Chasing Emptiness

The prophet Hosea offers two evocative images for the pursuit of vanity.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.
An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

One of my joys in reading the Bible happens when a poetic image in the text suddenly arrests my attention. I stop to consider it. Then my imagination kicks in. I begin to make associations that carry me in unexpected directions.

That happened a couple of days ago when I was reading the prophet Hosea. I was just beginning to read Chapter 12 in the New English Bible translation. It begins:

Ephraim is a shepherd whose flock is but wind,
a hunter chasing the east wind all day;
he makes a treaty with Assyria
and carries tribute oil to Egypt.*

One of the great themes of Hosea is his denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) for seeking its security by manipulating power politics in the Middle East. On the one hand Israel seeks a treaty with the Assyrian empire. On the other it delivers tribute to Assyria’s rival, the Egyptian empire. The hope is that maybe Israel can remain safe by playing one power off against the other.

Hosea, however, sees the whole diplomatic exercise as a game of illusions. Earlier in chapter 8, he says that Israel is sowing to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Its diplomatic games will bring no peace. Instead they will bring disaster. His words proved true when Assyria sweeps down in 722 B.C. and obliterates Israel from the political map.

Shepherds of Emptiness

Hosea returns to this theme in Chapter 12 when he picks up this same image of sowing to the wind. But this time, it comes across in two arresting images (at least in the NEB translation). First he compares Israel’s pursuit to a shepherd who herds a flock of the wind. Its flock consists of nothing but invisible air. I immediately make the association with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Israelite king and his court may think themselves astute politicians. Hosea, however, suggests they are nothing but shepherds of illusions and herdsmen of emptiness.

Then the prophet goes on to compare Israel’s diplomacy to a hunter who chases the east wind all day. It was this image that so captured me.

Hunting has traditionally been a favored sport of the aristocracy in many cultures. (See the stone relief above from the ancient Assyrian empire.) It offers the thrill of the chase, whether that be after the lion, the deer, the boar, or the fox. (The favored prey varies from culture to culture.) As the prey races through the forests, over the hill ridges and down into the valleys and then across the plains, the horsemen follow, hoping to wear the animal out and corner it into its death.

That’s the association that Hosea’s image brings to my mind. Except that the prey that Israel pursues is the east wind. It is impossible to ever capture and imprison the wind. As one chases it, it forever eludes capture. In the end it is the hunter who is worn out, not the wind.

Now I find that a powerful image for the pursuit of vanity, however, we define vanity. When we pursue vanity, we are constantly pursuing something that slips out of our grasp in terms of giving us true, deep satisfaction. Just when we think we have achieved our dream, we find it has dissolved into thin air.

In many ways this image of the hunter chasing the east wind strikes home for me as a description of my own personal spiritual journey. For many years, I pursued God, like the hunter chasing the swift gazelle. But God always seemed to slip out of my grasp. All the reward I got for my obsession was exhaustion and frustration.

It is the tried and true experience of deeply spiritual people (as described by some of the great spiritual writers) that we can never cage God and force him to bless us with a vivid sense of his presence. As one of my favorite writers on prayer, Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, puts it, God is like a wild tiger.** We cannot domesticate God. He is beyond our control.

The Great Value of Being over Doing

What I had to learn was that if I want—and I believe if anyone wants—to experience a vivid presence of God, then we must stop chasing God obsessively. If we try to grasp the wind, the wind will simply slip through our fingers.

But if we stop the chase and try to sit calmly and expectantly, we may find that God slips into our life and consciousness quietly and unobtrusively. The tiger dwells with us intimately in his own gentle way. He has become the loving house cat. The elusive wind makes its presence known to us by its gentle caress upon our face. We sense God’s presence not in dramatic miracles, but in elusive intuition. But that we know God by intuition does not make that knowledge any less real.

This is why the practice of contemplative prayer has come to play such an important place in my spiritual journey. In contemplative prayer we do not try to do anything with God. We give up speaking and arguing and debating with God. We even give up trying to be pious. Instead we choose to sit with God in silence. We simply be with God.

Being rather than doing becomes the royal gateway into the presence that we have spent so much time and energy chasing. And then comes another surprise. As we settle into just being, the Lord begins to fill us with his Spirit, pouring energy into us that issues eventually into action, but now action that moves in harmony with God’s will. We can begin as spiritual hunters to chase the values that eternally count.

* The translation I was reading was an earlier version of the New English Bible. Verse 12:1 reads a bit differently in more recent editions. The book of Hosea has had a difficult history of textual transmission through the centuries, and so the Hebrew text is not always crystal clear. This accounts for a great diversity of readings in modern translations.

** This way of describing God comes from Anthony Bloom’s little masterpiece, Beginning to Pray. The book is now out of print, but I rank it high among the many books I have read on prayer. If you find a used copy, I suggest you buy it immediately.

A Basket with Alabaster Eggs

Reading a Bible story dense with meaning.

Once when I was young, I was strolling through a store that was selling an Easter basket filled with smooth and colorful eggs. They looked enticing. But when I tried to lift the basket, I found it very heavy. The eggs were made out of Italian alabaster.

That is my analogy to the experience of reading Mark 4:35-41. This is a very short gospel story—only six verses long. On the surface it seems to be just a naïve miracle story. Jesus calms a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee with three words spoken into the wind, “Peace! Be still!” Wow, isn’t that cool!

Mark, however, is never a naïve storyteller. He can be laconic. He does not pad his stories with lots of verbiage. He tends to tell a story straight and direct. Nonetheless he builds a wealth of association into the few details he chooses to use. In that respect, details are heavy with meaning. A short story like this can resemble that basket filled with alabaster eggs.

Many of his associations have links back to the Old Testament. If you are going to plumb the depths of Mark’s writing, you will need to steep yourself in the Hebrew Bible. That is true, however, of the whole New Testament. When you read most New Testament passages, you can gain some meaning from a surface reading. That meaning may be spiritually helpful. But if you draw upon the passage’s links to the Old Testament, the New Testament passage comes even more richly alive.

Sea storms as ferocious monsters

Take, for example, the detail in this story of a ferocious storm at sea. The ancient Israelites were landlubbers, not sailors. They did not venture confidently out upon the sea.

Sea storms were especially terrifying to them as they were to most residents of the Middle Eastern deserts. In fact, in the Old Testament sea storms are often envisioned as sea monsters, those fearful creatures of the depths who could capsize a boat and swallow all its inhabitants alive.

The ancient Hebrews sometimes called one particular sea monster Rahab or Leviathan. The psalms and the prophets have scattered references to how God conquered this monster and cut up its body as food for the fishes. This monster seems to be a relic of some old mythological story that has not been preserved in the Bible.

It’s not accidental that the creation story in Genesis 1 begins with the earth as a formless, watery chaos over which God speaks his authoritative word, “Let there be light!” And there was light.

The raging seas were symbols of all the chaos that can overwhelm their lives, whether foreign invasion, social disorder, financial failure, and loss of health. All these forces of chaos are opposed to God and to the wellbeing of God’s people.

Mark, I believe, has that symbolism in mind when he tells us this story of a storm that rages on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus commands the storm, he says, “Peace. Be still!” The Greek word that we translate as “be still” literally means “be muzzled.” Jesus is commanding the storm to put the muzzle back on its mouth as if it were a ferocious beast that has broken out of its cage.

If, as some scholars argue, Mark wrote his gospel to a infant church experiencing persecution, then the symbolism of Jesus calming the raging storm would have spoken powerfully to that audience.

Sailing with a community

Let’s take another of Mark’s details, the boat. A boat was an ancient symbol of the community of faith, the church. So when the small band of teacher and disciples moves out onto the sea, they do so in a boat.

That is the way, I believe, Mark is suggesting to his audience how they are all called upon to move out into the storms of our own lives. They need to do so in the company of their fellow believers.

The Lord knows that churches can be imperfect communities. They can be exceedingly fragile. Yet each of us can draw from our church communities a sustaining power when we are going through rough times. We are not called to swim out into the storm all by ourselves. If we do, we’ll likely drown. But we are called to row out into the storms of life within the shelter of the boat and our fellow rowers.

There’s a third significant detail in the story. Mark tells us that when the storm arises, Jesus is asleep on a pillow in the stern of the boat. The stern would be the place where the helmsman would sit to control the tiller that steered the boat. In a Galilean boat he would sit upon the pillow.

But in this story, Jesus occupies the pillow. He occupies the position of the helmsman, who’s steering the boat. But there is one glaring detail out of place. He is asleep.

So often when we are going through tough times we can feel as if Jesus is fast asleep, totally unaware or unmoved by the distress we are in. But in Mark’s telling of the storm, that is an illusion. Though seemingly asleep, Jesus remains at the control point of the whole voyage.

Asking a weighty question

Finally, notice the question the disciples ask at the end of the story. “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

Again if you link this question to prior Old Testament references, like Psalm 107:23-32, the question suggests an unsettling answer. There the psalmist celebrates sailors who set out upon the sea in business ventures. When they run into raging storms that threaten to undo them, they cry out to the Lord. The Lord responds by making “the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Calming sea storms is divine action. So who indeed is this one who is telling the storm to be still, and the storm obeys him?

Maybe you can begin to see how rich this story is in its symbolism. And that makes it a very rich text for sermons.

Special note:
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, for some of my understanding of this text. He gave a presentation on this text at the recent conference of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators in early February. I found it unusually insightful.

Mark’s Ending: One Solution to the Riddle

The ending of Mark’s gospel may hide a surprising pastoral strategy.

Biblical scholars have long recognized that the Gospel of Mark ends oddly. Its canonical ending (verses 16:9-20) is clearly a later add-on to Mark’s original version. In all the earliest manuscripts, Mark 16 ends with verse 8:

So they [the women who find the empty tomb] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

But what a strange way to end the gospel story! The women who visit the tomb and find it empty meet there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen. But they do not—nor anyone else—have an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Here Mark differs sharply from the other three gospels.

Instead the young man tells the women that they are to tell Peter and his disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him. But then Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee. Matthew does. So does John. But Mark is silent.

This has led scholars to speculate that the original ending of Mark’s gospel got detached from the rest of the gospel at a very early date. The last leaf of the papyrus scroll may have been torn off.

In the original Greek, verse 8 in fact ends with the Greek word gar, which is the Greek conjunction for the word for. Many people cannot imagine Mark ending his story so abruptly, especially given the fact that the sentence describes how the women said nothing to anyone about the empty tomb or their encounter with the young man and his message because they were afraid.

So how did the original version of Mark end? That is a riddle Marcan scholars have long sought to answer.

A Speculative Answer

I don’t know the answer to that riddle. But I like to entertain the possibility that the original manuscript of Mark did end at verse 8. Is so, what was Mark up to in ending his story this way?

Well, to speculate an answer, I suggest we go back to what the young man tells the women. He says Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells the women to tell his disciples and Peter that he Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him.

But where in Galilee? That must have been the question the disciples asked, as do we. I want to propose one possible solution to question.

The disciples will meet Jesus in Galilee. But since Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee, where is the reader to find this encounter that fulfills the promise?

One must, in a sense, return to the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee abruptly. And his ministry continues in Galilee until he makes the fateful move to travel to Jerusalem and his death.

In Galilee, Jesus teaches and preaches, he heals and casts out demons, he calms storms, he feeds the hungry, he forgives sinners, he eats with outsiders, he challenges the scribes and Pharisees. These actions reveal the very inner character of Jesus, and ultimately according to Christian belief, the very character of God.

He characterizes his mission in the potent words to James and John in Mark 10:35-45. He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. His disciples need to learn that he who would be great must become the servant of all.

Jesus Resumes His Ministry of Service

The risen Jesus does not leave this mission of service behind, now that he can ascend to heaven and become the lord of the cosmos. The one who sits on heaven’s throne remains this very one whose life was all about service and giving his life for others. The one who sits on the throne and the one who serves the needy in Galilee are the one and the same Jesus.

So what the risen Jesus is doing when he goes ahead of his disciples into Galilee is to return to that ministry that was his from the start. And that is where his disciples will meet him. In the needy they serve, they will not only follow in his footsteps. They will see him.

What is different is that now, as a result of the resurrection, his Father has confirmed the path that Jesus has followed as God’s way. The Father has confirmed Jesus as the true Messiah, but the Messiah who brings liberation in this servant way.

So what Mark does is drive his readers right back to rereading his gospel, but now in the new perspective that the resurrection brings. Go back to Chapter 1, the gospel seems to be saying, and there you will see the risen Jesus in Galilee doing what he was always doing.

And when you come to the end of the gospel, then go back once again, over and over again, until your consciousness begins to absorb the gospel message and you recognize in Jesus’ way the work of the true Messiah. It is hard to change our consciousness, but if we keep reading the gospel over and over again, something of its power may begin to sink in and dissolve our hard-heartedness . Then one day we may awake and find that we see life and God and Jesus in a wholly new way.

So maybe in the end, in the way he ends his gospel, Mark reveals a strange and surprising pastoral strategy.