So Near, So Far

There are many ways to follow Jesus.

The one that resonates with me these days is the path of the mystic.  I believe that a deep connection to God is possible.  I am experiencing a  connection that  runs deeper than words, ideas, and doctrine.  Experiencing this connection is an act of waking up to a reality that has been present all along.

I have been moved, recently, to take another look at Moses’ first encounter with God in the desert.  This passage, in Exodus chapter 3, has shaped my understanding of God… and perhaps more importantly, it has shaped my daily practice as a mystic.

At it’s most general, this encounter is a study in contrasts.  More than ever before, God is right there with us. And at the same time, he is so beyond us.  Where it begins, Moses’ life has fallen apart. He has fled the only life he has own. He has gone from being a prince to tending his father-in-law’s sheep.  He sees something strange: a bush which is on fire but not burned up, and he goes to investigate. And by the third verse, the God-is-here/ God-is there dynamic is already present:

 

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

On the side of the fact that God is other:  he appears as a a burning bush. As if this isn’t weird enough, it’s a fire that doesn’t consume what it has taken over.  And as if that weren’t weird enough, he is an all-powerful, talking, ominiscient burning bush. When Moses approaches, he is told that he has entered some place new and special, and that he should not come any closer.

And yet!  The very first words that God speaks are Moses’ name.  God identifies himself as the god of Moses ancestors. This is a God who understands.  He expresses both knowledge and empathy. He beckons his child to him.

  Perhaps it is because he is overwhelmed with these two intense realities that this happens next:

Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God

And this is speculation, but perhaps God is responding to his overwhelmed prophet in what he says next.  Maybe this is God’s attempt to get Moses feeling close again:

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”

 

So.  There is lots to be said.  And so much that can’t be said.  I feel that this is just a set up to some of the awesome stuff that will happen in the upcoming verses.  

But it’s pretty amazing all on it’s own.  I think it’s worth sitting with and chewing on:  A God transcendent of all our weaknesses and limitations, but one who is intimately involved with every aspect of our realities nonetheless.  

So for now, I think I will stop to breathe.

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Either, or; Both/And

Sometimes, I delude myself into thinking there is this either/or.

One way of expressing this dualism is through the question,  ” Which is best: prayer or meditation?”

A deeper way to view this is to think about positioning myself to hear from a God who is outside of me versus orienting myself to quiet the mind.

The problem is that the prayer road seems rather ignorant of the convoluted workings of my inner landscape, and The meditative path seems to be functionally agnostic.

I began to find a way beyond this either/or when I realized that quieting all the noise that happens in my head (meditation) is the best way to hear from God (prayer.)  But this?  It is just the tip of the iceberg!

Today, I had this realization that an encounter with God is a thing that is so awesome, so holy, so worthy.  It is something like sex, in that it is an interaction which happens on so many levels at once.

More than any other interaction, this is the one that demands the fullest, most authentic ‘me.’  And so, a self-centered act of meditation is a necessary preamble to an other-centered reaching out.  And at the same time, the best way I find God is not by reaching out and out and out, beyond me…   Despite all appearances, the place I really find God, is by an inward journey, finding God at the very most inner place of all!

And so it seems that suddenly, these are not different acts at all, but meditation and prayer live in the same kind of mutually interdependent dance that God and I exist in.

 

Who am I?

It is said that St. Francis passed an entire night asking, “Who are you, God?” and  “Who am I?”

 

Turning this into a breath prayer: “Who are you”?” (exhale)  “Who am I?” (inhale) is one of my favorite practices.

 

Tonight, there were moments of transcendence.

 

There was a timeless time that I lost myself.  I was asking the questions but would have been unable to tell you which question applied to me, the asker, and which question applied to the entity who is not (at least apparently) me.

 

My inability to know who I was doesn’t feel like I lost the knowledge of myself.  Rather, it feels like I fell into a deeper truth that I am, in some way, God. I think this might be connecting to that divine breath that turned the primal fist full of Earth into the first person.  I believe we still carry this divine spark, this image of God. I think, for just a moment, I was there, at that part of me so deep that it stops being me and it starts being something… magnificent.

 

I Just Want One More Hug

When my kids were younger,  all 3 of them went through a stage that was equal parts endearing and frustrating.   It was a time of not wanting to go to bed.   A period of inventing countless,  increasingly absurd excuses.

“I need a drink.   I have to go to the bathroom.   I forgot my stuffed animal.”  Children are deeply manipulative creatures.   Eventually they would happen upon reasons that were hard to resist.   “I need a hug.  I need a kiss.   Can I have a back rub?”

I broach this topic here because I am learning that there are parts of me that are like my children.   They don’t want to let go.   They don’t want to release their hold.

People call it the false self.   And the monkey mind.  It is the reason that meditation needs to be learned; because there is a part of us that resists.

It takes the form of needing to move,  wiggle and itch.   Or the thoughts and feelings that just won’t be released,  that keep coming back,  as annoying as the single fly that threatens to ruin the picnic.   Or the desire to shave a few minutes off the end of a meditation session to respond to a facebook notification.

My false self,  my monkey mind, it is no less clever than young kids.   I am a thinker.   And when I’m letting go,  my mind offers me these tantalizing rabbit trails,  fragments of thoughts,  compelling metaphors.   Much like kids,  my mind closes in on my weakness.

I totally understand the value of an approach I associate with  Zen Buddhism:  Ignore every itch.   Sit for the entire time.   Do not compromise anywhere.

I get it just as much as I get parents who draw a line in the sand.  No you may not have another drink,  a stuffed animal,  or even a hug.    Bed time is bed time.   End of story.

I could just never make that work.   Treating my kids that way just created this tornado of ugly emotions and suddenly everybody is wide awake  and feeling unloved. (or maybe that was just me.)

In the same way, when I take that militaristic stance to an intrusive thought,  I get pulled into dualistic experiencing of the world.   When I refuse to scratch an itch,  I grow to hate that itch…   In the words of eminent sage  and theologian Pauly Shore,  I harsh my mellow.

Perhaps my wonderful kids were a bit spoiled.   Maybe my meditation practice suffers.   I can live with those possibilities.

 

Swallowing the Key

I am learning that most of the difficulties we face are self-created: If we could only get out of our own way, things would be so much easier.

There was a time I believed that their was this impenetrable wall between myself and God.  I thought that there was no way to cross this divide.  I thought there was no possibility of union.

I am learning that I built this wall.  The good news is that I built a door in the wall.  The bad news is that I locked it up and swallowed the key.

A lifetime ago, I would have told you that my brokenness and failings are what keep me away from God.  And that is a little bit true.  I have this sense that this is, at best, half the story, though.

The other half of the story?

This separation from God is really about my unwillingness to own the best parts of “me.”  Sometimes I think about this as the primal breath that God breathed into dirt that made me a human being.  I have heard it called my true self.  And also Christ within me.

This unnameable place is both mine and God’s.  My failure to experience his connection to me is my failure to own these most intimate parts of my very nature.

The Broken Heart Above

I was in prayerful meditation, and the Leonard Cohen song, “Come Healing” was playing.

He sang:

“O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above”

And I was so struck by this image; it is not, perhaps, what was intended, but it welled up within me, forcefully.  It is something that felt right and true.

The image was of a broken hearted God, saddened by the fact that the world is far from where it could be.  I have been deeply pondering the idea of “I am” recently, and the idea of mindfullness and presence.  I am convinced that a divine attribute is to be wholly here and now, in this very moment.  Assuming this is true, God would, be fully aware of hurt, pain, and heart ache.  Every ounce of it in every single being alive.

And at the same time, we are headed to this redemption, this mending of all that is broken.  God’s awareness of this, too, must be much more complete than mine.  And so, while God is fully aware of the pain he is also, I think fully hopeful of a time beyond our current hurt.

*******

I feel like two post scripts are necessary to the above paragraphs.  If you are untroubled by the things I wrote above, you might not find it necessary to consider the following…

Post Script #1:

I am keenly aware that the idea of a disapointed, sad, and angry God have been used as a manipulation tactic for far too long.  I do not endorse or believe in a God that is broken-hearted by every single choice we make which falls short of perfection.  I think his sadness would be an act of solidarity with our sadness.

Post Script #2:

The idea of attributing any emotions to God at all, is a mixed bag for me.  I do not think that God’s experience of sadness fully resembles my experience of sadness.  One major reason for this is that God, being infinite, could I think be fully broken-hearted and fully hopeful at exactly the same time.  It seems that this would be very different than my human, finite experience of being half-way broken hearted and halfway hopeful at the same time.

Inspired!

You are divinely inspired.

God-breathed: that’s what divinely inspired means.  People wonder, and argue, and get hung up on questions about what it means that the bible is divinely inspired.  I can understand why this is a conversation worth having.

But I think it fades a little bit, when I consider the idea that  “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The idea that you, and I, are God-breathed, that we are divinely inspired is way more interesting, important, and inspiring than any questions about which part of the bible is true.

The breath, is of course, such an important thing.  Like so many other things, it can hover in the back of our awareness for our whole lives.  But when we turn our attention to it, we are filled with wonder and equipped to go so much deeper.  Breath, is of course, the cornerstone of meditative and contemplative practices.

I grow increasingly convinced that the breathing we engage in is a rehearsal of that first primal breath.  It occurred at the very beginning of humanity.  It also occurred at the very beginning of our own, individual life.  God breathed once into us, a long time ago.  All the breaths that follow are nothing but our attempt to do that breath right.

In a sense, breathing is this picture of our attempt to return to God.

And at the same time, I am sure that each breath we breathe is God breathing with us, through us, and for us.  His ongoing work in humanity is this act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which continues for as long as we live.

In another sense, breathing is this picture of our ongoing interactions with God.

And finally, breathing, I think, is this act of connection.  Perhaps it was in that first breath that God placed his very image inside of us.  However it was, their is God/Christ/Spirit within me.  And yet, God is outside to.   The act of breathing is this reaching out, of God within to hold hands with the God that is outside of me.

And so, finally, breathing is this picture of God reconnecting with Godself.

And also?  It’s good to get rid of carbon dioxide and get a fresh lungfull of oxygen.

 

Everything Belongs… To You

Sometimes I get these little glimpses of how much more I am  meant for.

I feel like this little baby hawk, bemoaning a life that is the diameter of my nest, feeling his feathers ruffled by the wind, seeing these little glimpses of clouds blowing by and the profound blue-ness of the world above me, impossibly far away.

Except it is impossible only because of my lack of imagination and courage.

       I was meditating on the verse ‘’everything belongs to you” this morning and the strangest thing kept happening.   I had an easy time with the first couple words.   

      ‘’Everything belongs” is a sort-of slogan in certain circles, and for good reason.  It is a profound realization all by itself.

      I suppose it’s symbolic of where I am right now.  I had an easy time using these words as a mantra.  This is something I am thankful for.

      And yet I kept omitting the last couple words.  I am ok with the idea that everything belongs.  But it just seems too good.  Too hopeful.  It just couldn’t be possible that everything belongs to me, could it?

     Of course, everything belongs to you, dear reader, too.  This means that we all belong to each other.  I am yours and you are mine.

      Sometimes it’s hard to go easy on ourselves.  Sometimes the temptation is to grant kindness to others in places we wouldn’t offer it to ourselves.  Maybe that can be a little prod toward self love…. If i belong to the rest of the world, in a sense, I am obliged to treat myself well.

Baggage

I used to think that the main objective was simply to hear from God.

As I think about this objective now, I am imagining that my little toddler self, many decades ago, must have once simply wanted to be able to stand up with a little bit of stability.  At one point, it must have seemed to me that it would be so awesome if I could just stand up like the grown ups, with out having to hang or lean on something.  I imagine, at this time, that the idea of walking must have felt out of range; never mind running, or jumping, or skipping.   In fact, I would imagine that I didn’t have much of an understanding of the differences between these.

It is not that I see burning bushes all the time.  It’s not that I consistently can attribute to God.  Often, I have this sense that maybe this idea, or that idea, or feeling come from him.

Over the weekend, I had this moment of understanding that hearing from God is just the tip of the iceberg.  I was engaged in Lectio Divina.  A friend was walking several of us through this process of using the bible to allow God to encounter us directly.  The idea is that a passage is read repeatedly, and we might find a phrase or a sentence that seems important to meditate on.

I was so struck by the entering into this process that I hardly paid any attention at all to the bible reading though.  My friend Jason opened with a sort-of prayer, that we might have an open heart toward God.

And in that moment, I had this crystal clear realization that my heart is not particularly open at all.  I had an awareness of how guarded and tenative I am.  How full of my own agenda and foolishness I can be.  I had this understanding that if somebody starts off  with their baggage and agenda, the words we hear, the feelings we recieve, the verse we find ourselves focusing on will be filtered and experienced through this baggage.

I had been wrestling lately, with the act of letting go of my ego.  I can clearly see it’s presence.  But I had found myself wondering if I shouldn’t be giving more time and head-space to the idea of just reaching out to God and focusing on union with him.  The thing I experienced, last Saturday, was that all the time and effort I am spending, around letting go of my false self is pretty important.  Otherwise, I will be doing nothing but twisting God’s words and intent around for my own petty little purposes.

 

Broken Clocks and Thankfulness

One of my least favorite things to hear from somebody is, “You should be more grateful.”

There can be some pretty nasty implications in that statement.  Suggestions that they have sacrificed in some way that I am not fully appreciating.  Judgement that I have received something I don’t deserve.   When somebody says, “You should be more grateful.”  It might mean that all of my successes are not mine; it might mean that all of my failures should have been so much worse, if I had not been rescued from someone.

My baggage around hearing that I should be more grateful colors how I view it, no matter the context.  Lots of spiritual folks have preached the power of thankfulness for milenia.  More recently, science has caught up.  There are meditations, and prayers, and spiritual practices focusing on the power of giving thanks.  But I have had some walls to all these.  Partially because of the motivation of some people who needed a motivation check.

The thing is, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

And regardless of what the motivation of somebody is, they are right if they should tell me I should be more grateful.

Yesterday morning I started my day in a manner that was just about my favorite way to be.  I rolled out of bed early, but got started slowly on taking the day on.  I made some iced coffee, and engaged in a morning that was one part writing, one part meaningless netflix/computer games, and one part house keeping, bill paying etc.  If you had watched me, it would have seemed pretty random.  Fifteen minutes of guilty pleasures like the show “Supernatural” or the game “Civilization.”  Twenty minutes of writing.  Eighteen minutes of washing dishes.

Being able to follow my own rhythm, and alternate between feeding my soul, engaging in foolishness, and being productive on my own schedule is a real blessing.  It is, in fact, a thing to be grateful for.  For the first half of my Saturday morning, there was no joy to be had, though, because I was not willing to make room for it.

A handful of struggles– some pretty deep and significant– were on my mind.   This took up all the space there was in my head.  There wasn’t room for anything else.  I have this sense that gratitude paves the way for joy.  And joy is pretty fundamental.

I am writing this to make a comittment to myself, to engage in being thankful more.  Not only because somebody else deserves my thanks (though they often do) but also because it is good for me.