A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, September 3, 2012

God's eternal invitation

This last spring, my son's cat disappeared. Because our cat population was down to five and I noticed our mouse population correspondingly on the rise, we promised him that in August, when we were back from all our travels, we’d get him a kitten. One kitten. Of course, we were all excited about our impending addition and so I got right on the phone after our return from Colorado and a week later, we had a mama cat and three kittens in our garage. Funny how that happened. Anyway, we kept both the doors to the garage closed for several days and set up a corner in the garage that was off limits to people. Slowly, as the cats adjusted, they began coming out to greet us. About a week after their arrival, I began opening the door to the outside and beckoning them to come on out, into the light and get familiar with their new home. But scary threats, like our others cats, and even scarier threats, like our dogs, kept these cats, the mama cat in particular, quite reluctant to venture far beyond the garage door. So each day, I invited them all over again to come out into the sunshine and enjoy the beautiful world beyond the dark confines of their garage.

We hear this same invitation echoed in the lectionary text from Song of Solomon. A woman is standing inside, watching her lover’s approach through a window. As her lover draws near, he say to his beloved, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land….Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away (SS 2:8-13).”

A few weeks ago I wrote about our tendency to lose ourselves in the past and the future, thoroughly neglecting the present in the process. Forging a meaningful connection with God can be a little tricky than, because God is only encountered in our now moments. I read this passage from Song of Solomon and I hear God’s eternal invitation. An invitation issued anew each day. “Come my beloved. The time is right. Winter is over. Step with me into the light of this new morning.”
It seems to me this was Jesus’ constant refrain as well. And many people responded to his literal invitation. He had a whole community that traveled with him. A more subtle example of the invitation is found in
Mark 7:1-8. The Pharisees are a little offended. Proper table manners included washing your hands thoroughly, right up to the elbows, scrubbing any food obtained from the market and scouring all pots and pans used in meal preparation. Apparently, the disciples were too hungry to bother with the cleaning niceties and sat down to eat their dirty food with dirty hands. The Pharisees protest. And so Jesus turns on them and calls them down. He accuses them of holding so tight to their human traditions they are unable to grasp God’s hand and follow God into the light.

I’ve had similar thoughts about our mama cat. She clings so tightly to the dark space she finds secure, she is unable to seize hold of the freedom which lies just across a threshold.

I tend to think the institutional church has taken to hiding out in the garage an awful lot of the time too. Can we hear God’s eternal invitation, and let go of some of our human traditions? Can we trust God will be there, waiting for us in the light of day if some of our human made structures should come tumbling down?

James (1:17-27) issues us yet another invitation. And I appreciate that in James, God is envisioned as light. So it’s not so much an invitation to step out into the light where God is, but an invitation to step into the light that is God.

Here again I have to think of the church. James invites us to move beyond those safe walls where we take pride and comfort in hearing God’s words and move on outside where we can become doers of the Word.

There’s a parable in Matthew’s gospel (21:28-32) that I find reassuring when paired with this James text. A father has two sons. He asks the first son to go work in the vineyard for the day. The son turns him down, perhaps aware of other prior obligations he must see to. So the father turns to the second son and asks him to head to the vineyard instead. The second son eagerly agrees and all seems well. However, the second son ends up taking a detour and never actually makes it to the vineyard. In the meantime, the first son starts feeling guilty about his response to his dad and so trudges off to the vineyard after all where he spends the day hard at work. Jesus concludes his story asking which of the sons did the will of his father? The response: the first son.

I have known plenty of second sons in my life. People who make promises they can’t or choose not to keep. However, I believe most people might identify, as do I, with the first son. I have my life plans in place, which also always include my day plans as well. When someone asks me to alter my schedule, my first response is almost always, “No”. “No, I have other plans." "No, I prefer my own timetable and commitments." "No, I like this dark garage an awful lot, thank you very much!” But in time, whether it be seconds or days, regret begins to nibble at my conscience and I usually end up doing whatever it was I was asked to do. What frustrates me is my inability to hear the invitation and embrace it, there in the moment. The good news though from this gospel parable is that there isn’t a child mentioned here who immediately accepts his father’s invitation and goes to do it. So what is present here then is grace. There is lots of grace in the light.

I read a wonderful memoir last week called Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck. In Beck’s words, “This is the story of two driven Harvard academics who found out in mid-pregnancy that their unborn son would be retarded. To their own surprise and the horrified dismay of the university community, the couple ignored the abundant means, motive, and opportunity to obtain a therapeutic abortion. They decided to allow their baby to be born. What they did not realize is that they themselves were the ones who would be ’born,’ infants in a new world where magic is commonplace, Harvard professors are the slow learners, and retarded babies are the master teachers.”

Throughout Beck’s pregnancy with Adam she encounters unexplainable phenomena and an increasing faith that angels swarm over and around this unborn child like “fleas on a dog”. When Adam is three, Beck goes to interview a woman with an art history degree who works as a middle school janitor. During the interview the woman seizes up and receives an otherworldly message intended for Beck. After the woman is back, more or less in her right mind, she says to Beck, “You have a son who’s halfway between worlds.” While Beck is loathe to buy into this kind of weird, new agey scenario, the woman’s words resonate and she tentatively agrees. Continuing, the woman says she has a message from Adam to share with Beck. Adam, who at three could not yet talk, has sent this message to his mother, “You shouldn’t be so worried. You’ll never be hurt as much by being open as you have been hurt by remaining closed.”

This memoir is framed as an invitation from Adam to both his parents to step beyond their comfortable and rational world into a world where mystery and wonder abound.

That’s not to say that there isn’t danger in the light or that hard work isn’t called for. On some level, our mama cat intuitively knows that cats can get run over by cars, that coyotes sometimes come too close, that dogs can play rough and kittens can wander away. She knows she will have to be vigilant and work hard to pass onto her kittens all the survival skills she’s learned to this point in her life. Nonetheless, our quartet is starting to venture out, because the sunshine, the good clean smells of outside, the adventures promised - all of this comprises an invitation that ultimately, cannot be resisted.

And so God calls, extending to us daily an eternal invitation. How is God beckoning in your life? Dare you step into the light?

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