Archive | August 2012

More bewilderments.

I am still thinking about that quote from Martin Luther. “Discipleship is not limited to what you can understand–it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own understanding…. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this way Abraham went forth from his father, not knowing where he was going. You cannot find it in yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire–that is the road you must take.”

The more that I thought about this, the greater kinship I felt, not with Martin Luther but with the early disciples of Jesus. When I read the Gospels (especially the Gospel of Mark) the disciples all seem to be essentially bewildered about who Jesus is, what he was called to do in his life on earth, and what he is asking them to do. They ask foolish questions. They fight about their interpretations and their relationship with him (who is more loved for instance.) They deny over and over that he is going to suffer and die and if they follow him they will suffer too.  They really just do not  get it.  And when we modern-day Jesus followers read about their thick-headed responses, we just want to say, “don’t you get it?”  But here is the rub; even though they were in the dark more often than not, they kept coming back for more.  They never really understood fully, even when they profess faith in Jesus, just who Jesus was and what this life of discipleship means for them but they kept coming back.

I finally have a glimmer of understanding. The disciples who walked the earth with Jesus were bewildered because that is what facing someone so awesome as Jesus does to us. We cannot understand and we are not even supposed to. They and we are true disciples when we admit that we are over our heads. This is the kind of Mystery where we do not ever really find out “who did it.” And that is the point of discipleship. We are called to live in Mystery, follow blindly and keep coming back.  No wonder the early disciples sound so dumb. We are too, if we just admit it. And our bewilderment is not limited to grappling with the person of Jesus, it is also when we grapple with the mysteries of life in community.

When we gather, and keep gathering as disciples, in our congregations and in our communities, we are often bewildered about how to be together. And all the mistakes we make are part of our formation as a people who are trying our best to follow in the path that Jesus laid out for us. It is okay to cut ourselves some slack when we do not know what to do or when we are feeling overwhelmed or bewildered. That is just where God wants us.



This morning I read a reflection on one of my daily inspirational forums (the email list is called Inward/Outward if you want to check it out.) This particular reflection was by Martin Luther and was quoted in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Martin Luther is talking here about a radical kind of faith; when we are plunging into deep waters and following someone or something that we do not fully comprehend. As I read these words I thought first about taking Dylan out to the deeper waters this summer , both on the ocean and in lakes, so he could risk lifting his feet off the sandy bottom, flailing about and finally find himself doing a credible dog paddle stroke. How thrilled we both were! I also thought about the ways that I too have walked into waters that were clearly over my head, trusting that God is always with me and holding me up so that I not only float but swim.

“Discipleship is not limited to what you can understand–it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own understanding…. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this way Abraham went forth from his father, not knowing where he was going. You cannot find it in yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire–that is the road you must take.”

When I read any inspirational text as a spiritual discipline I try to pay attention to what word or phrase jumps out at me, either because it resonates with what I know to be true, or it disturbs me, or shocks me or even confuses me. The phrase that stood out for me today is “bewilderment is the true comprehension.”  So often, if not always, I want to know where I am going. When Dorrie and I go walking on trails I am happier if they are well-marked, and even happier if I have been there before. If we do not have that luxury I am happy walking behind her, as though she knows the way and is leading me along. This works for her because she likes to be the trail blazer and seems to have a better sense of direction than I do anyway. Another additional benefit of being the second one on the trail is that she encounters the spider webs first!

So I am happy to be a follower but truly, as Martin Luther claims, I do not really comprehend where I am and where I am going unless I am willing to be bewildered, to be lost, and to call out for guidance. I enjoy doing the work, or taking on an adventure of my own choosing (who doesn’t!) but the road that is contrary to what I have contrived really is the road that I must take. And when I do take that road of radical trust and discipleship, following as though I were a blind woman, I am plunged into deep waters and come up new. Who would even have thought that bewilderment was a road to spiritual formation? Not my will but thy will be done.

Martin Luther followed an inner light in the darkness of his age and blazed a new trail. Dietrich Bonhoeffer risked and ended up losing his life by following a bewildering call to discipleship. Where will the road that I am embarking on take me? Not knowing is the only way I will know!

Doing the Right Thing

Another few days back on the island in Maine – this time with our grandson Dylan who is just about to have his 8th birthday. It was such  delight to be with him, to see his unbridled enthusiasm and joy and to hear him say over and over again “I am so happy!” or “This is my first time  (being on an island, being in a one room house, being on a boat, picking up a spider…) These are the times that I do not struggle at all with Jesus’ saying “I tell you the truth, unless  you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And change is what we did this week; change our focus from adult concerns to the wonder-filled eyes of a grandson.

Dylan and I walked along the island path at the water’s edge. We reached the end of the island and stood together on a rocky outlook. He spied a deflated helium balloon that had washed up close but not on to the shore. In a split second he shouted, like only a kid can shout, “I am going to do the Right Thing!” He ran away from me, back into the woods and farther along the trail so that he could step back out on to the rocks and be closer to the balloon. He grabbed a stick and bravely reached across the slippery rocks and pulled the balloon back in. He was adamant that the balloon had to be out of the water and in his safe hands. And when I asked him why he wanted to get the balloon he told me that the balloon and the string it was still tied with might hurt the fish or the birds, so it was the Right Thing to rescue it.  Of course, it was also really fun then to stand out in the sea breeze and to toss the deflated birthday balloon into the sky and see it fly again for a bit like a kite.

“I am going to do the Right Thing!” he shouted and when he did he reminded me of when he was just a toddler and loved the video of Bob The Builder where all the creatures shout “We can do it, yes we can!”  Change and become like a little child and you will see with clarity what needs to be done and you might have the courage to do it.

For us adults, stuck as we are in our world of habits and fears, questions and ambivalence, self protection and “it’s not my problem” thinking, knowing what is the Right Thing does not come at a moment’s notice. We either do not know, or do not remember, or do not want to own up to what the Right Thing is most of the time. And when the Right Thing is clear to us we rarely jump up and start running to do it. Of course some folks do. We have all heard about people who rush into a burning fire to save a stranger. Those stories hearten me. But more often I and most everyone else I know hesitate before risking our version of falling into the ocean trying to make a small difference for the planet.

“I am going to do the Right Thing!” is our calling as religious people who know that we are part of the interconnected web of existence and that our part is in fact crucial, if not for the fish and the birds, for the oppressed and marginalized people standing right in front of us who need us to stand up and speak a good word or do a good deed. Jesus tells us that we need to change, to repent, to not just stand there but to become like a little child so that we can enter life fully. Today as I look back on that walk along the trail in Maine I re-commit myself to listening more closely to the voice that shouts to me “look over there – something/someone needs you and needs you now.” Just do the right thing.

What Is Important Here?

Being an “on call” Nana gives me lots of experience in having to be both a responsible teacher of safety and morals and at the same time to be someone who is learning to suspend judgment. I know that I am not alone in this place.  Parenting and grand parenting lends itself to such stretching and blending of disparate roles. Last week my 3 year old granddaughter and I were swimming at our local pond and we met up with a youngish mother and daughter. Here we were, lifeguarding adults, watching out for the safety of the children while also reveling in their utter joy at playing freely in the water. Sadly for us and for the kids, our grown up judgmental voices trumped our happy and proud voices. Can you hear us?  “Don’t go out any farther!” “Don’t throw stones!” “Get out of the water, your lips are blue!” The young mother turned to me and said “I find myself saying No all the time. I can’t stand it anymore.”  Clearly she was looking for some advice from Nana, the way that I so often looked for advice from my mother. I said that one of the most helpful things that my mother taught me was to ask myself “What is important here?”

Safety is totally important. Teaching children to not hurt other people by accidentally or on purpose throwing rocks at them is important. I guess that learning to come out of the water when you are covered in goose bumps and your teeth are chattering is important too, but maybe not as important as having fun on a summer day in the pond with a new friend, both of you just learning to swim. What is important here and when should we be sitting in the judgment seat?

Lately I have been asking myself another question “Am I right and should my judgment prevail?” This is a question that I ask not only when I am with the children but throughout the week. I have been reading a delightful book called 12 Miracles of Spiritual Growth: A Path of Healing from the Gospels. In this book E. Kent Rogers looks closely at 12 stories of healing in the Gospels and finds within them lessons for our own spiritual growth and healing. In one of the stories (healing the man who was blind from birth) Rogers talks about this being a story about healing from the human sin of blaming.  On meeting the blind man the disciples asked Jesus who sinned, this man or his parents, since he was born blind? Jesus responded that no one was to blame. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed to him.” Now days we do not usually blame people for their infirmities, but we do blame people for what we think that they should be or should have done or not done.  We think that we are wiser or more ethical that the folks around us. And what happens then is that we distance ourselves from “the other” and such distancing is the foundation of sin. Rogers says “Every time we look at another human being with even a shred of disdain or contempt we have passed a false judgment….We cannot afford even the slightest judgmental attitude if we want to be right with God, or if we want to see life as it truly is.”

Of course that is all easier said than done, which means that if we get on this path we are going to be working hard and opening ourselves to blessings that we cannot yet imagine. To not automatically assume that we are right, and to refrain from being the judge, opens us to new insights; about ourselves, other people, and God. Yes, for sure there is much that we should be raising our voice against; violence, prejudice, and outright hatred for starters. But even when we do stand up against such violations we should first check the log in our own eye, or as The Message translates this Jesus saying “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.”

Here is a poem I read this week that speaks to the same issue. It is called The Place Where We Are Right. The poet is the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Imagine Amichai reading this poem in the middle of the relentless blaming and violence of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Doubts and love dig up the world, like a mole, a plow. And when our world is thoroughly dug up we have the chance for planting and harvesting a new crop.  May I unite my doubts about my judgments with the love of my teacher Jesus, into every situation. Maybe it will turn out that in fact I am right but maybe not. Standing in that open place I am more likely to hear a whisper from the One who sits, not in the judgment seat, but in the mercy seat. I am sure that I will still be shouting to the grand children if they are running into a dangerous situation, but I hope that more often than not, I will stand by them, and everyone else, with more love and less shouting, more trust, and less need to blame or control. Really, what is important here?