Grace is like a hungry cat

An old man, part of a group of mentally disadvantaged people, sat next to me on a bench as I was waiting for a ferry to take me across Sydney harbor to Mosman. I was eating a chocolate bar and offered him a piece. He held up a shaking hand and took it, hungrily. I ate a piece myself and gave him another. “This is your lucky day” I said to him, meaning the chocolate. But it actually was my lucky day. I was given a profound gift in that chance meeting, which is hard to describe. It was the insight that this small interaction had far more meaning than anything else I would experience that day. That it opened a portal into another dimension of living, one having little to do with my normal life. A far more important dimension, which I hadn’t noticed that day.

Why is grace so insistent?

Grace constantly nuzzles our consciousness, like a hungry cat. The Holy Spirit wants us to notice God’s presence and gifts, but we aren’t paying attention. When my cat Oscar gets tired of nuzzling me, sometimes he stands up on his hind legs and puts his front paws on my lap, or jumps up and puts his nose very close to my face, so I can’t ignor him. Grace is insistent like that, trying different ways, like marketing experts say, to “cut through” the noise and clutter that fills our life and blinds us to what is really happening, right in front of our nose. If we don’t see God’s presence and gifts, how can we fulfill God’s purpose? Our individual contribution to His Plan is critical to God and that’s why grace is so persistent.

 

Progress? Where are we?

chaos_and_meaninglessness_roweIn 1953  Robert Nesbit wrote a very insightful book called The Quest for Community. In it he summarised the prevailing view of  man with these words: “The theologian Paul Tillich sees before him in the western world today a culture compounded not of traditional faith and confidence, but one agitated by feelings of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, and meaninglessness.” Today, we look back at the 1950s as a time of innocence, of postwar optimism. It is now sixty years since Tillich’s grim words were written. Have we made progress toward a different view of man? How would a wise observer of the world summarize man’s situation in 2013?

Perspective on 2013

Living in Australia, I experience a country free from many of the conflicts that are taking place in the rest of the world. Australia is a comfortable place, with a national attitude of “No worries, mate.” Politics (and politicians) are something to be mainly laughed at. Our economy was barely touched by the GFC. The big issues of the day seem to be rather small on a global scale: boat people trying to land in a country that doesn’t want them, bushfires and floods. People here in Sydney live a good life, enjoying their weather and coffee — and Tillich’s words somehow seem wrong, strangely alien to life here. I find that I cannot get a grip on the Australian psyche to summarize it. It is as if there is nothing going on beyond dealing with the day to day issues of life. Have Australians somehow left the feelings that Tillich described behind? If so, how did we do that?

The search for what?

I have written 2 books about what I call the “quest” for transformation. My personal view is that all human beings engage in some sort of quest for the answers to the bigger questions about life. Yet, I find that there seems to be no zest for such a quest among many of the people I know here in Sydney, and elsewhere in the world as well. People are searching, that’s for sure, but for what? A better career, more recognition, intimacy — all these are discussed frequently as being important. It’s almost as if we have somehow found ourselves further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than we thought — at the safety, belonging and self-esteem levels — with no energy for self-actualisation or the search for meaning. And, without a search for meaning, can there be any interest in religion or God? Probably not. The days when belonging to a church fulfilled a social need in most people are long past.

So, now what?

The Christian message depends on people seeing the implications for themselves of the larger dimensions of meaning. Jesus came to “save” us from the futility of ordinary human life and death. But if life is only about being safe, belonging and feeling good about one’s self, we can handle those pretty much by ourselves. And that is precisely what our culture is about — self-fulfillment, self-knowledge, self-improvement abounds. Yes, we can go find a “guru” if we want to experience the mystical dimensions of life, but there is no life and death drama connected with that, only our feeling good about ourselves. For someone to make the effort of learning about Christianity, something must jolt them out “no worries, mate.”

The old time revival preachers used the threat of hell and damnation to do that — but that is so politically incorrect today people reject it. So what is the answer? I’m trying the “awe” approach myself. There’s obviously something much bigger than me, Australia or Planet Earth ‘out there.’ Science fiction movies like Avatar give us hints that mankind will play a much bigger role in the universe in ages to come. If people get excited about the potential of what a human being really is — transcendent, on the way to becoming divine — maybe they will get serious about learning about the one who is leading us on that transformational journey. In any case, that’s what I’m tring to do. How about you?

 

 

The White Rabbit

I had lunch the other day with an elderly friend of mine whose health is failing. He knows that he doesn’t have long to live but has a very strong faith, so we talk about this process of living and dying quite openly.

He told me a very personal story about his first wife, which I won’t repeat, except to say that, at one point, he told her that he no longer loved her and was leaving her for another woman. He immediately left her, and drove to the other woman’s home in another city but discovered to his dismay that she wasn’t there. Disappointed, he began to drive back to the city where his wife lived, intending to stay in a hotel. It was late at night and the roads were deserted. Suddenly he saw something in the road ahead and hit the brakes. It was an enormous white rabbit, larger than any rabbit could possibly be! It was just sitting in the middle of the road, calmly looking at him. After a few seconds, it slowly hopped off the road and disappeared. He was shaken and decided to go home and tell his wife about this strange occurence. When he knocked on her door it was very late but his wife answered the door fully dressed. She calmly asked him if he’d like a cup of tea, and he realised in that moment what a fool he was. He remained married to her for another twenty years until she died.

What is the White rabbit?

When strange coincidences or events happen, where do they come from and what do they mean? In his famous story A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley visit him as a ghost. Scrooge attributes this vision to something he ate. That is our usual first response — “I must have done something to cause this strange event to happen.” Perhaps that is correct, if you are a heavy drinker or regularly smoke Marijuana. Or perhaps, you may be experiencing the first sign of a psychosis; that is also possible. The brain can do funny things.

But what if, like my friend, you are certain that your vision of a white rabbit was caused by none of these physical explanations? What then? Understanding a “white rabbit” takes us into the region of the unusual, mysterious and unknown. Our well-ordered explanations for reality don’t work anymore. There is only one way forward. We must evaluate using our basic rule for what is true. Either we are a “seeing is believing” person– we require facts and scientific explanations — or a “believing is seeing” person — we allow our beliefs to help us see beyond the rational, physical explanations for our experiences. If we are a “seeing is believing” person, there is no explanation other than some kind of hallucination triggered by unknown causes. If, however, we are a “believing is seeing” person, we still need to examine the white rabbit to determine what meaning, if any, to ascribe to this unusual event.

Does God send white rabbits?

The great saints and spiritual writers were deeply mistrustful of apparitions. They believed that God doesn’t need ‘white rabbits’ or other strange things to attract our attention. They were concerned that Satan used these devices to mislead people. So, we shouldn’t jump too quickly in interpreting such events. [My recommendation would be to discuss it with your priest or pastor.] But, I have also experienced a “rabbit” in my life which helps me to see my friend’s experience in a different light.

Once I made a silent retreat over a weekend in a beautiful old house on the Potomac River in southern Maryland in the USA. The priest who was guiding me that weekend suggested that I not spend my time reading (which was my normal way to fill in time on retreats) but to simply relax and “be present” to whatever happened. On Saturday morning, I was walking slowly around the gardens and suddenly there was a little grey rabbit sitting on the path looking at me. I stopped to watch him. He just sat there and looked at me. We stood like that for maybe 30 seconds. I then detoured around him, onto the grass, and left him sitting on “his path.” I laughed out loud with an experience of amusement!  I hadn’t felt such pure joy in my stressed life for many years. God didn’t send the rabbit — He sent the grace of  recognition, of what happened in my heart when I detoured around that rabbit.

I don’t know what kind of animal stopped my friend on the road that night, but I’m sure it wasn’t a ghost or a supernatural spectre. But both of us are certain that something happened in his heart due to that encounter. My belief (and his) is that God touched his heart, so that he returned to his wife. And God also touched his wife’s heart, to welcome him back without rancor, with a cup of tea.

The ability to see such things as commonplace is also a gift from God. That’s why I call this blog “Grace Filled World.” I hope that you will begin to notice such things in your life and, with the mindset “believing is seeing,” know that God is touching you with love and gifts many, many more times than you realise.

Authenticity and our three ‘Selves’

“Being authentic” is one of the key attributes of leading a good life in the postmodern mind. As our confidence in traditional beliefs and institutions has weakened, we have come to rely more and more on our own core strengths. One of these is our “integrity” or our “authenticity.” The opposites of “authenticity”  — being a “phony” or “wishy-washy” — are easy to imagine. But what does being authentic mean in practice?

We all experience “being human.” We can easily recognise three parts of ourselves in daily living:

  • Our normal feeling, thinking and behaving self, that does practically all our living, mostly automatically, “on autopilot.”
  • A critical self, that watches our normal self and tells us what we ought to be doing, why we aren’t living up to its expectations, etc.
  • A third self, the detached observer, who watches both these other selves, recognises their characteristics and wonders about “what all this means” and other questions.

What does “being authentic” mean?

Given that each person has these three selves, how do we live “authentically?” Here are several things living authentically doesn’t mean:

  • It doesn’t mean living only ‘on autopilot.’ It doesn’t mean “If it feels good, do it.” Our normal self is shaped by many things out of its control — where and when you were born, your family, etc — and makes choices based on these circumstances, without a full view of the consequences. Learning by experience is what our normal self does, sometimes to its regret.
  • It doesn’t mean doing what someone else tells you to do, especially your own critical self. While that self might possibly include recommendations from a well-developed conscience that we ought to listen to, many times it is simply inappropriate memories and limiting decisions that chatter away and distract us.
  • It doesn’t mean living in a detached state, observing life but not actually participating. Our detached observer could spend all its time mulling over questions while the normal self stays on “autopilot,” barely aware of other people or day to day life and the critical self as it chatters away.

To me, living authentically means being able to balance all three of these selves and participate in life according to some higher level of meaning and purpose. Living authetically implies that our detached observer becomes an involved and committed self, which counsels the normal and critical selves according to its understanding of my higher purpose. [You can see an example of how this involved and committed self might emerge in Steps 2 and 3 of the AA’s Twelve Step Program.]

The only authentic question we can ask

To a Christian, being authentic must mean that I live according to Jesus’ guidance for the meaning and purpose of my life. But, many times, this leads to more questions. What is Jesus’ guidance in my precise situation? Where do I find this guidance — in the Bible (which passage?), from the church (who?), from prayer (How do I recognise Jesus’ voice?), etc. We may want to develop our involved and committed self so that we can guide our normal and critical selves “authentically” but we get stuck in all these questions. Many times, I lapse back to detaching again and letting life go on as it always has, defending this choice with, “Oh, I’m a good person” or “I’ll rely on God’s mercy to sort all this out at the end.” While I forgive myself and keep on trying, being detached is certainly a cop-out and not living authentically.

These is only one authentic question that our involved and committed self can ask, to find the way forward. “Where is God right now in this situation?” If we truly strive to answer that question, then Jesus’ guidance (and grace) will surely find us in our need. Of course, it’s not like picking up a phone, calling the God number, and getting an instant answer by SMS. It is like a conversation with a close friend. You know the mind of a close friend, even when they aren’t there. By telling her or him the story of your situation, you are pretty certain about what they are going to tell you when you meet them face to face. Sometimes, you talk to other friends and tell them what your close friend told you, to get confirmation. This is a metaphor for prayer and Christian community.

A Christian’s involved and committed self is formed in prayer and in conversations with other Christians about our life. Forming this crucial authentic part of ourselves so we (and the community) can achieve God’s purpose for us is one of the primary purposes of a local church. If this is happening already in your life, you are fortunate to know how to pray and you are in a genunine Christian community. If that isn’t the case, perhaps you are being called to be a Change Agent in your own prayer and in your church.

 

Self-delusion and self-forgetfulness

I haven’t been to church for several months. For most of my life, this would have been unthinkable. Church was an integral part of my life. What has happened?

I sense that my choice to stop going to church is wrapped in my own negative stories about many aspects of church. Where did these stories come from? Why did they only recently congeal into a mass that blocks my way into a new/old relationship with church? Why is my confidence in these stories so high?

I wrote down all my reasons for not going to church and asked for my wife’s critique. As usual, she went right to heart of the matter. “Why are you being so precious about church? Why do you have all these unrealistic expectations?” [Ouch] “Why do you think you are a special case, not like the rest of us, struggling with the good and bad of church?” [Another ouch] “Why don’t you find a church that you like and just start going? Invest yourself in it?” [I don’t have an answer for that one.]

In a way, my wife raised the fundamental issue of self-delusion and self-forgetfulness. When I took Moral Theology in university, my professor made a statement at the beginning that has stayed with me. “Human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion.” That is  why one must never make serious moral decisions based solely on one’s own views or stories about a situation. Listening to my wife is one part of the ‘medicine’ I need to take, to find my way forward in the situation in which I find myself. I need to have conversations with Christians I trust, to learn how to soften the grip of my negative stories about church, and ‘forget’ them and myself.

Is this process of self-forgetfulness a repudiation of my own judgement, a surrender to the rationale of others? No and yes. To the extent that I have the final choice about what to do, no. To the extent that I value and take on board the opinions and stories of others, yes. Even if Jesus were here in the flesh, he wouldn’t tell me what to do. He advises me, through my conversations with others, but ultimately the pain and glory of being human is that I get to decide what to do about church.

Lord, save me from myself as I make this choice, from what T.S Eliot pointed at: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Don’t let me weaken and return to church because it will make me comfortable, or please others, including especially you Oh Lord. And don’t let me stay in self-delusion too long. Amen

 

 

The prison of ‘everyday’

The most basic fact about human life is ‘everyday.’ Everything we experience, know or hope is in the context of everyday. As the philosophers Kant and  Heidegger saw human life, we cannot get beyond our ideas about our world because our language is inextricably trapped in metaphors tied to everyday. But Jesus says that we are not of this world. He must have meant that there is a way to escape the ‘prison’ of everyday.

Jesus pointed out that the kingdom of God is at hand, as near to us as everyday life. He used ordinary metaphors from everyday experience to say what God’s presence is like — a pearl of great price for example. He also used metaphors to tell us how to find the kingdom — the woman who loses a single coin and searches diligently until she finds it. He also described our attitude as we search with another metaphor — we must be like ‘little children,’ innocently sees things with fresh eyes.

Once all this ‘clicks’ with us, through grace and the gift of faith, and we begin to experience intimations about the presence of the kingdom, we face another challenge. What is our response? How do we see the world and the kingdom, and act as if we are ‘already but not yet completely’ living in God’s kingdom?

One way of viewing church is as a way of expanding our everyday metaphors about life and learning with others how to live in the kingdom while surrounded by the world. And one way of deciding whether our church community is helping us meet this challenge or not is to have conversations often with believers, about how they experience the kingdom and how they live outside the ‘prison of everyday.’ If you feel that your church isn’t helping you with this challenge, that may be  a hint that you are being called to become a Change Agent and transform your local church.

Escaping the prison of nature, nurture and culture

Psychologists, cultural anthropologists and philosophers now generally agree that there is no such thing as an ‘independent, rational self.’ All of us are products of our genes, our upbringing and the pervasive, continual influence of the culture we live in. We cannot escape what it means to be human. As St. Paul said so well, “I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I want to do.”

But this ‘scientific’ view leaves grace out of the human situation. We are more than mind, desires and emotions. Jesus added to the conventional view of man and said, “Trust in God. Does he not feed the birds of the air? How much more then will he feed you?” if we see ‘feed’ as a metaphor for giving what is necessary for life, then God feeds us with His own life — obviously more than mind, emotions and culture — which we Christians call grace.

So, is our escape from our prison of nurture, nature and culture automatic? No. God also made us free as He is free, to create ourselves and our future unencumbered by grace if we wish. Jesus is right inside our ‘prison cell’ with us, and appeals to us to trust in God. We need to choose to take the first step.

In my experience, this need to choose generally happens when our life in the prison becomes intolerable. We encounter a crisis and learn that nature, nurture and culture doesn’t give us what we need. When we experience this, we stand helplessly by the walls of our cell, until we realize the door is actually open. When we experience that, we arrive at the edge of a new expanded world and a new Self. When we go through the door, we begin to ask, “What happened? What (or who) opened the door?”

The grace to answer that question enables us to begin our personal journey of transformation. My own personal experience was that, when I had exhausted my own personal capacity to live ‘successfully’ and had arrived a point of near-despair, grace came to me and rescued me from my self-created prison. That encounter changed my life.

Seeing with Jesus’ Eyes

“Our learning to see with Jesus’ eyes will eventually result in us desiring with Jesus’ heart — which is to say, our receiving the mind of Christ, which is how we discover the mind of God.” [James Alison in On Being Liked]

There is a chain of reasoning associated with this statement that each of us needs to ponder.

  1. Do we want to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes? Grace puts the desire in every human being’s heart but it doesn’t automatically ‘program’ us. That is our choice, using  God’s other great gift of human freedom.
  2. Once we say yes, however incoherently, to this first question we are faced with finding a new way to learn how to see with different eyes. Our minds are programmed to see in a certain way and our teachers see with the same eyes, and teach us to see like they see. Jesus’ is the only one who can teach us to see with his eyes and mind. How do we learn to listen to his teaching? This generally happens once we choose to become Christians, but that is only the first step in a journey of learning.
  3. Human beings learn from others within a cultural context. The best way to learn from Jesus is within a Christian culture. The only place that such cultures exist are in local Christian communities and even these may largely see with secular eyes, not Jesus’ eyes. So, do we search for the ‘right’ church or do we become part of a local church and help make it the ‘right’ church that sees with Jesus’ eyes? The Spirit leads us on this journey but my general sense is that we must follow Jesus’ example and ‘heal the sick’ right where we are. That means transforming the local church where the Spirit has led us.

What is seeing with Jesus’ eyes like? Alison says that Jesus’ eyes are ‘clear, limpid, non-accusing,  non-persecuted.’ These are all metaphors but if we unpack them , it may give us a picture of what this Christian Ideal is like in our experience. Once we begin to understand, then the desire to see like Jesus does will awaken and grow within us.

The Bible tells stories about how Jesus saw. In modern terms, he not only taught but modeled seeing as God sees. I will use the story of the woman caught in adultery [John 8:3- 11] to illustrate how we can use the Bible to unpack the metaphors for seeing that Alison uses.

Jesus’ eyes are clear

Jesus sees the woman standing in front of him, and the whole scene in the temple clearly. We might think that this is some kind of divine capability and he saw into her heart and the hearts of the teachers of the law. If we believe that, we probably give up and tell ourselves “I could never see like that.”  But imagine that Jesus simply sees the terror and guilt in the woman’s eyes, and the anger in the teachers’ eyes. And he sees all this taking place in the temple dedicated to God. We can do that kind of seeing if we simply notice what is going on. Having clear eyes like Jesus means our eyes are not clouded with non-essentials, and are focused on what is there in front of us, in the moment.

Jesus’ eyes are limpid

Limpid is an unusual word. It means transparent, translucent, serene, peaceful. As Jesus clearly saw the drama of the scene in front of him, he didn’t get caught up in the emotion that infected everyone. He didn’t automatically side with the woman nor did he engage in a debate with the teachers (though he could have easily done that).  He simply ‘bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.’ We usually think he is writing divine messages to the teachers or something like that.  But imagine he was just disconnecting himself from all the emotion and conflict surrounding him, allowing his serenity to become obvious to everyone. We could hope to practice limpid seeing in that manner, first imitating Jesus’ serenity then actually realizing  it in all situations.

Jesus’ eyes are non-accusing

The story explicitly says that Jesus refused to blame the woman or hold her responsible for her actions. We normally interpret that as Jesus overlooking the worman’s sin in order to teach the officials a lesson. But what if he genuinely liked this woman and did not accuse her of anything? What if God sees the woman and likes her, no matter what? What if Jesus (and God) say, “She is a creature and creatures do these things. What’s not to like? If I’m looking for perfect people to like, I won’t find anyone.” Seeing in a non-accusing way like this is very hard for us. We (and our churches) have standards for ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. We don’t generally like people who are very different than our standards for ‘good’ people. We may ‘forgive’ them and overlook their ‘sins’ but our seeing is still not Jesus’ seeing. We can only pray for God’s grace to give us this type of seeing.

Jesus’ eyes are non-persecuted

Persecute is another seldom used word (although we do persecute others all the time). When we berate someone, pester them or worse, abuse them, we are persecuting them. Jesus didn’t lecture the woman and simply advised her to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” More importantly, he didn’t berate or abuse the teachers who were misrepresenting God. He simply said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” His way of seeing the situation touched them and they all walked away. You’d like to think that they began to understand God’s way of seeing. At least we can begin to learn how to see like God ourselves.

Seeing with Jesus’ eyes means seeing in all these ways at once. Jesus’ way of seeing is based on liking ourself and others. As Alison puts it, “Because God likes us he wants us to get out of our addiction to the ersatz (phony, commonplace, conventional, culturally conditioned) so as to become free and happy.” The place to start liking, it seems to me, is liking all other Christians! If we are evangelical, liking the catholics. If we are catholic, liking the evangelicals. Not getting hung up about our differences but liking our diversity. Once we have mastered that situation, we can attempt liking others who are different than we are, who have different sins than we do, who may even wish us ill. We learn that liking in our local church, as it engages with the surrounding local communiity and the world. That’s why we must belong to a Christian community, and to transform it — to learn to see with Jesus’ eyes.