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The Generosity of Spirit

Henri Nouwen’s daily devotional:

How does the Spirit of God manifest itself through us? Often we think that to witness means to speak up in defense of God. This idea can make us very self-conscious. We wonder where and how we can make God the topic of our conversations and how to convince our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues of God’s presence in their lives. But this explicit missionary endeavor often comes from an insecure heart and, therefore, easily creates divisions.

The way God’s Spirit manifests itself most convincingly is through its fruits: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). These fruits speak for themselves. It is therefore always better to raise the question “How can I grow in the Spirit?” than the question “How can I make others believe in the Spirit?”

It is through prayer, contemplation and love that we can overcome this anxiety of self-consciousness that leads us away from feeling God’s presence. Gradually, in our communion with God, however we enter into that, we tap into the abundant and boundless generosity of the Spirit within our heart. This Spirit can be so joyous, so comforting, so overwhelming as to immerse our entire being in this spirit–our heart, mind, soul and body. In this way, we enjoy our intimate relationship with God, we delight in it, we are transformed by it to where we feel this same intimate relationship with all of humanity and creation. In this transcendence of being in the living kingdom of heaven here and now, overlapping objective reality, we break through the prison of the human ego and no longer anxiously, self-consciously define our identity by the dominant measures of the world, by what we have, what we can do, or what people say about us. And in this breakthrough, we realize just how chained we are by our unconscious desires and habits to conform to the patterns of the world, to limit our sense of joy and blessedness to the strivings of possessive individualism.

Certainly, as God is the creator and author of all life, and he has proclaimed it good, our self-conscious instinctive desire to exalt in our own ego is also God-given. We are to feel the pleasure of using our mind and body to the fullest, in extraordinary ambition and daring and discipline devoted to discovery and creativity, to the very triumph of our own will in the arts, leadership, scholarship, science, innovation, business and labor. In every field of human endeavor, we are rightly called to exemplify excellence and virtue. This is truly the blessedness of life as created, governed and sustained by God. We feel pleasure in living true to our self, through the vehicle of the rebellious and obstinate ego, bringing all our gifts and abilities to full fruition in our competition of all against all.

But in God’s grace we become aware of an even greater blessedness of life–beyond the egoistic heights of achievement and power through our own gifts and abilities and virtues. For without God, all of these human endeavors lead merely to temporal treasures that do not last. We find even our strength and intellect and beauty as measured in the eyes of the world are fading and impossible to hold onto. We suffer and agonize over this eventual passing. Is this a cruel conceit of the human condition? We have an innate desire to seek human excellence, to achieve great things, only then to be mocked by the limits of our efforts and ability, by our very mortality, by our very weakness? And to see the treasures we have built up only to turn to rust and be eaten by moths?

And here it is that we are perhaps most surprised by God. With God we rejoice in an even greater blessedness that our ego points us to, our intimate kinship with God as beloved children of God. But our ego must die first before we can attain this kinship. In this new creation, we see the spiritual reality that all our abilities and gifts, even all our experiences and conditions, are from God to be used for his purposes and glory. We are to find our true fulfillment as instruments of God, building up his spiritual kingdom of heaven, and using our gifts to create and share the godly and eternal goods of love, peace, compassion, empathy, healing, caring, in solidarity with all of humanity and creation. Our individual gifts are thus transformed into our divine blessings to share with the world. They are not our own. We are to use them to better love and serve God and others. With this transformed heart, we build treasures that are truly eternal and lasting, in the people we touch, comfort, heal and love. We in our own unique and original way add to the body of Christ, to the multitudes who live in this body, past, present and future. We participate in and contribute to the eternal truths of faith, hope and love. We grow in the ever greater Christ, we are filled by the Holy Spirit with more of the spiritual gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God therefore gives human beings an ego along with the gift of freredom so that they can exalt fully in all their powers and creativity and authority, and then God gives us grace to see the shame of pride and arrogance when we think all this creativity and authority is from our own will, and to be used selfishly to glory in our own image like Narcissus. We become ashamed that we have reduces the blessings of life to our own small-minded and hard-hearted desire for power, pleasure and meaning that makes us more glorious, righteous, more superior to others. What amazing grace to then have the humility to fulfill our ego and then surpass it, to go beyond its sinful alienation from God, to go beyond its physical limits of the senses and the brain, and to instead discover the mystery and miracle of Christ in our hearts, that this is the fountainhead of our true treasure. We are then led and filled by the Holy Spirit to grow in creativity, generosity, love, courage and compassion.

We again hear Christ’s words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These are the believers who are not only among the poor and dispossessed but all those who have surrendered the delusions and lusts of the ego, who have come to the very edges of their own will and capacity, even to the edges of their own faith community. Recognizing their poverty of spirit, they humbly but joyously exalt in their poverty of spirit, i.e. their deep yearning for more spiritual life, their emptiness that enables them to be given the kingdom of heaven by Christ and later filled by the Holy Spirit. Now they can use all their ego-driven talents and abilities and bring them to even greater fruition and purpose in service and love of God, humanity and all of creation. They can enjoy the eternal godly goods of joy, love, peace, empathy, and kindness, and flourish in the goodness of creation as God intends. These goods are their rock, their foundation. They do not fade or deteriorate like material realities. What comfort to be loved by such an amazing God! He trusts us to glory in our own freedom and to grow according to our own will, our own pride, our own ambition, and then patiently, compassionately receives us back. He then gives us the treasures of the unsurpassed original blessedness of life, saved and redeemed from sin, we regain our joyous consciousness as unified with God when he created us in his own image and likeness, to be in loving relationship with God and all that he created.

Now that we know this truth, let us reflect back on the human predicament – the alienated ego facing a seeming pitiless and indifferent vast universe, alone, left to rely solely on its own instincts for survival, the fulfillment of its own basic needs. This deeply embedded human instinct still resides within us. but now we are to undertand its genesis, to give us a sense of personhood and then to transcend and surpass it by now knowing this personhood comes from God and we are to grown not inour own puny egoistic self but in the far greater, the ever greater character and life and love of Christ, through the Holy Spirit. We are each unique and original, equal before God, to use our gifts and capacities, and the insights and wisdom gained from all of our experiences, to humbly serve and love God and others.

We are each and everyone of us to use all our gifts, even those seen as disabilities in the eyes of man but not in the eyes of God, in humility, surrender and obedience to God, in a state of awe and wonder before each other and creation. In this way, I use my disability not as driven by my ego but as my unique witness of Christ, it affirms that I am knit together by God in all my being, that I walk in the path of righteousness regrdless of my conditions or circumstances, and surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. This is my little voice, my beautiful way of seeing the world, embracing and then transcending the polarity of being, of moving in and beyond joy and suffering, faith and doubt, hope and despair, and love and loneliness. I glory in that I have fulfilled and surpassed the journey of my ego. And now joyously, intimately adventure in the further journey with my true holy self in God. In the prison of the ego, on the other hand, one is overly self-conscious and cunning, a hypocrite, acting as if following a script in order to get what one wants, which is always simply more. It is a terrible anxiety-ridden life of addiction, and the insatiable craving is the envy or approval of others.

Seek instead the generosity of the Spirit and find that its love is ly nourishing and overflowing.

 

The Divine Joy of Freedom

In Genesis, God took pleasure in creating the universe, humanity and everything in creation. God delighted in knowing his creation was good and held together by the spiritual unity of love, creativity and peace. God created his beloved human beings in his own image and likeness so that they too can delight with God in his creation in the spirit of love and peace. God so loved his children that he gave them the freedom needed to love as fully and to create as magnificently as children of God. God gave us freedom to dare to go beyond the patterns of the world of man, to go beyond the frontiers of human reason and senses, and in this sacred space to discover the true reality of God within and without creation. Quite simply, God gave us freedom to be like God so that we could participate fully in the dance of love in relationship with the Trinity. One cannot truly love without freedom. Human beings perfect in God, participating in the mind, heart, soul and body of God, can be trusted in their freedom to hold dominion over all of creation and to continue to bring to full fruition the full mystery of all godly goods of truth, beauty, joy, love, peace, justice, compassion, and hope.

And this is why God created the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden: to affirm that God wants us to be free and to use our freedom robustly, fully, and joyously. But here is the mystery and paradox of this aspect of the Genesis story. Clearly, an all knowing God, in warning us not to be tempted by the fruit of this tree, foreknew that we would not be able to resist this temptation and would seek to exalt in eating this fruit and therefore not only defy God but be like God in knowing and judging between good and evil. So God planted this tree in the Garden as an essential element of his creation of who we were and definitive of our complex relationship with God. God tempted us with the tree, knowing we would eat its fruit. For God wants us to exalt ourselves as his creatures in order to flourish like children of God in his creation, joyous at play and at work, and to hold divine dominion over creation so that we can be his instruments in bringing to fruition all its beauty, wealth and wonder! This is the ironic role of our rebellion from God. God understands and desires that we rebel as part of our journey of discovering who we are his children. We are to then return to God from our rebellion, as the prodigal sons and daughters, so that we can exalt ourselves even more in the polarity of our limited humanity and boundless divinity.

Remember the story of creation as received in Genesis is the inspired word of God communicated into the limited human minds of multiple authors, primarily Moses. It is a lush yet simple poetic and metaphorical account of the “why” of human existence, not the actual details of the “how.” We know simply that God is the creator and author of creation, that creation is good, and that we are created to love God and creation. Genesis thus describes the very nature of our relationship with God, each other, creation and our own holy selves. It describes the original blessedness of life when that relationship was whole and we were in union with God. And it describes the original sin or alienation of humanity when we find the relationship is broken and even non-existent, and we feel alone, centered on our own ego, in a vast and indifferent universe.

So, in my interpretation of the act of eating the apple, God is not surprised by this defiant act of original sin but expects it and even foredained it. God may appear to be angry and disappointed but is deeply compassionate and patient, knowing this is a necessary trial in his ongoing creation of humanity who are incarnate of God. For now we understand the human predicament from God’s perspective. We as humans find we have this profound instinct for survival, and indeed to flourish, to excel, to create, to discover new truths and forms of beauty and justice. This instinct can make us desire to be at the center of attention, in command, and it can also lead us to desire simply to be part of something far greater that ourselves, to be part of a grand adventure. This instinct of survival calls forth the gift of freedom to respond and act upon it. It forms the very ambition of the ego. Our will to power, pleasure and meaning drives forward writ large the advance of society and civilization. This is the glory of triumphant achievement that leads to the creation of great works of art and enterprise. This drives athletes in their training for Olympian heights in ability and inspires heroic leaders to their courageous dedication to peace and justice, and saints to their godly lives of self-sacrifice and amazing love. It sustains amazing accomplishments on a vast scale. It stirs all individuals and communities to the nobility of self-sacrifice in the defense of what they cherish.

This love of our own talents and gifts—this ambition and drive—is therefore a good from God, though it comes entangled with our potential alienation from God and creation. We are called to exalt ourselves, to feel the pleasure of our own strength, beauty and ability. This is God’s necessary anointing of the ego as being set apart from the objective reality of the world. For we need to be detached from God’s full unself-conscious reality in an epistemological sense, to be a knowing subject seeing creation as “objects” out there. This is the very condition of man that Rene Descartes uses as the foundation of his rationalism, the “cogito ergo sum,” based on analyzing the unity of creation by making clear and distinct ideas. “Man tears asunder what God puts together.” To think in a sense is to be human and simultaneously to risk being separate from God. In our very use of language, and therefore our very consciousness, we must make logical distinctions in describing the world around us, differentiating between what is true or false, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, rich or poor, just or injust, developing spectra of what is useful, desirable or admirable. In this way, we are language-saturated creatures, determined unconsciously by this either-or dualism, at once lifted up by the power of language and limited by its essential detachment from the a priori unity of creation. We need both logic and language to name and hold sacred our individual being, our passions, our ties of kinship, and our greater relationships of tribe and nation. And so all of this flows from the necessity of human freedom to exalt the individual mind.Yet this very dualism that enables us to name what we love also causes us to do so against what we do not love; it inevitably causes us to see individuals not as God sees them in the rich blessedness of their lives but as others to judge, to diminish, to condemn. And so on as we view other families, other communities, other tribes, and other peoples. Our very language, our logic, our costly humanity places in this ungodly way of seeing creation in more judgmental and violently egoistic terms. OUr first way out of this predicament, so deeply embedded in human nature, is to at least recognize it. To surrender ourselves in humility before God to forgive us for this harm we do to others, and to our true holy selves.

And here is the paradox from God in why we are given the tree of knowledge. We can only be truly free in obedience to God’s will, in overcoming our rebellion and in going beyond our selves in reclaiming our relationship with God. We are now to consider the problem of freedom and original sin in a new way, especially as we are situated in the maddening noise of our increasingly crowded world, more and more entangled in the greater complexity of a diverse and dynamic world of constantly changing identities of kinship, tribe, and nation. How can we break free of a dualism that sets our virtue and truth in opposition to the lack thereof in others?  The very fate of the earth hangs on this question as we seemingly rush to burn our common home up in our desire for material wealth and comfort. We are at once intended by God to eat of this tree so we too can create and be authors of life and new works. So that we too, each of us, can be a unique and original artist and use our singular mind, heart, body, and soul fully in the joy of life. But, through the grace of God and the humility of faith, then see that this singular ambition tends to exalt in our own glory, and to move us further away from God and creation. Our ambition, our self-love, so romantic and intoxicating in our youth, moves us from the original blessedness of the Garden and the unselfconscious joy, peace and love we feel in our innermost being we experience in perfect union with God. This is the recognition of the paradox of freedom that God intended from the very beginning in our long story of creation. Freedom leads us away from God so that we can then freely discover God!! This is the turning of our mind away from our own ego and toward God as the source of all our talents and gifts. This is when we surrender before God and then rejoice in gratitude that we are to freely love him, to serve his will through our freedom, and that indeed we are never more free than when we do. All that we have and are given is from God to be used for building his kingdom of heaven, our beloved community characterized by love, peace and reconciliation, where every need is met, and people relate to one another in a sense of awe, awe before the divine mystery of personhood.

And so in this telling of the “why” in the eating of the fruit, we are to exalt in our ego and then humble ourselves so that we can go beyond its human limits and selfish desires. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are to freely transcend ourselves, healing the wound of individuality without undermining the privilege. Development of the human ego, its delight in freedom, is preparation to then go beyond the ego, to romantically break through the bounds of logic and language to truly experience the spiritual presence of God. It is to see the folly of freedom when governed only by one’s own ego, one’s own mind and heart. And to delight in gratitude for the gift of divine life from God, to be a beloved child of God, truly created in his image and likeness, to freely create and hold dominion and love like Christ, as God planned from the very beginning of time.

For believers in Christ, this is to embrace the abundant and eternal life given by Christ in the here and now. For all believers and human beings, it is to know we are all beloved children of God, each of us given the paradox of human freedom in our struggle to find union with God, so that we may freely break through the bonds of the ego, culture and history, and to embrace our unique and original spiritual life of the mind, heart, body and soul. It is our shared calling from the one universal God, whose face Christians see in Christ, and others see in other ways and faces. For example, Mother Teresa saw God in the face of the poor children she loved. Our face should mirror God and we too should see God in the face of others. In this way, we can love God and love others, to love everything that is in creation, to be compassionate and courageous and creative in our relationships within and without our kin and tribe, with those who are like us and with those who are not like us, even our enemies.

We exalt in our freedom to seek God to know what is good and true in what we are doing and in our humility and self-awareness to know what we seek is corrupted by our own selfish egoistic desires and prejudices and prides. We are to freely go to the very limits of our language, our reason, our imagination, our culture, even our faith, and thereupon rediscover that we are indeed poor in spirit and thus go beyond these limits. We remember again that Christ blessed the poor in spirit for their spiritual yearning and hunger, for their gentleness and peace, and gave them the kingdom of heaven, here and now, and forever. This is the joy and suffering of individual freedom. It is an awesome mystery but one given in our very creation story.

In rereading Genesis, consider that God wants us to use our freedom robustly, romantically, joyously and fully, and then when we experience this freedom as alienation from God, as human sin, reflect in humility where did these gifts come from, for what purpose. Certainly, they are not for your own self, not for your own profit or wealth, not that of your own family or community or tribe. But these gift are from God to be used for the good of all of humanity, especially those in need and suffering. For God created the earth and everything in it as good. The purpose of God’s creation, contrary to the modern ideologies of possessive individualism and unrestrained amoral capitalism, was not to work for our mere puny self-interest and profit. Contrary to our cult-like fascination with celebrities and narcissists, we are not to use our individual gifts and capacities for greed and avarice out of unreflective egoism but to create wealth and beauty and goods in abundance for all.

Ironically, this is the very vision of the new social and economic vistas of capitalism, its liberation from the corruption, greed and avarice of the mercantilistic that inspired Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. It is astonishing that their great works, The Wealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence, respectively, each anthems of human freedom, were published in the same year, 1776. Both of these apostles of freedom were influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment which held that man had an innate “moral sense” and therefore could be trusted with free economies and self-government. In Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Jefferson’s whole body of work, they wrote of the promise of human freedom in awakening from the darkness of the tyranny of church and state and the mercantilistic corruption that oppressively enabled the rule of the few and the privileged over the masses of humanity. They envisioned a dream of greater collaboration and community through shared enterprise, through the full education of all individuals to their potential as essential to a robust and health society and economy. Theirs was a humanity sensibility underlying the free market economy and self-governing democracy, a vision of the moral economy through freedom rightly understood and practiced, not the modern ideology of mere short-term profit seeking. Capitalism was not to be reduced to the justification of the exploitation of labor and the planet to constantly extract greater finance capital. It was not to glory in the primitive survival of the fittest now under the modern illusion of the meritocratic flourishing of the best and the brightest, the devil take the hindmost. No, they saw something unprecedented in human history, something new under the sun! I wonder if these early philosophers of the promise of democracy and capitalism understand the new possibilities of freedom better than we do now. It is to exalt in our best selves through courage, compassion and creativity. By using our freedom in the way God intended. God delights in those who do live this grace-filled freedom and still compassionately, patiently, and lovingly hopes and perhaps knows this is the greatest desire of all humanity, though individuals still struggle with their egoistic sense of freedom. I rejoice that I am freely within the ever greater body of Christ and seek to use my original spirit-led life to the glory of God. To love and serve God, to love and serve others.

The Polarity of Being

For many philosophers, theologians and poets, and for all of us who bring them to life by reading their work in the same shared mystery of awe and creativity with which they wrote, to be human is to suffer. And to be deeply human is to suffer profoundly. It is first to know existential angst and alienation in an indifferent and vast universe. And in looking across society and culture, this alienation only deepens into social anomie that Emile Durkheim found pervasive in modern industrial society. And yet, this experience of alienation, this sense of being apart from the unity of creation, also gives a critical detachment, and initiates one into a lifelong journey for seeking greater meaning, purpose and love. It also inspires a romantic and compassionate vision of a greater reality within and beyond the objective one that is refracted through our reason and senses. In this vision one glimpses the beneficence of creation, and experiences the palpable truth of godly goods of love, empathy, beauty, joy, hope and abundant life. This is what we as believers know in our innermost being and consciousness.  This is the very joy of union with God, solidarity with humanity, and knowledge of our own holy self made in the image and likeness of God.

Recognition of this essential human predicament gives birth to the idea of the creative polarity of being and consciousness. At one pole, we experience alienation and critical detachment as we make our way in the material world of man, and at the other, we experience the original blessedness of creation where we find ourselves in unity with creation and living in a greater spiritual realm. For me, I rejoice that Christ gave this realm, which he called the kingdom of heaven, to all those who were poor in spirit whom he blessed. Christ’s mission and teaching is to initiate the disciples and all who wish to follow into this abundant life in a greater spiritual reality.

So given these two ways of being and consciousness, the fully human and the fully divine, I had a sense as far back as I can remember of two ways of seeing and being in the world.  This is my “little bipolar way,” a beautiful and unique way of seeing the world, though also one of great suffering and pain. From the poet’s vantage of participant observer, I found in my moving freely through many different social environments as a child, teen and young adult, that I could both appreciate the virtues and beauty in the great variety of people I encountered and see their shortcomings and limitations. I at once felt the joy of being connected to them and the nausea of feeling detached, unable to engage fully, freely, without this awful self-consciousness as set apart and alone.

This capacity and sensibility as an insider-outsider also gave me an historian’s appreciation for the different histories of social groups and communities, as well as a fascination with history writ large. I also intuitively had an anthropologist’s perspective of participant observer of different cultures. Now I find this sensibility a gift of the Spirit of Christ, for this is to follow Christ’s call to compassionate witness and understanding for flawed but divine human beings. It is to try to follow his Sermon on the Mount and truly live in forgiveness, judging ourselves before judging others, and love of one’s enemies. Christ invites us to transcend the bonds of egoism, kinship and tribalism that cause us to prefer those who mirror and enrich our own self-image, who meet our needs and desires. We are called by Christ to overcome our human nature that compels us to prefer and admire foremost those who are like us. To overcome our deeply embedded instinct to survive and indeed flourish by measuring the blessedness of our life by our prosperity, by what we have and can do, by what people say about us. In contrast, Christ calls us to experience a completely different human nature, a spiritual nature, by being with, caring for and loving those who are not like us, those who do not assure us of our own survival and enrichment. This is why Christ resides among the least of us, the poor, the dispossessed, the despised, the outcast. We are to know their suffering and thereby to know with all our heart, mind, soul and body that our purpose is to serve and love others, all of humanity, to seek to heal and make whole those in our midst. This is a burden we can easily bear through the grace of God, for as Christ we do this healing through our own limited and unique journey in life. We have but a short walk in life and yet can make it overflowing with love and compassion, with the people in our midst, the people who come to us in their needs. Are we able to follow this call? Are we able to inspire and support others to serve in their different journeys and walks? For it is through each of us individually that we do the work of Christ, as the body of Christ, ever growing in its height, depth and width, as the very body of God Himself to whom Christ points but leaves a magnificent, unknowable and ever alluring mystery.

I seek every day to have the humility to know I see through a glass darkly, and that I can only imagine the full richness of another human being. This is who I am in Christ. In this way, I try to hold the two poles together in a creative tension. My own individual suffering leads me into empathy for the suffering of others and the realization, no, the instinctive, mysterious desire that wells up in me, to serve and love not just those who suffer but all of humanity, as Christ does. I find resonant at a cellular level Paul’s words that suffering leads to perseverance to character and then to hope. For only the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit can so change human suffering, even the worst agony, so beautifully, so compassionately, so gently, into love, hope, and joy, the joy of being in union with God and each other. The joy of overflowing abundant life, here and now, and forever.

Peace and Hope

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Romans 5: 1-5

We are saved by faith in Jesus and the ever greater Christ! We are ever made more whole!! I myself as human and divine remain divided, ruled by cultural and historical divisions and oppositions. I find myself immersed in the dualities of hope and despair, courage and fear, love and loneliness.  Only in spiritual unity with Christ do I transcend this polarity. What is more I recognize this polarity is my original and unique gift from God (as each person similarly has their own gift to share) so that I can respond to it through grace and faith, and thereby find a spirit of peace and reconciliation. How wonderful that this spirit lives within me, in the innermost sanctuary of Christ that is my whole being!

And suffering not only leads to hope, it also brings empathy and identification with the pain and suffering of others, and the metanoia that we are here to be in solidarity with one another, to comfort and to heal, to care for and love one another. Christ’s message is that simple. And it is in becoming part of this great suffering body of Christ, the body of humanity, that we are filled with and led by the Holy Spirit. We escape the puny prison of the ego, its values, desires and illusions. To be human is to suffer. From the very moment of birth, we suffer in the subtle beginnings on a cellular level as cells die the moment we are born. And then we experience greater forms of suffering in our shared encounter with our mortality, and then we may witness or directly experience the suffering of diseases like cancer or the tragedies of man’s barbarism of war and terror.

Yet God uses this suffering to give us the poverty of spirit to yearn and hunger for a greater spiritual reality and to discover and delight in awareness of God! Suffering often is the only way we can break free of the prison of the ego and its darkening of the world to what can be possessed through our own will to pleasure, power and meaning.

What joy to discover we are ever held in the gentle hands of God. We are never alone. In our sanctuary of hope, we are ever lifted up by the everlasting arms of God

Joy and suffering are indeed woven together in the complex loom of the ascending and descending threads of life. For as suffering leads to greater joy, so too does joy lead us to suffering. In the pure experience of joy, we truly feel God’s pleasure. Everything is wondrous and new in the world. But one soon finds that the feeling begins to change, and the sublime feeling becomes more a selfish emotion the more we attempt to hold onto it for our self. It returns us to self-consciousness and our old egoistic self. And we move away from the sense of unity with God and toward a more base human emotion the longer we remain in this feeling of our own joy. However, in Christ, our joy doesn’t take this course but leads us to seek to share it, to bring our hope and closeness to God to those who are suffering and in need. We are moved not inwardly but outwardly to regain our solidarity with humanity by going to where God is now pointing us. To honor our joy we take it to the joyless, to those who are suffering, and in this mutual reciprocal fellowship we experience the presence of God, the whole-making healing of transcendence, of living in the kingdom of heaven given by Christ to all who are poor and poor in spirit. Does this not include every human being?

Henri Nouwen: Jesus’ Self-Portrait

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness” (Matthew 5:3-10). These words offer us a self-portrait of Jesus. Jesus is the Blessed One. And the face of the Blessed One shows poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ

The whole message of the Gospel is this: Become like Jesus. We have his self-portrait. When we keep that in front of our eyes, we will soon learn what it means to follow Jesus and become like him.

The Conversion Experience: Radical Union with God

The conversion experience is to feel in one’s innermost being a peace and joy of mystical union with the beneficence of creation. I believe this is the essential joy of St. Francis of Assisi. As Richard Rohr draws upon in his teaching, writing and ministry, it is to become one with the incarnation of God in creation. This sense of “oneness” with the incarnation of creation defines St. Francis and unlocks the mystery of his sanctification. This incarnation began with the Big Bang creation of the world almost 14 billion years when God breathed his Spirit into creation, as told in Genesis, into the fullness of creation that we now know as the universe. For Christians, Christ then astonished humanity 2000 years ago with the incarnation of God’s Spirit into humanity. Christ enabled humanity to see the face of God. The conversion experience may not be the first time to have this encounter, but it is the most intense and lasting, the most transformative in our innermost being.

For a moment, one escapes oneself, the old is gone and the new has come; one is indeed in the new creation of Christ.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5: 16-19

One’s very way of seeing the world is changed. No longer are we bound to the objectifying relationship with the world that is demanded by our subjective self, that is inevitable in the very act of looking outward from the thinking ego, the “cogito ergo sum” of Rene Descartes. We of course need and delight in this rationalist world of logic and “clear and distinct ideas” that flow from a direct empirical understanding of reality through the senses. And yet we have a deep disquiet and yearning that something is missing, that there is a greater truth beyond the grasp of our reason and senses, and even beyond our imagination. This is the realm of poetry and art, the mystery and miracle of love, empathy and human solidarity. It is the collective effervescence in our very cells, a creative spiritual energy, that we are indeed part of something that far surpasses human understanding. This is to tap into the great variety of religious experience through faith. Christians consider this the gift of God’s grace that we know when we surrender completely in utter humility before God and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  To me, this metanoia, this divine spark of insight, is simply to regain our consciousness that Christ is within each and every one of us, that we are each made in the very image and likeness of God, and that we now see the world through the eyes of Christ– glorious, magnificent, wondrous, beautiful, a creation full of God’s joy, hope and love.

After the deep, ego-shattering experience of spiritual conversion, one begins to feel freedom from this subjective self that falsely places one at the center of creation. We begin to free ourselves from self-consciousness—that morbid sense of the self as fundamentally cut off and separate from others and creation. This self-consciousness is of course essential to what it is to be human and it is in our depth of humanity that we have a pervasive awareness of existential alienation and social anomie. This is both the exaltation and the prison of the ego. Conversion is often the first lingering glimpse of the spiritual reality beyond the distorting prism of the ego. It is a first taste of the pure consciousness or consciousness of unity with God, creation and humanity that is love. Our dissociation as an alienated ego, the dualistic split between subjective self and objective other, our epistemological re-creation of the world through our own particular way of seeing—all of these human bondages have dissolved in the amazing and astonishing liberation of our true holy self by, in and of God.

Christ in fact calls us to free ourselves from this dualistic split in the Sermon on the Mount!! For it is our enslavement to our alienated ego, its desires and fears that compel us to the frantic striving after and fearfully tight possession of ego identity, success, prosperity, health and admiring reputation of others. This self-centeredness causes us in our innermost being and consciousness to believe foremost, desperately, with all our heart, mind, soul and body, in the blessedness of the rich in spirit and rich. As human beings, we simply cannot accept Christ’s truth of the blessedness of the poor and the poor in spirit. It is radically and incomprehensibly against the very grain of our nature. Surely, it is the rich and rich in spirit who are blessed, and we live our faith and relationship to God and others and creation within this distorting prism of the ego as subject, defining, seeing, creating reality as out there, to be possessed and held as a mirror of our own image. To truly accept the blessedness of the poor in spirit, and thereby to receive and live in the kingdom of heaven, one must transcend one’s ego and its dualistic subject-object split of reality. All of reality, spiritual and material, is one. We flourish according to our divine nature as we are in perfect communion with God, and all of creation. This is the meaning of Christ’s most important commandments to his disciples and followers: to serve and love God, and to serve and love others as ourselves. This service and love is simply our abundant and overflowing new life through the transformation of conversion.

The human mind, however, is largely and necessarily dualistic and we naturally return to this state in order to make our way in the material world. This dualism is inherent in the very nature of language. Thus we use language to at once make sense of the world and to limit it. We have the medium of language to give the world order, to organize it with purpose and meaning, so that we can seek to hold dominion over it, and yet in this dominion we also confine and limit it from the fullness of God’s creation. In true conversion, the subject-object split is overcome at least for a moment. And while there are many ways to return to this state of unity, through prayer, contemplation, service and love, immersion in nature, transcendence through the arts, you cannot maintain and live this non-dual state. One must ever return to dualistic thought to function pragmatically in a world of rational choices and distinctions. It is also to live in a world that is highly mediated by discrimination, division and oppositions that are highly mediated by history and culture, and therefore can lead to human separation from each other, the politics and social life of exclusion, alienation, the condemnation and judgment of group against group, and the violence of war and injustice.

And so we find ourselves in a difficult dance, living in both these worlds, the one of divine unity and the one of human duality. This is the wisdom behind Barth’s idea of being in krisis: the believer in Christ is in the creative tension of the polar opposition of full humanity and full divinity. This is the “jolly relativity” of the dialogical thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin. Paul expresses this when he decries and is grateful for the thorn in his flesh, that though he has ascended to the third heaven, he remain humbled by his human nature that prevents him from perfect unity with God. This is to experience the chasm between man and the fullness of God as at once agonizing in seeing the great distance yet to cross and ecstatic in knowing that Christ is ever greater, ever growing, ever surpassing our present faith, hope and love. In merging Barth with Paul, I see the polarity of being as, at one pole, being human is simply recognition of this practical necessity of dual consciousness and, at the other, being divine, living in the kingdom of heaven given by Jesus to the poor in spirit, is the unitive consciousness of being in the mind, heart, body and soul of Christ!! This is the teaching of Jesus and all the disciples. And it is the radical astonishing reality of the cross—its mystery, miracle and paradox—that this perfect union with Christ is made possible by Christ’s incarnation of God into the world as confirmed by his life, death and resurrection. The wholly new covenant is written on our heart, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Before Christ, mankind was still left to struggle with God and faith (Israel means to struggle with God) for sin—separation from God, living in the dualistic split—was the primary existential and indeed, epistemological reality even for God’s chosen people.

But now, in the conversion experience, maybe for the first time, you know there is something more and you will always long to return there.

Now we can alternate between being poor in spirit, yearning for greater fulfillment in the fruition of perfect love and communion with God, and being rich in spirit, overflowing with the riches of the Holy Spirit. In the received Christian narrative, which may change dramatically as God’s truth become more revealed, the Israeli people were as a whole neither rich nor poor in spirit, and their faith was abiding but tenuous, for God only came directly to the elect and few, those like David who had a “heart after God,” though still ruled by sin. They lived and exemplified a magnificent faith in their devotion to Yahweh as their only God, but needed the mediations and instruction of the Mosaic Law and the prophets, and all the customs and rituals of strict adherence to religious and cultural identity, to guide them in their relationship with God. Only those written about in the Old Testament as leaders and prophets, as directly chosen by God, are clearly lifted up by the invitation of the Holy Spirit. In an ancient world of division and hierarchy, an extremely harsh and often cruel reality for the great masses of people, we are left to wonder did the ordinary believer in Yahweh have this spiritual sense of unity with God. Did they know the conversion, the metanoia through the Spirit that fills the heartfelt praise and anguished lamentations of David’s Psalms? Were they yearning for God in their poverty of spirit for centuries and even millennia before Christ? I believe there were many, not just those who felt excluded within the Jewish world—the poor, the despised, the lepers, the dangerous or unhealthy “others,” but those for whom the richness of their faith was still insufficient, who felt “poor in spirit” and were just ready to receive Christ and his Sermon on the Mount. While these questions may be intriguing, the more important question is, “Am I ready to receive and live the Sermon on the Mount?” Can I embrace and grow into the krisis, the simultaneity, of human and divine being?

To refuse or resist this invitation of Christ to live, here and now, in the kingdom of heaven, might be the core meaning of biblical “hard heartedness” or sin. Once you’ve experienced any true union (conversion, the beneficence of creation, the collective effervescence of a righteous crowd, radical acceptance of oneself and others, surrender before God, prayer, all authentic love), you know that you are truly a child of God and created to freely love God, creation and others. We fall in love again, that dizzying, intoxicating experience when we forget ourselves and live through another. Similarly, having a baby often reorients one’s whole life to be completely absorbed and focused on the needs of another. We experience our center as outside ourselves. This is what it is to fall in love with Christ, to live life through him. And this center, the body of Christ, is the entire church of the children of God; it is the entire church, the entire body of God Himself—radically inclusive, loving, compassionate, creative and courageous.

In the unity with God, I transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do. I heal the wound of individuality without undermining the privilege, as C.S. Lewis has written.

The Cup of Life

When the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons a special place in his Kingdom, Jesus responds, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). “Can we drink the cup?” is the most challenging and searching question we can ask ourselves. it requires radical acceptance first of our human limitations, a falling down into our most profound place of humility before God, others and our true holy self. And then it inspires new creation, new life, as we surrender to reliance upon God’s grace and Spirit to fill us. The cup is the cup of life, full of joys and sorrows, hope and despair, love and loneliness. Can we bear to sip from this cup, and to drink from it fully, as Christ asks? Is this possible for human beings seeking to find a way of love, peace and comfort in this often harsh and pitiless world? Can we drink from our cups and hold them out for others as witness to our humility and vulnerability, our struggles and doubts, and yet also to our joy and triumph over suffering? To do so, we must claim our own individual cup, the cup poured out for us by our unique journey through life. In this way, we struggle and rejoice every day to the extent that we are drinking from the cup of life that Jesus offers by his living words, words as alive and direct and immediate today as when he first spoke them. We lift it up as hope and nourishment to others. We find the wholeness and healing of salvation and grow in this through sharing our new life with others.

This is the spiritual agony and ecstasy of our faith. To be human, is to suffer, often alone. To follow Christ, is to suffer divinely, in the loving embrace of God.

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  – Matthew 26:39

Christ says these words as he is about to suffer the infinite totality of sins and sorrows of every human being, past, present and future, in an act of astonishing and bewildering grace and sacrificial love. Amazingly, in the miracle and mystery of the Cross, Christ is suffering for you and me, individually; we, each of us, are on the cross with Christ. We are to follow Christ to the cross, to carry our cross, admittedly with fear and trembling. And being human we are likely to resist and deny this cup throughout our lives, throughout the day. God compassionately, lovingly knows this about our character and yet delights in the integrity of our holy being, and still offers it to us, letting us take just a little sip, as we are able, to then glory in its overflowing filling of our thirst. Christ goes to the cross, drinking the cup fully, to suffer our own sins and the sins of the world, but also to experience profound transformation in this suffering, changing from that of the lone human being, stripped naked before the world, persecuted and tortured by man and seemingly forsaken by God, to that of the very Spirit of God suffering in self-sacrificial love for the triumph over sin, suffering and death–here and now, and forever.

Through faith we drink from the cup so that we too suffer like Jesus, having the courage to believe we are not suffering just our particular pain, our lone existence, but we experience, made anew in Christ, the shared pain of humanity, our solidarity with every human being in the body of God. We immerse ourselves in the shared suffering of others; we identify with others, in every condition and circumstance, however different and unlike us. We discover our love for those on the edge of society, on the margins, those who are poor in spirit, for they truly do have the kingdom of heaven through Christ. And in this way, we live in and build the kingdom of heaven. Our worldly suffering as isolated egocentric individuals is transformed into divine suffering as members in the body of Christ, where we feel bathed in God’s love and triumph over the sting of suffering and death. We experience the Holy Spirit who gives abundant joy, love, hope and faith, who gives eternal life, and we experience transformed new creation. This is the beautiful blood-red rose that rises from the ashes.

If you have become ash,
Then wait you become a rose again.
And do not remember how often you have become ash
But how often you were reborn in ashes to a new rose.

~ Rumi

Henri Nouwen: Friends as Reminders of our Truth

Sometimes our sorrow overwhelms us so much that we no longer can believe in joy. Life just seems a cup filled to the brim with war, violence, rejection, loneliness, and endless disappointments.

Bird on branch 3-6-16

At times like this we need our friends to remind us that crushed grapes can produce tasty wine. It might be hard for us to trust that any joy can come from our sorrow, but when we start taking steps in the direction of our friends’ advice, even when we ourselves are not yet able to feel the truth of what they say, the joy that seemed to be lost may be found again and our sorrow may become livable.

grape-vine 3-7-16