Thursday, July 01, 2010

Boundaries and Guidance within a Spiritual Life

As I have lived my life more in line with the Spirit, I have felt a greater communion with others. My anger and resentment has diminished noticeably. I find myself more comfortable around people who are superficially different from me. But I notice too that my emotional response to other people's pain and suffering is considerable. Where before I might have dismissed a tragedy with a shrug of the shoulders, I now often burst into tears. When I might have shrugged my shoulders and immediately entertained other topics, I mull and dwell on the places of pain we all experience. This places me well within the realm of the ambivalent.

To be sure, I do not question why I feel the way I feel now. This is, I firmly believe, a healthy state of mind and I have experienced a peace within myself long sought for and rarely achieved. Problems arise when how I feel differs greatly from others. If they embraced this same leaning, that would be one thing. Regrettably, this world is, as we know, often not a warm, compassionate, caring place. People learn to desensitize themselves to the negative for the sake of protection. In a big city, especially, people rarely talk to strangers and often assume that those who try to engage with them in conversation are potentially threats to their personal safety. While this might be a good strategy in the short term, our hearts begin to harden. Eventually we begin to lose our common humanity. We divide the world into those we can trust, and those we cannot. As much as we say we believe that good and evil are not absolutes, for convenience sake we still trust in those categories.

Once, a few years back, I participated in a small group comprised of trauma survivors. I will never forget until my dying day the story of a firefighter. He mentioned that as part of his job, he had learned and been trained to block out and depersonalize the horrors he saw on the job. Or, as he put it, if he internalized all of what he encountered on a daily basis, he would have never been able to sleep at night. Recent events in his life, however, had unfortunately even rendered that coping mechanism null and void. His brother and sister-in-law had been in a fatal car accident. In the car with them, buckled up in the backseat, had been a young boy, their son. The child miraculously survived the crash, but both parents were killed on impact. In accordance with the will of the recently deceased, the fireman had been given custody of the child. Fatherhood had been tougher than he even imagined. Due to unforeseen tragedy he had been forced into a role he had never desired and never sought for this precise reason.

He had taken to drink in large part because the child remembered vividly what had happened during the crash, and had taken to asking questions. The boy was young enough to not really understand death, but still sought in his own way to make sense of what he had observed. The firefighter felt isolated, alone, and overwhelmed in trying to find a way to answer what he had been asked. He sought to find a way to be honest that was informative but yet would not frighten or upset the child. The stress was more than he could deal with, so he turned to the bottle. Those with whom he worked noticed the change that had come over him. Knowing the full extent of what had happened, they were sympathetic to his situation, and pushed him into treatment. He was well-liked at work and a hard worker, so he was granted a significant amount of personal leave time so that he might heal himself, regardless of how long it might take.

To return once more to the YAF gathering in Kansas, while there I met a Friend for whom worship was exceptionally powerful. Certainly every worship was intense in its own way and sometimes emotionally draining for us all, but in her case, from the exact point the first message was shared until the hour was up, she would sob profusely. Observing her, I would often tear up myself and several times I, too, cried during worship. And as I think back about her response, I wonder if I was wise to hold back a bit at times, in so doing restraining my feelings. As someone finely attuned to the world, for better or for worse, my emotions were on full display because from the moment I arrived until the moment I left, the Spirit was everywhere.

One morning during worship I kept receiving a persistent message. Seek and ye shall find. Seek and ye shall find. Seek and ye shall find. I didn't share it because I wasn't quite sure where it fit and kept waiting the clearness I was sure would follow. With my own ministry, usually I receive a few words or a few sentences at a time, which with time, contemplation, and prayer grow into a coherent whole. I waited and waited, expecting more, but received nothing further. After worship had concluded, I remember thinking to myself how unusual this was, but concluded that nothing about the entire gathering had been ordinary thus far, so I shouldn't be surprised.

I made my way to the library to decompress a bit. As an introvert, I recognize that I need time in solitude to recharge my batteries and sufficiently process what I have just experienced. The room was quiet, shadowy, and comfortable. I surveyed three or four tables worth of Quaker-related books for sale, merely browsing. One especially interesting title jumped out at me, and I opened the front cover to skim a few pages. My attention drifted down two or three paragraphs to the bottom third of the page, which read, Seek and ye shall find.

I began to weep. Nothing could have spoken to my condition more perfectly than that. I wished that I could have remained within it longer, but then someone else walked into the library, so I quickly dried my tears. No one would have judged me for getting emotional, but long practiced habit demanded otherwise. Men are allowed to cry only in certain situations. Out in the world, strangers are often inclined to stare. Though I do not know their thoughts, that doesn't stop me from assuming I ought to be ashamed of "losing control". Gender socialization is tough to escape, even with significant effort and practice. Even so, I work hard to reprogram what I have been taught.

A prior post I wrote discussed whether it is possible or even plausible to dwell in a place where one never needs to doubt that God is present. A commenter noted that true faith requires devotion even in times of spiritual drought. I agree with the Friend, but I sometimes wonder if this sensation of being apart from the Spirit can be removed by discipline and practice. This proves a bit perplexing to me as I believe that we are saved by Grace. As such, our salvation can never be achieved through works alone. What causes me some confusion is that the guidance of the God of the New Testament is much more mysterious and subliminal than that of the Old Testament. Consider, for instance, what Moses is told by the burning bush. I include below a lengthy passage from Exodus to make my point.

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!"
And Moses said, "Here I am."

5 "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." 6 Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."

11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"

12 And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you a]">[a] will worship God on this mountain."

13 Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"

14 God said to Moses, "I am who I am . b]">[b] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.' "

15 God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, c]">[c] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

16 "Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.'

18 "The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.' 19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.

21 "And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22 Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians."

By contrast, here is the New Testament take.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.

I conclude with a query. Is there a conflict between Salvation by Grace and spiritual discipline? Does God provide us with a list of things to fix, or do we receive our guidance a little bit at a time?

1 comment:

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