Friday, March 11, 2011

The Call to the Desert and God’s Time Zone

This Lent I am traveling in the ministry to the East Coast on Quaker business. I am going first to Guilford College in North Carolina to attend a meeting of the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference (the national Quaker organization), then heading up to DC to stay at the William Penn House and do some sightseeing, then to Pendle Hill for a meeting on the Brinton symposium I am helping to organize, and finally to Philadelphia for my first meeting as the Pacific Yearly Meeting rep to the Friends World Committee for Consultation, an umbrella organization for the 250,000 or so Quakers world-wide. Finally, I plan to visit my sister in Princeton and spend some time with my niece and nephew. This is, I believe, what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come to bring life, and to bring it more abundantly!

I left my apartment and my 20-year-old cat Xenia in good hands. Arthur, an attender of our Meeting, has agreed to be my cat and apartment sitter. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement: Arthur is a brilliant guy, a former lawyer turned comedian and script writer, who had a fall in fortune and is currently homeless, living in a car, while he makes plans to sell some of his scripts to studios in Hollywood. He needs a place to stay, and I need someone who will give my cat plenty of love—a task for which Arthur is eminently qualified.

I am also leaving behind Doris, the elderly woman whom I have been visiting in the hospital. I am quite concerned about her since she wants to go back to her apartment even though the doctors feel she is not ready. But I trust the she and the rest of the LA world will be able to manage without me. I need to remember: God is in charge, not I.

It seems fitting somehow to make this journey as Lent begins. When Jesus withdrew into the desert, he left behind the city and its demands so he could focus on his inward life. Such withdrawal from the world is important if we are to maintain spiritual balance.

Whenever I take a plane flight, I feel as if I have entered an alternative world. It’s not like going to the mountains, or to the desert, but it is definitely another world, one that seems to exist outside of time and space, high above clouds. A plane flight would have seemed magical a century ago, but now has become routine to all except children, mystics and poets. I will be leaving the Pacific time zone and entering the Eastern time zone, three hours later than this one. But of course the time zone that really matters is God’s time zone.

Since Kathleen’s transition, I have been living more and more frequently in God’s time zone. In God’s time zone, there is no hurry, no deadlines, no busy-ness. There is ample time for each person, for each experience, for smelling the coffee and the roses, and for reflection. Each moment is precious, as Kathleen realized during the final year of her life. She lived, as I do now, in what Eckhard Tolle calls the “Power of Now.”

Last night I went to the Ash Wednesday service at the Culver Palms Methodist church not far from where I live. I went there in part to affirm my connection with Kathleen as well as with Christ, and partly because I have friends at this church who are very dear to me: Gene and his wife Penny, Veda, Jennifer Lim, and a few others. Last fall at this church I gave a presentation about the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and I have been asked to return in May to be part of a Methodist women’s study session on Islam.

The Ash Wednesday service was sparsely attended and the ritual was fairly routine, a repetition of familiar words about repentance, and our need to recognize our mortality.

Even though the spiritual energy of this group seemed pretty low, I was grateful to be part of this stalwart and faithful group of Christians. It was as if we were gathered around the dying embers of a great bonfire, trying to remember what the fire was like in all its glory.

“Christ died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”

This is the standard formula for Lent and Easter—a formula so familiar its meaning is often forgotten. What strikes me as significant is the present tense of the second phrase. It doesn’t say “Christ has risen” but “Christ IS risen.” Risen when? In the Eternal Now. And risen where? Not just in some symbolic place we call “the right hand of God,” but in each of us. If Christ is not risen and alive in our hearts, what difference does it make if he rose two thousand years ago or is sitting comfortably at God’s right hand? The only Christ that matters is the living Christ, the one who lives within me and within you.

If all of us in that church had a sense of the Living Christ, we would not have needed ashes to remind us of our mortality. Our little ego selves would have burned to a crisp in the fires of Divine Love!

After the imposition of ashes and communion, I went to Bible study with Penny and her husband Gene, who is Jewish. Gene is a remarkable man who has embraced Christianity without abandoning his Judaism. He and I have been close friends and walking/talking buddies.

The Bible study consisted of half a dozen stalwarts. Like most Methodist classes, it is carefully programmed, with a video, study guide, and questions that are supposed to be open-ended, but often lead to predictable responses.

We were reading the book of Matthew, chapter 20, the story of the landowner who hired laborers at different times of day but paid them all the same salary. A story hard to reconcile with our human ideas about fair labor practices.

We were also asked to respond to the passage in which Jesus commands his disciples to go out to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and perform other miracles. Our group leader asked:

“How would you feel if Jesus commanded you to do this?”

These humble Methodists responded almost in unison: “Terrified.” And then confessed their feelings of inadequacy, and their inability to live up to Christ's radical demands.

Humility is a virtue I admire greatly, yet I couldn’t help seeing this passage differently. Like many charismatic teachers, Jesus was not asking his disciples to do something he felt was impossible, or even difficult. He clearly saw the Divine Essence (what Quakers call the “Inward Light”) in them as well as in himself. When he called upon them to do their utmost for the Most High, he was so confident of their capacity they responded without hesitation, indeed, with enthusiasm.

I realized that I have responded in the same way when I have been asked to do something by someone imbued with the Christ spirit. When I was asked to be the leader of the Methodist youth group at Del Rosa UMC in San Bernardino, I didn’t have any experience. I had never been part of a church youth group, and I was relatively new to Methodism. But my wife (the pastor of the church) had confidence in me. She believed I could do it, and she supported me wholeheartedly. And I was able not only to lead this Methodist youth group, I was also empowered to start a youth group for the Quakers. This was probably one of the most important ministries I have ever undertaken, and I couldn’t have done it without her, and without the Christ spirit.

The love of Christ, embodied in people who love us, empowers us to venture beyond our comfort zone and to perform what may seem miraculous. That love is what has enabled me to do what I have done, and what I continue to do.

“Greater things than I have done, you shall do.” These were the amazing words of encouragement that Jesus spoke to his incredulous students—words that Kathleen occasionally preached more often than any other pastor I know. Now they come to me with new meaning as I apply them not only to Christ but to her. Will I be able to do even greater things than Kathleen did? God knows I am not trying to compete with her, but I hope and am confident I can do extraordinary things through the love of Christ that lives in me and was revealed to me through her.

Thanks to Kathleen’s example, and Christ’s abiding love, I am becoming a pastor like her. And I am learning to live in the Power of Now.

As we enter the Lenten season, the time when we are to make a conscious effort to turn back to God, it is worth remembering that just prior to entering the desert, Jesus had an amazing experience of God’s love. Jesus had gone down to the River Jordan and had been baptized by John, who was calling on his people to repent. After being washed in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus saw beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was God’s beloved child, in whom God was well pleased.

As a sign of that Divine Love, he saw the Holy Spirit descend from heaven—a dove like the one released by Noah after the flood. What an incredible experience! To know that one is totally, utterly loved by God.

Yet no sooner did Jesus have this transcendent revelation of God’s Love than he learns what this Love means. It’s not all-expense-paid trip to the Good Life, but a call to go to the desert and to face trials and temptations.

This is not a journey we want to make, but each of us who seek the Truth must make. Jesus spent forty days fasting and praying in the desert and had encounters with Satan, his shadow self. Buddha, sitting under the bodhi tree, meditated for many months and had to face Mara, the temptress. Mohammad went to cave to meditate and pray in solitude each year during the month of Ramadan until one day, when he was 40 years old, he had a vision of an angel who clasped him around the waist and told him to “Recite.” Mohammad was tempted to believe this was an hallucination, but his wife Khadija had faith in him and told him that this vision was from God. Each of us must face our own particular temptations, our own demons, if we are to become free from the petty tyranny of our little ego selves and know the freedom of Divine Love.

Temptation will be the topic of a future reflection. If you are interested in reflections on Lent from a Quaker perspective, I recommend that you check out the entries of Rachel Stacy, a young Friend who is writing a series of Lenten reflections at

1 comment:

  1. Your journey--each Journey--starts by taking one step... in Faith... with love and maybe feeling "terrified." To the edge... of the cliff... hoping, no, Praying for wings to sprout under our feet before we have to take the first step. But, alas, no wings, yet. So, we take the first step into the unknown, in Faith. Then the wings sprout... and hold us, guide us, strengthen us... and so we go on. And, on. And, on in Faith. One step....