God is Other

Several years ago I started meeting with a wonderful friend who is my spiritual advisor/mentor. Sometimes those meetings have been challenging, forcing me to confront aspects of myself that I haven’t particularly liked. Sometimes they have been comforting as I have dealt with difficult life situations. Sometimes they raise more questions than answers…but always they call me to go deeper into my relationship with God.

Much of what we talk about has been stimulated by various books we have read through the years. I sometimes think that God must have a wonderful sense of humor, because so often either the entire book–or a specific passage–is so appropriate to either my own life situation or to what I see around me. We are currently reading Ronald Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire…a book that challenges me to go beyond the basic questions of life into the questions one faces as one grows older. It’s a wonderful discussion of looking at discipleship in new ways…and more specifically, what it means to be mature disciples. The questions he raises deal with the struggle to give our lives away–just what does that mean for each of us?

We’re almost through the book, and in our last meeting I was struck by a couple of quotes. In this particular chapter, Rolheiser talks about “ten commandments for the long haul”–something he describes as simplifying our spiritual vocabulary. Very briefly, here are the commandments for mature discipleship (which he sees more as invitations than commands):

  1. Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
  2. Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy.
  3. Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
  4. Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
  5. Forgive–those who hurt you, your own sins, the unfairness of your life, and God for not rescuing you.
  6. Bless more and curse less!
  7. Live in a more radical sobriety.
  8. Pray, affectively and liturgically.
  9. Be wide in your embrace.
  10. Stand where you are supposed to be standing and let God provide the rest.

There is a lot that can be said about each of these–but the one that struck me especially hard was #9 – be wide in your embrace. Rolheiser suggested that we live in a time that lives up to a Chinese greeting that may be both a curse and a blessing: “May you live in interesting times!” We are facing challenges both in our faith traditions as well as in our broader communities of trying to understand what it means to be accepting…and our boundaries and understandings are being stretched almost to the breaking point.

But in this section, he quoted from a couple of writers–quotes that really made me stop and think and that I want to share. The first is from David Tracy in his book On Naming the Present: Reflections on God, Hermeneutics, and Church:

For anyone in this troubled, quarreling center of privilege and power (and as a white, male, middle-class, American, Catholic, professor and priest I cannot pretend to be elsewhere) our deepest need, as philosophy and theology in our period show, is the drive to face otherness and difference. Those others must include all the subjugated others within Western European and North American culture, the others outside that culture, especially the poor and the oppressed now speaking clearly and forcefully, the terrifying otherness lurking in our own psyches and cultures, the other great religions and civilizations, the differences disseminating in all the words and structures of our own Indo-European languages.

Rolheiser acknowledges that this is not easy. He is not calling for us to ignore our own roots, boundaries, and borders. As he says, “True acceptance of otherness and difference means something only if someone first has a strong identity, complete with real boundaries and cherished borders to protect.”

As he continues his sharing, Rolheiser suggests that we cannot avoid that which seems “foreign” to us. Our planet is too small for that. And…as a follower of the Christ, one of my major challenges it to welcome those who are other and different. All the way through scripture, God is defined as “Other”–outside what is familiar to us, beyond imagination.

And that’s why this other quote–from Parker Palmer in The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life struck me so strongly. It is the challenge especially before us in this place and this time:

The role of the stranger in our lives is vital in the context of Christian faith, for the God of faith is one who continually speaks truth afresh, who continually makes all things new. God persistently challenges conventional truth and regularly upsets the world’s way of looking at things. It is no accident that this God is so often represented by the stranger, for the truth that God speaks in our lives is very strange indeed. Where the world sees impossibility, God sees potential. Where the world sees comfort, God sees idolatry. Where the world sees insecurity, God sees occasions for faith. Where the world sees death, God proclaims life. God uses the stranger to shake us from our conventional points of view, to remove the scales of worldly assumptions from our eyes. God is a stranger to us, and it is at the risk of missing God’s truth that we domesticate God, reduce God to the role of familiar friend.

 

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