Monday, June 25, 2012


When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that
      'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand....'"    --  Mark 4:10-12

These words of Jesus are surprising to me because I think that the Kingdom of God should be easily accessible to everyone.  So when Jesus explains that "everything comes in parables" in order that people may not perceive, that is hard to understand.  But then again, this does accurately reflect life, then and now.  Many people just do not perceive God's Kingdom.  Many people cannot see God's presence all around them. They see only the surface, the natural, the literal, world. 

Perhaps God speaks in parables, too.  Just as Jesus did.  Only the world is his parable.

One of the keys to faith is believing that life has meaning.  Faith begins when we understand that there is more to life than simple existence and death.  People who do not believe that there is any ultimate meaning in life, who see only facts, are less likely to believe in God. 

But then again, even people of faith sometimes see things more literally than other people of faith.  The people Jesus was speaking to often saw only the surface of things, and not the meaning.  Even his disciples did not always understand his symbolism.  An example of how we read the Bible may illustrate this point.  The Bible can be read as an historical, though perhaps biased, account of the Israelite people and their relationship with God.  It can also be read as literature, as entertaining stories and moving poetry.  It can be read for judgment, law, and doctrine.  And it can be read symbolically, for meaning and direction in one's life, as a revelation.  Except for the literary method, all the others are ancient approaches to Scripture.  I believe one method shows God's presence more than the others.

A week ago, I was reading about Aelred of Rievaulx, and I came across a good description of these differences, and how they make a difference.  We had just visited Rievaulx Abbey, one of our favorite places in England, and I had picked up a short biography of their most famous Abbot ("Aelred of Rievaulx, by Paul Diemer OCSO).  The author describes that a significant part of the monks daily routine consisted of reading and copying out Scripture and other inspiring books of faith. "Aelred taught that the monk was not simply reading about God's dealings in the past, and events in Christ's life that were over and done with.  Rather, by prayerfully reflecting upon and 'ruminating' what he was reading, the monk was brought into contact with the same God, present now in his soul.  ... [This] was the monastic way of reflecting on the message of revelation; the monastic way of doing theology.  It differed from the more speculative and analytical methods of later 'schools' -- methods which could be independent of the moral and spiritual life of the student.  ... [The monastic method] might be called a kind of 'living theology.'  It was a theology often expressed in symbols, parables, and allegories, but its best exponents like Bernard [of Clairvaux] and Aelred never allowed it to remain in the realm of the symbol.  It had to be linked to reality and applied to the individual." (pg. 17-18)  Parables, symbols, allegories -- they are all such an essential part of our life of faith, and yet we often miss them.

For Aelred "all the monastic observances were geared to the following of Christ which was the only thing that mattered.  It was a journey, like that of the Israelites through the desert; there were long periods of aridity and dryness, but there were oases, too.  The desert was a place where the monk struggled with temptations, but it was also a place where he encountered the Holy Spirit.  Drawn further and further away from Egypt and its security, he was taught to depend on God alone -- on the water which He provided in situations where it could be least expected -- on the strength which came from the manna given day by day and which could not be collected and stored." (pg 27)  Thus, Paul Diemer, illustrates by example exactly how the monks learned from the Bible.

Aelred's understanding resonates with my own.  And I greatly appreciated the insight hidden in the analogy above.  For when we moved away from England, after living there for four years, I felt as if I was leaving my heart.  And going back for our holiday just recently, I felt as if I was returning to my true home.  For this was the place whose beauty and spirit had fed my soul.  This was the place where I began my search for God, and I saw in the English landscape, in its ancient trees and peaceful rivers symbols of my search for God.  I could only see in the deserts of Tucson symbols of the difficulties of my journey, its heat symbolic of the refining fires I have experienced, its prickly plant life and unfriendly wildlife symbolic of  the challenges and fears I have faced.  But I had not remembered that here, in this desert, was also where I began to see God's presence in my life on a daily basis.  It was here that I began to write and read daily, in order to connect with God and listen to his guidance.  And yes, it was here that I learned to depend on God.

Later, reading a little further in "Man is Not Alone:  A Philosophy of Religion" by Abraham Joshua Heshel, I came upon the following words, "The ineffable is there before we form an idea of it.  To the spirit of man his own spirit is a reliable witness that the mystery is not an absurdity, that, on the contrary, things known and perceptible are charged with its heart-stripping galvanizing meaning.  ...There are no naked, neutral facts.  Being as such is inconceivable; it is always endowed with meaning. ... The world's mystery is either chaos without value of any kind, or is replete with an infinite significance beyond the reach of finite minds; in other words, it is either absolutely meaningless or absolutely meaningful." (pgs 31-32)  I believe it is the latter.  I believe that God communicates to us through words and symbols and that life is full of meaning.
Dear God, thank you for all you give me.  I feel so deeply blessed to have a life enriched with meaning.  May more and more people learn to see your workings in the world and be blessed by them.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good Soil

A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.  Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture.  Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and checked it.  Some fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold. ... The seed is the word of God.  The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.  The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.  But these have no root; they believe only for awhile and in a time of testing fall away.  As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.  But as for that in good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.  --  Luke 8:5-8, 11-15

The Parable of the Sower this is called.  It answers the question, "Why do some people believe in God, and others do not?"  Every time I read it, different aspects resonate with me.

I have seen myself in the seed among the thorns.  There have been times when I took God very much for granted.  I went about my life not thinking about God at all, wrapped up in the cares of the world.  My happiness in each of these times was entirely dependent on things, on other people, on entertainment, and to some extent, on appearances.  I was trying desperately to stave off the feeling that I was essentially alone.  I did not realize that I needed only to turn to God.

I have seen one of my children in the rocky part of this parable.  He did believe in God when younger, but somehow he had the impression that God was like a superhero, who when called upon would come down and remove everything bad from the picture.  When his prayers were not answered immediately as he wanted them to be, he stopped believing in God.  He did not realize that God is not his simply to command, that he must also listen to what God has to tell him.

Lately, I am seeing a growing number of people in the compacted path.  The parable describes the change as being the result of "the devil [who] comes and takes away the word from their hearts so that they may not believe".  They had believed, but then they began to doubt.

Doubt is not a bad thing at all.  At times it is essential to doubt, to doubt what others tell us, to doubt our own understanding.  It is only when doubt turns into skepticism, and skepticism becomes hardened into certainty, that the word of God cannot not find any way of getting through to us. 

I'm not sure how someone can be certain that there is no God, anymore than I understand how someone can be certain of God, as if they know everything there is to know, either way.  Both extremes of belief require more self-confidence than I am capable of.  I am much more apt to understand how someone can be uncertain about God, willing to accept that there is more to the mystery of God than we can ever know.

Perhaps "self" is the key word there.  The more "self"-confidence required to maintain one's belief system, the less God-confidence needed.  The more certain one is (whether of God or of no God), the less wonder is allowed to creep into one's consciousness.  And then, how will God ever amaze you?

For it is the ability to wonder and to be amazed that allows God to penetrate into our soul (or soil, as the metaphor in the parable goes).   It is our ability to accept that which has no rational explanation that allows us to see and hear God.

Reading recently in a beautiful book, titled "Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion," by Abraham Joshua Heschel, I came across the following,

     "The attempt to convey what we see and cannot say is the everlasting theme of mankind's unfinished symphony, a venture in which adequacy is never achieved.  Only those who live on borrowed words believe in their gift of expression....  What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp...." (pg 5)
Heschel uses the word "ineffable" to describe God, because essentially God is beyond our grasp; and cannot be fully expressed in words.  I wonder how our thinking would change if we too called God, "the ineffable",or "the mystery", or "the enigma", instead of "God".  "God", as a title, is too weighted with concrete images for many people.  Only when we become aware that we cannot explain what we see and hear, that there is no reason for what we see and hear, then we have opened up within us a place for God.

Heschel writes, "Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased.  There is no answer in the world to  man's radical wonder." (pg.13)   Elaine Pagels in "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" says something very similar about our requirements for finding God.  Referring to the Secret Book of John, she writes that it "explains that, although God is essentially incomprehensible, the powers that reveal God to humankind include pronoia (anticipatory awareness), ennoia (internal reflection), and prognosis (foreknowledge or intuition)...." (pg.165)  In order to receive the word of God, we must be open to the possibility of such a wondrous thing.  Without that openness, God cannot find purchase in our soul.

And what about the "good soil"?  Besides a pliability, an openness to receiving God's word, what else is required?

Well, good soil is moist and dark with nutrients.  How do we acquire these things?

Perhaps the moisture comes from repentance, from not just opening our minds to God, but opening our hearts to God.  This was, after all, Jesus' first message:  "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near."  And perhaps the nutrients come from other words of wisdom.  Heschel writes about "soil", too.  "To maintain the stir and flow of insight in all thoughts, so that even in our doubts its sap should not cease to flush, means to draw from the soil of what is creative in civilization and religion, a soil which only artificial flowers can dispense with." (pg 14)  So take what has been passed down from generation to generation, sift through it for nuggets of truth -- that which resonates with your soul -- and leave the rest.

And, above all else, expose yourself to the sun/Son. 

Dear God, thank you for the wonderful words that you bring to my attention.  They fill a need within me, and they answer my concerns for others.  May I express all that you give to me in a way that loses nothing of their enriching quality.  Love always, Pam

Monday, June 4, 2012

John's Gospel

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.    --  John 3:16

These words are perhaps the most familiar words in the New Testament.  They are so familiar that many people merely refer to them by chapter and verse, "3:16."  For many people, this verse is the essence of the Christian faith, the essential message.  Believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life with God.

But, what does it mean to "believe in Jesus"?  Does it mean to believe that Jesus was God's only Son?  Is that why God sent Jesus:  because he wanted everyone to believe that Jesus was special, unique?  Is that the Gospel message, God's message of Good News to the world:  if you believe that Jesus is God's only Son then you gain eternal life, but if you do not then you perish? 

I seriously doubt it.  If God loves THE WORLD, why would God divide it in such a way?  Why would God cast off Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who loves God with all their heart, mind, body, and soul, but who cannot believe that Jesus was his only Son?  That is the opposite of Good News.

No, the passages in the Gospel of John about Jesus' relationship to God have an underlying purpose.  The whole reason that John is so insistent on belief in Jesus' uniqueness -- as God's only Son, as God's Messiah, as God's Word made flesh, as the bread of life, as the light of the world, as the fount of living water, etc. -- is so that we listen to his message, and trust his word.  It is his word that gives us eternal life.  In John's Gospel, Jesus' word is God's word.  There is no difference.
For John, this is a living word.  This word was in the beginning with God, was made incarnate in Jesus, and will always be with us in the Spirit.  (No wonder the above verse was in the Gospel reading for last Sunday:  Trinity Sunday!  God and Jesus and Spirit, all found in God's word.)

Because God's word is a living word, particular to each person, time, and place, John rarely shares Jesus' teachings.  There is no Sermon on the Mount; there is no Lord's Prayer.  There are no lists of rules in John's Gospel.  John does tell us that Jesus taught crowds of people, often in the temple, and amazed everyone with his understanding, but John rarely states exactly what Jesus taught.  John does not want us to get tied down to specific rules.  He does not want us to search the scriptures for rules to follow.  That is not how you find eternal life.  Though that is how many people read Scriptures.

For John, eternal life is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ. (17:3).  It is found by abiding in him, drinking the water that he gives, and eating his bread, God's bread.  Jesus' message, which John shares more than anyone else, is that the way to eternal life is found directly with God.  Abide in God, put your trust in God, and listen to his will for you.  Everything else that is necessary for you will follow from that. 

This, I believe.  The one thing that has changed my life more than anything else, because it has made me aware of God's continual presence, is finding time every day, connecting with my spirit, my deepest concerns and musings, and listening to God's word to me.  This word often comes in a daily Bible reading.  But it also comes in other daily readings, or in the words of a song, or in the words of a friend or stranger.  But it always comes, and always in words.  I would not know God at all, if I did not take time to abide in the spirit, and if I did not open my ears, and my eyes, to God's message for me each day.

Dear God, thank you for John, and for his Gospel.  It resonates with my experience of you.  Your word is my daily bread.  And it fills me like no other food possibly can.  Love always, Pam