The Story Renews Us
Discussion: A Transforming Story: notes in the right order. A story larger than ourselves.
God is a God of abundance.
God loves you.
Your need is known and provided for.
What you need has been given.
PrayerGod meets us where we are – and even where we hide
Providing sacred ground
Encouraging an honest exploration and expression of who and how we are
Towards a complex acceptance of ourselves and our situation, not because this makes sense in rational terms, but as an act of TRUST
So that we can receive as we have been received.
We are encouraged to pay attention to what we have and who we are,
To live in the present moment, so that we can meet God here and now,
To even celebrate what we have,
Again, as a step of FAITH.
And then, to act as if this is enough, even though it is not, doing what is necessary, for our own sake, and for others.
And, counting the cost, to go the distance.
God provides an abundance that meets our need,
Of consolation, comfort and compensation, if we can but receive it.
In sacred image and sacred word, that will feed us
Always through exercising TRUST and FAITH,
The holistic faith of body, heart, mind (reason, memory, imagination), will and spirit.
And through them, God redirects us towards the Other, so that we can share abundance.
We have a new perspective, and we are the centre of our own story
And know ourselves part of a much larger narrative of saving love.
We are able to channel our new life into the healing of others, the healing of the world, the service of the Kingdom.
And to reach towards the forgiveness that heals all wounds.
This is promise and sacred dream.
At every stage, we move on in TRUST and FAITH,
Trusting that God keeps faith with us,
Understanding that the Gospel of abundance confronts at depth the wounds of the world, and so will not always be received.
To go on is our choice, this day, every day.
- What is it like when God meets us where we are? Or even, where we are hiding? What does it feel like? What does it teach us about ourselves? What does it show us about God – and about our value to God? What examples of this are important to you - from Scripture, or from the stories of others’ or your own experience?
- In what ways does God gift us with abundant life? How much is given, and how much remains the promise of further abundance? How do we reach forward to realise that potential? What examples of this are important to you?
- How does God “redirect us” so that we might share with others the abundant life we have received? What gets in the way of us doing this?
Copyright Julie M. Hulme, 2004.
- The Place in the Forest
The story is told that in times of danger and doubt, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov would go into the forest, to a particular place, light a fire and pray that his people would be saved from the trial which threatened them. And that each time he did this, the misfortune was averted.
Years later, when danger again threatened the people, the Magid of Mezritch followed his Master’s example. He found the place in the forest. He did not know how to light the fire, but he prayed the prayer, and once again, the people were saved.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov would go into the forest. He did not know how to light the fire. He did not know the prayer. But he knew the place and there he entrusted the life of the people to God, believing that this would be sufficient to keep them from harm. And it was so.
Then, one day, it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to intercede for the safety of those in his care. He sat in his chair with his head in his hands. He acknowledged before God that he was unable to light the fire, he did not know the prayer, he could not even find the place in the forest. All he could do was to tell the story and trust that this would be enough. And it was enough.
This is a story about the nature of personal spirituality, discipleship and the leadership that is asked of spiritual people in periods of threat, challenge and transformation.
It begins with an individual who feels called to pray for the people during difficult times. He does this in a manner which expresses his personal spirituality: he goes into the great wild forest which once covered much of Eastern Europe; finds a private, hidden place; lights a fire and prays.
On at least one occasion, he takes a disciple with him, who is later able to find the place and pray the prayer. But the disciple has not paid enough attention to the practical details, for when it is his turn to make the journey, he does not know how to light the fire. Perhaps, on the earlier occasion, he was so nervous of being alone with his Master in the middle of the forest that he did not notice how it was done; perhaps he had always had servants to light fires for him; perhaps his mind had always been so deep in his books that he had never thought that this was a skill he would need. Whatever the reason, he cannot light a fire and so the significance of that act is lost.
The story acknowledges the degeneration of discipleship: the fact that, even when we are learning something that matters from someone we respect, we do not always ask the most important questions. Instead, we can get distracted by the direction of the journey, the fact that it has taken us deep into the wild places of our history, our landscape, our own hearts. Struggling with our fear of being where we are, we fail to notice what will help us survive there. Then, when it becomes imperative that we find that place again – not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of others - we feel alone, bereft of help, unable to take action in the way that we would wish, incapable of emulating those who have gone before us. How much we do not know. How much is lost that might have worked for us. How much remains mysterious, forever beyond our understanding.
This awareness of loss is significant because the core of personal spirituality, discipleship and spiritual leadership is paying attention. The core of personal spirituality is paying attention to God. The core of discipleship is paying attention to our Master. The more we learn to pay attention, the more we can apply it in all directions. So paying attention to God should train us to pay attention to all kinds of others - and vice versa. The key is knowing how to pay attention: to what matters, to what feeds us, to what is life-giving. Our basic task – or discipline – as disciples is learning to pay attention.
We learn to pay attention so that we also learn the other skills, knowledge, understanding and wisdom which will serve us when it is our turn to go into the Wild. For “going into the forest” is the defining act of the spiritual leader. The Baal Shem Tov went into the depths of the “Wild” to face the forces that the “Wild” symbolised – in human society, his own community and in himself. He went to face these forces and to pay attention to God who met him there, in that place of threat and danger. He was motivated by a powerful sense of personal responsibility, it is true, but he also believed that there was a profound link between addressing these forces as they affected himself and addressing them as they affected his people. By going into the forest, he believed he was placing himself “between” these forces and his community. It was an act of intercession.
Generation after generation, dangers arose and the leader of the day was required to “go into the forest” to pray that the people might be saved. It was not a journey that they wanted to make, but one they felt compelled to offer out of compassion for those who were suffering and fear of what was to come. Though all the men named in the story were acknowledged as leaders, teachers and rabbis by their communities, the journey into the forest was not an aspect of spiritual leadership for which they had received specific training nor for which they felt prepared. It was thrust upon them: required of them by the spiritual authority of their position and the nature of the times in which they lived.
And so, too, it is for us. While all those who love God are invited to pay attention to God and all followers of Jesus are called to be disciples, not all of us are called to exercise spiritual leadership in this manner. What a relief! However, none of us can be sure that we will not one day be required to exercise it. We may not hold any position of responsibility in our church or congregation; we may not be entrusted with the care of others; we may not see ourselves as a “leader” in any capacity, least of all in spiritual matters. None of this matters. All that counts is whether we are able to recognise the moment when it arrives and whether we know what to do if – or perhaps when - it does.
The good news is that, while acknowledging our fallibility as disciples, this story gives us hope. For the other persistent thread in the tale is the growth of trust. Each generation of disciples knows less and less about the Master’s visits to the forest. The place, the fire and the prayer are forgotten. But each loss is acknowledged to God and replaced by trust. The more that is not known, the more we must trust in God and God alone: in God and in God’s unswerving desire to love and serve and save those who cry out in faith, whether our cry is for ourselves or for others.
In the end, only the story lives on as witness. But it witnesses to the fact that it is our trust in God which matters. The journey into the forest can be made wherever we happen to be, if that is what the moment requires. It is recognising that it needs to be made and being willing to make it and knowing that it is – above all – a step into a deeper, greater, trust in the love of God, that makes the offering sufficient and our prayer effective, so that we do not cry to God in vain.
1. Becoming a Child Again
My own experience. Through cancer, depression, writer’s block. Art has helped me get in touch with my child-self again.
The child who does not have to be responsible all the time, caring for others all the time, doing the “right” thing all the time. The child who can do anything because no one is there to tell them not to. Child is free to roam, explore, play, become self-absorbed.
Pay attention to things because they are interesting, rather than because they are urgent or important. The child who can pay attention to things simply because they are, here, in the present moment.
Attitude necessary to be creative - curious, exploratory, willing to experiment and get things wrong, playfulness, imagination. Willing to see. Open to the abundance of life.
Also willing to be seen. Vulnerable. Exposed. Naked. Know our early endeavours to be valuable, whether or not they are “good” or “perfect” or “worthwhile”
Link with what has happened with art in 20th century. Artists have rediscovered the Christian story. Approached it like children. Gone back to the beginning again. For centuries, Church has been in control of this story. Told society what it means. A way of telling artists what to paint, how to paint the story. (Artists have always rebelled against that - but that is another story). Now Church is no longer in control. Artists have much more freedom.
Society as a whole appropriated the images (Madonna, Hot Cross buns, Matrix films etc.) diluting the effect of the images.
Meanwhile, artists genuinely interested in spiritual truth have become like children again. Gone back to the beginning. Play with the story. No rules.
[Welcomed children and used them as examples. Need to become a child in order to enter the Kingdom.]
2. In the Midst of the Storm
However, artists are not children. Aware of adversity, poverty, suffering, cruelty, pain. Including the pain that we inflict on one another. Artists use art as a way of engaging with what is. Part of what is - malicious, harrowing, evil. 20th century - time of unprecedented pain for unprecedented numbers of people and we knew an unprecedented amount about it. Sheer scale of the wars, atrocities and suffering has left its mark upon art. As it should do. And upon artists.
Artists interested in spiritual truth have reacted to this in two main ways.
1. To show it how it is. Do this by exploring episodes in which Christ was involved, and episodes in which Christ himself suffers, and re-express them in modern dress. Rework the Christian story in contemporary events. Aim - not so much to ask what happened then, but rather to explore what is going on now. The subject is suffering itself - how can we understand it? Engage with it? Handle it? Endure it?
2. To explore alternatives. What can we rely upon, depend upon, use to help us endure? What gets us through? And how does it help us?