Sunday, October 14, 2012

Focusing My Flickering

Toni Reynolds e-mailed this joke to me:  A little girl, dressed in her Sunday best, was running as fast as she could trying not to be late for Sunday School.  As she ran she prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late!  Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late!”  While she was running and praying, she tripped on a curb and fell, getting her clothes dirty and tearing her dress.  She got up, brushed herself off, and started running again!  And as she went she prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late, but also, please don’t shove me any more!”

Today’s readings are interesting, to say the least – especially when paired with our annual Commitment Sunday.  Listening to the words of Job who, try as he might, cannot find the hiding God in front, behind, on the left or on the right, followed by the psalmist’s cry of being forsaken by God makes the little girl’s predicament of getting shoved seem tame.  Then we hear from Hebrews that absolutely nothing about us is hidden from God; that before God all our interior intentions are laid bare.  Finally, we hear Jesus saying that if you are wealthy – and by the standards of his day pretty much all of us here today are wealthy – you can forget about being a part of the kingdom of God.  So, sign me up, you must be thinking.  I am ready to make a commitment to the God who can’t be found when needed but still never misses a single wrong we do, and then demands we own little or nothing if we want to be a part of his crew.  These, folks, are not the basic ingredients of a successful altar call.

Let me ask a fundamental question: why should we care about God at all?  In ancient times, people believed in a god or gods who occupied some Olympian fortress meddling in human affairs at their whim and fancy.  Why care about God?  Their answer was so that the gods don’t punish you; hardly a satisfying answer to the modern mind because we now know the natural causes behind what people back then believed to be divine judgment. 

Another answer to why care about God holds that life is test to see who will get into heaven and who will be consigned to Hell; an underworld of flames and suffering.  If you pass the test by meeting some combination of being good enough and having had a required religious experience (baptism and ‘giving your life to Jesus’ being the two most prominent in the Christian tradition) then you merit an eternal reward.  Ultimately, this is not a satisfying answer either.  Do we really believe that the God who called forth this glorious creation is little more than a punitive judge-like figure keeping score of who has been naughty and who has been nice?  And do we really believe that the naughty descend to a place in the center of the earth to suffer for all eternity for the things they did wrong during their few short years of this life?

So why do we care about God?  Well, my answer is because we do.  There is something inside every human being that is seeking awe and responds to it.  There is something inside us that senses the reality of something greater than us.  We want to know this Other and to understand it, in part, so we can better know ourselves.  Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  How should we live?  If there is a Being who called forth creation than these questions can only be answered by searching for that Being.  Those of us who have searched have come to find that this Being exists and makes its essence known to us.  As we come to know God we find ourselves responding to this relationship through reverence, worship, and conformity (a word I like better than ‘obedience’ because it invites new searching as opposed to forced compliance).

But how to revere?  How to worship?  And how to align ourselves?  Every religious tradition has strands of insight derived from looking at the world around us and determining that certain attitudes, behaviors, and actions are better than others.  Most religious traditions go deeper than this to include understanding received through mystical experiences (revelations, if you will) that form the core of their teaching.  Beyond all of this, we in the Christian tradition confess that God’s very self became incarnate… a human being through whose words and actions we can see fullness of God’s desire and intent for all creation.  We human beings who seek awe and respond to it have seen in human flesh the Holy Awe at the heart of all reality.  It is in and through Jesus that we find satisfying answers to who we are, why we are here, and what we are to do.

So returning to our readings, let us embrace the truth of Job’s words… the truth that God at times is elusive; the truth that there are times when circumstances hinder our ability to detect God’s presence.  Isn’t it comforting to know that our sacred texts contain the angry, bitter words of people shaking their fists at God when their search for God comes up empty and their need for God goes unmet.  Isn’t it comforting to know that disillusionment at times is a natural and appropriate aspect of the human search for God.  In my experience, these times, while real and difficult, are never the final word.  Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened.”  Sometimes we have to knock louder and longer than we would like, but the One we seek behind the door eventually opens to us.

While the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that everything about us – our exterior actions and interior motives – is known to God, it wants to shift our focus from human frailty to human potential.  The author points us to Jesus who, because he was human like us, was tempted in every way as we are.  Still, he lived into God’s design and intent not because he was divine, but through his humanity.  Now we are invited into Christ’s presence so that we might be empowered through his example and the indwelling of his Spirit to live aligned with the fullness of God’s intent.

In the Gospel we learn of one person’s search for God.  “What must I do,” he asks Jesus.  The response is to be a good and moral person – live as God intends for you to live.  The man says he has done this since he was young so Jesus, sensing he wants to go even deeper, invites this person to divest himself of all that holds him back in order to live in the Kingdom of God here and now.  This person, attached to his possessions, could not follow.  He was distracted.

I can’t say why God at times is elusive, but I do know that much more often my search for God is inhibited by factors attributable only to me.  Denise Levertov captures one of these factors in her poem Flickering Mind:

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first
belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone
into sacred places;
a quick glance, and away – and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now
I elude your presence.
I stop to think about you, and my mind
at once
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
unceasing over
the river’s pulling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn.  Not you,
it is I who am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?

How can I focus my flickering?  What will aid me in my search for God (a drive which is as real inside me as my heartbeat and every bit as important)?  Jesus, in responding to Peter, hints at the answer.  Peter states that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus.  Now, we know in fact that this does not mean the disciples had liquidated all their assets because after the Resurrection, Peter and the others returned to their boats and took up again the living of fishermen.

Here is what Jesus says to Peter: “Those who have left house or family or fields for my sake [and in this I hear the allusion to searching for God and responding to God with reverence, worship, and conformity] will receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, families, and fields… and the promise of life in the age to come.”  Now, from our history, we know that none of the disciples came to own a hundred homes and a hundred fields.  Jesus was not speaking of economic gain, but of the blessed relationships that come from being joined with others who are searching for God and living in accordance with God’s ways as they come to understand it.  Today we call these blessed relationships a congregation, a community of faithful people like us here at St. Paul’s.  How do can I focus my flickering pursuit of God?  By being a part of a people who are trying to focus their flickering.  Somehow, in and through this place, our individual pursuit of God is strengthened through our collective pursuit of God. 

A Russian poet named Yelena Rubisova wrote “I am a camel, hulking, clumsy.  Go through!  Go through!” in reference to Jesus’ famous teaching about the eye of a needle.  But, obviously, for a camel this is impossible.  So Rubisova describes what needs to change:

Let me become like thread, and put anxiety aside,
so the doorkeeper’s hand will lead
me through the triumphal gates
of the eye of the needle.

I like this image.  If the search for God can be compared with passing through the eye of a needle and if we are like camels trying to do so, then two things need to happen.  First, there must be a transformation.  We must morph from camel into thread.  And second, thread still doesn’t get through the needle’s eye unless someone guides it.  Somehow, someway, God is at work in our lives; guiding us in our search and transforming us as we make our way.  And a tool God uses in this process is our collective life here at St. Paul’s.  As I recognize this in my life I find myself committing joyfully to the work and mission of this parish.  I invite you to recognize and celebrate how God uses this place in your search and I invite you to commit yourself to St. Paul’s because of how God is using it in your life and in the lives of so many others.