Monday, August 29, 2022

Footprints in the Soul

The summer drought has uncovered some interesting finds throughout the world. As waters recede, relics long hidden have been revealed. In Europe the lowered Danube River has exposed German WWII ships, complete with 10,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. The foundation of a 2000 year-old bridge was exposed in the Tiber River near Rome. West of Madrid a 5000 year-old megalith comparable to Stonehenge came to the surface. Of more recent vintage, a receding Lake Mead has produced several human remains, perhaps reminders of Las Vegas’ mobster era.

The most interesting find comes from Texas. The drought uncovered evidence of a lost species: a Texas liberal Democrat! Only joking! Although what they found was almost as rare. The footprints of a 113 million year-old dinosaur were discovered at Dinosaur Valley State Park. The prints of the three-toed Acrocanthosaurus were found in the dry river bed of the Paluxy River, southwest of Fort Worth. They were preserved by sediments of the river.

In his novella (and movie) “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean remembers the people of Big Blackfoot River in Montana. He concludes the book, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

A mountain stream caused MacLean to ponder the “timeless raindrops” etched into stone and write his novel. As I ponder the ancient footprints of dinosaurs, I think of what can be found in ancient depths of the human soul. Some say each soul is unique, formed at birth, which means mine is a mere seven decades old. Others thinks that the human soul is at least as ancient as our species, and probably as ancient as life on earth.

In my experience the spiritual essence found in the depths of my being is older than that. It is eternal. Ecclesiastes wrote: “God has placed eternity in the heart of men, yet they cannot fathom the work that God has done from beginning to end.”

Before there was the idea of God, there was the Nameless. This is what was revealed to Moses in the burning bush. “I am that I am” explained Yahweh, when Moses’ asked God’s name. “Before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus, thereby exposing himself to charges of blasphemy, which resulted in this execution.

The human soul bears witness to this Divine Reality. For most of our lives this Timeless Truth is hidden beneath the rushing waters of daily life. When a spiritual drought descends upon our lives in the form of the Dark Night of the Soul, the waters dry up and the soul is revealed. At those times we can see the footprints of God etched across its surface.

Our human soul bears evidence of its ancient and divine origin. The soul (if you want to use that term) is older than we are, existing long before our birth. It is older than the human race, older than mammals, older than the dinosaurs that roamed Texas, older than the first one-celled organism that was born from earth’s primeval ocean. Older than the Earth, our solar system and our galaxy. Older than the Big Bang that formed the universe.

Its human form is just the most recent expression of this ancient Reality. Some want to give this Ultimate Reality a name and build a religion around it. Some people want to claim this ancient Truth as their sole possession, with them as the sole spokesmen and apostles. I harbor no such fantasy. This is bigger than my religion or my human race.

I am nothing in comparison, no more than a rain drop in the mud. No more than an eddy in an earthly river. Yet my roots go deep into this ancient bedrock. From it I draw upon the waters of life. This is my life. This alone is real. All else is as transient as footprints in the mud, even if those footprints are hardened into rock that lasts 113 million years.

Dinosaur fossils will melt away in time. Our human species will disappear, as longer-lived species have died out before us. Our names, nations, cultures and religions will be forgotten, but the Nameless One is eternal. To find ourselves in this Nameless One is to find our true selves. That is what the Bible means by being found “in Christ.”

Droughts are difficult times, but they can reveal priceless treasure, if we keep our eyes open. This is what Jesus called the “pearl of great price,” and “treasure hidden in the field.” It is worth all we possess, even our lives, if we are willing to pay that price. Why not? As Jim Eliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Beyond Relationship with God

Many Christians talk about having a relationship with God. Evangelicals in particular speak of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They usually say this begins when one “receives Jesus into your heart” or “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

Evangelicals frequently distinguish themselves from mainline Protestants and Catholics by saying that these other groups have religion, but “born again” believers have a relationship with God, and that makes all the difference. The slogan goes something like this: “It is not a religion. It is a relationship” or “It is not about religion; it is about a relationship with God.”

I go one step further. I say, “It is not about religion or relationship. It is about realization.” By “realization” I am referring to waking up to the Spiritual Reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to this as being “born of the Spirit” and “born again,” by which he meant something very different from the evangelical conversion experience. Jesus also called it eternal life, which is likewise very different from popular Christianity’s fantasy of a heavenly theme park.

Mainline and Evangelical Christianity may be fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. There is nothing wrong with religion when it is psychologically and socially healthy religion. Likewise there is nothing wrong with having a relationship with God when it is a healthy relationship. But there is more to the spiritual life than a relationship. 

You have heard the saying, “The good is the enemy of the best.” A relationship with God can be the enemy of the best. Jesus invited this followers to go beyond religion and relationship to realization.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night before his death Jesus offered a lengthy prayer, which is often referred to as his High Priestly Prayer. First he prayed for himself, and then he prayed for his apostles. Finally Jesus prays “not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” He is talking about his followers in future generations. This is what he prays for us:

“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus says we are meant to know the same oneness with God as he knew. Jesus is talking about more than having a closer walk with God. He is speaking of transcending relationship. He is speaking about union with God, which is something Christian mystics – East and West - have always said is possible. Eastern Orthodoxy has long taught this truth, calling it theosis.

Jesus wanted us to have more than a relationship with God or himself. He wanted us to know union with God like he knew it. He promised that we would “participate in the divine nature,” as the Epistle of Second Peter describes it. 

Union with God does not negate a relationship with God; it transcends and fulfills it. It is analogous to Jesus saying he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Realization of oneness with God fulfills both religion and relationship.

There is more to the spiritual life than most  churches teach. Christian spirituality is more than religion or relationship. It is realization of oneness with God. Jesus prayed that we might know this oneness. The First Letter of John says that if we pray anything according to the will of God, it will be done. Jesus prayed according to the will of God, and his prayer has been answered. Now it is just a matter of realizing this union with God in our lives.