Spirituality Unmoored

Spiritual experience sickens when detached from the nitty-gritty realities of daily, material life. 

The Transfiguration by Raphael Sanzio, 1520

Some 20 years ago, I served on an advisory board for a Protestant seminary. In our first gathering, the school’s administration sketched for us the broad dimensions of the seminary’s curriculum. The emphasis was heavy on academic theology and field education. That represented their best judgment as to what was proper preparation for the task of ministry.

At the end of the presentation, one in our group asked, “Who is teaching our future clergy to pray?” The question seemed to throw the administrators for a loop. They did not conceive the seminary teaching spiritual practices.

Much has changed since then. The current president of that same seminary writes a weekly blog on spirituality. Many seminaries around the country now offer not only courses in spirituality, but also certification courses in spirituality and spiritual direction.

Likewise many local congregations now give great emphasis to prayer practices as well as other spiritual disciplines. The church my wife and I attend is one. Every educational term there is at least one offering in spirituality, sometimes more than one.

I belong to a professional association for Christian educators. I note the frequency that discussions of spirituality come up in its newsletters and national conferences.

Mainline Protestantism seems to be awash in spirituality. I applaud this because the practice of contemplative prayer has played a very formative role in my own Christian life for the past 25 years. I believe in the spiritual journey. I am glad that many others now see its importance, too.

And Yet

Yes, and yet. I am becoming increasingly concerned about this growing popularity with spirituality. When popularization latches onto any thing profound, it tends to water down the profundity. Quickly the popularized version becomes something innocuous or disappointing.

This, I fear, may be happening with the fad for spirituality. It runs the risk of becoming something cloying, sweetly sentimental, and therefore riskless. We use spiritual practices not to enter more deeply into the nitty-gritty realities of daily life, but to escape them into an unreal never-never land where nothing bothers us.

Gordon Cosby, the late pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., always instructed his parishioners that they must be engaged in two simultaneous journeys in their individual lives and in the congregation’s life. One journey is a journey inward. It is the journey we pursue when we engage in spiritual practices. The other journey is a journey outward, as we engage in ministry and mission to the world outside our inner fellowship.

What has always impressed me about his vision is that he never regarded the two journeys as an either/or. We must engage in both…and simultaneously.

If we do not, our journey inward becomes very self-centered. Our spirituality will sicken. We need to journey outward as a check on that ego-centrism. But likewise, if we engage only in a journey outward, then we quickly burn out. Our inner energy is depleted. We lose either the joy or the momentum to serve. Our spiritual practices keep us in touch with the spiritual springs of our inner energy and inspiration.

I have always felt Cosby was spot on in his analysis. His vision has become my own.

What I fear is that with our current obsession with spirituality, many people and churches today are falling into the very trap that Cosby warns against. We are so focused on spiritual experiences that we are neglecting the simultaneous call to ministry outward.

Mountaintop Experiences and Life in the Valley

Here I find the beauty of Mark’s vision in his gospel. In Mark 9:2-29 Mark tells two stories about Jesus. As is usually the case with Mark, the two stories are not two independent stories that just happen to follow another. They belong together and comment on each other. So we must read them together.

Mark 9:2-8 tells the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a high mountaintop. It describes what must have been a spectacular spiritual experience for the three witnessing disciples. Jesus glows in a dazzling white light. Moses and Elijah stand beside him in conversation.

Talk about a spiritual experience. Not much can top that. It so impresses Peter that he proposes to build three shrines on the mountain to commemorate the event. In this way he would like to hold on to the experience. This might mean that he, James, and John could return to the site over and over again to bask in the glorious memory.

But the brilliant light fades, as do Moses and Elijah. All that remains is the heavenly voice instructing them to listen to Jesus. Religious experiences never last. What does endure is the gospel word.

Jesus then leads them down the mountain. He tells them to say nothing about the experience until he rises again from the dead. His words make no sense to the disciples.

When they reach the valley (Mark 9:14-29), they encounter a confused scene where a desperate man seeks a healing for his epileptic son. He does not get it from the disciples. Only a fierce argument.

The man pleads for Jesus to step in and Jesus does, healing the boy. Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus why they could not heal the boy. Jesus responds, This kind can come only through prayer (Mark 9:29).

Together these two stories illustrate the point that Gordon Cosby makes. The three disciples are given a powerful spiritual experience on the mountaintop. But they are not meant nor allowed to remain there in its rarefied spiritual atmosphere. Instead Jesus leads them down into the pain, suffering, and frustrations of life in the valley. This is daily life, life in the material world of the body, the place where most of life is lived.

What gives Jesus and his disciples the power and resources for serving those demanding needs in the valley is the practice of prayer. And so Jesus and Mark would have us travel to a quiet place of retreat for prayer and then back into the valley over and over again. This is the  cycle that leads to spiritual maturity.


Naked Lad on the Run

How do we make sense of a stray detail in Mark’s story of Jesus’ betrayal?

The kiss of Judas from Giotto’s fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua, 1305.

In Mark’s account (Mark 14:32-52) of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he includes a detail that has puzzled both scholars and general readers ever since. He says that after Jesus’ arrest, his disciples all fled and deserted him.

Then follows these two odd sentences:

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:51-52)

Mark does not explain it. He does not tell us who the young man was nor why he was wearing only a linen cloth. Nor are we given any clue why the memory of this young man was preserved. What relevance does it have the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death?

Wild speculation has raged as a result. Some scholars suggest the young man was John Mark, the alleged author of Mark’s gospel. Others have let their imaginations run wilder with even more bizarre fictions.

I myself have long wondered why Mark includes this odd detail in his narrative. And it is only recently that I have come to some inkling of why. Let me offer my speculation.

Mark as a Literary Artist

When we read the gospel of Mark, we find the author has a practice of using the literary device we call an inclusio. In this device the author brackets a part of his narrative between two short stories or comments that serve as bookends for the passage in between.

We see that in Mark with the great block of teaching in the center of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus teaches his disciples about his mission as Messiah and their discipleship (Mark 8:27-10:45). Mark introduces this block of teaching with a story of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). This healing is a difficult one. It requires two stages.

At the end of the block of teaching, Mark also recounts the story of the healing of another blind man, Bartimaeus of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). These stories are not accidentally placed. Mark seems to suggest that when Jesus teaches his disciples, he is trying to heal them of their spiritual blindness. This healing is slow and arduous, progressing in stages.

Again, we find Mark uses the device of inclusio when he recounts the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24. This story comes in two parts. The first part recounts Jesus cursing the tree. The second recounts how the disciples the next day find the tree withered and dead.

It’s a troubling story as it does not fit our preconceptions of Jesus. He seems peevish. But we need to notice that these two parts of the story sandwich a story in between. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of its noisy commercial activities in order to restore it to being a house of prayer.

I want to suggest that Mark is once again using inclusio to comment theologically on the story of the temple cleansing. Jesus comes to the temple expecting to find it a place that nurtures spiritual fruit. Instead he finds it a place of noisy commerce. It has betrayed its spiritual purpose. And therefore it is going to swept away in the future.

It may seem odd to us that Mark makes his theological comments in this subtle way instead of making them more directly. But nonetheless he chooses to so do.

Inclusio at Work Again

Now we come to the story in the Garden of Gethsemane. It tells this odd story of the lad who runs away naked at Jesus’ arrest. I want to suggest that this story is again a part of an inclusio that Mark employs to make a theological comment on the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection.

When Jesus is arrested, all his disciples flee. A bit later, Peter will deny Jesus. None of the disciples, in Mark’s account, attend Jesus in his crucifixion. Jesus dies alone, as I note in my previous blog posting Divine Desolation.

What the passion story reveals for Mark is the true character of the disciples. They are a fearful lot. They have no psychological or spiritual backbone. And when they desert Jesus, they shed any pretense that they may have had of faithfulness and piety.

In including the detail about the young man running away naked, Mark is commenting theologically on the disciples. In a sense, they are stripped naked spiritually, and they run away in shame.

The Second Bracket

Now if this detail forms the first part of an inclusio, we ask: Where is the second bracket? I want to suggest we find it in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8.

When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb and enter it, Mark says they encounter a young man sitting there. He is dressed in a white robe. Mark does not call him an angel as Matthew does. Mark explicitly calls him a young man.

This young man, I want to contend, is the second bracket. And he too is a theological comment on the story.

With Jesus’ resurrection, the disgraced disciples will be restored to grace. They will be renewed. Jesus will forgive them, explicitly as told in the case of Peter in John 21. In the new era of the kingdom which has dawned with Jesus’ resurrection, they will receive a new status of honor and dignity. They will be called to the noble mission of apostleship. In symbolic terms, they will be spiritually re-clothed as the young man in the tomb has been.

Significantly Mark tells us the young man is dressed in white. Here may be an allusion to the rite of baptism in the early church. When new converts was baptized, they stripped off their secular clothes and were immersed in the baptismal pool as if they were new babies. When they emerged from the waters, they were dressed in white robes and then led into the church congregation for their first participation in the Lord’s Supper. The white robe signified their adoption into the family of God with all it conferred in honor and dignity.

What narrative do we find sandwiched within these two brackets of the inclusio? It is the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In this story, the disciples will be stripped of their pretensions and then restored to honored status in Jesus’ family. The two stories of the young man are alerting the reader or listener as to what is spiritually going on in this tragic yet grand story.

Yet One More Possible Meaning

There is yet another possible meaning in these subtle comments. Jesus himself will be stripped of his honor and dignity in the story that follows the detail of the naked lad running away. He will be heaped with shame, for crucified men were usually stripped naked before being nailed to the cross. Yet in the resurrection Jesus will be re-clothed not only in his resurrected body, but with a spiritual dignity and honor that surpasses all measure.

Once again the two brackets are alerting us how to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I concede that if this is what Mark is doing with this strange inclusio, it is very subtle theology. But if we have been paying close attention as we read all the way through Mark’s gospel, we come to realize that though he is abrupt at times and sparing in words, Mark is an extremely subtle theologian. And if we are to catch his depths, we cannot skim through his gospel.


Tourist Attraction or House of Prayer?

How my visit to two Muslim mosques flavors the way I read one gospel story.

Suleimaniye Mosque
The interior of the Suleymaniye Mossque. It was very quiet and restful inside, wonderful for meditation.

Three years ago, my wife and I made a visit to Istanbul. I had long been a student of Byzantine history but had never visited the empire’s old capital. I wanted to visit the sites I had read about, like Hagia Sophia and the remnants of the Hippodrome.

While we were there, we also visited many of the notable Ottoman buildings in the city. One afternoon, we visited the Blue Mosque, which is built on the site of the old Byzantine imperial palace. It is one of the most renowned Ottoman mosques in the city, famous for its gorgeous blue tiles. It attracts hordes of tourists.

The afternoon we visited, we had to stand in line a long time before we could enter. Once we did we had an opportunity to view the tiled dome and the stained glass and the majestic open space designed to accommodate large prayer crowds. But we did so along with those hordes of other tourists.

As a result, the air inside roared with all the loud noise of the many tourists ooh-ing and ah-ing at the building and of the tour guides trying to shepherd straying members of their tour groups. All those voices created a headache-inducing din. In addition, we jostled with the crowds, knocking against other people’s shoulders as we tried to maneuver our way through the space.

I couldn’t wait to get out. I found the environment one of the least prayer-inducing spaces I had ever been in.

Two days later, we visited the Süleymaniye Mosque, the masterpiece of the Ottoman architect Sinan. The mosque crowns the top of Istanbul’s Third Hill. It gazes down majestically at the Golden Horn waterway at the hill’s base.

When we entered, only a few stray tourists were visiting, along with a few devout Muslims using the mosque for their personal prayers. It too has a magnificent dome that, like a great umbrella, shelters the prayer floor.

The atmosphere, however, was quiet and serene. The few people talking were doing so quietly, almost in whispers. I sat down on the carpet, assuming my normal stance for meditative prayer and tried to soak in the silence. Here was an environment that truly invited me to meditate and pray. I thought that if I lived in Istanbul, this would be a place I would want to visit often to sit in contemplative silence.

Both mosques are places of prayer, but how utterly different they were in their spiritual atmosphere.

Making Connections with a Bible Story

I find myself recalling these two experiences now whenever I read the story in Mark’s gospel (Mark 11:15-19) about Jesus cleansing the temple of its merchants and live stock. He enters the temple to find its outer courtyard all a bustle with the sounds of bleating sheep and mooing cattle and the aggressive voices of the moneychangers as they cut deals with visiting pilgrims. I can also imagine there were also plenty of tourists strolling around gawking at the magnificent structure, the greatest of King Herod’s many grandiose building projects.

I wonder if the scene was like that I experienced at the Blue Mosque. The temple’s outer court was the court open to visiting Gentiles. In the midst of all this racket of sound, how could any Gentile have prayed in peace?

Outrage over this noisy busyness and strident commercialism seems to have driven Jesus to overturn the moneychangers’ tables, to disrupt the animal pens, and to block transit by the porters hauling merchandise back and forth.

Yes, all that commerce was necessary to supply the sacrifices and support the temple’s administration. But it all smothered what Jesus seems to have regarded as the temple’s deeper purpose. He reveals his attitude by quoting two phrases lifted from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:

 My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.

 But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mark 11:17)

I like to think that Jesus would have approved of the environment I encountered in the Süleimaniye Mosque. It invited people to pray. He expected the Jerusalem temple to be a similar environment. He was sadly disappointed.

And how he might be disappointed at what he would encounter in many churches today. There are many things we need to do to keep up the programs and ministries churches sponsor. These require many noisy negotiations. And unless we are Quakers, our worship will involve a lot of sound–music and preaching and friends greeting one another. I don’t question any of that. Nor, I suspect, would Jesus.

But do we also create in our churches spaces where people can rest in silence, to meditate, to pray, or just to be with the Lord? Do our church buildings and their many activities serve to induce prayer? Then are we nothing more than St. Paul’s noisy gongs and clanging cymbals?



Check It Out

I launch a newly redesigned website to support my teaching ministry.

Teaching GOrdon

 Times change. And so must I.

Five years ago I joined the digital age in my teaching ministry. I created a personal website to promote the teaching services I provide to churches and community groups. Recently I have been feeling it was becoming dated. So I have redesigned it and re-launched it under a new URL. I invite you to check it out at gordonlindsey.com.

If, after you review it, you want to explore with me how I might provide my teaching service to your church or group, please get in touch with me. You can e-mail at ggrlindsey@earthlink.net or telephone me at the numbers listed on the website.


House of God: Evolution of an Idea

The Bible shows a progression in its understanding of where God dwells among humans.

Temple Mount 2
The temple mount in Jerusalem, site where the Jewish temple once stood.

Over the years I have read many scholarly books of the Bible. Most have enriched my understanding. Some have deeply influenced my teaching and preaching. But seldom does a work completely overturn my understanding of a particular text.

That has happened for me in the last couple of weeks as I read through Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s monograph In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah.* It has stood my previous understanding of the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah on its head. I must completely revise my thinking.

Eskenazi is a professor of Biblical literature at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Although modern Bibles divide Ezra and Nehemiah into two separate books, Eskenazi regards them as being originally one unified work. She convinces me on that.

She then seeks to explore this unified work as a literary creation. This means she does not try to get tangled up in the complex issues of sorting out the historicity of Ezra-Nehemiah’s narrative. There are all kinds of displacements in the text that make for a convoluted historical record.

Instead she concentrates on trying to understand the message that the work seeks to convey in its canonical, literary form. If you have been reading my blog faithfully, you know that I favor this approach as well. I use it all the time in my own reading.

This is not to say that historical questions are not important. But it is the message of the Bible in its present canonical form that serves as an enduring message to the religious communities of Judaism and Christianity. That message is the foundation for preaching. And so it is where I like to concentrate my attention.

A New View of Ezra-Nehemiah

But back to Eskenazi’s book. Whenever I have read Ezra-Nehemiah in the past, I tended to get bogged down in the long lists of names of people that punctuate the text. These lists make for tedious reading. For one, they are long; and two, the names are generally hard-to-pronounce Hebrew names. An English speaker will stumble over the names only so long before either turning the page or abandoning the work completely.

The book also describes the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the temple after the exiles return from their deportation to Babylon. The new temple proves to be a paltry affair after the glory of Solomon’s temple. The rebuilding of the city sets the stage for that long transitional period between the end of the Old Testament and for Christians, the beginning of the New Testament era. Because Protestants ignore the Apocrypha, we tend to regard that transitional period as unrecorded history and therefore insignificant.

So like many Protestants, I have given Ezra-Nehemiah scant attention. Eskenazi convinces me how very wrong I have been. Ezra-Nehemiah is a profound work. It expresses some theological themes that help set the course of the intertestamental period in Judaism and which then in course shaped the long-term thinking of both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

Eskenazi highlights three of those themes: 1) the important role of the people (in contrast to heroic leaders) in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, 2) the expanded understanding of what constitutes the house of God, and 3) the emergence of documents in contrast to oral prophecy as the locus of authority in the community’s life.

The Challenge for the Returning Exiles: To Build a House for God

 All three of these themes play a role in reshaping my view on Ezra-Nehemiah. But in this posting I want to comment on just one of those themes, because it opened a door on the progression of an idea through the whole course of the Christian Bible. This theme is the second one Eskenazi highlights: what constitutes the house of God.

As Ezra-Nehemiah tells its story, the task of rebuilding the house of God is the major challenge the returning exiles are given when they return to the Jerusalem ruins. This comes through clearly in the edict given by the Persian king Cyrus, recorded in Ezra 1:2-4. There he says that the God of heaven has charged him with the task of building God a house at Jerusalem in Judah. And so he summons Jews from throughout his kingdom to take on this challenge.

When we read this mandate, we immediately assume that this is a charge to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that the Babylonians had leveled. And the returning exiles make that their first priority. But Eskenazi shows that a close reading of the text suggests the completion of the temple does not constitute the completion of the mandate. For Ezra-Nehemiah does not regard the house of God as identical with the temple.

Only when the walls of the city are rebuilt under Nehemiah’s leadership is the task complete. And only then do we get the festive dedication celebrations in Nehemiah 12. For what emerges in the course of the unified book is the understanding that the house of God has expanded beyond the temple proper to include the whole city of Jerusalem. The city and its residents constitute the fulfillment of the mandate.

Jerusalem Becomes the Holy City

For this reason, we encounter in Nehemiah 11:1 an expression that was not used of Jerusalem in the centuries before. Jerusalem is called “the holy city of Jerusalem.” This explains why the temple gatekeepers (liturgical figures) are now stationed not only on the gates of the temple, but also on the gates to the city. And the dedication ceremonies celebrating the completion of the walls involve a liturgical procession of priests and people around the city on those new walls. The walls enclose the sacred space, which coincides with the city.

I found all this fascinating because it suggests that we must look to this era and its accomplishments for the rise of the perception of Jerusalem as the holy city, a perception common to Judaism and Christianity. Previous to this post-exilic restoration, the city of Jerusalem was important at the capital of the kingdom and as site of the temple. But we don’t find references to Jerusalem as a holy city in the books of Samuel and Kings and the pre-exilic prophets.

But this idea is present in Ezra-Nehemiah. And it is an idea that has come to occupy a permanent place in the religious imagination ever since.

An Evolving Understanding of the House of God

Now let me explain why I find this so fascinating beyond just a historical datum. What we see in Ezra-Nehemiah, I believe, is one stage in the evolution of the concept of the house of God as we can follow it throughout the course of the Christian Bible.

In the earliest stages of the Biblical record, the house of God is associated with the tabernacle that the Israelites build in their exodus wanderings. Under King Solomon the tabernacle is transformed into the glorious temple in Jerusalem.

King David had proposed building this temple in 2 Samuel 7, where it is referred to as a house for God. But God denies him that privilege, leaving it to Solomon. When Solomon dedicates his new temple, he does so saying:

The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.

I have built you an exalted house,

a place for you to dwell in forever. (1 Kings 8:12-13)

This makes sense to us, as it would have been a common perception of the role of temples throughout the ancient world. They are houses for the gods.

But with Ezra-Nehemiah, we begin to see this concept of the house of God expanding beyond its architectural manifestation. It is expanding to include the whole city of Jerusalem and subtly by extension, the city’s people. The architectural understanding is beginning to recede and the concept is beginning to take on an urban, social meaning.

Voices in the New Testament

Now when we get to the New Testament, we find a further progression in this evolution of meaning. In 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for its infighting and internal strife. Such behavior is destroying the church community.

We need to notice how Paul highlights the seriousness of this negativity. He writes to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

The “you” in these sentences is a plural “you.” Notice that Paul says ‘you’ (plural you) are the temple of God. The Corinthian church would have had no architectural structure in which it worshipped. (The church met in people’s homes.) The temple of God is now the community itself. The place where God dwells is now firmly within the community and its community life.**

Finally when we get to the book of Revelation in the New Testament, the elder John’s final vision is of the world as it has been remade after the coming of the End. And in this vision (Revelation 21-22), the focus of attention is the new Jerusalem, called the holy city, which descends upon earth out of heaven adorned as a bride for her husband (Revelation 21:2).

The angelic voice that speaks to John reveals the significance of this city, saying

See, the home (Greek: tabernacle) of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them. (Revelation 21:3)

Significantly, we are told this city has no temple, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22). There is no need to confine the sacred into a restricted space. In this new creation the walls enclosing the sacred are exploded. The sacred spills out and fills all of creation. This suggests the ultimate house of God will be the whole universe, but most especially the human community at its center.

Now I don’t know about you, but this is a vision that astonishes me. This is what God is up to in creating the universe, and in calling Israel to be his people, and in sending Jesus to usher in the Kingdom of God, and in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. It is nothing less than creating a spectacular house for God, a house in which every individual being created by God can find its home. And I believe that includes not only human beings, but all forms of life.

As Jesus says in his farewell discourse to this disciples:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

 To that, I say, Amen.


* Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988.

** I am aware that Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19 also says that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. He uses this as part of the sanction for his sexual ethics. The concept of the house of God as it evolves in the Bible never becomes totally dematerialized. It always keeps its roots in the material world, as shown in the vision of Revelation 21-22.

Photo credit: Andrew Shiva