The Cloud of Unknowing

 

cloudy-fog-foggy-45222.jpg

“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed his disciples; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”   Luke 9:34

Among the classics in the Christian tradition, is a text written in the 14th century.  Anonymous, it is likely that it was written within the context of a monastic setting.  Though written in the Middle Ages as counsel for a young student whom the author knew well [1], it continues to be sought out as the definitive guidebook for those actively seeking a pathway to God.   But why was it called, “The Cloud of Unknowing?”

Unlike an aircraft or ship equipped with navigational instruments when caught within the grip of cloud or fog, both the disciples on the mountain that day with Jesus, and the writer who composed this classic – encountered the disorientation that can seize even the most rational of folk when there is no other point of reference to fall back on.

Writes the monk who crafted this ancient text,

When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. […] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after [God] whom you love. For if you are [to expereince union with God], it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness. [2]

So what happened that day when accompanying their master and teacher up to a mountaintop, Jesus’ followers witnessed not only the unfathomable but became so overwhelmed that they were terrified?

Have you ever had an experience (be it a severe accident, illness or natural disaster) – that rendered you unable to respond given the magnitude of what was happening?    Have you ever felt so disoriented, that whatever responses you may have been able to muster at that moment – were inadequate in the face of what was happening?   Was there ever a time when you found yourself caught fast in the grip of not knowing what would come next?

Perhaps rather than reducing the divine to something tangible and familiar, the God who loves us beyond our imagining – desires that we move beyond comfortable and sentimental categories – to that realm where it is as we are in darkness, even in that cloud of unknowing?   What if all our powers of reason, rationalizing and justifying, are insufficient to save us?    What if the love we need to complete us, evades every category we’ve (out of our insufficiency) have unwittingly ascribed to it?

As seekers of God, what if the “cloud of unknowing” is the place where all of us must begin?

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016), pg. 122.

[2] William Johnson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing: and the Book of Privy Counseling (July 1, 1996)

 

 

 

 

When Your Neighbor is also Your Enemy

7e2d5d2d9120ee69ea0c1c24bf0fe3ee.png

“But I say…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”  Luke 6:27

“You shall love…your neighbor as yourself.”  Luke 10:27

Are those unable to impact either our lives or the lives of others, deserving of the designation of the enemy?   Or is it those who are close, in a position of influence and/or power and by all accounts should be trusted, who become one?

Think of the occasions when you’ve been hurt, maligned and/or betrayed.    Was it a person and or persons whom you didn’t know or were utterly distant from you?  Or was it someone or persons that were close, whom you trusted or whose values you thought corresponded with your own?

Blogger, Levi Rogers, writes,

“….[concerning enemies], Jesus wants to make it clear that our neighbors are everyone… even specifically, our enemies. So another way [of addressing love of neighbor, may be], to ask,  “Who is my enemy?” [1]

In other words, when Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question, “And just who is my neighbor?” by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus also addressed the necessity of loving our enemies.

Consider the racism, cruelty, deceit, and complicity being enacted by the current administration and those who further their policies.    Is it because they are behaving like enemies that makes the actions so egregious?  Or is it because they are violating the very tenants granted to them by their position and therefore are disregarding the vows they swore to uphold?

So this makes them our enemies, right?

But what if Jesus was teaching us, that our enemies are also our neighbors?    What then?

After directing his listeners to “love your enemies…and do good to those who hate you,” knowing they were likely resisting his words,  Jesus then asked his audience,  “Are you grinning ear to ear because you lavish love upon those who adore you?   Even your ordinary, run-of-the-mill sinner can pull this off.    Are you feeling smug because of the nice things you do for your friends?  Even the most obnoxious of sinners do this.   Are you feeling magnanimous because you loaned money to a person you know will repay you back (and quickly)?   Even the most miserly of sinners do this.”   [2]

What if Jesus wants us to be different than what the world expects?   While it is understandable to respond scornfully with those whose words and actions are contemptible OR tune out by ignoring their behavior, what if Jesus’ directive to love – takes us down an entirely different path?    One that refuses to respond with self-righteous indignation that can justify hateful words and actions.   One that promotes human dignity and respect, even if we feel like we’re the only one exercising it at the time.

What if we’re not only made in the image of God but are challenged to be “like” God?  No, not holier than thou – but full of compassion.  Not as aloof bystanders – but as active participants exercising deeds of mercy?

What if our enemies are also our neighbors?

 

 

[1] Levi Rogers, Who is My Enemy? (Sojourners Magazine: July 2013)

[2] The Gospel of Luke, 6:32-34, paraphrased

A Lasting Love Story

 

love-letter-icon-1080x675.jpg

Unison Prayer for The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  First Corinthians 15:20

Last week’s Valentine’s Day came and went, Holy One.   Whatever we received in the way of heart-shaped greetings, red & white carnations and sugared candies – are behind us now – if we received them at all.   Yet even so, there remains a part within that yearns for unconditional love and acceptance.  Sweeping pretense aside, we acknowledge that un-salved grief and deep-seated regrets accumulated throughout a lifetime have left their mark.

So taking us into your tender embrace, tell us a lasting love story.   One that we can carry in our hearts when those whom we have loved are lost.   One that remains when those we’ve loved could not care for us in return.   Tell us a story of love that endures, one that we can carry as a song in our hearts, one that lifts us from disquiet and renews our confidence once more.

And because You are “…the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” we know this request is not beyond You.   You are the conceiver, author, and communicator of the most amazing, most lasting love story of all.   And we adore You.   Amen.

Nothing less than the handiwork of God

gods-handiwork-kathy-white.jpg

Recently, I learned of a woman who fled her homeland with her children.    However, even as they fled from the violence the mother grew anxious.   Would she be able to find shelter?   Could she secure sufficient food for her family after they arrived?

Still in the days and weeks that followed  – and through receiving assistance from people of faith – the necessary housing and groceries came through.    Overwhelmed by the generosity of those whom she had never met before, humbled by the kindness extended by people she did not know, she received all this as nothing less than the handiwork of God.

Of late, I’ve read articles attesting to the importance of those who profess to follow Christ – to remember that Jesus started a movement.   Yes, there are incidents of those whom he had healed “worshipping” him and yes, his closest disciples and others were in awe of how his presence and power could co-exist with such humility.   However, Jesus never issued “worshipping” him as a commandment.    Instead his words to his disciples then as now are, “Follow me.”

What if Jesus not only started a movement, but by doing so radically altered the lives of those engaged in it?    What if Jesus not only challenged the institutions, policies and practices that perpetuated wanton violence, greed and scapegoating BUT was equally if not more invested in completely changing the mindset of his followers?  What then?

Imagine if those closest to us – those who’ve seen us at our crabby, obnoxious, self-centered worse  – might catch a glimpse of the holy even in the likes of us?    OK, so it is a brief moment.   But imagine if a better, nobler and more genuine reflection of our God-given self were to emerge?  No, not a holier than thou, tiresome, self-righteous kind of person, but one who genuinely strives to be a follower of Christ Jesus.  Who despite the rampant cruelty and gluttonous self-interest that continues to be unleashed, takes a different path.  Who practices deeds of mercy and kindness.  Who knows that all of God’s children need to be loved as dearly as our own.

Imagine if others could catch a glimpse of the holy even in the likes of us.

Imagine becoming nothing less than the handiwork of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

O God, Deliver Me from Distraction

unnamed.png

     These past days, the news has been particularly distracting…if not downright deafening.   It is as if nothing else matters.    Nor are people of faith immune to such onslaughts, particularly when it comes to discerning what is important.

     We know there are matters that require our immediate attention.  There are circumstances that necessitate reassessing and reprioritizing our time and resources.  Then there are those situations that challenge our most deeply held values.

     But how do people of faith discern what is best, when the distraction becomes a cacophony?

     Thankfully, we are not without help in this regard.    Could it be that the very practices we are asked to do as Christians: regular worship, communal and contemplative prayer, reading and listening to scripture, offering our gifts, laboring for justice, fellowship and caring for one another – is what puts us on the path to deliverance?  Could it be that when we engage in these practices, we are allowing God’s Spirit to work within us?    

     Yes, these past days, if not weeks and months, have been distracting.    Yet God’s deliverance can strengthen us, teaching that all consuming distractions and the demands that go with them – are not in keeping with following Christ.  Instead, God-in-Christ offers each of us an alternative: a daily decision to live by God’s mercy, justice and peace, steadfastly putting each of us on the path that leads to life. 

A House Divided – Mark 3:25

(The Rev. Dr. William Barber is barred by a State Trooper at the entrance to the Kentucky State Capitol.  Photo attributed to Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus, used with permission)

Image result for protest at Kentucky State Capitol“[This past week] conjured up images of the dark days of the past. Peaceful protesters nose-to-nose with police officers in places like Selma and Birmingham and Little Rock and Greensboro.  But this wasn’t the 1950s or 1960s.  And it wasn’t in the Deep South.  It was Monday at the Kentucky state Capitol.  And it was troubling.” J.Gerth, Courier-Journal

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every house divided against itself shall not stand”  Mark 3:25 KJV

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech before 1,000 delegates in Springfield, Illinois.   Held in the statehouse for the annual Republican Convention, the delegates chose young Abraham to be their State Senator.   It was three years prior to the start of the Civil War.    At 8pm that evening, Lincoln stepped to the podium to deliver his address.  At once, his remarks set him apart from what incumbent and opponent, Stephen Douglas, had long advocated.  For by exposing the fallacy that a growing nation could peacefully coexist as both slave and free – Lincoln speech delved into the ensuing crisis – using Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free….Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it…or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”

While one of Lincoln’s most memorable quotes, neither he or Jesus received good press at the time for saying it.   In Lincoln’s case, quoting Jesus that evening likely cost him the election to the Senate that fall.    In Jesus’ case, while successfully refuting his opponents, the authorities waged a malicious campaign to publicly discredit him as a sorcerer, a deviant and generally speaking, a completely unhinged man.    Small wonder Jesus’ biological family sought to abruptly have him stop doing what he was doing, so he could quietly return home for good.

So why did Jesus respond to his critics by employing the image of a house divided?

Because his words countered not only the absurdity of his opponent’s charges but exposed the shifting demographics in his day, where the most vulnerable were burdened with escalating economic disparity and homelessness in ancient Near East:

Observes Jeanne C. Tate, “The social order that the Hebrew people had known for centuries was in fact already crumbling. As the land peasant families had farmed for generations was consolidated into large estates, there was an exodus to the cities. Younger sons, in particular, were forced to leave behind the land of their ancestors for crowded and impoverished urban life.  [In the wake of traditional clans disappearing], Jesus was only pointing out the obvious: the people were indeed becoming a “house divided against itself.”

No, it isn’t 1950 or 1960.  And no, this didn’t take place in the deep south.   But the voices raised and hands of those pounding on the doors of justice will not be silenced.    And no house can remain divided for long.

 

A Prayer of Confession and Thanksgiving

“O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”  Isaiah 25:1

Sovereign God, we confess that as mortals, we forget.   We forget that our lives – while not as precarious as other creatures – is nevertheless short-term.   There is no permanency clause, no stipulations requiring that when we die, it will be on our terms.   No promises were and will be given as to the matter of our demise, either.   This knowledge is out of our reach and not at all within our domain.

So thank you, for this life with all its joys and disappointments, delights and devastating failures.   Thank you for the lives given us but more so, for pouring upon undeserving us the sweet, intoxicating love of your salvific grace.   Thank for not holding back your mercy for mere mortals and all creatures that inhabit this fragile planet, the one we call our earthly home.

Thank you for your inestimable patience, your tireless energy, and your unfathomable wisdom.   Thank for seeing beyond what any of us could imagine, but having the capacity to peer into the immediacy of our hearts.   Thank you for loving us, our families, neighbors, friends, former co-workers, bosses beyond all matter of understanding.   Thank you for extending that quality of mercy we cannot apply even to ourselves.

Thank you for the astonishing beauty of freshly fallen snow, that clings to tree trunks and rests on branches.   Thank you for its impermanence, its temporal quality and its paradoxical quality of its extravagant beauty juxtaposed against the bitter cold.   Thank you for gracing us with the seasons meant to regulate life – even as we wantonly undermine the very facets of the earth’s atmosphere designed to preserve it.

Thank you for listening to the endless petitions that are lifted up to you, prayers from distraught, grieving and weary souls.   Thank you for not dealing back to those who curse you and your name, and utter all manner of falsehood and depravity against you.   Thank you for continuing to hold your children – even when we forget you, exploit you for our own selfish purposes and outright lie in order to preserve the very falsity that is destroying us.

Thank you most of all for being God: all-powerful and all vulnerable, unknown but accessible to all; older than the universe but younger than a newborn child.

Thank you for being all that you are, for endowing us with an inalienable birthright as your children and loving us through it all.   Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

Amen.

 

Matters of Conscience

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be a good citizen.  All governments are under God.” Romans 13:1 The Message

As referenced recently in the Boston Globe, “…23 prominent Christian leaders – issued a manifesto,” at a website unapologetically called, ReclaimingJesus.org.”

Citing the undermining of the soul of our nation, these faith leaders affirmed, “When politics undermines our theology, we must examine those politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out.”

On numerous occasions, I’ve heard it said in church circles that politics does not have a place in the church.    Fearing the division that can accompany this subject, understandably congregants wish to avoid a potential conflagration by steering clear of topics deemed controversial and thereby, a threat to the unity of fellowship.   Yet as the above affirmation indicates, it would do us well to pay heed to the unique role the church is asked to assume relative to government.

Written back in approximately 57-58 AD, the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans (the early Christian church in Rome), is often cited when people of faith ponder the matter of allegiance.   Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there are no authorities that exist except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.   Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed…” (Romans 13:1-2, NRSV).

So what does this say to those of us who are activists?

It is important to note that while Paul wrote this letter as a Roman citizen, his work as the architect of the early Christian Church put him in conflict with the ruling authorities.   Such that even while he counsels, “Let every person be subject to the ruling authorities,” he promptly declares that the ultimate allegiance of the Christian belongs NOT to Caesar but God!   It was a brilliantly worded but resounding contradiction that lay the groundwork for the Christian’s identity and where their allegiance ultimately must rest.

Which brings us to the matter of conscience.   Wrote Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk, and famed author, “Conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.”   It is that interior aptitude, intuition or inner compass that guides us in our decision making.   At its best, conscience arises out of the “better angels” of our nature, imbuing our lives with divine purpose while actively seeking the common good for all of God’s people.

Wrote the 23 faith leaders who issued a manifesto, “The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ.”   Indeed, if “conscience is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our lives,” then despite the enormous hurdles facing us – let trust that in Christ God’s illumination is at hand.

From Jesus to Christ

“Now among those who went up to worship at the [Passover] festival were some [non-Jews].  They came to Philip [one of Jesus’ disciples]…and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The Gospel of John 12:20-21

Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janerio, Brazil

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world.

While a local engineer designed the statue and another sculptor created the work, a different artist was explicitly commissioned to create its face. It was this face – the face of Christ – that made the final sculptor, Gheorghe Leonida, famous.

It is not uncommon to think of Christ as being Jesus’ last name.  However, Christ is not a name but a title, meaning anointed.  So there is the name, Jesus, as in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to impoverished refugees during the reign of Emperor Augustus somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.  Living for thirty-three years, and executed as a common criminal – some scholars speculate that Jesus was not afforded the dignity of a tomb but instead buried in a shallow grave.

In sharp contrast, there is Jesus’ title, Christ, for whom the early architect of the Christian church, the Apostle Paul, describes as, “[the One] who holds it all together.” In other words, “…everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible…everything got started in him and found its purpose in him.” Colossians 1:19 & 15

Am I the only one who has trouble reconciling the two?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was welcomed by a crowd of people during the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem (what we customarily call Palm Sunday). Following this, two men of Greek origin (guys clearly outside the Jewish diaspora) approached a couple of Jesus’ disciples. “Can we see Jesus?” they asked.

Excited that outsiders expressed interest in meeting their leader and rabbi, the two disciples quickly sought Jesus out and breathlessly relayed this message. But Jesus’ reply must have both astonished and confounded them, as it does us millennia later.

Signally that his public and earthly ministry was coming abruptly to an end, Jesus said,
“My time is up. The time has come for the Human One to be glorified (exalted).” John 12:23
Then describing how a single kernel wheat must be buried in the ground if it is to flourish and multiply, Jesus tries to explain once again not only what is about to happen to him, but why.

Franciscan writer and teacher, Richar Rohr, emphasized that while Christian orthodoxy taught that Jesus was both “fully human AND fully divine” at the same time, the best any of us mortals could do was see ourselves as only human…with Jesus as only divine.  Only by doing so, “we missed the whole point, which puts the two together in him AND then dare to discover the same mystery in ourselves and all of creation.” We were never intended to be mere spectators, standing on the sidelines.

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world. Yet it is the face – the face of Christ – that pulls scores of people to it.

Writes Frederick Buechner, author of, The Hungering Dark, “[t] here is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for a moment…there can only be silence as something comes to life…”

What comes to life is this startling recognition.

We know this face.

It is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Christ. The One who came and comes still.

Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage

 

%d bloggers like this: