What do you have in your hands?

Of late I’ve been confronted over and over again, in conversations and through circumstances, by a simple question: What do I have in my hands?

At the turn of a new year, I often fall into the trap of dreaming up some grand plan to change the world, a plan that would require the gathering of vast resources and a grand following. That doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon! And as I’ve thought about it, most of the grand deeds done in the history of the world started with a person taking what they had in their hands and putting it to work to meet some immediate need.

So what do you have in your hands? Is it a stack of old boards that could be made into something? Is it some space out back that could be cultivated to grow food for someone who’s hungry? Is it a box of old garden seeds that need to be planted? Is it a cupboard full of flour that should be baked into bread? Is it some sort of message from Above that needs to be well stated so others can hear it? Is it a pile of old newspapers in your grandparents basement? Or is it all the old woodworking tools buried beneath the papers? Is it a pick-up truck or van that can carry lots of stuff? Is it an empty room that could provide shelter to a traveler? Is it a box filled with old blankets or clothes that could be put to good use? Is it that old sewing machine and boxes of fabric? Is it some sort of knowledge or skill that could be taught to another, who could, in turn, pass it on?

So what do you have in your hands? What has God put in your hands?

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Murmurations

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”

(Job 12:7)

If you happen to be near a marshland or waterway in the British Isles or northern Europe in an evening during fall or winter, you may witness a remarkable sight. Early on you may see small flocks of dark-colored birds, starlings to be exact, flying about in the late afternoon sun. But then the smaller flocks come together and join into larger and larger gatherings, until they swell into a single cloud and begin to flow as one, roiling in the sky in astounding, unpredictable, yet beautiful patterns. It can hardly be described—like a living, shape-shifting creature, flowing, dancing to an unheard symphony. As the cloud of birds moves near, a murmuring rush tickles the ear as thousands of feathered wings brush the air. This is truly a wonder to experience, even if only through a video. (Here’s another fun one that recently went viral on the Web.)

Scientists have struggled to understand this phenomenon. We know that starlings gather in larger groups in the cold months, probably to benefit from the warmth of numbers. Sometimes flocks can swell to over a million birds. They truly are a communal creature, following systematic feeding patterns that ensure everyone gets a turn to forage for insects in fresh ground. Perhaps their evening flights help to generate the additional warmth they need to make it through the colder nights. The large winter gatherings of starlings certainly make the spectacular aerial displays possible, since a large flock is needed to really catch the eye. But none of this explains how all the individuals in a flock fly in such a precise synchronized flow, without any predictable or learned pattern. It is as if they fly and think as a single entity.

To watch a flock of starlings in the flow of a murmuration makes one wonder if they aren’t actually governed by a singular mind or perhaps a directive voice. Make a search of starling murmuration videos on the Web, and you will discover that the videographers couldn’t resist mixing music into their videos. Everyone seems to sense that the birds are flying to a divine symphony just out of human earshot. As you watch, it’s hard to avoid that thought.

So how does it happen? Mathematical analysis of flock dynamics in videos has shown that each starling’s movement is somehow influenced by the movement of all the others. It’s as if they are all tuned in to the same frequency. They adjust almost instantaneously to the movements of the others with regard to both speed and direction. The shift of one bird results in the immediate shift of the entire group. The more closely scientists have studied this, the more intrigued they have become.

Physicists see profound similarities between the starlings’ movements and what is seen in other critical systems like crystal formation, avalanches, and ferromagnetism. They are systems poised on the brink of near-instantaneous transformation, but it is hard to know what pushes them over the brink. In a starling murmuration the moments of change happen in an almost continuous flow, making it especially interesting. In part, it could have to do with a group survival instinct, enabling them to evade predators like falcons. But again, this doesn’t explain how they do it. The ability of the individuals to instantaneously correlate their movements to all the others just isn’t known.

It gives a hint that birds and other creatures are sometimes gifted with perceptions and other abilities that we humans just don’t have. And when their particular communal gift is on display, it shines a light on the Creator who gave the gift and inspired its use. Awe-inspiring events in the world of nature often point to something bigger behind them. The study of astronomy has long inspired such awe and points to something greater. David, the ancient psalmist of Israel, put it in a memorable way:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.” (Psalm 119:1-4, NLT)

The heavens point to their Creator. So do other remarkable events in nature, and special gifts and events in and among people. The experience of some communal worship events can at times carry this sort of weight. I recall once a musical gathering I attended where the final song was a prayer of praise. As the song concluded, a Spirit-inspired whispering arose among the audience—softly-spoken prayers that took on a sound not unlike that of a starling murmuration. It rose to a climax, and then slowly quietened into a joyous and peaceful silence. No one wanted to leave, or even move, for that matter.

As I watch the starlings in their communal aerial dance, and hear the whisper of their wings, it inspires in me a prayer of praise. It points me to the Earth-maker, whom I sense created many things with a grand smile, and with the intent that we enjoy them together. It also gives me a good shot of humility, as I watch the greatest of human minds trying to explain it all, but without much success. Some things will likely remain always happily “beyond us.” An amazing event that may initially bring a furrow to my brow, in the end invariably brings a shrug to my shoulders, a shake to my head, and a smile to my face. And it keeps me always listening for the divine symphony swelling up in the silence behind it all.

Gardening Tip: Most gardeners view a flock of starlings as an unwanted challenge, since their large numbers can lead to a fair amount of destruction and disruption. (Thankfully, they tend to prefer wooded marsh lands when they are in large gatherings, and don’t usually pose too much of a problem. They also do most of their gathering during the cold months when the garden is asleep anyway.)

Many other bird species, however, can be a wonderful addition to any garden, especially song birds. Here are a few hospitable things you might do to welcome them into your space:

  • Add some sort of water feature like a bird bath, a trickling fountain, or even a pond (if you’re adventurous). Birds need a water source, and if they can be sure to find it in your garden, they will come.
  • Plant native plants that provide birds with food, including native grasses and flowers with seed heads, and fruiting shrubs and berry brambles.
  • Plant sheltering shrubs and trees to keep protect the smaller birds from predators and to give them good nesting places.
  • Add a few nesting boxes for birds common to your area. Specifications for these can quickly be found in books at your local library or by a Web search. (Various bird species are drawn to boxes of different sorts.)
  • Put out some bird feeders in locations where you can easily watch them. It can be quite entertaining—and sometimes enlightening!

On Ravens

“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.”
Job 12:7

As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after their Exodus from Egypt, God provided a substance they called manna (which means in Hebrew “What is it?”) for them to eat each day (Exodus 16). The people were to gather just enough to feed their families for one day, and no more. If extra was gathered to be saved for the next day, they would find it rotten and maggot-ridden the next morning. But on Friday, the people were allowed to gather enough for two days so they would have enough for the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath day, the extra manna remained good to eat. The people of Israel ate the manna this way for the forty years they wandered in the wilderness. Day by day, God was teaching them that he could provide for their needs, but they needed to trust him. They couldn’t gather extra and bank it for a future rainy day. It just didn’t work that way.

In western societies with stable economies, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Saving for the future is considered a virtue, a way of insuring against any troubles that might lie ahead. There is certainly some wisdom in this, but over time we tend to start thinking that we are in charge of our own fate, that we can buy insurance for any possible emergency. Detailed planning and incessant saving become a required hedge against some ever-looming disaster. And worry sets in, and then greed. The more we save, the more we fear that we might not have enough. So we turn inward and ignore neighbors in need of food and shelter, hiding away what most people in the world would consider a fortune. We forget that it all came from God in the first place, and that it all really belongs to Him.

We are also blind to the fact that many of our blessings are stolen from the backs of the poor. Cheap resources that feed wealthy economies are taken from poor nations at a fraction of their value, and the relatively little paid to purchase those resources is taken by a greedy elite. The hungry remain hungry; the thirsty draw water from pools of sewage; the naked find only rags to cover themselves; those sleeping in the rain may never see a roof overhead.

We are also blind to the truth that our self-sufficiency would never be possible in a nation overwhelmed by poverty and inflation. Saving money in such an environment only means it will be able to buy less tomorrow, as its value plummets on a daily basis. There is nothing solid to invest it in, except perhaps a tool or seed that might promise a little food in the future, . . . should the weather cooperate. In such places, spending money as soon as it comes is almost always the right choice. Trusting God for the needs of tomorrow is the only option.

And so Jesus tells us that the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised are the blessed ones (Matthew 5:1-12). They are the only ones who see how dependent they are on God’s provision. They are the ones who have a clear bead on the truth. Perhaps that is why the poor often live with less worry than the rich. They have learned the secrets of faith and dependency. (And they have nothing really to lose!)

Jesus expands on this theme in his reflections on a common bird—the raven.

The Hebrew Bible records a number of interesting accounts of ravens, making it little surprise that Jesus should use it in illustration. In the account of the great Flood, Noah released a raven to see if the waters had receded (Genesis 8:6-7). Unlike the dove, which returned to the boat, the raven flew about until the floodwaters dried up, probably by landing on floating carrion, something the dove would not do. (Due to its omnivorous nature, ravens are listed among the unclean birds in the Hebrew laws.)

Many centuries later, as the prophet Elijah hid from wicked Ahab and Jezebel in the wilderness near the Kerith Brook, the Lord sent ravens to feed him with bread and meat, presumably gleaned from a wealthy person’s table (1 Kings 17:2-6). And more than once elsewhere in Scripture, God is said to see the plight of ravens in need and to provide them with food (Job 38:41; Psalm 147:7-9).

Ravens have coexisted with humans for thousands of years and in some areas are so numerous that they are considered a pest. Part of the Raven’s success comes from its diverse diet, one of the most diverse of any bird. They are willing to eat just about anything available to them—from dead carrion, small animals, and insects to seeds, berries, and fruit, and, in populated areas, gleanings from people’s trash.

Ravens can be found everywhere on the globe. In ancient cultures around the world, ravens have been a popular subject of mythology and folklore. In many ancient cultures, including those of Scandinavia, Ireland, Wales, Siberia, and peoples of northwestern North America and northeast Asia, ravens were revered as spiritual figures or even gods. In many early Christian western traditions, ravens were considered to be an ill omen, probably mostly due to their all-black feathers, their visible intelligence and watchfulness, and the fact that they gather around carrion and are thus often associated with death.

Realizing how common and well-known ravens are, it should not be surprising that Jesus mentioned them in his teachings. He said:

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. Life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!” (Luke 12:22-24, NLT)

Jesus wasn’t advocating a lazy lifestyle here, but was teaching the need to recognize our dependency on our heavenly Father. No matter how hard we work, we cannot succeed unless the work is undergirded by blessings from above. It is easy after years of hard work and success to begin to think that we have earned everything we have. But beyond our vision, there are many around the world who have worked just as hard, who are equally virtuous, but enjoy no such blessings. There is grace behind all the blessings we receive; we just aren’t privy to the many hidden events that have led to them. And many of the comforts we enjoy in the affluent nations of the west are quietly gained on the backs of hungry children, slaving away under squalid conditions.

So let the raven remind you of where all your blessings come from—from the hand of God. And let us all learn to be more like the ravens—or more like the Israelites as they gathered manna each day in the wilderness—facing the concerns of each day through the eyes of faith. And let that faith allow you to be generous with the wealth at your disposal. Your fortune, however small it might be, could be enough to save a life or to help a family discover the providence of God.

As it turns out, the Irish name Fiachra means “raven.” We don’t know why Saint Fiachra (for whom this site is named) was given his name. Perhaps it was because his hair was black like the feathers of a raven, or perhaps he had a hooked nose reminiscent of a raven’s beak. Perhaps his parents just liked the sound of it. We will never know for sure. But on other terms it is certainly appropriate, since Saint Fiachra was known for his hospitality to travelers, the sick, and the needy. Was it not ravens that were sent to wait on Elijah as he hid in the wilderness? And are not the ravens compared to the needy ones Fiachra once freely served at his table? And so Fiachra’s Hollow might also be called Raven’s Hollow—but without any of the negative connotations!

Let us end with a story from the Sayings of  Desert Fathers. Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion, said:

When we were walking along the salt sea one day, I was thirsty, so I said to Abba Bessarion, “Abba, I am very thirsty.” Then the old man prayed and said to me, “Drink from the sea.” The water was sweet when I drank it. So I poured some water into a flask, so that I would not be thirsty later. Seeing this, the old man asked me, “Why are you doing that?” I answered, “Excuse me, but it’s so that I won’t be thirsty later on.” The the old man said, “God is here, and God is everywhere.”

Is it possible that people living in affluent societies have lost the art of living by faith? If we worry too much about tomorrow, will we not be blind to the needs of others around us today? Will we not often excuse ourselves from acting faithfully on behalf of Christ in the opportunities that constantly rise? And in the end, who is safer—those who spend their days worrying about how they will cover for any conceivable disaster, or those who entrust their lives into the hands of God with a life of faith and generosity?

Garden Tip: Growing food in the garden is even more satisfying when it is done with the goal of giving much of it away. I recall the final years of my grandfather, who planted a large garden in his retirement. He took great joy in leaving baskets of produce around town and providing for the families of his children. He had discovered a profound truth: “It is in giving that we receive.” Look for ways to share the gifts you receive from your garden, whether in food or in plant cuttings. And look for ways to give from your means until it hurts. It isn’t until we need to walk by faith that we are likely to discover the wonder of it.

And when you see a raven fly by (No matter where you are in the world, they are there!), remember not to worry, but to trust in God to provide for your needs. And demonstrate that trust by giving to others from what you do have.

Sabbath

“So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

*      *      *

As creatures made in God’s image, it is natural for us to look for ways to create and rule. The garden is one place we can live this out in concrete ways. Each winter about this time, seed displays and catalogs find my attention, and I begin to think about what to plant and how to organize things. This is a good exercise for the days of Lent, for it is a time to reflect on how we are doing as creators and rulers—as makers and keepers. In the beginning, God made this amazing garden planet that we call home, and then he instituted a day of rest. In later Scriptures he clarifies that the rest is a necessary gift to the land and all the creatures living in it, including ourselves. So as rulers in the garden, we need to think about what it means to institute Sabbath in all we do.

As with all of his laws, the Sabbath was given to the people for their own good. God created people, animals, and even the environment with particular needs. And all have been created with the need to rest. That need could have been provided for if humankind—those assigned the task of ruling the earth—had guided others to follow God’s example. But after the fall into sin, people in power came to abuse and enslave the poor and weak, driving them to exhaustion. The same was done with the animals and the land. And such is the state of the world today.

God gave His laws to provide direction and bring hope that there might still be a world of wholeness and peace—of shalom. Some of His laws called the people to love God above all else. Some of the laws called the people to care for others as they would care for themselves. The Sabbath law calls people to do both—to look up toward God in worship and out toward others with generosity. It also demands that we look inward, granting ourselves the chance to slow down and find our true Center.

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. . . . On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

“Plant and harvest your crops for six years, but let the land be renewed and lie uncultivated during the seventh year. Then let the poor among you harvest whatever grows on its own. Leave the rest for wild animals to eat. The same applies to your vineyards and olive groves. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.” (Exodus 23:10-12; see also Leviticus 25:2-7, 11-12)

Why do we find God’s laws such a burden? Why do we come to obedience kicking and screaming? When the people of Israel failed to follow God’s laws, God asked Moses, “How long will these people refuse to obey my commands and instructions? They must realize that the Sabbath is the LORD’s gift to you.” (Exodus 16:28-29) All God’s laws—especially the Sabbath laws—are gifts that help us to learn hospitality toward God, toward others, toward our animals, toward the land, even toward ourselves. They are a means for finding balance, health, and wholeness in life.

Observing the Sabbath laws, like any laws, can easily be turned on their head, leading to ever new forms of oppression. This was hardly the original intent. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day made a great show of Sabbath observance and demanded the same of others—even of those who did not have the choices afforded the wealthy. Jesus was deeply angered by their misuse of the Sabbath.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:24-27; see also Matthew 2:1-12; Mark 3:4)

*       *       *

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.”

But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:10-16; see also Luke 14:1-6)

If the law of Sabbath is a gift to teach us hospitality toward God, toward others, toward all God’s creatures, toward the land, even toward ourselves, we must ask hard questions: Are we accomplishing hospitality with all our decisions and actions, whether on the Sabbath or otherwise? Do our decisions and actions set others free, or are others enslaved by them? Do our decisions and actions lead to the oppression of others, of God’s myriad creatures, of the world he has created, of our families, of ourselves? How do our decisions and actions reflect the fact that God is ruling in our lives? Are we truly worshiping Him alone?

God wants us to find rest in Him and to offer rest to all whom we touch in this life. This day, look for new ways to find rest in God by embracing His law and His loving presence. Look for new ways to grant rest to others by cleaning a house, writing a letter, making a phone call, weeding a garden, giving  a smile or a greeting, cooking a meal, offering healing space. Be an instrument of God’s peace, and help others experience the benefits of God’s rule and presence. Be a part of God’s redemption in the world.

Garden Tip: Demonstrate the Sabbath law in your garden through crop rotation. Separate your garden into different sections or beds, rotating different kinds of plants from bed to bed each year. Different kinds of plants have different nutritional needs. By grouping and rotating them, you can enable the soil to recharge. This will also reduce the fungal and bacterial diseases and insect pests that tend to collect in garden soil used for the same crop year after year.

The traditional four bed garden is an excellent model for this. Divide up your vegetables into four categories: (1) leafy (lettuce, kale, salad greens [need +nitrogen]), (2) fruits (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash [need +phosphorus]), (3) roots (onions, garlic, carrots, beets [need +potassium]), (4) builders (peas, beans [these add nitrogen])/ cleaners (corn, potatoes). Then rotate the plantings through your beds in this order. This succession gives an organically fed soil the appropriate nutrients in successive years.

Add a fifth bed to the cycle and plant a cover crop (green manure) during the fifth year, allowing the bed to rest. The cover crop will keep weeds from taking over the fallow bed and add organic matter to the soil when it’s turned under. Use annual grasses like rye or, if you need an additional boost of nitrogen, a legume like vetch.

Boundaries

It may sound like hospitality is all about breaking down barriers, about opening all doors to welcome others in. While there is some truth to this, offering a hospitable environment involves creating safe, protected space for others. And strong boundaries are an essential element of any safe place.

True hospitality involves the creation and maintenance of holy and protected space, a space where visitors are safe and loved, a place where they can come to a clear and honest understanding of themselves through interaction with the host. It is a place where others can experience the presence of Christ through His representatives.

Jesus was the perfect host. He was able to welcome guests of all different sorts and yet was able to adjust his hospitality to perfectly meet their needs. Jesus’ hospitality was confrontational and transformational, but somehow he was also gentle. He was able to meet people right where they were. He was able to welcome them all into his presence without violating them, and they came away both comforted and confronted—forever changed.

Read the four Gospels to study the encounters that Jesus had with individuals. Let’s just mention a few of these encounters here. Jesus met a learned Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) and engaged him in a theological discussion. He challenged his presuppositions about Jesus’ identity and about the way God works in a life. At the end of the story, Nicodemus was one of the wealthy, influential men who took Jesus from the cross to bury Him. Nicodemus was forever changed by Jesus and passed his story on to the apostle John to be recorded in his Gospel. In the next chapter of John’s Gospel (John 4:26), Jesus encountered a woman who had been broken by life, used up by many men, abandoned by her neighbors. He reached out to her at a well, and spoke to her of “water”—a term she understood. Jesus confronted her with her sin and gave her hope for a new life and a transformed future.

The physician Luke recorded an account in his Gospel that involved a Pharisee named Simon and “sinful” woman (Luke 7:36-50). At the home of Simon the Pharisee, this woman came in and poured out an expensive vial of perfume to honor Jesus. In this act, she was likely pouring out her life savings. Simon, along with Jesus’ disciples, looked on with a critical spirit, and Jesus confronted them with their pride. In the same moment, He offered this broken woman the forgiveness and love she needed. He knew what both parties needed and offered it with wisdom, directness, and grace.

One of the biggest challenges to our hospitality, is that we aren’t like Jesus. We are broken in different ways that keep us from reaching out and welcoming others effectively. For some of us, our loneliness gets in the way. As we welcome others into our space, we find that our own needs are deep and we grasp at what they can offer us; thus, we are ineffective and unworthy as hosts. (People only come away from the encounter feeling used and manipulated.) For others of us, our pride gets in the way. We always have a program to push on our guests, and we think we know what they need—even before we’ve taken the time to listen; thus, we fail as hosts. (People only come away from the encounter feeling labeled as a “project,” not affirmed as a person.)

Our personal boundaries are inadequate because we are broken. We tend to be either like a “black hole” that pulls hard on those who enter our space, or we are like a “tornado,” unleashing our influence to force change in others, often to a destructive degree. In either case, we use our guests to meet our own needs—either filling the lonely void within or filling our need for personal accomplishment or conquest. In either case, we tend to manipulate our guests and fail to meet their real needs.

Jesus didn’t fail in either of these ways. He was complete in Himself through His relationship with the Father and the Spirit, and though He truly valued His friendships with people, he never used them to fill a void. His welcome was for the sake of the guest, not for the fulfillment of His own needs. Though Jesus brought himself fully into His encounters, He never forced change on His guests. He offered them His transforming friendship by being truly present for them, but it was up to them to stay or leave. He never manipulated His guests into action. He affirmed them where they were, opened up a transformational option, and then got out of the way.

Let’s end this discussion by looking at Jesus’ encounter a the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31). This man was truly moral and lived a good life. He came to Jesus wanting to discover what would truly please God and lead to eternal life. Jesus showed this man that loving God and his neighbor was the most important thing, and that all his possessions were getting in the way. But then Jesus stepped out of the way. This man was confronted with the truth and he truly understood the truth, but then he had to make the choice to sacrificially embrace the truth. And in this case, the man walked away. Jesus did no begging; He didn’t need this man’s company, nor did He need to succeed in transforming his life. Jesus was only true to Himself as God’s Son in the encounter.

We as God’s children can be healed by God’s grace to the point of being worthy, transformational hosts to those God brings across our paths. May we all seek such healing and, thus, become a source of blessing to those around us. May we all follow in the steps of Jesus.

Polarities

The spiritual life is often described as a journey or pilgrimage. Near the beginning of the journey, it is easy to assume that we will always move forward, getting stronger, deeper, and wiser every day, until we achieve maturity and a sanctity, of sorts. Oh, that this were true!

In time, we discover through experience that progress in the spiritual life is a struggle forward. With each two steps forward comes a step back, sometimes three steps back! The journey is hardly a straight line forward. And there are many reasons for the difficulties. Sometimes the problems are caused by a tough environment. Sometimes “friends” and family get in the way. Sometimes our detours are caused by brokenness within or just a lack of discipline. Often, it’s a tangled combination of many factors.

So let’s look at progress in the spiritual life through a different sort of lens. The spiritual life is all about reconciling broken relationships. It all starts with our relationship with God. He has done His part through the sacrificial gift of Christ. But our relationship with God is held back by our tendency to be afraid of God and unwilling to reach out to receive His gracious forgiveness. And when we do reach out, it is often just on our own terms. We ask Him to fulfill our desires whether what we ask for is good for us or not. As a result, our relationships with God are often mostly illusory. The God we worship is more a figment of our imagination than anything close to reality. And so we worship idols of our own making, not the God of grace and truth that He is. So as people, we are often caught between two poles—the pole of illusion (or idolatry) and the pole of true worship.

And there are other parallel polarities describing the other key relationships in our spiritual lives. One involves our relationships with other people. After the first man and woman sinned in Eden, one of the first consequences was shame and distrust between them. And now we all struggle between to poles of hostility and hospitality in our relationships with others. And what about our relationships with the world in which we live? It has become for most a resource to be plundered, not a sustaining, living environment to cherish. We are caught between the poles of exploitative production on the one hand and a dream of cooperative cultivation on the other. Below is a chart that illustrates these parallel polarities and adds other related ones.

Relationship with God

ILLUSION <—————————————————-> WORSHIP

Relationships with people

HOSTILITY<—————————————————> HOSPITALITY

Relationships with the world

PRODUCTION <————————————————-> CULTIVATION

The struggle within ourselves

PRIDE <———————————————————-> HUMILITY

DISRESPECT<—————————————————> RESPECT

LUST <———————————————————–> LOVE

FEAR <———————————————————–> COURAGE

POWER <———————————————————> RELINQUISHMENT

CONTROL <——————————————————> FAITH

BOREDOM <——————————————————> AWE

LONELINESS <—————————————————> SOLITUDE

DESIRE <———————————————————-> CONTENTMENT

I / IT <————————————————————> I / THOU

ENDS FOCUS <—————————————————-> MEANS FOCUS

In this life we are caught between many polarities, all interrelated in some sense. And as we move to the right on the interior polarities, we find ourselves moving toward the right in the relational ones. As we move to the right in our relationship with God, we will likely find ourselves moving toward the right in our other relationships and our attitudes, as well. And if we find ourselves especially broken in our human relationships, it will likely mean we are broken in our other relationships as well.

Our spiritual lives might be described as a whirlwind that is hopefully listing toward the right, toward growth and wholeness—toward shalom. And with the help of God’s constant presence through His Spirit, there is always hope. Much more could be said here, but perhaps this is best left to your own reflection.

I and Thou

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote a book (I and Thou) that captured an important truth. He stands within a large stream of thinkers since the Enlightenment who recognize that we as thinking subjects do a great deal to shape the realities we perceive. In other words, we objectify (or mentally remake) the people or events or other objects of our experience based on the grid of perception that we’ve developed through culture, society, family, and experience.

Buber also recognized that it is likely that some of us see things more clearly than others. For many, the act of perception is equal to the act of objectification. When we see someone or something, we recreate it into something quite other than it actually is. We view it as an IT or a thing. Such objectification places our perspective at the center of our universe and allows us to see the world on our terms. It allows us to create a world where we can feel safe and in control. All of us struggle with this to some degree. It is part of being human. But for many of us, the perceptions we live by are nowhere near a true reality. For some, the misperception borders on madness. And in the extreme, it is certifiably so. In the end, objectifying our world is our attempt to play the role of “God” in it.

But there are also those who have learned to forgo this tendency to objectify what they perceive. Such people have the humility to allow the objects of their perceptions to break through unabashedly as a THOU rather than an IT. Such people are affected and shaped more deeply by the world and people around them. They feel empathy and compassion to a far deeper level, because they really do see people and really do hear people. They are transformed and shaped by the people and events around them rather than merely seeing what they want to see and making everything they see over into their own image. They have relinquished the role of God in their world. These are the hospitable souls, and their relationships are characterized by I/THOU, not by I/IT. They allow space for others to enter into their world, affirming and valuing the THOU, and growing through the association.

The I and THOU person must relinquish some control over the world, which is an act of faith in itself. Such a person must have a solid sense of self in order to maintain healthy boundaries and keep from being obliterated by visitors who might push their way in. How might this conversion from seeing and treating others as ITs to treating them as THOUs affect our relationships?

  • In relating to God, it will mean a shift from illusory petitions and demands to true worship and honest prayer, leading to communion.
  • In relating to other people, it will mean a shift from hostile or manipulative domination to generous hospitality, leading to community.
  • In relating to the rest of the world, it will mean a shift from seeing the world as commodity source to recognizing it as a living environment, leading to cooperative cultivation.

Such a shift will change us from being proud to being humble, from grasping to giving, from shouting to listening, from claiming godhood to embracing creaturehood. Is not such a conversion what we are called to? Jesus said:

“‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33).

In the Beginning

In the beginning . . .
God created a beautiful world and filled it with plants and creatures, great and small. He created a man to care for it, and then a woman to complete the man—together a creation in God’s image. They were naked, but without shame; there was nothing to hide. They lived in harmony with each other, with the other creatures, with their environment, and with their Maker. Harmony, peace, hospitality were the operative words.

But then the people betrayed the trust God had placed in them, failing to keep the one boundary laid on them by their Maker. The man and woman ate the forbidden fruit and, in so doing, became afraid of God and hid from Him. Then the man turned to blame the woman. And the woman turned to blame the serpent. And God slaughtered a living creature to provide clothing to cover the new-found nakedness and shame of the people. He banished them from their perfect environment in Eden, and thorns sprang up to separate people from the life-sustaining earth. The new operative words were conflict, separation, hostility.

You can find all this woven into the account of Genesis, chapters 1-3, how a world of hospitality became a world of hostility. Selfishness became the human mode of operation, and thorns became the sign.

  • And now, in this broken place, people mostly come to God to wheedle what they can out of Him. Prayer becomes a means to beg for the fulfillment of desires, a magic incantation of sorts. Good deeds become a means to manipulate God to action on our behalf, instead of being an act of love. And so we objectify God as a mere Thing, as an idol, and fail to know him as the just and loving Friend He is.
  • And our relationships with other people are twisted in a parallel manner. We come to people mostly for what we can wheedle out of them. Acts of kindness and love often become acts of manipulation, given only in hopes of receiving in return. And so we objectify our fellow humans as things to be used for our benefit. Relationships are chosen with this in mind, not in response from a call from God or out of true generosity. We use others as a ladder upward or as a resource to gain power, wealth, and pleasure at inordinate levels.
  • Our relationship with the rest of creation has also been compromised. We come to other creatures, both plant and animal, and view them only as a means to power, wealth, and fulfillment. And as we use, and often misuse, them, we destroy the commons granted to all. We destroy the environments that they, and we, depend upon for life, and violate a good world that God created and loves.
  • In all this, we have lost our identity. In seeking to become God in our world, in becoming the objectifier of all things, we have become separated from our very selves. Our identity as children of God has been lost as we try to become God. And as we treat God, people, and the creatures in our care as mere things, we become just an isolated thing ourselves. We are alone and lost.

It is in this broken world that God injected Himself once again in the Person of the Christ. He taught us with word and deed how to love others with unselfish hospitality. And in His death and resurrection, He offered us a means of rediscovering a proper, loving relationship with our Maker. And through His Spirit, He offers us His ever-present grace and power. Through this transformed relationship with God through Christ, we can begin the lifelong struggle to transform the twisted relationships in all areas of our lives, and ourselves be transformed in the process. We can learn again how to treat people as God’s people, as brothers and sisters, and the rest of creation as God’s good creation. The operative word can again be hospitality. And in the process, we can by grace learn that by losing ourselves, we truly find ourselves again in the end.

Hospitality

This place is all about hospitality. I have long felt burdened with a divine command to love both God and neighbor. But as rich as the term love is, it carries with it the burden of misuse. It’s often just another term for entitled self-gratification. The way I see it, real love is anything but self-focused. And so I have shifted toward using the word hospitality for love.

Let’s try to define the term before you object too much. Hospitality is a gift offered to another person, granting a safe space to be valued, honored, and provided for–without strings attached. It might involve giving particular forms of blessing or affection, but never with a burden of repayment. An act given with the expectation of repayment is really just manipulation at best, imprisonment at worst, certainly not a gift or an act of love. In some cases it can come across as a hit over the head.

So I see hospitality as “love as it should be.” And I believe becoming hospitable is the only path to finding healing in all our relationships, whether with God, other people in our lives, our own selves, and all creatures great and small.