Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fear Not

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.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.  --  John 3:16-17

These words from John's Gospel are so famous, so well-known -- though perhaps the second sentence is less well-known than the first -- that I almost hesitate to write about it.  I wonder if you are thinking right this moment..."Oh dear, not that again.  If I hear that verse one more time..."  Or, "Ho-hum.  I already know all about that.  Pass."   But I hope you will give me a chance to explain.  It's not what you think.  Or, let me re-phrase that... it's more than you think.

John 3:16 is a verse that has bothered me for a long time.  Because of the way many Christians use it.  Mostly I've heard it used to claim that those, and only those, who believe that Jesus is God's one and only Son, will go to heaven.  Everyone else is dammed to hell.  It's as if that verse is the only verse you need to know in the whole Bible.  Just pluck 3:16 out, and disregard the rest.  You don't even have to know anything else about Jesus:  just that he was God's only Son.  Believe that, and you're set for life, literally.

I don't buy that.  I actually think those words mean something totally different.  I actually think it means that if you believe Jesus, not just in Jesus, but what Jesus said and did, to the point that you followed what he said and did, then your life would be completely transformed for the better, the world would be transformed for the better. You would even know God -- for that is what Jesus said eternal life meant:  knowing God.

But as great a reward as that is, getting there is just too hard, and too scarey.   What???  I have to love God more than anything else?  More than my family?  More than any other desire or object?  And what else???  I have to put another's needs above my own?  I have to be willing to die for someone else???  It's no wonder that  Christians over the years have, as one person noted, taken the simple but hard Gospel and made it complicated but easy.

In many ways, following Jesus has made my life harder:  I have had to look honestly at myself for one, and I haven't always liked what I've found;  as I have grown and changed, I've had to face people unwilling for me to change; and I've had to stand up to people I love who are not being very loving to me, to themselves, or to others.  None of this has been easy.  For someone who would rather run away from conflict than face it, that last one has been the hardest of all.  There is such a strong core of self-preservation engrained in me (and in everyone else I'm sure), that it's always a struggle to release that hold and let any part of me die.

But, doing so has also made my life immeasurably better, and the lives of my family better, in ways that are so unexpected and so amazing, that I never fail to be surprised.  Truly, unless a seed dies and is buried, new life and sweet new fruit cannot grow.

That is what Jesus's life, his words, his deeds, his death on the cross, and his resurrection mean to me.  Jesus came to show us a better way of life, but one that required sacrificing that core of self-preservation that we all hold onto so dearly.  He came to teach this way to anyone and everyone who would listen.  All they had to do was believe him, trust him, and die to their old ways.  If they could do this, they would be born anew.  Jesus lived and died to show us this way, putting his absolute trust in God.  And no one was more surprised at his resurrection than the people who knew and loved him best.  I wonder if Jesus, too, was surprised.

For as I've learned to follow God, I've certainly surprised myself at what I have been able to do, at the fears I've been able to overcome.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get any easier.  As long as I live, I know I will have to face new hard things.  Speaking up, facing opposition, has always been the most difficult thing for me to do.  Maybe God always asks us to do the things we find the most difficult.  However, I have yet to be sorry.  I have only been sorry when I have clung to myself, instead of listening to God. 

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Journey

No matter what version we read, Mara does not go away.  There is no state of enlightened retirement, no experience of awakening that places us outside the truth of change.  Everything breathes and turns in its cycles.  --  Jack Kornfield*

"I've been here before."  I've been saying that to myself a lot lately.  I know I am a slow learner.  I know that it takes me awhile to sometimes "get" what God is trying to tell me.  I had thought, however, that once I "got it," it would stick.  But no.

I forget, and have to be reminded again.  Or the setting changes slightly, and the lesson has to be learned as if for the first time.  For example, I learn to value unity in diversity, and then want to find a place where everyone thinks like I do -- again.   I learn to value my unique gifts, and then think God must have called the wrong person -- again.  I learn that I need to get my ego out of the picture, and then don't listen to someone because I think I know more than they do.  Seriously.  I could go on.  It's a bit depressing.

My journey of faith has not been very straight-forward.  It has not been like a long, cross-country walk, exploring one new path, or seeing one new vista, after another.  I've been thinking lately that it's more like a spiral.  I seem to be always traversing the same areas, just from a slightly different point of view.  I have consoled myself with the thought that, well, if it's a spiral then maybe I'm getting closer to something.  Closer to God?  I don't think that's it.  I am as close to God as I want to be, now.  I know God is with me -- that, at least, is one lesson I haven't forgotten.  (Yet.)  So what am I spiraling toward?

My sister-in-law sent me Jack Kornfield's book, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry," for my birthday.  She's good at picking books for me as this was a book that I bought a long time ago for myself!  At first I thought about taking it to the used bookstore since I already have a copy, but then I wondered if I should actually read it instead --  you never know when God is trying to tell you something.  I'm glad I did because this book is shedding a lot of light on my journey. 

Kornfield fills his book with examples of spiritual seekers of all faiths who find integrating spiritual lessons into daily life very challenging.  In a chapter titled "The Fires of Initiation," he writes, "Some experience it as a slow spiral, a steady and repetitive remaking of inner being.  The heart gradually deepens in knowing, compassion, and trust through the hundred thousand repeated practices and heartfelt sincerity of a regular spiritual discipline.  ...learning the same teachings over and over again....  This is the slow way of initiation, putting yourself over and over into the condition of attention and respect, baking yourself in the oven repeatedly until your whole being is cooked, matured, transformed."( pg. 39)  Somehow, I find this comforting.  Perhaps, it's knowing that I'm not the only one. And that there is a purpose to it, after all.

Kornfield writes, "When the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich says she knows of no lover of God who is kept safe from falling, she is voicing the understanding that to descend is also God's will.  Whether we understand this or not, Mara does return.  The fall, the descent, and its subsequent humility can be seen as another form of blessing."  (pg. 131).  Mara represents temptation, but it is a kind that forces us to learn something essential. 

I found confirmed in this book something that I was just beginning to suspect:  that much of my difficulty is caused by ingrained habits of mind:  fear, jealousy, pride, sloth, -- those Seven Deadly Sins as they have sometimes been called.  It's not that I'm in the wrong place, or that I'm the wrong person, and I need to leave.  It's simply that these problematic habits of mind have got to go.  My hope is that the more I learn to let go of these habits, the more open my heart will be to simply following God's will.

In this respect, Mara can be viewed as a friend, instead of an enemy.  For she shows us what needs to be addressed to attain greater freedom for ourselves. And so, instead of beating myself up for again traversing the same territory, I need to recognize that I still have something new  to learn about myself.  And, maybe, the first thing I need to learn is to be more gentle towards myself on this journey.   

I am reminded of the book I am writing about my journey of faith.  It is about the lessons I started learning ten years ago.  Each lesson is paired with a walk, an actual walk that I took, that works as an analogy for that lesson.  I had thought that each walk would represent a specific lesson, but now I think that my journey of faith is composed of repeated walks along specific paths, perhaps even favorite paths, on which I always learn something new.

May your journey, too, be filled with new insights all along the way, and ...

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


from "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path," by Jack Kornfield (Bantam Books, 2000), pg. 124