Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"God As He Really Is"

Note to readers: this week I'm posting a favorite excerpt from Eugene Peterson’s Foreword to “Growing Deeper,” a series of small books (published by Zondervan) including Peterson's The Wisdom of Each Other (on spiritual friendship), and Philip Yancey’s excellent, Church: Why Bother? I felt this passage tied in beautifully with last week’s posting (2/12/11) – a few more thoughts on being willing to know "God as He really is"...

We humans, somewhere along the way, seem to have picked up the bad habit of trying to get life on our terms, without all the bother of God, the Spirit of Life. We keep trying to be our own gods; and we keep making a sorry mess of it. Worse, the word has gotten around in recent years that “spirituality” itself might be a way of getting a more intense life without having to deal with God – spirituality as a kind of intuitive bypass around the inconvenience of repentance and sacrifice and putting ourselves at risk by following Jesus in the way of the cross, the very way Jesus plainly told was the only way to the “abundant life” that he had come to bless us with.

The generic name for this way of going about things – trying to put together a life of meaning and security out of God-sanctioned stories and routines, salted with weekends of diversion and occasional erotic interludes, without dealing firsthand, believingly and obediently, with God – is “religion.” It is not, of course, a life without God, but the God who is there tends to be mostly background and resource – a Quality or Being that provides the ideas and energy that I take charge of and arrange and use as I see fit. We all of us do it, more or less.

The word “religion,” following one possible etymology (not all agree on this), comes from the Latin, religere, “to bind up, or tie up, again.” The picture that comes to my mind is of myself, having spent years “getting it all together,” strolling through John Muir’s Yuba River valley, enjoying the country, whistling in self-satisfaction, carrying my “life” bundled in a neat package – memories and morals, goals and diversions, prayers and devotion all sorted and tied together. And then the storm comes, fierce and sudden, a gust tears my packaged life from my arms and scatters the items every which way, all over the valley, all through the forest.

What do I then do? Do I run helter-skelter through the trees, crawl through the brush, frantically trying to recover all the pieces of my life, desperately enlisting the help of passersby and calling in the experts, searching for and retrieving and putting back together again (rebinding!) whatever I can salvage of my life, and then hiding out in the warm and secure cabin until the storm blows over? Or do I follow John Muir to the exposed ridge and the top of the Douglas fir, and open myself to the Weather, not wanting to miss a detail of this invasion of Life into my life, ready at the drop of a hat to lose my life to save it (Mark 8:35)?

For me, the life of religion (cautious and anxious, holding things together as best I can so that my life will make sense and, hopefully, please God) and the life of spirituality (a passion for life and a willingness to risk identity and security in following Jesus, no matter what) contrast in these two scenarios. There is no question regarding what I want: I want to be out in the Weather! But far more often than not I find myself crawling around on the ground, gathering up the pieces of my life and tying them together again in a secure bundle, safe from the effects of the Weather. Actually, the two ways of life can coexist; there is, after all, a place for steady and responsible routine – John Muir, after all, didn’t spend all his time at the top of the Douglas fir; he spent most of his time on the valley floor. He also had a cabin that he had built with his own hands in which he received guests and prepared meals for them. But if there is no readiness to respond to the living God, who moves when and how and where he chooses, it isn’t much of a life – the livingness soon leaks out of it.

We cannot, of course, command Weather. It is there; it happens. There is no question of managing or directing it. There is no recipe for concocting “spirituality” any more than there is a chemical formula for creating “life.” As Jesus most famously put it to that expert on the religious life, Nicodemus, “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God” (John 3:8 THE MESSAGE).

The best we can do is to cultivate awareness, alertness, so that when the Wind blows we are there, ready to step into it – or not: when the absurd command comes to distribute the meager five loaves and two fish to the crowd we are ready to obey – or not; when direction is given to wait with the 120 for the promise, we are ready to wait – or not; when the invitation comes to “take…eat…drink,” we are ready to come to the supper – or not.

Eugene H. Peterson
James Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology
Regent College
Vancouver, B.C., Canada

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