“As the Waters Cover the Sea”

This is an odd turn of phrase that appears in today’s first reading from the Daily Lectionary.

The full sentence is:

But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

It strikes me as odd because it is the very nature of the sea to be covered with water. Without water, the sea would simply be a valley or a large hole in the ground.

In the same way, God is the very nature of the universe itself. Theologian Paul Tillich referred to God as “the Ground of Being”. St. Thomas Aquinas similarly wrote that it is more appropriate to say that God is “existence” than that God is an object that “exists”.

As a self-described panentheist (not to be confused with pantheism), I would agree with Tillich and Aquinas. Here is how I would say it: God is in all things because, more accurately, all things exist in God.

One of my favorite images of God is the pregnant mother. God creates the universe, distinct but not entirely separate from God. The universe is growing within the divine womb.

When a baby grows inside of her mother, it would not be inaccurate to say that her mother is her whole world. Ask a fetus, “Where is Mom?” And the child would answer (if she could), “Mom is everywhere.”

Does this mean that the mother only exists within the child or the womb that carries her? No, that would be an incomplete statement (although it is certainly reflective of the child’s limited experience). It would be more accurate to say the opposite: That the child exists within her mother, who loves her and sustains her growth.

I believe the same to be true of our relationship to God.

We are not wrong to say that “God is everywhere.” In a sense, we are also justified, based on our limited experience, in saying that “God is in all things.” But I tend to believe the opposite, that “All things exist in God,” just as a fetus grows in her mother’s womb.

This, I think, is at the root of Habakkuk’s vision that the divine shekhinah covers the earth “as the waters cover the sea.” This is the fetus waxing eloquent about the mother.

Even more interesting is the context in which this revelation arises.

If the universe exists within the Divine womb, then it must certainly be a troubled pregnancy. The prophet describes a world gone awry, rife with social stratification where the rich have isolated themselves from the poverty they create by their indulgence:

Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.

The entire economic system is founded on violence and indulgence:

Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!

He describes it as an act of rape:

Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!

The destruction extends even to the earth itself. The prophet warns of mass extinction emerging from human exploitation of the environment:

For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you– because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.

Yet, the central truth remains: That the universe exists within the Divine womb.

We have only forgotten it. Unable to see the mother’s face directly, we have decided that we homo sapiens are the be-all, end-all of existence. We have decided that this womb, the amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord, and our magnificent selves are the product of some unknown, random accident.

Believing ourselves to be the only intelligence in the cosmos, we try to set ourselves in the place of God, and quickly discover that we are bad at the job. Destruction ensues.

Habakkuk invites us to return to our roots by way of contemplation. He writes:

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Again:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

And finally:

But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!

The prophet interrupts his descriptions of violence with repeated calls to “watch” and “wait” in silence. The dual-practice of prayer and meditation empowers us to disconnect from the mindless flow of chaos around us and see reality more clearly.

A fighting couple stop their arguing momentarily to take a deep breath, and suddenly the situation becomes clearer.

Gandhi famously said that, if only one percent of the world’s population would meditate, there would be peace on earth.

The practice of contemplative spirituality might not change the world directly, but it does change those who practice it. It changes our perspective and relationship to the world. It frees us from the endless cycles of violence so that we (as Gandhi also said) can “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Contemplation reconnects us to the Ground of Being. It increases our conscious awareness of the Divine presence, which “covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.”

This deepened relationship with God is the fruit of contemplative prayer. It is what the prophet refers to as “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”

Teach You Everything, Remind You Of All

Lectio divina on the gospel for Easter 6, year C

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The best antidote to workaholism is a robust pneumatology.

(For those who don’t love big theology words as much as I do, pneumatology is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit)

The easiest, most cynical assumption I bring to a workday is the lie: “It’s all up to me.” Oh sure, I moan and groan under the “terrible burden” life has hoisted upon me, but I have dirty little secret: I actually love it. I am addicted to the idea that the earth would suddenly stop spinning, were I not there to turn the cranks.

In these workaholic moments, the first thing to suffer is my spiritual life. I leave off prayer or Bible study (as clergy, it’s my job to go to church).

This is all a grand delusion, of course. God doesn’t actually need my help to maintain the laws of physics. I have my parts to play in the unfolding cosmic drama: human, Christian, husband, father, son, brother, pastor, and friend… but Savior doesn’t appear anywhere on that list. It’s not my job to keep the planet spinning.

It’s the Spirit’s job, according to Jesus. The Spirit keeps me connected to all that has come before (reminding me of all that Jesus has said), and guides my steps into the future (teaches me everything, as I become able to hear it).

Saving the world is God’s job. I have a part to play, but I can only play that part if I stay in tune with the guiding Spirit. That’s what spiritual practice is all about.

I pause my busy-ness go to church, study the Scriptures, pray, and receive the Sacraments so that my eyes and ears can be open to what God is doing in the world. This is why the best thing I can do for my family, friends, church, and community is nurture my spiritual life by prayer, study, rest, and worship. The work to be done is also necessary, but it is secondary.

I am getting a crash course in this lesson this week as I am out of the office. Due to funding woes, my congregation had to reduce my pastoral terms of call to part-time status. The way we are managing the shift is that I will take one week off each month. This is my first week off. I am forced to stop working and do other things. For a workaholic, this is withdrawal.

Yet, the Spirit is at work: teaching and reminding. I am tending to home and relationships to a much greater degree. The people of the congregation are rising to lead ministry programs and worship in my absence. I imagine they are learning new things about themselves as well. New and sustainable patterns of collaborative ministry are emerging. Could it be that God’s purposes are being accomplished? Could it be that the Spirit is teaching and reminding us that the pastor is not the Savior?

Maybe it’s not all about me, after all?

Prayer

God, help me to take my part in your story, not your part in mine. Amen.

Still With You

Lectio divina on the gospel from Easter 6, year C

I have said these things to you while I am still with you.

When it comes to discussing religion in the public sphere, I’ve noticed that most conversations tend to drift toward the theoretical content of particular traditions. I get tripped up over the yea or nay related to specific doctrines of the faith:

Can one prove the existence of God? What is the nature of the afterlife? Do miracles happen? Is one religion inherently superior to another?

These questions are not unimportant, but I do myself a disservice when my discourse never moves beyond them. All theology is an attempt, on the part of human beings, to put into words the experience of the Sacred. Religious traditions have emerged around those expressions that have been most helpful to the life of a particular community. We preserve these expressions and pass them on to future generations, in hopes that our descendants won’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” spiritually speaking, and may even achieve greater things in the life of faith, accomplishments of which we ourselves are incapable.

But we should be careful to remember that these expressions are secondary. Jesus says “these things” (the content of his message) to his disciples “while I am still with you.” Experience precedes expression. And all Scriptures, Sacraments, doctrines, and rituals are meant to usher me into my own experience of the Sacred. If I miss that, I have missed the point entirely.

Prayer

God, open my ears to hear your message; open my eyes to see you in the world around me; open my hands to receive and to share; open my heart to be your home. Amen.

Not Mine

Lectio divina on the gospel from Easter 6, year C

Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

We live in a consumerist society where the core value is possession. It’s all about my money, my property, my rights, my family, my country, my religion. Everything is mine, mine, mine.

I find it remarkable that Jesus eschews possession of his own words in this sentence. He says, “the word that you hear is not mine.” He is content to let truth be truth. He has no ego to bruise. He is free.

What is even more remarkable: by letting go of the need to possess and the need to be right (which is just another form of possession), Jesus is able to speak with a far deeper and more lasting authority than all the other voices that vie for our attention in the marketplace of ideas. The words he speaks are the very Word of God.

Prayer

God, help me become silent and let go of my need to be right, that I may hear and speak your Word. Amen.

Keep My Word

Lectio Divina on the gospel reading for Easter 6, year C

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Whenever kids are playing marbles or some other game “for keeps,” it means that the stakes are high because this game matters. To “keep” something is to treasure and protect something as one’s own. Jesus invites me to do so with his “word.” This could mean many things on multiple levels.

Most directly, it means to follow his commandments, which are summed up quite succinctly in his farewell discourse: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

More abstractly, I think of Christ’s “word” as referring to the Scriptures themselves. How do I “keep” them? I once gave a Bible to a young friend at his graduation from high school. I told him, “You might not be very interested in it right now, but I want you to keep this Bible in a drawer somewhere. It is still a part of you. The day may come when you need to reach out for some kind of hope, comfort, or inspiration. When that happens, I want you to have this close by.”

I have no illusions that this person suddenly became passionate about biblical studies, but I do hope that he continues to keep that Bible somewhere, even if it is just stuffed into the back of a sock drawer.

In my own life, I am keenly aware of my daily failure to “keep [Christ’s] word” in the first, more specific, sense of following his commandments. Just ask my family and they will tell you.

But in the second sense, I do slightly better. Through the practices of the Daily Office and weekly Eucharist, I “keep the word” by regularly sitting with the Scriptures. Sometimes, the words just bounce right off my ears, but then there are days when something sneaks through my defenses and stays with me a while. I keep coming back, in hopes that today might be one of those days.

In the words of a former mentor, “I don’t read the Bible for what I get out of it; I read it for what it gets into me.”

Prayer

God, help me to keep your word today. Amen.