The Miracle of Emmaus

The gift of grace is the gift of seeing.

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The supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, ca. 1601. Note how Caravaggio sets the scene as a full supper in a 17th century Italian home. The historical becomes contemporary.

Of all the resurrection stories in the gospels, my favorite has always been the story that Luke tells of two disciples encountering Jesus as they walk to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It has such a feeling of reality about it.

Distraught over the crucifixion of Jesus and now stories that he might have arisen, the two disciples are trying to make sense of the last three days in their lives. They try to sort things out as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.

As they walk and talk, a stranger joins them. He asks them what they are discussing. As they share their tumbled thoughts, he proceeds to help them understand what has happened. Turning to the Old Testament, he explains how a close reading of the Torah and prophets should have led them to expect that the Messiah would suffer before entering into his glory.

They are so caught up in the conversation that when they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to stay with them for the night. Let us hear more. But first there is the evening meal. As the meal begins, the stranger takes up the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them. (These are the essential and hallowed actions of the Eucharist.) At just that moment, they recognize the stranger. It is Jesus. But he vanishes.

What captivates me about this story is its theme of blindness and sight that weaves through the narrative. As the disciples walk their road, they do not recognize that the stranger joining them is Jesus, even though they must have spent a lot of time with Jesus over the years of his ministry.

They do not recognize the distinctive sound of his voice. Nor do they recognize his style of teaching even though they must have heard it many times before. Yet their hearts burn within them as they listen. Might that not have triggered memories?

It is only when the stranger picks up bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them, that they gain the gift of sight. They recognize their Master with an outburst of joy. Something about the actions of the Eucharist wipes away the obscurity that clouds their eyes and minds.

The Ring of Realism

What makes this story so realistic to me is that the description seems to be spot on right in describing my own spiritual experiences. Most of the time I live my life with no awareness of the presence of Jesus in the people and circumstances of my daily living. The man I meet in the grocery store is Sam the butcher. The woman in the doctor’s office is Jessie the nurse. I don’t expect to see Jesus in them. Nor do I expect to meet Jesus in my commute on the subway, or ordering a hamburger in McDonald’s.

Yet maybe I am or was. The Emmaus story makes that provocative suggestion.

To see Jesus in my daily life takes a special gift of sight, a miraculous gift of sight. It is not something that I can command. I have to receive it as a gift conferred in the gracious timing of the Giver.

In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. It is the same point the Emmaus story makes, but in different words. We can only see the movements of God in our world and in our own lives as we are given the gift of spiritual sight. Physical eyes do not see them, nor do intellectual powers.

As the parallel verse of John 3:5 suggests, the same thing can be said of spiritual experience. One can only enter, experience, the kingdom of God as one is born from above. Spiritual insight and spiritual experience are both gifts, not achievements.

Thomas Merton, for example, says this about contemplative prayer:

The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it…For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.*

Waking Up to Reality

Yet daily life and our encounters with other people, I believe, are infused with the spiritual. Our dilemma is that we see that only when our eyes are spiritually rinsed and our powers of perception are cracked open to let the spiritual light beams stream in. Or in other words as Merton might put it, we need to wake up.

So for all of us, we are in the position of Bartimaeus the beggar. When Jesus meets him on the road leading out of Jericho, he cries out to Jesus. When Jesus stops and ask him, What do you want me to do for you?, the beggar answers, My teacher, let me see again.(Mark 10:46-52)

All of us who would see Jesus in our daily lives must pray the same request. And wait for the precious gift to be given.

The Emmaus story, however, suggests that there is one place where that miracle is most likely to happen. It is in the experience of the Eucharist. When we participate in that service of thanksgiving, when the bread is blessed and broken, the wine blessed and poured, we have our best chance to see into the kingdom of God.

For there is nothing more basically daily and natural than the eating of bread, nothing more material and bodily in our lives, and yet here is where we stand our best chance of having our eyes opened to see in this material act the action of the Lord lovingly feeding us. Daily, material life is fulfilled as it is lifted into and fused with the realm of the spirit.

It is where I have and still do most experience God as a loving father and extravagant host. It has been and is a transformative moment for me. As I participate in this ritual over and over again, maybe, just maybe, my eyes will be opened to see that what is true of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is also true of all my daily living. That is at least my prayer.

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* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books, 1961. Page 6.

In a Time of Pandemic

A modern-day lament psalm

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Albrecht Durer’s Vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Woodcut, 1498

In this time when we are all living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my thoughts returning to the tradition of lament psalms in the Old Testament. They expressed the fears and terrors of a people under severe threat.

What might a lament psalm look like in our current time of pandemic? I asked myself and then sat down to try my hand at drafting such a poem for our time. I would like to share it with you. Maybe it will speak to you.

The woman that I refer to in the poem is Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who wrote down her visions during a time when the Black Plague was ravaging England. It killed one-third of England’s population.

Her visions speak a powerful message of reassurance.*

Who can measure the strength of a virus?

            Who can assess its inner power?

No eye can detect its invisible colors;

            no skin can feel its crawl.

It lies hidden like a viper in its hole;

            it leaps and sinks its fangs without warning.

We shake hands with our neighbor,

            and it jumps from finger to finger.

We cough and it scatters on the vibrations of air;

            we sneeze and it rains upon the unsuspecting.

We turn the door knob and it attaches itself;

            we grab the steering wheel and it adheres.

Where comes the deadliness of such minuteness?

            We stagger in the face of its assaults.

The newscaster mounts the statistics

            on the television screens of our minds.

They feed our terror before a hidden enemy

            as if a guerilla band has attacked our village

            and gunned down indiscriminately.

How shall we defend ourselves?

            Where can we hide in safety?

Our only refuge is solitary isolation;

            we shed the bonds of neighborhood.

We confine ourselves to a world behind locked doors

            waving greetings through glass windows.

Yet in this retreat, without street noise, alone,

            without the distractions of daily commerce,

we may begin to hear the voice of mistress Julian,

            chanting her Jesus-word to a plague-drenched England:

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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* If you find Lady Julian’s words too Pollyanneish, then I suggest you read her full visions to catch the context of acute illness and suffering from which they arise. She says they were the words Jesus spoke to her in her near-death experience.

The Foolish Wisdom of God

We misperceive the gospel if we miss its paradoxical character.

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The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

For one brought up from childhood in the church, like myself, it is easy for the fundamental points of the Christian proclamation to become common-place truisms. When that happens, we lose all sense of how extraordinary they really are.

That is especially true for all talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. We talk and sing about the power of the cross and the glory of the cross. We wear the cross around our necks. We hang gilded crosses from the ceilings of our churches. And yet how easy it is to lose consciousness of how extraordinary a thing it is that Christians make an object of gruesome execution the central image of their piety.

I count myself among them. That is, until I was recently reading the opening words of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the church in Corinth. That church is undergoing a serious congregational crisis. Theological factions have broken out in its assembly, factions that seem to be out-shouting each other in their claims to hold the wiser and more eloquent understanding of the principles of their religion.

Paul is scandalized by the situation. In reality, he says, the factions are spiritually immature, not advanced. The proof of this is that they are engaging in such bitter rivalry with each other. The fruit of their rivalries is to counteract the momentum of the gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, he presents his own analysis of what’s happening. He zeroes in on the centrality of the crucifixion to the Christian gospel. He makes the extraordinary statement that the crucified Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). He then reinforces what he has just said by adding:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Now these are standard motifs in Christian preaching. But as I was reading them again, I was struck anew about how extraordinary it is for Paul to say this. For we, too, live in an age when facility in persuasive speech and effectiveness in action are highly prized.

We see this especially in the world of politics and corporate business. We want our leaders to inspire us by their speeches. We want them to prove their competency by accomplishing exalted goals. One business manual has expressed these two values in the summary label “big hairy audacious goals.”* And if we cannot deliver on them, we will be consigned to the category of followers, not leaders.

The Lesson of the Crucified Christ

But this is not the lesson Paul draws from the Christian proclamation of a crucified Christ. Instead it is through the pathway of self-effacing service, rejection, defeat, and even death, that God is at work to transform the world.** In this respect the Christian gospel proclaims God’s way as being 180 degrees opposite to our normal expectations of how transformation works.

In another passage (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul will describe the way of Jesus as the way of emptying (Greek: kenosis) himself. It is such an emptying that releases the power of transformation. It also leads paradoxically to his exaltation.

For me, as I reflect on Paul’s statements, I find myself asking: Just how does this way of the cross, this way of emptying ourselves, release the power of transformation? And how does it differ from a pathological self-humiliation?

That is one of the central mysteries that I think that Christian theology is called upon to explore and elucidate, especially in its systems of spirituality. For in the end the gospel, as Paul sees it, is not about abstract intellectual brilliance and sophistication (although certainly some theologies have that), but about pragmatic power, a power to transform both minds and behavior. And if our gospel proclamation does not transform, then either the gospel is a fantasy that needs to be discarded or we misperceive how it works.

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* James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Business, 1994.

** Transform is the import that the word save carries in this passage of Paul as elsewhere in his writings. He is less concerned about the eternal fate of individuals than he is with the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plans for the world.

Dealing with the Three O’Clock in the Morning Anxieties

What guidance can we find in Jesus for the flood of anxieties that disturb our sleep?

The Sermon on the MountCarl Bloch, 1890

Jesus teaching on the mountain, by Karl Block, 1877

It is a common experience for me to wake up about three o’clock in the morning to use the bathroom. Then I try to go back to sleep. But sleep eludes me. Instead powerful anxieties invade my consciousness. I lie there tossing them over in my mind, examining each facet, and then trying to determine how I will deal with the threatening situations they raise. It may take me an hour or more to fall asleep again.

I am not alone. One of my favorite bloggers is Michael Jinkins. He is currently pastor of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Before that he was President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

He writes a blog titled “Accidental Pilgrims.” I read it regularly because he always has something thought-provoking to say to me.

His most recent blog is titled “Buses and Anxieties.” As I read it, I found he experiences at night what I experience. That’s why I found myself paying close attention to what he has to say about how the teaching of Jesus addresses this common experience. I link to it because I think many of you my readers will find it an illuminating piece, too. It is well worth reading.

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.

 

Snow Fall in Advent

How a blizzard brings to mind one of Jesus’ parables.

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One of my favorite parables of Jesus is his story of the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids who await the arrival of a long-delayed bridegroom and his wedding procession. We find it in Matthew 25:1-13.

The parable is commonly read during the Advent Season. It has inspired many artistic interpretations. My favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach’s gorgeous cantata, Wachet Auf.

As I was thinking about the parable recently, my thoughts drifted. I recalled a December blizzard that blanketed our region several years ago. The memory inspired this poem:

 

It snowed last night.

In the morning light

I gazed upon a vanished landscape

As if a frozen volcano had exploded

And buried all in layers of white ash.

Everything low had disappeared:

The autumn leaves,

The hibernating grass on the brown earth,

The rose bushes that stand sentinel

Against the house wall.

The garden sculptures poked their heads

Out of their snow graves

As if gasping for one last breath.

Sidewalks were gone, so were streets.

One did not know where to avoid

The drain ditches that carry off the rain water.

The groaning trees lifted their branches

Into the air

As if in prayer

To be relieved of their white anxieties.

In a cloudless sky

The sun beamed upon the land

As if a priest were bestowing his blessing.

The land radiated back the benediction.

My eyes could not absorb such beauty.

I had to don dark glasses

When I stepped out to walk the dog.

She tried to dig a pathway

To the lawn, like a locomotive

Pushing its way through a snow-bound mountain pass.

She did not get far. She peed,

Then made a beeline back inside.

As a breeze whiffed over the drift tops,

Worries like snow tumbleweeds spilled into my head.

Would the road get plowed in time

For the school buses to make their rounds?

Would I make it into work?

Blizzards are like Advent.

They demand that we let go,

Take our seat by the gate,

Trim our oil lamps,

And await the coming of the Bridegroom.

 

Pioneer Jesus

Precisely because he is a full human being, Jesus can open to us the pathway into wholeness.

 I was reading the Epistle of the Hebrews when I came to this passage, as it is translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As sometime happens when I am reading a passage, one word jumps off the page and grabs my attention. In this case, it was the author describing Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation. That word pioneer seemed an odd choice.

When I hear the word pioneer, what first comes to mind is this definition: one of those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others. * So I think of childhood heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who launched into the virgin lands of the American West and opened them for settlement.

Why use this word to describe Jesus? That’s the question I asked myself. I wondered what was the Greek word that lies behind this translation. Consulting the Greek text, I found it was the word archegos. I opened my Greek dictionary to see what meaning it might assign to this word.

The first meaning the dictionary gave it was: a leader, a ruler, a prince. That made sense in that one meaning of the Greek word arche is rule or office. But then the dictionary gave the word archegos the additional meaning of: one who begins something, an originator, a founder. That, too, made sense in that the primary meaning of arche is beginning.

Given these meanings, why did the translation team select the word pioneer? Since I cannot talk with one of team, I must hazard a guess. Certainly Jesus could be regarded as the Christian’s leader or ruler. But I noticed the context places great emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ sufferings.

The importance of Jesus’ sufferings comes up again in a later passage: Hebrews 4:14-16. There we read that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was one who was tested just as we are, but came through the tests into victory. The author counsels his readers, therefore, to approach the throne of grace boldly in their prayers. The one who sits on that throne is not a harsh, unfeeling judge, but one who understands our challenges because he has experienced them too.

Opening a Spiritual Mountain Pass

Here is where the translation pioneer begins to resonate for me. The author of Hebrews has no doubt about the divinity of Jesus, but he also believes just as firmly that Jesus was a real human being. We find in the epistle some of the most exalted language in describing Jesus, but also language that depicts his real humanity. The Jesus of Hebrews is a victor certainly, but a victor who has achieved his victory through a real experience of a life limited by the constrictions, anxieties, and trials of real human beings.

As the pioneers of America broke through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains and opened up to others the vast expanses of territory on the other side, so likewise I can think of Jesus as this pioneer who breaks through all the limitations of human life to open to humanity the vast and spacious territory of the Kingdom of God.

Now that the barriers have been broken through, the rest of us can follow. Jesus shows us the way to transform our trials and sufferings into mountain passes that can conduct us into a spacious wholeness beyond them. We find that way described for us in the gospels. Which is why the gospels are so central to our spiritual journeys. They describe not just Jesus the pioneer, but also the road which he opened up in the wilderness and on which he summons us to follow him.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the same power to grow through our own life sufferings and challenges into that spaciousness of life that we call salvation. He invites us to follow him on the road he has pioneered–which includes both a cross and a resurrection–so that we can experience that wholeness of life which he has entered into in advance of us.

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* This is the first definition given the word in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1966.

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.

 

The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.