Earn a Demerit

September 24, 2020

You didn’t earn a merit point. In fact, what you did earned the opposite–a demerit.

What do we know about God? And about humans? We know that humans earn a demerit from God quite easily. It’s almost as if we cannot breathe without doing or thinking something that violates God’s high standards that will earn us another demerit.

That is why the endless efforts to devise lists of rules for others to follow so that we have a scorecard that shows some are better (us) and some are worse (them) is worse than useless.

God doesn’t look at some cosmic scoreboard and say, “Well, done. We scored 1 demerit and they scored 10. I declare we the winner.”

Some people think, “I don’t even need a scoreboard. I know how good I am. I don’t score by 1’s, my scores wouldn’t add up to 1 over a month.”

Others think there is no need to keep score because there’s no way I can win.

But God says, “Hold on there, people. Throw away that scoreboard. Even if you score 0.01, you lose. But I’m not participating in that game. That’s just you silly humans trying to divide yourselves into groups. I have something that is a different game. It’s called grace. And mercy. And I invite you into a new game in my kingdom where we don’t keep score.”

And when you decide to play a new game you become aware of your own demerits, ask forgiveness from God and those whom you’ve offended, and then live a new kind of life where you don’t keep score–you just love.

When I first learned Jesus songs back in the folk song days, I learned this one. It goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.”

[For reference, try reading the Letter to the Romans straight through to get the breadth of the argument Paul makes.]

Law of Unintended Consequences

September 23, 2020

French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre pondered the inextricable way slave owners are tied to their slaves. You start a way of life and you cannot escape.

Thomas Merton writing in New Seeds of Contemplation discusses what happens to one who hates as that hatred of others turns inward and destroys the hater.

The spiritual formation point is awareness. Until we become aware of who we are and what we’ve done, our lives can continue to spiral down the drain like when emptying the bath tub. The comic point of Wile E. Coyote is that he doesn’t fall when he’s run off the edge of the cliff until he is aware he is standing on air.

Sometimes, though, the unintended consequence of our actions leads to something good, as Rich Dixon writes on Jon Swanson’s 300 Words a Day blog today, that he pulled to the side of a road while cycling discovering a perfect place for prayer.

Awareness can stop us before we get in that predicament. Sometimes awareness can cause us to appreciate what we’ve experienced. Therefore the daily pause in meditation to stop things and survey and ask God for forgiveness for our wrong choices and for guidance back on the path.

Tools of the Trade

September 22, 2020

Anne Lamott said, It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty, bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds they’re enough.

I am encouraged by Lamott’s thought. I also thought adults must be so smart and, well, mature. Then as I grew, I started noticing cracks in the facade. They were not always trustworthy. Sometimes there was anger rather than wisdom. Sometimes grown men acted like little boys. Sometimes grown women acted as if they were still in junior high school.

Sometimes I saw all of that in me. It was disturbing.

I found that I was just feeling my way along. Growing some here, slipping back there. Then while reading about people throughout history, I saw that they also struggled.

Reading the early Christians from Paul and James and John up through the Desert Fathers, Ambrose, Jerome, until Augustine, I am fascinated by their struggles to understand this new reality brought through Jesus. So, I don’t feel so unique in my struggles to understand.

I just must take those “rusty, bent old tools–friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty–and” do the best I can.

Learn For Love

September 21, 2020

Moreover, love itself, which binds us together in the bond of unity, would have no means of pouring soul into soul, and, as it were, mingling them with each other, if human beings never learned anything from one another. —Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

Zena Hitz says in her book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, about the quote above, “Augustine says that our ability to love one another depends on our capacity to learn from one another. That suggests that we learn in order to love.”

Learning requires setting aside time to get to know someone. This is not something you do by scanning their feeds on Facebook or Instagram. There is a person behind that facade.

Learning requires listening. To listen truly means not only using time, but also attention and focus. Attention must be on the other. Reaction to what is said may come later, but that must not be where the attention lives in the moment.

Learning about does not necessarily mean agreeing with.

A person whom God loves resides in that skin. Learning can always happen. If we let it.

[Two notes. First, a reminder that I am linking books to bookshop.org which supports your local independent book seller. Second, Hitz’ book is definitely not about intellectual snobbery. She’s been there, done that, and left it behind. It’s about learning as a path to growing as a person.]

God’s Will

September 18, 2020

What is God’s Will?

I enjoyed Andy Stanley’s teaching series on the God of the No Testament where he looked at ways we view God and Jesus that are not in the Bible. I had thought of many of those and pondered them, but I’m no Andy Stanley and never put them into a series of teachings with a cute title.

We humans have devised many views of God’s will. We didn’t get something we wanted from Vending-Machine-God and tell ourselves, “I guess it wasn’t God’s will that I get it.” Someone dies, we say it must have been God’s will. We may ask, what is God’s will for my next job?

Some people imagine a remote, judgmental God who exerts his will on us to punish us or to drive us toward some decision.

Reading in Thomas Merton recently, I came across this thought

In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love…We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good.

New Seeds of Contemplation

What a marvelous thought to digest. As in, take the thought into ourselves, ruminate on it, let it become part of ourselves giving us energy.

How did the Apostle John put it…God is Love.

Imagine how it would re-orient our attitude, our direction, our life if we could but bring that love which is God’s will into the very core of our being!

Perspective

September 17, 2020

There was a virtual conference this week from a software company I follow. In a normal year, I would be in Folsom, California attending the conference physically. But, we all know about normal.

The company’s products tie together into different modules. One module they specifically emphasized as foundational important to understand the complete software solution was called Perspective.

I thought, “What an important word…and attitude.” In my first drawing class, the instructor taught perspective as we prepared to draw an object in 3D. It was the point of view of the observer in relation to the object. We must choose the right point of view in order to render the object for maximum information.

Sometimes we use the term as the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance. We talk about “gaining” perspective. Or perhaps said as changing our point of view to gain a better understanding.

I will teach beginning soccer referees that when players are challenging for the ball, the referee will find themselves bringing focus down to the feet and the ball. But we have to learn to broaden our perspective first to take in the entire bodies of the players and then with experience we learn to broaden our perspective still further to see several players and see the play develop until we have the challenge. We are so much more ready to determine who will be fouling whom with perspective.

And I thought, this is a human condition. We will find ourselves focusing on events or situations ever more narrowly. So much so, that we fail to see the bigger picture of motivations and who gains advantage over whom and what the likely outcomes will be.

Perhaps you’re like me and need a constant reminder that striving for God’s perspective means changing our own perspective–even if it hurts.

Cause and Effect, Part Two

September 16, 2020

I wrote earlier this week about God’s logic of cause and effect. What we do causes certain effects upon us. Good or bad.

It’s inevitable. If we continue to pursue an unhealthy lifestyle, we will become ill. If we meditate and pray daily, our outlook on life will improve.

But, let’s admit it, we humans also turn this cause and effect thinking around. We think, if we pray to God, we expect an effect. I want this, and I want it now. OK, God, I’m waiting not-so-patiently for your granting of my wish.

I call this “vending-machine God”. Put in your payment (prayer) and receive your little bag or cup of goodies.

But, when God created the universe and everything in it, he also created some laws to keep it going. Cause and effect is one.

Humans have been trying to buy God’s favor forever. Sacrifices, magic, religions. None worked.

We might as well turn our attention to living with God. We know the disciplines and the attitudes. We just have to practice them. And as Merton said in the passage I quoted yesterday, patience will come. We will see into our motivations. And we will find ourselves part of God and letting God do for us what he will.

When I began meditating for this brief post, I began with how frustrated we all are waiting for this SARS-CoV-2 virus to run its course and go away. We can’t see it; we can’t hear it; we don’t always see the effects. Now, more than ever, we need to live with cause-and-effect and reside in God’s kingdom. That’s the place where we serve others instead of demanding to be served.

Grow in Charity

September 15, 2020

Psychologists are all over mindfulness meditation right now. Dozens of apps have sprung up like spring mushrooms on our smart phones.

Indeed, an intentional practice of once or twice daily meditation will (not just can) change your outlook and personality.

Thomas Merton says, “If well made, my meditation will bear fruit in an increase of fortitude in patience. My patience will help me to endure trials in such a way that my soul will be purified of many imperfections and obstacles to grace. I will learn to know better the sources of anger in myself. I will then grow in charity, and since charity is the source of supernatural merit, I will merit a higher degree of union with God in heaven. Also, of course, I will be a more charitable and virtuous person here on earth.”

I can testify to the accuracy of Merton’s observation. This is all true about the intentional practice of meditation. You, too, can change your life. And grow in charity, also known as love.

Cause and Effect

September 14, 2020

If you continue to behave this way, then certain punishment will come to you, otherwise you can walk with God.

Not only the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but many other stories there reveal this inevitable logic of God. And also the Christian Bible.

Not only these texts. Much of ancient literature and thinking discusses cause and effect.

Even today that essential logic is unrelenting. If you continue eating highly processed food and load up on sugar, then you will surely suffer health consequences.

If you do not exercise your muscles, your body will become weak, flabby, and prone to illness.

If you do not exercise your brain muscle, you will not grow and mature in knowledge.

If you do not exercise your spiritual muscles, then you will not grow closer to God.

Finding Your Spiritual Path

September 11, 2020

I’m fascinated by the Desert Fathers. These are people who felt the need for deeper communion and understanding of God and Jesus. This drove them into the wilds of the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

The undertaking was dangerous. They ate what they could beg for in a nearby village or whatever they could forage. Bandits would happen by and cause physical harm. Sometimes Roman soldiers would come around and beat them depending upon the political winds.

But by and large they were a dedicated and hardy lot leaving behind some excellent writings.

And think of the other Christ-followers from the first three centuries. Maybe like me you read the apostles and early leaders to discover a list of rules. I follow them (or say I do) and I’m “in”; while there are many who don’t and they are “out”.

Then you discover that combining all the writings maybe up through Augustine of Hippo and discover it’s really a story–a story of how these communities struggled to figure out the the path that Jesus set them all out on.

This fits, because just as Paul wrote in Romans and Galatians we are all on that path. We start out ignorant like a child and then we grow in knowledge and maturity. And we find the path.

It’s not a list. It’s a direction.