Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Is God a means or an End?

Love cannot be a means to any end. Love does not promise success, power, achievement, health, recovery, satisfaction, peace of mind, fulfillment, or any other prizes.  Love is an end in itself, a beginning in itself.

This quote is from The Awakened Heart by Gerald May which I finished reading a few days ago and I have begun reading again.  I do not usually reread a book right away but there are so many things in this work that touched my experience of God and of life that I want to delve into it once more with to see how it speaks to me a second time. 

The above quote resonated with me because it holds a deep truth about our relationship with God.  If we understand God as love, the essence of love, we can see how it applies to the Ground of Beingto use Paul Tillich’s term. 

There is a great danger in wanting to relate to God in terms of what God can do for us; for our loved ones; or even the world.  It is natural to pray to God that God will give us what we desire and believe is right.  Those things may be reasonable from our personal ego driven perspective; we may want healing for ourselves and others.  Indeed my daily prayers and our collective prayers ask for just that.  However, what happens when God does not deliver on God’s part of the implicit contract. We are told we are God’s people and if we are God should give us the things we ask for.

We often end our prayer with the phase, “if it is your will” which is a reminder and declaration that God is supreme in this relationship.  However, behind that can be the belief that if God is just we will get what we ask for and what we deserve; well not necessarily what we deserve but what we should receive as God’s children.  This can be misleading and the darker side of this is the prosperity Gospel which preaches that if you have success in life, as the world defines success i.e. material possessions, a nice home, a good job, and a happy family etc. it is a sign that God is rewarding you because you are a good person. 

This view is summed up in that wonderful song recorded by Janice Joplin, O Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.  There is a wonderful phrase which captures this approach to God, ‘God the Butler’.  We believe that we can keep God down in the servants’ quarters a la Downton Abbey, and call on God to come upstairs when we need something.

That is what happens when we make God a means rather than an end.  This can happen when we use our spiritual practice for a personal means rather than making space for us to recognize God’s work in our lives.  We can use contemplative prayer, centering prayer, meditation and other spiritual practices to make us feel better and to give us physiological and psychological benefits such as lower blood pressure and feeling at ease with others.  However, when we do that we are placing ourselves above God.  We believe that we know what God should do for us.  We are indeed using God as a means and not an end. 

Gerald May addresses this, “beware if turning it (spiritual practice) into a psychological method… I caution you not to “use it” to cope with stressful situations or to increase you efficiency.”  In my experience this is certainly tempting and I have turned to contemplative prayer to deal with stressful situations.  The trap is that it seems to work at times.  In my experience what seems to be the key is intention.  Do we open ourselves to the love of God or do we substitute our will for God’s and demand my will not Thine be done? 

In the end we are called to make God the end, the goal of our existence and not to means to the existence that we want or believe we deserve.  Thanks be to God. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Faith of our Fathers and Mothers

Last weekend Lorna and I were in Toronto visiting family.  On Sunday we attended St. Thomas’s Anglican Church to get our fix of High Anglican smells and bells which we seem to need once or twice a year.  Actually it was not as high as usual.  Due to our schedule we attended the 9:30 B.A.S. service of Holy Eucharist rather than the usual B.C.P. service.  However, it was still a lovely service with good music. 

After the service we attended choral concert at the Royal Conservatory in which our granddaughter, who is six years old, participated.  We were glad to discover that there has been an explosion of interest in choral music recently.  Following a very enjoyable concert with many children of various ages, we had lunch and other activities with the family.  We went with some of the family to the ROM as we had lots of time before our train left later that afternoon.  Actually, I sat in the lobby and dozed while the rest of them spent about an hour with the exhibits. 

We then went to Union Station and had some time before our train left so we sat for a while reading our books.  I was approached by a young man who wanted to ask me some questions he had about the Ark of the Covenant.  I was initially surprized to be approached until I remembered I was wearing my clerical shirt and collar.  In any case we had an engaging, if short, conversation about faith and the need for proof in relation to faith. 
One of the things that the young man inquired about was the belief that the Ark contained not only the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written but also a jar containing manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness.  I must admit I had forgotten about that aspect of the story.  On checking with the source of all knowledge (the internet) I was reminded that the Ark also is purported to contain not only the jar of manna but also Aaron’s budded rod.  I confess my poor memory about those aspects of the story of the Ark.

In any case the encounter got me thinking more about faith and the need for some people to have proof in order believe as opposed to faith which one source defines as, “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”  In this context the idea of the jar of mana being contained in the Ark is very apropos.  The manna which YHWH (God) provided to the Israelites in the wilderness was the daily bread that they needed.  It could not be stored up for more than their need for the day it was harvested. Being human they tried to store up more than their need for the day but it became spoiled overnight. The exception was the supply for the Sabbath which could be collected the day before to uphold the commandment not to do any work on the Sabbath.  They were required know that God would give them each day their daily bread which the biblical account affirms.

Throughout my adult life I have had personal challenges about what to believe and how to understand biblical miracles.  I have gone back and forth and up and down about what I believed and how to understand them.   I have also had quite a few discussions with people who had absolute faith in the literal truth of the biblical accounts—the story of the other Ark, Noah’s, is one that comes up frequently. 

I find that the best approach to the biblical miracles in such discussions is not to explore be literal truth of the accounts.  Rather what I believe is important is to understand the capital “T” truth that is contained in the stories.  What do the stories reveal about the  truth concerning about the relationship between God and the people of God for which they were told?  We will probably never know with absolute certainty or have absolute proof of the literal facts of the biblical account—at least in this life.  However, just as the account of the manna from heaven tells us that we need to live our lives in the understanding that God will give us what we need for our spiritual lives to be fed, we need to do our best to understand what the biblical accounts are saying to us in our lives as we live them and how God is at work in our lives today.

I will close with a quote from Richard Rohr, the Daily Meditation for today—perhaps a bit of synchronicity or the reality that God provides what we need in many different ways:  
Faith is not simply seeing things at their visible, surface level, but recognizing their deepest meaning. To be a person of faith means you see things—people, animals, plants, the earth—as inherently connected to God, connected to you, and therefore, most worthy of love and dignity. That’s what Jesus is praying for: that you could see things in their unity, in their connectedness.
Keep the faith,