Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
” . . . Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.”
I love Mary’s poetry. She has a way of painting a picture with the reader square in the middle of the scene. Here, it is morning. We see the rising sun, the trees, the pond, the lilies. There is the happy person swimming through the lilies or the one who is burdened with life’s circumstance, trudging along carrying the heavy “thorn.”
And, even if one is focused on the drudgery of existence and cannot see it, there is that voice within–that beast–that knows that this morning brings exactly what it needs, “Whether or not.”
Even if we don’t notice it around us, even if we have never thought we were worthy, even if we have never dared to pray, the morning arrives in all its glorious splendour.
As the writer of the Book of Lamentations penned:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; [God’s] mercies never come to an end–they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”
Not everything. I’m not that good at faces and names. I’m also not as good at rote memory–memorizing lists, passages, or poems–as I once was.
But I remember well places, scenes, roads, words, sensations, textures, experiences, tastes.
I remember far too much.
Eating ice cream at midnight when I was 2. Riding piggyback on my dad’s bike to Kindergarten in Legaspi City when I was 4. Mum making sauerkraut in a bucket in her office. The mango tree behind our house blowing over in the storm and the taste of unripe mangoes with a sprinkle of salt. The words of Filipino Sunday School songs. Getting my arm stuck in the washing machine wringer. Wading and swimming in flood waters in Lupagon. Playing with Gardiner Improsso on the IGBI basketball court. Visiting the Andersons in Tagbalaran. The look on the man’s face that I mistook for my Uncle at the airport in 1972. Where I was when my sister told me Mr Wright died (I had only met him once but he took our family to Disneyland.) The smell of the musty basement at my uncle’s church in Madison, Wisconsin. My first breath of Australian air after stepping off the plane in Sydney. How sausage rolls and strawberry milk really didn’t mix well in Grade 4.
It might not seem so bad, but that’s only a small fraction of my mind’s inner workings. I also remember almost every unkind word I said, every failure, wrong decision, mistake. The lie I told in 1985. The rules I broke in 1986. The car accident of 1987. The wrong song I sang in church in 1996. The embarrassing joke of 1998. The brain snap of 1999. . . Many times my excellent memory feels like a curse.
It condemns me.
It beats me up. It makes me feel inadequate, foolish and, like Cher, wishing I could turn back time.
But I can’t wind the clock back. I can’t take back those hurtful words, unwrite that nasty letter, or undo that wrong move.
People are kind. They forget—or at least they don’t mention it again. I doubt there would be a handful of folks who would immediately call to mind that failed speech I gave, or that embarrassing joke I told.
People also give me advice on how to deal with my memory problems: “It is what it is.” “Accept it and move on.” “We all make mistakes.” “You wouldn’t be where you are today if you didn’t make the mistakes you made.”
While all these are true, it does nothing to mitigate the feelings of regret, remorse, or sadness over the past.
I find it easy to forgive others. I find it incredibly hard to forgive myself.
Memory is like that.
I recall the words of a song from First Call (Yes, I am a CCM tragic straight outa the 80s!) called God is Greater. Not a hugely memorable song and, despite my outstanding knack of remembering useless stuff, I can’t remember anything except this one line: “And even if your heart condemns you, God is greater . . . than your heart.”
God, the Divine Presence, the ever-loving, always forgiving, Eternal One is greater than anything that might condemn me.
I’m not discounting the reality of the regret I feel when I remember the bad things I have done or the pain I have caused the people that I have trodden on. That is still with me every day and, quite frankly, sucks. Big time.
What I hold on to is that no matter what my perception is, or has been, the reality of God’s love overpowers all.
Sure, I messed up and, if memory serves me correctly, still do.
But my life lies open before me and I can’t let those moments pass in vain. There are lessons I have learned and I need to move forward knowing that every mistake is redeemable, every wrong path can lead to healing, and every trespass is forgiven. Love wins, always.
We say “God can do anything.”
But God doesn’t do all the good we expect: planes crash, ferries capsize, people die of common illnesses, resources aren’t made available for our neighbours outdoors, and refugees are imprisoned.
We say “With God nothing is impossible.”
But then put limits on God’s power and ability. After all, how could God forgive Hitler? How could God love that rapist-murderer? And how could God save anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus or who was born into the wrong religion?
We say “God is king over all creation.” But then we assign ourselves the task to make the rules other people must keep in order to please God: “You mustn’t swear. You must attend Church. You must read your Bible. You must not think about sex. You must disapprove of gays, abortionists, socialists, Catholics, liberal politicians, or (insert profession, people-group or minority here).”
Pope Francis says that Jesus saves all, even if they don’t seek him.
Can God do that?
Rob Bell seems to believe there will be millions more in God’s kingdom than we would ever suspect–that we will be surprised at the reach of God’s love.
Can this be true?
Can God move in ways we cannot imagine? Yes! Yes! Hallelujah, YES!
Can God save anyone simply because of God’s instinct of love? Yes! (I believe this is called “grace.”)
Can God refuse to be limited by our human understanding of Divinity or our interpretations of revelation? Yes!
Could Pope Francis, Gandhi, the Buddha, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and St Paul all have a similar underlying understanding of God that ruthlessly opposes any attempt at figuring God out or assigning a role statement to the One-who-cannot-be-contained?
Could it be that now we see as in a mirror, dimly? Could it be that worship of the Bible or our group’s way of seeing it is more important to us than letting God be God? Could it be possible that one day we will look back and be astounded by how small our imagined God was?
Would it be too far-fetched to assume that, when all the dust settles after all the wars are fought, that, in the end, love really is the highest aspiration of all creation and this love indeed has won?
I dare you to believe that this is the way it could be.
One of the often-sung hymns in my early life was one entitled, ‘Yield Not to Temptation.’ The driven-in thought pattern which accompanied such singing went something like this:
‘You cannot be a good Christian if you sin.’
You cannot expect other people to want to become Christians if you don’t show you have victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (or, ‘You can sin as much as you want, but don’t you dare let it be known.’)
‘Your number one aim in life is to avoid doing whatever may even appear to be evil so you can maintain a good testimony in the world.’
The words of the song provided the perfect backdrop for such a lifelong drama:
Yield not to temptation
For yielding is sin
Each victory will help you
Some other to win
Sin avoidance was the key to a successful and ‘victorious’ life, and, through this seemingly-successful life, others would be drawn to Christ.*
Yet, the more I understand Jesus, and the more I am exposed to people who are sincere followers of his way, the more I see imperfection as being the cracks through which the love of God can shine–windows through which God’s forgiveness can be seen.
Richard Rohr writes of this ‘losing’ lifestyle thus:
One reason why I am so attracted to Jesus and then to Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.
Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. I think Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfiguredin our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.
St Paul well said, ‘[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In our imperfection, in our humanity, in our losing, God’s grace–the one perfect constant in our life–is seen for what it truly is: fully unconditional, all-encompassing and imperfection-embracing love.
So I embrace my imperfection. It’s part of who I am as a human being. I will not and cannot be perfect. I cannot keep up a ‘victory’ front, appear to be squeaky-clean, look like Jesus. But I can trust, humbly live my life in my humanness, and believe that, through the imperfections, God’s glory will shine.
* The irony of this scenario seemed to me to be that one would put on a facade so they would attract others to Jesus. The new convert then would be taight that they too must put on a similar appearance to draw in others into this vicious cycle of hypocrisy and deception. In hindsight, I should have seen how unlike Jesus this really was.
So much of what is called ‘worship’ in the Christian community these days would be better described as a ‘God Fan Club.’ Our songs reflect this: God is Great, Great and Mighty, You Are Good, You Are Magnificent, There is None Like You, etc. Prayers have a general sense of telling God how wonderful God is and how ‘blessed’ we are that God is our God.
We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that. What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them. God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces them. All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”
The mystics’ overwhelming experience is of a full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them. The rest of their life they are trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship. This is not to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love! “Love is repaid by love alone,” as my father, Francis said. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate
That being said, I wonder if God is really at all impressed by how much we say (or sing) ‘I love you, Lord,’ and how creatively we express that. Perhaps God would be worshiped best by showing how much we love God–and return that love– in our humble, unnoticed and unlauded service to those who bear God’s image.
We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing (read Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Dying).
The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.
Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. If the mystics say that one way, they say it a thousand ways. But because most of our common religion has not been at the mystical level, we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me when I change (moralism). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel-gazing,” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.