"The Fullness of God" by Ken Burton
July 26, 2009
A summer Sunday morning in Washington. What better opportunity could there be to spend a few minutes reflecting on the fullness of God.
In the third chapter of his Epistle to the Church at Ephesus, Paul writes "I pray that you may have the power to comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God." Using a metaphor from physical space (breadth, length, height, depth) we are invited to consider the vastness of the Divine Mystery as well as its intimacy, the power of God’s presence in our lives within the weakness, and the healing that may be first present to us as wounding.
The vastness of the Divine Mystery as well as its intimacy.
The power of God’s presence in our lives within the weakness.
The healing that may begin as wounding.
We frequently affirm that our understanding of the Holy One is beyond predicates. The Mystery is so immense, the Ground of Being so deep and rich that the best we can do is to offer hints about God’s nature through image and metaphor. Some of these were implicit in the words with which I began this sermon: a summer Sunday morning in Washington, an opportunity to reflect on the fullness of God. "Summer" and "Sunday" and "morning" and, yes, even "Washington" provide hints or clues or intuitive connections with the Divine Mystery, with the fullness of God. Let’s take a moment now to look again at Martha Phillips’ painting. It offers more intimations of the Divine, for which words are not helpful. I could spend the rest of my time this morning piling on metaphors that point to the Divine Mystery, but instead I’m going to limit myself to a passage from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation (p.17) that found its way into the inward/outward blog earlier this month.
If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of God’s life, that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest. For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood.
God’s love spreads the shade by the sycamore over my head and sends the water-boy along the edge of the wheat field with a bucket from the spring, while the laborers are resting and the mules stand under the tree. It is God’s love that speaks to me in the birds and streams but also behind the clamor of the city God speaks to me in God’s judgments, and all these things are seeds sent to me from God’s will. If they would take root in my liberty, and if God’s will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that God is, and my harvest would be God’s glory and my own joy. And I would grow together with thousands and millions of other freedoms into the gold of one huge field praising God, loaded with increase, loaded with corn.
Merton’s reflection reiterates the Divine Vastness while at the same time suggesting an opposite pole of the fullness of God: the Divine Intimacy. He notices God in his own hunger for food and in the bread that satisfies it. Merton finds the Divine in both the body sweat of a summer day and the winter’s chill of that same body. The fullness of God is as close and intimate and personal as it is vast and mysterious.
Next I had planned to talk about the power of God’s presence in our lives within the weakness in which we sometimes find it, the Divine Power made manifest in weakness. This theme occurs again and again in the New Testament and in the history of the Church. From the passion narratives in the Gospels to the death and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, the story of our faith abounds with accounts of how Divine strength breaks into our lives and into history through human weakness. There is indeed rich ore to be mined from this particular vein, but, as I began to work with this theme, it became clear to me that I, Ken, am not the miner of choice, at least not now. My own experience with God’s power in my life through weakness is quite limited, so much so that I do not feel comfortable saying more about it than to simply affirm that Divine power in the world and in our lives is very often found in human weakness and that this is an important aspect of the fullness of God.
A few days ago I had eleven seborrheic keratoses or Seb K’s removed from my arms. This is a minor skin condition which doesn’t actually require medical attention, but I found these spots, each with its own little life cycle, to be annoying and wanted them taken off. This was done with a procedure called cryosurgery, which uses tiny amounts of liquid nitrogen to freeze-burn each lesion off my skin. What you see on my arms this morning are the scabs that are part of the healing process for these therapeutic burns.
At this point you may well want to tell me that all of this is TMI – too much information – and besides, what on earth do my dermatological adventures have to do with the fullness of God? For me, the disturbing answer to this question is that these spots on my arm are important for appreciating the Divine Fullness in part because they do not initially appear to be so. If we were to brainstorm examples of God’s fullness, I’m guessing we could produce a long list, ranging from the bellies of mothers-to-be to the grandeur of mountains to the beauty of complex flower petals, and poems, and people. The chances are good, however, that scabs on Ken’s arms, however therapeutic, would not make the brainstormed list, just because they are, well, ugly. My point is that the fullness of God can be found in places and circumstances that are not always attractive or appealing. In the case of the scabs on my arms, it’s relatively easy to see the connection with a pruning process, cutting away of old structures to make way for something new, with healing as a bridge between that which is being destroyed and whatever comes after it. Yes, indeed, the fullness of God.
I am currently having another experience in which wounding as a first step in healing is much harder for me to see. My use of the present tense here is intentional, because this experience, which is really a process, is still happening. As many of you know, I was recently laid off from my employment position as a software developer for Carlson Wagonlit Travel. The company is a major supplier of travel management services to corporations and to the federal government. My role was to support a back office system called SatoStar that manages travel activity for many civilian government agencies, the Navy, and substantial parts of the other uniformed services. I had had this job for over seven years. I knew that it would eventually end because a decision had been made to replace SatoStar with a different system running on a different platform, but I had assumed that so long as SatoStar was up and running, Ken would have a job. This assumption turned out to be more wishful thinking on my part than anything else. It did not take into account the company’s need to cut costs due to the impact of the recession on the commercial business or the availability within the company of other developers with my skill set. So, on July 3rd, I became unemployed and decided to end my 43 years of participation in the work force. And, yes, I am definitely not comfortable with calling it "retirement." It feels much more like a transition or, if you will, a healing. The first three days, a long weekend, were fine because I was not "supposed" to be working anyway. But once we got into the next work week, I was in trouble. I experienced anxiety more severe than any I had felt in the quarter century since the end of my first marriage. I cried more during that single week than I had during the preceding decade. My thinking became two-valued: everything of any emotional importance was either impossibly wonderful or horribly awful. This craziness unfortunately extended to Jane, whom I saw in negative ways, even as she reached out to comfort and support me. I got a prescription for an anti-anxiety med from my doctor and began seeing a talk therapist. Well, three weeks have now past, I am beginning to heal. The support that I have received from many of you and the stability and opportunities to serve that are aspects of my various roles here at Seekers are integral to this process, but I am clear that for it to be truly healing, it must go on well into the future. I need to listen again, and perhaps in a new way, to hear what God is calling me to be and to do. I need to remember, not simply as the third point of a sermon but as a condition of my very life, that healing often begins as wounding. I need to ground myself once more in the fullness of God, and I invite you to join me there.
And so we return to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which is my prayer for each of us, that we may have the power to comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with the fullness of God. Amen.