27 February 2012

Finding Grace in the Wilderness

Mark 1: 9-15

First Sunday in Lent/ 26th February 2012

We begin with Jesus in the wilderness.   The lectionary for this First Sunday in Lent considers this the proper place to begin our journey through these forty days plus Sundays.  But why here?  Why in a wilderness? This is the only question I want explore this morning. Why a wilderness?

Mark’s Gospel is marvelously simple.  It’s the shortest.  He’s brief and to the point in the telling of a story.  And he’s fast.  The pace, the movement of the Gospel is swift.  We only heard six verses this morning, yet these verses covered Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, Jesus’ temptation over forty days, and then the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The narrative flow here also demands of our attention.  Mark crafts his Gospel, explicates his theological bent by the way he orders the events.  Again, just look at the flow of these six verses; we could characterize them this way:  Baptism—Wilderness—Purpose.  We could say:  Baptism— Temptation—Purpose.  But note that Mark doesn't seem to make much of the temptation itself.  There’s no reference here to three temptations, no exchange between Jesus and Satan.  All Mark says is that “He was…tempted by Satan.”   But twice here in just two verses, and given Mark’s economy of words, twice we find reference to the setting:  wilderness.   And then there’s a reference to “wild beasts,” the inhabitants of the wilderness.  That’s why I prefer to speak here of Baptism—Wilderness—Purpose.

            Why the wilderness?  Where is this wilderness?  It’s probably the harsh, desert region of Judea not far from the Galilee.  We don’t know for sure.  It’s definitely a place; but it’s also more than a place, it’s a word that looms large in Israel’s imagination, being a people that lived on the edge of the desert.  The wilderness is a metaphor for everything that is untamed and wild in creation.  It’s dangerous.  It’s difficult to live there, for anything to live there long.  It’s devoid of water.  It’s a place where very little grows, at least little that one can eat.  Hence it doesn’t easily sustain human life. Because it is devoid of human life it’s perceived as a place that has received God’s judgment.  The wilderness could describe what the opposite of God’s blessing looks like, feels like.  But it’s also the very place where God chooses to show up and surprise us.  Just this past week in the Thursday morning Bible study we were reading Isaiah 35, which describes the future blessing of Yahweh this way:  “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and signing.  …They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God,” in the wilderness.  “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,” Isaiah affirms, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; …” (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6c-7b).

            But why a wilderness for Jesus?  A surface reading of Mark's Gospel gives us at least two reasons:  first, because Jesus was baptized and, second, because the Spirit sent him there to be tested.  What is it about baptism that leads him to the wilderness?  What is the connection here?  What is it about being identified as a child of God that then requires such a journey?  Is this where baptism leads, into the wilderness?  And what is it about the wilderness that from this experience – and only after plumbing the depths of this experience – that Jesus is able to emerge with a clearer sense of his purpose, of his mission?  Only then can he preach with conviction that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and thus calls everyone with ears to hear to believe the good news.  The wilderness is essential.

            Why is Jesus in the wilderness?  He’s there because the Spirit sent him there.  Not as a punishment or judgment.  He’s send by the gracious Spirit of God to that place, for a time – a pivotal time – in Jesus’ life.  He doesn't resist the pull to go there or avoid it or run from it.  Led by the Spirit, he enters it; he faces it, and discovers something there that shapes the rest of his life.   He discovers there, I suspect, a wisdom that can only be known in the wilderness.  Perhaps that is why the Spirit leads him there—because there are things that can only be known there.  There are things Jesus needed to learn there.

            The wilderness can be a place “out there,” a place you go to visit or a way to describe what is all around you; an external place.  The wilderness can also be a place “in here,” within one’s heart, or mind, or soul.  Whether it’s a wilderness “out there” or “in there,” most Christian mystics are unanimous in affirming that some kind of wilderness experience is required for us to really discover the full implications of our baptismal identity as children of God.  Some kind of wilderness experience is required for us to discover the depths of God’s love for us, to discern the reach of God’s claim upon our lives, to know the purpose, the calling of our lives.  We cannot discover these things apart from such an experience.

            Sometimes we have to go, literally, to wild places, to fierce landscapes in order to discover or acknowledge what’s going on in the wild, fierce landscapes of our hearts and souls.  There’s so much in our day-to-day living that distracts us from listening to our hearts, that hinders us from attending to the needs of the soul, that prevents us from experiencing God’s love, that therefore hide from us the purpose and calling of our lives.  We will not discover these things by staying home.

            Perhaps that’s why by the third or fourth century Christians, known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, started leaving the cities and towns of the Roman Empire and went deep into the deserts of Syria and Egypt to discover God there.  This movement became the seed for the development of monasticism. The Protestant Reformation took a dim view of monasticism, we know, and broke up these reclusive communities.  But you don’t have to become a monastic to know that these wild, remote, fierce places serve a purpose. 

Because, you see, there are things that only the wilderness can teach us.  Nudos amat eremos, Jerome (c.347-420) wrote in a letter to Heliodorus.  Nudos amat ermemos.  “The desert loves to strip bear.”[1]  It strips bear the ego as we quickly learn there that we are not at the center of our universe or any universe.  The Desert Mothers and Fathers often talked about apatheia, apathy or indifference.  The wilderness or desert is completely indifferent to us.  It doesn’t really care about us.  It doesn’t care if we exist or not.  It’s silent.  And in the silence of such places we have nothing to say, nothing to prove, nothing to think, nothing to defend.[2]  We come to face ourselves.

            Presbyterian theologian Belden Lane has written extensively and beautifully on the centrality of what he calls “fierce landscapes” in the Jewish and Christian traditions.  The wilderness or the desert is a metaphor for “that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending.  Yet it does.  And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed.”[3] 

            We “cross its sands,” he writes, “unwelcomed, stripped of influence and reputation, the desert caring nothing for the worries and warped sense of self-importance dragged along behind us.  There in the desert everything is lost.  Absolutely everything.  The extent of its unrelenting indifference is devastating.  This awareness, at first, is terrifying.”  Lane has spent a lot of time actually camping, hiking, living in the desert.  His exploration of physical terrain parallels his own personal, individual deserts of human suffering and loss.  Through his time in the wilderness and the desert he discovered something, however, that only makes sense to the one who has ventured there.  He says, “… if we stay long enough, resisting the blind panic that gnaws at our minds, we discover, beyond hope and all caring, that ‘in the end we’re saved by the things that ignore us.’”[4]  What he means by this is there’s a kind of blessing that comes when we are no longer driven and caught by the wishes of our egos, egos that love to be at the center of attention.  And what that happens we discover that who we really are is deeper than our egos, deeper than the masks and personas we create—often in fear, often to hide from our woundedness or brokenness or shame.  We’re saved by the things that ignore us—and nothing ignores us like the wilderness.  The desert doesn’t care about drives of our egos.  Evagrius of Pontus (349-399) said, “Desert apatheia (indifference) has a daughter whose name is love.” Love is borne and born by indifference.  When we then discover that there is a part of us that is deeper than the ego, that deeper than the ego and the persona is a soul, a true, core self and that soul or true self is loved unconditionally, not for what you and I can achieve or do, but for who we are, you and I, as a child of God.

            The wilderness can then become the place of grace, of healing, of transformation.  This was certainly true for Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the noted Swiss psychoanalyst of the last century. Jung was one of the first innovators in the field of psychology at the beginning of the 20th century. He was born into a long line of Reformed pastors, but felt troubled by the lack of passion and conviction in his father’s faith and the general hollowness of the church.  He studied medicine at the University of Basel and then eventually specialized in psychology and worked at the Burgh√∂lzli Clinic in Zurich where he treated patients and developed some of his theories.  In time he became very good friends with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and used his psychotherapeutic theories with patients at the clinic.  Freud considered Jung to be his “disciple,” (Freud’s word) his successor in the field of psychiatry.  Jung wrote extensively on psychiatry and became a shining star in the field.  But Jung and Freud had a falling out, a major split in 1912, primarily over matters of religion.  Jung wasn’t attending church by this time, but he saw wisdom in things of the spirit.  Freud considered religious faith and obsessions as neurotic.  Freud was a materialist; Jung believed that human beings are more than just matter.  They broke their professional and personal friendship.  This was very painful for Jung, who viewed Freud as father figure.  And then Jung went into a deep, deep depression.  His life fell apart all around him.  He had everything one could ask for, everything to make his ego happy – professional success, power and influence in the world, wife and children, he married into money (a whole lot of money).  He entered into a time of deep darkness, of foreboding dreams and visions.  Then on the 12th of November 1913, at his lowest point he wrote these words in his journal:  “Meine Seele, meine Seele, wo bist Du?”  “My soul, my soul.  Where are you?”  “My soul, where are you?  Do you hear me?  I speak, I call you—are you there?  I am weary, my soul.”    Courageously, he entered into what he described as a wilderness, a desert, and allowed himself to be stripped bare.  “My soul leads me to the desert, into the desert of my own self.”  He went into the desert;  he wrote, “to find their souls, the ancients [meaning the Desert Mothers and Fathers] went into the desert.”  He writes, “I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink.”[5]  He went down into his depths, below the ego, into the core of his being, to listen to his soul, his core self.  From this period, which lasted for years, he emerged with most of his psychoanalytic theories that he then spent the rest of his life exploring, writing about, and applying.  A substantial part of what Jung is known for today came from that wilderness experience.  He discovered there something of the grace of God and wrestled with his demons and emerged with a strong sense of who he was (and who he wasn’t) and a clear sense of his calling in life.

            I share this story because it’s striking that Jesus went through a similar process.  From his time in the wilderness he emerges with his purpose intact, proclaiming and preaching the good news of God.  He knows the good news, not in the abstract, not because it was taught to him in “rabbinic school,” but—I have to believe–because of something he experienced and knew to the very core of his being.  The Kingdom of God’s love is near – very near.  There is good news for people in the wilderness, but we have to enter the wilderness to find it. 

            This is the truth that the wilderness teaches and it can only be known there.  You can’t find it in books, coming from a pulpit or sitting in the pews or from the most loving church school teacher in the world, you can’t find it in a university, it can’t be taught except by experience.  You have to experience it yourself.  The desert calls us to give up our hold on life[6] – to discover there who we are and whose we and then allow our lives to be shaped by this grace.  This can only be found in the wilderness.  And by God’s grace the Spirit intentionally sends us there.

Image:  The Great Escarpment, Namibia.
[1] Cited in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998), 23.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, The Naked Now:  Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York:  Crossroad, 2009), 54.
[3] Lane, 195.  
[4] Lane,  195.
[5] Carl Gustav Jung, The Red Book/Liber Novus, edited and introduced by Sonu Shamdasani (New York:  W. W. Norton & Co, 2009), 232-236. I had a chance to see his Black Book, opened to these words from 12th November 1913, when it was on display at the Rubin Museum in New York City several years ago.
[6] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin, “How much can you give up? the desert asks.  And how much can you love? Only in offering the severest answers to these two questions does one ever discover, at last, the solace of fierce landscapes.” Lane, 230.

19 February 2012

When Light Reveals Light

Mark 9: 2-9 & 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Transfiguration of the Lord/ 19th February 2012

Today we bring the season of Epiphany to a close.  Epiphany, from the Greek, means “manifestation” or “appearance.”  We think of it as a moment of insight, the manifestation of truth, the appearance of something divine.  We associate it with the stars – the star – the light that leads the magi to Bethlehem, the light that leads people to the appearance of God.

            On this Sunday, known as Transfiguration of Lord, we are about to transition into the season of Lent, a time in the liturgical calendar that is often dark, somber, ashen and ash-like, leading as it does to the cross.  But here, at this point of transition, in what might be called a liminal space – from the Latin limen meaning “threshold” – we stand in the threshold between Epiphany and Lent; for just one brief moment the lectionary takes us up with Jesus to a very high mountain for an encounter with the light of God.  In the Bible, mountains are often liminal spaces, thresholds, places of meeting between two worlds.  Just think of Moses on Mt. Sinai – yes, think of Moses, because he shows up in this story; the text itself is designed to echo another time when God revealed Godself to Moses, also from the clouds (see Exodus 19).

            Tradition has it that Jesus was transfigured on Mt. Tabor. That tradition is probably wrong because as the Jewish historian Josephus (37-c.100) tells us, there was a fortress built on the top of the mountain.  Mark tells us it was a high mountain apart. Tabor, actually, isn’t that high.  It’s more like a big hill in the Galilee.  Not far from there, though, was and is a high mountain, Mt. Hermon, which rises up 9000 feet above sea level. From that mountain you can see for miles.  That’s where I imagine all of this occurring, on a high, remote, wild place, somewhere between heaven and earth.

            But what took place?  We could be here all morning – or a lifetime – trying to fathom this question.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree:  Jesus was transfigured.  Because Mark is the earliest gospel, written around 70, we know that this tradition is very old, very close to Jesus.  The story is missing from John’s gospel, but it could be argued that all of John’s gospel reflects Jesus’ transfiguration, especially the prologue when John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3b-5). 

            The point, though, is to remember that all the gospel writers describe Jesus as having some type of relation to light – Jesus as light, Jesus as the conduit of light, Jesus as the source of light.  Here in Mark, Jesus was transfigured and his countenance dazzled them. Matthew is even more explicit and poetic, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” (Mt. 17:2).

            You can see why some view the story as an epiphany, a manifestation of God. Others say that what we have here is a theophany, meaning a vision of God.  Both are probably accurate.  Both epiphany and theophany are inadequate to capture the power and meaning of this event.  It’s oddness and strangeness should not be managed or domesticated.  It’s mystical and unique.  In the history of world religions there’s no parallel story found in any other faith.  The idea of dying and rising god, for example, is not unique to the Christian story.  But nothing compares to what we find here:[1] human beings witnessing the presence of God, of a human being whose appearance is transfigured revealing the essential nature of that human being as participating presently in the very being and light of God; an experience where the past (represented by Moses and Elijah), and the present (represented by Peter, James, and John, and Jesus) are both relativized, that is all related in the moment by virtue of the constant speed of light emanated from Jesus.  Light unites them.  As Albert Einstein (1879-1955) showed, light is the constant of the universe, everything exists vis-√†-vis our relation to light, especially time.  Jesus is revealed as the constant of the universe and like light is ever faithful, who as the Son is at the same time mediating the uncreated Light of God.  Here we have Jesus becoming light, of Jesus and God sharing in light, and by his light opening up a vision, illuminating the future, of Jesus’ eternal embodiment as fully divine and fully human:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!” 

            And it’s stunning, really, to think that the apostle Paul makes a similar claim; stunning given the fact that having never read any of the gospels – writing before Mark’s gospel was written – he could say, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:6).

            And there might be another very early reference to Jesus and light.  In December 1945, farmers in Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt along the Nile River, discovered a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book.  The mother of the farmers burned one of the books and parts of a second (including its cover). Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive.  The codices, the earliest dating back to the 2nd century AD, contained 52 early Gnostic texts, which were probably buried and hidden away when Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy.  The codices together are now known as the Nag Hammadi library.  This is one of the most significant manuscript finds, ever.  In addition to the Gnostic texts there are sections of Plato’s Republic, a Gospel attributed to Philip the disciple, and, most significantly, a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas written in Coptic. 

            Why is this significant?  In 1945, scholars knew that there once existed a text known as the Gospel of Thomas (the earliest reference to it is from 230 AD), but up to that time no one had ever actually read it.  The Coptic version of the gospel dates to around 320 AD.  With a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas intact scholars were then able to compare the text with papyri fragments of unknown authorship and origin that were discovered in the late nineteenth century in the sands (in a garbage dump) of Oxyrhynchus, also in Egypt. Scholars, who have a lot of time on their hands to study texts, were then able to compare the Gospel of Thomas with these earlier unidentified fragments and discovered that they were from Thomas’ Gospel and date from between 130 and 250 AD. Scholars believe Thomas was originally written as early as 60 (or as late as 125 AD). 

            The Gospel of Thomas is unlike the four Gospels of the New Testament in that it consists entirely of sayings (logia) of Jesus, with no narrative structure.  The Gospel of Thomas, however, is very – amazingly – similar to what we have in the New Testament in that some of the sayings ascribed to Jesus are exactly the same, or close to it.  There are other sayings that reflect an image of the Cosmic Christ that we find in John 1 and in Colossians.

            Listen to a few of these sayings, could the Transfiguration have inspired them?  Logion (saying) 77: I am the light shining upon all things.  I am the sum of everything. For everything has come forth from me, and towards me everything unfolds. Split a piece of wood, and there I am. Pick up a stone and you will find me there. 

            Or what about this one, from Logion 24?  “His student said to him, ‘Take us to the place where you are, since we are required to seek after it.’ He answered them, ‘Whoever has an ear for this should listen carefully!  Light shines out from the center of a being of light and illuminates the whole cosmos.  Who ever fails to become light is a source of darkness.’” 

            Or this one, Logion 83:  “Jesus says, Images are revealed to humanity while the light within them is hidden by the brilliance of the Father’s light.  It is God who is being revealed, but the image of God remains concealed by the blaze of light.”[2] 

            Echoes of the transfiguration?

            In the long history of the Church, the Eastern Church (Byzantine, Orthodox traditions) has always had a strong fascination with the meaning and wisdom of the Transfiguration. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants have largely ignored it in the Western Church.  The Eastern Church has also been more mystical in its view of the Christian life, while the Western Church has emphasized morality (right belief, right behavior, etc.).  The East emphasized the mystical. 

            For example, there’s an ancient text coming from the Armenian Church (first translated into English in 1924), known as The Revelation of the Lord to St. Peter, which describes the Christian life as participating in “the luminous mystery of the children of light…and with the same light they were illumined and illumined until the second epiphany of that light.”[3]  Light illuminating light.  As the psalmist said, “For with you,” O God, “is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9).  The Eastern tradition affirmed that Jesus was transfigured so that when we stand or kneel in his presence we too might be transfigured by his light, that we might be transformed.  His light yields light and thus illumines our lives.

            God is light, “the supreme Light, the Source of all light, …the Creator of the universe, the stars and galaxies, and all physical light, as well as the light of human understanding.”  In a few weeks Iain Torrance, the president of Princeton Seminary will be with us.  His father, Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century.  T. F. Torrance wrote extensively on the theology of light.  Relying heavily upon his study of the physics of light he saw an analogy between God as uncreated Light and the light that infuses this universe.  He said, with God, “we have to do with the ultimate invisible reality, the uncreated Light, in accordance with which the world was framed by the Word of God.”  But, he says, “as a matter of fact, we do not see any kind of light, but see only what is lit up by light, and thus ‘see light,’ as it were, only in the light of light.  Light moves so fast that our eyes cannot keep pace with it.”  We don’t see light – unless it’s refracted and we see the color spectrum in a ray of light – but even that is not light, only what light allows us to see.[4]

            In Jesus Christ, Torrance claims, “God’s uncreated light has come into the world, where it has been translated” – can we way transfigured, transformed? – “into the form of a human life.  He is not just a spot of light in humanity lit up by the uncreated Light of God, someone who merely bears witness to the Light, but is the incarnation of the uncreated Light of God, what the Gospel calls ‘the real Light’ in contrast to all others.  When we meet him and look into his face, we see the eternal Light of God himself.  The Lord Jesus is the Light of the World, for he is the life-giving light.”[5] “In him was life and the life is the light of all people.”

            Light revealing light.  That’s who Jesus is.  That’s what Jesus does.  That’s what our lives can experience in the light of his presence when we too are transfigured.

            C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) tells the story of a time when he was in a dark toolshed.  “The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam.  From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dusts floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black.  I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it” or with it.

            “Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes,” that is looking into the beam of light.  “Instantly the whole previous picture vanished.  I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.  Instead I saw, framed in the irregular canny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.  Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experience.”[6]

            His experience shows us that there are two different ways of knowing.  One is through observation from the outside – looking at the beam of light; the other is participation from the inside the beam of light, with the light.  Observation from the outside would be look at Jesus from a distance – studying the scriptures to learn about him in an objective, scientific approach.  This is needed, to be sure.  But this way alone is insufficient.  It doesn’t show us everything.  The second way of knowing is by participating in the light, with the light, from inside the light. 

            The shift from observing Jesus from the outside, looking at him from a distance to seeing from within the light, from inside who he is, participating in the light, changes everything that we see.  The shift from looking at Jesus to looking with Jesus will change how we see everything.  To move from the outside to the inside is to be transfigured.  To make this move in our own lives, from looking at to looking with Jesus, in our journey is what it means to be transfigured.  It’s when light reveals light and everything around us changes.

Image:  Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-c.1410), Transfiguration (1408).

[1]Andreas Andreopoulos, Metamorphosis:  The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 35ff.
[2] All of the Gospel of Thomas quotations come from Lynn Bauman’s translation, The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin  - A Dynamic Translation with Commentary and Notes (Ashland, OR:  White Cloud Press, 2004).
[3] Cited in Arthur Michael Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009).
[4] Thomas F. Torrance, “’A Theology of Light’:  A University Sermon,” in The Christian Frame of Mind: Reason, Order, and Openness in Theology and Natural Science, Introduction by W. Jim Neidhardt (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 154-155.
[5] Torrance, 154-155.  On the use of Torrance’s theology of light as way to approach the meaning of transfiguration, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 194-198.
[6] C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” originally published in The Coventry Evening Telegraph (July 17, 1945), reprinted in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1970, 212-215).

05 February 2012

Strength in Weary Times

Isaiah 40: 21-31 & Mark 1: 29-39

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany/ 5th February 2012

 We all go through difficult seasons in our lives, times when we feel weighed down, weary, and scared.   For some, it's a relatively short season. For others, it's long and feels endless. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, we know these are demanding times.  As a congregation we have experienced considerable loss this past year, we said good-bye to dear saints and friends.  Every week we offer intercessory prayer for members and family and friends of this congregation who need peace, support, healing, some evidence of God’s love. Step out beyond the congregation, to family and friends, a wider community, a wider world, and listen – to the voices of people who can’t find work, who can’t provide food for their children, who cannot afford medical care and treatment. Listen to the voices of people who question their value or worth, of people whose innocence has been betrayed, of people who have lost the ability to believe and trust – anyone, themselves, others, God; and the voices that are more difficult to hear, the voices of people who suffer silently, whose sorrow and sadness overwhelm them and wear them down. 

            These are demanding times.  I hear this a lot. So many are weary.  Weary of wars and rumors of more war. Weary of party politics and warring sound bites and monotonous monologues of hollow promises. Weary that the Ravens are not in the Super Bowl today. Weary of email and text messages and more email and weary of  hearing about Snooki’s latest escapades on “Jersey Shore.”

            Add to all of this, in all seriousness, that fact that we are living through one of the most significant moments in 500 years, since the Reformation.  We are beginning to see it as an axial period, a turning period of enormous, turbulent change – socially, culturally, morally, politically.[1] Everything is in flux, including faith, Christianity, and the especially the Church.  Phylis Trickle describes the present upheaval facing Christianity and the Church as “The Great Emergence.”[2]  Something new is emerging.  We have to realize this, acknowledge this, wake up to the fact that we are in a new day and it’s a day, it won’t last long before the next change comes along.

            Just after the First World War, in 1919, William Butler Yeats  (1869-1939), penned these verses to capture something of what he felt, weary of war and destruction and loss in a world that had come completely unhinged, whirling around like a gyroscope forming an empty vortex:

                                    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
                                    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
                                    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
                                    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
                                    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
                                    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
                                    The best lack all conviction, while the worse
                                    Are full of passionate intensity.[3]

            The biblical word for this feeling of disorientation, this season of loss and confusion and sadness, a time when even God appears silent or absent, is exile: to be away from home, to be banished to a foreign land or territory.  We think of the Israelites in Egypt, that was exile. We think of the Israelites in Babylon, in exile, away from home in Jerusalem and Judah. However, exile can also serve as a metaphor for any feeling or situation in which we feel lost and confused, far from what feels like home, far from the way things used to be, when we are forced to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown.  It can also be used to describe those moments in our lives when we are far away from God as home, when we question and doubt, when we enter into the dark night of the soul, feeling utterly alone in what seems like an impersonal universe that is cold, dark, and expanding.

            Into the silence, into the darkness, comes a word.  Into the absence, confusion and weariness comes another voice, soft, yet strong and profound.  Not my words, which are fleeting, offered and then blown to the wind, in time forgotten, unknown, but a different word.  Can you hear it?  Can you feel it resonate through our flesh and bones?  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?” Isaiah asked.  That’s what Isaiah asked Israel to consider.  And where does he pose these questions?  In their exile, in Babylon, to a people weary and lost in exile, far from home.  His prophetic words here have a way of calling them home – not back to Judah (that will come in time) – but first to a more permanent home, calling them back to the truth, that right there at that moment even though they might be far from Jerusalem they are already home, home in the everlasting arms of a God who promised never to leave them or forsake them. 

            This is why Isaiah is so perplexed and asks, how can you say God doesn’t exist?  How can you say God doesn’t care?  How can you say God overlooks you, doesn’t see you?  How can you say God has forgotten you?  “Have you not known?” Isaiah asks.  “Have you not heard?”  And his question is rhetorical.  Have you not known?  – of course you do.  I know you know.  Have you not heard? – of course you have.  I know you have.  I know you know the truth.  Many of you do.  Okay – maybe you don’t know, maybe you haven’t heard, maybe your life-experience in exile has never exposed you to the faithfulness of God, maybe your life-experience has never allowed to you feel and trust and know the amazing grace of God, maybe you think God doesn’t know your name.

            So, let me proclaim this word yet again.  Know this.  Hear this.  Feel this.  Allow these words to wash over you:  “Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  Yahweh does not faint or grow weary; Yahweh’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

            How?  How does this happen?  When?  “Wait,” says the text.  But this is more than empty waiting.  It’s not like Samuel Beckett’s (1906-1989) absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon wait on a street corner for someone named Godot, whom they really don’t know, who never shows up. Estragon gives into the absence and eventually says, “Nothing to be done.” 

            That’s not the kind of waiting Isaiah is talking about here.  It’s not an open-ended waiting; it’s not wait and see.  It’s far more hopeful than that.  It’s really closer to wait, as in wait in, here, stop, trust, rest in, rest into – maybe even fall into, lean into the arms of God.  It means letting go and then leaning, falling into a presence, a force, a strength, a power that’s underneath, deeper than our resources, deeper than our strength or will or wisdom or reason.

            Wait.  Trust.  Rest.  Lean.  Fall.  That’s the way out of exile.  The way home calls us to wait, trust, rest, lean, fall into the deep, abiding, faithful presence of God, trust and rest in God’s goodness and compassion and love.  This way of being, of waiting is true all the time, but especially true in times of exile, in seasons of weariness, when we feel exhausted and faint, and are at the breaking point.  Notice that we’re not told here to “toughen up,” we’re not told to “pull yourself together,” we’re not given the ridiculous dictum “God helps those who helps themselves,” we’re not told to find strength within our own resources or to “pull yourself up by our own bootstraps.”  No – instead “wait” is God’s word to us given in the midst of weary times, when we are forced to realize and acknowledge our personal insufficiency, our inadequacies, our weaknesses, when we confess that we are not strong enough.  We are called to yield to Someone greater.

            When I was a boy, I had a large poster on the wall of my bedroom.  I “won” it in church school.  It was an award for perfect attendance.  It was a sketch of a large, strong, confident lion, sitting with two young cubs resting in his arms. Off to the side of the lion were words from Isaiah 30:15, “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”  I drew a lot of comfort and assurance from that verse, especially during a period of considerable loss and pain in my life.  I remember looking at it as if it was a word spoken directly and only for me.  We find this same theme at work throughout Isaiah – yielding, trusting, confiding, returning. It’s how Isaiah understands “being saved,” found less in what one believes than in resting into the safe arms of God.  The memory of the poster returned to me this week.  Since then, there have been plenty of times when I applied that verse, the majority of the time forgetting it.  But it seems to me now, perhaps more than before, all the more profound for the wisdom and truth contained here. 

            It’s also there in the way we see Jesus moving through the world.  Yes, full, busy days of healing, preaching, serving.  But look how he gets up early in the morning to go to a secluded place to pray.  This doesn’t mean we all have to get up early to pray, which wouldn’t be good news if you’re not a morning person.  This is good news, however:  Jesus prayed.  Now it’s probably not wise to guess what Jesus’ prayer life was like.  I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m pretty confident that his prayer wasn’t a sanctified “wish-list,” full of petitions of what he wanted God to do for him.  What do you imagine it was like?  I imagine that it was probably full of silence, of deep listening, of dwelling, of resting, of falling into the depths of his being, down to the sure and solid rock-like strength of God animating his life.

            When we wait for the LORD, wait in the LORD, trust, rest, fall into the LORD, we will discover – I promise – that that’s the source of our strength, that’s the source of our life, and when we are trusting and resting and dwelling in God’s presence, especially in deep prayer, we will discover that something – Someone – is there lifting us up, like the wind that carries the wings of an eagle, or the energy, stamina, and drive of a long-distance runner, or the steady confidence of someone who walks sure-footed on the road that leads to home.

[1] The term axial age or period (Ger. Achsenzeit, "axis time") was first used by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) in Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), to characterize the period from 800 to 200 BC in India, China, and the Occident.  Today, it is generally used to describe a pivotal, revolutionary moment in human history.
[2] See her book with the same title, The Great Emergence:  How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008).
[3] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920).