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Incarnation – Being Present with God, with People, and with Self

Date: 28/12/2014/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

John 1:1, 14 Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Good morning, and i want to wish you a blessed Christmas. We have reached the final Sunday of 2014, and like many of you, i am looking forward to 2015.

We are in the season of Christmas – celebrating the Word made flesh, God being amongst us. Here i want to give a short interjection – according to the Gospel according to John 1:1, ” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” and John 1:14, ” The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Bible isn’t the Word of God – the Word of God is Christ. The Bible, as i have said numerous times before, is words about God. We need to get our prepositions right. God is revealed in the personhood of Christ because a person is dynamic – words on the hand are fixed.

2014 has been, like many other years before, a mixed bag of good and bad. 2015 will no doubt be the same. While we want to count our blessings, and be grateful for all the good things, 2014 also has its fair share of things we would rather not have happened – things we would rather not remember. But isn’t that life?

That’s why when John suggested God of the Moon and Stars as part of the worship set, i went, “Yes!” And i thought of how we can sing Joy to the World, even when we struggle with the emotions of God of Moon and Stars. I struggled to celebrate this Christmas – Joy? Bah! Peace? Bah! Love? Bah! Violence and hate seem to everywhere. Injustice, rather than justice prevails.

Perhaps we have something to learn from Job – who even when everything he loves, everything he treasures were taken away, he still said “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” Job 1:21

Perhaps we need to understand that life is life – there will be good times, there will be bad times. We need to understand that there is a season for all things.

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For those of you musically trained, you would realise that the worship team started Joy to the World in a minor key. They realised that it is hard to sing Joy to the World with all the emotions stirred after singing from God of Moon and Stars. But that, i think is how life is like – that is how Job can say “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” How do we remain joyful in the midst of struggle, how we allow ourselves to feel and not put on fake smiles and pretend to be joyful. This is what we hope to be – authentic.

Pauline said during the Christmas carnival – before joy, before peace, before hope, before love, there was being present. It stuck with me the past few days and it made me think and reflect. I don’t think it is linear. i think it is being present that joy, peace, hope and love is incarnated. Joy, peace, hope and love is not some things that exist out there. There is no joy, peace, hope or love without a context. They are concepts. They don’t exist on their own.

What if the incarnation of the Divine in Christ is precisely because God is immanent – pervading, permeating and present rather than transcendent and far away? That is, i think what we attempt to describe with the words incarnation and Emmanuel. Incarnation – in the flesh (carne). Emmanuel – God with us. Immanent.

Jesus is/was God being present with us – in the flesh – and not just in some abstract or invisible way.

We, too, are required to be present. To be present with God, to be present with each other, and to be present with ourselves.

Parker Palmer, a well known author, speaker and activist whose work on spirituality and personal growth i have benefitted a lot from wrote in his Christmas reflection this year:

“As a Quaker who believes that “there is that of God in everyone,” I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short — yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.

Christmas is a reminder that I’m invited to be born again and again in the shape of my God-given self, born in all the vulnerability of the Christmas story. It’s a story that’s hard to retrieve in a culture that commercializes this holy day nearly to death, and in churches more drawn to triumphalism and ecclesiastical bling than to the riskiness of the real thing. But the story’s simple meaning is clear to “beginner’s mind,” a mind I long to reclaim at age seventy-five.

An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as we get. What an infant needs is not theological debate but nurturing. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that cry out to become embodied in this broken world. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to find the courage to take on flesh — to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming our lives along with the life of the world — they need the shelter of unconditional love.

For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the best gift we can others — whatever their faith or philosophy may be — is a simple question asked with heartfelt intent: What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?”

Are we present – to God? How often do we spend time with God? Can we be still and know God? During communion, are you tuned in closer to the Presence of God, or are you tuned out and wishing it was over quickly? Or even worse, are you checking your Facebook on your phone during prayer, during communion, during the service? Are you here, or are you really somewhere else?

Are we present – to each other? To your family, your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues? How often do you check your phone when you are supposed to be present with people? Or are you like the modern Singapore family i saw at the restaurant – each one gazing at their own phones, whether it is checking or updating Facebook statuses, or playing candy crush, or checking in to the restaurant while waiting for the food to arrive? Are we more focused on updating everybody on how cool we are hanging out at the cool restaurant with our family instead of actually being present with our family? i am not saying that you should throw away your phones, or not use them. i am saying that your phone, your devices can be an impediment to you being fully present with those who are there with you. If the people you need to update about what is happening in your life, maybe you should be present with them.

This is the reality – we are not fully present because being fully present requires us to be vulnerable. It requires a considerable amount of energy. It requires us to put in effort. It requires us to face the uncomfortable truth. It requires us to deal with the issues with each other. That is what being present about.

I am sure some of you have experienced it. I am not fully present all the time. I try to be. But more often than not, i am not present. i may be preoccupied with something on my mind. i may be distracted. i may be trying to multitask – but multitasking doesn’t allow me to be fully present – i can only be partially present and that usually doesn’t cut it. i am sure some of you who interact with me often can sense the difference when i am fully present with you, and when i am not present with you. It affects the quality of our interactions.

So if you are with someone – be fully present with them.
And finally – Are we present – to ourselves?

Have you ever gone travelling, and you start taking photograph after photograph of the place, and yet feel as though you weren’t really there? i felt that way sometimes. i was so preoccupied with taking photographs and posting them up to show the world what a creative photographer i was that i wasn’t really there. i was not present. i learned to put everything aside, and just soak it all in. To experience in the flesh (Incarnation), to be fully present, to take it all in.

Then i picked up the camera again, this time allowing the camera not to be obstacle to me being fully present, but for me to see with the camera.

Sometimes i still lapse back to the old ways. That is when i am more focused on taking a photo to show folks, rather than being present.

Richard Amesbury wrote in his Christmas reflection on Religion Dispatches that his resolution for the coming year is to stop photobombing his occasional moments of transcendence.

There are moments that are meant to be experienced – and not captured. i think it happens a lot for me. There are many gatherings and occasions that i forgot to take a photograph. After reading Richard Amesbury’s reflection, i realised that maybe it is because i was so in those moments, so present with the people, that i lost the sense of self and i was deeply connected that i forgot about capturing the moment because i was fully present in the moment.

Amesbury was writing about the experience of religious ecstasy, and he mentioned Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s reply to the question if he (Karl) has ever experienced religious ecstasy.

“No,” Knausgaard replies, “but they say one of the main things about religious ecstasy is a feeling of selflessness—that you yourself disappear. I feel that when I read Dostoyevsky.”

Richard Amesbury writes:

“In the quasi-mystical sense in which he seems to mean it, to disappear is not to be diminished—reduced to something less—but to become transparent; to no longer be the object of one’s own attention.

Paradoxically, it is when the self is eclipsed by the world that one comes closest to something like authenticity. In such a state, other things and people swim into focus. The awkwardness vanishes; the implied scare-quotes drop from around one’s words; the voice of self-reproach is silenced. I am finally myself.

This invisibility of the self to the self—those days when the pool is so limpid that even Narcissus wouldn’t notice his own reflection — might well be what we call happiness. Is it a state that can actively be sought? I think not. Sometimes, when one is doing things that matter, it just supervenes. And even then, it is usually recognizable only in retrospect. Unlike unhappiness, which announces itself loudly on arrival, happiness slips in through an open window.”

I think it is like being in the zone. Whether you are playing sports or music, we can reach a state where everything else falls away and we are fully focused on what we are doing. Sometimes i get there when i am studying – i am so focused on what i am reading that i cannot hear what is on the radio. Some of you may feel the same way while cooking – when i cook i get into the zone – i am focused on what i am doing. There is often only one other thought that comes into my mind when i cook – the people i am cooking for. Perhaps that is how our loved ones feel when they cook for us. Perhaps that is the secret ingredient.

In my 20s, i used to pack my schedule. My weekends are packed with activities. Public holidays are occasions to do something. New Year’s Eve? i am triple booked – 3 parties to go to and i need to pick which party i will count down to the new year. i would not allow myself to have time to be alone. But i have learned through the years that i did not allow myself time to be alone because i was avoiding myself. i was escaping from myself – my issues, my insecurities, my life.

It is not until my time in seminary that i learned the value of being still, being with myself. The silence allowed me to face the person i am, and embrace the person i am. And the things i didn’t like about myself? i learned to deal with it – whether it is about changing myself, or accepting that, hey, that is who i am.

i am no longer self-conscious. The sense of self melts away and i am me. i feel connected to something larger. i – in Amesbury’s words – disappear. i am no longer the object of my own attention. i am finally, truly, me. i am finally incarnated – fully present.

I would like to invite you to go on a journey in the coming year, to be present – to God, to the people in your life, and to yourself. i would like to invite you to try to be as fully present as possible. i think that you would develop richer and deeper relationships, and you would experience spiritual growth.

So as a starter, i want you invite you to awaken what is within you. To be present in the next 5, 10 minutes. Be present with God, and with yourself. i want to invite you to do the Examen, but this time an Examen of the year, instead of the usual daily examen. i have adapted this from Mars Hill’s guided version of the Prayer of Examen.

Close your eyes.
Be aware of God’s presence.
Review the year with gratitude.

Try to look back objectively as you review. Rather than interpreting, justifying, or rationalizing, the intent is to observe and remember what happened. Allow your mind to wander the situations you’ve been in and to notice details. The questions in this exercise should help you bring specific experiences to mind.

What are the significant things that happened this year? What are the good things? What are the things you gained?

What are the bad things? What are the things you lost?
Were there things that were built up? Were there things that were broken?

Pay attention to how you are feeling.

When or where in the past year were you cooperating most fully with God’s action in your life?
When were you resisting?

What habits and life patterns do you notice from the past year?

“Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul…Teach me to do your will, for you are my
God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.” [Psalm 143v8b,10]Having spent time remembering, it seems natural to want to respond in some way. Take time to journal or pray, expressing your thoughts on the actions, attitudes, feelings, and interactions you’ve remembered as a part of this exercise. You might need to seek forgiveness, ask for direction, share a concern, express gratitude, or resolve to make changes and move forward. Allow your observations to guide your responses.

Beginning today, how do you want to live your life differently?
What patterns do you want to keep living tomorrow?

“Ever-present God, help me to meet you in the Scriptures I read and the prayers I say; in the bread I break and the meals I share; in my investments at work and my enjoyments at play; and in the neighbors and family I welcome, love, and serve, for your sake and that your love and peace may reign now and forever. Amen.”