Friday, February 18, 2011

Reflecting on a thought from Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman writes in "Creative Encounter" that God meets and begins to communicate with each person at the point of "what God means to that person." Thurman speaks of the "God-residue" in each person's life. By that he means the impression left in a person's memory, heart, experience of God. Thurman's concept is a very intriguing one, like so many of the ways Thurman has of making sense of life. This concept of the "God-residue" in a person's life is one that is not interested in judging the rightness or wrongness of someone's view of God. For Thurman, whether a person views God as a cosmic police chief or as a loving father that view of God is sacred ground and a beginning point in the encounter between God and a human being. Thurman is above all interested in the meeting between God and human beings.

As I read this early yesterday morning, it really got me thinking about my preaching, teaching, writing in the church. I seem to do a good bit of instructing about the "proper view of God," about what God is like and what God is not like. Now, some of that is certainly part of being a minister, but much of that probably runs roughshod over some sacred ground in people's lives. If God is humble enough to meet us at the point of our understanding of God, then shouldn't people of limited understanding like me be humble enough to seek out that same starting point with people as I attempt to communicate with them about God? In fact, maybe if I placed more emphasis on understanding another person's view of God, then I might begin discovering how God is being revealed to that other person, instead of trying to get the other person to adopt the view I have of God.

What Thurman is really getting at in his book is that the true knowledge of God arises out of a real meeting between the human and the Divine. And, this meeting has all the back and forth, peculiarities of a real relationship where communication must begin somewhere, where communication often fails, but where true communication comes as revelation. This is a long way from trying to get someone to accept the conception you have about God.

I will try one analogy and then get on with other things today. How about this - there are three children in a family, all girls. One girl has a very close and understanding relationship with her mother. The other two girls have difficulty getting along with their mother. One day the girl who is close to the mother, instead of criticizing the other two for treating the mother badly, simply asks: "How do you think of our mother? If you had to describe her to a stranger, how would you describe her? Who is our mother to you?" After hearing from her two sisters, and clarifying just what their experience has been, then the two girls might ask: "So, who then is our mother to you?"

It seems to me that conversations like this bring understanding and perhaps even revelation about human relationships and about the divine-human relationship as well. Maybe the place where divine-human communication begins is much like the place where communication begins between humans - a sacred ground that is discovered by one who is deeply given to listening to the other. The Quakers speak of God as the one who brings new life to human beings by the Divine Listening. There is something mysterious and holy about real listening, really attending to another. When you feel that you are really being attended to or really attending to another, it causes something to come alive within and something to come to expression that is beyond what we are capable of alone.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Disengagement and Reengagement in Living

If you withdraw from participation in a particular group or relationship or even a hobby, a strange thing happens. Sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually, but eventually what happens is that your connection to the particular group or person or even hobby begins to die or at least it feels that way. And, when we begin to experience a deathly feeling with regard to a group or relationship or endeavor, then we lose our desire to resume our ties with that group or relationship or endeavor.

Of course, we might stop and wonder whether the group or other person in the relationship has really lost interest in us or lost a connection to us. The group or other person might be fine with us, just waiting in a sense for us to reappear. With regard to a hobby like gardening or hiking or painting or playing music or following a sport's team, there is not really a person on the other side, but only an activity that we have previously given ourselves to and enjoyed. Strangely, the dynamics of disengaging from a hobby is very similar to disengaging from a relationship with a person or group of persons. Once we withdraw from it for a time, we don't feel any energy or life coming from that interest anymore, and cease to be drawn to it. It is as if that part of ourselves that was interested and inspired by a particular pursuit has disappeared, just as in a relationship it feels like the person we are disengaged from has disappeared.

I am starting to think that our feelings of distance from others or certain activities is a necessary process of change which is really a way of leaving parts of ourselves behind that we are tired of. Often it is not the other person that we need to leave behind but simply the way we have become accustomed to being with that other person. It is the "how I am with this person" that I am tired of. With a relationship to a group of people, it can be the same. For example, I might become disengaged from my work at the Public Defender's Office because I am tired of how I am relating to my clients or my co-workers or adversary counsel or judges. Or, I might become disengaged from my work at church because I am tired of how I have become accustomed to relating to my parishioners.

Disengagement is necessary in all relationships at times, but then so is the insight that the most important thing you are disengaging from is a way of being your self that no longer seems to be working. If you can realize this, then you can then find out upon reengagement whether there is enough room for you to develop new patterns in a relationship or pursuit that create and sustain meaning in life.

I am learning upon disengaging with this group and that, and this hobby or that, that an emptiness comes from disengagement. There is a sense that you get something back when you are putting something in, and this giving and getting is mutually sustaining. When you cease contributing to others, to groups, to an activity, it can all become very still and even lifeless. But, when you keep on contributing in a way that depletes your self, then that causes growing frustration and only keeps up a false sense of purpose and meaning.

We are in a position as humans of needing to create meaning on a regular basis. The relationships we have, the work we do, the recreation we enjoy all play their role in creating and sustaining meaning in our lives. When the patterns that have created and sustained meaning have broken down or atrophied or disappeared for various reasons, we are faced with the challenge of giving ourselves to new relationships, or new groups, or new interests to create new patterns of living that provide us with meaning and energy for living.