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Thinking Out Loud

God's Will

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 04, 2016

God's Will“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself …" (Philippians 2:6-7a, New American Bible)

Knowing the Love of God

The air conditioner clattered in Father Paul Scaglione's office at the back of the parish house while outside a stifling heat bore down on the late afternoon. Hot air rippled visibly in waves as a lawnmower droned back and forth across the lawn.

We had been talking a long time, much of my talk subtly avoiding what had brought me to that room. I sensed then, as perhaps never before, something of the frailty of the human condition. Well, my human condition anyway. Our meeting took place several weeks after a near-death experience when large blood clots that formed in my right leg broke off and showered my lungs with smaller clots. The persistent cough, which dogged my every step on a visit to New York City and left me drained at the end of each day, turned out not to be the remnants of a winter cold, as I had thought, but pulmonary embolisms in every lobe of both lungs. Lying in the hospital, my only thought had been how quickly I could get back to work. I had taken ill in the middle of chairing the Louisville Institute's Board meeting and was heading that weekend to Virginia to preach for my son's ordination, before going on to North Carolina for alum and donor events, followed by the seminary's spring convocation the next week. The fact that my life, let alone my schedule, had dramatically changed had not yet dawned on me.

Suffice it to say, neither had I really reflected on my near death nor had I paused to reflect on why I kept such a frenetic pace. A song lyric by Rosanne Cash comes to mind now: "We talk about your drinking, but not about your thirst." Well, thirst can take many forms. And so can avoidance behavior.

What brought me to visit with a spiritual director was a visit in that hospital room from a person who knows about human frailty - his own - my predecessor at Louisville Seminary, John Mulder. I remember waking up in that hospital bed hooked up to an IV and various monitors and hearing the “bing” from several machines made to keep me alive. Amid the disquieting paraphernalia of modern medicine, John was sitting in a chair pulled up close to my beside.

"May I pray with you?" He asked. Waking slowly, and only gradually realizing I was not still dreaming, I said, "Hello John. Sure you can pray." After praying, John said that he wouldn't stay long, he just wanted me to know that he had left with my assistant the contact information for his therapist and his spiritual director. It was up to me, of course, but he hoped that I would call them when I was up to it. He wanted me to know that the struggles with which he dealt a decade or more before might have been avoided if he had sought such help. After a few minutes more, he left as quietly as he had arrived.

I was grateful, but perplexed. In truth, I had a hard time understanding how all the things for which I was praised could possibly be a problem. I was, after all, often told how well I was doing professionally because of my high energy, because of the way that I just kept going and going, because of my willingness to pile on one more visit to a potential donor, to squeeze in one more trip into an already tight schedule, or to go from one meeting to another, to another, and another without a break. I was driven and emotionally intense. How could it possibly be that something so good could be a problem? How could my behavior be connected to an accident of physiology? After all, I only got sick.

As the air conditioner clattered and whined that early summer afternoon on my first visit to my spiritual director, I gradually unwrapped for him what brought me to his office, and I debated internally whether I really needed to be there. At some point, I stopped talking. The silence gathered slowly. We sat there for a few moments. Finally, Father Paul broke the silence by saying that what God wanted for me, for all of us, is simply for us to know the love of God ̶ that we know ourselves loved and forgiven and accepted by God. That is God's will for us.

I sat there for a few moments taking in the child-like simplicity of this message. Then I said, "Well, I've got a pretty good idea that isn't all my seminary expects of me." To which Father Paul smiled and repeated what he believes God wants for us.

I suppose, if I had to be brutally honest, I just didn't believe him that day. I mean, I believed that he believed he was right, but I didn't think he was. What he said was "very Christian," as I said to him then. It also sounded, well, naive. As our time drew to a close (after something over two hours of conversation), I said, "So, do you want me to pray or something? Is that what you suggest?"

I'll never forget what he said next. "No. You're not ready to pray."

It took a long while before I came to understand that he was right, and not only about my not being ready to pray. What God wants for me, for all of us, is to know the love of God, to know ourselves as being loved, forgiven, and accepted by God. But knowing the love of God, as my spiritual director understood and I did not yet, was going to take something more than just thinking about it.

Inhabiting the Heart

I'm a theologian, and theologians are pretty good at knowing a lot of things we don't understand. Some theologians, like Karl Rahner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are good at both knowing and understanding, but I wouldn't say they are typical of my tribe.

As a theologian, I knew the difference between saying "God is love" and merely saying "God loves." I had written a dissertation based in large measure on this very distinction. But it is a very different thing to make the southward journey from my brain (which knows) to my heart (which understands).

They say that some people don't really make such journeys until they hit bottom, and bottom for me was not that winter day as I lay on a hospital bed being prayed for by John. It certainly wasn't that summer afternoon sitting in Father Paul's office for the first time. It was a year later when I found myself at Gethsemani Abbey utterly at the end of my emotional and spiritual rope, praying alone in the abbey church those simple words from the Psalms that have been a refuge for generations of Christians:

"O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." (Psalms 70:1)

What happened during those days of silence cannot be put into words. But it had something to do with embracing the emptiness that is true to our being and entrusting whatever we are and whatever we will be and whatever we may do to God alone. Into that emptiness and surrender flowed the love that is God.

I came to understand that when we say that God wants nothing so much as for us to know the love of God, we are not just saying that God wants us to "feel loved," although that is no small thing in itself, but that God wants us to be drenched and soaked in God's love and to learn to share in that love that is God's being so that we may become like God in ourselves and toward others. To do that requires a strange and paradoxical thing. We have to let go of ourselves. We have to let go of whatever image of ourselves we cling to. We have to let go of that false self certainty that demands that we feed its continual and bottomless appetites. We also have to let go of that self that appears so good that we would be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to maintain it.

I have been struck, again and again, by the resonance between the commandment that prohibits our making of ourselves (or of any created thing) a graven image (Deuteronomy 5:7-8), Jesus' warning that if we cling to ourselves, we shall lose ourselves (Mark 8:34-37), and the Buddhist belief that the root of suffering lies in the illusion of a permanent, fixed self which must be kept secure against all life's changes. When we come to the point of loosening our fisted grip upon ourselves and our deep need to control the world around us, to make the world and the people around us over in "our image," we become open to know the love of God.

It seems that we become open to receiving the love of God by loosening our grip upon ourselves because the love that is God is a self-emptying love.

Surely, you say, I must have known that! That's Sunday school stuff! But, again, there's a great difference between knowing something in our heads and understanding it in our hearts, between knowing something as a kind of theological fact and knowing it as an existential necessity.

God is love. Such a simple thing to say. Such a simple thing to believe. God is that love and life and creative energy that pours itself out without reservation and without holding back. The "source" of all being gives itself away to and through the "other" who reciprocates in joy, thankfulness, reverence, and love, emptying itself in an eternal act of mutual self-giving. That love, life, and creative energy, that eternal act of self-giving that flows between God the "source" and God the "other" is itself also God the "spirit." God wants nothing so much as for all creatures to know, to be drenched in and to share in this love that God is ̶ ever-flowing, ever-giving, ever-emptying, ever-filled.

This is the unavoidable and irresistible reality at the heart of being, the reality that empowers every act of creation, and the spirit that breathes forth compassion and justice. This is the love that made us out of nothing at all. This is the love that makes us whole, that makes peace within and among us. This is God's will for our lives, and God uses all of life as God's tools to bring us to this love.

To know the love of God is to inhabit the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. And, so, the author of Philippians pleads with his hearers and with us, his words climaxing in the text of our oldest Christian hymn:

"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being in the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

"Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
     Who, though he was in the form of God,
       did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
     Rather, he emptied himself,
     taking the form of a [servant],
     coming in human likeness,
     and found human in appearance,
     he humbled himself,
     becoming obedient to death,
           even death on a cross."

                      (Philippians 2:1-8, New American Bible)

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