22 May 2016

More Truth, More Light

Martellus Map, 1491
John 16:12-15

Trinity Sunday

22nd May 2016

Sometimes our maps are wrong.  Here’s a story about such a map, the Martellus Map. 

Henricus Martellus is the Latinized name of Heinrich Hammer.  Hammer was a geographer and cartographer from Nuremberg, German, who lived and worked in Florence from 1480 to 1496.  Between 1489 and 1491 he produced a map of the known world, an enormous map, measuring four feet by six feet, designed to hang on a wall.  There’s only one copy of it, which was discovered in 1960 and then donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.  It has a fascinating history.  Portions of the map were borrowed from Ptolemy (90-168), the Greco-Egyptian polymath, who mapped the world around the year 150. Martellus’ descriptions of Asia were informed by the writings of Marco Polo (1254-1324).  Martellus also used a map produced in Lisbon, in 1485, by Bartolemeo Columbus (c. 1461-1515), Christopher’s brother.  In fact, Christopher Columbus used the Martellus map to persuade Ferdinand of Aragon (1462-1516) and Isabella of Castille (1451-1504) to support his desire to find a shorter and faster trade route to the East, in order to bypass the not always welcoming Ottoman Empire.

The big question, for both the Spanish monarchs and Columbus, was this: is it three thousand or ten thousand miles from Europe to Japan? Martellus based his drawings on Ptolemy’s calculation of the size of the earth (the Greeks had already measured the circumference of the earth within about a few hundred miles), combined with knowledge gained from Marco Polo’s travels through Asia.  Martellus incorrectly placed Japan about one thousand miles off the coast of China, he assumed that there was nothing between Japan and the Iberian Peninsula, except the Atlantic Ocean, thus he exaggerated the size of Asia to make up the difference. The map that Columbus used, the Martellus map, suggested that Japan was closer to Spain than it really was.  And there was something else neither Columbus nor anyone else suspected—that an enormous land mass was there in between, the Americas, which some of us call home. When “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and landed in the Bahamas he thought he was in Japan.  It’s remarkable, looking back, that the learned of that day could not imagine something other than what was expected.

Sometimes our maps are wrong. We create them with the best available knowledge, thinking we’re being scientific, but there always seem to be a bias built in.  We make assumptions about what is and is not true, about what can or cannot be true.  Even GPS systems and our Smartphones are not always smart.  Sometimes the maps are wrong.  I read this week about a driver in Ontario who blindly followed her GPS system, through the fog, and drove straight into Lake Huron.  The car sank and she swam to shore.  Whether it’s Martellus’ map of the then known world or the maps of our personal lives, sometimes our maps are wrong—there’s a lot that’s unknown. 

Yes, the map was wrong—as Columbus discovered—but that didn’t prevent him (and others after him) from further exploration into the unknown.  They used the map, but didn’t trust it completely because they knew they were first explorers and discovers and only second mapmakers trying to map the unknown world.  Maps were often drawn and then redrawn and then redrawn again after experience either confirmed or discounted what they suspected to be true.  For example, there was a myth floating around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that California was actually floating, that it was an island.  In 1747 King Ferdinand VI (1713-1759) of Spain made a formal decree, “California [is] not an island,” as it had been assumed (due to an error in previous maps).  It’s part of the mainland.  Even up to the American Revolution this myth was out there in America and Europe.

In his book Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman (who was an expert on leadership and change dynamics in families, organizations, institutions, and religious communities) argues that Columbus’ voyage was a hinge event, a turning point in the history of the world, for a variety of reasons.  This discovery catapulted Europe out of a kind of cultural depression; it metabolized new energy and creativity.  It transformed the world and what individuals considered possible.  Friedman writes, “For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that human spirit of adventure which epitomizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first.”[1]

The spirit of adventure is needed.  It’s easy to get stuck in faulty patterns of perception and behavior.  We become gridlocked, when what we really need is to break free from the grid.  We Presbyterians love our order.  We have our blessed Book of Order and an Order of Worship, and we love to quote the Apostle Paul, when he admonishes the Corinthians, “Let everything be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).  Back in the 1980s, I once had a t-shirt made at the mall that read: Presbyterians Do It Decently and in Order.  Looking back on that now, that was really odd!  I was an odd teenager.  I can only imagine what the guy at the mall was thinking.  He had difficulty spelling the word Presbyterian. 

Reflecting on our obsession for order today, I wonder if, perhaps, what we really need is more disorder, something to break us out of what confines the Church today.  It’s tough for me to admit this as one who is very Presbyterian.  I don’t really know what I’m suggesting or know what more disorder would look like, but I suspect it’s true.  Yes, of course, order is needed for the Spirit to move.  The Spirit does move in and through order.  But the Spirit also moves through disorder.  Sometimes the Spirit even creates the disorder! She intentionally stirs things up – probably to show us that we’re wrong and that we need to change!

Humility of knowledge.  Maybe that’s what we need today.  Humility of knowledge.  I’m always struck by the power of human arrogance, when we think we know more than we really do, and how this attitude hinders progress, and then gets us into a lot of trouble, and produces a lot of pain and suffering. The word humility literally means, from the Latin humus, “of the earth.”  Humility means being “of the earth,” in other words, being grounded, real honest, truthful.  Humility of knowledge means being real, honest about what we know and don’t know.  Humility of knowledge checks hubris, it keeps us humble, but it also reminds us that there’s more to learn and discover in the world.  This is certainly true for science.  Jeff Bolognese shared with me recently, when we were touring NASA Goddard, that most scientists are actually very humble in acknowledging what they don’t know, and they are often blown away by new discoveries about the universe, which then pushes them to want to discover even more.  Consider how our views of the universe have changed because of the Hubble telescope.

What is true of science is also true of theology, which was one time known as the Queen of the Sciences.  Humility of knowledge is especially needed among Christians today, needed within the Church.  Yes, we need to confess our faith, know what we believe and why.  But we also need to confess our doubt and honor our doubt as an expression of our faith, as odd as that might sound.  We also need to be humble enough to acknowledge how much we don’t know about God, about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, about what it means to really be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Each and every one of us needs to acknowledge that there’s still so much to learn!  This might freak out our Fundamentalist friends, but it’s true.  There’s more than one interpretation of a biblical text.  Scholars are always learning more about the meaning of an obscure Hebrew or Greek word, uncovering more about the composition of ancient texts, making new archeological discoveries that alter how we read and hear a text. 

There’s still so much to learn!  We need a spirit of adventure and discovery within the Church today, a bold spirit that will allow us to set sail from the old world into a new world of faithfulness; we need the courage to venture from the known out into the unknown.

The novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) tells us that as boy he loved to look at maps. "I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there."  Two decades later, in 1890, Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and exposed the violence and brutal suffering in the Belgian Congo.

Walt Whitman (1818-1892) captured this spirit of adventure in Leaves of Grass, using the experience of traveling at sea as a metaphor for life:

O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.[2]

What would that spirit of adventure mean for the Church today, for this church, for our individual lives?  Before the pilgrims left for Plymouth, in 1620, the Rev. John Robinson (1576-1625), known as the “pastor of the pilgrims,” offered a Farewell Speech in Delfshaven.  He said, famously, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light to break forth from his holy Word.”  This is an extremely significant affirmation, if you think about it.  These pilgrims or religious separatists, these Calvinist Christians, our theological forbears, are about to leave the safety of home to venture to an unknown place, a dangerous place, crossing an ocean, all because their theological convictions were calling them to go forward.  It wasn’t a backward spirit driving them, but a forward movement.  Robinson also said in the speech that we must not look back toward the reformers, to Luther and Calvin, but to discover things they couldn’t see.[3] Significantly, as good Reformed Christians, people who are Reformed and always being reformed, by the Word and the Spirit, they trust, they know that there’s still so much to learn and discover and explore in the life of faith.

God’s Word is dynamic.  It’s not static.  To cite the tagline for the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” (I wish we Presbyterians had a similar tagline!)  If God is still speaking then we need to listen, which also requires humility because we can’t expect to know what God will say before God speaks. We need to be quiet long enough to listen and not assume what will be said.  Listening requires courage, courage to acknowledge what is heard and then, guided by the Spirit, courage to set sail, to step out, to lean in, to act, to move. 

Yes, all of this is anxiety producing.  All of this is scary.  Of course it is!  Who said the life of faith is about being safe? Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you safe.”  We’re not called to play it safe.  Safety has little or nothing to do with it.

The Word, God’s creative Word speaking through the pages of scripture, still has so much to teach us!  We don’t have it all figured out.  Biblical scholars are always being humbled by what they don’t know.  For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, in 1946, which date from Jesus’ life, along with the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, in the Egyptian desert in 1945, a text that might predate the Gospel of Mark, have and are changing what we know.

There’s always more to explore, more to discover, more to fathom and understand.  Didn’t Jesus say that when the “Spirit of truth comes, he will guide [us] into all the truth” (John 16:12)?  The Holy Spirit still has much to teach us.  I find it striking that the disciples didn’t learn everything they needed for being disciples when Jesus was with them. It wasn’t as if they had three years of seminary with Jesus, and then he sent them off to change the world.  There was still more to learn after his departure.  Perhaps they weren’t wise enough or strong enough or humble enough to learn those things during Jesus’ life, to enter into “all the truth” at that time.  Perhaps their hearts weren’t deep enough or open enough to fully fathom the truth of God’s love and grace. 

The same is certainly true of us today.  The Spirit is still the guide and the teacher and the source of truth, who reveals and discloses to us things beyond our imagining, things beyond our seeing (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), beyond reason, things beyond the limited confines of what we know, whose wisdom leads us forward.  We have yet to figure out what it means to really follow Christ, to bear the name Christian.  We have yet to fully fathom the heights and the depths of God’s grace and what is being asked of us with our lives. Our hearts need to be as deep and wide as the oceans of God’s love.  We have yet to discover what it means when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—we certainly haven’t arrived at that new world, that kingdom world.  But that’s where the Spirit wants to take us, is taking us, will take us, is willing to guide us every step along the way, even if we don’t have a map, even if our maps are wrong.  Trust the Spirit.

George Macleod (1895-1991) of the Iona Community said, “Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.”  We’re explorers.  We’re called to explore and then revise the maps of God’s grace and justice and love, so that others coming after us will find a way, so that they may then go beyond us—because there’s still so much to discover!

[1] Edwin W. Friedman, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books, 2007).
[2] Walt Whitman, from “Passage to India,” Leaves of Grass (1900).
[3] John Robinson’s Farewell Speech, 1620, "The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented."

08 May 2016

God's Gracious Invitation - Come!

Revelation 22:8-14, 16-17, 20-21

Seventh Sunday of Easter

8th May 2016

This is the season for invitations.  Graduations.  Weddings.  Confirmations.  Baptisms.  Kentucky Derby parties.  Perhaps Preakness.

Consider the ritual of being invited to a special event.  Consider what it feels like to be invited.  Remember a time when you received a special invitation in the mail to an event or gala, a graduation or wedding, a party or concert.  How did you feel?  Excited?  Elated?  Happy? Surprised?  Maybe you didn’t expect to be on the invite list; maybe you didn’t even know about the event. Then there’s that marvelous feeling of feeling included, right?  You feel special, singled out, different, you feel honored, privileged. 

It’s marvelous because we all know what it feels like when we’re excluded or left out.  As Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.”  We are social creatures.  We want to be included.  We don’t like being left out.  We want to be on the guest list.  Perhaps you remember feeling hurt in school when you discovered that you were excluded from a birthday party, when it seemed like all the cool kids were on the invite list, except you. Then you said to yourself, I guess I’m not “cool” enough.  You feel isolated, cut-off, unwanted.  That’s a horrible feeling.

Included.  Excluded.  As social creatures, we want to be included; we want to be on the inside of a group or team or club or association or community or, maybe, a church.  We also like to feel more special than others and so as social creatures we want our experience of inclusion to be special.  After all, everyone can’t be in the same group or on the same team or in the same club or association or community.  Right?  So we create exclusive communities.  We can’t let everyone in.  There have to be boundaries.  Limits.  Some can come in, but not others.  We want to be included, of course. We also have a tendency to exclude.  Acts of exclusion make us think we’re better or different or special, smarter, richer, more powerful, whatever.  We can’t invite everyone to the party—what would be the purpose of sending out invitations then?

Included.  Excluded.  We find both in this closing chapter of Revelation.  John of Patmos has been caught up in an extraordinary vision.  Or, better, John was caught up in an apocalypse, meaning, not the end of the world (that’s not what apocalypse means) but a revelation, an unveiling, an opening into the mysterious heights and depths that surround us, a disclosure of the larger drama of God’s redemption of the world and the consummation of history. 

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” Christ says to John. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).  Here we’re given a vision of what we could call the Cosmic Christ, the ascended Lord who sits at the right hand of God, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This is a vision of the Cosmic Christ who reigns with grace, who embraces time—past, present, and future—the One who both dwells in time and holds time, holds the days of our lives.  This is a vision of the Cosmic Christ who was there at the beginning of time, at the beginning of creation, who existed long before he was born in Bethlehem.[1]  He is Alpha, that is, the beginning, the origin, and he is Omega, the end, that is, the goal, the culmination, the destination of every life, of being itself.  Jesus says he is “arche kai to telos.” He is the beginning, the arche, the foundation, the ground, the source of everything and telos, the end or purpose or horizon or goal of everything.  The beginning contains its end or purpose.  The end is found in beginning.  It’s all in him.  “In my end is my beginning,” said the English medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416).  And as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) reversed it and said, “In my beginning is my end.”[2]  Beginning.  End.  Christ is all-encompassing. All-embracing.  Cosmic.  This is the vision of Christ that we have here at the end of Revelation.

Those who live in the New Jerusalem, those who dwell in the presence of the Alpha and Omega, whose light fills the city, have “the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14); they may enter the city by the gates, the twelve gates which are never closed, we’re told (Rev. 21:25).  In earlier times the gates of a city were closed at night to protect the residents of the city.  But since it’s always day, never night in the city, “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).

And inside the city, this garden city, we’re told, stands a tree, the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit—twelve being the number of completion and wholeness—producing fruit each month, a life-tree yielding fruit in every season, whose leaves are for the healing of the nation (Rev. 22:2).  In God’s holy city healing is always in season.

The vision is full of metaphors and symbols, some of which make sense to us and some don’t, but they would have made sense to the readers and hearers of John’s revelation.  It’s very clear to us in the symbol of the tree of life that the tree is Christ.  Christ is the tree who freely gives life—the Greek here for life is zóés (ζωῆς), a form of zóé (ζωή), meaning full life, vital life, abundant life—a tree of life whose arms branch out, stretch out in love, yielding the fruit of grace, fruit of healing, fruit of forgiveness, fruit of compassion, the fruit of goodness.  One can even say that this tree is maternal in nature as seen in its capacity to yield life and bear fruit.  Remarkably—Christ as tree of life becomes Christ our mother.[3]

And then Jesus himself arrives at the end of the vision and says, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony to the churches, ‘I am the root and the descendent of David, the bright morning star (Rev. 22:16).  Jesus is tree; he is also root.  He’s the root and the fruit and he’s the bright morning star, a light that leads the way to life, like the sun.[4]  Metaphors are stretched and bent here to form powerful symbols, symbols that point to the sublime truth conveyed in this revelation. 

And then John hears these words, these extraordinary words, these gracious words of invitation to him, spoken to his hearers, to you and me, to the world.   The tree of life reaches out, branches out in welcome. The Spirit and Christ, the bride of the church, say, “Come.”

Come!  Come! 
“And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ 
And let everyone who is thirsty come. 
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17).

“Come,” Jesus says.  Come! Come to me!
Come to the tree and rest in my shade.
Come and be grafted into me, the true vine (John 15:5).[5]
Bring your thirst, your desire, your thirst for something more, and I will slake it with the water of life, water of zóés.

The invitation is offered to those within the city walls and outside the city walls.  And who is outside the walls, outside the gates?

Outside the gates, we learn in verse fifteen—which we excluded, which the lectionary excluded, the lectionary excludes this verse of exclusion(!)—are the people who live outside the gates.  “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:14).  It looks like they are being excluded.  Judged for their actions.  Inside are the “blessed,” the holy ones who have washed their robes, the saints, the followers of Christ who have withstood suffering and persecution, that’s who’s inside the city; those who had the courage and faith to stand out from the crowd of the Roman Empire to be themselves, those who confessed Christ in the face of persecution, those who refused to be defined by the idolatrous worship of empire and of Caesar, that’s who’s inside the city, those that survived the ordeal.[6]  The voice of heaven said earlier in Revelation, “Come out of her,” meaning Rome.  “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins…” (Rev 18:4).  Stand out. Take a stand!  That’s what John hears in the vision.  Early on in the book of Revelation Christ encourages the Churches of Asia Minor (in Laodicea in particular) to be bold, stop being “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:16).  Because you’re “lukewarm,” Jesus says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).  Choose!  Be either hot or cold.  Choose! The blessed ones in the city have chosen correctly.

There are people who live outside the gates of the city.  There will always be people who live outside the gates of the city.  But staying with the image of the text, if I’m reading this correctly, we also find that, yes, there are people outside the gates—but the gates of this city are always open.  Just come.

Yesterday, I was driving along North Avenue toward Bolton Hill and stopped at the light at Madison Avenue.  I looked to the left, toward an old church on the corner, and noticed an old illuminated sign over the threshold, which simply said: COME.[7]  (Babcock Presbyterian Church).  It simply says:  COME.


“And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’” Everyone who hears the Spirit’s invitation—meaning you and me—must extend the invitation outward, Come! “And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift”

Come!  Not to the church.  Not to an institution.  Not to a club.  Not to a community of pretty cool people.  Come—or, better, go—to him!  Invite the people who are outside the gates of the church, who don’t feel worthy of an invitation, who, for whatever reason don’t know that they’re invited or for whatever reason have not accepted the invitation. 

Come!  Not to church.  Come!  To Christ.  The Living One.  The Lamb.  The Tree.  The Alpha and Omega.

Allow yourself to be drawn into his gracious presence.
Allow yourself to drink in his life.
Go ahead. You’re invited, after all.
Accept your acceptance.  
Accept your invitation.  
Yes, go to him—again and again and again—your Lord, your Redeemer, the tree of life.

Go to him—again and again and again—and discover in him—
again and again and again—the deep and holy meaning of your life. 

Go to him, the One who contains your life and all life, the life of the world. 
Go to him, your Alpha and your Omega. 

Your first and your last. 
Your beginning and your ending. 

Thanks be to God!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Babcock Memorial Presbyterian Church, c.1925. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

[1] See also Colossians 1:15-20. 
[2] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets.
[3] On the tree of life as a maternal symbol, see C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), para. 319, 346ff.  The cross can also be viewed as a tree of life.
[4] The “bright morning star” is an allusion to Numbers 24:17. See Blount, 411-412.
[5] The motif of entwining—“I am the vine, you are the branches”—in John 15 may also be viewed as a mother-symbol.  See Jung, para. 367.
[6] See Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[7] I later learned that the church was the original home of Babcock Memorial Presbyterian Church, built between 1893-1903.  The congregation moved  in 1949, when the building became home of the Whatcoat A. M. E. Church until 1954.  The church is now known as the Union Temple Baptist Church.