Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Drawing Closer to God

I have been blessed to live among a community of people who have a mature and unwaiverable faith. A faith rooted in their relationship with God, through Christ Jesus.  They remind me daily that whatever joy, suffering, pain and the many challenges of this life, though at times significant, fall asunder in the face of the magnificent love of God through Christ Jesus. Life, in the final analysis, it would seem, is a means, a way, to encounter, to draw closer to God, if chosen. Psalm 66:8-20 and Acts 17:22-31 each present that person’s experience of God.  David expressed a solitary, at times a mystical experience of God or the Apostle Paul, whose experience was more often communal and what might be considered urban, at least according to the scriptures.  Both David and the Apostle Paul present us with a different, yet genuine closeness to God. It is to this end that we visit the book of James today.

The Epistle or letter of James to the twelve tribes in dispersion (that is Israel regardless of whether all twelve tribes existed or not, the whole of spiritual Israel) reminds us today that if a Christian desires to draw closer to God they must not be friends with the world.  In fact, if they seek to be friends with the world, to access the things of this world, then they become enemies of God, complicit in a collective rejection or denial of God. (James 4:4) Living in a  society based on the acquisition of capital with a need to access the things of society to survive, to make a living, this becomes a challenge.  Considering their relationship with God and God’s word the Christian engages the world knowing that each engagement can put their soul and their closeness with God at risk.  James then must be considered an appeal to the Christian for the sake of their soul, their relationship with God and the implications to their actions. We pray God’s grace and mercy in these matters!

The great call of this life is to draw closer to God. The Christian does this by humbly seeking to live justly and ethically with integrity in a dynamic and inclusive community with their sisters and brothers, [to be Christ like].  While the call of life to draw closer to God begins as a solitary conversation within the heart of the Christian the eventual closeness to God in the Christian is profoundly expressed in community.  Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, a Christian mystic of the 20th century in his book, “Creative Encounter writes,

Religious experience in its profoundest dimension is the finding of God by the individual. This is the witness. The moral quality is mandatory because the individual must be genuine in their preparation, motivation, and response. Their faith must be active and dynamic.  

                                                                                    Howard Thurman

For me the words of Howard Thurman bring into sharp focus a faith that is active and dynamic, calling into my consciousness those things considered impediments or a hindrance to the witness of the Christian community, its faith and the desire to draw closer to God. Impediments are those actions, ideas, imaginations, reflections, such as racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and privilege, to name a few, which have their root in culture, society, politics and sadly even some churches, which seemingly deny or outright reject the inclusive and justice oriented message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The greatest of these impediments is hypocrisy. Both the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians and James in his Epistle to the twelve tribes of Israel remind the Christian that there is only one gospel and only Christ shall be lifted.  Mindful of the struggle to build a more inclusive Church I am reminded of the words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." Although his lament was made over 60 years ago, the question remains open.  How much have things changed?

There are some people who claim to be close to God, displaying the traditional rhetorical trappings of the Christian faith, but fail to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as he lived them out and as written in Galatians and James. They ask, “What Would Jesus do?”, and then go against the very teachings they supposedly seek to follow, standing firmly in that which obstructs the gospel.  They exhibit an outrageous hypocrisy, putting millions at risk of losing their healthcare benefits so that the wealthy and privileged class might get a tax break at the hands of some who claim Christ as Lord and savior.  In a recent interview on MSNBC’s AM Joy, Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ Pastor, and President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach stated, in response to Kansas Representative Roger Marshall's horrible comments on the poor, healthcare, and Jesus, and Rev. Barber did not hold back, He said, “If Jesus did anything he set up free healthcare wherever he went and didn’t charge a premium.” I suspect Jesus might favor single payer! Without question, some in the Christian community continue to embrace the impediments which deny the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The challenges of today are not new but reveal one more thread of an ongoing political and theological discourse on the dignity, value and sacredness of all people.  That said, the mere passage of time alone will not relief the suffering so many experience.  As MLK said, “Change does not roll on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through the continuous struggle of man.”

Today, as in times past, there is profound need to draw closer to God, to lean fully into the bosom of God, to receive nourishment for sustenance, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death with our sanity intact.  Like the saints who have gone before us in space and time we gain strength, courage and liberation to overcome those impediments which seek to detract from the Christian witness by living into our oneness with God.  Drawing closer to God is a process of intention, grounded in a heart longing for a deeper experience of God’s grace and mercy through the Jesus Christ.  And though I long for this process to happen in secret, in private behind closed doors, it occurs amidst the dynamics of human interactions and intentions.

James 4:7-10 calls the sinner to submit themselves to God.  To clean their hands and to purify their hearts, oh double minded.  Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. It is as the Christian comes to terms with the issues of their life and this world and the impact the world has upon them, that their character and actions that they realize the necessity of the words of James. The process of closeness to God is a matter of repentance, as the Christian, humbly seeking God gives their whole selves to God. 

The implications of Drawing closer to God are (a) a change in vision, i.e. the way we see the world, (2) a change in questions asked, (3) a life transformed (4) a new focus on concerns regarding things which matter to God and (5) a hopeful and steadfast attitude.  Like Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic of the early to mid-20th century, there is a different sense of attention, engagement and the indwelling spirit.  

Psalm 63, A Psalm of David reads

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
    beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
    my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
    I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,[a]
    and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life
    shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
    they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
    all who swear by him shall exult,
    for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Like David, it is by drawing close to God that the Christian overcomes whatever issues or concerns which pervades their life, that holds them back from the grace which strengthens.  It is as the Christian draws closer to God that their soul we be at rest.  Amen!!