Anne Howard: Knowing Better

From the Beatitudes Society blog, "A Word in Time."

"Anne Marie, you should know better."

When I was a little girl, and my mother said that, I knew I'd been bad. I'd tracked spring mud puddles across the kitchen floor, or left the milk pitcher on the picnic table or I'd once again dumped my brother's shoes down the clothes shute to the basement where he couldn't find them.

My mother was reminding me that I knew a better way to behave, a better way to be.She wanted me to know better. That's what I want this Lent. I think that's what the Christian life, the life of faith, is all about: knowing better.

But not exactly in the way my mother meant that phrase. Not about behaving. To know better is actually to see better, to see the world in a different way, an alternative way, a way that we know a little something about by seeing it in the life of Jesus.

It's a way of seeing that contemplative theologian Richard Rohr talks about in his bookThe Naked Now. This way of seeing is the practice that's on my mind as I get ready for the 40 days of Lent.  I think knowing better is something that we all need to practice on a planet that is marked by global warming and constant warring. We need to see better and to know better.

This is not always easy in our world, in our church, because much of the way that we've been taught to see and to know is, Richard Rohr says, more about "what to know than how to know" and religion has spent centuries telling people more about "what to see than how to see." He says  "We ended up seeing Holy Things faintly, trying to understand Great Things with a whittled-down mind, and trying to love God with our own small and divided heart It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars." (p. 33)

And so we fail to imagine better ways to live on our planet. Rohr gives the example of a debate between advocates of creationism versus advocates of evolution. He writes: "I hoped for the scientists to open up to the possibility of the central importance of mythic meanings for the soul, for sanity and for culture, but they kept beating one drum of facts and information without reflecting on the context or the meaning of those facts. I hoped for the religious people to take incarnation seriously and recognize the brilliance of a God who creates things that keep creating themselves, but they too kept beating one drum of an extremely unimaginative and uninvolved God...Both sides should have known better. (p.32)

 So, there is another way of seeing, and a way of knowing that allows us to see God and know God's extravagant love and radical grace.

It takes practice, a practice that Zen Buddhists call mirror-wiping. We must wipe the mirror clean to see ourselves without distortion. Mirror-wiping is the discipline of constantly observing my own patterns, what I play attention to and what I don't pay attention to, what matters to me and what doesn't, when do I get angry or sad or resentful? Mirror-wiping allows us to see deep within, without the usual distortion, and it is there, of course, in our deepest selves, that we discover God's love for us.

The practice of mirror-wiping is not limited to Zen Buddhism. It is at the heart of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition. In the 16th century classic "The Interior Castle," Theresa of Avila talks about the same thing. She doesn't call it mirror-wiping, she calls it "The Prayer of Recollection" the practice of listening to what's going on inside. "For the most part," she writes, "all our trials and disturbances come from ournot understanding ourselves."

She is echoing the wisdom of the ancients: "You look for truth deep within me," says Psalm 51. "You will give me wisdom in the secret places of the heart."

The point of looking for this truth deep within, the point of journeying to the secret places of the heart, is that this journey of self-discovery leads to the discovery of God, and God's amazing love for us and all creation. This great love turns us around, away from the mirror, away from self-absorption, to look at the world and see how God invites us to care for the creation, to join in creation, to simply know better.

A wipe across the mirror is one practice, one step, in answer to the invitation of Lent, the invitation that is at the heart of the Christian life: transformation. We are invited, with the smudge of ash on our foreheads, to hear the words that Jesus spoke after his own forty-day mirror wiping session in the desert: "Heaven is here, here and now. God is here, now. So it's time to change. Be changed. Be transformed."

Be transformed. Know better. Lent invites us to practice this: to see what we hold onto and what holds us; what we need and what we want; what we expect and what can surprise us, what comforts, and what challenges.  Knowing better doesn't mean a neat project of coming up with distinct lists of healthy habits and bad traits, lengthening one list and shortening the other by the time we get to Easter.  And it doesn't mean winning any debate about the right (or the left) brand of religion or politics. Knowing better begins with accepting what's real about ourselves and our world and the way we stand within it.  It means seeing the good in that other, and seeing the shadow within ourselves, acknowledging both our better and our lesser angels. Knowing better means holding opposites in tension, without jumping to resolution: my pocket filled with gold and my pocket filled with dust.

That's what makes it so hard on our Western, most-enlightenment minds. We like resolution, solution, empirical proof. We don't want to hold opposites in tension, we don't really want to engage mystery. We don't want to hold tension. We don't want to be mystics, despite that great quote from Karl Rahner "The devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic ...or ...will cease to be anything at all." Not us. We like answers. We want to Google the answers on our iPads.

I figure that's what the story of doubting Thomas is all about: imagine Thomas, faced with the impossible idea that Jesus would be back with them after his crucifixion. It didn't fit his idea of Jesus, or anything he knew about life and death. So what does he do? He lets go of that old idea of death and of life, and reaches forward. He reaches his hand, to touch right into the Presence of Jesus. I believe it's what Mary Magdalene did in that garden on that third morning when she heard her name and reached out her hand to touch that mysterious one who called her name. The stories don't tell us that Thomas or Mary touched anything, but we do know that they were changed in that moment, transformed even. We do know that their stories carry the power to keep changing us. We do know better. And now we have the rest of Lent to practice that.


Echoes from the Edge

Awaiting Resurrection

By Stephanie Price, Associate Pastor at Hope United Methodist Church - February 11th, 2013

Finally, the Poet

letting go

By Nadia Bolz-Weber - February 11th, 2013

from Nadia Bolz-Weber's blog  Sarcastic Lutheran 

". . . This is not a season of  taking up self-denial, it's a season of relinquishment.  We let go of all the pretenses and destructive independence from God.  We let go of defending ourselves.  We let go of our indulgent self-loathing.   Like the prodigal son we then begin to see a loving God running with abandon to welcome us home.  But we can't begin to see this God until we turn from our arrogance and certainty and cynicism and ambivalence.  The Psalmist says that God delights in the truth that is deep in us.  The truth. God doesn't delight in the purity of our doctrine or the perfection of our piety.  God delights in the truth and wisdom underneath all the overgrowth of despair and false pride.  Therefore there's no shame in the truth of who we are; the broken and blessed beloved of God."

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