Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Impossibility of Abandoning the Self

Saint Ignatius said, “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace.” I reflect on these words while sitting on a train next to my son. We are taking a quick trip, and the train gives me some quiet time. Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” pops in my headphones. My son scribbles equations in a homework notebook. 

What would God make of us if we abandoned ourselves to God? I cannot answer this question for anyone but myself. For example, my son proves his sentient-status with each original sentence he utters. I cannot answer the question for him. I felt comfortable speaking for him when he was a child, but those days are gone. So, the question becomes ‘what would God make of me if I abandoned myself to God?’ 

The problem with abandoning the self is in abandonment we lose ourselves. If I am wholly God’s, then I am no longer my own. Maybe that is Ignatius’ point. Left to our own devices, we repeat the fall over and over again. Perhaps we should abandon the self, no longer be unique, and surrender to God. 

Somehow this does not seem to be what God wants either. Just like my son’s self-realization is interesting to me, the choices I make can be interesting to God. My self does not have to be sinful. I do not have to repeat the fall. I can make good choices. 

Does this mean I have no need for God? No. The second part of Ignatius’ quote is apropos. He says, “Let themselves be formed by his grace.” We can be ourselves yet allow God to form us. We can be especially formed by God’s grace. Knowing forgiveness and forgiving others creates distance between us and the fall. The fall is retributive. Grace is overcoming wrongdoing with positive action. 

To have a positive action, we must have freedom. If we are not free, we create nothing. We simply play out God’s divine script. Our actions do not count so much as fulfill God’s plan. Yet, we are free. We can make choices. We can recognize the potential God has placed in each us. 

Does this make us gods? No. We remain God’s servants. We can choose to abandon the sinful side of our being. This choice only has meaning when our abandonment is limited to sinfulness and we abandon to something—to God. Turning to God is a continual choice, made over and over again. Instead of repeating the fall, we choose God. When we do, we take a step toward experiencing our potential and truly knowing God’s grace. 

The Struggle Between God Knowing Us & Intervening in Our Lives

God knows us. God searches the depths of who we are. God is with us when we sit down and when we get up. God looks at our paths before we travel them. Even before we say something, God knows it. This is especially troubling because we do not always say words of love. We do not always say constructive things. How can this be if God knows what we are going to say before we say it? The psalmist does not say God intervene, just God sees. So, what is the point?
James says the tongue is a fire. It stains our bodies. No one can tame it. The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it, we bless God and curse those who are made in God’s image. The same mouth blesses and curses. This is the mouth God sees. This is the life God watches. James says that we should not act like this (James 3:6-10). Our words and our actions should bring God glory. We still say things that tear one another down.
In James 3:11, we have an example of these words God sees in Psalm 139:4. “The same spring cannot produce both fresh and brackish water.” Many years ago, on my first trip to the Everglades, I brought a backpacking water purifier with me. When the ranger asked how much water we were taking with us, I said, “Even we run out, it’s no problem because I have a water purifier.”
The ranger pointed out that unless it was capable of desalinating water, it would be useless because the much of the outer Everglades are brackish. The same body of water cannot hold both brackish and fresh water. This life that God watches cannot be both holy and unholy at the same time.
God knows what we face. In Psalm 139, God goes beyond the cosmic creator who put the moon and stars in place. We discover an inescapably personal God. The psalmist prays, “You formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “Virtually every line’s syntax contains a ‘you’ or ‘your’ and an ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’.”[1] James Mays writes,
Psalm 139 is the most personal expression in Scripture of the Old Testament’s radical monotheism. It is a doctrinal classic because it portrays human existence in all its dimensions in terms of God’s knowledge, presence, and power.[2]
My problem with this passage and this version of God is intervention. Kant writes, “Examples are the leading-strings of the power of judgment.”[3] In other words, examples help us understand and support our point or belief. We can find examples of God’s intervention. We can find examples to support the personal intimacy with God that we find in Psalm 139. We could say:
  •        God watched over me on my journey (139:3).
  •        God guided my words to be beautiful and useful (139:4).
  •        God heard my prayers and healed my friend (139:5).

The problem is Psalm 139 does not say God intervenes. The problem is not finding examples to support the notion of God intervening, but the counter-examples that undermine personal intimacy with God. The psalmist says, “You search out my path.” Yet, on Christmas Eve, 2017, in Lillington, NC, a Christmas tree caught fire in the home of Ed and Sarah Beddingfield. Ed is the pastor of nearby Memorial Baptist Church. They had just returned home when the fire started and Sarah was unable to escape the flames. She died. “You search out my path.” Why mine? Why not Sarah Beddingfield?[4]
I do feel God’s presence. I feel like I can testify to God watching my path. But, the counter-example of Sarah Beddingfield illustrates the multidimensional nature of engaging with God. Schleiermacher describes God-consciousness as the “feeling of absolute dependence” on God.[5] Many people feel God’s presence or feel absolutely dependent on God, especially when they speak. Yet, in spite of the progress on civil rights that we commemorate with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tomorrow, we still have hate speech.
We still have racism and bigotry. We live in a time when people can make statements that denigrate others based on the color of their skin. We should be beyond that. Fifty-five years ago, King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal.’”[6]
The psalmist reminds us that we do not walk alone, “You hem me in.” God is with us. Yet, we live in fear. Robert Gordon writes, “Fear motivates avoidance of vulnerability so that if one’s fears prove true, one will have salvaged what is importantly at stake.”[7] Fear is universal. Even those who know God is with them can be afraid. Even those who appear fearless will have some Achilles heel, some aspect of their lives that they would desperately like to avoid. It is this fear that leads us to shirk back from the devotional courage of this Psalm. It allows us to point to deaths, like Sarah Beddingfield, and say, “See?!? God is not really searching out my path. I should be afraid.”
God does not call us to be afraid. God calls us to be courageous. I do not know anything about Sarah Beddingfield’s life, but I know that each one of us has the gift of another day. It is a day to be alive and to exhibit courage, knowing that God stands with us. We stand before God, not a distant, unengaged God who set the world in motion and then walked away. We stand before the Lord, who searches us and knows us. God sees us in all things, in all situations, in the good, in the bad, during celebrations and abysmal failures—and I can look at my life and see both.
Courage is complicated. Someone who is distinguished in one area can be an utter coward in another.[8] We might not be able to undo some of the bad. We cannot bring back someone who is gone. But, we can join God in celebrating everything good. We can follow God and speak good, encouragement, and love.
I thought about some of my own highs and lows. Certainly, one of the great high points of my life is the birth of my children. In Psalm 139, I see that God knew my children before they were born. God was present in the miracle of their formation. God was there, celebrating with me, in the moment of their birth. Then, the universality of this psalm sinks in. God was present and celebrating at the birth of every child ever born.
God knows us. God searches the depths of who we are. God is with us when we sit down and when we get up. God looks at our paths before we travel them. Even before we say something, God knows it. God does not force us our actions or choose our words. God knows us and wants a relationship with us. God gives us the freedom to choose.
Love back the one who loves you.

[1] James L. Mays, Psalms, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., and Paul J. Actemeier, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 427.
[2] Mays, 425.
[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 269.
[4] Gilbert Baez and Emmy Victor, "Harnett Minister's Wife Killed, Daughter Burned When Christmas Tree Sparks Fire," Capitol Broadcasting Company,
[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. Hugh Ross Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart, trans. D. M. Baillie, et al. (New York: T & T Clark, 1999), 132.
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 219.
[7] Robert M. Gordon, "Fear," The Philosophical Review 89, no. 4 (1980): 560.
[8] Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, trans. R. M. French (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944), 160.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Lord, help me to be fully alive to your holy presence.

My prayer, as the new year begins, is, “Lord, help me to be fully alive to your holy presence.” God is alive. God is active. I have the Bible to tell me about God’s revelation and activity in the past. My faith is not dependent on the revelation reflected in the Bible. For I can see God. One might ask, “How?” This would be a logical question. Proofs for God’s existence have long been a viable philosophical category. Is my confidence in God based on a philosophical proof? No. I did not start from the question of whether or not God exists. My starting point is awareness of God’s presence. I accept God’s existence as a matter of faith, tradition, and experience. To the denier, to the atheist or agnostic, I say, we are discussing different subjects. I have no more responsibility to prove God’s existence than the denier is responsible for proving God does not exist. I am not trying to prove there is a God. I accept God. My goal in the new year is to be awake to God’s presence.
Thus, what does it mean to be fully alive to God’s holy presence? As I say above, God is active. Seeing God can be accidental. A profound event, amazing beauty, or touching kindness can remind my soul of God’s presence. These occasions of accidental God sightings are not reliable. They are intense, but we do not know when they will show up. Consider a sunset. On the one hand, some sunsets are breathtaking. They are so beautiful that they remind us of God. In that moment, when the sun disappears from view, the world seems still and right, and God’s goodness fills time. On the other hand, there is a sunset every day. Some can appear normal, or even banal or mundane. “Ah! Another sunset means another day is done!”
To this latter experience of the normal course of events, I turn. My prayer, “Lord, help me to be fully alive to your holy presence,” is a plea. God, who is active, participate in my activity. God, who is alive, make me alive to your presence. It is also a plan. I want to be aware of God. I do not need an accidental sighting. I can look for God, be open to God’s movement, and see God even in the banal moments of everyday life.