26 February 2013

The Face That Won't Turn Away

Psalm 27

Second Sunday in Lent/24th February 2013

The psalter reading, Psalm 27, holds up for us two different, but related images: a movement of the heart and a turning of the face.  Heart and face.    

“My heart shall not fear,” the psalmist says (Ps 27:3). Throughout scripture we see that the heart was viewed as something more than simply an organ pumping blood.  It was the center of one’s personality, the core of one’s being. The heart symbolizes one’s sense of self and a healthy heart is essential to the life of faith.  If your heart is not right with God, then something is wrong.  If our hearts are devoted to others gods, instead of the Living God, then our hearts have betrayed us; then the heart is broken, fragmented, alienated, cut off from its deepest desires.  God wants our hearts and wants our hearts to desire after God.  To say that God wants our hearts means that God wants more than part of our lives – more than empty religiosity or piety when it’s convenient or simply good behavior – God desires the heart of our lives, the center of who we are, all that we are.

This idea has always been at the center of Christian discipleship.  When John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, was converted in Oxford, he said that his “heart was strangely warmed.”  And even our own beloved John Calvin (1509-1564) had a heart – which might come as a surprise to many!  We usually don’t think of Calvin as having one, being the brainiac that he was, but he did.  Calvin’s conversion was very similar to Wesley’s.  In fact, the depth of Calvin’s conversion is beautifully symbolized by the logo he created for himself.  It was the image of a heart resting on an upturned open-faced palm.  He gave the passion of his heart, a heart set on fire, the core of his being, to God. The image of the heart on fire was joined with his personal motto: prompte et sincere in opere domini.  Prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord.

Both Wesley and Calvin’s experiences are rooted in the Biblical understanding that the desire to seek after God is first an experience of the heart.  Not an intellectual exercise; it comes from the heart. It comes from the center of who we are.  God wants our hearts.  That’s why the prophet Joel could say, “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).  Joel’s invitation here is to return to the Lord, to enter into relationship with God – heart to heart.  This is what life is about.  This is why we were created: to be in communion with God and with one another.  Heart-to-heart.

The heart isn’t the only image that captures the importance of relationships.  There’s another image that runs through the pages of the Bible; it’s the image of the face.  Psalm 27 beautifully holds them together.  “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’  Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me” (vs. 8). The psalmist makes this extraordinary claim: not only does God want our hearts, but the heart also wants God. St. Augustine’s (354-430) well-known prayer captures this best when he confessed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”[1] And the deepest desire of the human heart is to see the face of God, to find ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with the Living God.

Why is this so critical?  To look at another and to be seen by another creates a tight bond, a connection, a communion. Imagine God looking at you:  God looking at you, looking straight at you, staring at you in the eyes.  In that look you discover that God is looking at you with delight, with the eyes of love, with a look that pierces the defenses of your heart, that connects with your heart of hearts, a look that draws you into communion with him, a look that tells you that you belong to him.  We find this understanding all over the psalms.  In fact, the worst possible judgment of God is not some tragic event, but the withdrawal of God’s gracious glance.[2]  To not be seen by God is the worst possible judgment.  Why?  Without the look of God we are lost.  It’s only when their image is mirrored back from the face of God that the psalmist and Israel know who they are.  The price of sin is the face of God veiled, covered from God’s people. Psalm 88 says, “O LORD, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?” (vs. 14).  The sign of redemption, of forgiveness, is the turning of God’s face towards us with the open look of love, with an unveiled face.  In Psalm 80 we hear, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (vs. 3).

We’re all searching for a face.  Child psychologists have shown us that an infant finds his or her place in the world through the orienting face of a parent.  In his classic work, The First Year of Life, psychologist René Spitz (1877-1974) demonstrated that the facial mirroring between parent and child is the primary means through which a person is shaped.  By three months an infant seeks and responds to a particular face for security and identity.  The infant seeks that face and smiles. When that face isn’t there, when it turns away, panic, anxiety, and fear set in.  Psychologists D. W. Winnicott (1896-1971) and Erik Erikson (1902-1994) have both identified the need for the face and the enormous power of this drive to find a face.[3]  It’s especially strong from twelve to eighteen months.  The look of that face tells the child who he or she is.  “The face, then, is the personal center that is innately sought by a child and the focus of the earliest sense of one’s humanity.”[4]  Through the relationship, through the face-to-face interaction, a child finds a place in the world and is confirmed as a self.  The round shape of the face is a symbol of wholeness; it’s a deep archetype of wholeness.  It is round and it bears the imprint of the cross - the vertical line of nose and mouth, the horizontal line of our eyes forming four quadrants.  Justin Martyr (c.100-165) writing from the second century said, “The Cross is imprinted upon man, even upon his face.”[5] 

But as we grow up the face that grants us our identity and place in the world starts to turn away. Instead of one or two faces centering our lives, we encounter many.  We see other faces, children or adults, some that smile and accept us, others that look at us with anger and rejection; some that love us and like us, other faces that tell us that we look ugly or that we’re stupid, or poor, the wrong color, the wrong race, the wrong orientation, the wrong gender.  We see harsh faces, judging faces.  We discover faces that won’t look at us or won’t notice us. The need for the face, though, is still there; we’re all searching for that face that will tell us who we are.  We’re looking for the face that will look upon us directly in the eye and see us for who we really are, will really see us and not look through us or past us.

Several years ago I was wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and stumbled upon the work of American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976). In an exhibition of Strand’s work there was one photo, one image that struck me and continues to haunt me.  It has the title “Sandwich Man.”  It’s a black and white photo of a man holding two billboards, one in front of him and one behind him, held together with straps that reach across his shoulders.  People who carried billboards like this, a common sighting during the Great Depression, were known as “sandwich men,” men “sandwiched” between billboards that advertised sales at area department stores. (Not unlike what one often sees along Route 40 in Catonsville.)  The man in the image is very poor.  His face is worn and beaten.  But it’s the way Strand composed or framed the photo that’s most arresting.  He’s standing in front of a building, but over his left shoulder you can see the concrete exterior of a building on which was painted this message:  POST NO BILLS.  

Paul Strand, "Sandwich Man."
The message is clear:  It’s okay to advertise on this man, but not on the building.  The building is more important than the person.  Strand’s photographs are biting social commentaries, critical attacks upon commercial and industrial America.  There’s one other thing about this photo, your eye focuses on the billboard so that the man holding the billboard becomes invisible, becoming one who is seen through. The man is unimportant.  It’s a profound statement of the way in which so much in our society – even today – dehumanizes.

We’re all looking for the face that will re-humanize us, the face that will look at us and in whose eyes we will find unconditional love and acceptance.  We’re searching for a face that will look at us and see us and not turn away in shame or embarrassment or fear.  And we’re looking for a face that we can look upon, without turning away our heads in shame or guilt.  The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said that if you want to see the power of sin in the world then look at the city street and all the people who are afraid to look at each another. You don’t have to go to a city street to observe this, just go to the mall. 

We all desire face-to-face interaction.  And yet, because we have all been hurt, we find it extremely difficult to look into another’s eye without turning our heads.  Yet, “The longing of the face that will not go away persists” throughout our lives.  Practical theologian James Loder (1931-2001) put it so well when he said that we are all looking for that experience, for that face, in whose eyes “one is given a place in the cosmos, confirmed as a self, and addressed by the presence of a loving other.”[6]

A loving other can be your friend, your spouse or partner, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your “soul friend” (as the Celtic Christians used to say).  But even the best marriages, the best friendships and relationships, the best soul friends cannot fill this void; they cannot meet this most basic human need because it puts too much strain on the relationship.  The deepest desire of the human heart – we ache and long for this, cry and pray and hope for this – is to be addressed by the presence of a loving other, a Wholly Other, Who is God.  Like Moses and the psalmist, we long to see God face-to-face, to know the face of the One Who is love, the one in whose eyes we are given life, given a purpose in life, confirmed for who we are, addressed by the very Spirit of God!

For me, the place where all of these images of heart and face come together wonderfully is in Paul’s second letter to Corinth.  It’s one of my favorite verses of scripture.  “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Why? Because “…we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord . . . .  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone” [Where?] “in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” [where?] “in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4: 1, 5-6).

Jesus Christ is the face of God.  When we look at him, we see God.  And when Christ looks at us, it is with the face of God.  It is the face of the One for whom we pine all our lives.  It is the face of mercy and grace.  The longing for the face that will not go away is satisfied finally in Jesus Christ.  When we look to him, we find the true desire of our hearts.  T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) knew this so well when he wrote:

 No place of grace for those who avoid the face.
 No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.[7]

And what does Christ tell us?  What do we read and reflect in his face?  In him we find the only One who can really tell us who we are.  He looks upon us and sees us, looks us in the eye and sees us – really sees us.  He doesn’t look through us or around us or beyond us or down on us.  We’re not invisible to him.  He looks at us, not with eyes of shame or scorn, but in love.  When we turn toward the face of Christ and see him, face-to-face, we will encounter the meaning of grace, and we will know, our heart of hearts will know, that we have come home, that in him is the source of our joy. As Augustine knew, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.”

[1]From Augustine’s, Confessions.
[2]See Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989).
[3]See James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, Second Edition (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989).
[4]Loder, p. 163.
[5]From Justin’s Apologia, cited by J. Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), quoted in Loder.
[6]Loder, p. 165, 166.  On the centrality of facial mirroring in Loder’s theology see, Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 91-94, 122-123.
[6]T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday,” (1930) The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 65.

18 February 2013

The Journey Begins in the Wilderness

Luke 4: 1-13

First Sunday in Lent
17th February 2013

Did you notice who sent Jesus into the desert?  Did you hear who sent him into the wilderness for forty days?  The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God sent him there, into a wild and harsh and life-threatening landscape, to the sand and sun and isolation of the Judea desert.  There’s very little to sustain life there.  Little or no food, not much to drink.  After forty days he was famished, as you can imagine, his body weakened.  No shelter.  Exposed to the elements.  Alone with his thoughts and with God…and someone else.

            Luke tells us Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a striking expression, “full of the Holy Spirit” – πλήρης πνεύματος ἁγίου – pleres pneumatos agiou.   It’s the first and only time Luke uses this phrase to describe Jesus.  Pleres is used to describe a vessel that is filled to the brim. It has a sense of completeness; a word used to describe something that is completely, fully covered.  To be full, full here of the Holy Spirit, means the Holy Spirit is permeating every part of Jesus’ being, completely, fully. 

Now how did Jesus get in this state?  Was he always this way?  Was he born this way? The text isn’t clear, but what is clear is that Luke intentionally links his entrance in the wilderness with what occurred along the River Jordan.  This text is directly connected to Jesus’ baptism.  And so it’s in a state of spiritual bliss, as it were, riding high from that profound religious experience, full of God’s presence, clear about his identity as the Son of God – remember what he heard coming up out of the water, “This is my son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22) – he then begins his work. He’s on the return from the Jordan, returning to reality with this new insight, full of the presence of God, when he’s led by the same Spirit permeating his spirit into the wild and dangerous terrain of the wilderness.

He’s sent there intentionally by the Holy Spirit for one purpose only:  to be tempted by the devil.  The Holy Spirit is deliberate.  He’s sent there for a reason: to be tempted for forty days.  A better word than “tempted” here is “tested.”  And when we use “tested” and combine it with one of the favorite numbers in the Bible, 40, immediately our minds go to Moses and the Exodus – at least that’s where our thoughts should take us; that was probably Luke’s intent.  Israel was tested for forty years, not by the devil, but by the wilderness of Sinai on their way from slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land.  The people were tested in the wilderness – their faith was tested, their loyalties were tested, their commitments to God, to their neighbors, to themselves as a people. It was through the struggle in and through the wilderness that they came to have a clearer sense of who they were and who God is and what they were called to be and do as a people.  Even God was tested by them because over and over, for forty years, the people complained and whined and complained and whined about their conditions, forgetting again and again and again about Yahweh’s promised faithfulness to them. 

This is tough to take in: in order for growth to occur testing is required.  Yet, it’s true.  All great leaders, artists, writers, poets, inventors, scientists, prophets, athletes, ordinary women and men who become mature and wise and advance humanity just a little become great and wise and mature through moments of testing.  They’re tested, if not by the devil or directly by God, then by circumstances or environment or by prevailing injustice.  In those moments we are usually brought to our limits (or think we’re there), brought to edge of our wits and energy, brought maybe to the edge of sanity.  Then we hit a wall and realize we can go no further.  And we know we’re “famished” – meaning, here, to acknowledge want, need, to hunger and crave ardently.

And there’s probably no better place to discover one’s limits or discern what one craves than in a desert.  There’s probably no better place to encounter God and everything in our lives that tries to lure us away from God than in a desert.   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 the ego bear as we quickly learn there that we are not at the center of our universe or any universe.  The early Christians who spent a lot of time in the desert often talked about apatheia, apathy or indifference.  The wilderness or desert is completely indifferent to us.[2]  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.  This is a marvelous gift that the wilderness gives us.[3]  We come to face ourselves and our demons and those things that call us away from our true calling.  This, too, is a remarkable gift.

I think­­— or, I believe—no, I know, in love the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness to be tested.  It’s only in love. It’s only in love. If we don’t hear this within the context of God’s love and grace, then it looks like God is sadistic. And we have to be careful with how we understand words like devil or Satan. They have a long and complex history within the Bible, not helped by later writers, such as Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), who put his own tormented twist on things. Did you know that in the book of Job (1:6-12), Satan, meaning “accuser,” that’s what the word means, is actually on Yahweh’s payroll? He’s in the court of Yahweh in heaven.  He’s an adversary, an adversary who actually moves the plotline along, oddly enough (think about that for a while).  In Scripture, there’s never any question who is ultimately in charge, who rules, who has power.  Also, the devil doesn’t always tell the truth. When the devil says to Jesus, referring to the kingdoms of the world, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please,” (Luke 4:7), some claim that the world has been given over to the devil to rule.  But why assume the devil is telling the truth here? Why would the devil tell the truth?  Does the world belong to him?  The testing serves a larger purpose.

So why, then, does the Holy Spirit send Jesus to be tested in this extreme struggle of mind, body, and spirit?  And what does this mean for you and me?  Identity and idolatry.  What’s at stake here both for Jesus and for us is the crucial question of identity and the perennial threat of idolatry.

            Identity.  The first and third tests from the devil have to do with the question of identity.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the temple].” Some scholars believe that the three temptations echo the three worse temptations in the Greco-Roman world, that we are tempted by the love of pleasure, the love of possessions, the love of glory.  There is a parallel of sorts, I guess.  But it’s easy for any or all of us, whether we’re persons of faith or not, to be ruined by a love of pleasure or possessions or glory. You don’t have to be a religious person to be tempted by the love of pleasure, the love of possessions, or the love of glory. 

There’s more here.  It’s the phrase, “If you are the Son of God,…” that is the real cause for concern, because it sows the seeds of doubt.  The critical question for Jesus was not whether or not he wanted bread, but who he was, really, and how was he going to live faithfully with that identity.

            It’s the identity question that directly links us back to Jesus’ baptism and through his to ours.  Who are you?  Really?  Who are you?  Baptism answered this question for Jesus, as it does for us.  This is another example of baptism understood less as incorporation into the church than of rite of identification; it’s about identity:  that we are children of God by grace.  That’s who we are, right?  That’s what our baptism claims, doesn’t it?  If so, then that makes you a son of God; that makes you a daughter of God.  But do you really believe it? Or, do you wear this identity lightly?  Question it?  What does it really mean for you?  We might believe it in our heads, intellectually, but do we really feel it in our bones, in our bodies? Does that knowledge permeate through the core of your being?  Or are you plagued by seeds of self-doubt, “If….” Each response Jesus gives to the devil is rooted in his affirmation of who he is and his decision to respond faithfully to God.

            The second test is often associated with temptation of glory, but it really has to do with worship. This is the critical issue here.  As children of God, who are we going to worship?  What are we going to worship?  What is worthy of our time and honor and devotion?  When the issue of worship is front and center the threat of idolatry is always close at hand.  When we forget who we are as children of God, it’s easy for us to be lured away by false gods, to fall prey to gods that are not gods. We might think idolatry is an antiquated, quaint notion that we don’t have to worry about any longer.  It’s not a threat to us because we don’t have statues and don’t bow down to graven images in our churches (although we have a cross in the sanctuary). We believe in God, we’re here to worship him on a Sunday morning, aren’t we? 

            The Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) said the human mind is a factory of idols. He was right. We always create images or things or personas to worship (often not worthy of our devotion or time or money).  Look at our fascination with shows such as American Idol or our enthrallment with celebrities or the Baltimore mania/adoration – dare I say, idolatrous obsession with the Ravens.  This is not to judge, but simply to observe (as a Ravens fan). 

The reason idols were considered dangerous in the Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures was because the Israelites knew that we are always at risk of becoming what we worship.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), that wise American, made a similar point:  “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character.  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” 

            It’s easy to assume:  I believe in God and worship God therefore I don’t have to worry about idols.  But let’s reframe this, change the language slightly:  “each of us believes in, wagers on, and trusts in a god or deity, meaning…an all-orienting and all-dominating prime value, something or someone whereby all else ultimately matters, and to which or to whom all the rest is related.”[4] One contemporary scholar has summed up idolatry this way:  “Tell me which prime value dominates your thoughts, your actions, your life in fact (perhaps unconsciously), and I will tell you what is the concrete name of your god and what is the color of your real religion, even if sociologically you belong to another.”[5]  This is a deep struggle we all wrestle with, including me, if we’re honest.

Jesus quotes scripture saying we are to “Worship the LORD [our] God and serve only him.”  It’s the word “only” that makes us start to sweat, squiggle, and squirm.  Only.  What are we as a society worshipping?  Success? Freedom? Wealth? Tradition?  Power? Safety? Violence?  It seems to me this might be a helpful context for the church to talk about guns and gun violence and the need for gun control. What are we worshipping?  What are we becoming?[6] 

In the wilderness, Jesus affirmed the “prime value,” invested his life in it, and allowed it to “fund” the rest of his life.  He discovered this in the wilderness.  That’s where the journey really began for him. Knowing who he was, completely devoted and dedicated to God, worshiping God alone, were the gifts he received from his time in the wilderness, insights he probably would not have discovered elsewhere.  I’m not sure why it takes a wilderness for us to discover these things, but I know it’s often required. Perhaps when we’re away from the wilderness we’re easily distracted, tempted, we forget who we are and whose we are, our value systems get skewed, and we forget what matters most. That’s why we need these places.  It’s where the journey begins again and again for us. So don’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit leads you there or maybe you’re already there. Just remember, the Holy Spirit leads us there in love – always in love – and in love the Spirit will lead us through it.

[1] Cited in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998), 23
[2] The early Desert Father Avagrius of Pontus said, “Desert apatheia has a daughter whose name is love.” Cited by Lane, 186.
[3] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and love for a time in the wilderness.”  Loren Eiseley (1907-1977).
[4] James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé, Foreword by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade Books, 2012), 23. Emphasis added.
[5] H. E. Mertens in R. Burggraeve and J. De Tavernier, Desirable God? Our Fascination with Images, Idols, and New Deities (Peeters Publishing, 2004), 38, cited in Atwood, 23.
[6] I try to address the gun control issue within the context of religion, idolatry, and violence, here: http://catonsville.patch.com/blog_posts/praise-the-lordpass-the-ammunition.

13 February 2013

The Call to Listen

Luke 9: 28-36

Transfiguration of the Lord

10th February 2013

This is one my favorite Sundays of the year.  The transfiguration – whether it’s Matthew’s or Mark’s or Luke’s version – is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament.  The fact that Matthew and Mark and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) include this event tells us that it was pivotal in Jesus’ life and significant because it reveals something essential about Jesus’ identity and God’s glory at work through him.  It’s not the only story shared by them.  The feeding of the five thousand and last supper, the crucifixion, and of course the resurrection are included by these three witnesses.  (John’s Gospel is a “horse of a different color,” as it were, which is why I’m leaving him out.)  But my point here is that while the Synoptic Gospels refer to the Transfiguration, placing it almost at the center of their narratives, serving in some ways as the hinge upon which their narratives hang, for the most part, its importance has been ignored or overlooked.  It’s a text that leaves us feeling puzzled and confused.  A lot of my friends and colleagues don’t like to preach on this text.  What do we do with a text like this?

            I would probably feel the same way but for the fact that almost twenty-three years ago this September this text and it’s meaning took on enormous significance for me.  At every ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in addition to the sermon, there’s a charge directed to the ordinand and a charge to the calling congregation.  At my ordination, I asked a Princeton Seminary professor, mentor, and friend, James Loder, to give the charge.  He walked into the pulpit of my home church, the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, NJ, just a few feet from the font at which I was baptized 26 years earlier, read this text (Matthew’s version) and then proceeded to offer a second sermon on it.

            I can still hear Jim’s voice in my ears, saying to me, charging me to, “Listen to him. Listen to him.” Jim said to me, a week before I left for Scotland, that the life, the vitality, the effectiveness of my ministry wherever I go, wherever I serve will always be contingent upon my capacity to “Listen to him.”  My failures and successes in ministry will be directly related to my ability to “Listen to him.”  If that sounds heavy, it is.  That’s what a calling is, it’s a burden, a weight we’ve been asked to carry.  That’s what these stoles represent, the yoke of the calling, being yoked to Christ.  When I arrived at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I served, I was struck by the large stained-glass west window in the sanctuary with a depiction of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Since then, transfiguration features prominently in my journey and has shaped my faith and theological outlook.

            Jim’s words are never far from me. Over these twenty-three years as a minister I have tried to listen, worked hard at listening.  Sometimes faithful, I like to think; but also, I know, at times faithless.  Jim was right.  Listening matters. Listening to Christ is what counts. Listening has changed my life for the good and hopefully for others who listen to me.

            But it’s only now, twenty-three years later, that I’m beginning to sense something else about this text; I’m beginning to sense how much I’ve heard “Listen to him” primarily as a command, instead of hearing it as something else – and it’s the something else that I’ll get to in a minute. 

            Until recently, my own moralizing ear was getting in the way of me hearing the text.  The moralizing ear so often distorts our capacity to hear and perceive grace in scripture.  Moralizing ear is my term for a filter that often informs our hearing of scripture.  (Those in the Thursday Morning Bible Study have heard me talk about this over the years.) What I mean here is that somehow, some way so many have come to assume that faith is primarily about following the rules, about laws, proper behavior, commandments, and, of course, judgment, if we fail to obey. With such a perspective, God is essentially seen as a lawgiver.  Many hold the view:  God created human beings to behave; we screwed up, so we’re judged, forced to pay the price – a price we cannot afford to pay because who is “rich” enough in virtue to make up for Adam’s fall, so Jesus comes along, pays the price instead, and, even though we’re now forgiven, with his help we can follow the law, because God only cares about whether or not we follow the law. 

            Such a view, which I’ve intentionally made to sound simplistic and foolish (which I think it is), is produced by the moralizing part of us, ruled by an image of God as Lawgiver. When we do this we reduce the function of religious faith to morals, to ethics; it’s called moralizing.  This tendency is old and deep and it’s all over the church and it shapes external views of Christianity.  During the Enlightenment, when Reason tried to reign and anything mystical or supernatural was deemed “unreasonable,” philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said most of Christianity should be rejected because it wasn’t rational.  The only rational purpose religion served was to teach and reinforce morality.  Religion was purely functional.[1] Religion serves society by making us moral, making sure that we all behave. Kant reduced religion to ethics and helped to turn faith into an ethical code, a law, and in many ways the Church is still suffering from his error. I consider this to be an extremely serious issue because it hinders us from really hearing the gospel.  (One day, when I find the time, I want to write a book on this.)

            Yes, ethics, morals matter.  Of course they do.  Rules matter.  How we behave matters.  But to suggest that this is the good news of the Christian gospel, that Jesus died on the cross to appease an angry Judge-Father and now expects you to behave because any moment he’s going to lash out at you in anger, to suggest that you’re only loved if you behave in a certain way, is a gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the height and depth and reach of God’s grace!  It cheapens the gospel.

            This brings us back to the text. Words such as “Listen to him” can easily be heard as one more command, one more rule, one more thing to do, one more standard to try to live up to.  Heard through the filter of the moralizing ear that’s what we think it means, and so we get to work and soon we’re judging ourselves for our behavior, whether we’re listening or not listening. 

            But, no one listens all the time – right?  Right? No one listens all the time.  You might hear someone talking, but that doesn’t mean you’re really listening.

            Now, of course, “Listen to him” is a command. There’s no way around this.  It’s an imperative.  But who is offering the command?  Whose voice is speaking from the cloud that engulfs Peter, James, and John?  Luke says, “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” Other early versions of Luke’s Gospel read, “This is my son, my Beloved; listen to him!”  It’s this latter reading that echoes the divine voice that we heard coming from the heavens as Jesus came up out of the waters of his baptism, “This is my son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  The Voice speaking to the disciples refers to the object of his love, the Beloved.  If Jesus hears these words as the Beloved, if love is being directed toward him, then the source of the Voice must know something about love; for the Voice is love itself.  So, yes, we hear a command, but it’s voiced in love, by the one who is love.  Yes, it’s a command.  But when we remember that the Voice is love, then the command is something else – and this is the something else that I didn’t hear in Loder’s charge to me 23 years ago – the command heard in love becomes something more, it’s really an invitation, an invitation to enter into the mystery and glory and love of God!

            To listen to him is to listen in, to listen in on God’s deep conversation with humanity since the beginning of time; to listen to him is to listen in on God’s deep desire for the world and our lives within it.  When we listen to him we are included in that conversation.  When we listen to him we are brought into a knowledge of God’s deep desire for mercy and justice, for wholeness and healing, for love.[2]  The command becomes an invitation:  you and me are now welcomed to share – share!  share! – in the very life of God, brought into the presence of God to receive a glimpse of God’s glory and radiance shining through Jesus.  We are drawn, like Moses and Elijah, into a deep relationship with the Source of all being and goodness and light and given insights and wisdom and knowledge that we could never obtain on our own, things reason cannot handle or fathom, experiences that are new and therefore disorienting and thereby reorienting.  Peter, James, and John are terrified by this revelation; they talk nonsense because their frame of reference and meaning could not comprehend what they were experiencing.  Instead, their reality was being reframed by a larger reality, as they came to see the story of their lives as participating in a much larger story of divine salvation that reached back to Moses and forward toward what was about to happen on a cross in Jerusalem and beyond, even to a future held by the light of glory.  They are commanded to listen to him and thus invited into the very life shared between Jesus and God. This is relational language. When we listen to someone we are pulled into that person’s life; when we’re listening to Christ we’re pulled into that relationship, the divine-human relationship, and that is what matters above all else. When that happens reality is reframed and reality reframed is what it means to be transfigured.[3]  That’s what Love does, it transfigures our lives. This is what the gospel is all about.  This is a good news with power that shakes the foundations of the world and reorients our lives.

            The Voice that spoke from the cloud continues to speak to us; it continues to summon us to listen.  In the church we often use listening language when we’re trying to discern God’s call in our lives.  Many have difficulty discerning God’s call or vocation in their lives.  But maybe turning the phrase around might help us here; what if first we are simply called to listen?  Listen to the Voice of Love speak and then discern your vocation.  Listen to the Voice and then figure out how to act, what to do.  Augustine (354-430) once said, “Love and do what you want.”  Vocation, then, doesn’t come by trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do with our lives; vocation comes from listening to the One who has given us life.  One of the wisest voices of our time, Parker J. Palmer, writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from listening.”  The word vocation itself is rooted in the Latin for voice.  “Vocation,” Palmer writes, “does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear.  Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen….”[4]

            If our first calling is to listen, then how do we do that?  It’s been said that listening is a skill, something we cultivate.  Listening is a skill, like all skills the more we practice them the better we are at using them.  We can train ourselves to have better listening skills. Listening is an art, particularly the art of listening for what’s being said and what isn’t being said, listening for what’s behind the words of a conversation.  It’s not surprising that truly listening is in short supply these days.  It requires time.  Listening is hard work.  It can be exhausting.  It also requires considerable energy and love and even courage.

            Why courage?  Because at least two other things are required:  silence and surrender.  Luke says, “When the voice had spoke, Jesus was found alone.  And they kept silent…” (Luke 9:36).  In order to really listen it’s important for us to be silent.  How can you listen if you’re talking?  The talking can be the audible kind done with our mouths or the ongoing internal chatter that fills our inner brains most of the time that never seems to quit.  It’s tough to listen to someone when there are competing conversations going on in our heads.  Cultivating silence has always been a spiritual discipline, essential to the life of faith. This requires courage because we might not be happy with what we discover in the silence.  What’s true for human relationships is true for divine-human relationships.  Interior silence is required; how else are you going to hear the still small voice of Love?

            To listen requires a kind of surrendering.  Listening means you’re open to what the other is saying, you have relinquished your control of what is said, you give up your privileged position and yield to what the other has to say. Instead of hearing what you want to hear or what you think someone is saying, you really listen.  This, too, requires a form of courage.  We might not like what we’re hearing or we might disagree with it.  But, more than anything else, especially when we’re hearing the voice of Love, when we open ourselves and surrender to the other, we just might be changed and our reality transfigured.  This is why men and women, each for their own reasons, have problems with surrendering because we hear this from the viewpoint of the ego which equates surrender as weakness or defeat (particularly in men) or as submission to power, leaving one exposed to exploitation or abuse (particularly in women).  We have to be careful here with surrender language, but if we don’t use it we miss out on the gospel and what Christians for centuries have told us, that, “surrender is an indispensable gateway to life, genuine freedom, and deep humanity.”[5]  Without surrendering to the one who is Love, how can words such as these be heard as good news?  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life – surrender their life – for my sake they will save it” (Luke 8:23-24).  These words come in Luke just prior to his account of the Transfiguration.

            When we listen to him, it means we are not listening to our egos or what others expect from us or the cacophony of voices in our heads or on television or the crowd; we are yielding, surrendering to him, surrendering to Love.

            Silence and surrender.  Two good disciplines for disciples to follow through Lent and beyond. In these forty days of Lent may we have the courage to welcome more silence, both within and without, and listen to him more profoundly, surrendering our lives into his arms, arms that will carry us where we need to go.  We are invited by Love to listen, to listen to him who is love, and in our love for him, we listen. 

[1]For example, see Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), among other works.
[2]Here I hold to C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) idea that our goal is not goodness, but wholeness. See also James Hollis, Why Good People Do Bad Things:  Understanding Our Darker Selves (New York:  Gotham Books, 2008), 234-235.  The biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg makes a similar point, "Christian life is ultimately not about believing or about being good. Rather, it is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation."  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time:  The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperOne, 1995), 2-3.
[3]For a discussion on Loder and transfiguration, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 192, 194-196.
[4]Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 2000), 4-5.
[5]David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality:  Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos, 2011), 157. I’m grateful for Dr. Benner’s entire discussion of the centrality of surrender in the Christian life (156-168).