Thursday, March 17, 2016

Where is God?

I'm normally one of the first people to arrive at the abbey. I want to get here when there are still spaces available for spiritual direction with one of the monks since there are typically only 6 sessions available for a dozen or so retreat guests. For years I'd come to meet with Brother Mark who started to recognize me the moment I walked into the small room. I would settle down in my chair, and he would begin the conversation.

How can I help you?

It would take a maximum of two seconds before I started to respond. I cannot find God. I try hard but I cannot seem to get close to God. Where is God?

Brother Mark would then usually ask, Is this not the same question you asked last year?

Yes, it's me again. I'm working so hard. The congregation I serve is growing. But my relationship with God has dwindled. I have purchased dozens of devotional books. Some feed me for a few weeks and then I'm back where I started. I cannot seem to stay close to God.

But something is different this time.

I didn't feel compelled to be one of the first people to arrive. I didn't sign up for a session with one of the monks. In fact, the more I've been at the abbey this week, the more I realize how different my relationship is with God than it has been in years past. While I'm not sure I can put my figure on it, I know things have changed.

I'd not been here half an hour when I noticed God at work in the field outside my window. I saw the cow and her baby the moment I opened the blinds. I then realized that the calf was newly born and just learning to use her legs for the first time. She would stand up and then fall and then stand up only to fall over once more. But the mama cow never left her side. Instead she kept licking her, nursing her and nudging her. And the closer the mama stayed, the more it seemed that the calf had the courage to try to stand once more.

The view completely seduced me. I could not stop watching the action outside. I also could not stop thinking about how God does the same in our lives. God cleans us up, nudges us, seeks to nourish us, and then stays close when we have fallen and are trying to stand again. We have no idea just how much God loves us and cheers for us. If only we could hear the voice of God!

The cow and her baby have not been seen again since that first day. I don't believe we are puppets on a string, our every move controlled by God. But I believe the cow and calf were a gift given to me upon my arrival. 

With God's presence so tangibly close, I turned to the task at hand and started to choose from the dozen or so books in my bag. I first read a beautiful book of a woman's journey through grief. I'd recommend Comfort to you - as long as you have a box of tissues at hand. I then continued to sift through books on leadership, the church's current reality, and mission. And then I found a book that helped me see why God may be so close in this season of my life.

While the cover may likely not win an award for design, the treasure inside Samuel Wells' book, A Nazareth Manifesto, is not to be missed. It's not often that I pick up a theology book that I cannot put down, but Wells has achieved such an end with this masterpiece. 

The argument for the book is found near its beginning, "...while there is a place for working for, working with, and being for, it is being with that is the most faithful form of Christian witness and mission, because being with is both incarnationally faithful to the manifestation of God in Christ and eschatologically anticipatory of the destiny of all things in God" (p. 23). Wells sets out to demonstrate how much ministry is done for other people - something I've experienced often.

I went to a meeting last week designed to ignite a movement to make sure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are realities for all people in this nation by 2026, the year we'll celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But I quickly realized that the people we wanted to do something for - the people we were talking about - were not in the room. They had not been invited to be part of the conversation.

We feel good when we show up to serve dinner to people or write a check to our favorite charity, or even take a load of clothing to Goodwill. We are doing something for others! But Wells has helped me see ministry in a different light. He's helped me discover why I am journeying through this current season with a lens of abundance instead of scarcity.

As I look back upon my annual pilgrimage to the abbey, I see how often I have come here with a feeling of there not being enough. There are not enough people in the pews, not enough members, not  enough leaders, not enough resources, not enough money, and not enough time. Furthermore, I was not a good enough pastor, a good enough leader, a good enough preacher, a good enough wife, a good enough friend. I was never fully satisfied with the here and the now (and perhaps I never will be - which is not an entirely bad thing). 

But I realize now how much of my life includes abundance. I also know why I often show up for our Tuesday morning Hope 4 All group that is seeking to journey with people from homelessness into housing. It might be easy to see scarcity in such a group. Our city does not seem to have enough housing for everyone who needs it. But I have yet to show up at 7:00am on a Tuesday without seeing abundance in ways you might not expect.

Wells quotes John McKnight and Peter Block who write, "Gifts are inborn and not subject to management. Gifts don't need to be trained into us; they are inherent. They are who we are and they cannot be taken away. They are also nearby, though often unseen. Since we cannot manipulate the gifts of another, they are not subject to external management, and therefore they are an antidote to system life" (253).

We all have gifts. They are inherent within us. They simply need to be nurtured and named. Wells writes, "Well-being is about overcoming isolation and finding ways to make material limitation a source of mutual interdependence" (254).

There are not only gifts at the table on Tuesday morning, but there is an embarrassment of riches. And the riches have been uncovered as we have sought to provide space where isolation can be overcome and mutual interdependence can be shared.

Lorne has taught me about the power of not giving up. We nearly offended him on his first day when a facilitator of the group shared how his first place may be "a crappy room somewhere." But he kept coming. He signed a lease on a room that was not ideal. And he's showing us how to smile in the midst of adversity.

Greg could complain about a million things. He spent more than 23 years in federal prison. He's learned that the halfway house was an easier place to live than the streets of Washington. He regularly makes me think about the Shawshank Redemption film. He's working hard to get a commercial driver's license. I've rarely heard him complain. He seizes the abundance that he has and keeps moving forward one step at a time.

Richard has been coming to worship every Sunday in recent weeks. His face is overflowing with joy as the smile seems rather permanent. He first couldn't wait to tell me about his room in a group house. He now cannot stop talking about how he has his own place. I HAVE MY OWN PLACE!!!!

Wells writes, "Generosity is the virtue of abundance. Unlike charity, which assumes scarcity and 'is really an unstable and false generosity because it is oriented around the needs and deficiencies of just one party in the transaction' and is thus demeaning, generosity assumes abundance by investing in the still-not-fully disclosed gifts of the other" (255).

I've come to realize how often I'm the poor one, especially when my eyes are only capable of seeing scarcity - in myself, in others and in our community - instead of the abundance that is always at hand whenever we sit down and see another person, hear another person, and then give them an opportunity to see and hear us in such a way that we all walk away with a keen awareness of our abundance.

Wells quotes Albert Schweitzer who used to say that when we ask God, "'Where are you staying?' God's answer is, 'I'm staying with you'" (259).

I'm so incredibly grateful that God has chosen to take up residence in me and in you. And the more I see you, the more I realize how much abundance there is all around - particularly when we refuse to accept isolation as the norm instead of the exception.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. Thanks be. Thanks be. Thanks be. 

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