There are differences between prayer and meditation and contemplation, and no one seems to agree on exactly what they are. We all seem to agree that prayer is talking to God and that meditation and contemplation involve listening, but beyond that there is little common ground. The opinion that calls to me this morning is that meditation is something we do, like an active verb, and contemplation is something that is done to us – a passive verb. As in passion.
Sometimes I sit and pray and wish for some answer or some sense of the presence of a God who seems to be out to lunch. Other times, I am flooded with ideas, mysterious as dreams, flickering like schools of silver fish that disappear as quickly as they come. Rarely, I do not pray. I am instead “prayed.”
I just finished The Shack, a book I didn’t want to read and didn’t like at first but read anyway because I enjoy my book club and wanted to be part of the discussion. By the time I was half way through, I was caught up in the story enough to forgive the author for what I considered to be his sins of style, and by the time I was done, I felt differently about God and me. The book is not the only cause of this shift in perspective. I have also been participating in a retreat program for the past eight months, taken generous daily doses of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, and forced myself to write things down. I have also spent my life wondering. It all adds up.
Whether or not God can be thought of as an actual person, or three persons, or thirty persons, or anthropomorphized in any way at all, there is a relational way of being with God that feels more like a partnership than like being with a parent. There is a way in which God suffers with me, God hopes with me, God works with me. I don’t have to protect this God from the worst in me like I would protect a parent. And there is also a way also that I suffer with God, hope with God, work with God.
I have been fumbling with this idea awkwardly for years, struggling against my own idea that God had to be King of The Universe, thinking I was struggling with God. As late as January of this year, I wrote in response to a reading for my retreat, “My God remains stubbornly enthroned, all-knowing and all-powerful, ever-active although infinitely complex.” Something has happened to me, though, in working through our readings, in striving for intimacy with the very human Jesus and what happened to him, in writing about this struggle, in reading aloud what I have written. In going back over my own words, I find my reference to that Bible passage I can seldom read without weeping: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” I realize I think of these as God’s words, and that they do not sound particularly kingly.
Yesterday I stumbled across the term, process theology. In reading about it, I came upon the articulated idea that God does not have to be experienced as omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. Instead, God can be said to have the power of persuasion. I’m sure I heard the click of tiny tumblers falling into place. “Therefore I will now allure her,” God says, “and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” I have always known this. I have simply failed to see what it means. God is that which wants to gather me under her wing. God is that which calls to me, draws me, lures me out into the wilderness, or into relationship, or up from the bottom of the boat. God is a push of wind, and I have only to learn how to trim my sails.
Easier said than done, of course, this trimming of sails. It’s a changing universe, and the wind is the most changeable thing of all. But maybe we’re all in this together, God and us, God filling our sails with possibilities and all of creation setting sail to follow what lures it, and God also in the boat with us, enjoying a good sail. Maybe that’s how it is.
I wonder if we are alluring to God also. I wonder if God finds us utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment and works in us all, and as us all, and alongside us all as we suffer and love and live and die. Maybe, too, God looks out from our eyes at the starry heavens and swoons, along with us, at his jeweled net of creation, flung out so generously everywhere.
Physicists tell us the universe is not made of things, but of events. That not just God, but the whole universe is a verb, unfolding in fractals of recycled energy – raindrops depending from ferns depending from trees, shining. Of sons, lovers, husbands, friends – their bodies and mine – all of it given back, generous as perfume, each bit like dandelion fluff in a stiff breeze, carried away beyond imagining. Life, surprising. Death, terrifying. God absolutely not supporting the status quo, and not kingly at all.
Maybe God is calling, calling like a song, a song that if you once hear it you can sing, and God will sing it too. Maybe God is a lover asking over and over, “Do you love me?” Asking us to touch his wounds. Asking us to feed his sheep. Sending us sheep we’ll find utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment, so that feeding them becomes a deep and fulfilling act of love. So that the sacrifice we make for each other is not weighed against the benefits received. So that the benefit we receive is to be broken open and shared, and to become part of a universe that is made of love.
Today (I am almost embarrassed to say this) I felt the presence of the risen Christ, who stepped quite easily into the space in front of me. This presence came at a hard time and took from me some of the burden I had been carrying all day, and I understood that the pain I bear is not born alone. The risen Christ joins me and those I love in our suffering and work just as Jesus of Nazareth did, and is just as vulnerable to this world as we are.
For me, this sense of God as intimate, imminent partner and friend is new. It comes as an unexpectedly passive way of being with a passionate God, a God who is drawn to me, who seeks me out even in my sorrow. God experiences me in a way I could not have imagined yesterday morning. Whatever we choose to name it, God draws closer to me because he wants to. It’s a comfort and a consolation and a passion.