Have you ever thought about how we create things in our lives? We create from the inside, out. Everything begins with an idea…maybe something we want to make, like chocolate chip cookies; or build, like a new shelf. The idea pops into our head and we think, “Huh, that sounds interesting, I wonder if I have what I need to do that.” We feel some interest there, and then some desire comes and attaches itself to the idea. Next our emotions join in and, as we think about it, we begin to look forward to that delicious first bite of a freshly baked cookie or maybe we imagine the satisfaction we’ll feel looking at the handsome new shelf we just put up on the wall.
If we get up off the couch and go to look for the ingredients or the tools we need, we are taking a big step toward turning the idea into reality. From the inside, out. And if we follow the process all the way through—mixing up the ingredients for the cookies, putting them on the cookie sheets, and baking them; or doing all we need to do to build and hang the shelf—the idea blossoms fully, from inspiration to manifestation, maybe in less than an hour.
This process of creation isn’t anything miraculous; it is part of our normal behavior, our regular actions every single day. We’re always creating something; the question is, what? We can create fun things we enjoy; put effort into our homes and gardens to add beauty and uniqueness; we can build lasting connections with those we love; we can nurture a life of peace and gratitude each day. When we use this creative ability well, we can add beauty and bliss, adventure and even love to our normal, everyday lives.
But it’s also true that we can unknowingly use this same gift of creativity in less productive ways, and that can take us in a less happy direction. When things don’t go as we’d like, when someone says something that upsets or injures us, when something wrong or unjust or simply unwanted happens in our lives, we can create moats around ourselves, divisions in our relationships. We can build walls that keep others out and wind up lock ourselves in. ing
Here’s how that unfortunate process works: Say a friend we saw recently at a social event talked the whole evening about herself. She didn’t ask how we were doing; she just went on and on about her accomplishments and her children and how successful and happy everyone was. Chances are, we were feeling pretty out of sorts by the end of the conversation, and when we get home later that night, we stew about it. Has she always been that self-focused? We replay the conversation over and over in our heads and it’s likely that other “evidence” of our friend’s self-absorption will come to mind. Already our emotions are involved; we’re feeling hurt, and irritated, and wondering why we want to be friends with her, anyway. After just a few moments focusing with judgment on her behavior, we can convince ourselves that we would rather steer clear of her in the future. And the division—the distance—has been created. Just like that. With just a little thinking, thanks to the way we humans focus and the way our emotions come to “help,” we have talked ourselves out of a friendship. Of course, forgiveness would be the better option there.
This week I’ve been thinking about how we might use these creative abilities God has given us to add more of what we really need in our world right now. Things like peace and respect and civility. And while we’re at it, let’s create more open-heartedness and acceptance, equality, compassion, and understanding. Let’s design an environment where all differences are welcome and gentleness is the baseline and “that of God in everyone” is our overarching truth. Before we can get to that point, though, we have a lot of forgiving to do. Forgiveness clears away the things we hold against others, and ourselves, and life in general. And when those things are cleared away, Love is revealed, and we’ll be able to see more of God’s Light shining in the world, even now.
In our Thursday afternoon book study, we’ve been learning what George Fox and other Early Friends wrote about the way the Light of Christ works within us, and we’ve been having some great discussions about that. Because we as open our hearts and lives to God’s spirit of Truth, one of the first things that happens is that God will help us see in ourselves all the places that block God’s light. We’ll see the grievances we’ve held against others, the self-blame and judgment we’ve turned on ourselves. We’ll notice the ways we take shortcuts on the truth, how we sometimes blame others for things that are really our doing, how we close our hearts in moments—like the situation with our self-focused friend–when forgiveness would have been the more loving choice.
In a 1653 tract entitled, To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom, George Fox wrote,
“…the first step to peace is to stand still in the light (which discovers things contrary to it) for power and strength to stand against that nature which the light discovers. Here grace grows, here God alone [is] glorified and exalted, and the unknown truth, unknown to the world, made manifest, which draws up that which lies in prison, and refresheth it in time, up to God...”
It makes me think of a quote from the poet Rumi, who said,
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
God’s light does that for us and with us, helping us all along the way. God may begin by illuminating within us any blocks, defenses, and projections we have created that get in the way of our loving freely, but God doesn’t leave us there. Our Old Testament reading fits perfectly here as a prayer David used to invite God to do this important housecleaning work within him:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
David says a lot in these few short verses. First he recognizes and admits—to himself and to God—that his heart needs cleaning, that his errors and blind spots and judgments and prejudices all get in the way of him loving as God would have him love. He asks God to not only cleanse his heart—to take away the mistakes and the lies and self-justification—but to also give him a right spirit that will keep him in tune with God. The point of the Light isn’t to make us feel bad for how short we sometimes fall but rather to clear away our mistaken ideas so we can know the truth of God’s love, that’s upholding and blessing us all, always.
George Fox also says that’s the next step in the process; that after the light reveals in us whatever it contrary to itself, God’s mercy comes in, to comfort us and lead us to a deeper understanding. We learn with God’s help how we fool ourselves and just as important, how we can forgive ourselves. With practice, we are able more and more to keep our hearts open, to not let prejudices and judgments take root, to turn quickly toward God for help and healing whenever we see those old patterns stirring within us.
David ends this passage with an important thought. He points out the way his “clean heart” can be of service to the world around him, and this is true for us, too. When he has the right spirit and the joy of salvation, David says, he will “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” He’s not suggesting here that God will turn him into a street evangelist, and he’ll preach the masses into heaven; rather he is talking about the renewing and restoring energy of God’s love at work within us all. When we can meet others without judgment, the light of God’s love in us can shine in such a way that others might recognize their own blocks and mistaken beliefs, if they’re willing. Perhaps our presence will help them choose forgiveness too.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he warns those in the early church against the type of mindless creation I mentioned earlier, where we dwell on hurt feelings or hold something against others until it creates division between us. In our New Testament verses for today, Paul wrote,
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
He offers a kind of mirror image of the process David gave us, ending with a heart made clean by the forgiveness of Christ. This type of approach might work well, you could think, for small slights and personal infractions, but what about when someone does something truly awful that causes us pain, when there’s been an injustice of some kind, and we really do need to steer clear of the one who harmed us? What does forgiveness look like then?
Paul’s words—“let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice”—offer a clue. We can ask God to create in us a clean heart so that we don’t harbor those feelings against the person who wounded us; we can let go of bitterness and anger, we can take great care not to say negative things about them, we can guard our hearts so we don’t wish them ill. In other words, we can let the Light continue to do its work in us, revealing anything that gets in the way of our ability to love as God would have us do. Our willingness to forgive frees us of the shackles of anger and resentment that grow so tight in a heart that holds grudges.
So if it’s true, as the Persian poet Hafiz wrote, that “the words we speak become the house we live in,” a house of forgiveness would likely begin with the foundational words, “I’m sorry,” offered earnestly and often—to God, ourselves, and others–from a contrite and learning heart. The house would be framed with good intentions—a desire to live in peace with compassionate respect for all. The house would be full of windows because we realize we need God’s light to shine in continually; that way, we’ll be able to discover and remove any blocks to love we may carry in by accident. The walls would likely be flexible and moveable, so we can create a cozy space for a few of us or a large lovely space for a lot of us, and the door would be unlocked and maybe even open, because all would be welcome, always. And if our words build the house, then our house of forgiveness would be full of gentle and kind words; words of understanding and reassurance; offering support, encouragement, and grace; and always giving voice to the truth in love.
In closing I’d like to share one of my favorite poems from Rumi, which points toward the importance of forgiveness as we let God teach us how to live with clean hearts:
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
- OT Psalm 51: 10-13
- NT Ephesians 4: 31-32