Flesh Finds Its Fulfillment

Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.

I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.

What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.

For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.

Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.

The Example of Melchizedek

Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.

Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.

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The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.

A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.

Entering the Inner Sanctuary

 It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.

We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.

The Curtain of Flesh

Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.

When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.

It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.

We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.

And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.

But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.

The Role of Resurrection

And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*

This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)

Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.

It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.

But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.

We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.

The Practical Point

Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.

We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.

And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**

I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.

We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.

In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.

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* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.

** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.

 

The Allure of God

Experiences of beauty point beyond themselves.

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Last week my wife and I attended a play about the Christian conversion of C.S. Lewis. His conversion was a process, not a one-time event. An important element in that process, he says, was some early experiences he had of joy. They set the stage for his conversion. In fact, he titled his autobiographical account of his conversion Surprised by Joy.

He gives his understanding of joy, however, a twist. In his experiences of joy, the ecstatic elation of feeling did not last long. Joy triggers an intense, almost poignant, longing or craving, a craving for that which had somehow caused that momentary experience of joy. His concept parallels that of the romantic German concept of sehnsucht.

What is “that” that has momentarily touched him? For Lewis, it is on a surface level beauty. What we find beautiful may differ from person to person (“beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”), yet wherever we find it, it seems to trigger a sense of pleasurable elation. We are drawn to it, as the night moth is drawn to the porch light.

And, as Lewis found, beauty feeds that intense desire to be in the presence of what we find beautiful. To hold onto it and possess it if we can.

Beauty as a Pointer

But for Lewis, beauty wherever we find it points to something beyond itself. It draws its allure from a higher source–God. Beauty then becomes one of the defining qualities of divinity. When we are fully in the presence of God, we are touched poignantly by God’s supreme beauty and by the beauty that he in grace bestows on all he has made.

So when we stand in awe of a stunning sunset, we are experiencing a beauty which derives from the godhead. When we examine a complex spider web in the light of early dawn, we perceive a beauty that flows from a divine source. When we admire the beauty of a handsome man or woman, we take joy in a beauty that is conferred by his or her maker.

When we work on a mathematic problem and we discover the solution is one of sublime simplicity, we feel we are once again discerning a beauty that derives from the One who creates mathematics. When we feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of some kind, compassionate action, we are recognizing that beauty adheres not only to things, but to behavior as well.

Supreme Beauty

If God then is supreme beauty as God is also supreme goodness and truth, then the words of the psalmist make sense:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

When we are touched, if only momentarily, by the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, then we long, sometimes poignantly, for that experience again. Our soul thirsts with an intense thirst, that ultimately only God alone can satisfy by bringing us into his own presence. We can never quite be the same again.

That’s why, I believe, that believers have had a hard time not understanding the Song of Songs in the Old Testament allegorically. What is this longing for God like when we experience it deeply? The closest thing in human experience is the intense longing of lovers for each other. And the Song of Songs is primarily a poem about longing, intense erotic longing.

A Poignant Experience of Beauty

I write this way because of my own experience. When I was in graduate school, some classmates and I decided one weekend to make a retreat at the Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. There we were invited to attend the round of daily prayers in the chapel.

We were not allowed to actually sit in the choir stalls with the monks. Instead we had to gather in a separate room attached to the chapel. There we could listen to the divine offices through a lattice grill. We heard the monks as they chanted their psalms and sang their hymns, sometimes to a strumming guitar.

Even in our somewhat isolated confinement, I found the music flowing to us through the grill intensely beautiful. In Homer’s Odyssey, the music of the sirens is described as so intensely beautiful that sailors were inevitably drawn to plunge into the sea as they passed the sirens’ island. The plunge was always fatal as the waves would dash them up against the jagged rocks. So Odysseus ordered his crew to stop up their ears with wax. Only he would be able to listen, but securely lashed to the ship’s mast.

Well, for me the music of the monks felt something like that coming from divine sirens. I could not believe how deeply it moved me. In some strange way I must have been experiencing something of the beauty that was flowing in their voices from the very God they were praising.

A week later, back in my dorm room, I woke up one night consumed with intense longing to that music. The pangs were so intense that they bordered on pain. They kept me awake for hours. I so wanted to experience that beauty again.

The intensity of the experience confused and frightened me. What was it saying about me? I struggled with that question for years to come. I still do not understand all that was going on that experience, except it did reveal for me the immense power of beauty when we experience it in some very deep way. That power can resemble both pleasure and pain. It can shake us the core of our being.

Signposts of the Universe’s Destiny

Like Lewis, I have come to view such experiences of beauty as pointers to something beyond themselves. They are preparing us, I suspect, for that great experience of unimaginable beauty that will be disclosed to us when God brings the universe to its final fulfillment. God then will be in all that is, no longer obscure and veiled from our eyes, but shining in a dazzling effulgence that will be indescribable. It can only be experienced, not described in words. But all creation will break forth in pealing shouts of joy.

In that day will be fulfilled the words of the psalmist:

Those who go out weeping

Bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6)

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

When Too Many Voices Speak for God

We can stagger under the impact of know-it-all voices.

Religious hypocrisy is a perennial problem among Christians. In fact, none of us ever live lives fully consistent with the gospel we claim to believe. One bitter fruit of this is that God’s good reputation gets tarnished outside of the circles of professed believers. I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paul’s Pious Phonies.

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There is another unfortunate fruit (more like a thistle) of this hypocrisy. Confidence in the message we preach and teach is undermined. This loss of confidence is intensified when we hear multiple voices proclaiming divergent understandings of God’s will.

I have lived most of my life in environments where I have heard a cacophony of conflicting voices each claiming to understand the truth for the church. I have often experienced a sense of betrayal by people (not only professional theologians and preachers, but also Sunday school teachers and devotional book writers) who have confidently proclaimed what they believe to be the will of God and therefore how I should live. As a boy and youth I accepted their claims without question.

But as I have advanced in my spiritual journey, I have come to question, if not outright reject, much of what was taught me when I was younger. I have adopted a lively caution as I listen to what I hear proclaimed today, not only in Evangelical circles, but in mainstream Protestant and Catholic circles. That caution works like a spiritual Geiger counter that constantly tests for what may be nothing more than religious cant.

What often sets off that spiritual Geiger counter is any claim by a speaker or writer that he or she is presenting the only one true way to God. The tone is I-know-it-all. This strikes me as true arrogance. My God will not be boxed into one theological box. My God may accomplish his purposes in ways far beyond anything I can imagine or expect.

What is called for, I believe, is a fundamental humility about our understandings of God and God’s will. We can and should live our lives confidently in the beliefs and convictions we hold. That is the way of maturity. Yet we must always be ready to admit that we might just be wrong. Infallibility is not a gift given to mankind.*

My Debt to the Reformation

To be honest, however, such a stance of humility can bear its own disquieting fruit. We can listen to the many theologies and ethical systems laid before us by preachers, spiritual teachers, theologians, and fellow lay Christians and then feel totally confused. Such confusion saps us of confident living. How do we end up making choices about what is right and true, choices on which we can choose to live our lives?

Here is where I realize that despite many qualms about my upbringing, I remain a spiritual son of the Reformation. For when I am confronted with a viewpoint that I do not fully understand or trust, I return to the Bible to find my bearings once again. It serves as the spiritual polar star that orients my faith journey. It is the rudder that keeps my spiritual ship sailing within a life-delivering channel. It is why the study of the Bible remains central to my spiritual life and my preaching and teaching.

When I say that, I am not saying that I practice some form of proof-texting where I find some verse in the Bible which I then extract out of context and turn into an isolated statement of universal truth. Such proof-texting lies behind much of the religious know-it-all arrogance from which I rebel.

I don’t believe that because a particular sentence appears in the Bible, it automatically becomes the authoritative word of God. Context and literary genre, for example, matter. So when I read the Bible, I try to be especially acute to the context of a phrase or sentence as well as the literary genre in which that phrase or sentence is embedded.

What I am doing  when I turn to Scripture is that I seek to soak myself in Scripture’s spirit and mindset. That means that, in a spiritual sense, I bathe myself in the waters of Scripture, listening to and meditating on what the Bible’s many diverse writers are saying. For I do not find one consistent message in the Bible, but a group of diverse voices in dialogue with each other. Their many voices remind me of the many voices of the rabbis whose wide-ranging discussions lie behind the creation of the Talmud.

Within that diversity of opinion and vision, I hope that I will tap into the Spirit who animates them all. The Spirit can do his work to cultivate within me the mind of Christ, which Paul urges us to adopt in Philippians 2:5: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….

As we come to look more and more at the world and at our own individual lives from within that mind of Christ, we can have confidence that the Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the truth.**

This is one important reason why I write this blog. I have confidence in the Bible because I have confidence in the Spirit that lies behind the Bible. The Bible therefore is worth the hours of energy that I invest in reading it and trying to understand its complex and spacious message.

This confidence in the Spirit is no guarantee, however, that my thinking will be without error. My creaturely mind will never be big enough to comprehend the fullness of truth. There will never be any grounds for intellectual or spiritual arrogance. But I can hope that I will be drawn deeper into the truth as I remain open both to the Spirit’s reshaping of my mind and heart and to perceptions of the truth offered by my fellow human beings.

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* On the issue of humility, I want to affirm the spirit expressed in this prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me ,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I was introduced to this prayer in a 2012 issue of the magazine Reflections, published by Yale Divinity School. The theme of the issue was: Seizing the Day: Vocation, Calling, and Work.

 ** What I am trying to say about the role of the Bible in my life parallels what the sages who wrote the Book of Proverbs say about the search for wisdom. For them, what ensures that their search for wisdom will prove fruitful is that it is grounded in an underlying fear of the Lord. This fear is understood not as terror, but as awe, reverence, and trust. The classic statement of this viewpoint comes in Proverbs 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

For me, one dimension of fearing the Lord is my basic reverence and openness to the words and thoughts I find in the Bible.

 

Was Jesus Born Again?

Does Jesus experience himself that spiritual awakening that he describes in John 3?

In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Jesus talks about the necessity of a new spiritual birth if we are to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Is Jesus speaking from personal experience? A close reading of the opening chapters of the Gospel of John might suggest he is.

When Jesus describes this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he says:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’(John 3:5-7)

Jesus mysteriously talks about this spiritual birth coming from water and Spirit. There has been much debate about what Jesus is talking about? Some read water as referring to our natural birth as creatures of flesh. Other read water as referring to baptism. Which is it?

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The Baptism of Jesus, by Piero della Fancesca, 15th century.

I find myself wondering if we should not read these words of Jesus in the context of John, chapter 1. Chapter 1 contains John’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ Baptism

What all the accounts of Jesus’ baptism bear witness to* is that it was at the moment when John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove. Notice in these accounts the close link between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit. One seems to trigger the other.

In my last posting (Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?), I interpret the spiritual birth that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus as a kind of spiritual awakening or transformation of consciousness that allows a person to perceive and live within the kingship of God. If this is the proper understanding of the new birth Jesus is describing to Nicodemus, then I would ask: Is this not exactly what Jesus experienced in his own baptism?

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism emphasize that this was the moment when Jesus received the gift of the Holy Spirit. His baptism also marked the moment when Jesus launched his public ministry. It was a ministry characterized by powerful acts in the Spirit.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also note that Jesus’ message was one that proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near. It was on the doorstep. This implies that Jesus had a discerning insight into the movements of God in history. He perceived something that others did not.

The gospel accounts therefore suggest that his baptism marked a momentous transition in Jesus’ life. Luke’s account of the 12-year-old boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) suggests that Jesus had an acute spiritual sensitivity even in his childhood. He already acknowledged God as his father. But he, like any human being, awaited a moment of spiritual transformation in order to see the nearness of the kingship of God and to work powerfully in harmony with that kingship.

If the born-again experience is a transformation in consciousness (as I contend in my previous posting), then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism suggest that that was exactly what happened to him. They talk of his seeing the heavens opened, of seeing the Spirit visibly descend upon him, and hearing the direct voice of God. In that respect what Jesus experienced calls to mind what the apostle Paul experienced in his Damascus road experience (see Acts 9:1-9).**

Born Again: A Necessary Transformation Because of Our Humanity

If this is a correct understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then it suggests that the born-again experience is not so much a remedy for sin, but a necessary transition for human beings as creatures of nature to rise to a higher level of existence where they as creatures of nature are also creatures infused with the divine life and power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

This has always been an idea embedded in much Eastern Orthodox theology in its doctrine of divinization. Salvation in this doctrine has always been about more than redemption from sin. It has been about human beings being raised to share in the divine life. All this is summarized in the Orthodox proclamation that God became human (in the incarnation of Jesus) so that human beings can become divine.

It is standard Christian proclamation that Jesus was sinless. So Jesus would not need to be born again as a remedy for sin. But if Jesus was truly human (as orthodox belief has always asserted), then he too would need to experience that birth from above–that spiritual awakening–that raises humans from a purely natural and material existence to that unity with the divine that has always been God’s salvific purpose.

I recognize that what I am proposing is a bold reinterpretation of Jesus’ baptism. I am fully prepared to admit that I might be very wrong. But I also contend there is much more depth to John 1 and John 3 than we have customarily seen.

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* For the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, see Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.

** It is also important to note in the account of Paul’s experience the close link between baptism and his spiritual transformation. This is one further reason why I think we must interpret the word water in the phrase of water and Spirit in John 3:5 as referring to baptism, not to natural birth. In Christian sacramental theology baptism does confer a new spiritual birth. Baptism marks the initiation into life lived under the kingship of God, but it does not confer spiritual maturity. One must grow into that maturity through a life lived as a spiritual journey into greater and greater spiritual wholeness.

Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

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Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.

 

Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

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St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

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Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.

 

 

 

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.