Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Spiritual Practice of Surrender

When it comes to the spiritual practice of surrender, I have more questions than answers.

I wonder if God does have a plan that we are supposed to live by? I wonder if we can just surrender to what happens in life or if it’s up to us as adults to make decisions that create our life? How do we know the difference between surrendering to God and giving in to a bad situation?

I have a good friend who desperately wants to have a baby. She is 37 years old, beautiful, educated, and has a good job. She is in a monogamous relationship with a man who loves her and claims to want the same things that she does. Although he once said that he wants to marry and have children, when faced with the reality, he now says he is not ready. What should she, my good friend, do? How does she surrender to God’s plan for her life?

I know a good man who is in his 50’s. He loves his wife and family very much and works at a job that provides good pay and health benefits. However, he is constantly worried that he will be laid off from his job and that he will not be able to find another one. He is trying to remain faithful, but what should he, my worried friend, do? How does he surrender to God’s plan for his life?

All of us have struggles. We struggle to be happy. To provide for ourselves and our families. To get what we want in life. To have meaning and purpose. But how do we know if we are on the right path? How do we know if we are living according to the will of God?

In the scripture, we hear the psalmist crying out for what he wants! “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Psalm 130)

Listen to the words of Thomas Kelly, born in 1893 to a devout Quaker family living near Chillicothe, Ohio. Kelly went from his modest beginnings in the farm country of Ohio to pursue a Ph.D at Harvard under the world-renowned British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. However, he was torn about the contradictions within Quaker teachings, he suffered ill health and he was pained over and again by the repeated refusals of Harvard to allow him to complete his Ph.D. Out of this crucible of failure and pain, Thomas Kelly emerged as a new man, genuinely living by the grace of God and with a simple, childlike obedience.

From this place, he wrote a renowned spiritual work titled, A Testament of Devotion, Kelly writes this about the human drama and God’s place in it all:

Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others….It is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hills comes the wise Shepherd. For [God has] a shepherd’s heart, and [God] is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms…

[There is one scene in this inner drama,] where the Shepherd has found His sheep, that I would direct you. It is the life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd. [The whole time, it is] upon God, God the initiator, God the aggressor, God the seeker, God the stirrer into life, God the ground of our obedience, God the giver of the power to become children of God…”

What he is saying is that, yes, we all struggle, while at the same time, we try to be faithful. Our eyes are in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But as life plays itself out, while we feel restless and lonely and searching, God comes to us in the drama that is life. God comes and initiates interactions and relationships. God comes to us to shake us out of our slumber and wake us up! It is Christ, the Good Shepherd, who seeks us out when we are down in the dumps and hiding away. It is Christ, the Living God, who stirs our souls and makes us passionate about some person or cause. God guides us to obedience as he seeks and calls us by name to become the person, the child of God, that we were born to be.

Sometimes, it can be hard to hear or see the Shepherd as he seeks us out. But the psalmist from today’s scripture has advice for us. His decision is to wait for the Lord with confident trust and hope. He says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning…Oh, Israel, [Oh, people of God,] hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

So the answer to all the questions that we might pose regarding what is God’s will for our lives and what should we do is…wait. I know that’s not the answer that most of us want to hear, but oftentimes in life, we must wait for God to reveal himself and his will.

It’s more than to wait though. It’s to surrender your expectations, your timeline, your will and to really trust that God, that the Shepherd, is very present and active in your life. To be confident and assured, knowing that God’s hand is really moving in this world, in your world.

My good friend who is in a stuck relationship, and meanwhile, is ready to move forward in her life and start her family, must wait. And she must trust wholly in God’s goodness and will for her life.

My worried friend who is not sure if he will be employed by the same company until retirement must also wait and trust wholly in God’s goodness and will for his life.

Surrender can be one of the most challenging spiritual practices there is, but when we truly surrender to God, it provides us with a freedom and a hope that we can have no other way.

It is the freedom of trusting something greater than ourselves in this world. It is the hope of believing in the redeeming power of God to bless your life.

As we surrender to God and trust in him, we realize that God alone is the actor in our lives, and we are the ones wholly acted upon.

So what we are going to do is sing a song about being still. About waiting for the Shepherd. While you sing, believe this: we can trust in God. We can surrender fully to the divine will.

What Are You Thinking?!

(Read John 9:1-12)

Whose fault is it? That’s what the disciples want to know. A man is born blind, so the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Essentially, what they are asking is: whose fault is it? Who is to blame?

The first person many of us blame when things go wrong is ourselves. We get sick, and we ask God, what did I do to deserve this? We get laid off at work, and we think, “I brought this upon myself. I’m not good enough.” We go through a period in our life when nothing seems to be going our way, and we say, “I’m cursed. I can’t win.” We might even go so far as to think, “God hates me.”

This sort of thinking is detrimental to our spiritual and emotional well-being, but very often, we aren’t even aware that we have such negative self-talk. That’s why its important for all of us to examine the unconscious thoughts or beliefs we hold. It’s important for you to ask yourself: “What am I thinking?”

Rather than encourage negative thinking that blames and finds fault, Jesus steers the disciples in another direction. He gets them thinking in a new way. When asked whose fault it is that the man was born blind, Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Instead, he explains, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Then, Jesus heals the man. Rather than seeing blindness as a punishment, Jesus says it’s an opportunity for the glory of God to be revealed.

The way we perceive ourselves, situations, and relationships in our lives greatly impacts how we feel on a day to day basis. It affects how we experience life. And we have a choice to make. Will we let our minds run wild with negative self-talk, saying, “I’m not good enough. My life is cursed. It’s my fault” or will we develop healthier ways of thinking that are more constructive?

In his book, Happiness is a Serious Matter, Dennis Prager writes about the importance of having helpful, rather than destructive, philosophies on life. To illustrate, Prager tells the story of a man named Joseph:

One freezing winter night, Joseph got a flat tire while driving to deliver a speech. He did not have time to call a tow truck so Joseph tried to change the tire on his own, but to no avail. For hours, he worked on the tire until finally help came to him.

Not only did Joseph miss delivering an important speech, he also disappointed an audience, lost money and had a miserable evening as he failed to put on a spare tire. One would think that this experience would greatly anger Joseph and cause him to blame either himself or God or someone, but he didn’t. Joseph really wasn’t as upset as one might expect him to be.

Why? Because Joseph had a perspective on life that helped him deal with his bad night instead of making it worse. He said, “I am convinced that each of us has a flat-tire quota, and I’ve never had a flat tire before.” (Prager, Dennis. Pg. 114. Happiness is a serious problem). Just that thought, that everyone has a flat-tire quota, saved Joseph from compounding his misery. Many people would have been more unhappy given the circumstance but Joseph had a philosophy of life that provided him with perspective. It made him able to deal with the situation.

If that was you, what would you have been thinking? A negative philosophy, such as, “This sort of thing always happens to me” or “God is trying to ruin my career” would have created more turmoil and exacerbated the situation. But a healthy understanding on life and a philosophy to accompany that understanding prevented the situation from becoming too big a deal.

So what are some more constructive philosophies to live by:

1. Instead of thinking, “I am cursed” or “I can’t win,” realize that even good people have bad things happen to them because life is filled with suffering. Now you might be thinking, how is “life is filled with suffering” a more positive philosophy that’s going to benefit me? The reason is, because it doesn’t make suffering personal. All people suffer and experience trials and tribulations. Life is filled with suffering. In the Gospel of Matthew, it says, “For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil (Matthew 5:45). When we make suffering personal, we compound it and increase our misery.

2. Instead of thinking, “I’ll never make it through,” or “I’m sick of waiting” realize that “this too shall pass.” Time is a tricky thing. The good times seem to fly by while the bad times seem to drag on forever. But life is in constant motion and even our worst days pass. We just have to be patient and take a longer view on life. Instead of seeking immediate gratification and help, we just have to take it one day at a time knowing that over a period of time, things will change. This too will pass.

3. Just as much as suffering is a product of the mind, so then can great happiness be a product of the mind. Instead of thinking, “I’m never going to be happy” or “the grass is always greener somewhere else,” realize that happiness is a choice, and it is available to you right now, right here. Always, there are many conditions for happiness that are present, but it’s a matter of recognizing them and focusing on them. Enjoying the autumn leaves and the changing of seasons can be a condition for happiness. Focusing on the love you do have, as opposed to the love you don’t have, or the work you do have, as opposed to the work you don’t have, or the health you do have, as opposed to the health you don’t have, are conditions for happiness. When we limit our happiness with our thinking, we do just that, we limit our happiness.

Our minds are beautiful things, gifts from God, but oftentimes, we don’t even know what we are thinking. And we let our thinking negatively impact our lives. So its time to ask yourself, “What am I thinking?!

Jesus would have us steer clear of the blame game and negative self-talk, and instead, have us focus on how God is working in our lives to reveal his power and glory. For every bad thing that happens to us, good is coming out of it. For every ill that we suffer, healing is occurring. For every moment we feel lost and broken, there come times of hope and well-being.

If anything, what we should be thinking is not how we are at fault or God is to blame, but how God is helping us and preparing us for the goodness about to come.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Four Layers of Love

There are at least four layers to how we love ourselves and one another, and while each layer is a legitimate and necessary expression of love in and of itself, God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.

First, we love ourselves for our own sake. This begins as a self-preservation type of love; it’s biological and instinctual. “I need to take care of myself in order to survive and flourish.” This sort of love is easily recognizable in children, but there’s no doubt that it continues into adulthood.

Once upon a time there was a youngest child named Bobby. Bobby had three older brothers and two older sisters, and he always left the dinner table feeling a bit hungry because it seemed like there was never enough food. So what did Bobby do? When his mother wasn’t looking, about an hour before dinner, Bobby would slip into the kitchen and eat the most delicious thing he could find in the refrigerator. By the time he arrived at dinner, he wasn’t so worried if the food ran out. Bobby was loving himself for his own sake.

The truth is, there is a hungry little boy or girl that lives on in all of us, and often, we act from that place of loving ourselves in work, at church, with friends, while no one is looking. This is a legitimate and necessary expression of love, but God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.

Second, we love others for our own sake. We love the way another makes us feel or for what they can do for us. Again, this sort of love is easily recognizable in children. Children love their parents because they take care of them; they depend on them. This sort of love is also easily recognizable in teenagers, and it continues into adulthood.

Once upon a time there was an 18 year old girl named Cindy. Cindy thought Thomas was the most handsome boy in her whole school. He drove a Mustang; he played basketball and baseball. But Thomas wasn’t just a jock. Cindy liked him even more because he was in her art class and always made her laugh. One day, Thomas finished a drawing he had been working on for weeks, and he gave it to Cindy. Her heart fluttered, and she felt all warm and fuzzy inside. She knew right then she loved him. Cindy was loving Thomas for her own sake.

Whether you’re 5, 15 or 50, we all love others for how they make us feel and what they can do for us. This is a legitimate and fantastical sort of love, but God is continually calling us to go deeper into the heart of love.

Third, we love others for their own sake. Now, we’re really getting somewhere. This sort of love is easily recognizable in adults amidst their most prized relationships. Here, the happiness and the well-being of the beloved is of utmost importance.

Once upon a time there was a couple named Sue and Mike. Sue and Mike’s second child, Taylor, was different than the other kids, although they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. They worked very hard and went to special lengths to make sure Taylor fit in and was doing well in school, but there was often crying and temper tantrums, even when Taylor was eight. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that Taylor might have autism or Asberger’s syndrome that Sue and Mike sought special help. It turned out Taylor did have a certain form of autism and so Sue and Mike decided to enroll him in a school that could best meet his needs. The school was expensive though so Mike took an extra part -time job and Sue tightened the family budget. No matter what they had to give up, it was worth it to see Taylor get the kind of help and attention he needed.

This sort of love is beautiful; it’s sacrificial, and it’s everywhere. It’s from parent to child. It’s from child to parent. It’s from husband to wife. It’s from wife to husband. It’s between siblings. It’s between friends. It’s the kind of love that often exists in the hearts of those in helping and healing professions. Loving another for his or her own sake is a deep expression of love indeed, but God is continually calling us deeper into the heart of love.

The fourth layer of love that I will mention today comes to us from the scripture.

Just as back story, on the night Jesus was arrested, the day before he died, Jesus was denied three times by his good friend, Peter. Sitting near the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, a servant girl looked at Peter and said, “This man was with him.” Meaning that Peter was a follower of Jesus. But Peter denied it. “Woman I don’t know him,” he said.

Then, a little later someone else saw him and said, “You are also one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Just like Jesus was a Galilean.

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And at that third denial, the cock crowed (Luke 22: 54-60).

I imagine this to be one of the lowest points in Peter’s life, denying a friend who was in his darkest hour.

But Jesus gives Peter the chance to make up for it. In today’s reading, which takes place after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter replies, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And here comes our fourth layer of love. Each time after Peter says, “I love you,” Jesus comes back and says, then, “Feed my lambs.” Then, “take care of my sheep.” Then, “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). In essence, what Jesus is telling us is that if you truly love someone, you will love, nurture and care for the people that they love. This sort of love extends even beyond loving an individual to loving who that individual loves.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Harold, who married a woman named Susan, and he loved her very much and did all that he could for her own sake. When they had only been married 5 years or so, Susan’s father passed away and left her mother as a widow. At this point, Harold cared for his mother-in-law because they had developed a relationship over the years, but it was when Susan said, “I don’t want my mother to have to live alone if she doesn’t want to” that Harold decided to turn the basement into an apartment. His love for his wife was so full that it extended beyond her to those whom she loved. Truly, this is where God is calling all of us-this deep into the heart of love.

This is the sort of love Jesus alludes to when he tells Peter to “Feed his sheep.” If Peter really loves Jesus, he must love those whom Jesus loves. And so if we love God and we love Jesus, and we know that God and Jesus love all people that walk upon the face of the earth, imagine the kind of love we are being called to.

Love must extend everywhere and to everyone. That is as deep as the heart of love goes.

May we all love ourselves. May we all feel good in loving each other. May we all love each other even when it doesn’t feel good. May we love each other to make one another feel happier, safer and truly alive. And may our love extend beyond the beloved to those the beloved loves. In this way, our hearts achieve their deepest depth, and we live into our true purpose as the people of God.