Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Spiritual progress is usually hidden

But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing  so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. Matt. 6:3-4 CEB

Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Matt. 25:37-39 CEB

But wisdom, where can it be found; where is the place of understanding? Humankind doesn’t know its value; it isn’t found in the land of the living. The Deep says, “It’s not with me”; the Sea says, “Not alongside me!” But wisdom, where does she come from? Where is the place of understanding? She’s hidden from the eyes of all the living... God understands her way; he knows her place; for he looks to the ends of the earth and surveys everything beneath the heavens. Job 28: 12-14, 20 ff. CEB


God sees our progress  
Like the inextricable wisdom hidden deep in the earth, our actual growth in wholeness and holiness seems inaccessible at times. Even if you engage in, say journaling, the actual signs of deepening in love can be far away.

I once kept a journal as apart of a D. Min. class. One reason given for keeping a journal is to look back and see what  "progress" has been made. But in this instance, when I read prior posts, what I really saw was not movement, but stuck-ness: it seemed I was repeating the same struggles from month to month.


What is it about transformation of spirit that is so hidden from our  eyes? Remember Jesus' remarkable parable about the seed growing secretly, in hiddenness? (Mark 4:26 ff.) "In secret" is akin to "hidden" in the New Testament.  Could being "rewarded" in secret be something that is actually invisible to us?    
A better question might be, why do we need to see our progress? Jesus is describing a mystery organic to the Kingdom. The sphere of God's reign frustrates our best efforts at controlling God's movement of grace, which is at work within us, yet far exceeds anything we can ask or imagine. (Eph. 3:20) Or see.    

All attempts at "measurable results" in the spiritual life are a dead end, or at best, a detour. The ego invests everything in its programs of success, including the tangible results of our spiritual methods. But if Jesus is right, our reward is usually hidden from our eyes, off the excel chart of spiritual production.

Just because we can't make the reward a commodity like everything else doesn't mean that we don't receive it. Like the leaven that is hidden in the dough, God's rule of grace is active in us: it pops and sizzles and transforms us, often in spite of our best attempts at changing ourselves.

The "reward" of less ego is experiencing more of God's abundant love. The Apostle Paul's vision is that our life will culminate in the experience of knowing as we are known by God, loving as we are loved by God: "Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known." (I Cor. 13:12) That could be considered the true fulfillment of our lives in God.

Give us, loving God, our true reward: more of you, more of your love, peace and grace, both now in the days to come.    

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Engage Practices for Self Awareness & Authenticity


Be careful not to use the spiritual practices as a photo op
Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1 CEB
 

After the hedonism of Mardi Gras, it's that time of the year when the spiritual practices will soon be in vogue. Again.

The reading from Matthew 6 is a reminder that the practices are really nothing in themselves. After all, prayer, giving, and fasting are practices embedded  in  many religions outside of Christianity.
 
If the practices buttress my spiritual accomplishments, they are just another occasion for hypocrisy and pretense. Anything we do in the name of faith can be subverted by our own ego, our need to say, along with Little Jack Horner, "what a proud boy am I." It's too easy to present ourselves in way that is overblown- where the image we project goes far beyond where we're actually living. Others can see through the pretense, and Jesus called that hypocrisy.
 
According to Jesus, God doesn't really seem to care that we pray or give or fast if it is ego-driven: done only to feel better about ourselves, to check off a box, or to prove how spiritual we can be.  In fact, it might be better to not engage them at all if I start the journey unaware of what is pushing me in the first place. Without self awareness, our natural default is the affirmation and acceptance of others. The glow of empty praise lasts for how long? A few minutes?

There are the updates of folks trumpeting their fasting by showing us their empty plates, or of churches asking you to stand up and tell everyone that you give generously. (If you read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, you may see that this church practice has a negative NT precedent, suggesting that the burden of proof is on substantiating exactly why followers of Jesus should be declaring their generosity before others).  I try to post photos of our service days at the Houston Food Bank. If I never did that, would it take anything away from our experience? On the contrary, it might add something to our spirits.
 
Richard Rohr, in his recent Dancing Standing Still (2014) has this to say about what most Christians consider a core spiritual practice, worship: "Jesus clearly taught the twelve disciples about surrender, the necessity of suffering, humility, servant leadership, and nonviolence...The men resisted every time, and so he finally has to make the journey himself and tell them, "Follow me!" But we avoided that, too, by making the message into something he never said: "Worship me." Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus would change everything."   
 
Go through the motions unaware and my default is driven by ego and the acceptance of others. Engage the practices as a means for self awareness, and I can receive in the secret place- my depths- God's Spirit of love and peace, the locus of true change.

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