The Garden City

In the symbolism of Revelation, we glimpse Christianity’s ultimate aspiration.

Italian-Renaissance-garden_design

An Italian renaissance garden.

I find Revelation 21-22 attracts me back over and over again just as a burning light bulb allures the flying moth at night. As evidence, you my readers may notice that I’ve written about these two chapters twice before in this blog (see my two postings Heaven’s Not My Home and Jerusalem–Icon of Unity).

The appeal of Revelation 21-22 is not that I take them as a literal description of what heaven will look like. I don’t take any of Revelation as a literal blueprint of God’s plans for the future, as the dispensationalists do.

Instead I read Revelation’s imagery as I do imagery in poetry. Some of the images serve a symbolic function. Others are loaded with literary associations, usually looking back to the Old Testament. All seek to convey a deeply Christian vision of life and of God’s work in the world—past, present, and future.

In Revelation 21-22, the seer John gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead after the end of history. That is, what lies ahead after what Christian theology calls the Eschaton, the End. This brings the end of the universe as we presently know it. It ends God’s creative and redemptive work, which has been the grand story of Scripture.

At the Eschaton, the universe dies. Here John’s vision agrees with modern cosmology, which says that some billions upon billions of years ahead from now the universe will die either from extreme expansion or extreme contraction.

What comes after this death is the great promise of the Christian gospel: resurrection. Revelation 21-22 foresees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. We are in a new creation, but it is not discontinuous with the previous creation. Rather it is a transformed creation, just as are the resurrected bodies that the apostle Paul looks for in 1 Corinthians 15.

The Crown Jewel of the New Creation

In John’s vision, the crown jewel of this new creation is the new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven to the earth. The fact that it descends from heaven is John’s way of bearing witness that it is ultimately the gift of God, not the capstone of human creativity through the ages. John has no time for any utopian human agendas.

It is a city of stunning beauty, for it is as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). It is also the place where God dwells:

 ‘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)

In this vision the incarnation of God in his creation has expanded beyond just the man Jesus to embrace the whole of humanity. The whole community of humanity (symbolized by the city) now composes the tabernacle or dwelling place of God.*

This is a breath-taking vision. It is why the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not blasphemous when it proclaims that God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.** The Orthodox have grasped far better the full meaning of salvation than have most Protestants.

Revelation 21 then goes on to describe this city in glowing imagery. It has golden streets. Its gates are made from precious jewels. It radiates light. There is no night.

The Garden of Eden Redux

Revelation 22 continues John’s description of the city. From the heart of the city flows a river of the water of life. On each side of the river grows the tree of life, which bears fruit non-stop. Its leaves convey healing.

These verses clearly allude to the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 2. From the center of Eden also flows a river, which then divides into four branches. And in the midst of the Garden grows the tree of life.

In John’s vision of the Eschaton the Garden of Eden has not been discarded. It has been preserved or rather resurrected, but now abides as part of a city. The rural and the urban no longer form the two sides of a human conflict that has afflicted human history. Nor do primitive nature and highly evolved human culture. They have been united into one.

What strikes me so much in this Christian aspiration for the future is how it contrasts so dramatically with the aspiration for the future that we find in ancient Greek culture, especially its philosophy.

Greek culture tended to assume that human life was grounded in a deadly dualism. The material side of life and the spiritual/intellectual side of life were always in conflict. This dualism was the cause of human suffering. Salvation was escaping it. (The classic expression of this viewpoint is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.)

So life in the human body and in all the material side of life constituted a prison for the spirit and mind of human beings. The great longing was to set that mind/spirit free. This in turn fed a strong ascetical spirit in Greek philosophy. That spirit would later provide one of the springs of Christian asceticism.

God’s Home

But in John’s vision in Revelation, the material side of nature and the bodily life of human beings are not banished. Rather they come to be indwelt by divinity. God chooses to dwell in the new material creation. But this time the creation is truly in-Spirited. The material universe reaches its ultimate destiny–to be the tabernacle of God.

What we see in John’s vision is the ultimate working out of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. God’s incarnation was not to end with the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Rather God’s incarnation makes its first entrance into the world in that birth, but does not end until I believe the whole of creation is home to God’s Spirit. Talk about a big, big story!

The implications of this understanding of the Christian aspiration are immense for Christian understandings of ministry and ethics. They provide, I contend, the foundation for the Christian sacraments and for Christian ministries of healing, of feeding the hungry, of social service, of Christian engagement in politics and in ecology, of Christian respect for sexuality and the arts, and even of Christian attitudes towards what constitutes healthy Christian asceticism.***

Why do John’s visions in Revelation make my spirit soar? Let the implications of John’s symbolism sink in and you may begin to see why.

____________

* As I noted above, the Greek word that the NRSV translators translate as home in Revelation 21:3 is the literal word tabernacle. This is a weighty Biblical word. It alludes back to the tabernacle in the Old Testament’s Exodus story. There God instructs Moses to construct a portable tent sanctuary that could function as the meeting place between God and Israel during its 40-year journey through the Sinai desert. In John’s vision the transient place of meeting between God and Israel has now been replaced with a permanent meeting place.

But the word tabernacle also carries us back to the opening of John’s gospel. There in John 1:14 the gospel writer summarizes the Christmas gospel in the sentence, And the Word became flesh, and lived [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory…. When we read John in Revelation, we must carry with us these two previous uses of the word.

** They call this the doctrine of theosis.

*** One of my favorite modern Christian writers who I believed has plumbed the depths of meaning in the Christian doctrine of incarnation is the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. His view of Christian spirituality is quite distinctive in his emphasis on matter being raised to participate fully in spirit rather than in matter being abandoned in an effort to give the spirit freedom to flourish.

 

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Guilt vs. Shame

Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.

Jesus and adulterous woman

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.

One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.*  My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.

I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.

When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.

As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.

In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.

To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.

Shame’s Bitter Fruit

The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.

Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.

Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.

In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my  own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.

The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need

It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.

When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution.  A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.

The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.

But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.

In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.

Jesus, Guilt, and Shame

Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.

In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.

Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.

It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?

Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.

Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.

They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.

The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***

In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.

It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.

The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame

Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.

It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.

But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.

The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.

I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.

This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.

Footnotes:

* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.

** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.

*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.

 

Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.


* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.

Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.


* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.

 

The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.

 

Jerusalem–Icon of Unity

Unity is the seedbed of peace.

New Jerusalem

An image of the new Jerusalem from a Spanish manuscript, 1047 A.D., preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Psalm 122 is titled a “song of ascents.” This indicates that it belongs to a collection of songs (Psalms 120-134) that pilgrims sang as they entered the city of Jerusalem or the temple. (If they were traveling to the city from the Jordan Valley, it would have been literally a steep ascent, approximately 2,500 feet in total.)

It is a joyful hymn addressed not to God, but to the city itself. Its lyrics reflect the passionate attachment that Jewish pilgrims have felt and continue to feel for the ancient city. (That passionate attachment has come to be paralleled among Christian and Muslim pilgrims, too.)

The psalmist celebrates the city. First of all, it is the place where all the tribes of Israel assemble before God. Here they become one people in the presence of the God who has called them to be one nation.

The city is redolent with memories of the Davidic dynasty. David conquered the city, and there his descendants reigned for the next 400 years until its fall to Babylon in 587 B.C. There their thrones were set up.

The city is the site of the temple. In this sacred place Israel meets its God and God meets his people. It is truly a thin place, to adopt a Celtic concept.

An Evocative Image

But what I have always loved most is the description of the city in verse 3. In the New Revised Standard Version, the verse reads:

Jerusalem–built as a city

            that is bound firmly together.

That may be an accurate translation of the Hebrew, but the translation of the verse that resonates deeply in my soul is the translation that we find in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Jerusalem is built as a city

                        that is at unity with itself.

I first encountered this translation in my 20s. That decade was a decade of inner turmoil for me. I was torn this way and that by many different and competing desires and beliefs and confused feelings. It would be accurate to say that I was a deeply fragmented person.*

When I encountered that phrase at unity with itself, I felt that was not a description of me, but it certainly expressed my deep longing. Oh, to be a person who was at unity with himself!

What these words convey to me is an immensely beautiful image of integration. They express the experience of a life in which the diverse pieces of that life all fit together in harmony. The light and the shadow, the successes and the failures, the achievements and the losses, the joy and the pain. All make up a full life, but most of us find it hard to accept that fact.

I have made much progress towards that goal since my 20s, but I am not fully there yet. The words, however, continue to inspire me. They are the lodestar for my spiritual journey.

The words serve not only as the lodestar for an individual life (like my own), but also the ideal for which we all long as we look at living together with others–life in a family, in a church, in a local community, in a nation, or internationally. Human kind has seldom realized this dream, but it beckons us emotionally and spiritually nonetheless.

The New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation

The elder John picks up this image of Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 21-22, we read his vision of the new Jerusalem that descends out of heaven upon the earth at the end of history, when God creates a new heaven and a new earth.

The beauty of the city is dazzling with its bejeweled gates, golden streets, and verdant gardens. But what has always fascinated me about John’s description is that the city is equal in length, breadth, and height. The city extends 1.500 miles in each of those three dimensions.

What we have is a description of a cube. And the cube, along with the sphere, has traditionally been a symbol of perfection. The new city is a city at perfect unity with itself. All is in harmonious proportion.

The city has no temple, for it needs none. God dwells fully with his people in the culmination of that unity that unites heaven and earth, matter and spirit, humanity and its Lord.

Psalm 122 ends with the psalmist’s summons to pray for Jerusalem. Pray specifically for its peace. For where there is true unity, there also will be peace.


* So also has been the case with the historic city of Jerusalem. Few cities have been as fragmented and fought over as much as the city of Jerusalem, whether from internal discord or from foreign invasion. When we read Psalm 122, we feel we have entered into something of a dream world. This is not the Jerusalem of history. But dreams do reveal the depths of our inner psyche and for that reason point to a spiritual longing that cannot be smothered.

Joy in the Midst of Tears

A seemingly ordinary psalm opens up with a surprising depth of meaning.

Yin_yangWhen I’ve read Psalm 13 in the past, I’ve been inclined to read it thoughtlessly and hasten on. Its sentiments seemed so conventional. Almost every line can be found in other psalms.

Recently, however, as I read it again, I was struck by how mature this particular psalmist is in his psychological/spiritual life.

The psalm opens up as a typical lament psalm. The psalmist is in some kind of deep distress. It is not entirely clear what the cause is. Hints suggest that it may involve some kind of physical pain. There are also allusions to attacks from an enemy. The psalmist fears that his enemy may get the better of him. All this is causing a bout of sleeplessness.

Whatever the causes, the psalmist wants God to come to his rescue. But God seems nowhere near. The psalmist cries out, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?” That “how long” gets repeated three more times. This underlines the psalmist’s sense of abandonment.

In its last two verses, however, the emotional tone makes a 180-degree turn around. The psalmist declares his trust in the Lord. He joyfully awaits his rescue. In spite of all that he is enduring, hope remains.

Then comes the line that struck me between the eyes. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me (verse 13:6). In the Revised Standard Version translation I was reading, this sentence is in the past tense, not future tense. It is not an expression of hope, but a memory of past experiences of God’s grace. They have been many, for the psalmist uses the word bountifully. (The Book of Common Prayer uses the word richly, a very evocative choice).

In this short lyric we hear the poet hold together two conflicting emotions: sorrow and joy, anxiety and hope, desperation and reassurance. The duality of the poet’s life is resolved by his holding on to both sides of his experience. He does not let his faith smother his pain, nor does he let his pain erase his joy and hope. He holds on to the totality of his life.

His stance is so reminiscent of the Chinese concept of yin and yang (the complementary opposites held together in a unity). That’s why I chose the taijitu, the traditional Chinese image of yin and yang, as the visual image for this posting.

This is a paradoxical way of living. But how does the psalmist hold these contradictions together? That is the question that I don’t feel I have the answer to yet. Do any of you, my readers?