The BEMA (βῆμα, בּימה ): On, or off the Island
Being on an island is for some of us the perfect place for rest and recreation, free from interference and the “madding crowd”. For others, islands are places of confinement, prisons where one is left with limited resources, fewer opportunities and the inability to escape. The differences stem from, probably, why one is on the island and, of course, who one is with.
I have been on this little island for about a month now and it is driving me crazy. The island is me. My prayers seem to have been going into a void. I haven’t had a warm thought from God in days. People who know me say I am depressed. My place of prayer is boring; my desire to pray the Jesus prayer is down to “Have mercy!” I sure need it, as I am classically underachieving.
Where did that word “underachieving” come from? Why? Who do I think I am?
I think God has just shown my why I’ve been on the island.
Ruth Burrows, a British writer of the 1980s wrote that we live, as believers, on an island that is the real world. We start out living by our wits and our desires, fighting with each other and with God, scraping our way ahead. Some do better than others. Mostly, the truth be known, life isn’t very pretty. Then God calls us, and Jesus reaches into us. We change, and we enter the family of God. Our faith puts us on the God-side of the mountains, and we begin to walk upright and help others do the same (this is just a mental picture, remember). But sometimes we find ourselves behaving like we used to, without even realizing it. We say we will “get our spiritual act together”, but we can get pretty toxic doing it.
As a result, some of us, Burrows wrote, will end up back on the ground, until God calls us again. We can always, however, say no. This is the scary responsibility. So sometimes we try to do it ourselves, that getting-back-on-our-feet part. We set up rules, we make disciplines, and we set ourselves standards to achieve. We make institutions and set standards and create achievement levels. And we reward those who meet or exceed these standards, with praise, prestige and power. Sometimes even with money. We thus school ourselves into righteousness. At times in our history we have tried this as entire societies.
Frankly, we try to make ourselves pretty so Christ will love us again. Then we expect things to go better. If it does, we relax and feel better. And we get farther away from God but don’t realize it. We can even be great achievers for God, for Him, but without Him. Worse, admirers even try to imitate us.
That is how we begin to make a self-righteous hell on earth. The Christian church will never be able to stop apologizing for the historic results of this until the end of time. I confess I have done my own little share in this, and if any of you have been burned by me, I am sorry. I was making my religion in my own image, and when I did that I was a fool. We have islands on earth where we used to quarantine people. Perhaps this is what God does, sometimes.
The point? Everyone dialogues with God. The saint (read “believer”, not specially gifted or selected person) say YES, the not-saint says NO. God through Jesus is obsessed with offering Himself to us, but cannot do this when we are full of ourselves, especially because He can’t live in a divided house. Jesus has to live inside of us and beside of us at the same time. Dwelling in us and walking beside us, until we become just like Him. There is no rule of prayer, no institution, no program, no special diet, set of rules, or fixed bank of concepts that we can make up to cause this, or keep it going.
Our life is, therefore, one of listening and obeying, not asking and receiving, then doing and achieving. That’s all there is!
My attempts to “get it together”, especially when I am conscious of being observed, can ruin everything. I become picky, precious, demanding, pompous and opinionated. I start taking about “mindfulness” and “boundaries”. I get “intentional”. I am restless and dissatisfied with others and, finally, with myself. I make myself suffer, and sometimes expect others to suffer, in order to get results, but I get angry at the results, or should I say the non-results. It all goes wrong, I get discouraged, and I put my face to the sky and I say “Why?” “What do you want from me? I am trying, down here!”
And I am not alone. A pile of people just like me are talking about God, yelling out at Him, and getting stuck.
We are stuck, because to hear God and not follow is to remain a child. To make our own way, instead, is to wander the island of ourselves, chronicling our wasted times and nursing our wounds. I used to joke that a man all wrapped up in himself is a small bundle, but I have been that man, just lately!
It is usually in that moment when I see myself as the spiritually-insecure-self-drunk-jackass that I am that the Bridge appears.
Being desperate for God, really, starts with a whisper, doesn’t it? The Bridge appears when we see our unimportance, when what our mind offers is unhelpful, when we realize that thinking and talking about God is less helpful than just being in His presence.
And then we find ourselves looking back on the island, because we are already on the Bridge.
Where does it go?