fictional characters who go to heaven only to turn back because it is neither what they want or expect it to be.  They have spent their entire life longing for something other than God and, as a result, when they have the chance to be with God, they turn it down because they long for something else.  I think Lewis discerned a very important truth about this life.  We are free to choose, free to desire, free to invest as we will.  Each choice we make has eternal consequences in that its shapes and forms us either to love God or to love something else.  The choices we make become patterns that become habits that become who we are and God honors who we are by allowing us to receive the blessings or the curses of the choices we make. 
In a few moments we will pray together the Litany of Penitence.  It is a description of some of the choices we make: “pride, hypocrisy, and impatience,” “self-indulgent appetites and ways,” “envy,” “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,” and more.  These are things in which we invest ourselves and, true to our nature, our heart follows.  And once your heart gets settled on something that thing becomes you and you become it.
This is a day to make an honest self-assessment.  On what has my heart become settled?  How is it shaping who I am and what I am becoming?  Ponder these questions and doubtless you will discern those places where the path of treasure–heart–self is leading you toward God and a deeper love of your neighbor and doubtless you will also discern where the path is leading you in the other direction, away from love of God and neighbor.
The holy season of Lent invites us to a period of discipline and self-denial so that we might die to some of the ways that lead us from God and strengthen some of the ways that lead us toward God.  I enjoy listening to people talk about what they will give up for Lent.  Often these conversations betray an intention to avoid Lent by giving up rhubarb or marathon running.  I find those who want to die to self often don’t talk about the specifics of their Lenten devotion because it is too close and too personal share casually with others.  This, I think, is what Jesus was getting at when he taught about practicing your piety in secret. 
The goal of Lent is simple.  It is to shift your treasure from one thing to another; to shift how you invest your time, your money, your energy, and your emotion from some thing or things that lead you away from God to some thing or things that lead you toward God.  The goal of Lent is to die to certain aspects of your self so that by Easter you can rise to newness of life with our Resurrected Savior.  May God be with each of us over the next forty days in this time of disciplined dying to our old self in the certain hope that God will raise us up to something new and holy and glorious and sound.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Intimacy with God

When do you feel close to God? Each of today’s readings invites us to ponder this question. Each touches on the intimate nature of our relationship with The One Beyond and with one another. Elijah draws close to God as the end of his time on earth nears. Elisha draws close to his mentor, not wanting to lose their closeness, even at the very end. Jesus draws near to God on the holy mountain as he communes with Moses and Elijah. Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ closest friends, are welcomed into the experience of a lifetime; one they desire to last forever. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth that the light of God has shown in our hearts. The Psalmist proclaims God’s invitation, “Gather before me my loyal followers.” Each passage depicts a closeness with God: a physical closeness, or a spiritual closeness, or an emotional closeness. When do you feel close to God?

When I meet with couples in premarital counseling I have them do an exercise to explore the different facets of intimacy. The origins of the word ‘intimate’ tell us that it combines two different meanings into one idea: first, “to take that which is deep seated or most inward” paired with “to make known, announce, or notify.” In other words, intimate situations are those where we feel comfortable allowing what is most deep and personal within us to come out and be known by others. I wonder if when most people hear the word ‘intimacy’ they associate it primarily with its physical/sexual component. While this is a part of intimacy to be sure, it is only one facet of many that work to bring a couple into closeness.

Not too long ago I began to ponder what it means to be intimate with God and wondered if the same exercise I do in premarital counseling might help us to discern the rich and diverse ways we feel close to God. So I put a little thought into it and developed the handout you were given this morning. On it there are ten facets of intimacy along with a brief (incomplete to be sure) description of what this form of closeness with God looks like. I am going to give you some time to read over the form and fill it out. On the left hand side I want you to rank the facets of intimacy from 1 to 10 – one being the most important to you and 10 the least. So you should have one #1, one #2, one #3, and so on. On the right hand side I want you rank how present each form of intimacy with God is in your life - #1 being totally present, #10 being totally absent with numbers in between representing degrees on the continuum. There are no right or wrong answers and no one is going to look at you sheet so take a few minutes and see what you come up with.

 Intimacy with God Exercise

Emotional Intimacy–I sense God knows and cares how I feel and draws close to me at all times.

Intellectual Intimacy–I feel close to God as I read, study, and learn about God and God’s world.

Sexual Intimacy–I sense a oneness with God in every fiber of my being.

Recreational Intimacy–I feel close to God when I am doing activities I enjoy (things like fishing, working out, walking on the beach…)

Work Intimacy–The work I do—either at the job or around the house and yard—draws me close to God.

Communication Intimacy–I feel close to God as I talk with God in prayer and listen to God through meditation.

Aesthetic Intimacy–I feel close to God when I read a book, listen to music, watch a movie, and/or engage in the arts.

Crisis Intimacy–I feel close to God when times are tough, when I face challenges, and when the chips are down.

Commitment Intimacy–I sense God is close when I live the kind of life I promised to live at my baptism.

Conflict Intimacy–I sense God’s closeness as I work through a conflict with another person or group. 

What did you learn from this? What surprised you? I expect that some facets of intimacy with God are more important to you than others and that some are more prevalent than others. That, I think, is OK. Praying may not be your thing or you may dread every aspect of the work you do. There are those in the Christian tradition who can guide you to a closer relationship with God in these or any of the other facets described. This can be difficult, intentional work, but also very rewarding. A good first step for each of us is to recognize those ways we naturally feel close to God and to build on them. If it is through reading, then read more. If it is walking on the beach, then walk on the beach and use the time to allow God into the depths of your being.

 How close do you feel to God? What have you learned about yourself this morning that will help you to feel even closer?