Another element of hearing another’s story, encountering another’s life in ways that help them discover the presence of Christ in their life, is to look for that Wisdom which has shaped their lives from the start.
One of the repeated messages in Scripture is that God’s presence begins before we notice, realize, or are taught to even see God. From our earliest moments, throughout our whole lives, God is present with us, shaping our experiences, guiding our lives.
Notice the following verses which draw on this theme:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
“ Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘ Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’”
“The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.’”
As I’ve noted already, there are of course problems with the language of these texts, as it can sound as if God has dictated our lives without our choice so that we are some kind of puppet being controlled by God or as if there is one simple straightforward plan for how our lives have to go.
I can’t speak for you, but I find this perspective very difficult to stomach. It also seems to fly in the face of important parts of the Biblical story. For instance, in Genesis, often God acts surprised at the choices people make. God waits for Adam and Eve to name the animals in Genesis, as if their creativity contributes something to the way God is working in the world. Even in the New Testament, we language suggesting that we all have something to contribute to what God is working in the world:
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
These texts suggest that we have a part to play in the outworking of God’s plans and dreams for our lives and world.
Rather than God dictating our lives, God works in, with, and throughout our lives as the One who shapes our lives with wisdom, offers inspiration, woos us forward to new possibilities. Rather than dictating the directions of our lives, God calls us to cooperate in goodness, life, love, and justice being created in our lives, relationships, and communities.
This shaping, guiding, wooing, though, we are told occurs before we consciously cooperate or participate in it.
In the Christian tradition, this is understood as prevenient grace, a goodness that shapes our days from the beginning and which, before we consciously cooperate with God’s working in our lives so that there is a wisdom embedded in our lives. We can look back at our earliest experiences – how we are born, how we learn and grow, the ways we thrive in the midst even of difficult early childhood experiences – and see an inherent wisdom guiding our lives, pointing us in directions that will give us purpose, passion, and connection.
I think the tradition of reincarnation in Eastern religions may have a similar role in those traditions of suggesting we enter into the world in the way we do for a reason. There are challenges that teach and shape us. In those traditions, the lives we lived before our birth dictate the way we enter this world so that all of our experiences, including those in our earliest childhood, include lessons that can shape us toward ultimate enlightenment, if we learn to pay attention to them. They help free us from the illusions that keep us from being truly spiritually free beings.
This ties in with Matthew Fox’s teaching on Original Blessing.
“we are all born with an original wisdom [so that] life’s task is to set up this tent of wisdom, which comes to us small and folded up as children. This rich image is mirrored in the work of … Buddhist nun, Pema Chodran who writes: ‘This is our birthright – the wisdom with which we were born, the vast unfolding of primordial richness, primordial openness, primordial wisdom itself… [We must] realize that we don’t have to obscure the joy and openness that is present in every moment of our existence. We can awaken to basic goodness, our birthright” (6).
Similar language is used by Rowan William writes, in “The Body’s Grace”:
“The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”
Ultimately a part of our work when we are given the opportunity to encounter another opening their life to us whether as a caregiver, minister, friend, partner, or neighbor, is to help become a witness to what wisdom can be seen shaping their days. As we do so through curiosity about what lessons their early life teaches them, what sources of wisdom and resiliency helped them through difficult times, what ways they have experienced becoming liberated or a liberating force to others, and where and how they have encountered and fostered true life even in death-dealing situations can help us both see that wisdom for ourselves and also help others become aware of that wisdom.
My own experience is that often I walk away from my work as a chaplain with amazed at the lessons another’s life teaches me. I am always amazed as well that, oh so often, people never notice the lessons embedded in their own stories.
The truth is, very few of us need to look far beyond our own lives to see a message from God being written out to us. I find Scripture’s greatest role for Christians is often not to tell us what to do with life but to help us see our own lives for what they are. This is true, I think, for the spiritual tools of all religious traditions. And deeply true for moments of deep encounter.
I wonder, in what ways have you experienced others helping open you to the wisdom guiding your days which you might have overlooked?
In what ways have you witnessed a wisdom guiding others’ lives? In what ways can you begin to do so?
Let us embrace this call to be witnesses to the wisdom that guide our and other’s days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,