Wake Up!

A week or so ago, I spoke of our need to “demystify mysticism”—taking time to claim and embrace contemplation as an ordinary gift, available to each and all of us. (cf, Keeping Your Ear to the Ground [of Your Being])

While available to all (and an inevitable part of the spiritual journey), though, it’s not that easy.  What Chesterton said about Christianity, also applies to the contemplation (at the heart of mysticism): “it has not been tried and found lacking de mellow, awarenessas much as it has been found difficult and hardly tried.”

It demands, for example, that we “wake up,” as Anthony de Mello put it – acknowledging that we’ve been “sleep walking” in life.  Here, a quote and a story from de Mello are helpful beginnings:

Spirituality means waking up.  Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep.  They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. (Awareness, p. 5)

          A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
          Years passed, and the eagle grew very old
          One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe.
          “Who’s that?” he asked.
          “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth – we’re chickens.”
          So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. (Song of the Bird, p. 96)

“Repent,” Jesus said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17)  Among other things, it was and is an invitation for each and all of us to wake up… and claim our true identity!

Keeping Your Ear to the Ground [of Your Being]

It was a tidbit thrown out as an aside in a discussion–a “scrap” which has had a much fuller and deeper life for me than a lot of other things I heard that day.  Facilitating a retreat on “Effective Living” (what, 20-25 years ago?), Sister Elizabeth said in passing, “You know that we are made of the stuff of the earth… So that, when we pray ‘Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven,’ we are including the earth that we are.  ‘Thy will be done in this earth that I am as well as the earth all around!’”

It stear to grounduck with me.  So much so that it gave extra life to some words I was reading from Fr. Albert Haase.  Somewhere in the course of his most recent book, Becoming an Ordinary Mystic; Spirituality for the Rest of Us (IVP, 2019), he threw out the old line of “keeping our ear to the ground.”

Sister Elizabeth ringing in my heart and soul, I saw another metaphor for the spiritual formation journey–conveying its essence and nature: keeping our ear to the ground (the earth that we are)… and keeping our ear to the ground of our being.

It’s not easy, I will grant you.  Keeping your ear to the ground—listening to what’s going on inside… and all around—demands stillness and some solitude and some humility and a lot of [healthy] self-awareness.  There are hard questions to ask and sit with – as, e.g., “why, O Lord, do I react such and such a way when ‘that’ happens?”  It demands that we, like Adam (we might call him “Clay” or “Dusty”), come out of hiding—being willing to answer God’s primal question, “where are you?”

In a flyer for one of his programs, Fr. Albert quotes Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”  Frankly, my only argument with such words would be with the word, “future.”  Hasn’t this been a call of Christianity and God from the beginning?  But, that’s a post for another day – when we’ve got time to unpack and de-mystify mysticism.  When we do get to that post, though, I think it will be clear: “keeping our ear to the ground” is or should be a sacred vocation for us all!

When It Comes to Contemplating Jesus, Make Sure You’re Standing on the Right Porch!

Thomas Merton offers a helpful perspective on the relationship between informational and formational approaches to scripture. An adequate grasp of the biblical text, he says, “requires two levels of understanding: first, a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves… which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness.… Only on this second level is the Bible really grasped.”  For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the “front porch” of spiritual reading.

–Thompson, Marjorie, J.
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2014), p. 21

The further I progress on my spiritual journey, the more I see the truth of Merton’s notion of two levels of understanding—grounded first in a head encounter of the Scriptures… and, then, a deeper, heart appropriation of those Scriptures.  (I recall a line from Tennessee William’s Glass Menagerie—something along the lines that “the longest journey is that from the head to the heart.”)

However, while contemplation (or “heart engagement”) may be crucial to our coming home to Jesus in the Gospels and the Scriptures, there can be no belittling the essential place of [mindful] study as the “entry way.”

A failure, I believe, to encounter the real Jesus on the “front porch” can lead to all sorts of dislocation further in.  Here, it’s crucial to understand that Jesus was a Jew—operating in a collective society in which issues of honor and shame prevailed.  This is to say that Jesus was not a 21st Century westerner.  I’ve shared elsewhere about how Jesus observed the Last Supper—in defiance of our western notions epitomized by DaVinci’s rendering.  (In that same post, I commended an article on what the real Jesus looked like—a startling contrast for many to the standard “Hollywood Jesus” we imagine.)  To not have some command of these realities (and so many others) is to arrive at a wrong address… and encounter an imposter Jesus, an imitation Gospel.

All the more reason for my excitement about a 10-week, self-paced online course which I will be facilitating via BeADisciple.com (the web presence of the Richard and Julia Wilke Institute of Discipleship).  Gleaning especially from my studies and work with Biblical Archaeologist and scholar and mentor, Jim Fleming, my hope is to give you a glimpse of the Holy Land… and a fuller portrait of Jesus in his 1st Century, Jewish context.  Fleming calls it the “fifth gospel”—explorations in the ways that considerations of geography and cultural manners/ customs of Jesus day inform our engagement of the Gospels proper.

“A Survey of the Life of Jesus” launches on Monday, September 16 (and continues through Friday, November 22).  For more information or to register, go to: https://www.beadisciple.com/online-christian-courses/ifd234-a-survey-of-the-life-of-jesus/  (No books to buy, by the way—though I will be conveying suggested, further readings… and providing a host of downloadable resources each week.)

jesus picsReviewing what I’ve written, I want to address a certain cockiness which I detect.  Do I think I am in possession of the “real” Jesus as a I lead this study?  Of course not!

Here, I am mindful of what I tell folks after we’ve compared a picture of “Hollywood Jesus” with the rendering created by Forensics anthropologist, Richard Neaves.  (see photos, right…  see also, article about Neaves reconstruction and the scholarly basis for it by clicking here)

“Is this what Jesus looked like?” I ask folks, pointing to the rendering by Neaves.

“Of course not!” I continue.  “But, I will tell you that I am convinced that Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he did our typical Hollywood renderings!”

Ever and always, you see, there’s the need to rescue Jesus and the Gospels from what Ken Bailey has called “the obscurity of the familiar”—the ways Jesus can be missed amidst our preferred ways of engaging him.  Such is my hope in this course: engaging a more real Jesus on the front porch—as an entry into deeper, fuller contemplations in our hearts.

“There’s No Getting to God Without Going Through My Neighbor”: Community as an Essential Means [and Expression] of Grace

It’s a line I threw out in a sermon a few years ago — a sermon focused on the importance of what I call the “horizontal beam” of Christianity (i.e., our relationship with our “neighbor(s)”).

Here, many of you know how I’ve likened Christianity to its core symbol, the cross—in which there is 1) a [vertical] beam (which emphasizes our connection with God) and 2) another [horizontal] one (which emphasizes our connection to one another). Both “beams,” I have variously suggested, are necessary for a full understanding and experience of Jesus, the Gospel, and our Christian Faith.

So, here I was, arguing for the essential place of our relationship with others in our Faith and Living: “There’s no getting to God without our going through our neighbor.”   I remember at least one raised brow at the time—whose owner came to me at the end of the Service: “I think I know what you were trying to say,” she said, “but the truth is that I do not need anyone other than Jesus to have access to God!”

Technically, that Soul was and is very right. The Scriptures are quite clear: “There is no salvation by anyone else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Still, there are ways that Jesus and the Gospel defines our relationship with others — if not as a key to our relationship with God, then as a key barometer or indicator of that relationship with God:

  • Truly I tell you, whatever you did [or did not do] for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did [or did not do] for me…. (Matthew 25:40, 45)
  • Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
  • Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love… Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…  We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-12, 19-21)
  • By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

More and more, then, do I find myself affirming the notion that “there is no salvation apart from the church (or immersion in loving community).”   But, here, I want to be careful and make it clear: the church’s role and place (in salvation) is not a condition for that salvation as much as it is an expression of that salvation.  Here, there’s an acknowledgment of the cornerstone of Protestantism: namely, that there is no salvation apart from faith in Grace revealed in Jesus Christ.  However, I can not help but also affirm that that Christ seems to point me to community and a life of love in community (with God and neighbor).  God in Christ establishes life and living in communities [of love and accountability] as an essential “means of Grace.” (Is this not the basis of James writing that “faith without works is dead” – and his going on to illustrate this with a communal example?)

The Question is Not “Do You Have a ‘Rule for Living’?” But “What is Your ‘Rule for Living’?”

In various religious circles, a “rule of life” refers to the definition or regulation of rhythms, rituals, and relationships — held to be conducive to individual and communal spiritual formation.  Various religious orders have such rules.  There’s the Rule of St. Benedict, for example, which governs the life of Benedictines around the world.  But, lest we think of it only as a “Catholic” thing, there’s Wesley’s “General Rules” for his United Societies.  Most recently, it’s in vogue for pastors and authors to invite individuals to craft their own, personal rules for faithful living.  It’s a focus, in fact, for one of our explorations here at Zoe-Life.

Leading a course a few years ago on the process of developing such a rule, I began by suggesting that we all have internal rules for our lives and living—even if they are unconscious or subconscious.  To make my point, I showed the following clip from an episode of NGTV’s Brain Games:

It’s true, dear Soul: we all have rhythms and rituals for the living of our lives—whether we are aware of them or not.  Writes Steve Macchia: “All of us have an unwritten personal rule of life that we are following, some with great clarity, others unknowingly. We wake at certain times, get ready for our days in particular ways, use our free time for assorted purposes and practice rhythms of work, hobbies, worship, vacation and so on. There is already a rule in place that you are following today.”  (Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way, p. 14)

A necessary beginning (or two), then, in any program of spiritual formation is:

  • To acknowledge that that each of us has a rule of living—that inclines us and our souls in some direction, and
  • To become mindful of our habits and rituals of living (embedded, in part, in our checkbooks and calendars and daily rhythms)

Note: Be on the lookout for the next issue of Ruminations, a free quarterly resource from Zoe-Life Explorations (coming at the end of the month)—with its focus on next steps in creating a rule for faithful living!