Pruning Enlightenment (John 15:1-8, 5th Sunday of Easter)

My yard calls me outside every weekend with its tangle of lush, wild growth. It’s spring, just as it’s spring in the joy of the fifty-day Festival of Easter. Does that mean it’s time to spring into action? Not yet. It’s time to BE – to be embedded in the great miracle and mystery of the oneness we share in the living vine of Christ and to allow God to do the necessary tending of the body we are together. The I AM is expressed in the well-pruned we are of the one body.

Contrary to how ‘enlightenment’ is  often seen in modern American culture – an achievement signaling arrival at the pinnacle – this  new dawning of light simply signals another season of growth. Awakening to our essential unity and gifting for the work of God in the world does not mean we are ready to enact it. The old ways of seeing and being still lie close at hand, something like the phantom limbs in the body  memory of an amputee.  It takes times for the new reality to penetrate our life together. Without that time, we run the risk of pouring the new energy and perception into old forms that serve the small self.

Rather than being purified into enlightenment, our enlightenment needs purification. In the same way a living grapevine needs pruning over and over again throughout its productive life, so does our common life. That’s the wisdom of the great, repeating cycle of Quadratos. The annual practice of praying Lent as our communal story opens into Easter, awakening and reawakening us to the essential unity we already are. In the words of Thomas Merton, “We are already one.  But we imagine that we are not.  And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we already are.” (The Asian Journal).

The practices of the journey plant us in the soil of ongoing life in which we touch and retouch that deep truth. To bear fruit out of this truth, we need a master gardener who knows well the art of pruning. Growth is to be disciplined (the same root as the word disciple) rather than being left to its own natural state. Not all shoots are equal; the question is which ones will bear the most fruit and the fruit of highest quality in a particular environment. Why? The new life given is not merely for our own building up but is fuel for eventual service in a hungry world. First, our enlightenment needs pruning.

Rather like steps 6 and 7 step of the 12 step process, the work of pruning is God’s work, not ours. It is the nature of our personal and communal life that we are unable to assess what has ultimate value. The annoying shoot we would lop off may be what is most needed for the eventual health and productivity of the Body in a changing world. Following honest self examination and confession of how it is with us (something like the work of the annual Lenten retreat), the 6th step says simply “Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character.” This is followed by step 7, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” Our part is to allow ourselves to be acted upon by BEING ready and then asking God for the necessary pruning.

Our primary work in this season of Easter joy is to abide, a word that appears eight times in four verses. Throughout the Festival season, we are to dwell in the Gift we have received, trusting the pruning of the Spirit to reveal what in us is gift and what needs to be let go or refined. Trust is key; there is no need for hyper-vigilance. The pruning is not a radical rooting out as much as attentiveness to creative purpose: “You have already been cleansed [pruned] by the word [Logos] that I have spoken to you.” The Logos is a living word that creates afresh with us for good beyond what we can now see. What we can ‘do’ in the meantime is to abide in our essential and newly reclaimed unity. Definitions of the word abide (μένω or menō in Greek) all resonate with the need to remain, to tarry, to continue to be. Most especially in this season we are to remain as one, not to become another or different oneness.” (Strong’s G3306)

What a charge! In this season, brothers and sisters in the One Body, let us stay, tarry, remain, BE who we already are, trusting the loving hand of the Gardener to shape us together toward a greater fruitfulness than we can now imagine.

When Grace Lurches (Mark 11:1-11 & John 12:12-16)

Praying Mark’s approach to the impending passion with a small group last week yielded an eye-opening “A hah!” There are four very different flavors to the texts read over the different years on Palm Sunday, each with its own tone and tasks. When Lent is prayed as the annual retreat of the beloved community, the stories of this Sunday carry us through the gate where we face – again – our own death in our own Jerusalem. This particular one is the death that awaits us through the experience of pathless suffering epitomized by Mark.

Here’s some of what we noticed followed by possible reflections for a community on the 6th Sunday of its annual retreat:

In Mark’s version the Christ is no longer straddling the two animals of Matthew’s first movement (a donkey and a foal, perhaps representing the splitting impossibility of riding both the old vehicle and the new at the same time). The invitation presented by Matthew is for the community to turn from the old vehicles that have allowed goodness to blossom and to undertake a journey on an untried vehicle with an unknown destination. The one thing known is that the road leads to Jerusalem; the ‘gate’ to the new life is through death. In a felt way, the long struggle of Mark is the process of letting go into the death of what was.

To the outer eye this part of the journey is strikingly ungraceful, something like we see in Mark when Jesus the Christ enters Jerusalem riding “a colt that has never been ridden.” One member of our group who spent her summers working at a horse camp makes the point that an untried colt is a wild animal — jumpy, anxious, unpredictable, and given to bucking. Put someone on it and people around it shouting and waving things and you have a circus. This ride was anything but stately. The point is that the ‘new way’ emerging from the death of the old has no tried and true elegance or easy grace of the sort that comes when we’ve done a thing countless times and know how to do it well. In this movement grace lurches.

What’s important is that the journey be undertaken, regardless. Mark’s story has a detail missing in any other Palm Sunday text: “They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.” Remember, Mark’s Roman community is the one living in fear of the knock on the door that will announce tearing choices to be made. If you are discovered to be Christian, you and your family will be taken to Nero’s circus and killed by wild animals as entertainment. Or you can betray the faith and the community that gives you life by naming another family who will go to their death. Either way is sure death; the first death is physical and the second is a living death that is both spiritual and social. Mark 8:35 was real for this community: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

It would be tempting to hide in terror behind locked doors trying to stave off the moment of reckoning. But this untried colt of Palm Sunday is near a door, outside in the street. Hiding in fear is no salvation. Come out into the public street and face your terror and your death because this is the way to life. Ride this untried Way, as graceless as it may appear, in trust that it is the Way to Life. Christ leads the way.

Another detail unique to Mark is what happens upon Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem. Nothing much! “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Rather than building to the expected crescendo, the action peters out.

It’s resonant with the slowed down pace of the second path which I often liken to swimming in taffy. It can seem like there’s a lot of jerky uncoordinated movement, something like riding an unbroken colt, followed by a general sense of  vagueness. Why are we here? What now? Unlike Matthew and Luke when action is closer at hand, it takes awhile to build to a cleansing of the temple.

The wonderful counterpoint read on this Sunday is in John’s account which comes on the heels of the raising of Lazarus. There is not a lot of story line; just the response of the people to the one whose reputation precedes him. The Christ of the Cosmos, the living Breath from the time before time simply responds to what is welling up in the people. He finds himself a young donkey to ride and sits on it, heading into his personal death unafraid. He’s unruffled and in charge. It’s a grounding, hopeful reminder of whose great Pattern it is we walk, something the disciples didn’t see and remember until much later. The Good News is that the Living Breath of the Holy is breathing the whole pattern in the times we’re aware and the times we’re stumbling along. It’s not all up to us.

Possible reflection questions for a community in Mark:

  1. How do we as community hold our own times of lurching along without knowing where we’re going or how to get there?  (Are we trying to force a level of orderliness that isn’t right for the time, i.e. a strategic planning process for the future when the task is to ride an untried colt ungracefully into our own death together?)
  2. What is our collective response to the ‘nothing much’ moments when there’s uncoordinated movement followed by a general sense of vagueness and maybe even let down?  Does it signal to us  that there’s something wrong (that needs to be fixed) or can we hold the possibility that such times may be part of a necessary season?  How do we consciously work with and through the seasons of not-knowing and vagueness along the second path?
  3. What does “facing our own death together” look like? Do we hide behind closed doors trying to stave off notice? Are we able to come out into the “public” street with one another, becoming visible with who we are, what we know and what we don’t know?
  4. How are we trying to “save our life” and what is the cost?  How are we riding into losing our life and what does that look like?

 

No Bargains with Awakening (Lent 4, John 3:14-21)

Something is clearly in motion in the bridge from temple cleansing (John 2) to the powerful declaration of God’s life-giving, love-breathing purpose in sending and lifting up the Living Christ in the world in John 3. Earlier in this chapter we meet Nicodemus, a leader of the mother tradition which has given birth to Jesus the Christ, who is both a son of humanity and a son of the tribe. Nicodemus comes by night, the birthplace of the new day, to engage this perplexing, promising “teacher who has come from God.” In the natural world the new day always begins in darkness that will yield inevitably to growing light. In the vast world of the human heart-mind-will the movement from darkness to light is not so assured. We can resist the loving action of God, keeping our eyes closed tight in a bid to hang on to yesterday’s truth.

Nicodemus wants something from the encounter with Jesus, perhaps a little theological clarification on what is churning in his soul so he can return satisfied to who he already is. He gets more than he bargains for: a challenge to yield to his own ongoing conversion. So do we if we allow the powerful words of God’s loving purpose in sending the Christ to penetrate our places of stubborn unconsciousness (darkness) and to draw us toward wider awakening as the living body of Christ. The conversion of the good to the wider, deeper good is the hardest conversion of all. We are Nicodemus. If we are to be the living Body of Christ, we need to be born again into a wider awakening. Our growth in Christ is never finished, an upending reality. Awakening is profoundly unsettling.

Taking these words of challenge to our own heart is part of the work of the annual Lenten retreat of the living temple/body of Christ we are; like Nicodemus we too are asked to yield again and again to new birth. It’s what brings us more deeply into right relationship with one another and opens us afresh to our participation in the kingdom of God so we can BE the attractive aroma of Christ in the world. It helps to remember that this is a work of partnership. There’s the creative gift of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” This God is always reaching out for us, drawing us in fuller awakening (‘light’) so that our world might be freed from slaveries (‘darkness’) of every kind. We are made to participate in real, unquenchable Life together. Then there’s our part – the necessary annual cleansing of the temple that comes from our willing reflection on the ways we break or dull the radiance of the community.

In this hard, necessary work of re-setting our intention, the Human One (Son of Man) is lifted up for us something like the bronze serpent God commanded Moses to make and place on his staff (Numbers 21). The purpose of the “lifting up” in Hebrew scriptures is to save an increasingly rancorous people from a plague of poisonous snakes invading their life, biting and killing them. Jewish midrash likens the venomous bites to slander. Blame and complaint had embittered the exodus people, something with dangerous consequences for a community on the move from an old life into a not-yet-seen new life. The cure for slander-bite was to turn from wherever the victim was in the encampment and to fix one’s gaze upon the bronze snake. Stop, turn, gaze, breathe, reground, re-member and live. The community needed a focal point to remember they were people of the promise, together.

So do we. Our focal point is the love of God that lifts up the Human One to our gaze “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There are strong similarities between the quality of fixing one’s gaze on the bronze snake and the deeper meaning of ‘believe.’ Sara Little says this: “Belief is not the same thing as thought, and believing is not the same thing as thinking… Our belief is close to what Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset meant with his reference “not to ideas which we have but with ideas which we are.” In fact the term credo, translated from early creeds as “I believe” literally means “I set my heart.” (To Set One’s Heart: Belief and Teaching in the Church)

The annual retreat called Lent is a time to set our heart again as community on the loving action of God in Christ that will not allow us to rest in what we’ve been, but calls us again and again to new birth, together. There are a thousand ways to kill community; there is one sure way to heal it and re-member it. We must turn our gaze to the living Christ in our midst who is no mere idea or proposition but a Reality that brings healing and knits the community into a vibrant Presence.

We have nothing to lose except our blindness and pinched parochialisms as we open eyes to a new dawn: “Those who do what is true come to the light [wider awakening] so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” The ‘doing what is true’ is the humble act of opening one’s heart in vulnerability to God in community, trusting that our limited perceptions and many missteps are not the final word. There’s no need to defend our hardened positions or why we’ve acted as we’ve acted. To do so is to refuse to allow the dawn of new light to infuse our darkened understanding.  We don’t have to be perfect given the grace that allows us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with one another as fallible human beings on the Way. Then we become the aroma of Christ in a world which can declare with amazement, “See how they love one another!” Then our faith is not something which we have, but something which we are.

 

On Discerning & Muzzling the Spirits in Chaos (Mark 1: 29-39)

We’ve dropped into the fast-moving first chapter of Mark with the ancient Christian community of Rome as chaos swirls all around. It’s a mirror for their life and ours whenever circumstance propels us into the trackless wilds where the old is gone and the new is not yet come.

First John ‘appears’ as a wild man in a wild place who offers a cleansing ritual in open, moving water, wild water. People come out of their everyday lives to be washed of whatever they carry. Jesus of Nazareth is one and receives the direct personal revelation, “You are my Son the Beloved,” before the same Spirit drives him even further into the wilderness. This driving to wrestle with temptation seems an important prelude to his coming encounter with negative  spirits and with clamoring crowds as he moves to ministry.

Revelation is a mixed bag. It blesses us – “Beloved!” – and then drives us with Christ into deep wrestling with all manner of spirits inside us and around: spirits of the over-culture in which we live, of the family and faith which forms us, and of our own personal wounding and humanity. All must be discerned as some align with the Way of God and some confuse or separate us from that life-giving intent.

In this opening chapter of the second ‘movement’ of Grace, Christ appears and the spirits pop out. “The whole city” gathers around the door at Sabbath’s end, illnesses and possessions in plain sight. Whatever feeds on the life of the people — whether in a place of religious gathering or in the intimacy of a home – is revealed. It cannot stay hidden. All manner of illness, dis-ease, and distortions of spirit are laid bare for healing and for freedom of individuals and community.

It’s good news embodied, and has to be unnerving. It simultaneously awakens hope (there’s release!); the potential for shame or blame (an unclean spirit in our midst?); and desperate need. We touch here the dance of hope and despair. As Thomas Merton described in A Message of Contemplatives to the World, “I have been summoned to explore a desert area of [the] heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky, dark land of the soul… And in this area I have learned one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.”

‘Sleep’ narcotizes the pain of mundane life. Wake up to the deeper reality of God alive in our midst here/now and watch wonder, bottomless hunger, and all manner of mischief simultaneously erupt. Revelation is apocalyptic, literally in the meaning of the word and figuratively in the sense that good news shakes everything in an already shaken world. If we’re looking for things to go back to ‘normal’ this isn’t it. Mark preaches the good news of God’s nearness to a community being torn apart by the depravity of the Roman Empire. There’s no going back to a time before Nero’s blood-lust targeted Christian Jews for destruction. There’s only going forward. Can they endure it? Can we as we face into our own like times?

It helps to remember that the revelatory work of Christ restores and strengthens right relationship with God, self, and community, a gift especially needed in times of chaotic tearing. Taking the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and lifting her up from her immobilizing fight with infection restores her to participation in her family and community. Hope is rekindled and a hunger for healing is awakened.

Healing work necessarily includes recognizing and casting out spirits that do not and cannot participate in this restorative activity. As in the synagogue, Mark’s Jesus is resolute in silencing such spirits because they knew him. Having come so recently from his own encounter with the Adversary he is unwilling to be seduced into public engagement. His period of testing took place in the deep long-term grounding of solitude, silence, fasting and prayer, which is a completely different environment. These spirits do know him, including perhaps his vulnerabilities. They draw public attention now because they are LOUD, direct, and carry some truth. It’s a dangerous mix, and he refuses to be seduced.* Mark’s Jesus simply commands these spirits to ‘be muzzled’ in the root meaning. It’s the same word used in his later address to the roaring of the stormy sea: “Peace, be muzzled.” Noise and clamor do not assist the work of grace.

Then, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed” until his worried companions eventually found him. This passage occurs only in Mark, when the swirling chaos has the greatest power to derail. This Jesus, the community in Nero’s Rome, and we ourselves in chaotic upheaval must return often and with great intention to the depths of solitude, silence and prayer.

Why? Hope awakened can easily turn in a false direction. The disciples are hunting Jesus as are the townsfolk. They doubtless want him to come back and do more. He could stay in this one place the rest of his life meeting bottomless need. That’s not how God works; it would create a childish dependency. The God revealed in Christ seeks partners not dependents in healing and transforming the world.

Having re-immersed into prayer the way he immersed into the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus is clear. His response is this: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” There’s no going back, and there’s no remaining in inertia. On this wild way of the second path, there is only going on, step by step, together, in trust that the wilderness through which we sojourn is Christ-with-us.

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*I cannot resist noting how much this stance addresses our public life in the USA right now. What if we did not make ourselves available to the incessant, loud drumbeat of partial truths masquerading as public interest? Perhaps the practice in chaos is to refuse audience to what stokes fear, anxiety, and incessant outrage and polarizes us into either/or camps. Let us immerse instead into the depths of prayer. Mark Nepo says that to listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be transformed by what we hear. May we grow in that life-giving capacity.

To Pierce So As To Live (Luke 2:22-40*)

An unlikely and sparse ‘family’ – Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna – assembles for the dedication of the new baby to God’s purpose early in Luke’s account. In common is a devout Jewish faith that opens them to mysterious promptings of the Spirit. They are two men, two women; two old, two young; two strangers, two intimates; two acting in obedience to the law of Moses, two moved by the Spirit; all 4 together blessing a singular young life to God.  Four, four, four, four, one.  It’s like a drumbeat that runs beneath the narrative revealing the many opposites held together in the unlikely community of Luke’s audience: a new family cast out of the old forms that brought them here, yet participant in the revelation of something immense that God is doing.

This kind of immensity is not cozy, but apocalyptic at both personal and social levels. The word revelation  (literally apocalypsis) occurs twice in this passage. While the simple meaning is to uncover what has been hidden, the effect of that uncovering shakes both inner and outer structures.

The apocalypse is first glimpsed in Simeon’s announcement that the long-promised salvation  of God  is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The ‘consolation of Israel’ for which Simeon has been waiting and praying as a Jewish man breaks open into a wider ‘we’ that includes Gentiles. It’s not a sullying of God’s chosen people, but a reflection of their radiance. It’s both beautiful and shattering in the way only Grace can be. The new wholeness and integration totally disrupts the old forms. While old Simeon wants simply to ‘depart in peace,’ those left to wrangle this new Way into being have a difficult work ahead of them.

So comes the word to the child’s Jewish mother, both Mary the individual mother of this particular child Jesus, and the ‘Jewish Mother’ of tradition through whose blood the people of the covenant have been defined to this point:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  (Luke 2:34-35)

This is the gift of God? It is.

The inner thoughts [literally dialogismos or the interior dialogue in which we ‘reckon up the reasons’ and come to conclusions] are the mental models that have preserved our life to bring us to this point of radical letting go. Can it be the nature of God to supply the meaning structures needed for growth and then to ask us to move beyond them for transformation?  Ask the caterpillar in the cocoon.

Yet, everything in us personally and socially screams, “No!” and the battle is joined. Jesus the Christ is “to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” What a job description! The struggle itself is the mechanism of grace that allows the deep work of the Holy to create a new thing with us and among us.

This Way is both costly and saving. What if this ‘piercing of the soul’ is to life, the way a living sperm pierces the integrity of an egg for creation of something new and greater than the sum of its parts? The old structures necessarily give way to allow the new life to bring its gift.

Perhaps in the dawning of the 8th day of creation that coincides with the turning of the civil year in the west, we can ask to have the inner thoughts of our hearts revealed for the purposes of Grace in our world today, and for the grace needed to allow the piercing of our souls toward new life. Now that’s a resolution!

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* This passage is one of the alternate readings for Christmas 1/ New Year’s Day in the year of Mark. Both second and fourth movements reveal aspects of the cost of the conscious journey.