Unbounded Mystery

4 09 2013

In August, I was asked to share with my church family something that I’ve learned in my life about God or faith. Since I speak most clearly through writing, I wrote it all down, and I want to share it with you as well. (Sorry it took so long, for this post or any post – I have been thinking about you a lot recently, but as usual I have been caught up in the midst of a busy life). Here is what I shared…

This I know, that God is a boundless mystery

I was recently given the book Christ-Following, written by a South-African pastor named Trevor Hudson. I have really enjoyed the book and grown from it, and will be reading some excerpts from the first chapter [all quoted text, unless otherwise noted]. In the first chapter, Hudson writes about how we each have a picture drawn in our heart and mind of God, and how this image can shape the way we live. This was the discovery of a profound truth for me, and I found as I read that I shared a similar dysfunctional picture of God as the author had. Through the experiences of my early life, I had come to view God as a passive spectator somewhere up in the ether, waiting for me to figure out the puzzle of life and faith. I wasn’t even aware of it, but I thought that if I pieced it together, then maybe I could see God, or really know him. So if I ever felt distant from God, I thought it was my fault for not praying or reading the bible or sacrificing enough. Although I had been taught that God is kind and loving, I could not approach him that way – my understanding of God was fractured by the broken picture I kept of him.

But Trevor Hudson wrote of redrawing our picture of God:

“This redrawing process begins in the scriptural affirmation that God is a boundless mystery. This does not mean that he is a giant puzzle to be fathomed out. It means simply that there is no one else like him. When the word holy (meaning to be separate, to be different) is used to describe God, it indicates this sense of wholly otherness. Indeed if we ever think that we have God all figured out, we can be sure we are wrong.”

As humans, we want knowledge, certainty, and control, and this often leads us to box God in and try to keep the mystery out.

In my life this has caused me to be neurotic about all kinds of things, from how I keep my desk, to how I take care of Jude each day.  I am anxious and fearful of things beyond my ken and control. I avoid God because I repeatedly fail to do what I think I’m supposed to do. I am realizing more and more how much I try to make up for uncertainty by attempting to control insignificant things, or to convince myself and others that I am right – often about completely unimportant things. Then my ego can feel safe and secure, instead of acknowledging how frail and vulnerable I really am apart from God.

“We are often uncomfortable and uneasy in the presence of mystery. We struggle to be involved with an ungraspable God. We feel safer when faith is confined within dogmatic formulations and tidy theories. Then we can tame God, bring him under control, and manage his workings in our world. But these attempts to manage and control cost us dearly. Our sense of wonder is exiled, and our faith begins suffocating from thick layers of dull familiarity and easy answers, and our lives are empty of surprise.”

I have been challenged, since I started taking classes at HACC, with an expanding worldview which doesn’t allow for the easy answers that had been enough for me in the past. Big questions about the nature of God, truth, religion, and human history, made it impossible for me to keep my perspective safe within my Christian understanding and Anabaptist upbringing. I have found myself living without any sense of wonder, and responding to fear of the unknown by trying harder to control small things, and with anxiety when I’m confronted with what I can’t control. All of this striving and stress has only made me feel cut-off from God. 

This year I have been learning that God is a mystery, but not an enigma. I pursue God and God pursues me, even if I don’t always see him coming. God is not intangible, ungraspable, un-relatable, or distant. God is here and now, and knows me better than I know myself. He has always participated in my life, even when I am unaware.

I have been learning that I cannot accomplish relationship with the Divine by striving, knowing, or controlling anything. Rather, I enter into relationship through rest, acceptance, and being. Searching and responsive action comes from there.

This is something I struggle with everyday. Especially this summer, since I have been in-between schools, and my main work has been taking care of Jude. It is amazing how much time and energy a little boy can need from me; I constantly have to give up my own expectations or hopes of  what I can accomplish. Sometimes I just feel that I NEED TO GET SOMETHING DONE, even if it is something that doesn’t matter at all. In the world’s eyes, I feel useless. I’m not financially supporting my family, I’m not earning anything or building anything tangible. 

And doesn’t our religious life often reflect these worldly standards? How often do we talk about faith versus deeds? How often do we struggle with judging ourselves or others based on what we DO? How well we know scripture, how much time we spend praying, whether we can defend our theology, whether we can “save” or “convert” a non-Christian… even how we dress or how successful we are at our job. It can be very counter intuitive for us think about encountering God by just being

But I am repeatedly finding that at this point in my life, that this is how I need to relate to God – by letting go of all my expectations, my should’s, supposed-to’s, can’t’s, etc…. everything I think I am supposed to do or be. If I instead accept what I am, weak or strong, stubborn or begging for help, and accept that whatever aspect of the Divine I can see in this moment is enough, then I can let the Divine Mystery find me. 

“In any true picture of God, there will always be room for mystery. Acknowledging God in this way gets us to take our shoes off in his presence. We begin living on tiptoe. Our lives are touched with a renewed sense of awe.”

This whole year, for me, has become about losing all pretenses of what I think I know about God. It has become about redrawing my heart-picture, and relearning how to respond to the Divine Mystery in my life.

But it doesn’t end here – part of the Mystery of God is the man Jesus. Hudson goes on to say that we need to start with Jesus to really discover God:

“The bottom line of the Christian faith is the scandalous claim that God has stepped into human history in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God comes close and shows us his face. The Boundless Mystery is not something vague and wooly, but someone personal.”

Colossians  1.15 says of Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God.” That’s huge. Jesus is fully God, and he shows us what God is like. As archbishop Michael Ramsey said,  “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” The Great Divine Mystery entered into the human body of Jesus so that we could see God up close.

Here I have to admit that I have been struggling with understanding God as described by the Trinity. Part of the brokenness of my God-picture was a distinct separateness in my mind of “God the Father” and “Jesus the Son.” Even though I didn’t know it, I could not relate to both aspects of God at the same time; I felt like I needed to choose one personality each time I prayed or read the bible. I am beginning now to see God not as split into three different persons, but as diamond-like – one whole with many facets. In light of this new understanding, I am looking forward to re-encountering God as revealed in Jesus, the man and the Risen Christ. I think this is part of the wonderful mystery too, something wholly “holy” – that is, something totally “other” than what we see elsewhere in the world.

So, in conclusion, this I know: that God is an unbounded mystery; that I am loved and accepted as I am, always pursued and invited into the Divine Mystery; and if I look toward Jesus, I can meet the Mystery face-to-face.

Verses for Reference:

Colossians 1:15-20, 2:2-3

Timothy 3:16

Job 11:7-9

Isaiah 55:8-11

Psalm 139

As always, thanks for reading – and for sticking around, even after a month of silence. Peace be the journey.

Jason

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Vision and Being

4 07 2013

I have been receiving much these past few days – I don’t know exactly how many. I guess if I looked at the date of my last post, it might give me an idea… but each day is like the others, and yet each moment is its own. And what do we know of time, really? We certainly haven’t mastered it in all our years of human life on this earth. Anyhow all this is just to say that although it is nearly 2 a.m. and losing sleep feeds my anxiety, I feel compelled to sort out what I am feeling, and I do that best by writing, my most sound form of expression and relinquishment.

I have been reading from several authors: Trevor Hudson’s Christ-Following, Anthony de Mello’s Song of the Bird, and the daily email meditations of Richard Rohr. I must also express gratitude for the small but not inconsequential words or inspirations from family, friends, and any other subtle sources in my life, as I think they often contribute as much or more to my spiritual journey and personal growth as any great endeavor does.

I don’t really know where I am going with this; I don’t know if it is possible to synthesize all that I have been taking in, or if there is a highlight at least that I can share… So I will just write what comes to mind, and edit later if necessary.

Many of the stories from Song of the Bird have expressed similar themes to my last post, which was largely about letting go, allowing things around me and within me to be what they are and must be. This theme is still at work within me, and though like the deer I may appear to be at rest in the thick of the day, the chambers of my heart are doing their work of digestion, much like the four chambers of the White-tail’s stomach. Ruminating.

I’ve spent many years on a farm, and have witnessed up close this process in the mouths of goats – “chewing cud,” and I can tell you that while it is effective, it is not always pleasant. Burping up grass to chew it some more? I hope for their sake it tastes better than it smells, and better than the green stains it leaves on the corners of t-shirts… Sometimes the things that seem gross or unpleasant, and we wish unnecessary, are the very things that keep us going, nourishing new life. My process may not seem like much from day to day, and it might even be painful or troubling at times – even frightening – but I must have grace for myself, and trust in the grace my God offers so generously and unconditionally, even when I can’t see it. Just be, and allow the process to be. Let my ruminating heart work it out for my mind. […maybe this explains why my breath is so bad in the morning?]

This is already a long post (I don’t actually know that, I haven’t read a lot of blogs… oh well), but since I have already let all pretense of practicality go, I will trust the prompting of my spirit and keep writing. If you haven’t the time, please come back and read this next part later.

Two other big things I have been reading about, in the aforementioned sources, are my image of God, and Jesus as the man and as the Christ. I will try to explain all this briefly, but in a meaningful way. The important thing is that I share my journey, and maybe give you some of your own cud to chew.

Trevor Hudson begins his book, subtitled “ten signposts to spirituality,” with the question “What is your picture of God?” He believes (and has experienced) that our image of God – who or what God is, what God is like, how God behaves, etc – determines how we will live our lives. For example, if we see God as mean or vindictive, we may respond and live out of fear or anger; if we see God as uninterested or perhaps powerless to change our life, we may respond with indifference or inaction ourselves. If we see God as benevolent and loving, we may respond and live with kindness and love for ourselves and others.

Whether we are aware of it or not, Hudson says, “in each of our hearts and minds there is drawn our picture of God,” a picture shaped by experiences, influences, and prominent individuals throughout our lives. He shares his own discovery that he “had come to view God as a somewhat passive spectator, sitting in the balcony of my life, whose applause would only come in response to satisfactory performance.” He goes on to say that a dysfunctional view of God led to dysfunctional ways of living, even in things that would seem at first unrelated.

This struck a deep chord in me. It took but a moment of consideration to see that my own picture of God was/is very similar to his. In spite of everything I was taught about God’s goodness, love, and desire for relationship, I have come to view him as passive. I never believed I was concerned about “doing good works to earn God’s approval,” but I discovered that I always blame myself when I feel something in my life is lacking. If I feel distant from God, it must be my fault. I don’t pray very often. I don’t read the bible every day. I don’t spend time with God, so it’s my fault. He is waiting for me to do what I’m supposed to do. I must reflect that this kind of thinking has been commonplace for quite a while in my mind and heart.

It is not too hard to see the flaws in our drawings of God if we take time to examine them. I can see where mine come from, too. There have been a lot of influential people in my life – especially my childhood – who were passive; as I became a young adult, one of my greatest frustrations with the church I grew up in was its unchanging nature. I have been plagued most of my life with indecision and inaction. There was drawn in my heart a picture of a passive God up in the clouds, and I responded in like kind.

But we can change our image, redraw our picture of God. Hudson writes of God as “a boundless mystery,” and as Christlike, revealed in the Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. This is where the synthesizing begins.

I have come to believe that Jesus was a figure of peace, love, and active compassion. I believe his life is a model for his followers, including myself. I believe he is God incarnate, and is an example of what God is like. I believe that in his divinity he conquered death, and although he is not visible to me he is alive. Hudson’s first chapter discusses these aspects of Christ as important in re-drawing our God picture; but this is where I am still ruminating. I have trouble seeing God and Jesus as one and the same. Although I have been taught that God is “three-in-one,” father, son, and spirit, I have held a firmly separate picture of each. The trinity is a mystery to me. I can see why Islam feels Christianity is not monotheistic. I don’t expect, however, that the nature of God should not hold mystery, and therefore God as Triune God should be mysterious for the singular human experience. And perhaps the distinctness of the Trinity is limited by the human need to categorize and control; God need not be three persons, but simply multifaceted. That would make more sense to me. Not that sense matters. But now I’m beginning to ramble…

So I should conclude by saying that this is who I am in this moment. I am someone perplexed by the divine. I am needing a new portrait of God, and searching for artists to give patronage. And I am simultaneously wrapped up and unravelled in Jesus the man and the Christ, the image of God. Place all of this in the daily routine, the weakness of the human body, and you have a clearly muddy picture of my present journey. But walk with me a bit, perhaps we can teach each other…

Peace,

Jason





“It’s easy…” – Tuesday, June 18, 2013

20 06 2013




Tuesday, June 18, 2013

20 06 2013

It is a lovely rainy day. I have a rare half a day alone, and I’m listening to The Avett Brothers’s The Carpenter and Jack Johnson’s In Between Dreams. I almost always find rainy days lovely. It might be a throwback to my days as a framing carpenter, and the light of hope that would rise in my heart whenever clouds rolled over the worksite… I was a sucker for an unexpected day off. But I suppose it has more to do with the fact that I was born an artist and a hopeless romantic.

I still don’t feel like I have much to write about. I think I am in a season of learning to just let things be what they are. If I feel fear and worry, I just acknowledge it and do the best I can with each moment. If Jude wants to play with me all day, maybe I need to give up my ideas of “productivity” or “accomplishment,” and follow the whims of a toddler’s tiny, boisterously overflowing heart.

Today, I’ve got car troubles, apartment searching, and my family’s future over the next three or four years on my mind. My career path is still uncertain. We’ve got one car with reoccurring issues, and another that’s too small; but I can neither change the past by regretting, nor change the present by clenching my jaw and straining my brain. I just need to let it be what it is. I can’t take pictures of the car for Craigslist because it’s raining? Time to write a little, finish that Phillip Marlowe murder-mystery, and maybe work on the laundry instead. Eventually I will find a way to fix or sell the car – and if not, what’s a silly junker car in the grand scope of one’s life?

This past weekend at a family reunion, I got a chance to sit around a campfire and look out across a forested valley, while the sun set behind the opposite ridge. It was really a majestic sight. Not take-your-breath-away majesty, but the simple, pure, lung-filling kind of reality that makes you stop your busy brain for once and put yourself in perspective.

Moments of sight like that cause me to wonder how anyone can go through life and never feel a part of something much greater than oneself, something greater than science, or any human form of organization or way of life. It is these moments which remind me to just be whoever I am. It’s not always clear, but it is easy – the Beatles were right on that count. What else are you going to be, after all? Even if all we are is broken, frail, or confused, we can never be more than we are at any moment. I’m learning to stop striving, and just accept what, where, who, or how I am from day to day. But I’m still hoping to find a way beyond what I don’t know now, to what I won’t know in the future…

 

The seeker approached the disciple and asked respectfully, “what is the meaning of human life?”

The disciple consulted the works of his master and confidently replied, “Human life is nothing but the expression of God’s exuberance.”

When the seeker addressed the master himself with the same question, the master said, “I do not know.”

The seeker says, “I do not know.” That takes honesty. The master says, “I do not know.” That takes a mystic’s mind that knows things through unknowing. The disciple says, “I know.” That takes ignorance, in the form of borrowed knowledge.

– “The master does not know,” from the book The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello

 

So, until next time, I’m going to work on just being whoever I am – and just being, whoever I am. I need to keep searching for quite moments, and friends to lean on. I’m going to try less striving against life’s currents of circumstance, and more tuning in to the Master’s wavelengths; and hopefully, with a little grace, I will begin to find balance.

Peace,

Jason





My Frailty

8 06 2013

“Let yourself be loved:

That is, let God be the God of your life;

let go of all the things you think you need to be

or of the things you think you need to do.

Stop trying to control your life and your destiny,

and allow yourself to be loved by God,

who accepts you as you are, in your truest self,

and desires you as you are, with all your fragile limits.

This God of compassionate love is closer to you than you are to yourself.

God knows your pain and your suffering.

God is the compassionate One.”

  – Carmelite mystic Elizabeth of the Trinity

 

This is all very hard for me to accept. But Let me first say that I am struggling with fear and anxiety today. I have been sick, and feeling very tired; then yesterday I felt I was getting better, and my wife and son and I left home to visit family for the weekend. We got in late last night, ate fast-food along the way, and slept in a odd-shaped sofa-bed last night. Needless to say we both woke up feeling a bit off. 

I should also say that I’ve identified a pattern of seasonal anxiety in myself over the past few years, with the help of family and friends. I’ve also found that if I learn to see it coming, make sure I get plenty of sleep, and take some vitamins and supplements, I can feel quite ok through most of the anxious season. I’ve also learned that simply identifying feelings of anxiety as what they are helps to keep my anchored to reality. But today, being away from home, and expecting to have a fun catching up with my brother -in-law/best friend and go kayaking for the first time in years – but instead feeling sick and weak and unbalanced – well, it just overwhelmed me, and I have been fighting against the anxiety and worry and fear. 

So it is in light of all this that I say all this poem says is hard for me to accept. You know some of my journey if you have been following or read any of my previous posts. Although the silent retreat was helpful and calming, and the moments of “sacred calm” I found were reassuring, I have had trouble finding my way back into that calm in my daily life. I have simultaneously been trying to process my education process, and where that might be taking me, and also the continual struggle of fatherhood and what that means, both in the big picture and in the day-to-day as I struggle to entertain Jude and keeps his life meaningful and interesting. 

I don’t know if this post will be worthwhile, but I feel the need to write. I know that it is cathartic for me, so I apologize if it is not anything particularly stimulating for any of you. Because of how lost or uncertain I’ve felt in my own life recently, I haven’t really wanted to blog; but I’ve decided that if even one person reads it and finds something encouraging, inspiring, or empathizing, then it is worth my writing. So this is for you. Maybe you identify with my struggles, or maybe you have your own. My prayer, for both of us, is “peace be the journey.”

So, getting back to Elizabeth the Carmelite:

“Let yourself be loved:

That is, let God be the God of your life;

let go of all the things you think you need to be

or of the things you think you need to do.

Stop trying to control your life and your destiny,

and allow yourself to be loved by God,

who accepts you as you are, in your truest self,

and desires you as you are, with all your fragile limits.

This God of compassionate love is closer to you than you are to yourself.

God knows your pain and your suffering.

God is the compassionate One.”

You see, I am afraid of losing control of my life, and especially of my senses. I am afraid of living a meaningless life. I am afraid of losing hope in all the wild dreams my mind has concocted and fought over ever since I was little. But as I live more years, I see how my choices, or lack of choices, have closed doors. Some things that seemed possible before seem unlikely now. I’m not sure how to deal with that. I comprehend the idea that God is closer to me than I am to myself. He created me. He surely knows what is good for me, and what is fulfilling. And he wouldn’t have created me to be disappointed and bored my whole life. And I believe this, yet I have trouble trusting my future to him. I feel that I should be doing something. I feel that I have to make up for lost time and lost youth if I ever want to do or be anything worthwhile with this one fleeting life I have… phew! I lose my breath just typing that! All this turbulence comes rushing out of me, and I don’t know what to do with it. 

I think I need help. I think I need to rely on other people, to let them pray for me, and speak wisdom to me, and channel the healing power of God for me. Because if I’m alone, I try to hold my self up. I try to be enough, try to keep everything even and controlled. And I can’t. I am running out of answers. I am not disciplined. One thing I believe in whole-heartedly is community (it’s not just a coincidence it’s the name of one of my favorite shows). The times in my life that have been the riches and fullest and most hope-filled have been the times I’ve spent with close friends. And right now, sadly, I have been distanced from my friends. I think that is part of what has been hard for me the past few years. I find life in relationship with other people, and that is often where I see God, how I understand him and what he does in peoples lives, and in the world. 

I think I’ll wrap this letter up. It is almost two pages now, and I’m afraid I have been rambling. I’ll just say that I think this poem is good, and it’s important to get the message it carries. And I hope that you and I both take it to heart, and mind, and strength. And I hope we get connected with some good people that we can call friends.

Peace, 

Jason

 “Sweet Jesus carry me away from cold of night and dust of day…”




“The Sacred Calm”

24 05 2013

THE SACRED CALM

Is where I focus 

on what I know is good.

Where I let go, for a moment,

of all the bad stuff – like fear, anxiety, worry.

Where I remember how “childlike” feels.

Here, I know this much about God:

The love of family, friends, and community;

the laughter of my son, and of my heart;

the desire to share love, hope, and peace

with everyone;

the quiet voice of wisdom. 

Here I feel the warmth of light.

I remember how it feels to smile.

How it feels to laugh with God.

Here, I find a moment of rest, 

and strength to continue the holy journey.





My Retreat, Part Two: the shedding of so many layers

22 05 2013

In these quiet spaces

I shed so many layers.

It is the inmost place

where I find God waiting…

 

2 Kings 4: “32 When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. 33 He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. 35 Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.”

Saturday, May 4:  Each step becomes a silent prayer – the work of my heart pumping blood into my feet, a sacrifice. One that, as I give, saves me, turns me over to Christ… Take my prayer, my sacrifice, and feel my spirit within me. Take my truest self, whirling somewhere within me, and set me free. Teach me again to pour myself out to you.

…But don’t lie to me. Don’t trick me, deceive me, or leave me alone. Can’t you see that I need you now? Pick me up from the ground and breathe into me again – for I am the dead boy. I need you to envelope me; to match your eyes with my eyes, your mouth with my mouth, and your hands with my hands… I need your breath to revive me, and raise my body from the cold ground.

These are some of the things I was journaling during the silent retreat. I wanted a breakthrough, or at least a sign of encouragement. I had started to feel grouchy rather than calm, and I decided I needed help to continue processing, so met with a Spiritual Director at the retreat that afternoon. I turned out to be very helpful to voice the things I was struggling with, and have someone trustworthy and wise to help me focus, and place what I have been experiencing. She helped me to turn the calm I felt into a sacred place, where I could meet God as I was, and as I am. 

The simple act of retreating from the hectic world in itself shed layers of distraction and worry; but it took going deeper, and shedding layers of my own perspective, to really get where I needed to be. 

 

“Let yourself be loved:

That is, let God be the God of your life;

let go of all the things you think you need to be

or of the things you think you need to do.

Stop trying to control your life and your destiny,

and allow yourself to be loved by God,

who accepts you as you are, in your truest self,

and desires you as you are, with all your fragile limits.

This God of compassionate love is closer to you than you are to yourself.

God knows your pain and your suffering.

God is the compassionate One.”

  – Carmelite mystic Elizabeth of the Trinity

 

I’ve tried to take these experiences, and the simple perspective and the simple knowledge of God with me; but it is hard to find times of quiet in my daily life. I keep reminding myself to make the quiet, to return to the inmost place and find my sacred calm. As a voice of wisdom said to me, “It is your spiritual breathing. You really need it.” And I do need it.

I have also been trying to use “the Jesus prayer” throughout my days, as a simple but profound way to stay connected: Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner – or simply “Jesus, have mercy” as I breath deeply. I also like to use my own version of the prayer, from a favorite song: Jesus, carry me away, from cold of night and dust of day…

I feel that I still have a long way to go in my journey, and although I feel that I am at a low point, I know it is not the beginning or the end, but simply a new way to learn how to be human. So cheers to the next steps, no matter how small, and thanks for sharing in my journey with me.

Peace, and hope,

Jason