The Journey From Ascent to Descent

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Wisdom is often conceived as something to which we ascend. It makes sense to me as one who lives in this world as a Seven on the Enneagram. I am always looking upward to the expanse above me, seeking greater freedom with fewer limitations. So it makes sense that I would want to ascend to these greater heights.

As a matter of fact, it is easy for me to function in a world that is built on the notion of ascent. We want to ascend up the corporate ladder … we are perpetually looking for the next self-help, self-development tool for our career … we are looking for pathways to being better citizens, better partners, better spouses, better lovers, better parents, and (my favorite) better grandparents. If we are being truthful, we are looking for the pathway beyond being better … we want to be the best!

And that is the pitfall in seeking a deeper spirituality … in seeking a deeper wisdom. The pathway we most desire does not lead us where we think it does. Likely, it is the pathway we most fear that becomes the pathway that leads us to the deepest connection with God, with other people, and with all of God’s creation.

You see, the greatest spiritual wisdom is not something we attain by ascending; rather, it comes to us from descent. My deeper understanding of the life of Jesus is that he understood the path of descent as the path toward wisdom and the deepest possible connection with a God whose name is love and who seems deeply preoccupied with the divine task of provision.

What that means for me is that my desire to “ascend to God” is not the truest pathway to God.

This lesson, for me, is something that begins early in my education and ministry. While in college, I was assigned to write a thesis paper for a Hebrew Bible course, and the specific text I was assigned was Genesis 11:1-9 … the story known as the Tower of Babel. This story is the conclusion of the primeval story, which comprises the first 11 chapters of Genesis. In the story of Israel, the first historical figures mentioned are Abraham and Sarah, a story which begins in chapter 12. Because I believe God is always trying to show me something more, that study has continued throughout my ministry with a fascination for how this one story defines so much of what is happening in the world today.

So the story of the Tower of Babel is, at first glance, a story about how we got our multiple languages, but it is so much more than that. The story, you see, is the people who have one language and who are seeking to build the tallest tower with its top in the heavens. Their fear was being weakened and scattered abroad. They wanted access to all knowledge and all secrets at all costs. In verse 4, we are told: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'” 

Building the city or the tower is not the issue for God in this story. The issue here is that they are seeking to reach the heavens in order “to make a name” for themselves. They are operating from the egoic center that is focused on ascension. Whether it is construed as individual or collective ego, it is egocentric, nonetheless.

Using the model of the Enneagram, the ego is what keeps us focused on our fears and our limitations. It is what reacts adversely to stress, and it is what moves us onto the path of “dis-integration” as opposed to the path of “integration” [these are key words for my current research and writing, by the way]. What this means is that the ego is seeking to ascend to a safe place, yet it is doing little more than just entrenching itself into lower levels of consciousness.

What then is the best pathway forward?

So in my study of the Tower of Babel, I was soon drawn to another parallel, which even the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary have utilized. It is the connection between the story found in Genesis 11 with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost found in Acts 2.

Luke (who writes both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles), shares a very clear image of the apostles who have remained in Jerusalem. I know that other gospels take at least some of the apostles back to Galilee, but this is not the case with Luke where we hear the story of Jesus’s ascension and hear Jesus say, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49).

Luke’s image of the apostles is one of what I would call “hopeful vulnerability.” They are told to stay in a place where they are extremely vulnerable … few followers of Jesus would feel safe in Jerusalem following his execution. But they have experienced this risen Christ, and they staying huddled together … we are told “in a house” … when the day of Pentecost arrives. Think of an open-air house with passersby all around.

Luke tells us that Jewish people from all over the various lands had returned for this festival of Shavuot, which is both a festival of the first of the wheat harvest and later the celebration of the giving of the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is directly linked to Passover, and it occurs on the fiftieth day after Passover. The Greek word for 50 is πενήντα (penānta), and the festival is Πεντηκοστή (Pentācostā).

As this day arrives, the apostles are gathered together, and we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on them. They then are moved to begin speaking and testifying to what they know about Jesus, and as they begin to speak, this incredible thing happens. No matter from whence the people had come or what language they spoke, they could hear the apostles (all of them) speaking in their own language. The language barriers were broken down, and there was again only one language … the language of Christ … the language of the divine.

But it began, not with the disciples seeking to make a name for themselves. It began with them huddled and vulnerable. It was not ascent in any form … if anything, it was descent. The complete giving up of themselves into whatever this thing was that the Holy Spirit was doing in them … risking torture and execution in the very act of opening themselves up to the power of this new common language.

By my thinking, it is the language of descent … of going down into the depths of God much as a seed falls into the earth and dies with the hope that it will bear much fruit (see John 12:24-25). In a world focused on ascending up ladders and using “power over” kind of language, these passages and this message make little sense. But in the language of descent, we soon find ourselves on a journey that leads to the greatest spiritual depth.

So I invite you to go with me … downward … to the place where we give ourselves up entirely for God. When we choose to give up the struggle to “make a name” for ourselves, we will find ourselves standing alongside Jesus, and we will discover the capacity to see … to function from higher levels of consciousness. If we then look closely, perhaps we will see … become conscious of … a new reality. It is the reality that our name is already made … perhaps even written … in the Book of Life!

A Tapestry of Love

My grandmother was a knitter, and she taught me as a child first how to crochet and then, when she decided I was ready for a real challenge, how to knit. For a time, I actually got pretty good at it, but it is a skill I would have to relearn (since I haven’t picked up a knitting needle in years and can scarcely remember the distinction between knitting and purling). But I remember the wonderful hand-knitted scarves and sweaters my grandmother used to make for my sister and me. I would wrap up in her work surrounded, not just by the cotton or wool yarn she used, but by the very love that was sewn in each stitch.

Then today, I read a devotional by historian, Diana Butler Bass, that really struck home. In it, she talked about the reality that creation is not hierarchical, as the church has often taught, but that it is a dance or a circle or a woven tapestry. Then she had this quote from Colossians 2 found in the paraphrase of the bible known as The Message:

I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret.”

Colossians 2:2-3, The Message (a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

Since reading that passage from Colossians, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. You see, much of Christian theology has focused on distinction and hierarchy. Much of it is based on dualistic notions of otherness (think “us vs them”). This means that we know what it means to be this and not that. We know that we belong here and not there. Even heaven and earth cannot stay together in a dualistic theology … though Jesus seems to think they belong together.

Further, we have divided ourselves as people who are on either of two sides. We almost can’t help dividing ourselves into who is good and who is evil … who is in and who is out … who is right and who is wrong … who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. We use fear, worry, and anxiety to perpetuate these dualistic notions that are, in no way, connected with who God intends us to be.

The perpetual “othering” within human society rips at the very fabric of God’s creation, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Then there is the fear of death. I woke up one day several years ago to realize that I had more years behind me than in front of me, which is even more true today. It was then that I awoke to the fear of the unknown … of what happens to us when we die. We keep trying to craft images that are comforting and that help us overcome our fears … no pain or suffering or death … streets paved with gold. I proclaim everlasting life, but when pressed as to what that means or what that looks like, I tend to defer to mystery that leans more heavily on a faith that is more about unknowing than it is about knowing.

Here is the profound insight I have gained from reflecting on this text: whether we consider ourselves good or bad or in or out or dead or alive, we all belong to the same tapestry … what The Message calls a “tapestry of love.”

This is perhaps the greatest image of the communion of saints. It is what Paul means when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8) It is what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is among or within us! (see Luke 17:20-21).

It is this incredible notion that everything belongs … nothing and no one is left out … there is no “othering” in this tapestry of love. There is only us! In our harsh political climate from the local to the global level, we find ourselves cut off from one another. In our own United Methodist Church, we are experiencing a tearing of the fabric of a spirituality that is dear to my heart.

Those who insist on dualistic notions of spirituality or creation or human community tear away at that tapestry and end up being those who themselves are torn away … disconnected from its life-giving “wovenness” (yes, I know I just made up a word).

In times like these, it feels as if we are coming unraveled. Colossians tells us that the answer isn’t “out there” on some wild goose chase … it is “in here” … already woven into the tapestry made for the whole of creation. In here, everything is woven together. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our lives. Our enemies and our friends. Wholeness and brokenness. Life, suffering, death, and resurrection. All sewn together into something mysteriously more beautiful than we can imagine.

As I was learning to knit, I had been working on a scarf and had made good headway. When my grandmother sat down to inspect my work, she noticed that I had dropped a stitch several rows down. The dropped stitch was already beginning to unravel and would have led to the complete unraveling of the scarf. I thought I completely messed up and would have to start over. She calmly reached over and took the knitting from my hand.

With a technique that still baffles me to this day, she took two other knitting needles and dug into the mess I had created. In a matter of minutes, she had picked up the dropped stitch and made it look as if it had been done right the first time.

That’s what it means to live only in the shadow of grace. It is the grace of this woven tapestry of love that invites us to this all-inclusive creation where we are invited to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8) It is the place where all are truly welcome and where everything belongs. Even when our behaviors or choices harm others and ourselves … even when we violently tear at the fabric of God’s creation … even when we are coming unraveled, God’s grace tends to pick up the dropped stitches in our lives and restore the divine tapestry.

So as we face the harsh realities of life in our world … as we attempt to speak truth to power (sometimes with great risk) … as we attempt to give voice to those who suffer most in our world, may our work be that of knitting and being knitted in the tapestry of love that we might intimately be “in touch with everything there is to know of God.”

The Third Perspective

In 1992, when I was in the middle of my doctoral degree, I was privileged to hear Dr. Stanley Hauerwas deliver the Slater-Wilson Lectures, which was an endowed lecture series at Saint Paul School of Theology. The two lectures he gave were titled Interpreting the Scripture as Political Act. In the lecture subtitled Why Sola Scriptura is Heresy, he completely tore apart my theology.

It was in that lecture that he made the case that the Lutheran doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which is Latin for “scripture alone,” is inherently flawed. He further made the case that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism could not adequately prepare us to handle the sacred text to which we had been entrusted. In his lecture, he pointed out that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism posit that scripture makes sense all by itself. The fundamentalist notion is that we just need to open the bible, and it will simply make sense. The classical liberal approach was that the bible makes sense IF we have the right tools with which to read the text.

The latter was what had been foundational to my theological and biblical training. I had been versed in various forms of critical method; literary critical method and historical critical method chief among them. I had learned how to study the text for clues that might lead us deeper into meaning, and to this day, it still informs my preaching and my teaching.

I would often find myself arguing against friends whom I had known yet who were essentially fundamentalist. They believed that my mind was poisoned by the academy and that the mere use of the word “criticism” about the bible was blasphemy.

Then here comes Stan Hauerwas tearing down the entire house. He argued that these two ways of thinking were but two sides of the same coin, and that neither of them got at the heart of the sacred scripture of Jesus or the early church. He advocated for a third point of view that found its footing in sacred community.

And it was right around that time that I was also introduced to the work of Dr. Walter Wink. His 1998 work titled The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium contained a chapter called “Jesus’ Third Way.” I have quoted that extensively as I have talked about the teachings of Jesus as relates to turning the other cheek, giving ones coat when the cloak was demanded, and going the second mile. In that work, Wink highlights for us that Jesus is neither practicing violence nor pure pacifism. A close look tells us that Jesus is practicing non-violent resistance. (You can read Walter Wink’s work HERE, and yes, in the spirit of inclusiveness, I am sending you to a Baptist website).

It was here that I realized two things. First, an academic approach to spirituality and biblical studies was, in and of itself, insufficient. There was a deepening, sometimes elusive, wisdom that was continually being teased out in every sermon I preached and every single time I opened the scripture in search of something new. Second, the key to this deepening wisdom and spirituality is entirely imbedded in relationship.

While Hauerwas intended his argument to make a case for the church in the language of what is known as a “neo-orthodoxy,” I have found it in a deeper “creation spirituality.” It has been born out most recently by my discovery of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest who was also a geologist and paleontologist, in his book, The Phenomenon of Man. It was further born out by Ilia Delio, the Franciscan theologian, in her book, The Emergent Christ.

Their work is about the interconnectedness of all creation, which is then born out further by Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ.

In all of this, I have come to see that the third perspective that has been finding a deeper place in my life is most fully born out in the relationships implied in the two greatest commandments … love of God and love of neighbor. These relationships are what encompass all of creation, and they are the only way forward as we seek to overcome a world fractured by rampant individualism, selfish ambition, greed, and corruption. These relationships confound our dualistic mindset that is based in notions of black and white, good and bad, heaven and hell. These relationships are themselves avenues to a third perspective.

These are relationships that are about the fullest outpouring of self … God’s self-giving love in creation and redemption, and the self-giving love to which we are called as we seek reconciliation and restoration.

The complex nature of all this is then made simple in the creed we so often recite at Wellspring:

We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

So the answer to our dualistic world is finally this messy, loving, hard-to-follow, relational God of ours. Following this God and this Christ isn’t easy, but I am convinced it the journey that leads to life.

The Gift of Suffering

When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

(Matthew 24:3-8)

This past Sunday, I pointed out that the word “passion” comes from the Latin root “pati” and literally means “to suffer” or “to endure.” Then, in my devotional reading for today from the Henri Nouwen Society, Fr. Nouwen reflected on the fact that the word “patience” likewise shares the same root. “Patior” is what it means to suffer waiting much like the process of giving birth … the painful experience of waiting that mothers experience in brining new life into the world.

It is more than the hyper-anxious waiting we see in children awaiting Christmas … or a birthday … or a family vacation with their favorite cousins. It is a painful waiting that is as full of uncertainty as it is promise. It is the waiting that we wish we did not have to endure. It is something, as wisdom would teach us, that leads to a greater unfolding reality yet which lead us through the cycle of greater integration.

Order, disorder, reorder. Life, death, resurrection.

It is the chaos … the disorder … the death that is so hard. In our world, we are experiencing the death of so much right now. As Russia invades Ukraine, we are witnessing the death, not only of innocent civilians, but the death of our hopes for a global peace. While we have often ignored it, we have an ever-growing humanitarian crisis with refugees at our own southern border. Women continue to face discrimination and abuse in the workplace and at home. People who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) continue to struggle with discrimination that results in increasing death and incarceration rates.

And we who are United Methodist are experiencing our own death experience as we witness the crisis of another delayed General Conference and now the launch of a conservative denomination that threatens to pull away those who would splinter our beloved church.

It seems as if we face just one crisis after another.

The Catholic Franciscan theologian, Ilia Delio, in her book, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe, describes a crisis as “a rapidly deteriorating situation that if left untended will lead to a disaster in the near future.” She then goes on to talk about the various crises that we are facing in our politics, our religious life, and our world.

She offers a distinction for how crises tend to work in closed and open systems. She says that a crisis can bringing devastation, but it can also bring new growth and change. She writes: “In closed systems, a crisis functions like a sharp pain; it indicates something wrong in the system or that the system has been disrupted. In open systems, a crisis functions like a strange attractor.”

She further notes that the idea of an attractor like this comes to us from chaos theory and that such an attractor can “pull the systems into new patterns of behavior over time.”

Then she shares the following:

Since evolution operates primarily as an open system, I suggest that the crises we are experiencing, especially in the church, underscore a seismic strange attractor in our midst. Something new is arising within and disrupting the present system, pulling it into new patterns of behavior despite resistance. I identify this strange attractor as a breakthrough in consciousness.” (The Emergent Christ, p. 118)

As I consider the crises that result in power struggles … over land … over money … over global control … over churches … over the freedom to be who God created us to be … I want to see this like Delio describes it. It doesn’t always feel like higher consciousness, but I am convinced that the pattern holds true.

Maybe Jesus was right. Something new is being born even in the midst of that something that we love and cherish that is dying. It is here that I finally see that the evolutionary progression brings a hopeful truth. What lives must finally die, yet an unfolding resurrection is always just at the horizon.

Let that be our Lenten hope!

Turning Toward the Dirt

We celebrated Ash Wednesday yesterday. It was a day of reflection and fasting for me. We celebrated at Wellspring with a daytime outdoor service, and then we gathered with other Methodists in Georgetown both online and in person.

There are two primary themes that emerged for me as I reflected on the day. Repentance and dirt.

Lent is a time for repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia), and it literally means “turn around.” This is based on the notion that we have natural human failings based often on fear and shame. Many wisdom traditions (including the Enneagram) understand that we all have vices. As an Enneagram 7, my vice is gluttony, and it is based on my fear of not having enough.

What then does it mean for me to turn around? It is about facing that fear of not having enough and the shame that overwhelms me when I react with gluttonous behaviors. It means turning back to my true self … the self that trusts God to provide for my needs. It means overcoming the anxiety that can erupt within me as I face the truth about myself.

To repent … to turn back … is to draw the circle wider as I see myself as part of a web of belonging. It is to work for the provision for those who truly do not have enough. It is to own and use my own vices and fears and hurts and guilt to lead me to a greater connection that is truly compassionate.

It is to move outward by going back to the most basic part of human existence …

The Dirt

The hardest part of Ash Wednesday was when I was imposing ashes on the heads of people in one particular part of our sanctuary. I ended up with several young teens coming to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their heads. The hard part was that I was compelled by our liturgy to say the words associated with this sacred rite: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!

These were children whose entire lives were in front of them, and here I was reminding them that they were going to die. We come from the dirt, and we are going back to the dirt. It’s true, but it is not a truth that we want to hear.

But there’s more.

And we often spend time moving away from the dirt. There are those who think that repentance means turning away from the “dirty” parts of our lives … moving to a higher, more spiritual plane than the plane that we consider ordinary … vulgar or common … of the dirt.

This type of spirituality, however, is not the spirituality of Jesus … it is the spirituality of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic thought sees the dirt (an all material things) as our enemy … the place of death … but the ultimate reality is something that is in no way connected to anything we experience on this earth. It doesn’t take long to see how much Plato influenced Christian thought and moved us away from the spirituality of Jesus.

The spirituality of Jesus (and of his Jewish faith), you see, is of the dirt. The second creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis is the most telling for us in this season of Lent. It is there that God plants a garden and then, as if bringing consciousness to all of creation, stoops into the humus to create the first human. The linguistic connection makes it clear that we belong to the dirt … to the earth … to creation.

So Lent is best understood, not as turning away from the dirt, but as turning TOWARD the dirt. It is to hear Jesus say in John 12, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

As I have said recently, this isn’t about death. This is about us turning back toward the earth. It is what leads us to practice a new form of ecology and a new economy where we see the earth, not as an expendable resource, but as the essence of our being. It is to see ourselves as one with the trees and plants of that first creation story that bear fruit for all of creation … plants and animals (including the animals known as human) … to grow and thrive.

Turning toward the dirt is about seeing ourselves as seeds that are not here just for our own well-being, but for the well-being of everyone. Brené Brown, in her latest book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, shares the story of Paola Sánchez Valdez. Paola is part of her research team and was asked to share her story in the book.

Paola is Ecuadorian by birth, and she grew up as an undocumented resident of the US who was finally granted status as a permanent resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. She finally came out of the darkness to be able to pursue her dreams. She shares how she finally connected with other undocumented students while in college and discovered that her sense of being without a home was a shared experience that created a new sense of belonging in a different kind of community.

She cited a saying from many Latin American countries that goes “ni de aquí, ni de allá” … not from here, not from there. But she said that she discovered a new sense of belonging to herself and with others who shared her same story. She and her new friend then launched an effort to advocate for those experiencing what she calls “structural inequities” by creating avenues for vital change for immigrants and those who struggle to be seen without being harmed.

She then cited a saying that speaks right into the heart of what I think Lent is about. She said her favorite quote is: “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían qu éramos semillas” … “they wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” That, you see, is the essence of John 12.

So may this season of Lent be a time of turning toward the dirt. May it be a time of reflecting on our relationship with the earth and all who dwell therein. May it be a time of being at one with all creation and others as we seek justice and hope for a world that seems to have lost its way.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” Be seeds, my friends, and God will fruitfully bless you!

A Call to Fasting and Prayer

To My Friends and Loved Ones,

As war continues to rage in the Ukraine with threats being made that are much more global, we find ourselves in worry and fear … as we continue to see the effects of prejudice in so many violent forms in our own country … as we experience the harm brought to immigrants and refugees in the name of law and order … as we experience the effects of poverty brought on by collective and individual greed, I ask you to join me in prayer and fasting this Ash Wednesday as we begin this Lenten journey together.

Fasting is hard for me. I’m more of a Shrove Tuesday kind of guy who tends to be afraid of the emptiness. Fasting during times of stress is not easy for a guy whose go-to response is stress-eating. And yet … and yet … there is a time to fast and let myself feel the emptiness that is emblematic of the suffering of so many in our world.

Two things about fasting:

First is how we experience the hunger and the grumbling stomach that nags at us and beckons us toward nourishment. This becomes for us an opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who have the same beckoning, yet for whom there is no table set for them. There is no table full of food. There is no table fellowship. There is only hunger and loneliness.

As we witness the violence in Ukraine, we see how quickly people who had jobs and routines surrounding their daily lives became refugees and found themselves longing to be filled with nourishment and safety … to find their way to a table of hope. Be in prayer for the Ukrainians who are suffering so much right now. Further, pray for the Russian soldiers who are conscripted to serve in a war that they know is unjust and who are struggling or surrendering or facing punishment and death on either side of the line … for the Russian citizen who is looking for a way to demonstrate in a country where demonstrations are not tolerated.

Pray for the many around the world who are part of wars that are largely silent to our ears. These are wars that involve genocide where entire communities are wiped out simply for who they are. These are wars that involve human trafficking as women and children are used and abused in a global pandemic of sexual violence. There are wars on our own shores that unfold in our homes and on our streets.

There are wars of words where people are systemically marginalized and harmed daily by words that sometimes find their way into unjust laws.

Fasting is a way of practicing empathy with those who suffer.

The second key thing about fasting. When I let myself experience emptiness, it becomes a way for God to fill me up. When I am full of food … of wealth and security … of myself … there is less room for God. When I am empty, I come to the realization that God is the source of all provision and I learn to make room for this God who seeks to fill me up.

So as we journey into Lent, will you join me in a day of fasting and prayer as we stand in solidarity with all the suffering of the world and lean into the God of hope and deliverance? My prayer is that you will.

The Within and Without of Love

From my days in college, I realized I was a lover of wisdom (which is what “philosophy” means), and as I have read The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I have discovered concepts that have stretched my mind and my contemplation … concepts that have sent me on a search to look up both concepts and the vocabulary around these concepts. First, Teilhard’s work is based in the science of evolution, which has it’s own unique challenges in language and comprehension (as I have previous shared). Second, he uses not only scientific language, but philosophical language to talk about reality in ways that sometime seem foreign (if not threatening) to our ways of thinking.

Among the principles is a conceptual way of two forms of energy that is found in evolutionary thought coming from the the early part of the 20th century. These two energies are tangential energy and radial energy. Teilhard writes:

We shall assume that, essentially, all energy is psychic [of the soul] in nature; but add that in each particular element this fundamental energy is divided into two distinct components: a “tangential energy” which links the elements with all other of the same order (that is to say, of the same complexity and the same centricity) as itself in the universe; and a “radial energy” which draws it toward ever greater complexity and centricity – in other words forwards.
(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, pp. 64-65)

Teilhard then later shifts and uses the word “within” for this tangential energy, and “without” for this radial energy. Then he defines energy, as I have shared in a previous post, as what we call love. It is energy that both pulls inward and reaches outward. As a Jesuit priest, Teilhard would have certainly understood how Jesus spoke of the greatest commandments … the commandments to love God and to love neighbor as ourselves.

In those commandments to love, we experience our loving relationship with God as the experience of being seen by God as we love by trusting God to see us in our most vulnerable, naked state of being. This kind of love is hard because it requires us to see within ourselves both the ugliness of human sin and suffering and the beauty of God’s creation. And that is what leads us to the capacity to love ourselves … not in a narcissistic kind of way … but in an honest kind of way. It is to see ourselves as God sees us.

But this love of self is not enough. If we stop there, it does become narcissistic, and we find ourselves cut off, weakened, and dying. So there is the love that is “without” … the radial kind of love … that leads us to the greater “complexity and centricity” which Teilhard describes.

The energy Teilhard describes as “without” is best described as that love that leads us to greater diversity. It is love that tends toward creativity … toward the creation of community … toward a greater unity than we ever thought possible. It is what gives us the best blueprint for a global peace … and yet.

And yet the world seems ever more unstable as we experience an imbalance in these energies. The energy of within is what breeds echo chambers where only one voice is heard. Or worse, we have stopped with a dualism that leaves us with a simple choice of victory for only one of two sides.

So as we witness Ukraine falling to Russian aggression … racism, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-semitism, and so many other forms of bigotry as they arise even from our own state and federal seat of government … the continued push of white supremacists and others to redraw the lines according to race and power … it seems like this talk of a unity and global peace is just a pipe dream.

The typical human response is dualistic. We fight against the aggressors. We take up arms and make an effort to make sure our side wins. But in a day with vast nuclear arsenals and arms readily available on our streets, we finally have to come to the notion that there is no “winning” on a global or a local scale. Increasingly, we are aware that, in a massive armed conflict, no one wins.

We are left looking for an option that is not dualistic. That is the option of love as expressed by Jesus.

Here is the truth of evolution that Teilhard so richly describes for us. Despite these hard times … despite the pushback against this radial energy (love that is “without”) … despite the echo chambers, we are still called to discover that balance … even if only in our own lives. Teilhard believed that the nature of evolution is ever moving us forward.

So I am learning to lean into these two different ways of thinking about energy that is both tangential and radial. I am leaning into the divine love affair with a God who sees me and calls me good … even as I stammer in articulating that to myself. And I am leaning into the love affair with all of creation and with my fellow human beings. These energies, you see, are what become pathways … conduits … for a love that speaks truth to power, that seeks justice, that resists evil, and finally that is capable of seeing and loving even those who do harm.

The balance, you see, is the third way of being. It is rejection of dualism. It is the roadmap put forth by Jesus who says to love ourselves, our neighbors AND our enemies with the same kind of love. It is to hold our suffering without the temptation to inflict suffering upon others. Finally, it is to trust that, we can influence the flow of this energy with the simplest act of love that is both “within” and “without.”

So in these hard times, as hard as it is, practice love. Learn to love yourself, warts and all. Then share it with someone in your inner circle. Then share it with someone outside that circle (even if you don’t like that person very much). And then remember the gospel message: love is finally what wins.

The Divine Flow

Wisdom teachers will often use the word “flow.” It is considered a key teaching of perennial wisdom (meaning it transcends culture, national or tribal identity, and even religion). I am fascinated by such an image. It is an image of movement … of progression … of sharing.

Ultimately, it is an image of love.

I think of a river that collects waters from various tributaries and then passes that water onward. It is water that is taken at various points to nourish the earth and quench the thirst of animal life. It is taken into reservoirs, treated, and then brought into our homes and provides nourishment for our families.

In places around the globe where water is either scarce, hoarded by people upstream, or polluted, we find drought, poverty, suffering, and death downstream. When the flow stops, death is soon to follow. Flow has everything to do with life … justice … hope … faith … and the fullest manifestation of love.

Then there is the concept of flow (also part of perennial wisdom) that is succinctly understood as the flow from order to disorder to reorder. This is language that is fleshed out in teachings from the Center for Action and Contemplation and Fr. Richard Rohr. In my theological education, I learned about construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, which ultimately ties us into the Christian theme of life, death, and resurrection.

The divine flow is finally about the fullest incorporation of death and suffering as a part of the journey from life to resurrection. And this is more than just talk about our physical death that takes us from this earthly existence into the hoped-for afterlife. It is a blueprint for how we move through this life.

Life in the past two years has taught us much about death. In the church I currently pastor, we have experienced changes that have felt like death. From the 20-month drought for those desiring in-person worship and activities (brought on both by COVID and damages from the ice storm of February 2021) to changes in the way we worship to restrictions for being able to gather around table fellowship. We are now saying farewell to a beloved staff member, all the while wondering how we will ever survive all that has happened.

The same is true in our United Methodist Church. With the continued splintering of the denomination around theological positions, specifically around human sexuality and how to interpret the Bible and our Wesleyan tradition, it feels like death to those of us who have been part of Methodism much of our lives.

Death. It just feels like death.

And yet … and yet we are told that death somehow brings life. In John 12:24-25, we hear Jesus say, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Folding into the earth and dying … loving and hating our life. Little of this seems to make sense if we are talking about progress in the way we understand progress (flow) in our world today. Yet the teaching of Jesus is clear. The only way to hold onto something is by letting go. The pathway to hope often leads us through despair. The pathway to freedom often leads us through bondage. And the pathway to resurrection will always take us through death.

Years ago, we would go rafting in Colorado. With our own children, we usually only chose Class 2 or 3 rapids, but they were enough to bring the thrill of rafting to the entire family. Earlier in my life as young teen, however, I had the experience of a Class 4 rapid. I’m not sure my parents fully understood the definition of the various classes of rafting … my mom articulated lots of regret when we hit the most challenging part of the river. We ended up capsized (fortunately right by an eddy) and all climbing back into the raft unharmed. Then we came upon the most beautiful calm as we neared the end of the journey.

What I came to understand was that the last part of the ride was made more meaningful by having survived the rapids. The experience itself became an image of this divine flow from life to death to resurrection, and it is a reminder that, no matter the rapids we face, the flow will carry us finally to the place where life takes on new meaning.

So I invite you into the flow. There are some rapids ahead, but they will take us to an abundant life greater than we could ever imagine.

The Beginning and Ending Points of Love

The past three weeks in worship were spent in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 as we unpacked a mini-series on Spiritual Gifts. As I worked through the deepest possible meanings of Paul’s poetic, yet subversively powerful, passage on love … agape (ἀγάπη) … I was struck by how deep the connection becomes when we consider that the first, explosive, creative act of God is the very definition of love. God pouring God’s self fully into creation.

I am reading The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which was published posthumously in 1955 just shortly after his death. It was, in many ways, his opus that saw the full convergence of his science as a paleontologist, geologist, and anthropologist and his spirituality as a Jesuit priest. In this book, Teilhard postulates that all of creation is moving toward the fullest possible unitive consciousness, which he calls the Omega Point. And while it is easy to get lost in theoretical physics as to the expansion (or even the contraction) of the universe or to get lost in evolutionary possibilities (which is entirely possible for me because my high school physics teacher, Mr. Cooper, would attest that I am lacking as a scientist) … the point he makes is that God is moving us ever forward toward some greater unity … the fullest evolutionary culmination of all things spiritual and material.

Perhaps in simpler terms, his notion is that, just as everything began at the Alpha point (in physics known as the theory of gravitational singularity where the universe began prior to the Big Bang), so everything finally moves toward the Omega point (where the wholeness of everything is fully realized) … what we religious folk might call “salvation.”

This, for me, is precisely the point that everything belongs together. Whether we are talking about the interconnected nature of the material universe or, in Christian terms, what it means to belong to the whole Body of Christ, the message is the same … we all belong together.

And the energy that first set this in motion, the energy that connects all things to one another, and the energy that finally moves us toward this ultimate Omega point … is LOVE! Not the gooey feeling kind of love, but the agape love described by Paul. In creation, God is completely poured out and creates the entire universe, not the least of which is how God creates those who are called children of God. The means by which we participate in creation and thus become co-creators with God is the same creative love that is finally the fullest giving of ourselves.

In John 12:24-25, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We have almost missed the meaning of this as having only to do with death at the end of our lives, but if we listen to what Jesus teaches, it is about how death itself becomes the symbol of love. It is about folding ourselves … like seeds … into the whole of creation only to discover that what we think of as death is actually the pathway to the fullest possible life. This, friends, is the essence of love.

To look at it from this perspective is to see that the Omega Point to which Teilhard refers is also an act of love where all things are poured out for the whole of creation and where the whole of creation is fully poured out for and in all things. So perhaps John of Patmos, in the writing commonly known as Revelation, leads us in the right direction. Christ (the full incarnation of the divine infused in all things from the beginning of creation) is both Alpha and Omega … the beginning and the end … the first and the last.

If the energy that sets this explosive, expansive creation into being is love itself, then the final culmination can be nothing other than the same energy … the same love. Love itself is Alpha and Omega … the beginning and the end of all things.

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Charles Wesley, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, 1739

In the Flames of Faith

I find it interesting that one of the key images for the Holy Spirit is that of the flame. We know flames have their purpose. They help us cook and keep us warm. They are key to my developing hobby of smoking meat for family gatherings, and they are what we use in our fireplace, our furnace, and our outdoor fire pit to keep us comfortable and warm.

But flames are also destructive. We know from getting too close to the flame on our stovetop or the smoker or the fire pit that we can be seriously burned. I have a couple of scars to remind me of what fire can do, and I have a healthy respect for the power of fire to harm. Kids running around the backyard while I am cooking outdoors get frequent warnings about being too close to the smoke box or grill currently in use.

Then there is the story of John telling us about Jesus at his baptism. In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)

Here, as elsewhere in the gospels and in Acts 2, we have this image of the Holy Spirit and fire combined together. John’s image of the winnowing fork and the threshing floor tend to bring images of hell to mind, but that happens only when we see the wheat and chaff as persons. I think it is less about who gets to go to heaven and who gets to go to hell; it is more about what parts of our lives need to be cleaned out to make room for God to fully embody our lives and what parts create that sacred space.

The truth of this text is that the coming of Christ tends to throw us all in the air. The threshing floor was a hard surface with boards or stones around the sides (thresholds), and the winnowing fork was used to throw everything in the air. It was only done when the wind was blowing so that the dried leaves and unwanted stems would blow away while the grain would break loose and fall back onto the threshing floor where it would then be gathered for storage.

We do a great disservice to the text when we make this be about “them” (those bound for hell) and “us” (those bound for heaven). The only true reading of this text is to see that each of us comes to the threshing floor of Christ as both grain and chaff.

I am fully aware of the parts of me that are grain. Those are the parts that practice and reflect the love revealed to us in Jesus. Those are the parts that see the sacred worth, not just within myself, but in all people. Those are the parts that are more integrated and capable of seeing beyond our divisions to pathways of healing, justice, and hope for everyone and everything.

Then there are the parts of me that are chaff. These are my obsessions, anxieties, worries, and fears that tend to appeal to the primordial, limbic system. What that means is that I can easily move into fight or flight, and it is what disconnects me from others … from God … ultimately, from myself. Jesus is blowing this chaff away when he talks about not being afraid or worrying. He blows chaff away when he asks us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors … when we stand in solidarity with the poorest and most disenfranchised among us. If I am doing these things, I am living beyond my fears, worries, anxieties, and obsessions … those are burned in the fire of Christ! It is a fire that purifies and brings healing.

In my doctoral work, I address issues of brokenness and the need for healing and wholeness among the clergy. One of the key insights I gleaned was given me by one of my faculty advisers, Dr. Tex Sample. He knew I loved country music as much as he did, and he challenged me to look for words of truth in that music.

One day, I heard it. Garth Brooks was singing, Standing Outside the Fire. In that song, Garth is talking about the foolishness of a radical kind of love … a love that comes with the risk of getting burned. He talks about the risk of letting our hearts be open to the possibility of love knowing that it can be painful.

Here is the truth that with great love comes great suffering, and perhaps that is the greatest meaning of the gospel message. When Christ comes into our lives, we are shaken up. We are thrown into the fire of the love that first set the universe in motion … an explosive love that seems to destroy yet which is creative and ever-expanding. It brings us closest to Christ, yet it asks us to let go of everything that we hold onto for security.

Going to the threshing floor of Christ is the ultimate act of letting go!

Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire

Garth Brooks, Standing Outside the Fire

So in this new year, perhaps we will find the deepest expression of our faith dancing among the flames of Christ!