Oct. 27, 2019
I’m pretty sure that we cannot think our way into God encounters. We can think our way into the type of God we want to encounter, but that’s not the same as an actual encounter. We cannot work our way into these encounters either, as the Pharisee in our parable today seems to attempt. If God is truly other – Creator and not created – then there’s no way that our actions could force God to show up or earn us what can only be freely and graciously given. Because God is not contingent upon humanity, the only way for us to get God is for us to be given God.
This may sound like something you’ve heard before, but that’s likely because that seed of works-righteousness seems to keep finding fertile soil in our lives. We still bargain with God all the time, probably because we live in a world of trade and it’s hard to imagine a different way. I think of Linda who made a lemon meringue pie for everyone who visited the church. By all counts she was a saint, and not just for the pies, but she admitted to me once that there was a burden to her baking. She did it because she wanted God to like her. There was the guy who was convinced that his son needed surgery because his prayer life wasn’t fervent enough. Just recently I was talking to someone who had spent the week praying and consuming only water in hopes of gaining salvation. These may seem extreme, but I would bet that we all have our own ways of doing what we can to manipulate grace.
Philip Yancey was once asked what you need to do to be saved. He said, I think rightly, you need to ask for help. In other words, you need to depend on something other than yourself. No amount of doing what you are supposed to do will do it.
Jesus asks, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And, then he goes into this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, giving us the opportunity to think about what exactly it means to live a life of faith. Christian Wiman is an author who does a good job of that. He always somehow manages to inspire me and challenge me at the same time. In his latest book he writes, “The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined faith as primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith. We remember these moments of heightened awareness in our lives, these clearings within consciousness in which faith is self-evident and God too obvious and omnipresent to need that name, and we try to remain true to them.”[i]
Since he’s a poet he provides supporting verse. This is by Norman MacCaig.
Space opens and from the heart of the matter
sheds a descending grace that makes,
for a moment, that naked thing, Being,
a thing to understand.[ii]
But, ultimately, we are talking about a moment, not a constant. Faith is life with hope that is guided and informed by that moment. It is a living according to the truths revealed by that moment. As much as I want to think that the life of faith is a deep and abiding awareness of an ever present God, I can definitely relate to experiencing God in moments instead and striving to let the lessons of those moments guide the times in between. The truth is that there is an unknowing to faith. There’s a trust that we cultivate because of the momentary knowings that we are granted.
That said, because God is a deep and abiding God, a God of incarnation and presence, I do believe that the moments don’t have to be so rare and far apart. In fact, that’s where today’s parable becomes so important. The humility that it calls us to is a confession that we don’t generate our God experiences, but instead we empty ourselves in order to receive them. Humility isn’t the injunction to be a doormat or the exalting of timidity. Actually, it is the opposite. It is the calling to boldly trust ourselves and our salvation (or our being made right in the eyes of God) to God and not to our own efforts. In other words, it is far more important to be open than perfect. The way to be righteous is to ask for help, not to show that you don’t need it.
In a recent reflection on knowing God Richard Rohr was lamenting a shift that he’s perceived in the work of the Church. Instead of cultivating an intellectualized thinking of God the Church used to work more actively to offer practices that opened people to a deeper knowing. It was in the business of forming people who were capable of receiving and perceiving God in their midst. In my more cynical moments I worry that most people feel too busy for these kinds of practices, or perhaps they aren’t even interested. Is it the case that we (our collective or cultural we) have gotten so removed from such practices that we no longer know what they are or care for their results? I hope not.
You know, our Nourish Bridgeport nights aren’t simply opportunities to go out and do something nice for someone. They are more than charity nights or service opportunities. They important for us because they are valuable forms of practice. The routine of going out and serving is really a spiritual discipline designed to humble us by getting us outside of ourselves and our needs, and opening us to the presence and action of God. It occurred to me this last time around though that unless we see it that way it likely won’t be that way.
So, this time I emailed the group of babysitters and soup kitchen servers and asked if and how they perceived God in their time at Nourish Bridgeport. I didn’t include my own answer because honestly, I didn’t know right off the bat. I was worried afterwards when I didn’t get a response. Are we so accustomed to doing without actually practicing, acting without intentionally availing ourselves, that we’ve forgotten how to encounter God? That was my fear, and hoping it wasn’t the case, I took a crack at answering my own question.
Here’s what I wrote: “As I watched Michelle lead our parachute games I saw a softness in her eyes, patience, and affection (despite the difficulties of getting everyone to listen.) We all need to be looked at in such a way because those are moments that remind us of the way God sees us. Also, in the chaos of that upper room my friend Amanda sat and started coloring. It seemed to me that the act of creativity drew others to her into what became a small circle of artists. There’s something about people joining together in creativity for its own sake that makes me feel connected to a God who creates out of simple love and joy. And finally, Not sure of my next move in that upper room, I sat for a moment on the floor and a plastic car bumped into my leg. A little girl had rolled it to me. So, I rolled it back and we played that way for a few minutes before she moved on. I loved her lack of reservation. I was instantly included, instantly seen as a play partner. I’m not sure we always assign that much grace to God. Often, we insert contingencies. But, we shouldn’t.”
In writing my response I remembered that part of the practice of opening to God is the sharing. As I shared, I owned the experience and discovered the “more” that was part of it. And, soon others shared as well. Two noted the boost they felt following that night, a kind of inspiration that propelled them out of one place and into another, more inspired place. Another talked about the sense of feeling humbled and grateful and part of a community in which everyone, even those being served, were gifted. A new and special kind of community had been created.
The humbling that this person talked about wasn’t a depleting kind of humbling. It was, instead, an empowering opening up to work that was beyond our own in the midst of our own. And, that’s how I hope we’ll see all of what we do. We are here to practice through our worship, through our prayer, through our service, through our fellowship, through our outreach. We are here to practice the surrender of self so that like the tax collector in the story we might receive much more than self.
[i] “He Held Radical Light,” page 34
[ii] Page 31