how can we be more present with others: Acts 27

Acts 27.  I once biked for hours on a long white cliff road in Crete until I reached a monastery.  I peered through the grates in the door.  In the garden stood an old bearded man in a long black robe.  He was gazing at a flower with his hands behind his back.  He didn’t look at me.  A few minutes passed.  He turned his gaze to a tree.  After a few more minutes, he looked at some blades of grass.

I thought I’d never seen anything more boring in my life.

I biked back to civilization as fast as I could.

But here is the thing I want to know 27 years later – and asking it makes me remember that quiet Cretan monk.  How do we become more present with other people?  Do we have to still ourselves down to the intensity of a blade of grass?  Because we all know we can’t connect with other people if we’re full of ourselves or anxiety or an obsessive agenda.  And if stillness is the way to be more present, how do we get that still?  Do we just LOOK at still things?  Or is there a way to make still waters run so deep inside us that the stillness rises naturally from the inside out?

Comedy Central’s Holly Mandel once told my improv class: “don’t worry about what anyone is thinking of you.  They’re not thinking of you.  They’re thinking of themselves.”

It’s pretty funny.  It’s also liberating if you’re suffering from stage fright.  But it’s backwards when you consider the setting.  Improv, like all interactive relationships, only works if you’re present with the people around you.  In improv, you have to be able to adjust when your fellow actor takes the story somewhere crazy.  They make a leap to something that doesn’t make any sense, and you’re supposed to “yes, and” them.  Whatever you do, you can’t “no, but” them.  That’s the juice of improv – just as it’s the spark that fuels relationships.  We need to go where other people go, even if it makes no sense to us.  The actors, as well as the audience, needs to stop thinking about themselves.

So how do we do that?  How do we get out of our own heads?  How do we stop thinking of ourselves and really let relationships just flow like a river?

“Sit on the floor with your child for 20 minutes a day,” Cheryl Kelly, then headmistress of the preschool Episcopal, told us anxious parents.  She gave us her lovely smile.   “Allow the children to direct the play.”

Oh.  You mean don’t use those 20 minutes to let slip some useful SAT — I mean ERB — words?  Don’t echo their Lego buildings with our Lincoln Logs to increase their pattern recognition skills?  Don’t draw letters in the palms of their hands to fire up their pre-reading synapses?  How about handing them scissors to sharpen their fine motor skills?  Or crawling in circles to incite them to power up their gross motor abilities?

How do we just “be” with someone?

I’ve always loved that moment in the movie “Bill Durham” when Susan Sarandon’s character Annie is talking about 3,000 words a minute and Kevin Costner’s character Crash slowly gazes at her and asks if she can just “be”.

“I can do that, too,” she squeaks, the words spilling out of her as fast as before:

Crash: Think I could make it to The Show as a manager?
Annie: You’d be great, just great. (rattling quickly) ‘Cause you understand non-linear thinking even though it seems like baseball is a linear game ’cause of the lines and the box scores an’ all–but the fact is that there’s a spacious-”non-time kind of time” to it…
Crash (interrupting): Annie—
Annie: What?
Crash: I got a lotta time to hear your theories and I wanta hear every damn one of ‘em…but right now I’m tired and I don’t wanta think about baseball and I don’t wanta think about Quantum Physics… I don’t wanta think about nothing… (beat) I just wanta be.
Annie: I can do that, too.”

Of course, she can’t.  But we love her for wanting to.  And we love her for not being able to.

Paul in this passage in Acts 27 seems to have reached the place where he can just “be” with others. He can deal with what seems like a supernatural calm to a northeaster off Crete; being shipwrecked; giving up all hope of being saved; almost being murdered; and not being listened to when he warns of the shipwreck.

How did Paul get to that place?

We could say that Paul was just lucky.  After all, God sent an angel to give Paul a direct message that no one on the ship would die.

But look.  Even if an angel came to us right now this very second, and told us we would be fine, would we really have peace?  And if so, how long would that peace last?  There are many beautiful prophesies in the Bible that speak directly to each of us, but that doesn’t mean we believe them.  How do we take them in?  How do we own them?  How do we believe that God has a good plan for us?  How do we find such supernatural peace that life’s storms don’t toss us hither and thither?

I have to believe that Paul’s pathway to being present with others lay through his being shipwrecked.  I don’t mean the shipwreck of Acts 27.  I mean earlier metaphorical shipwrecks.   Paul gave up all of his dreams to follow God, and he kept getting beaten, rejected and thrown in prison.  Here we are almost at the end of the book of Acts, and Paul’s journey has been one of almost constant suffering.

Is that the secret?  Do we all have to suffer to reach a place of peace?

I think so.  I think maybe the only way God can show most of us the beauty He wants us is to allow our dreams to be shipwrecked.  Because when our own dreams shatter, it makes room in our hearts.  It makes room for God to give us new dreams.  God, being God, gives us better dreams.  But we literally can’t even see the beauty of what God offers us until we’re willing to give Him a chance.

Suffering forces us to rely on God – and we discover it’s the very relationship we were created for.  The bridge God offers us looks dark, desperate and too rickety to bear our weight when we’re determined to rely on ourselves.  But when all other avenues close, we’re willing to try the only bridge that remains.  And we discover that even the most tentative step on the slenderest of its slats opens up to us a connection to God, ourselves and every person who has ever walked this earth.  It’s the way of letting go of what the Bible calls our “selfish ambitions” and accepting instead the plans of God.  If we let go of the things we cling to – or have them wrestled out of our grips – we can grasp instead the hand of the One who offers us His strength and His light.

Two days ago, I was wondering if something was wrong with me.  I used to want so many things.  Okay, scratch that.  I wanted everything.  And now I found myself seemingly ambitionless. I did an internal inventory.  Was I depressed?  Nope.  Had disappointment forced me to abandon hope?  Don’t think so.  Had I reached some sort of middle aged inertia?  Definitely not.  Was I boring?  I’m sure many might think so.  But not to me.  Did I already have everything I ever wanted?   Well, yes, in a way, but don’t we humans always want more?  Since when was having it all ever enough?  So I asked God what I wanted.  I didn’t hear any words in response, but I felt supernatural joy and peace flood me.  I felt the sweetness of God’s presence and it stilled me.  It supplanted my restlessness.  I found that what I wanted, what I REALLY wanted, was just to “be” with God.

Being with God is the thing we’ve always wanted without knowing it.   As Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message:  “One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.”

Don’t get me wrong.  When you love God, you’re no better than anyone else.  But that’s the point.  Loving God means you start to realize the truth of that.  You’re really no better than anyone else.  You don’t have to try to be.  That’s the secret that unlocks the pathway to just being.

Paradoxically, realizing how very un-present we are to ourselves, God and other people is the way we invite God in to give us His ability to love.

We give up on trying harder.  We ask for God’s help.  And we get far more than we bargained for.  We get Him.  That’s the secret.  It’s the mystery.  And it’s the Way to being.

God’s love enables us to see others.  It enables us to listen for the silent cries that rise up out of their laughter.  It enables us to comfort them with the same comfort we have received.  God’s peace bridges every gap in our lives.  We find to our shock that our deepest joys come from the very things we once despised.  We find that even observing a blade of grass  – or in my case some scraggy bare branches outside my kitchen window – can bring greater joy than we could have imagined.  It’s not the blades of grass that have changed or even we who have changed.  It’s that when God comes to live inside us, everything becomes alive to us – nature, ourselves and other people.

Perhaps that’s because God is love, and love is alive.  His love quickens us and stills us down all at the same time.  His love gives us a joy that enables us to be more present with others because we can go to them needing nothing at all.  Until we run dry and get hungry for God all over again.  And we discover God is there waiting for us with the patience of a tree, the beauty of a flower and the stillness of a blade of grass on a cliff on the island of Crete.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 29, 2013

how to trust God instead of preaching at people: Acts 26

Acts 26.  A lot of people say that you should never talk about religion.  Hardly a day goes by without reading in the press or hearing someone say in withering tones: RELIGION IS PRIVATE!!!  DO NOT EVER MENTION IT TO ME!!!   EVER!!! Their energy makes me shrink back in alarm.

The problem, of course, is that when you feel streams of living water flowing through your heart, it’s very hard not to talk about it.  Also, when you do know God, and He is a part of your life, it feels weird NOT to talk about Him.  It would be like going through your day zippering your lip every time you wanted to mention your children or spouse.  You can do it, but it feels awkward.  Also, there’s that thorny issue of when God gives you a specific message to pass on. Jonah jumped on a ship in order to avoid passing on to the Ninevites God’s message that they were doomed – and we all know where that led.  Who wants to end up in the belly of a whale?  The prophet Jeremiah once tried not to pass on a depressing message he was supposed to give the Israelites.  Jeremiah 20:9.  It didn’t last very long.  Here’s his agonizing cry:

But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord
or speak in his name,
his word burns in my heart like a fire.
It’s like a fire in my bones!
I am worn out trying to hold it in!
I can’t do it!

I feel his pain.

Of course, sometimes if we want to tell other people off, or air our opinions, or explain in minute detail how they’re ruining their lives, that kind of stuff can burn in our hearts like a fire, too.  How do we tell the difference?  How can we tell when it’s a message from God that’s burning like a fire in our bones, and which is a message from yours truly?

As always, the Biblical answer lies with the cross.  Jesus, for instance, would agree with all those people who say not to talk about religion.  Jesus had equally withering words to say about religion.  Remember the Pharisees?  He called them whitewashed tombs, bleached on the outside and full of dead men’s bones on the inside.  Matthew 23:27.  The problem is that religion tells you that if you Behave in a certain way, you get a gold star.  All religions preach the same message: do X, Y, and Z and you will be acceptable.  You can work your own way to heaven, Nirvana, or wherever it is you want to go.  You can do it all by yourself.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap and then you can give yourself a pat on the back.  Jesus says that’s a lie. He says that pathway dooms its followers to hypocrisy, coldness and ruin.

Jesus came to give us Himself instead.

For instance, Jesus told his disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.”  Mark 16:15.  He didn’t say to preach religion.  That’s because the Good News is actually NOT a religion.  It’s a relationship with God based on God’s perfection not ours.

The problem, of course, is that we humans all too often DO preach about ourselves.  We may pay lip service to the idea that we’re imperfect, but most of the time we’re struggling to prove we’re pretty fine.  It’s not only a turn off, it’s untrue.   2 Cor. 4:5. We’re all a mess.   So how do we learn the secret?  How do we learn to share the Good News, not religion?

The Bible would suggest we ask what is loving.  For instance, it’s not loving to force our opinions on people.  It’s not loving to demand our own way. It’s not loving to preach at people.  It’s not loving to be rude.  It’s not loving to be boastful.  It’s not loving to approach people with an agenda.  1 Cor. 13.

Sigh. We know, we know.  But how do we DO that?

Do you see what just happened?  Even as I was writing this blog, religion crept back in.  I asked the wrong question.  I asked how we could love the way we’re supposed to.  That is religion.

The good news is that we can’t love like this.  We’re too… human.  Only God has love like this.  Only God IS love like that.

That’s why God doesn’t ask us to behave in a loving manner so we can be acceptable to Him.  He already loves us.  He just asks us to accept His love.  It’s that easy – and that impossible because it means sacrificing our pride.  We have to admit we need His help.  We have to admit we can’t earn our way to heaven.  We have to admit we’re whitewashed tombs.  We chafe at that characterization, but there’s freedom in truth.  When we stop pretending and accept who we are, we’re ready to receive God’s love.  We ask for forgiveness.  We become thankful for the cross instead of mystified by it.  And all that God is comes inside us and begins to change us from the inside out.

That’s why when it comes to sharing the Good News, we can let go of our agendas.    We can let go of the lie that it’s our Job to change Other People.  God spoke to us.  He wants us to trust that He loves every other person the same.  He will speak to them all – whether through the rocks, trees, clouds, movies, books, newspaper, television, his Holy Word, or us.  It’s all in His hands, not ours.

God asks us to start trusting Him.  Look at Paul in this chapter.  God uses Paul’s chains to give him an opportunity to share his conversion story – yet again.  The chapter opens with Agrippa saying to Paul: “you may speak in your defense.”  As the Scripture says, we are to always be prepared to give a gentle respectful answer to everyone who asks us the reason for our hope.  1 Peter 3:15.  Agrippa asks.  Paul gives him an answer.  Paul is courteous.  He is respectful.  He’s gentle.  That’s because Paul is on to God’s way of working.  Paul says here that he hopes everyone who hears him will come to faith.  That means that Paul knows perfectly well that while Agrippa and the other authorities may be listening to him with a hard heart, there might be a servant somewhere stopping for a moment to lean on his broom in the shadows of a column.  That servant might be listening with an open heart.  He might be weeping.  Paul has realized that in God’s eyes that servant “getting it” is worth all the kingdoms of the world.

God wants us to relax into Him.  That’s Christianity.   It’s peaceful.  And when we get that, when it finally sinks in that we CAN’T earn our way anywhere, we start to lean over our own brooms and weep.  There’s such freedom in accepting the truth. And when we finally give up our religion, who knows what doors God will open to share the Good News of His love?  Every day becomes an adventure – in trusting not ourselves, but Him.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 24, 2013