Sunday, March 25, 2007

Suffering and Sanctification

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

I have spent most of my life fleeing from suffering. I have imagined that it was something exterior to me, a condition that I could treat with outward remedies. I have made so many changes in my life – moving, changing schools, changing countries – with the hope that by altering things outside of myself I would somehow escape the pain that I had inside of me. I found, however, that I brought my own hell with me, and that anything that I did not deal with here, I would have to deal with there. I could ascend to the tallest mountain or descend to the depths, I could be in the wintertime of Kansas or the summertime of Costa Rica, but always I brought my shadow in tow.

Recently, however, I have begun to see how my suffering originates in the depths of my own heart – and how, if I submit to the Lord, that suffering can be transformed. The Light is like a refiner’s fire that exposes the hidden fortresses and rebellious provinces of my soul, and it has shown me the place from which all conflicts and disputes arise. The piercing illumination of the Light has begun to unveil the cravings that are and have always been at war within me. This is the inner darkness and death that has obscured the living reality of the Kingdom of Heaven throughout my life. This is the slavery to which I am bound, except that I trust in the Holy Spirit to deliver me, and the Light of Christ to search me and let me see myself for who I truly am. And I know that I have still seen only a small portion of the darkness that resides within me in rebellion against the Light.

The dawning of the morning star illuminates the cavernous darkness of my heart, but not all at once. The Light of Christ reveals myself to me in phases. I sense that if the Light revealed the entirety of my depravity, rebellion and darkness all at once, I would be incapable of surviving such a Day of the Lord. Were I to now know just as I am known, I would surely die. Glimpses of my sinfulness are revealed, particular aspects of myself that have long been hurting me without me ever having been aware of it. Sometimes it feels as though I were the captain of the Titanic, being given a guided tour of the submerged iceberg.

This revelation of my hidden darkness, this unveiling of my inner rebellion and wickedness, is immensely painful. I see myself as I am, not as I wish to be. The radiance of the Light leaves no room for the self-deceit that was possible in the former darkness. God puts me on display to myself, rubs my nose in the reality of my own inner corruption, leaving me only two options: denial of the Light, or denial of the darkness. The uncovering of the veiled root of my suffering is deeply painful, in much the same way as the pain that accompanies the cutting away of infection from a wound. This sickness, though, must be revealed, cut out and put to death, if I am to be freed from slavery to sin.

The miracle is this: The Light does not merely reveal my darkness, nor does the Light stop with judgment. No, the Light pushes back the darkness and purifies the corners of my heart where it shines. The Light puts my formerly hidden evil to death and raises that part of me up into new life, resurrected to life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, our Lord comes with the sword, but that which the Light puts to death in me God raises to new life in the service of Christ. My Lord puts me to death, piece by piece, but raises me to new life in the Spirit. This new being that is raised after the purification of my soul by the refining fire of the Light is tender and new. It is a new creation the likes of which this world does not understand, for it has died to death and the power of the world and is now at one with Christ.

A seed sown in the ground does not come to life unless it dies. In the same way, the Seed of Christ lies within us, but we must first be willing to die so that it might sprout and give forth the fruit of the Spirit – the Kingdom of Heaven! I have seen this Seed of Christ sown in the dishonor of my soul but raised in glory, bringing me to new and abundant life. I can testify to the power of the Light in exposing me, destroying every proud obstacle that I have raised up against the knowledge of God. My hope lies in this process of sanctification, in the faith I have that the Light will continue its campaign to take every thought captive to obey Christ.

In the purifying suffering of sanctification, in the rawness and tenderness that the penetrating gaze of the Light engenders, I have faith that the Lord can deliver us from the power of sin and death. The Holy Spirit works eagerly in our lives, if only we will cry out to our Savior. Submitting to the yoke of Christ, we must suffer. We are stripped down, humbled, made tender and all of our worldly security and sense of control is taken away. We suffer to come under the Reign of God, and may well be called to suffer for the sake of that Reign, the eternal core of our new life, our Lord of the New Jerusalem. However, this suffering in Christ is inherently different from our suffering under the former darkness. While we suffered before in ignorance and rebellion, we now suffer in the light of day, knowing for Whom we suffer and in Whom we die.

And though we suffer, this present distress will come to an end, but our Life is forever. We can endure the sufferings that we bear in Christ, because our existence is bathed in the radiance of the Eternal Now and transformed by our knowledge of a victorious end. We have seen the Lamb standing on Mount Zion and know that the time is coming - and indeed the time has already come. The victory has already been won for us in Christ. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus: Stand firm in suffering that brings us closer to the Lord, for that fleeting discomfort is passing away. Abide in the Truth unswervingly, for soon death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things, that former darkness in which we lived, will pass away.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Abundance Breaking in on a Mindset of Guilt and Scarcity

I visited a Friend’s home recently, and had a wonderful evening drinking tea and talking about, well, everything. In addition to the pleasure of sharing her company and that of other friends, her home itself was a blessing. During the entire evening, I was struck by the simple beauty of her living space. And there was an abundance there; her apartment wanted for nothing. And there was a sense of safety there; I felt enveloped and comforted by the interior space that my friend had crafted. I felt very at home in my friend’s home.

My friend had commented before I came over that she struggled with the testimony of simplicity, and during our time together at her apartment, she mentioned it again. She indicated that, having seen her home, we could now see for ourselves how she struggled with simplicity. I looked around again, bathing in the joy I found in her well apportioned home, and replied that I hoped that I could someday live in such a beautiful place.

I, myself, have pushed myself to “simplify,” in terms of my physical possessions, for quite some time. It came to the point where I even began giving away some of my books, not buying new clothing, questioning myself and holding myself accountable for every purchase. I have pared down my possessions to a small wardrobe, a computer and ipod (I really question myself on the ipod) and my books and notebooks. Apart from a few small miscellaneous objects, that’s it. Clothes, books, music and computer. I look around the small room where I live, and I realize that I haven’t even bothered to decorate; my walls are bare.

Seeing the contrast between my home and my friend’s, it’s clear that my material life is far more sparse than hers. She has far more possessions, more room and more beauty in her living space than I do. But, instead of feeling any sense that she was living decadently or wasting resources or being self-absorbed, I felt very pleased at what she had created. I appreciated the beauty that she had wrought in her interior space. And, when I saw the beauty of her home and saw that “it was good,” it freed me from the shame I had been living in for so long. I had seen every “unnecessary” object as a burden and a sin for myself – an obscenity in a world wracked with abject poverty. However, seeing the goodness and beauty of my friend’s abundance, I was able to release myself to live abundantly, as well.

I was able to see that my friend’s attention to detail and appreciation for material beauty was good and wholesome – at least in the unidolatrous way that I saw her expressing it in her home. In recognizing that goodness in the life of another, I was able to find release to feel worthy of having my own needs met. It’s easy for me, when praying for my daily bread, to feel ashamed for having more than the bare necessities. But humans live on more than bread alone, on more than the bare essentials for sustaining biological function! Human needs include beauty, the feeling of safety and prepared sacred spaces. I am indebted to my friend for helping me to see that I am worthy of beauty and abundance – we all are.

Simplicity is not about reducing life, not merely about removing luxuries, “creaturely” pleasures and joys. Certainly, there is a place for this, but this is not at the root. The core of simplicity is knowing our need and accepting our provision as a pure gift from God. And, just as we should not seek more than our needs call for, neither should we seek to deprive ourselves of the daily bread – physical, emotional and spiritual – that God grants us. Simplicity calls for discernment and trust in God that the Spirit will provide for our needs. 

We need neither to seek riches nor poverty, but instead to seek the will of the Lord in all things. I am reminded of Margaret Fell, who it is said refused to stop wearing bright colors, even as many Friends began to insist on a somber wardrobe as an outward form of simplicity. We Children of the Light are not called to drabness, but instead to the colorful and joyful living of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As citizens of the New Jerusalem, we are called to be as little children, accepting joyfully the gifts of our Mother in heaven, but also being actively willing to share our gifts with our brothers and sisters. Let us not seek to escape the beauty and wealth of this world, but instead recognize the immense abundance that we have in Christ and be fearless in sharing that which we do have and seeking that all know that full and abundant life that we have found – both materially and spiritually. Let us know that, while there is immense injustice in the world and while we are called to share what we have with our brothers and sisters, we too are worthy of our daily bread.

We pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.