An article yesterday in the New York Times noted that the economic turmoil has produced a “teachable moment” for clergy of all stripes, for imams and rabbis and Christian ministers. The dust hasn’t settled yet, so we don’t know the full extent of what’s happening. But, the handwriting is on the wall… Many of us may very well be faced with uncertainty and loss.
So here we are. Adversity does have a way of focusing the mind on the basics, on our core values. We come back to those basic questions about life, our purpose, our reason for being, etc. And so I pose one of those basic questions: how do we situate ourselves, how do we position ourselves in relation to the cosmos around us? What is our stance? How do we orient ourselves to a world where so much can go wonderfully well and so much can go so horribly wrong? How do we situate ourselves in such a world?
There may be many answers to that question. Paul’s words from Philippians offer one from a Christian point of view. “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Straining forward. Or, reaching forward. Or extending forward. Επεκτεινόμενος. Beyond the here, beyond the now, beyond the “me”. Reaching forward beyond ourselves, beyond the here, beyond the now to that which is other than ourselves, that which is greater than ourselves.
That which is ultimately greater than ourselves, other than ourselves is known to us as Christ, as it was to Paul. And so we strain forward, we reach forward, we extend forward. In Christ, in the light of Christ, in light and truth of Christ, we reach out toward greater light and truth in Christ.
In Christ, in the life of Christ, we reach forward into greater life, beyond ourselves, beyond our own life into the greater life of Christ. From lesser into greater.
In Christ, in the love of Christ we reach out, we reach forward into yet greater love. From lesser into greater. Love, in all its manifestations is the ultimate reaching beyond ourselves. And yet, love is earthy, love is of this good earth. Love is physical, emotional, neurological, biochemical, incarnational, familiar, common, ordinary. Of this good earth, of these bodies of ours. Grounded in the love of Christ, who even now speaks this good earth into existence, we reach out toward greater love. Grounded in the love of Christ, who even now speaks the biochemistry of love into existence, we reach out toward greater love. We reach out to that which is beyond ourselves and, yet, is ourselves. From lesser to greater.
This is a mirror image of what you may recall our reading last week in this same letter a few verses earlier: Christ emptied himself of his divinity, taking the form of a slave. Being all, possessing all, knowing all, transcending all things, God could only transcend himself by becoming particular, vulnerable, limited. God reached out beyond himself in becoming small; we reach out beyond ourselves to become large. God reaches out toward the human and becomes human—the greater to the lesser; we reach out toward the divine and become divine—the lesser to the greater. A mirror image.
Our reaching forward from lesser to greater gets played out in countless ways. This fabulously diverse ecosystem we call human society offers countless options. Whether through our work or our families or our relationships or our leisurely pursuits or any other activity, the possibility is there: to reach out from the lesser to the greater. Greater light, greater truth, greater life, greater love. Forgetting what lies behind, as Paul puts it, and reaching forward. Stretching forward, extending forward. Επεκτεινόμενος.
We don’t always get this right. Some things we reach for are not worthy of our ultimate concern. We are subject to illusion and delusion. Alas.
One of my personal eccentricities that I am aware of—I’m sure I have others, but my brothers are too polite to point them out to me—one of my eccentricities is having tea. And not just tea, but TEA. At about 11:00 each morning, and often again about 4:00. Tea things on a tray, with a little something to hold me over until meal time. My little tea ceremony. As often as possible I have tea outdoors in our beautiful garden. I sometimes feel a little self-conscious doing this; sometimes when contractors or other workers come through the garden I even feel a little ridiculous. “What are these guys thinking about my little tea pot and cozy? I wish I had just a plain mug with a tea bag right now…”
In any event, my tea break helps keep my brain from overheating. And it’s a time to process things in a haphazard way. I often find myself meditating. The object of my contemplation is usually the magnificent sycamore trees along Memorial Drive. They reach up so dramatically, toward the infinite, beyond themselves, into the light. And, at the same time, they reach down, down, down, into the moist earth, roots taking water and nutrients back up to the highest branches. Rooted and grounded in this good earth, reaching up, beyond themselves into the firmament, into infinite light. Into infinite possibility. I keep telling myself there’s a sermon there somewhere.
Rooted and grounded in love, rooted and grounded in the things of this good earth—rooted and grounded in family and work and friendships and creative pursuits–rooted and grounded in our bodies and in Christ himself, reaching up, beyond ourselves into infinite light. Infinite life. Infinite truth. Infinite love. Reaching forward into infinite possibility. Reaching forward into the heavenly call, the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Hug a sycamore tree today. Hug a great big sycamore tree on this fine October morning.
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