The religious life is one that is too often marked by something I think is not helpful. In some ways, this unhelpful practice mirrors the ways of material labor and production. It mirrors the ways of economics when it should reside beyond it in some sense. We see it explained very well with a common practice this time of year. The New Year’s Resolution.
It works something like this. I notice something in my life that is missing. For example, I notice that I am not exercising like I should and am gaining some pounds. That is the problem. The solution – a resolution to exercise. Resolution is a promise made to one’s self to solve a problem.
But it does not stop there. After the resolution comes the actual work of making the resolution a reality
This resolution-based idea is what I will call the goal-attainment model. I set a goal and I work to realize that goal.
But what happens when despite how much we work to attain something, we don’t attain it? What happens when despite my resolution and my resolve and diligence, I do not reach my goal?
Well, you then must question the resolution itself. Maybe the goal I created was not the right one.
Maybe the problem is resolutions altogether.
When it comes to the spiritual life, I think this is so. I’d say the spiritual life and the goal-attainment model should not go together. They are not meant to go together.
Maybe this is why resolutions that are spiritual in nature – I resolve to pray daily or I resolve to go to church every Sunday – are especially prone to dissolving into nothing. The spiritual life does not operate in the same stratosphere as the goal-attainment model does.
The spiritual life is not a matter of resolving to reach a goal. The spiritual life is a matter of getting out of the way for God to work. Yes, there is work involved in getting out of the way, but it is a different kind of work, one that amounts to moving out of the way. It is different than the work that God does.
So Ward this past week worked very hard to shovel the walkways and parking area. I sometimes help. We also sometimes talk about the work of shoveling. This week he said that he was going to shovel the handicapped area and trust the Good Lord will do the work of letting the sun do the rest.
Get the snow out of the way and let the sun do the rest, drying the walk ways and making them safe, which is the point of all the shoveling in the first place.
A nice metaphor for us. Get ourselves out of the way and let God do the rest.
There was a phrase that was common in the household and church I grew up in. It is one that I sometimes think about, and one that is surprisingly powerful. That phrase is accept Jesus into in your heart. The idea here is that once you accept Jesus into your heart, he lives there forever. It is a wonderful phrase. It comes straight from the Bible. Christ lives in you. Christ abides in us. God’s light shines in us.
However, Christians often forget the ramifications of this. Paul in Galatians 2 actually lays out those ramifications. He writes:
20 I have been crucified with the Anointed One—I am no longer alive—but the Anointed is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s Son, the One who loves me and gave His body on the cross for me. 21 I can’t dismiss God’s grace, and I won’t. If being right with God depends on how we measure up to the law, then the Anointed’s sacrifice on the cross was the most tragic waste in all of history!
When it comes to the spiritual life, the point is to get out of the way and let God live in us. The point is to empty our self, let go of our pride and ego, and let God fill us up. In doing this, in getting ourselves out of the way, we will soon find that “our cups runneth over.”
Still, the question remains – how do we get ourselves out of the way?
The tradition of Buddhism helps in answering this question. We should first note Buddhism's similarity to the Christian notion that the spiritual life amounts to getting out of the way and letting God work.
In the Zen tradition in particular, we see this similarity most prominent. One of the central teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, the later Buddhism popular in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, is that we already have all we need spiritually. Buddhahood, Buddha-nature, is innately within us. In Judeo-Christian lingo, we are created in God’s image. There is something good and Godlike within us. How do we make this actual, how do we show forth God in our lives?
Buddhism says the first step is to awaken to who we were created to be. We need a teacher to show us this. We need to have a heart-to-heart relationship with a teacher.
Do you remember the movie Karate Kid? We recently watched it with Corey. Well, what helps Daniel to realize who he really is is his relationship with his karate teacher, his sensei Miyagi.
In Christianity, the way we get to God’s image and really show it in the world is to accept Jesus into our hearts. Jesus reconnects us to the image of God we were created to be.
But what’s next? If we already have what we need, and we’ve seen this, what else is there to do? Is there some goal to attain? Is there a resolution we need to keep?
Zen says "no!" Non-attainment is actually a central teaching in Zen. Why do we need to attain to something when we already contain what we need?
What’s more, the desire to attain, to strive after goals, to grab for the gold, while on one level it is great (namely on the physical level), on the spiritual level this desire, this striving, this grabbing for something is not helpful. It is easy to become emotionally or mentally attached to the goal. So that it becomes all about the goal and not the process, all about the destination instead of the journey.
Again, we see this in Karate Kid. To teach Daniel Karate, Miyagi has Daniel clean his antique cars. Remember wax on, wax off? Then he has Daniel sand his huge deck and paint his huge fence.
Eventually, Daniel gets really angry, thinking that instead of teaching him karate, Miyagi is making him a slave. So Daniel blows up one day. And in a great scene, Miyagi shows him the point of it all. He says show me “Wax the car.” In the movement Daniel used to wax on, wax off, there is a karate move. Miyagi then says show me sand the deck. In the movement of sanding the deck, there is a karate movement. Show me, pain the fence, again a karate move. The beauty of it, is that is a natural thing for Daniel now. A teaching born from everyday living.
The process of waxing the car was the goal. The journey of sanding the deck was the destination. The actual work of painting the fence was the aim. The getting ourselves out of the way is the getting at God.
In Buddhism, getting ourselves out of the way amounts to simple act of doing nothing in meditation. Zen means just sitting. In doing Zen, in doing meditation, we get ourselves out of the way so the work of wisdom and compassion can work through us.
In Christianity, just sitting with God in prayer, in the simple act of being still and getting to know God, we empty self and let God fill us and the flow through us.
The spiritual act of meditation and prayer is the act of letting go and letting God. It is the getting the snow out of the way so the sun of God can make things safe.
Is there work involved in getting out of the way? Absolutely. But it is simple work. It is menial work that involves trusting the aim, God Herself, to do the more difficult rest, the real work of living through us and touching the soul of the earth.
So here is my anti-resolution resolution – each and every day, set aside a time for doing absolutely nothing but maybe sitting with God.