24 October 2015

Reflections from Friday's Readings

One of the fundamental keys for self-help groups and 12 step programs is the recognition that the person needing help "hits bottom" and comes to a profound sense of their own powerlessness to change things. Though we think of this as a contemporary bit of wisdom it is quite ancient and something Paul has been writing about in his Letter to the Romans for the last two weeks. From the portrait we find in Paul we are apt to recognize clearly that the dynamics of sin and of addiction are almost identical, especially as he describes things today: [["For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members."!]]

The "law of (the) mind" is the law (the inner drive and foundational dynamism) of the inner self, the good will and seat of the desire to do good, to know, embrace, and be truth. It is the fundamental law of the self, the God-given source of vocation and all creativity. It is the law which is at war with the law of sin. The whole self under the power of sin (the flesh) is at war with the whole self under the power of the Spirit (the spirit). What Paul knows with absolute certainty is that the attempt to keep the Law on his own power (flesh) only leads more deeply into sin. After all, to attempt to take what can only be received as gift is to betray both the giver and ourselves who are meant to be receivers. It is to increase the distance between ourselves and God.  Our inner self desires to do good and avoid evil but has no power of itself. Paul knew human beings to be locked in a situation of sin, a bondage of the will, and heart. In such a situation of bondage God's greatest gifts, the Law and the call to pray (to worship God in truth and purity of heart) become traps to idolatry and they occasion an even more extreme situation of estrangement and alienation (sin).

It is, as I described earlier in the week, a bit like jumping off a cliff in an attempt to fly and then trying to arrest the inevitable fall (much less believing we can somehow then launch ourselves into flight!) by pulling on the tops of our shoes! Thus, Paul follows his depressing and realistic analysis with a cry of abject helplessness: [[Who will save me from this body of death?]] But Paul's "hitting bottom" was also the moment of his being "exalted" to his original dignity and freedom. Judgment came in his meeting with God in Christ, but so did redemption and so, Paul's cry of abjection is followed by one of exultation, [[Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!]] The realization that he could do nothing to save himself and was thus in bondage to sin was turned on its head as he came to realize he need do nothing but embrace his powerlessness; in that moment he became open (obedient) and Absolute Power (in the weakness of the Crucified Christ) embraced him. Love-in-Act grasped, shook him, and freed him of "the law of sin" so that he might live instead from the grace of God.

Incapacity to Keep the Law or to be People of Prayer apart from God:

One of the striking pieces of Paul's insight here, an insight rooted in his experience of powerlessness is the way two things become complicit in our sin. The first is Law and the second is prayer. I have written recently about Paul's position on the Law. With Prayer what we need to see is that to truly pray we must admit our powerlessness so that God might then work within us. Paul said it this way, "The Spirit helps us in our infirmities. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit, with groanings too deep for words intercedes for us." My sense is the Church works very hard to make sure we model this in all of our prayer, all of our liturgy. Just as in addiction, so too in any spiritual life: everything hinges on our deep and dual confession of powerlessness and trust in God.

We begin every prayer with the sign of the cross and the words, "In the Name (that is, in the the dynamic, powerful, and empowering presence), of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." In other words, we open ourselves to being moved and empowered by God's own presence. We complete our prayers in the same way, but this time, like Paul's dual confession in Friday's first reading, it is an expression of gratitude and hope rooted again in the powerful presence of the Triune God within and around us. In monastic life and the Liturgy of the Hours we begin the very first prayer of the day with the hopeful plea, "Lord Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise." Again, we know we are powerless to say a single word in prayer much less praise God with our lives unless God empowers us in this way. We trust that God will do so but we are equally clear that he must. At every subsequent hour we begin by intoning, O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me!" This is a prayer I personally pray many times a day in all kinds of situations. At these moments I am reminded of my own powerlessness, but also the power I have in Christ, and the covenant relation with God I truly am.

Paying Attention to the Weather?

Luke's Gospel reminds us how urgent this all is, and how attentive we must be at all times to the smallest sign of God's presence and our own powerlessness apart from that presence. Jesus begins by noting how clearly the people see and understand the signs of coming rain or hot winds. There is nothing trivial in this knowledge. In the Middle East of Jesus' day drought or famine led to social unrest and dislocation, loss of unity and death. Just recently we read that the war in Syria was caused in part by a terrible drought followed by the movement of 1.5M people to urban areas. The economy was destabilized, social unrest occurred and then war. Analysts note that because no one really paid attention to the drought as a factor in the county's situation they deemed Syria to be stable even the day before war broke out; this critical inattentiveness to what should have never been overlooked contributed to or (some opine) even caused the catastrophe in which many nations are now embroiled in one way and another. In California, where we are experiencing a serious drought people have begun to pay keen attention to clouds, water tables, fire conditions, El Nino, Hurricane Patricia, and so forth. We know how fragile the situation in which we find ourselves and we watch carefully lest we face disaster down the line. And yet, how many of us look so assiduously for the signs of God's presence --- or at the signs of our own critical need for God's presence?

As in these situations, and exactly like someone in a twelve step program who begins (and continues every step of) their journey into a hope-filled future by admitting the situation from which they cannot extricate themselves as they also open themselves to a "higher power," we are called to make our own Paul's dual confession of bondage to sin and the grateful celebration of freedom (being empowered by grace) in Christ.  At every moment and mood, with every prayer or attempt to be our true selves we are called to remember and claim our powerlessness so that God may simultaneously empower, free, and exalt  us to true dignity and humility. Embracing our personal poverty is the occasion for the triumph of God's great love. As Paul also reminds us, "(God's) grace is sufficient for (us). (God's) power is made perfect in weakness" --- both that of Christ and our own! We know how to do this:  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we make our prayers and live our lives. In the Name of God our lives are made God's own prayers. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!