The cloudy skies today were perfect for sweaters and jeans, for ruminating with a cup of hot tea (Earl Grey, with cream and sugar), for snuggling and watching the Italy versus Spain soccer match. These skies were also cold for those without homes or comfy sweaters. I felt an ache run through my belly as I saw a woman on the sidewalk huddle down under the big grey mover's blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders. I love the occasional winter spell in the tropics, but it is always tempered with the knowledge that there are some suffering when the temperature drops into the 50's.
I've been doing a form of Examen recently, which is basically the practice of asking myself a variation of two questions every night:
When did I feel most alive today? When was I happiest?
When did I most feel like draining out of me? When was I saddest?
I've noticed that this practice, simple as it is, has been helpful in keeping me grounded during these weeks of craziness. It helps me too, to realize that the holy is best found in the most unexpected places...which keeps me looking for those shards and slivers as I go about my days, from the slums to the halls of academia.
This morning I went with a friend to church and stayed for Sunday School, which included a long debate that hinged on "what grade would we give our relationship with God?" I cringed when I heard them beginning this line of questioning. I have so many issues with the thought process behind that question. It assumes that our relationship with God can be measured, that we are competent and unbiased enough to measure it, and that there is some standard by which we can rank that relationship on a scale of one through ten.
We're not unbiased enough to measure our relationships. Even in basic human relationships like dating, marriage and friendship, we're often woefully incorrect about how we're doing with the significant people in our lives. The standard of measurement for a spiritual relationship basically ends up boiling down to: Do you pray? A lot? Do you read the Bible? A lot? Do you fast? A lot? Do you do, do, do?
And that leads to more than just guilt. It leads to a sense that the spiritual life is something we get by working really hard. That a relationship with God is about our taking, not God's giving. It's not grace, it's not love, it's "Look what I've done for you! Now get closer to me!"
We can fool ourselves into thinking that this path will lead to spiritual growth. As one person said today: "To get a plant to grow, you have to water it, weed it, put it in the sun. You've got to do a lot in order to help that plant grow." And his point was that we're supposed to be doing all those things, through sacrifices and prayer and so forth.
But he got it kind of backwards. We're the plant. We don't have the option of doing anything, or going anywhere. We're rooted in soil and have to do the best with the raw materials we're given. And God comes to us, waters us, gives us light and fertilizers and plucks out the weeds. Our job is to do what we were created to do, be obedient, grow. The prayer and the other relational "work" are a natural outgrowth of that obedience and doing what we were created to do. But we don't have to go around beating ourselves over the head because we didn't read six chapters of the Bible today, or spent forty-five minutes in prayer on our knees, or didn't skip lunch to meditate. Those things are natural outgrowths of an intimate relationship with God. But we get there step by step, not in one great big hurdle. And there is lots of grace along the way, because God knows that our lives are full of dishes and dirty laundry, kids to be picked up from school, tires to be changed, chocolate to be eaten, friends to hug, tears to wipe away, bellies to feed. When we're intimate with God, all those things can become spiritual activities. And to get intimate with God, we can start by allowing the mundane to be holy.