Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas: The Irritating Vulnerability of God

Christmas is the celebration of God’s willingness to risk the ultimate vulnerability. In Jesus God becomes helpless, vulnerable, at risk for all the random chaos and cruelty that defines human life. In the Nativity we see the divine stripped of power and control. So perhaps the lesson for us all is that every day is Christmas.

We often say that they key to Christmas is that God is born in our lives. God’s action and presence become real in the world through our work, our becoming the hands of Christ. This is true but there is another reality that Christ does not come in power and might but on the margins, in the rejected and powerless.

So what does this reality of the coming of the vulnerable presence of God mean in our lives? Perhaps we begin by looking around us. In our communities, whether they are families, monasteries, work places, Churches, who are the marginalized, who are the people we brush aside, the people we would rather not deal with? It is always easier to be open to the presence of God as long as God does not challenge us in real, concrete ways right in front of our eyes. The presence of God we need to see may not be the lovable people but the ones who challenge us, who we dismiss, the people we feel justified in disliking or ignoring. In his ministry the people Jesus angered the most were the good, observant, righteous, religious people of his time. These were the ones least able to see God in the form of Jesus. We need to ask ourselves if we too are missing the presence of God in our midst today.

The vulnerable coming of God also happens within as well as in the people around us. The interior birth of God in our lives, the coming of God’s power deep in our hearts can also be unexpected and unwelcome. We prefer our spiritual growth to feel good, we want prayer to be full of consolations, becoming closer to God should be a warm, comforting experience. But God comes in the flesh, comes in our lives to bring us to wholeness, to salvation, to a grace that has no price but is never cheap.

God’s presence being born in our lives often shows in the parts of ourselves that are on the margins, rejected or ignored. God comes to shake up our complacency, our easy presumption that we can be faithful to God’s call while remaining in control of our life. In the midst of our comfort God comes in the form of those parts of ourselves that we would rather not face, that we would rather deny are even part of who we are. In the depths of the anger, fear, bitterness, arrogance, laziness, or other characteristics we are loathe to admit are part of us, Jesus waits for us like the father of the prodigal son waiting on the road to embrace us in all our woundedness. The rejected parts of ourselves are embraced, anointed and welcomed and through God’s love become characteristics that are redeemed and made whole.

It is easy to reduce the Nativity to a “nice” scene, beautiful baby, beaming parents, exotic visitors and sanitized animals. But the birth of God is a radical, dangerous reality in our lives in our world. The incarnation means that God is a vulnerable new presence that turns everything upside down. God will come in the marginalized, difficult people we want to ignore but who invite us to know the deep and difficult reality of love. God is present in the rejected, broken parts of ourselves that we want to deny but that need to be recognized and incorporated for us to be who we were truly created to be.

We easily say “Come Lord Jesus” at this time of year. Perhaps this year we can say it knowing what it truly means, say it with fear, trembling and the deep hope that the Lord will truly come and make us new creations.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent Week Four: What Are We Willing to Risk?

What are we willing to risk in our encounter with God? When we read the Gospel for this Sunday, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we already know how the story ends. Like little children with a bedtime story we know by heart we’re eager to chime in with “and they lived happily ever after.” But to read the story this way is to take away both its power and its subversive application to our lives.

We forget that Joseph didn’t know how the story would turn out. He hadn’t seen the end of this movie when he had a strange dream. What Joseph had was a fiancĂ© who was pregnant before they had been together. Here is where we tend to be oblivious or squeamish. Joseph faced a fiancĂ© pregnant by someone other than himself. He would have assumed that he had been cuckolded. Whether today or two thousand years ago Joseph’s position would have been one of pain, shame and confusion. As a just and righteous man he didn’t want to cause any more pain than had already been afflicted so a quiet divorce would have been the only way to salvage some shred of dignity enabling both he and Mary to go on with their lives. The alternative would have been to allow Mary to be stoned for adultery.

But then, in the midst of the turmoil Joseph has a dream. This is where we like to skip ahead. Of course he will understand that the dream is of God, of course he will take Mary as his wife, of course the child born will be the Son of God. But was anything certain in those first sleep addled moments when Joseph awoke and wondered what on earth he had just dreamed?

There would have been very little risk for Joseph if he had done as most of us would have, shake his head and think “what a strange dream” and sink back into the pain of his knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy. God had sent an invitation, an invitation that entailed enormous risk for Joseph. Today or two thousand years ago the sudden, strange, incomprehensible messages of God call us to give up our well planned future. Joseph’s future would have entailed a painful divorce and sense of betrayal if he had ignored the dream. But to listen to the dream would have entailed entry into an unknown land.

If we listen to the strange, whispered invitations of God we will risk the unknown, the incomprehensible. No one would have blamed Joseph for thinking his dream was a chimera, a reassuring hope obscuring the difficult reality. Indeed how would most of us react when a friend comes to us, ready to take a huge risk based on a dream that they insist is from God?

But to listen to God is to walk blindfolded on an unknown road. For Joseph it meant facing shame and derision from those who had not heard the news, the dreams or the angels that only we know come from God. For those of us who are Benedictine it means taking the risk of committing ourselves to a way of life that makes little sense in world. Inside or outside the monastery we risk saying that there is nothing more important than to seek God. We commit ourselves to a way of life, a set of values at odds with our predominant culture. If we listen, truly listen and respond to the odd dreams, stirrings and angels that whisper, we will walk down an unknown road.

For Benedictines this risk is echoed in Benedict’s chapter on incorporation of new monastics into the community. In chapter 58 of the Rule of Benedict he describes the process whereby the new, idealist seeker comes to the monastery. Full of hope, the newcomer has probably already given up a tremendous amount to arrive at the door of this house of God. And there, instead of a warm welcome acknowledging the call and the risk to show up on the doorstep of a monastery, Benedict says the newcomer should be left for several days knocking on the door.

Benedict is saying: do you know the risk of responding to this invitation from God? Do you know the risk of entering monastic life where your life will no longer be your own but will belong to God? Benedict says: listen, are you going into this journey with full awareness, with your eyes open? The Rule requires a long period of transition, of formation in this new monastic way. When the probation is finally over and the new monastic is to be received into the community there is a final symbolic process to remind the new member of the risk of listening to God.

The new monastic writes out lifetime promises of stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life and places the document on the altar. In this action the risk is both symbolized and made real. The monastic profession of one individual is united on the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. The action says are you willing to follow Christ in obedience and sacrifice? Are you willing to take the risk? Can you give up your comfortable, complacent life and walk the unknown road of transformation, taking on Christ in this journey that requires the cross before the resurrection?

But now it is Advent, the time of coming, the time of new birth. With birth everything will change but we stand at a crossroads, will this birth happen in our lives? Will we take the risk of the entry of God in our lives? We make the choice every day. Listen: in strange dreams, in the whispers of angels, in odd and unexpected corners of our lives God is inviting us to risk, to travel an unknown road. Are you listening?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Week Three: What Did You Come to See? The Motley Crew Comes With Singing Into Zion

So what does the coming of the Lord look like in Advent? Like the disciples of John the Baptist we have to ask ourselves what we have come to see in this Advent season. I suspect most of us resonate with the straight-forward wonder of Isaiah’s reading, the joy and rejoicing as the ransomed people coming singing into Zion. But the reading from the Gospel is odd, puzzling, ambiguous. Jesus is talking in riddles, pointing to a strange, coming reality of the Kingdom of God. John’s disciples are skeptical about the coming of Jesus. He doesn’t look like what they expected, where is their triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the vengeance and divine recompense? Jesus reassures John’s disciples and the crowds who came to see him that something amazing is indeed happening, starting with the appearance of this strange prophet in the wilderness.

I suspect Benedict would identify with the questions Jesus asks. In his Rule Benedict has set up the structure for a group of people who are also looking for the Kingdom of God. Monastics are those inside and outside of monasteries who are seeking the deeper reality of God in their lives. Monastics are those who have come to the wilderness of Benedictine life looking for the new reality of transformation and like the followers of John and Jesus in the reading they are sometimes confused by what they see. Did you come to Benedictine life seeking an easy life of comfortable prayer and cheap grace? Did you come to make the journey with a perfect, companionable group of people? Benedict stands in the wilderness and responds that we find the prophetic, we find the way leading to the Reign of God in the midst of the mundane, daily reality of our lives and the motley crew that composes the community that each of us belongs to.

In his Rule Benedict says that he intends to set up “a school for the Lord’s service.” He is equally clear that this way of life, this school, isn’t a post-graduate course for the spiritually talented. His school, set out in his “little rule for beginners” is more of a kindergarten than an advanced degree program. Benedict knows that we are all beginners in the spiritual journey and like a group of kindergarteners we need to be holding hands if we are to make progress and not get lost on our life-long field trip to the Kingdom of God.

This is where we get confused. How can this motley crew of people I am connected with on my spiritual journey really be part of the Reign of God? My monastic community, my oblate community, my Church, my faith sharing group, they aren’t any further along on the journey than I am! Where is the wonderful vision of Isaiah? When I look around at the people with me I’m not seeing much glory and splendor and miracles. Is this what is to come or shall we await something better?

But here is the paradox of the Gospel, of the Reign of God, of Benedictine life. The coming of God does indeed happen with glory and singing and the irruption of God into our daily reality, but it rarely looks like our expectations. The coming of God requires us to learn a new way of seeing, listening, acting and being. Miracles happen in our little kindergarten of the Lord’s service. God enters our lives when we slow down and hold hands with those who are on the way with us. The Reign of God comes about when those of us who are deaf learn to listen to God, one another and our hurting world with the ears of our heart. There is singing in Zion when those of us who are blind come to see the image of God in those who unfailingly get on our last nerve day after day, year after year. The lame will leap for joy when together we take action to bind up the wounds of the world in the name of God’s love.

What did we go out in the wilderness of Benedictine spirituality and the Rule to see? A sophisticated, perfect set of people living without conflict? A way of life that brings instantaneous spiritual progress to my self and the world? No, we go to the wilderness of the monastic way to look around and see a motley crew of people who are frequently lost, scared, anxious and disagreeable who have agreed to hold hands with each other and with God so that together they will know that they are journeying together into everlasting life.

So, fellow children, this is our invitation of Advent. Stay together, hold hands, listen carefully to the instructions of God’s word and pay attention to the sights and sounds of the amazing, unexpected, wonderful birth of God in our lives and in our world.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Week Two: Wisdom and a Swift Kick in the Complacency

What do we hear when we listen? The invitation to listen, be awake, be prepared came in the first Sunday of Advent. And now the message is being revealed in this second week. In Isaiah’s reading we see the figure coming to establish a new order. This shoot from the stump of Jesse will judge with justice and righteous and inaugurate a radically new reality where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them. This call to a new order is echoed in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist is the herald of a new order, calling people to repentance in preparation for the one who is to come for the final judgment.

These readings of Advent call us to radical change, change that will come from the root of our being. In these readings a figure will come and shake us out of sleep, calling us to a life with God is at the center, a life in which all that we do, manifests the reality of God’s transformative presence.

The insistent invitation of these reading are echoed in the Rule. The Rule of Benedict seeks to establish an entire way of life that calls us to live the Advent readings on a daily basis. The Rule creates external structures and practices that guide us on the journey to transformation, the journey to becoming remade in the image of Christ. Over time the practices of the Rule will eventually become a deep and natural part of our selves.

The Advent readings focus on the one who is to come, the figure who will challenge people and judge with righteousness in order to bring about the new Reign of God. In the Rule we see this wisdom figure personified in the abbot or prioress. This is the person chosen by the community to be the one to support and challenge, guide and judge as a way to call all members of the monastic community to become who God is calling them to be. The abbot or prioress is the figure who calls everyone to accountability so that the monastic community may become a group of transformed people who manifest God’s love in the world.

For Benedict the abbot or prioress has to carefully discern the needs of her flock and treat each person individually: “He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging them as appropriate.” (RB 2:31) The abbot or prioress is the person in our life who calls us to the hard, inner work of faith. The abbot or prioress is the one who encourages us when we are struggling to see ourselves as beloved of God. They are the ones who call us to accountability when we take our faith for granted, when we are no longer stretching and growing in our journey toward wholeness.

As Benedict indicates this job is difficult because so many of us are unaware of how we need to grow in faith. The abbot or prioress has to support the many people who cannot see themselves as being worthy of God’s love, who struggle with guilt, always finding themselves lacking or unworthy. In any group there are also the Pharisees that John warned so strongly. How many of us are blind to our complacency, like the Pharisees we are good, holy people who do all the right things but take God’s mercy for granted, as an entitlement rather than being overwhelmed by such an undeserved gift?

All of us, those who struggle to believe we are made in the image of God and those who take God’s love for granted, need the presence of the abbot or prioress to nurture and challenge us to growth. The image of the people of God as a flock of sheep resounds throughout Scripture, throughout the Rule of Benedict. We are not individuals before God, we are part of a people, bound together in our journey, needing help and accountability.

The Rule of Benedict is a way of living out the call of the Gospel in everyday life. It speaks to professed monastics and anyone seeking to live a life of deeper faith. Benedict has set up an external structure but the structure is not an end in and of itself. The monastery is not just a building it is a way of life. The abbot or prioress is not just a person in a building, they represent the people and ways that keep us on track in our spiritual journey. The abbot or prioress is the wisdom figure in our life who has been instrumental in our faith life. They can be anybody who is a guide in darkness, a support in despair, the one who challenges our assumptions, who calls us to accountability.

The abbot or prioress is also the deep, interior voice of God in our life. When we listen, are silent, open and awake we will hear the invitation of new life. The abbot or prioress is this deep whispering of God in our soul. When we hear the whispers of restlessness, the deep realization that we are loved, the call to change, this is the voice of the abbot or prioress of our life, the call of the righteous one of Isaiah, the one to come spoken of by John the Baptist. The call is always the call to listen. The call is to live as Advent people, always awake, always ready, because the coming of God in our life is a daily reality.