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Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Driftwood Flowers

Writing about LOVE is daunting. What can one say about it that has not already been said? How many songs and poems, plays and stories have been written about it?

But the hesitation about this is based on a false premise. The false premise is that our lives and thoughts are set and not constantly changing. Change scares us but change also frees us and gives us hope.  So, LOVE is always new in us. Everyday we grow and greet life with new thoughts and feelings. These may be negative, but even if they are, we are exploring new ways to reach for love, to know love, to experience love, to be angry at love.

Recently I was wrestling with the tremendous variety in love. From the Greeks forward we know the ancient spectrum of types of love: from pleasure to sacrificial spiritual love — pure altruism.  I have always considered the “ideal love” — the purely altruistic love — the standard against which I judge my feelings and actions. I put myself down for having “Mixed Motives.” I see that I often pursue people for double motives. I may want to help that person or validate that person, but he or she also makes me feel good or important or useful. Does that nullify my help to them? From the point of view of suffering, especially suffering from things such as depression or trauma, the love of things we enjoy, including relationships and sexuality, is rare and to be sought. Many people enjoy very little. If they could get pleasure out of a painting or a meal, it would be a good thing, possibly a very holy thing. So, love should not be interpreted as something free of my concerns or enjoyment. It is possible both to please God and others and also please myself.

Teilhard de Chardin, in The Divine Milieu, speaks of being both attached and detached at the same time. We should love what we do or enjoy but we at the same time must surrender control over the processes or outcomes. Love involves the risk of caring, of getting involved. But if an affinity or pursuit is taking us away from God, we have to detach ourselves from it. So, love includes the maturity of wisdom, of surrendering to what is best, not just to what I want.

Love is said to be generous. Paul in I Corinthians 13 presents a description of extraordinary generosity and lack of ego, patience and kindness. How can love be so generous and still please me? There is a double answer to this. First, we believe that everything is grace. The very ability to love without counting the cost to us, is a sign of God’s work in us. So, being able to do loving actions is a sign that God is close. Secondly, it is a very good thing to see ourselves as loving. We don’t need to feel like failures at life. It is not a prideful thing to know ourselves as happy, as someone who is doing well, or as someone who enjoys giving in appropriate ways.

Love requires discernment. When love is expressed as giving, it can be beneficial but it can also be harmful. Actions that seem to help people may actually be robbing people of their independence or need to do things on their own. Loving actions may be good in themselves, such as cooking a meal for the homeless, but not actually be loving because I may really need to use that time to do something else, such as study for an exam.  As we all know, sometimes the most loving thing is not to do something or not to say something. I cringe at the thought of letting my children make mistakes; but, not trying to control them or lecture them, now that they are grown, is a very loving thing.

Love is often a decision, not a feeling. Putting my mother in a skilled nursing facility was a very painful thing for me. It was the very best thing to do given her level of medical difficulty and my need to work full time. It was a loving thing to do especially since I had visited and researched all the possible facilities and knew my mother’s likes and dislikes. Every step of the way I had to be supportive and creative with my mother’s reactions to her new home, which turned out to be multiple. As she aged and grew more ill, I tried to find the best fit for her in residences. I met a number of people in the same situation who also were making hard decisions that nevertheless were out of love. For the last nine months of her life I drove 40 miles from work to where my mother lived just about every day. She was in pain and often unhappy. I could not fix her or her situation with my love for her. I decided to be there, listen to her and solve whatever problems I could. I wanted to take her off her cross. Oddly enough, that would not have been loving.

Real love always involves some suffering. By its very nature it involves attachment to who or what is loved and when that person or thing leaves, dies or deteriorates we suffer. That is not wrong, but it does hurt.

Love also involves longing. Built into our spirit is the desire to be united to what we love. We feel separation all the time. In developing our own identities we do so in relation to others who are separate from us. It is necessary and good to be our unique selves, but it is also taxing. We sometimes feel that we want to fall back into union with our mothers, or mother images of infancy so that we can get out from under all the responsibilities and worries of life. We also long to be truly known as we really are. We want unconditional love.  These feelings are in all of us and good in themselves. In this life our task is to become our true selves. We travel through a series of experiences which challenge and teach us. One of the things that draws us forward is the desire to be known and loved. God is in the midst of all these experiences — knowing and loving us. The more we see how God loves us into growth, the more we can love this way in our lives. This love can be both sensitive and harsh. If we mediate on the Gospels we can see these two expressions of love in the way that Jesus lived and how he related to people. We can see how he relates to us, to me.

This sense of God’s personal love for me is sustaining. Its gentle and challenging aspects make sense to me. In The Living Flame of  Love, John of the Cross, speaks of God wounding us to get our attention in order to purify and heal us. Love is not always pretty but it is the most important thing in life.

Public Domain image by Christina Spiegeland

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Posted by on Jul 21, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The Fruit of the Spirit: A way to live a transformed life

 

In his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23), Paul speaks of the “Fruit” of the Spirit. He uses this term in the singular, implying there is just one fruit, with nine aspects or expressions. In Galatians, Paul rejects a meticulous observance of multiple laws as a way to be righteous before God. In contrast, the “one fruit” is transformation in the Spirit, which blossoms into many virtues. The word “fruit” probably alludes to the image in the Bible of a person of virtue being like a tree which is rooted in living water and bears fruit (Ps. 1) or to trees that are cut down and burned because they do not bear fruit (Luke 13).

The idea of conversion and transformation is intriguing in our 21st century world. We have an increasingly secular society which presses us to talk about God in empirical ways. If we can’t prove that God exists in a mode measurable by our senses, then God is dismissed as a product of the imagination. Another common interpretation of belief in God is that the image of God is the fulfillment of a psychological need. In this world, the idea that God is attractive or that I would allow God to have control of my life is either inconceivable or not of importance. Transformation or change for most 21st  century people means that I change myself. It could also include help by others, such as a therapist or doctor. The only limitation to change in this world is a lack of will or skill, either on my part or on that of my helpers. There is the sense that given enough time, a solution to all problems can be found within the scope of human means.

From a Christian point of view, there are limitations and forms of harm that cannot be remedied by human effort. Transformation in this context presupposes an experiential relationship with God. It is the opposite of fixing myself. Transformation implies that I accept my limitations and let myself hear the voice of God, both inside myself and externally. The fruits are then part of the dance between God and me. I cannot make myself love heroically, but I can approach that kind of love if I am enlightened and empowered by the Spirit. I may naturally approach life in a positive way, but the basis of hope and courage in the face of great difficulty is God, whether I know it or not.

Interestingly enough, this topic came up in a conversation very recently with a sister in a religious community who told me that at the homeless program where she works in Portland, the people speak often about their experience of God. Many of them feel God’s presence and God’s love for them. They pray often to God and recognize God helping them. They do not feel alone. So, those who are the least fortunate and have very few comforts experience God’s power in their lives and can let God help them. It is so often the case that those we usually judge as the most blessed do not report a sense of closeness or awareness of God. In my seminars for professionals in the corporate world, it is rare to have someone tell me of the comfort of closeness to God in the day to day, even in private conversations we have about faith. Jesus asks us to become open like children and to come to him for help with our burdens. How hard that is.

The Fruit of the Spirit – Image by Terri Holaday – Public Domain

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

Baby Galaxies in the Night Sky

When I stare at the night sky, especially if I am out in the country, I get almost overwhelmed at the immensity of the universe.  I am in awe of the beauty of the stars and then amazed at a God who can create and manage such an enormous and complex reality and yet be with me personally.  One billion galaxies!  Possibly two billion.

Even if a person does not believe in God as the reality defined in traditional religious terms, the beauty of the night sky, the roar of water down a canyon, the amazing chatter of birds and animals can take the breath away — almost bring one to tears.

The gift of AWE AND WONDER helps us to know and to feel that God is the fulfillment of everything we desire.  That there exists  perfect love — perfect knowledge, goodness, power, action, discretion, justice, healing.  With this gift we perceive the mystery that God is.  We realize that there is an aspect of the Sacred, the transcendent, that we cannot know on this side of death, but that we get glimpses of such majesty and glory.  We see that God can know, interact with, and sustain billions of people.   It’s amazing.  You either believe it or you don’t.  If you believe in such a possibility then it is mind blowing.  My particularities matter.  I am fully known.  Nothing is impossible.

In 1974 When Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it made two inaccessible worlds available to an entirely new audience.  The first world was the natural world known in a scientific way.  All of a sudden cells and their biochemistry, ecosystems, the interdependence of species, and the rhythms of nature were explained in lay terms and could be understood and celebrated.  Secondly, this joy and excitement was not just intellectual but also solidly spiritual.  There was no separation of the secular from the sacred.  The world was whole and we felt whole in it.  How nice!  My body and the whole physical realm was God’s love and creativity writ big in the awesome processes of life in mitochondria,  chloroplasts, T cells, blood, genes, the periodic table, and atomic particles.

Dillard took all the lovely words, images and sounds of a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkinsand showed us the genius of God, down to the most minute details.  Hopkins’ dramatic words: grandeur, greatness, ooze, dearest freshness, dappled, brinded, original, spare, and strange now showed the grandeur of God as Dillard explained the incredible scientific reality of ooze and freshness, dappled and brinded.  She also opened up very wide the whole subject of suffering and death and gave the reader a new perspective on the meaning and purposes of both.  As a spiritually anemic graduate student, I soaked up the theology of Dillard’s book and saw for the first time the consistency of God in the natural and supernatural realms.  How could God have a cycle of growth, disintegration and integration in the natural realm and not have one in the spiritual realm?  What was all that talk of planting, pruning, cultivating and harvesting in the Bible all about if God was not also doing it in society and in my soul? And was God a genius in nature and then mindless and distant in the spiritual world?  No, we can and do find God in the wonder of the universe and in the many parallel things we know in our lives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of awe when she says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”  Having Awe and Wonder is not automatic.  It is a gift.  We can be so over-indulged or over-stimulated that we miss beauty or grandeur.  Last Sunday morning I saw a small fox trot by a glass door of a building where I was in a meeting.  It was very close.  The sun was shining through its translucent tail all colorful and fluffy.  What a pointy nose and whiskers!  Wonderful round dark  eyes.  Such a lovely animal.  So light on its feet.  I couldn’t dismiss it.  It made my day.  God is near.

 

Red Fox

The fox looked back at us as he or she trotted on.  I wanted to go with it as it ran into the woods.  In Psalm 139 it says that we are wonderfully made.  Yes, we are.  Sometimes squirrely and difficult;  other times sleek and dolphin-like.  But we are all wonderfully made, “The work of his hands.”   And, awe, wonder and gratitude are our best response.  Hopefully we can at times “Take off our shoes” at the thought of all this splendor.  Maybe we can shake off the darkness of this world a little as we drink in “all this juice and all this joy”!

 

Image of the fox from wpclipart.com – public domain.
Image of Baby Galaxies from NASA – public domain.

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Posted by on May 25, 2012

A Second Gift of the Holy Spirit: Understanding

Events happen, both good and bad, feelings arise, people say amazing or unusual things; but, we may not understand these or perceive why they happened.  We might also be filled with a great peace and have no idea why it arose.  The gift of Understanding is given so that we may perceive the meaning of things.  Understanding builds on but goes beyond a basic intellectual process in which we analyze the causes and meanings of all the facets of life.

God wants us to understand him/herself first.  This is a lifelong process.  As it says in Isaiah 55: “My ways are not your ways.”  As we call upon God and study God in the Bible, the liturgy, and the words of others, we increase in our understanding of how God works in the world and in us.  We might want God to change us or heal us. We might want this right now.  But God may want to leave some aspects of us unchanged or may lead us through a long process.  God’s ways may seem like a long road trip on which we make many stops, sojourn in all kinds of places, get diverted, break down, climb hills, meet the strangest people, etc.  In this process of coming to understand God, we will become more like God.

Understanding moves us closer to the reality we ponder if that reality encompasses goodness, truth, beauty and/or love.   As we understand more and more, we will be capable of understanding even more.  Understanding allows us to be increasingly open and able to incorporate even more awareness because it gives us a mature knowledge of how things work.  After we realize that God works in steps and gradually accustoms us to hard work, we begin to appreciate the progress we have made and not argue so much with the difficult things that come our way.  Frustrations and disappointments start looking like opportunities.  The computer acting up or having someone snap at me can be an opportunity to be an Observer Self and to experiment with putting the computer in God’s hands or taking a deep breath before replying — a response I may never have tried before now.  We may want a hurt or fear to go away and not realize that the way it is going to go away is to have a similar bad experience happen or to relive the original bad experience and be given the grace to go through it with God or with another loving  person.  The more we surrender our lives to God, the more we will understand how God is involved and why things are happening in the way they are.

Understanding includes perceiving who we are and why we do the things we do.  It is the gift to be able to penetrate deeper and deeper into the unconscious and to gain insight into all those good or impaired aspects of ourselves from which we hide. In this gift we travel back into our family and personal histories and see how everyone and all the various ups and downs make sense.  We understand how our era, birth order, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class,  personality characteristics, physicality, geography, and religion have contributed to who we are.  Along the way, God gifts us with insight, even into horrendous things that may have happened. It is not that what happened was perfectly fine; but, with understanding we see how God took the terrible and brought something unexpected and beneficial out of it for us.  There can be an understandable and difficult struggle with understanding.  Things that have caused pain are normally repressed.  We do not want to think about them.  These memories may even be unavailable to our conscious minds. Spiritual growth, though, involves integrating the painful into our consciousness so that it can be used in new and positive ways.  Repressed feelings and memories also take energy away from us because it takes quite a bit of psychic energy to monitor and filter repressed material.  Little by little, God draws us to understand ourselves.  We begin to see what is motivating us or blocking us. We also begin to see what our deepest desires are.

Understanding also refers to perceiving the truth about others.  It implies an empathy for others.  Understanding involves getting at the meaning of what is happening in our relationships.  We may think that a particular relationship is about fun or adventure, but it may really be about being competitive with that person in order to feel good about myself.  I may think that someone dominates conversations all the time just to be mean or to get attention, but in fact, that person may be terrified of being seen as him or herself and is trying to distract the group from the supposed truth.  We may be gifted with understanding what is really going on with people.  We may see past the appearances.

Finally, understanding extends to the course of history.  Societal events can be frightening or depressing.  The gift of understanding can allow us to see what God is doing with humanity.  The Paraclete can enter our minds and feelings and make us realize the growth process that lays before us on this Earth.  We can calm down because we see meaning in the challenges that happen everyday.  We can see the freedom that people exercise and the choices they make as part of the struggle to grow up.  God cannot force humans to be good.  We have to learn it on our own.  The gift of understanding gives us a perception of what is happening on this bigger scale.  It allows us to surrender to a God who is smarter than we.  To trust more, to hope more.

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