Beholding & Becoming

Image by Wilder Kaiser. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Believe it or not (and I know many of you won’t), I sometimes like to show up to work early.  With two kids at home, those few minutes in the car are sometimes the only quiet moments I get to myself in a day.

It just so happens that last Wednesday was one of those days and, before I went into my office, I took a minute to sit in my car and watch the snow falling on my windshield.  I thought about what was actually happening as each individual flake fell and melted into a droplet of water: The hardened, crystal structure of the ice was absorbing the heat radiation coming from inside my car.  It was literally a transfer of energy that was making those water molecules more flexible as a liquid.  Obviously, a liquid is more flexible than a solid crystal.  A crystal can only break, but a liquid can bend into any shape necessary.  If that energy transfer process continued, the liquid would eventually get hot enough to turn into a gas and the water vapor would simply become part of the air itself.

What struck me is that this process is an almost perfect metaphor for what happens to human beings as we grow spiritually.  We begin as small, hardened, selfish crystals.  We exist as solid individuals, obsessed with the uniqueness of our own crystalline structure.  This is what we could call “the ego-centric life”.  This is the state of being that says things like: “You’ve got to look out for number one; it’s a dog-eat-dog world; and it’s my way or the highway.”

But something happens to us as we grow older and begin to ask the “bigger questions” in life.  We start to think outside the box.  We meet good, decent people with political and religious worldviews different from our own.  Spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation lead us toward compassion and understanding.  We humans, like snowflakes melting on a windshield, become more fluid and flexible.

I would not hesitate to say that our souls gradually absorb the divine energy of the Holy Spirit and we begin to look and act more like Jesus.

If this process were to continue, I would venture a guess that our individual egos would eventually evaporate into the atmosphere of love itself, which is God.  Whether this final transformation can happen in this life or only in the next, I’m not sure, but the image is compelling.

It actually reminded me of the Transfiguration, which is the event in the life of Jesus that we traditionally recall on this last Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  In this story, Jesus and his closest disciples walk up a mountain to pray and, while they are up there, Jesus begins to glow with a kind of inner, divine light.

This is not the only time something like that happens in the Bible.  In the book of Exodus, Moses goes up a mountain to commune with God and comes back down with his face glowing so brightly that his fellow Israelites can’t even stand to look at it.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul refers to this Moses story and extends the idea of “spiritual radiation” to all people who seek a deeper closeness with the Divine.  Using the term “glory” to describe this “spiritual radiation”, Paul writes: “all of us, …seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”.

Along with Christians throughout history, Paul believed that Christ revealed the fullness of divine glory to the world.  As people remembered Jesus’ life, studied his teachings, and celebrated his death and resurrection, Paul believed that their lives would begin to resemble Christ’s more and more.  The divine glory (i.e. “spiritual radiation”) that shone in him would gradually become visible in us.

To put it another way: we become what we behold.  The more we look at Jesus, the more we look like Jesus.

Now, Paul had no way of knowing this, but he was actually picking up on insights that would one day be confirmed by scientists in the 21st century.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has described a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.  What this means is: “The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain,” according to Dr. Newberg.

Dr. Newberg has spent much of his career studying the effects of prayer and meditation through the lens of neuroplasticity.  He has discovered that these practices actually have a concrete, measurable effect on the way your brain functions.  The more you focus on God, the more real God becomes to you.

Most of Newberg’s research has used subjects who pray or meditate for several hours a day, such as monks and nuns.  But there is nothing in his research to suggest that we “ordinary folks” can’t also derive some benefit from a regular spiritual practice, even though we might only have a few minutes each day to engage in such exercises.

Like Paul, Moses, and Jesus, we too can become what we behold.  As the apostle Paul said, we can “[see] the glory of the Lord” and “[be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  The divine light that shone through Jesus and Moses can shine through us too, in a metaphorical sense.

When I see photos of the people I most admire in recent history: Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Gene Robinson, and Oscar Romero, I see faces radiant with the glory of God.  I see people who have spent so much time looking at Jesus that they have started to look like Jesus.

So then, how is this process of transformation “from one degree of glory to another” available to us?  The simple answer is that this process just happens within us naturally as we spend more and more time and energy cultivating our conscious awareness of God’s presence.  Now, that’s a pretty abstract idea, so let me bring it down to earth: in practical terms, I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from those good old fashioned spiritual disciplines of Bible study and prayer.

Bible study should be a no-brainer.  We can learn how to follow Jesus by reading about his life and studying his teachings.  If you’ve never read the Bible on your own before, I recommend starting with one of the four gospels, like Mark or Luke.  Read just a little bit every day and think about what you’re reading.  Try to imagine yourself as a character in the story.  Watch for any words or ideas that seem to “stand out” to you.  Use your imagination.  Ask yourself, “Why did this word stand out to me, in this way, at this time?”

Daily prayer is another good practice to have as well.  If you’ve never prayed before, here’s a simple method for getting started: start by naming things you’re thankful for.  Even if you can’t think of anything in particular, be thankful that you woke up today, thankful that the sun is shining, thankful for the air in your lungs or the food on your plate.  As you go along, you might start to think of other, more specific things in your life.  Next, name those people or situations you’re concerned about.  You can be as general or specific as you like.  Some people like to keep a list of the names of people they’re praying for.  You can even pray for yourself.  It’s not selfish.  God knows you have needs.  Disclaimer: Praying for a situation doesn’t guarantee that things will always go your way, but it does mean that you are beginning to look at yourself, your needs, your life, and your world through a different set of eyes: spiritual eyes.  I once heard someone say: “Prayer changes you before it changes your circumstances.”

After you have given thanks and prayed for yourself and others, just sit for a while in silence.  Be still.  Close your eyes.  Focus your attention on the rhythm of your breathing.  This kind of wordless prayer is often called meditation or contemplative prayer.  Stay with it for as long as you can, several minutes even.  Personally, I like to do about twenty minutes of silent meditation per day.  If that sounds overwhelming to you, try starting with just five minutes.  This kind of prayer is often the most powerful of all.

Finally, I like to close my prayer time with something familiar, like the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it once a week here in church, but saying it daily can help the words to sink deep down into your bones.  The rhythm of the words by themselves can sometimes put you in a prayerful or spiritually attentive state of mind.

These exercises of prayer and Bible study are the two best resources I have found for helping us, as Christians, to re-center our lives on the presence of God.  The more we lean on these practices, the more our lives will reflect the glory of God.  As I said before: the more we look at Jesus, the more we look like Jesus.  We become what we behold.

We will be like those snowflakes, falling onto the windshield of a warm car.  The heat from inside the car will radiate into us, making us less cold & rigid and more warm & fluid.  We’ll be able to bend, flex, and go with the flow.  We’ll run together, like water droplets do.  The divisions between us will become less visible.  Given time near this heat source, we might even begin to evaporate and become part of the air itself: the atmosphere of God in which we live, move, and have our being.

The Glory Around You

Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds.  By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds. By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)

There are two ways of not seeing something.  One way is for the object in question to be so far away that our eyes can’t distinguish it from the surrounding environment.  This is what happens when we try to look for distant stars and galaxies with the naked eye.  We can squint as hard as we like but, without the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we still won’t be able to see the millions of galaxies that surround us in every direction.  They’re just too far away.

The other way of not seeing something is for the object in question to be so close up that there’s no way for us to see all of it at once.  Such is the case with our own galaxy.  We are part of it.  It’s all around us.  If someone were to ask you where our galaxy is, you wouldn’t be wrong at all to say, “it’s right here” without pointing to anything in particular.

When it comes to thinking about invisible things like the reality of God, most modern philosophers have argued for the first option: God, if there is a God, is simply too distant from our everyday reality to be seen or experienced directly.  From one point of view, this was a most useful idea.  It helped modern thinkers to move beyond the old mythical and superstitious ideas about God as “the old man in the sky” inherited from their ancient and medieval ancestors.  This was a good thing.  It needed to happen, especially once science began to debunk so many of the old superstitions.  In place of “the old man in the sky,” modern people began to think of God as a kind of cosmic clockmaker: a rational mind which was responsible for the machine-like order we observe in creation.  The Creator, according to this way of thinking, designed the laws of nature, built the universe, set it in motion, and then sat back to run under its own steam.  Compared to ancient mythologies, this idea of God seems very plausible, rational, and consistent with the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, this way of thinking has also made God seem more remote and distant from the concerns of everyday life.  God, according to the modern mind, doesn’t exist in this universe.  Some would say that God doesn’t even care about us or creation.  “The clockmaker may have got everything started,” so they say, “but hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”  The clockmaker idea of God might be more rational and less superstitious than “the old man in the sky,” but it doesn’t inspire our hearts toward worship and devotion.  The clockmaker God is little more than a mental concept that can be either accepted or rejected without consequence.  It didn’t take long for modern philosophers to dismiss the clockmaker concept itself as irrelevant and unnecessary.  Like the distant galaxies, such a God was simply too far away to be seen or experienced by human beings.

In recent years, those of us who still feel drawn toward worship have come to realize that both the “old man in the sky” and the “clockmaker” ideas of God are wholly inadequate.  Neither one captures the essence of what we mean when we use the word “God.”  In contrast to the modern thinkers who say that God is too far away to be seen, we say that God is close: so close, in fact, as to be all around us… too close and too big to be fully seen and understood by any one person.  The Bible tells us that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God.  God is like our own Milky Way galaxy: if someone were to ask, “Where is God?” it makes perfect sense to say, “Right here!  All around us!  We exist in God!”

For me, this idea of God being all around us, too close to be fully seen, is expressed most beautifully in the story of Christmas.  That story begins in a fairly mundane way: with regular, working class people being pushed around by the powers that be.  This has been the story of humankind in every age of history.  In this case, the Roman emperor wanted an accurate count of the population in occupied territories for tax purposes, so people Mary and Joseph were shuffled around like cattle and treated like animals to the extent that they even ended up sleeping and giving birth in a stable like animals.  Likewise, we see shepherds working the night shift.  Two thousand years of nostalgia and Christmas pageants have romanticized the shepherding profession, but it was a despised and disgusting job in the first century.  No one liked shepherds, no one trusted them, and everyone saw them as little better than the animals they tended.  Yet, it was to this band of ragamuffins that the angels came.  No outsider or passer-by could have known that the pathetic, mundane scene playing itself out before them was one of the most significant and miraculous moments in all of human history.  Even the key players themselves were shocked and amazed as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and the heavens themselves seemed to break out in song.

The God that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds encountered that night was neither “the old man in the sky” nor “the clockmaker.”  Theirs was an incarnate deity who “took on flesh and dwelt among” them.  They experienced this God in “the glory” that “shone around them.”  Contrary to the conclusions of modern philosophers, their God was too close to be seen, not too far away.

God is here.  God is all around us.  I can’t point to one place, or time, or thing and say “this and this alone is God” because the God I believe in can’t be so easily contained or limited.  We “live, and move, and have our being” in God, whose glory can be seen, shining all around us, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Like so many mystics and sages before us, we can see the glory of God shining in the wonders of creation, in the discoveries of scientists, in the guidance of teachers, in the healing of medical professionals, in the courage of those who risk their lives for others, and in the compassion of those who help the suffering.

The glory of the Lord is shining around us tonight, no less than it did for those shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, if only we have eyes to see it.  The poet Girard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and St. Augustine of Hippo reminded us that “God is closer to us than our own hearts.”

The task of the believer in all this is to take these momentary flashes of glory and learn to see them, not as random, isolated events, but as parts of a whole, individual threads in a great tapestry, woven through the ages.  That’s what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing that night when it says in the text that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  She didn’t let her moment of glory just pass her by, she grabbed hold of it and kept it with her.

In the same way, if we want to become the kind of people who can see the glory of God shining around us, then we need to start paying attention.  We need to find those little moments of joy, wonder, peace, and compassion in a day and remember them.  Maybe for you it’s the silvery beauty of snow on tree branches or the golden light of an Adirondack sunset.  Maybe it’s as insignificant as someone generously giving you the right of way instead of cutting you off in traffic.  Wherever you see these little moments of glory, don’t let them escape before you give thanks for them.  If you find it helpful for you, try keeping a daily journal of thanksgiving where you keep a record of these little happenings.  Develop this into a habit and I think you might be surprised at how easy it eventually becomes for you to call these moments to mind.  If that journal idea isn’t exactly your style, don’t worry about it.  Find whatever works for you, but find something.  Don’t let this life pass you by without seeing the glory around you.  Like Mary did: treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.  As you do this, may the glory of the incarnate mystery of God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being,” shine around you and become ever more real to you.