My handy Oswald Chambers this morning offered a handy meditation on a passage from the Gospel of John (chapter 7, verse 38). He talked about the difference drawn in modern life between what God intends for us and what we think God is offering to us. His image, and it is a challenging one, is that God's teaching is and always has been "anti-self-realization." That really flies in the face of most infomercials, doesn't it? It also challenges most of the rhetoric being offered in our day and age. Instead of taking active action to restore our honor (i.e., reclaim our sense of control over others at their expense), we are being asked to embrace humility. Instead of claiming a bigger share of the proverbial pie, we are asked to offer our own slice to those who are hungry. Instead of celebrating how great we are, we are instead being challenged to give all glory to God. It might make sense, but in a world where the individual is the center of all the energy and attention that our common culture can generate, what place is there for a God who asks us to put the spotlight on the Other (particularly God as Other) in our lives?
I once had a difficult conversation with a person who was unhappy with her church, her pastor...really, the whole religion thing from the outset as she was experiencing it. Her complaint was, "Well, I am just not being fed," by all that is going on in the Church. As I meditate on that memory, and ponder Oswald's pearl of wisdom this morning, I find myself responding to that complaint in some personally unsettling ways.
When it comes to eating, I am a professional amateur...I love to eat, and to eat a lot, but really when I look at what, when and how much I choose to eat I see that most of it is just putting food (any food) into my mouth. I am trying to feed myself in order to fill my self up. But food can't do that. In fact, nothing that comes from outside ourselves really can fill us up in this life. We might get stuffed. That's easy in a culture and in a country where two of our major civic holidays (Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday) see a majority of observers eating anywhere from four to five times the average daily caloric intake considered healthy by nutritionists and dietitians.
Filling up is not the problem, feeling fulfilled is; and the person who complained to me was operating under the assumption that her pastoral leaders and her Church were somehow on the hook to serve her a spiritual meal that was 1) to her taste, 2) enough to feed her to her ideal of satiety and 3) a meal that she was not willing to help design or deliver. On top of that, she was expressing more concern that her needs be met, rather than that she might strive to meet the Other's needs instead.
One of the great scandals of Holy Week happens early on, when the Gospel narrative is recounted of a woman who enters the company of the disciples as they are taking a meal with Jesus. She breaks open a jar of wildly expensive ointment and proceeds to use it to anoint Jesus from head, literally, to toe. Shock ensues, and then for some, outrage. The money could/should have been spent on the poor...or at least some more worthy cause! But Jesus rebukes them, telling them that the poor will always be with them. This woman has given her all to him this evening, using her wealth-poured out-to offer him comfort, honor and blessing. "She will be remembered...." is his response to their outrage. And behold, her story open every Holy Week. She is remembered.
Would she be remembered if she had instead chosen to complain about Jesus to her friends that though he seems to be pretty good at his job, she just doesn't really feel "fed" by his parables? Probably not.
I think what God is challenging us to in this day and age of the individual is to first and foremost be willing to offer ourselves up as a libation that is about to be poured out in service to the world for the greater glory of God. We think too often of a God that fills us up first, and perhaps reserves a bit for another. That somehow my spiritual fulfillment matters more to God than God's interest in using me as a vessel for the grace and salvation of others in need.
Of course, I am sure my words outrage most people who approach their journey to God as one of self-realization...but let's be honest. Has there been a moment in life that has drawn you closer to God when it has been "all about you?" In my life, at those moments, I usually am furthest from God.
It is when I am in the act of being poured out in service to the hungry, the poor, the sick, etc....that I really being to feel a sense of God offering "fullness" to me-because that is the sensation of grace flowing through me.
In John, during a little blip in the narrative that is chapter 7, verses 37-39, Jesus is calling out to passersby that "anyone who is thirsty" to come to him, and to let the believer drink. Not to experience an end to thirst, but to be prepared to be poured out. He promises that a river of living water will pour out of the hearts of the faithful.
Even when we are filled up to and over the brim in this life with a sense of God's presence and love, we are not experiencing an end to the process...but the beginning.
Perhaps, the person who complained of not being fed, were I to have her in front of me today, would be someone I might have the courage to remind (and even model the practice) that the point of coming to God is not to get fed, but to be equipped to feed others.
I can't begin to count the number of times when I have experienced this in my life, my priesthood and in my journey to God...that when I think I am empty, there is still just that little bit more to pour out of my being for another's use...that when I am certain I don't have (or don't want to have) one more moment to give....THAT is when God reminds me that I am not here in this life so that I can get mine. I am here so that I can give "it" to others, after having played my part to make "it" about God, the true center of my being and the deep font of refreshment that was in me from the beginning. That, I believe, is what Jesus is promising when he asks anyone who is thirsty to come and drink....because in that moment we become someone who is to bear the cask of living waters to others. Always.