25 June 2012

Finding Peace in the Storm

Mark 4: 35-5:1

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/ 24th June 2012

How many times have we heard this story?  How many sermons have we heard preached on it?  How many children first learned this story in church school?  How many of us heard it as children, leaving impressions that still shape our hearing of it?  We all have our own images in mind whenever we hear the story: what the boat looked like, its size, the number of sails it had, images of the Sea of Galilee, the waves, the terror and fear.   It’s a story of high drama and suspense and considerable meaning.

What does the story really mean?  There are many ways to approach this text.  We could say it’s about having more faith.  Or it’s about Jesus’ authority over nature.  Like the exorcism and healing stories, it demonstrates that Jesus has power over forces in creation that are bent on chaos and destruction.  It’s a miracle story.  Sermons could be constructed around any of these themes.

            I want to take a different approach informed by the scholarship of Ched Myers, who wrote one of the best commentaries on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.[1] I want to ask a different set of questions: Why exactly does Jesus invite them on the journey in the first place, “to go across to the other side” (4:35)?  Where is “the other side”?  What’s there? And why is Jesus asleep on a cushion in the storm, as Mark tells us?  What does Jesus know that the others don’t?

            In Mark’s gospel there are six boat journeys across the Sea of Galilee. First off, we need to know that the Sea of Galilee is not really a sea.  It’s an enormous lake that you can see across when it’s not too humid; thirteen miles long, eight miles across at its widest, thirty-three miles in circumference.  And it’s beautiful. 

            I pray that I never forget the sight and the feeling I had when I first set eyes on that body of water, when I looked out and saw the contour of the hills all around it, knowing that this was the place where Jesus did his ministry, this is where he fished, that when he sailed across its waters he looked at the same topography. I was surprised how overcome with emotion I felt at that moment. 

            We also need to know that the boats Jesus sailed on, the fishing boats, were very small, with one sail.  Archeologists unearthed a fishing vessel that dates from the first century, measuring about twenty-seven feet long and about eight feet wide.[2]  Not very big.  And even today the Sea of Galilee is known for having intense storms and wind squalls that appear as if from nowhere. The winds blow east from the Mediterranean, through the valleys, and hit the Sea of Galilee.  I saw these storms moving across the lake several times.   And when you remember how small the boats were, you, too, would be terrified out there over the deep.

            Now, two of the six journeys recounted in Mark, this one and another one found in chapter 6, are narrated at length and both describe difficult crossings.  So we know they are important for Mark.  If you put the texts side-by-side you will see that the structure, the plotline of the stories are almost exactly the same.[3]  And both stories are built around Jesus’ wish “to go across to the other side.”  Here in chapter 4, we find that after Jesus rebukes winds and reduces the waves to a “dead calm,” after his rebuke of the disciples, they are filled with awe.  Filled with awe, the text says, “they came to the other side” (5:1).

            It’s easy to overlook Jesus’ initial words here in the story, in verse 35. We’re so focused on the storm and Jesus’ miracle.  What we need to know, however, is that Mark, like the other gospel writers, is very intentional about the structure of the story and that he is immersed in a world of symbol and meaning.  This means that there’s always a surface reading of the text and then there’s usually a deeper, symbolic meaning in the text.  Mark’s gospel is rich this way.  And nothing, no word or expression, is extraneous in the gospels.  We have to pay attention to everything otherwise we will miss the meaning.  Even geography is important.

            “On that day,” Mark tells us.  What day?  What happened on that day?  The day dawned at the beginning of chapter 4, “he began to teach beside the sea.  Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land” (4:1). And using the water as an amplification system, “He began to teach them many things in parables.” What follows is the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and others.  When evening approaches, Jesus says to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And so obeying Jesus, they gathered their things and set sail.

            So what’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee?  Gentiles. Gentiles  How do we know this?  The text doesn’t explicitly say so, but we know.  But we learn in chapter 5 that when they arrive “on the other side,” they arrive in the country of the Gerasenes.  This is the place where Jesus heals the demoniac along the lakeshore, whose legion of demons he sends into the pigs and then the pigs jump off a cliff.  Pigs.  From the disciples’ perspective this is unclean territory.  Gentile territory.  That’s where Jesus wants to take them. And on the way, they face a storm.  But that’s where Jesus wants to take them.

            We have a stormy boat journey across the lake – one level of meaning.  And we have a stormy boat journey across the lake from the land of the Jews to the land of the Gentiles – second level of meaning.  And on the way across from Jew to Gentile lands they encounter a storm.  Now try to put yourself for a moment in the sandals of the disciples on that boat:  all Jews, ordinary men, fishermen, day laborers, uneducated, living in clearly defined societal roles, with certain outlooks, opinions, prejudices and perspectives, which include fear, if not downright loathing of the unclean, barbaric, godless Gentiles who live on the other side.  That’s you as a Jew.  You’re religious; yes, you want to follow God, you’re searching for a holier way to live, looking for justice, waiting for a Messiah to save you from the ruthless Romans occupying your homeland; life could be better, but you know you’re not like “them” across the sea, one of those people, the unchosen people, a people without a promised land, without a covenant with God, without hope.  The Gentile represents all the things you’re not; they’re all the things you fear and dislike, the Gentiles are foreign, alien.  They are “the other side,” the “other side” of humanity. And that’s precisely where Jesus wants to take them.

            These movements across the sea to Gentile territory are “symbolic transitions” in Mark’s gospel.[4]  They represent a journey from the known to the unknown, the foreign, the alien.  They represent exactly the same kind of movement that the early Christians had to take and were wrestling with during Mark’s ministry: the integration of Gentiles into a Jewish world, the integration of Gentiles into the community of the crucified and risen Jew, who comes to save the world.  This journey from known to unknown is intense, chaotic, violent, and stormy. 

            Ched Myers notes that both times Jesus calms the winds in Mark’s gospel the disciples are crossing from the Jewish side to the Gentile side, the storms don’t occur while crossing from the Gentile side back to the Jewish side. [5] It’s as if the winds, stirring up the waves, are symbolic expressions of all the cultural and political forces unleashed in their world, trying to block, dissuade, prevent the crossing, oppose this journey, Jesus’ journey of social integration, the integration of Jew and Gentile, the healing of this social division that defined the Jewish world (not the Gentile world).  It’s as if all the cosmic forces are conspiring and fighting against the crossing Jesus has in mind.  And all the while, Jesus sleeps, on a cushion – and the disciples are freaking out!

            Why are the disciples so afraid?  Jesus says they should have more faith. That seems a little unfair.  It’s not what we want to hear in such moments.  Why were they so afraid in the storm and Jesus so content?  I don’t think it’s because the disciples are mortals and Jesus is the Son of God.  Maybe the storm was ferocious. Maybe it was scary.  Maybe Jesus was so tired after a day of teaching and dealing with the crowds that he just wanted to be left alone, so tired he could sleep even through the storm.  Maybe the disciples are not tired enough, for what have they been doing all day?  Or, maybe, when Jesus invited them to go across to the other side, they didn’t understand where he was taking them and why.[6]  Maybe they were unaware of the purpose.  Sometimes we are able and maybe willing to weather a storm when we have a clear sense of the destination.  If we don’t know where we’re going, it’s easy to be distracted by things (like the weather).  Maybe the disciples felt abandoned, left to fend for themselves.  Maybe that’s why they were fearful.  They couldn’t trust in Jesus and so they took matters into their own hands.  Or, maybe, just maybe, the storm that was going on “out there” mirrored the storm in their souls when they realized they were heading for Gentile territory and they became fearful about going there.

            Maybe this is Mark’s message: Jesus is always trying to take us to the other side.  And on the way there don’t be surprised if it gets stormy.  On this journey don’t be surprised if the winds pick up and toss the boat around.  Expect it, actually.  Don’t be surprised if the cultural and social and even political forces that surround you want to block, dissuade, prevent, and oppose the Jesus journey in your life.  As Jesus knew – and as we need to remember – people are not going to open wide their arms to welcome the kingdom of God in your midst, the resistance in our souls and in our world against God’s desire and will is intense and real. While, as Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) said, the “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” – and by justice he means it bends toward healing, toward shalom, toward peace, toward wholeness, toward inclusion, toward reconciliation – the universe might bend in that direction (and I believe that it does because I trust the gospel) – there are considerable forces at work in our hearts and in the world (and sometimes even in the Church) that are hell-bent on trying to bend it the other way. 

            When the winds blow and the waves push us back and prevent us from getting where Jesus wants to take us and we become afraid, maybe we can take Jesus at his word and say, with his authority (which he gives to us):  “Peace. Be still.”  Even if we can’t change what’s stirring all around us we can find peace in the storm, like Jesus, and be still, knowing that while the furies rage all around us, we are still safe, safe because there is a still point at the heart of all things, which is maybe why Jesus can sleep.  It is as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) described it:

                        At the still point of the turning world.,…
                        at the still point, there the dance is,…
                        Except for the point, the still point,
                        There would be no dance, and there is only the dance,….[7]

The journey to the other side is the dance, it’s the moral arc of the universe, it’s the good news of the kingdom, that’s where we’re heading and Jesus will take us where we need to go to get there.

            This is what I’m hoping the General Assembly will remember as it gathers this coming week in Pittsburgh, PA.  The images in this text have been stirring around my head as I read about what’s facing the Assembly, what David Hutton will face as one of our elected commissioners from Baltimore Presbytery. What’s on the agenda?  Living into the new ordination standards regarding gay and lesbian Christians called to ministry, which went into effect last July; should we divest from investment in Israel or is there another way to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians; should we have non-geographical presbyteries – this sounds innocuous, but it isn’t, it’s politically charged.  The committee that will deal with this question is the one that David Hutton has been appointed to. And, finally, what will the Presbyterian Church say about same-gender marriage and will the General Assembly grant the freedom for ministers to officiate in states where it is currently legal.  Without being overly dramatic, it does feel like a storm is brewing.  I heard one person say this week that this is the most important Assembly since the American Civil War – when the Presbyterian Church split over the question of slavery.  Churches have left and are leaving because of the ordination decision last year.  Will more follow? Probably.

            I trust that Jesus wants to take the Church and even the General Assembly where it needs to go.  The winds obstructing that journey will be fierce, the waves intense, and people will be tempted to react in fear.  But in faith, let us trust that Jesus has a plan; Jesus wants to take us to the other side – wherever that may be.  So expect a storm, but in the midst of it, may we know peace and be still; at the still point, may we find peace.  

Image:  Wendy Smith, “Peace Within the Storm,” fineartamerica.com.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1994), 194-197.
[2] This find is known as the “Jesus Boat,” although there is no direct connection between it and Jesus.  http://www.jesusboatmuseum.com/
[3] Myers, 195.
[4] Myers, 197.
[5] Myers, 197.
[6] Myers, 196.
[7] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (1944).

18 June 2012

When Wisdom Speaks

Proverbs 8 (particularly verses 22-36)

Third Sunday after Pentecost/ 17th June 2012

We’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting upon creation around the church.  On the Sunday morning several weeks ago, before we made all the images on the worship panels, which we dedicated this morning in worship, we started off with a reading of the first creation account in Genesis.  On Wednesday evening this past week we had our inter-generational, mini-Vacation Bible School.   It was a huge success and a lot of fun. The theme, again, was God’s creation. We read the first creation account again – some acted it out, others sang it, and Bob Cooper turned part of it into a rap!  We celebrated God’s good creation.

When we broke up into groups on Wednesday many of the adults gathered with me in the France Room to talk further about creation and creativity.  But we didn’t read from Genesis 1, or from Genesis 2. 

            We’re all familiar with the creation accounts in Genesis, but we’re probably less familiar with the one found in Proverbs 8 – yes, Proverbs.  In Proverbs 8 we discover that God had a helper in the act of creation – and her name was Sophia, Wisdom.  We read:  “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago” (Prov. 8:22).  So according to this tradition, Yahweh’s first act of creation was not breathing over the void of the chaos, but creating Wisdom.  Wisdom was there before there was an “in the beginning” of the heavens and earth.   Wisdom speaking here tells us, “Ages ago I was set up at the first, before the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (Prov. 8: 23-24). Before there was anything, Wisdom was there. 

            So what do we make of a text such as this?  It sounds so foreign, so strange.   This isn’t the text Creationists turn to when arguing how God created everything.  I’ve never heard a Creationist quote Proverbs 8.  It’s often ignored by a lot of people, including many Christians. References to wisdom, celebrating wisdom sounds so Eastern, so Buddhist, not Western, not Christian, making it sound alien and odd.  While it might appear alien or odd to Western Christians, it was not and is not for Eastern Christians, to Orthodox Christians.  We’re so used to thinking of the Church moving west from Jerusalem to Europe and then to North America.  But there’s a tradition within Christianity that remained in the Middle East and then moved east toward Iraq, Iran, and India.  One of the holiest sites in the Eastern Church was in Constantinople (Istanbul); it was the East’s version of St. Peter’s in the Vatican.  The church, one of the great architectural wonders of the world, is today known as Hagia Sophia, meaning the Church of Holy Wisdom.   In the West, the Christian faith came to be associated with beliefs and creeds; in the East, however, as Cynthia Bourgeault has suggested, “Christianity was supremely a wisdom path.”[1]  And one of the reasons why wisdom was so central in the Eastern Church was because of its central place within Judaism.

            So what are we really talking about here?  What is this wisdom?  There are some things we need to remember about Proverbs.  Although most of it, especially chapters 1-9, is attributed to Solomon – the fellow with legendary wisdom (1 Kings 4: 29-34) – it’s difficult to date.  It was probably edited after the Babylonian exile. There are strong Egyptian influences in the text, as well as Hellenist or Greek influences.  It has parallels with wisdom literature that emerged throughout Mesopotamia at the time.  Actually, in the Old Testament, there are five books that are often referred to as wisdom literature:  Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

            Sophia or Wisdom is an essential element in Greek philosophy, but what we find here in the Bible is different.  It’s as if ancient Israel wanted to differentiate itself from the Greek world.  To the Hebrew mind, wisdom entails more than knowing right from wrong. Wisdom is more than knowing whether one should act or not.  Wisdom is more than that kind of knowledge.  That’s why, as we shall see, here in Proverbs and elsewhere, wisdom is personified.[2]  In Hebrew, the word for spirit, ruach, is very close to the Hebrew word for wisdom, hokmā.  They’re so close that they’re interchangeable.  And in Hebrew they’re both feminine.  This is most evident in the Wisdom of Solomon, a wisdom text from the Apocrypha, a collection books not included in the Protestant Bible.  Written under the influence of Greek thought and close to the time of Jesus, we find these words:  “Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given to me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me” (Wisdom, 7:1).  Did you hear this, the spirit of wisdom

            Now, you might be saying what does all of this really have to do with Jesus?  A lot.  Because there is a direct correlation between the Jewish understanding of wisdom, the wisdom teaching of Jesus Christ, and the unfolding, ongoing creative work of wisdom in creation through the Holy Spirit. 

            Listen to this longer description of Wisdom from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Just about everything you’re going to hear here could easily refer to the work of the Holy Spirit:  “I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.  There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure and altogether subtle.  For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.  For she is a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things and makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom” (Wisdom 7: 21-27).

            Can you hear the relational language in this text?  Wisdom is not something one has, like a skill or a gift; it’s not a tool to help one behave in a certain way.  Wisdom is personified.  As shocking as this might sound (for some), this is an expression of the Divine Feminine, right here buried in the Old Testament.  The fact that this aspect or image of God has been overlooked, ignored, rejected, and denounced throughout the history of the Church is thanks, in part, to the power of patriarchy, which is still just as evident in our day.  The current fight in the public square over women’s reproductive rights, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to reign in the women religious, the nuns, are two contemporary expressions of the fear of the feminine in both society and the Church (but that’s a whole other sermon or two!).

            Wisdom is considered Divine, the playmate, the helpmate of God.  And we are called to love her as much as God loves her.  The more we love her the more we discover her love for us.  Listen again to what we hear in Proverbs 8:  “I [Wisdom] was God’s daily delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov. 8: 30b-31).  As odd as this sounds to us, Wisdom or the Spirit is a kind of a feminine “counterpart in God himself, and is at the same time the divine presence in creation and history.”[3]
            We are invited to have a relationship with her.  We are called to seek after her, to court her.  As one theologian has said, “To court her is to touch a quality of Yahweh the creator, and to enter into a relationship with her is to receive every divine blessing.”[4]   For the Hebrew people, this was and is wisdom –yes, it includes “enjoyment of health, good name, family happiness,” but also something far more profound than all of these:  “life with” Yahweh through Wisdom.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the early followers heard Jesus’ own message as calling for the same things and providing the way toward God.  It’s not surprising that Jesus was understood as a teacher of wisdom – not in the Greek way, but the Hebrew way, teaching us the way that leads to life with God.  Living with God, making with God, playing with God.  That’s wisdom.

            How do we court wisdom?  We find a related question in Job when he asks,  “Where does wisdom come from” (Job 28:20)?  Both Psalms and Proverbs tell us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”  (Psalm 111:10 & Prov. 9:10).  Why are fear (or awe) and wisdom related?  Because in the Jewish mind wisdom is sometimes called fear or awe. [5] Why? “Because [wisdom] has no measure of boundary and therefore the mind doesn’t not have the power to grasp it.”[6]  And this is fearful to the ego because the ego loves to grasp after things, to control and define things.  But wisdom is beyond its grasp and that’s why wisdom can be experienced as fear.   The Wisdom of God is beyond our understanding, it’s inaccessible, and yet we are called into relationship with her, primarily out of love.  As we read in Job, “Truly, the fear (awe) of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28).  Embedded in the Hebrew here is the sense that we come before Wisdom with a kind of nothingness, that is, we step back and create a space, we set ourselves aside, we get out of the way and open ourselves up to God, we attempt to divest ourselves of all of our concerns and presuppositions and viewpoints and confront Someone who cannot be completely known or understood.[7]

            We need to acknowledge that we still have something to learn and to discover.
So how do we deepen this relationship?  How do we court Wisdom?  How do we become open to what Wisdom wants to teach us?  We stand, or better, kneel in awe. Perhaps then we will become more teachable. For we see in a mirror dimly and our knowledge is imperfect (1 Corinthians 13).  Then we might have the humility to say in our conversations and in our thinking, words like, “I do not know…” or “It seems to me, that…” or  “I could be wrong, but…,” before we complete a sentence or thought.  Christians mystics call this having “a beginner’s mind.”[8]  It means to be open. 

            Watching Wisdom’s relationship to God we learn something important to take away this morning.   When we, like Wisdom, are in that kind of relationship with God, new worlds come into being, new possibilities unfold before our eyes, we come to life and we grant life to the world. When we, like Wisdom, are in this kind of relationship with God – a playful, close relationship, “friends with God,” – there’s no telling what will emerge, and grow, and develop in us and in the world.  Every relationship with God is generative – for it’s the genesis, the beginning of all things.  It cannot be otherwise because God is the one who creates and makes, and the Spirit, the ruach, the breath, the hokmā, the wisdom of God is still creating and recreating us, still making us and forming and reforming us. Thanks be to God!

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston:  Shambhala, 2008), 21.
[2] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen on Proverbs in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1997), 8-14.
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life:  A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1993), 47.
[4] Moltmann, 47.
[5] This is particularly true in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.
[6] Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah (Weiser Book, 1989), 136.
[7] Van Leeuwen, 10.
[8] Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement:  A Jewish Theology (Chicago:  University Press of Chicago, 2008), 154-155. I’m grateful for this brilliant reflection on Job 28:20, 28.

12 June 2012

Soul Food

Psalm 111 & John 4: 31-42

Second Sunday After Pentecost/ June 10, 2012

On Wednesday evening the Session took some time to reflect upon John 4, particularly verse 34.  It’s the same verse I want to focus on this morning. Therefore, let’s set it up and put it in context.

John 4 contains the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well near the city of Sychar in Samaria.  He is passing through the region on his way from Judea back to the Galilee in the north. Now, remember the Jews and the Samaritans don’t get along.  The Jews considered them unclean, untouchable.  As John says, parenthetically, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  So the fact that Jesus would ask a Samaritan woman to give him something to drink, to touch the cup he would use to drink with, is, in itself something quite remarkable.  But that’s not my focus.  What we need to know here is that Jesus is alone with the woman at the well.  Why?  Because, John tells us, parenthetically, “His disciples had gone to the city to buy food” (John 4:8).  This is what we need to know for our purposes, for when we get to verse 31 we have the disciples returning and saying to him, “Rabbi [– teacher –] eat something.” 

            And what does he say in reply?  “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” This is a puzzling response, rather vague.  The disciples haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. They murmur saying, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  Sometimes we miss the humor and the sarcasm contained in the gospels because we think we have to be so serious around them.  This is funny – the disciples talk amongst themselves.  Food?  What food?  Who brought him food?  We just went shopping for you and now you’re not hungry?

            Then we have verse 34:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”  It’s obvious here that Jesus and the disciples are talking past each other.  They’re both talking about food, but they’re not talking about the same kind of food.  The disciples are operating with a surface-level understanding of food and hunger.  Jesus meets them there and then takes them deeper, into a deeper meaning of things – because that’s where Jesus lives, that’s where his mind and heart are, and that’s where the depth of his being, his soul really is.  To be a follower of Jesus means going into the depths, leaving the surface meaning behind, and embracing a far more profound understanding of life and reality. A life in the depths, as opposed to the surface, a life of profound meaning and purpose, is what I mean by soul.  I don’t mean what’s left after the body dies and decays. I don’t mean what goes to heaven.  By soul I mean the core of who we are, what’s deep in our guts, which our bodies also know to be so.  Soul is that which ultimately matters, which gives our lives purpose and vision and meaning.  All of this seems to be implied when Jesus says he has other food.

            Last week, I heard the psychiatrist Tom Kirsch reflect upon his career and the direction of psychology today.  Based upon the people he works with in his practice in California, he said that despite all of the great technical and scientific advances of our age (and they truly are remarkable, unimagined even five to ten years ago), people are still hungry for what he called “soul food.”[1]  This is a hunger that all of our technical and scientific advances cannot satisfy for us.  If it were the case, there wouldn’t be so many people struggling for deeper meaning and purpose, especially in North America and Europe.  Humanity is adrift and we know it.

            That’s how I felt this past week watching the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. I followed the transit on the video-stream on the NASA website.  I’m grateful for the amazing images that Jeff Bolognese shared this week from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory.[2]  Stunning.  Amazing.  Incredible.  As I watched Venus move in front of the sun I was struck by the massive size of the sun and the smallness of the planet Venus.  I was struck by the enormity of our solar system and the smallness of my single, solitary existence on this planet, which is close to the size of Venus.  Think of your existence within the vast, reaches of the universe, the approximately 14 billion light years from our sun.  That is humbling.

            All this technology, but where is soul?  Who are we?  What does it mean to be human in such an amazing universe? Why are we here?

            One of the great minds of the 17th century, the philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) had this to say when he contemplated his life among the stars: 

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fell, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened, and I am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.  Who has put me here?  By whose order and direction have this place and this time been allotted to me?  The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me.[3] 

He didn’t know just how immense and silent those spaces really are.

            In those moments of existential awareness you can’t help but ask what your life means, who are you, whose are you?  Why are you here?  Why do you exist?  What does it mean to be human, to be alive, to be given this life?  “What is a life and what is it for?”[4]  These are soulful questions. The psalmist said it so well, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8: 3-4).  It’s the same question Pascal raised.  What does it mean to be human in this universe?  Who am I?  The psalmist continues, “Yet you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned [us] with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

            Many centuries later, our Presbyterian forbears who wrote the Westminster Shorter Catechism knew that every journey of faith begins by asking this question: “What is the chief end [or purpose] of humanity?  Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”[5]

            That’s the kind of food, I believe, Jesus was talking about.  Living this question daily is the kind of soul food Jesus feeds on, it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose, doing soulful things, feeding on the things that feed the soul, which provides meaning and depth. And for Jesus, his soul food is doing the will of the One who sent him.  That’s what gets him going.  That’s what gives him strength.  That’s what gives him life. 

            What is our “food”? What satisfies our hunger?  What do we hunger for, both individually and together as a church?  What feeds our souls?  We can easily come up with a list of all the things that bring us to life, those things that excite us, things about which we are passionate.  But Jesus is talking about something else here, something deeper.  He shows us something we might have forgotten about ourselves or maybe shows us something about what it means to be human that we never knew before, even if we’ve spent all of our lives in the church.

            When the early Church affirmed Jesus’ full humanity without sin it was a way of saying that Jesus embodied what it means to be fully human.  When we look at him we come to fathom what it means to be authentically human, we see what a human life is for.  And the extent to which we fail to reflect his way of being, we fail, we sin, that is we miss the mark. Biblically, theologically speaking we are not human yet; we are on the way to becoming human, as Jesus was fully human.  And so what we discover, what we learn from Jesus – as the truly human one – is that, like him, we are all born with a hunger, a soul-hunger, a deep desire to “feed” on the will of God, and that our souls are never really satisfied, are never really content until we rest in, live in, and hunger after God’s will, God’s purpose for our lives and for creation, God’s desire for our lives and for creation.  The desire to glorify God by doing the will of God is one of the deepest desires of the human soul.  The fact that this is not immediately apparent in our age is evidence just how alienated we are from our souls and how far adrift we are as human beings. 

            But to the one who opens one’s soul to God, who prays heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul with the Source of one’s being, you know, as St. Augustine (354-430), discovered in the fourth century, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”[6] Writing about his return to God in his spiritual autobiography Confessions, Augustine said to God, “You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness.  You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness.  You shed your fragrance, I drew in my breath, and I pant for you.  I tasted and now I hunger and thirst.  You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.”[7]

So what is God’s will? That’s the twenty billion dollar question.  My sense is that, for most, this question is more of a burden than an occasion for joy.  Maybe we’re afraid of getting it wrong, of getting judged for not getting it right.  Perhaps we carry around with us a judging image of God who is waiting to pounce if we answer the question incorrectly.  Maybe we’re afraid of knowing the answer because we’ll have to do something about it (or not).  The will of God is really very simple, but we’ve complicated it, because a fearful ego loves to complicate things.  So let’s uncomplicate it. 

What is God’s will?  What does God want from us?  Glorify God with your life.  Enjoy God.  Live the good news of God’s grace.  Embrace faith, offer hope, extend love.  Liberate the oppressed.  Forgive.  Share.  Open your heart.  Grow.  Create.  Be merciful.  Be compassionate.  Be generous.  Do justice.  Be a peacemaker.  Be a healer.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love God.  Enlarge your heart.  Embrace the stranger in yourself and in your neighbor.  Serve.  Suffer with those who suffer.  Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Set your fear aside.  Come alive.

All this is the will of God.  This is what we were created for.  And if we’re honest and courageous enough to plumb the depths of our soul and listen to its desires, we will discover that this is what every human being hungers for.  This is the will God.  All of this is what feeds our souls.  It’s why we’re here.  And our task, our job, our calling, our challenge, our joyful burden is for you and me, on a daily basis, to try to figure out what all of this looks like, to make it real, to enflesh it where we live and work and play and worship.  This is what’s complicated; this is what is difficult. However, do not despair in your struggle, because this, too, is also the will of God; we are called to figure it out, and in this holy struggle, too, our souls are fed.

[1] From a lecture for the Jung Society of Washington, given at the Swiss Embassy, 1st June 2012.
[2] Images may be found here: http://venustransit.gsfc.nasa.gov/
[3] From Pascal’s Pensées  (“Thoughts”) from 1669. Cited in William Barrett, Death of the Soul:  From Descartes to the Computer (New York:  Anchor/Doubleday, 1986), 8. 
[4] The core theological question posed by James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1998).
[5] Question 1 and Answer, Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648), Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
[6] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, I.1.
[7] Confessions, X.27, 38.

03 June 2012

Becoming Children of God

Romans 8: 12-17

Trinity Sunday/ 3rd June 2012

There’s probably no better summary of what it means to be a Christian than Paul’s majestic and profound theological claims in Romans 8, written to Christians in Rome.  There’s probably no better summary of Paul’s own understanding of what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus. In many ways, the core, the center, the linchpin of the chapter, as well as the center of his personal experience, is right here in verses 12-17, and the lead-in actually begins with verse 11.  In these verses we are presented with an extraordinary, bold understanding of what it means to be, as Paul often said, “in Christ.” What we’re given here is Paul’s own’ Pentecostal insight, we’re allowed to see Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit – who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does and where the Spirit is at work doing all of this.

            To “get” this we need to proceed slowly, very slowly, and follow what Paul is saying here, following his logic.  He packs a lot in of a few sentences.  If we go slowly, we might be able to have a better understanding of how he viewed the Christian life – and it might just change the way we see our lives as Christians.  So listen (again) for the Word of God in Romans 8, starting with verse 11:

            If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
he who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also
through his Spirit who dwells in you.
            So then, brother and sisters, we are debtors,
not to the flesh [read: human nature],
to live according to the flesh [human nature] – 
for if you live according to the flesh, you will die;
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body,
you will live.
            For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
            For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you have received a spirit of adoption
When we cry, ‘Abba!  Father!’
it is the very Spirit
bearing witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children,
then heirs, heirs of God 
and joint heirs with Christ –
if in fact, we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.

There’s a lot here, but there are two major points I think we need to lift up, and they’re related – being children and being part of a family.

Did you notice how Paul defined the children of God?  He’s very specific.  In our age, we tend to be generic about how we use this phrase.  People of faith and even of none often refer to humanity in general as “children of God.”  That is, simply being born, given life by the creator, means that we are children, having been fathered and mothered by God, as it were. We think to be created in the image of God means to be a child of God – and to some extent, this is all true. We’re all God’s children.  However, this is not what Paul is talking about here.  He’s being very precise, very particular here, and has something very special in mind:  “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  Who are the children of God?  Those who are led by the Spirit.  Now, to our ears this might sound exclusionary, that the true children of God are Spirit-led, the rest have to fend for themselves. It sounds as if Paul is being divisive.  But this misses the point.

He wants his hearers to know that to follow Christ is to be “in Christ,” and when we’re in Christ the same Spirit of God who raised Christ from the grave and granted him new life is now at work in us, continually raising us up from the grave, giving us new life.  It’s in this sense that we are children of God, when the Spirit of God is leading us; when this is happening we are the offspring of the generative Spirit who is making us into sons and daughters, children of God. 

This means that as the Spirit is leading us, as we’re becoming children of God, we are leaving behind our former family of identification, children of the flesh, children of a wayward human nature, children of the ego that wants to live a life apart from God.  The term Paul uses here for this transfer of allegiance is uiothesia – adoption.  When the Spirit leads us there is – or should be – a break, even a total break with the old family. This does not mean we reject families altogether, it’s just that they no longer ultimately define who we are.  We give up our identity through biology and are placed within the context of a new family – the family of God – with all its rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

To be in Christ means that we have been incorporated into a new family, called to be part of a larger community.  The family of faith now becomes our adoptive family, which is not biologically related.  We’re all adopted children of God, adopted into the very life of God, as fellow-participants.  This is one of the reasons a text like this is the lection on Trinity Sunday, because this text makes it very clear that to be led by the Spirit means that we have and are being taken up into the community of God’s love – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – into that holy family. 

The evidence of this is found in prayer.  And Paul couldn’t be more explicit here.  When we cry in prayer, “Abba!  Father!  Daddy!  Papa!” this profound, sincere, heart-felt cry of parental intimacy that comes from the depths of our being to God, Paul tells us, is the Spirit praying through us, bearing witness with our spirit, reminding us that we are children.  In other words, just the fact that we turn to God as intimate parent testifies to the fact that we are indeed part of the family of God.  The Spirit works deep within the depths of our spirit and tells us, reminds us, shows us that we are not alone, that the deepest parts of ourselves are intimately connected with God, that we are safe and secure within. And every time we cry out that way and direct our prayers to God as Father or Mother we are reminded that we are not children of the flesh, not children of nature alone, not left to ourselves, but that we are the beloved children of God, part of God’s family.

And if we’re children, that means we’re also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – we’re all in the family, as it were, sharing in the life of God.  We’re all participating in the life and blessing and joy of God. We’re all participating in the love of God together. 

Joint heirs with Christ, that’s who we are, – if, in fact, we suffer with him…  Suffer? Everything up to this point was so affirming, uplifting.  Why did Paul throw this into the mix?  Is he glorifying suffering?  Shouldn’t we be working to alleviate suffering in the world?  Jesus suffered on the cross for me, so why do I have to suffer? We could call all of these responses “natural,” we could say they’re “flesh-ly,” we might say they’re “of the flesh.” To respond in this way is to miss the point.  

Now, we have to tread very carefully here.  I have some anxiety in saying what I’m about to say because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  We have to be careful here that we don’t glorify suffering.  However, we also have to be careful that we don’t avoid the importance of suffering. To share in the life of God means we also share in the sufferings of God.  It comes with the “package” called faith in God.  Jesus, as fully, authentically human suffered; that is, he underwent pain and sorrow and even death, and he did so not because he had to, but because he wanted to – because of his love. That’s what love does; it suffers. He showed us that love suffers when we participate in another’s pain and sorrow and grief.  The greater the love the greater the hurt; the greater the love the great the grief and suffering; the grater the love the more we embrace it all and feel it all.  This is an extremely difficult concept; it’s tough. For some it might feel way too challenging, too much.  Some might say, I can’t love or suffer like that, or I can’t love like that because I don’t want to get hurt – or hurt again

Ironically, though, there is a kind of unnecessary suffering, the kind that comes in refusing to acknowledge this fact, which avoids suffering.[1] The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) found that “neurosis is always a substitute,” for what he called “legitimate suffering.”[2]  It’s the kind of unnecessary suffering that comes by avoiding suffering.  I came across a similar insight decades ago in the Gnostic text from the 2nd century Apocryphal Acts of John.  Don’t go calling the heresy police on me for quoting a Gnostic text; there’s a lot of psychological and spiritual wisdom here, when Jesus says this, “Had ye known how to suffer, ye would know how to suffer no more.  Learn how to suffer, and ye shall overcome.”[3]  Like Jesus who was willing, in love, to face suffering throughout his life and yet triumphed over it because of the power of God working through him, so too, the Spirit empowers us to love and to suffer and suffer through in order that God’s glory might be revealed through it all. All of this requires more attention, but I couldn’t overlook the reference to suffering here, because it’s so crucial.  It’s an insight into the meaning of redemptive suffering that is given when the Spirit is leading us.  In Christ, we know this to be true, maybe less so when we think “in the flesh.”

It’s all part of what is being given and granted to us by the Spirit, bearing witness with our spirit, leading us and reminding us that we are children of God.

Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) knew what it was like to move from one family to another.  Francis’ father had dreams for his son, dreams that came crashing down when Francis heard the voice of the Christ and led him in a different direction, into ministry.  His father was furious with him.  He humiliated and shamed Francis in the town square. Francis lived in poverty on the outskirts of Assisi, but went into town now and again.  He was often wary of making the trip should he encounter his father.  So one day, on the way up to Assisi, Francis asked a beggar sitting along the side of the road to walk with him.  Francis said to him, “Every time my father yells an insult at me in one ear, tells me I’m dirt, that I don’t count, whisper in my other ear, ‘You’re a child of God.  You’re a child of God. And keep telling me so.’”[4] 

That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us – whether it’s through the voice of a beggar who reminds us who we are or the community of the church that reminds us daily who we are, whether it’s through the wisdom of our dreams or the voice of dear loved ones who tell us until we really believe it – the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are indeed children of God.

Image:  Triqueta, ancient Celtic symbol for the Trinity.
[1] Cf. Richard Rohr’s discussion of “necessary suffering” in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life  (Jossey-Bass, 2011),  73.  This section is informed by the writings of C. G. Jung.
[2] This is a foundational precept of Jungian analytic theory.  See also James Hollis, What Matters Most:  Living a More Considered Life (Gotham, 2009), 59.
[3] Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) translation of the Apocryphal Acts of John, used in his choral composition,  Hymn to Jesus, Opus 37 (1916).
[4] As told by Fr. Richard Rohr, Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, Harper’s Ferry, WV, October, 2011.