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!

Longing to Breathe

It was a terrible image that we wish we could forget. The pleas of a man lying on the street with a knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe.” Every time someone uses that phrase, the image of George Floyd comes rushing back to me. I don’t take it lightly, and I have a visceral reaction when it has been used by more powerful people to decry their perceived loss of rights when it was most dramatically spoken by a man who was crying for his life.

This statement, however, has become an anthem … perhaps a dirge … in our time in history. We struggle to breathe as we witness the harm done to the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. We continue to see … and participate in … political and cultural strife as we demonize others and seek to be the ones on top. We see how our nation and our world is struggling to breathe amidst the demagogues who rise up among us and continue the stir the cauldron of hate.

We see how creation itself is struggling to breathe with the devastating effects of climate change brought on by our own flawed notions of progress and entitlement. To those who deny it and say that they don’t believe in the science, my response it that it appears that science believes in us … more precisely, science doesn’t really care. The consequences of our globally collective actions since the industrial age are a planet that will finally be inhospitable to us. If the planet can’t breathe, neither will we.

Then the whole pandemic has us afraid to breathe the wrong air. As we have witnessed people struggling to breathe … who are placed on ventilators that will breathe for them, I have begun to ask myself some important questions. What if the air we are breathing carries the contagions we fear the most? What if the air we are breathing leads to our very last breath?

Breathing itself becomes an exercise in caution and fear these days.

But we are people of faith who know something that might help us move forward. It was in that second account of creation found in Genesis 2 where God was molding us from the dirt. We were just mud. In that moment, I have this image of that first human struggling to move … to breathe … to be. And then we are told that God leaned down even farther … like a rescuer offering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation … and breathed life into us.

The breath isn’t our own … the breath we breathe is God’s. That’s the simple message, and it is the best message of hope I think we have.

The issues we face are complex. They require us collectively to work toward justice for our planet, for humanity, and for all of creation. The tasks of this type of justice-work loom large before us, and I am in no way saying it will be easy.

What I am saying is that it starts with a breath. When we begin to see that the breath for which we long is the breath of God that already is, we will have taken a significant first step. Consider the person you despise the most and know that they are breathing God’s breath. Consider how it is that we might better share this holy breath without harming each other or creation itself. Consider what it might mean for us to work toward breathing justice and love into a world filled with injustice and hate.

It all begins with a breath. So to quote the old hymn, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”

Graceless Love

In reading Gerald May’s book, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, I happened upon a truth. It is a truth I have honestly known through all my years of ministry. It is the title of my blog Reflections on Grace: Living only in the shadow of grace.

Yet the simplicity of this truth tends to escape me in the complexities of life … complex ways of living in the world … complex relationships … complex philosophies of how things work … complex notions of how to love. We have made true sciences about what it means to love, and yet … and yet we continue to be incapable of attaining that high level of love to which we aspire … especially us Christians who feel like we are climbing the highest peak to love God “with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

Yet here is the truth. We can’t get there by setting out to love God. It isn’t a checklist. It is not something we can do in seven quick meditations or ten easy steps. Unless one of those steps is practicing stillness and seeing yourself … loving yourself … just as you are.

Edith Eger, in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, talks about the simple practice of looking in the mirror each day, smiling, and saying “I love you.” Then she encourages giving ourselves a kiss on the back of each hand.

To do this is to discover the grace that God has placed in the human heart. It is to move us to a place of hearing God say, “I love you just as you are … no matter what you have done or what you think about yourself. You are loved and you are mine.”

Think with me for a moment about how hard that is. It isn’t easy to stand at that mirror … we can do it for other people (well, at least, some other people) … but we have to set aside all of our internal self talk to get to this place.

It means that we have to set aside the self-criticism about how, if people could really see, they would know I’m really not good at my job. It means that we have to set aside self-judging phrases like “I know I am not good. It is just a façade. I just have to keep up the act so people will like me … or so I will get a promotion … or so I can at least pass for smart.”

We judge ourselves harshly for our addictions and past mistakes. “Why did I have that much to drink? Where were my manners when she tried to engage in discussion, and all I could think about whether I was appropriately dressed … which I probably wasn’t.”

All of this self-criticism and self-deprecation becomes more narcissistic, and is not about the love of self described above. I wonder what it would be like if you quiet the ego a bit … look at yourself in the mirror … and simply say, “I love you. No matter what you’ve done or what others have said about you or what I have said about you, I LOVE YOU just as you are!”

Graceless love is transactional!

“Graceless love” is the myth that I can do enough to love God and my neighbor. I can bring enough offerings, do enough good deeds, visit enough people, go on enough mission trips … finally to be good enough.

When we do this, however, it becomes transactional. Instead of love being the outpouring of ourselves … our souls … our lives, it becomes something we do so God will love us more. And then perhaps, if God loves us more, maybe people will love us more.

At the place of graceless love, by its very definition, grace ceases to be grace. Love becomes manipulative and cheap … because we cheapened grace itself by relegating it to doing and not being.

Grace is the key

To live in grace is to live at what people in 12 step programs tell us is the first step. We are powerless over our addiction. That admission has the power to move us to the place where grace … what John Wesley called “prevenient grace” … will meet us. It is the grace that asks us only to be still and to see God as God is. God is not requiring you to take a test. God is not tempting you to see if you are worthy of being loved by not giving into your addiction. God is not testing you by the things that have fallen apart in your life.

God is there mirroring to you the beauty that is within you. That is the reason mirrors are important. Sometimes it is an actual mirror. Sometimes it is a trusted mentor or sponsor or true friend who can look at you and say, “It doesn’t matter the harmful things you have done or the bad decisions you have made. Your accomplishments, your rise up the ladder of success, your titles and degrees, your great promotions … none of that matters either.

All that matters is that “I see you.” I see the broken you. I see the beautifully, creative, unique you. I see the you that is afraid of the future and guilty about your past. I see the you who feels unworthy. But the message of grace … the message of God … is only that I love you. Just as you are. In this very moment.

Friends, when we experience that kind of grace, we might just find it easier to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. It just might be easier to love our neighbors because we will have learned how best to love ourselves.

A wise friend reminded me of something. We are not called “human doings.” We are called “human beings.” Practice being. It is there that you will discover a God who loved you before you were ever born. It is there that you will have learned to love from that divine center.

Journey to Wholeness – Easter Day, April 4

The Answer is Wholeness

It was the darkest hour of our lives. Like so many others who have lost loved ones, we had no way to make sense of the 3:15 AM phone call … the agony that we were a nine-hour flight away from our daughter and granddaughter … even how much this single event would forever change us.

Those who have lost loved ones know too well the hollowed-out feeling of grief. Grief is something that all who dare to love will one day experience. It brings us to that place where we realize the fleeting nature of human living, and we discover the many emotions and depletion that comes from such a loss.

One of our dear members at Wellspring shared a letter that had been shared with her years before when her first husband died. She shared that grief is a hole that is forever torn in the heart of those who have risked loving. It is a hole that will scar and that we can even learn to love, yet one that will never go away.

So when I talk about brokenness, I’m not dancing around the edges of it. In Holy Week, the gospels lead us to that same depth. I have preached this truth throughout most of my ministry: we cannot fully celebrate the light revealed on Easter morning until we have experienced the darkness of Good Friday. It is in that deepest of grief that I was invited into the Good Friday experience that I might be made ready for the joyous good news of Easter.

I have learned to equate the hollowed-out, empty feeling of brokenness with the emptiness of the tomb on that first Easter.

In John’s gospel, as we will share today, Mary had come to grieve. She was feeling her own emptiness when she stumbled upon the empty tomb. Mary was left alone in her grief, even after a brief visit by two of the apostles. And it is in the stark emptiness of that moment that we encounter the resurrected Christ.

It is here that we surprisingly discover that God’s answer to brokenness is the experience of wholeness … when we experience Christ as Emmanuel … Christ who is forever with us. All it takes is looking up through our tears to see Christ right in front of us.

Wholeness, you see, is not about going back to the way things were. Wholeness is about the discovery of a completeness that shows up in a new emerging normal. Fr. Richard Rohr has done much work on the spiritual journey that goes from order to disorder to reorder.

As I think about my life, I know what order looks like. That is the roadmap that I used early in my life to tell me everywhere I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to be and do. Order is about the dreams and expectations we have when we are young.

Disorder then is that which changes your direction. It is often the experience of loss: loss of jobs … loss of physical abilities … loss of loved ones. The roadmap of my earlier years was then torn up and scattered on the floor. I found myself lost in those moments without clear direction. Throughout my ministry, I have also encountered those who, because of early loss in life or because of childhood trauma, have never even had a roadmap. All they have experienced is disorder.

Then I have experienced those moments of reorder. It is the new way of seeing … the new opportunities … the new life that begins to form. This is perhaps where we can begin to see God at work opening up new jobs … new opportunities … new relationships that lead us to an ever-deepening wisdom. It is where God invites us to move through our trauma, our grief, and our pain to the incredible experience of this new life that is beginning to emerge. It is the gift of wholeness.

It doesn’t mean that we won’t experience grief or pain in the days ahead. It does mean, however, that we can trust God to walk with us through each new phase of disorder, grief, and brokenness until we experience that Easter hope that can never die.

So on this Easter day, my friends, may this Christ be made known to you. May the brokenness be filled with wholeness. May the darkness of death be met with the light of resurrection.

Lord God, may the emptiness we experience be transformed by your love to the emptiness of the tomb in which we discover the joy of resurrection. Amen.

Journey Through Brokenness – April 3

The Maundy Thursday/Good Friday service last evening, ended with a poem that speaks into the experience of emptiness that spans from the cross to the empty tomb. It is shared here for today’s reflection.

The Sacrament of Letting Go

from Seasons of Your Heart by Macrina Wiederkehr

Slowly
she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.
First she surrendered her green,
then the orange, yellow, and red
finally she let go of her brown.
Shedding her last leaf
she stood empty and silent, stripped bare.
Leaning against the winter sky
she began her vigil of trust.

Shedding her last leaf
she watched its journey to the ground.
She stood in silence
wearing the color of emptiness,
her branches wondering;
How do you give shade with so much gone?

And then,
the sacrament of waiting began.
The sunrise and sunset watched with tenderness.
Clothing her with silhouettes
they kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that
her vulnerability,
her dependence and need,
her emptiness,
her readiness to receive
were giving her a new kind of beauty.
Every morning and every evening they stood in silence
and celebrated together
the sacrament of waiting.

Let our prayer be silence.

Journey Through Brokenness – April 2

Speaking the Truth of Good Friday

This is the day of darkness. We call it “Good Friday,” yet it is a commemoration of a terrible execution.

Why is it called good? Through much of church history, we have chosen to view the death of Jesus through the lens of “redemptive violence.” That is this notion that God was angered by sin and demanded punishment, but somehow loved us enough to send God’s own child to be, in the words of one of my well-respected theology professors, “the lightning rod to receive the lightning strike that God, as a God of justice, had to throw.”

When we read the Sermon on the Mount, however, we hear Jesus describe a God that is anything but violent … this is a God who is good. We hear Jesus say in Matthew 7:9-10, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?”

How does Jesus, who speaks about love and compassion, bring us a God who is angry and vindictive? This sounds like projection of the human ego instead of delving into the mystery of the divine.

A very different way of looking at it is to understand the crucifixion as “redemptive suffering.”

We must understand that Jesus is the one who spoke truth to power. The gospel message is innately political in that Jesus issues challenges to stand with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the broken. His overt angering of the religious and political leadership during this last week of his life is about this political reality.

Marcus Borg and Jon Dominic Crossan, in their book, The Last Week, write:

We would like its Holy Week conclusion to be about the interior rather than the exterior life, about heaven rather than earth, about the future rather than the present, and above all else, about religion safely and securely quarantined from politics. Confronting violent political power and unjust religious collaboration is dangerous in most times and most places, first century and twenty-first century alike.

It is during Holy Week that Jesus teaches us about speaking the truth of the gospel that comes to transform our world in radical ways. He then teaches us how to hold the suffering … how even to experience a torturous and violent death … without directing violence (including even violent words) to his own executioners.

Yet we tend to slip into this easy dualism where things are black and white … good and evil … victor and victim. We need to know who to celebrate and who to blame.

Richard Rohr, in the last season of Another Name for Everything podcast was inspired to reach for a piece of paper that he said had been on his bulletin board since moving into his hermitage at the Center for Action and Contemplation thirty-three years ago. I am adding it to my wall in my home office as a reminder.

Those who blame others have not begun their education.
Those who blame themselves have begun their education.
Those who blame no one have completed their education.

When we move beyond the need to blame, we can then speak the truth, practice accountability, and move from that toward forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the way of Christ … this is the truth of redemptive suffering

It is the truth that we can experience a deeper love than we previously thought possible by holding our suffering without the need to blame even those who harm us. More than that, it is an all-inclusive truth that confirms that maybe the tagline of Wellspring’s motto might just be right: All Means All.

That, friends, is what makes this particular Friday good!

God, teach us the way of redemptive suffering that we might discover the truth that will finally set us free. Amen.

Journey Through Brokenness – April 1

The Foolish Context of Love

If there is a day for foolishness, this is it. The fact that Maundy Thursday and April Fool’s Day coincide presents a unique opportunity to talk about a perspective that speaks to this unique convergence.

Paul writes these words to the Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. — (1 Corinthians 4:8-13)

My experience is that throughout the world, there are images of Jesus and the apostles as royalty and conquerors in art and stained glass. Of course, there are also images of their suffering, but I know from my travels and studies that images of royalty (especially in protestant churches) far outweigh the images of suffering.

Perhaps this is because talk of brokenness and suffering is hard stuff. It is difficult to think of ourselves as both royalty and fools at the same time. It is hard to have any kind of real wisdom outside the liminal space of suffering and death. This is the liminal space of unknowing that leads us to a greater wisdom beyond mere cognition.

The Corinthians made the mistake of confusing the two. When Paul says, “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ,” he is not affirming the great wisdom of the Corinthians, much as they might have hoped. He is chiding them for claiming to have such wisdom without having given themselves wholly to the task of discipleship, which invariably leads us to being a “spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals.” It often leads to suffering and brokenness, even as Paul describes here.

Today is Maundy Thursday (which Wellspring is combining into one commemoration with Good Friday scheduled for tomorrow evening). As Jesus gathered with his disciples, their confidence in everything they thought they knew about Jesus was either coming into question or was completely falling apart.

Much earlier in the gospel accounts, as they had stopped along the way at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter named it: Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

As soon as he spoke that, however, Jesus began to talk about his journey to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hands of religious and political authorities and be killed. Peter would simply have none of that, and Jesus rebuked him telling him, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus both affirmed him and then called him Satan for thinking that being “the Christ” is somehow incompatible with suffering and death.

Now it is Thursday of Holy Week, and they are in Jerusalem gathered in an upper room. Jesus begins to lead them through a ritual of brokenness and death as he deviates from the Passover ritual. He uses the seder elements to talk about his own broken body and shed blood. He then takes up the basin and towel, girds himself like a slave, and washes the disciples feet. To those who wanted a conquering messiah, this is folly.

Paul is right. If we follow Christ down this road, we will likely be seen as “fools for the sake of Christ.”

The meaning of Maundy Thursday, however, cannot escape us. The word “Maundy” is taken from the Latin word “maundatum,” which is “commandment.”

What is this commandment associated with Maundy Thursday? It is found in John 13:34-35 where Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

You see, when we love as Christ loves … when we love our enemies … when we forgive those who harm us … when we love through our suffering and beyond our brokenness … when we love in such a way as to blame no one … then we will be thought fools for the sake of Christ.

When we learn this new commandment, we will then discover that the folly of love then becomes the only way to see beyond the cross.

Radical Loving Christ, teach us the foolish way of love that we might transform the world. Amen.