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Fasting From Our Self-Image

Lectionary readings in the coming week, invite us to be present and to listen to three life-changing conversations: God comes to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, and then in Jesus to Peter. Each man knows the Lord is present, and as we pay attention, we hear each man making a negative statement about himself in response to what God says. Isaiah wonders what on earth will happen to him now: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have seen...the LORD of hosts!" (Is 6:5). Jeremiah remonstrates about himself: "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." (Jer 1:6). Peter falls down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Lk 5:8) Isaiah thinks he will die; Jeremiah gets stuck on his inadequacy; and Peter wants Jesus out of his life.
In his insightful book WILL AND SPIRIT: A Contemplative Psychology, Gerald May speaks of self-identifying spiritual experiences which may feel "too revealing. They can easily provide glimpses of one's repressed desires and motivations or bring hidden personality characteristics to light." Hence such spiritual experiences are humbling, and often one would rather not be made aware of them." (p.92) Or, as Yahweh says to us through Jeremiah: "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the LORD test the mind and search the heart." (17:9-10)
What is astounding in each of the three encounters with God mentioned above, is the response each man hears. Rather than condensation or abandonment, these three men hear God inviting them to stay close, and calling them to co-labor with God in the world. A gracious sense of freedom is here. Their self-awareness which was expressed in terms of being lacking, insufficient, sinful, and unclean, is now held in grace. God does not walk away, but stays, and asks them to do God's work. In the clear and merciful light of such presence, "we do not lose heart" (2 Cor 4:2). Instead, we gradually warm up to the experience of seeing "with unveiled faces"—with clear sight—who we are in God's presence, and at the same time we feel the freedom of God's gracious invitation to stay rather than run, and to co-operate with God and what God is doing.
In Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that when they pray they are to find a secluded place and there to pray, to be in the presence of "your Father who sees" (Mt 6:5-6). I think that a reason for our resistance to solitude and prayerful presence is precisely the same problem which Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Peter had: we are frightened of being seen for who we are. Our self-image will be threatened. Only as we open our attention to God who is present, and experience the gentle surprise of grace and God staying, do we realize that we no longer need to spend our energy building and protecting our self-image. Instead, we will see ourselves and others as we truly are, and will be free to share our bread with the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted (Is 58:7-10), and work together with God as we invite others to accept the grace of God in Jesus (2 Cor 6:1).
Wendy J. Miller Eastern Mennonite Seminary
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