No Place Like Home

Basically, every story ever told is a quest story: The hero must go on a journey to locate the thing he thinks he needs.

And basically, every well-written quest story ends with the realization that the thing they have needed has been with them all along.  Consider, if you will, Dorothy with her ruby slippers.  It is telling that she received them right at the beginning; furthermore, it is the shoes which in some sense allow her to move down the yellow brick road at all.

It is as if the decision to embark on the quest is the most important thing.

 When Jesus told his followers he was going to be leaving, they got upset and asked how they would ever find him.  Jesus responded “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me.”

I understand Jesus to be saying, “Your journey is sacred.  The act of leaving is the holy part of it.  At the end, you will find that I have been with you all along.”

We, like Dorothy, will find that the ruby slippers we got, right as we took those very first steps, are the things we needed after all.

I think the way that we use that verse is tragic.  It is wielded like a weapon.  You would think that Jesus said, “I am the wall, and the football team’s defensive line.  I plan on actively interfering with your ability to find truth and life.”

Of course, a little bit of a shell game goes on.  Because the people who pervert Jesus’ words in this case might object that they want to help those on their quests find Jesus.  When those words get (mis)used, inevitably what follows is an explanation of their view on just what a Christian needs to do in order to connect to Jesus.

A reason I find these understandings suspect is that they generally rely on cherry picking from some other part of the bible.   There is talk of special prayers that are required to connect with Jesus; or specific rituals; or prescribed actions.

Perhaps these actions, prayers and rituals are good things to do.  Many of them are in the bible.  But Jesus, I think, is saying at this time, that his followers already know where they are going.  They have known the father the whole time.  They are wearing the slippers that they thought they were looking for.

As a big fan of quest stories, I know that one of the ways to drag out a quest is to complicate the trip in some way.  If it doesn’t take Harry Potter the whole novel to find the piece of Voldemort’s soul, perhaps we can extend the journey by requiring him to find a weapon capable of destroying the horcruxes.  If the video game’s over-arching plot wasn’t quite extensive enough to justify the money customers will spend, perhaps we can throw in some side quests to customize the game.  If the journey with the one true ring isn’t quite expansive enough, perhaps we need to take a side-trip to where the elves lives for somebody to heal up.

If the actual distance covered in this journey wasn’t really the point, then the actual distance in the side-journeys is even less relevant.  I have been thinking, lately, about the soul.   I think, that our quest to find, understand, and highlight the soul is a side-quest…  An adventure in missing the point.  

The thing we had?  Our version of the slippers?  It was the thing that was so close we never even gave it a second thought.  It was this body, that carried us around, through the journey.  The physical stuff that carter our thoughts, ideas, and sensations around…  This was what we needed in the first place.

I realize that there is lots that ought to be said about this.  I hope you will forgive me if I am being a bit provacative.  I will be back in a couple days and say some more about this idea.  But for now, I wanted to give you something to sit with, and explore.

If you have some thoughts– maybe simply that I have it all wrong– I hope you’ll leave a comment below.  

Wondering. And Wandering.

And me?  I had been wondering, and wandering before.  There were these answers.  And these people who loved me.  For the first time, I was using the same kinds of words as my wife to explain, and describe the important things in the world.

I remember the night I decided I wasn’t battling with Jesus anymore.  I would be contemptuous if I saw a movie like that.  Because the weather outside was such a perfect representation of what was going on within me that it would be difficult to believe this sort-of thing actually happens.

The thunder was so loud that night it literally shook the glass window panes in the sill.  Huge rain drops came down, roads flooded and the wind whirled.  And then?  Then it all fell into place for me.

This church that my wife had found was good.  The people was good.  I found a place I felt like I belonged for the first time in a long time.

 

It was all so good in the beginning.

Adam had this garden, and this partner.  He walked with his maker.

And me?  We had these groups that met every week.  We ate together and laughed, and we worked at figuring things out.  They loved me.

Our lives intersected, outside of those times.

We worshipped on Sundays.  Songs that felt like they were constructed in my world.  Not the silly and obselete church organs of my youth.  Electric guitars.  Drums.  And sermons that spoke to where I was…  Mostly.

Adam and Eve eventually contended with the snake.  

And me?  Well I guess like Adam, it was all those doubts and fears that I didn’t want to own.

There were all these pat answers and easy explanations.  Lots of them were about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.  There was not much doubt about those explanations.  We invoked God’s mystery, sometimes, but mostly about why and how it had to work this way.  God’s mystery didn’t threaten the explanations themselves.  It was only ever use to justify why those explanations didn’t make sense to us.

When I look back on that time, I think about all the things I thought I knew.  I think back about how knowledge seemed like a requirement for the right way to be.  And it seemed like the fruit of the right way to be, too.  We knew this and that and the other thing.

I don’t know why I never wondered about the tree, in the garden, that caused all those problems.  It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

These days, in the middle of my reconstructed faith, I see some importance to that.  It is, perhaps, a statement about the human condition.   We have this desire to know the nature of good and evil.  But someway, somehow…  This is just not how it works.

We don’t, we can’t know the nature of good and evil nearly so much as we want to.  This is the only tree that we are told not to eat from.  We are, I guess, supposed to lean into our connection with God, and discern good and evil in some other way.  Perhaps with a bit more humility.

 

A little more on Presence

Last time, I was considering the idea that God ability to be fully present in the moment seems like something that might be unique to God.  Presence is a powerful thing…  Once, I would have thought that being Fully Present was something like doing a hundred push ups, or running a five minute mile: impressive, but not divine.

But as I work at this, I realize how far I am from this goal.  As I have continued to think about all of this, I have realized that there are some more things worth saying about God’s full presence.

The first thing worth saying about all this is the ways we see it in the person of Jesus.  It seems like he is always saying just the right thing in a situation.  He is aware of the things that go unsaid, and the implications of what he was doing.  He is not  bound by people’s expectations on him.  There are some times that I never could have predicted what he would do or say in a situation, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense.  Then, there are times that his words and deeds seem baffling to me, and this, I suspect, is more a measure of my failure to be present than anything else.

God being fully present gives me a different way to think about those times we fall short of potential.  Evils, mistakes, sins, and errors.  God is fully aware of the ramifications and the causes of these things that happen.  He is one hundred percent present at the moment of our betrayals.  I escape painful experiences in hundreds of ways.  God, I think, does not.

But it is equally true that God is fully present in the moments when we reach our potential.  He is with us fully at that moment we decide to turn from the dark path we are headed down.  This puts a different spin on the idea of repentance, for me.

 

Present and Presence

One part of my journey into contemplative practices is the attempt to grow increasingly present in my every day life.  I get these little snapshots, when I am meditating, of what it is like to live fully right here in now: in the present, as it unfolds.

The more I meditate, the more I find myself able to bring this into the rest of my life.  I have these moments of freedom when I am not ruled by my fears of the future or my regrets of the past.  Before I began this journey I had no idea how little I lived in the present.  I am deeply aware now, that this is a lifelong project.  If I lived another hundred years, and spent 99 of them meditating, I think I still would not be fully present.

Tonight, I was thinking about how God identifies himself to Moses with a name that works out to be something like “I am.”  There are all kinds of nuances to this, and implications, and meanings.  I think that one of the attributes of these nuances, implications and meanings is that God is Fully Present.  (All sorts of people have all sorts of ways of thinking about God as Presence…)

To be fully present: totally right here and right now…  This is no less mysterious or awe-inspring than the traditional descriptions of God– all powerful, all knowing, perfectly loving.  In the same way that the fundamental forces of physics all turn out to be the same thing at some fundamental level, I suspect that God’s Perfect Presence, and his never-ending power, and his eternal wisdom, and his unending love…  I suspect all these things, too, ultimately all turn out to be the same thing, too.

 

The Agnostic Silence

There was this prophet who had an emotional breakdown.  After this series of crazy conflicts and amazing miracles, he fell apart.  First he was filled with fear.  Then he grew suicidal.  

The bible says that the angels took care of him.  He goes through this period of sleeping, then eating, then sleeping and then eating.   After this time, the angel’s food carried him through a forty day pilgrimage to a mountain where he would meet God.

At this mountain, he enters a cave where his world is rocked by a series of special effects.  Mountains break apart, fires erupt, earthquakes commence.  After each of these, comes the phrase: “But the LORD was not in this.”

Then comes a silence.  My meditation-loving, contemplative self wants the bible to say, “And God was there, in that silence.”

But it doesn’t.  

It does say that he talked to God after, though.  He went out of the cave and he heard God.

There are three messages in all this.

The first is that after a trauma, we need some pretty basic things.  Things like food and rest.  If we don’t get these primary needs met, we are not ready to hear God.

The second is that sitting in silence prepares us to hear God.  Despite what I might want silence to be and mean, at least some of the time, silence isn’t the place where God speaks to us.  On one level this is so obvious: the point at which God speaks is the point at which we are no longer in silence at all.

The third thing is the most difficult for me to pin down.  But there is an interesting transition in this story.  Because near the beginning, when all the wild things are happening on the outside, the bible is crystal clear: God is not there.  And at the end of the story, when God is speaking, God, of course, very much is there.

But in that between-time, that time after the fire but before he hears the voice of God…  it is up for debate: Is God there?  Is God present in the silence?

It seems important to me that this is up for debate, ambiguous.  In our times of silence, we simply do not know.  We might believe.  We might hope.  We might have faith.  We might have memories of all the times he has shown up after those profound silences.  But none of these things are quite the same as knowing.  

I have a sense that this journey is universal.  Every time I sit, I must first tend to the immediate wounds and struggles of my life.  Even if things are going pretty well.  Even if it only takes a few seconds.  There is a process of letting go of my fears and concerns.  I don’t see how I could do this alone.  In some sense, the angels nourish me, at this time.  

After this, when I meditate, what comes next is a pilgrimage of my own.  My journey does not take 40 days.  But just as it went in the story: this part can feel the longest and the most uneventful.    The  journey ends in a holy place.  Then the thunder and lightning from my life might attempt to reassert themselves.    I must, with the prophet,  remind myself: God is not in these things.

When it goes well, then next comes this time of silence.  A time of not-knowing where God is, but a time that is precious nonetheless.

And when it goes really well… Sometimes… just sometimes, I hear God’s after.

 

The Great Return

Jesus carried the cross that he would die on.  Once, it had been boards which came from trees.  The trees had grown up, of course, in a forest.  They came from seeds which came from other trees, a cycle reaching backwards, millions of years.

At the very beginning, all things were made through Christ.  I don’t know how it worked or what that looked like.  But I do know that the  the beginning of all the stuff that ever would be began through him.

The very stuff that would some day grow to be those trees that he would hang upon.  The constituents of the nails that they would drive through his hands and feet.  At that time, in the beginning, the causes, forces, and elements were swirling around that would some day come together to become the people who were around Jesus, too…  Those who loved and hated him, those who betrayed him and tried to stand by his side.  A chain of events that would some day lead to those very people began then, too.

When I think only about Jesus dying, it seems like a betrayal: those things that began through him turning and twisting backward, returning to kill him.  But when I think about his victory through returning, it takes on a different character.

Those things that left Jesus at the beginning of time, they swirled around, took on different shapes and forms, appeared to be so far from their Source.  But then, at the cross, they came back to their orgin point.  It seems like a sort of homecoming.

Thoughts something like these were swirling in my head as I meditated this morning.  As it always seems to be, they weren’t exactly these.  I have not done them justice.  Partially, because here, I am trying to justify and contextualize them.  As I was breathing in silence this morning, this understanding simply was: unassailable and perfect.

Fear

I bet I have spent more time, energy, and head space on avoiding pain than on any other single thing in my whole life.

In a way, this isn’t a bad thing.  There is no particular reason that I ought to seek out pain.  But my avoidance of hurt…  I have made this an idol.  The center of my existence, sometimes.  I am pretty sure I am not alone.

We have these distractions that are almost too numerous to mention.  Music and movies.  Junk food.  Books.  Television.  Drugs.  Sex.  Much of the self help movement.  Sports.  Games.  Work.  Play.

None of these are bad things.  Except that all of them are bad things.  At least, they are bad when we engage them as a way of disengaging.

I have, so often, engaged all of those things as a way of disengaging.  A way of running away.

This is why it so important, and so hard, just to sit.  Just to be.

When I am sitting, and meditating, there are one hundred things I want to do.  There are a hundred things I want to think about.  If you are like me, even these mental trips, these thought experiments, even these are attempts to get away from right here and right now.

When I put on my big boy pants, and face up to the things that hurt me, to the things that cause fear, to the things that cause pain, there is a sort of exhilaration.  Because I find out a couple important things, quite quickly.

The first thing I find out is that I am not actually going to collapse under the weight of the things that weigh me down.  There is this great quote in the bible: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”  

As long as I run away from the things that hurt me, I am sure I will be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed.    But when I sit in silence, I realize that I am “only” afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.  None of these things are fun.  And yet…  They are not as bad as they seemed to be.

When I sit through the hard things, when I face them head-on, I suddenly find that there is room in my life for more than this.  Each moment, — this very moment– is filled with more than just the hard stuff.  It has joy and glory and peace.  I never would have seen these if I had kept running.

I don’t completely understand the end of the verse I quoted above.  But I know that you have to get through death to find rebirth.  We carry deaths of so many different sizes and shapes within us.  When we face these down, that is how we get to a new life.  I guess this is what it means, to manifest Jesus’ life in our bodies; our willingness to die opens up the possibility of rebirth.

With Mary

In about an hour it will be Christmas day.

I realized something, as I was pondering this reality:

We are all Mary.

We are all pregnant with Jesus.  We all bare Immanuel; God within us means that God is with us.

Tomorrow we celebrate his coming.  He will emerge from us.

And yet…  In this joyful recognition there is something else.  What was it like to be Mary?  To feel that growing baby, to hear the angels tell it, to know that if God was coming in the flesh, that he must, in some sense, go the way of all flesh.  Into death.

And so tomorrow, I will celebrate his coming.  Just as he sprang from Mary so he will spring from me.

And I will participate, with Mary, in this understanding, amidst the joy: sadness will arise, too.

If she– and we–   barely comprehend the reality of what God’s birth means, then his death is a bigger mystery.  But beyond this mystery is the biggest of all:

Jesus lives!

 

Words and Wordlessness

It all began beyond words: A big bang, a primal act of creation, the maker of all things creating something that was Not-God.  This was a time beyond words, a thing we can not understand.

But then, God said, “It is good.”

And these words, it seems, were an accurate summary of the way of things.  The picture, in part, was reducible to those three words: It is good.

Until it wasn’t good.  Those words failed to capture the reality of what the world was like when Adam fell.  They failed to capture the reality of what it was like, as man drifted further from God, across hundreds of years, thousands of years.

And then?  Jesus came.  And John’s understanding of the coming of Jesus was that Jesus himself was a word straight from God.  But that word, died.  Though it doesn’t seem really that a word should die.

Until it came back.  Three days later.  But then it went away.  Jesus’ followers came together in this amazing way at the pentecost, and suddenly the words they were all speaking, in countless languages, were understood by all.  Pentecost ended, Jesus spirit returned to God.  But there is this promise, though out the bible, that the word– Jesus– will come back again.

One way to view the bible is this: there is this constant flux, this never-ending transition.  Words mean something.  Then the words no longer capture reality.  Then words come to means something in the end.

I think that the bible, in lots of ways, is an accurate picture of reality.  I think that the world is this way, too: words are perfect for a time, then they are imperfect, then they are meaningless… until they come to mean something, again.

I am thinking about all this stuff as I think about contemplative practices, today.  There is the apaphatic: the attempt to go beyond  words, the dark, mysterious transcendent.  Longing for wordless communion, recognizing the limits of verbal communication, the longing for a deep and silent meditation.

And then there is the cataphatic: the use and embrace of words.  The luminous and understandable.  Putting our thoughts into vocalatizations.  Praying the psalms, reading the bible, petionary prayer.

It seems like we need both the apaphatic and the cataphatic because the world is set up just that way: it flows between wordiness and wordlessness.    The extremes of this spectrum equip us to match the nature of reality itself.

 

 

Kenosis

I have been thinking about Kenosis, lately.

Kenosis is the idea that God poured his God-ness out in becoming Jesus.  It carries with it this idea of emptying, of giving up the things that  might be tempting to hold onto.

If I was God, and things weren’t going the way I wanted, I would remake reality the way I wanted it.  I suppose things would end up a bit like the Truman Show, where my own knuckle-headed tendencies would conspire with absolute power in a way that caused things to end poorly for everyone involved.

God, being way smarter than me, doesn’t wield his power.  He gives it up.

The thing I am noticing is that many of these religions, that seem to have discovered contemplative practices quite independently each other, all grapple with this same idea: that the way to be is to be open-handed, open-hearted.  Their is power in emptiness.

Meditation, then, isn’t just a God-like act in the ways it centers me, and in the ways it connects me to God.  Even if it didn’t do these things, the mere act of sitting to be, of choosing to create emptiness and engage in a letting go: these too, are the (non)actions of God.