Thomas Merton

the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

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He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

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That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.


the desert

A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour.  It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs.  He has one day left before he goes to prison.  He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.

At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison.  They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west.  He doesn’t want his son to go to prison.  His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.

1 desertIn a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative.  He tells his son he can still have another life.  Find some little town out west and just blend in.  And he talks about the landscape.

He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die.  Nothin’ at all for miles around.  Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky.  Not a soul in sight.  No sirens.  No car alarms.  Nobody honkin’ atcha…  You find the silence out there; you find the peace.  You can find God.”

In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness.  They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia.  They also were seeking God.  They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire.  Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable.  (We often have that problem today!)

Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization.  It is certainly a good place to find solitude.  Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love.  It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee.  And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way.  It’s a burden.

Solitude need not only be found in the desert.  It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God.  (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies!  I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)

The desert is a place of contradiction.  God can be found there.  It can be a place of new life, of renewal.  But it is equally a place of death.  It is a place of thirst.  When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens.  But it can also be a place of great beauty.

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The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it.  The desert is not a place for arrogance.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.

Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]…  The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone…  God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”[1]

There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way.  It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.

3 desertFor those who would indeed reject the comforts and gadgets that we become enamored with, it can in fact be a place to be alone with God.

Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects.  “First, the desert is the country of madness.  Second, it is the refuge of the devil…  [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.]  Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”[2]

I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.

In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist.  He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy.  (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn.  Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?)  Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.

4 desertNotice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near.  “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.”  John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16).  The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.

How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.

If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.

In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort.  In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The desert is indeed a place for listening.  But we have to be silent.

Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.

Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news.  However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective.  Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.

We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.

In his book, Merton also talks about this.  With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own.  [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources.  [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”[3]

In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built.  And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas!  And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?

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He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere.  Everywhere is desert.”[4]

I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert.  It is the desert in our own lives.  At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news.  The desert is where we can find God.  As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.

What are the deserts in our lives?  Where are those places of contradiction?  Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?

The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7).  And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).

6 desertAs the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”  Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.

Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying.  Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills.  That Spirit of fire calls us to good news.  Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.

When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.

 

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 1.2.3

[3] Merton, 1.2.5

[4] Merton, 1.2.6


eulogize, mourn, and move on

Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions.  It is the stuff of legends and sagas.  Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds.  Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning.  As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected.  They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.

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Upon their return, they would immediately be slain!  No one was to know the place of burial!

Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One.  It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.

In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land.  The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).  That seems pretty harsh!  It sounds like Moses is being tantalized.  Look, but don’t touch!  It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.

There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.

Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.  He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.”

No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship.  After all, that would be out of character for Moses.  In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3).  You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.  If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!

2 Dt 34All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land.  Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7).  The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out.  Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13).  This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.

This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern.  One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable…  The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority.  Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.”[1]  That’s some sage advice for all of us.

To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down.  God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub!  Hit the road, Jack!”  After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  That’s some very high praise indeed! 

I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition.  Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”[2]

As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training.  Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina.  Our second week was in Pittsburgh.  One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor.  This would usually be someone with a long tenure.  His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.  And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.

Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones!  There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.

At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor.  Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.

A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.”  To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them.  It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.

When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.  It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.

Look at the way Moses is eulogized.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).  Now that’s what I call aging well!  He’s like those folks in AARP commercials!  At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told. 

But that’s not all.  “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…”  And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12).  The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise. 

If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn.  Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss.  It is an action; it’s something we actually do.  As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days.  That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.

We also have rituals of mourning.  Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast.  And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.

Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!

The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions.  That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose.  They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock.  It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.”  While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road.  He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him.  Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

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But this also applies when someone beloved has left.  “People frequently overlook this need for mourning.  In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

We must be able to say goodbye.

Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death.  We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy.  And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.

In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24).  It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living.  And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”

To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…  This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.  It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence…  It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”

Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on.  That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.

It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on.  Life goes on.”  And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning.  To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.

Still, remember what I said earlier.  Mourning is not just an emotion.  Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life.  It would be heartless not to!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

Mourning is more than emotion; it is action.  That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus.  We relive the passion of the Christ.  We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday.  And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).

So we do indeed move on.  Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25).  If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion.  But if we reject that impulse, we find new life.  That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.

Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure.  Look at what verse 9 says.  After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.”  The Israelites know it is time to move on.

Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community.  I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.”  This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader.  Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go.  It means the leader is staying in the system.

Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect.  If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.

In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on.  (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!)  But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua.  This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done.  He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver.  Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written.  This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.

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I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition.  Everything passes away—even the earth and sky.  Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.

Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.


famine to feast

When I started planning this sermon, the local paper reported that southern Cayuga County was experiencing “moderate drought.”  (The scattered showers we’ve had since then have provided little help, at least where we live.)  I know that Banu and I aren’t the only ones who can testify to having brown, crunchy grass in the yard.  And we’ve seen some crops that looked mighty thirsty.

When we lived in Nebraska, excessively dry weather sometimes led to grassfires.  On one occasion, a spark from someone’s pickup truck started a fire that raged all night.  We had been serving as workers at our little town’s youth center, and after closing, a couple of the kids whose parents were helping out with the fire, waited at our house for a while.  (So we had a grassfire get-together!)

I’m sure plenty of you have your own stories to tell about drought, whether moderate or severe.

image from media.npr.org

Maybe you’re wondering why I begin with drought.  That’s pretty dry and dusty stuff, isn’t it?  How about something more mouthwatering and juicy?  Sorry, I can’t help it.  The prophet Amos compels me!

Technically, in chapter 8 Amos isn’t talking about drought; famine is what’s on his mind.  Admittedly, drought isn’t the only thing that causes famine.  Scarcity of food has its genesis in a number of distasteful things.  That includes poor agricultural practices and misguided political policies.

And on the point of governmental goings-on, sometimes they are well-meaning but terribly conceived and poorly executed.  On a darker note, sometimes political leaders have a deliberate intention to artificially create famine—hunger as an instrument of public policy.

Then of course, there’s war.  Nothing works in ravaging a country and spreading starvation like war.

So, those are the cheerful thoughts that came to mind while reading the prophet Amos!

Here’s a quick background on Amos.  He lives in the northern kingdom of Israel, which by the way, split apart from the southern kingdom of Judah about 200 years earlier.  Amos is active as a prophet during the time of King Jeroboam II, who reigned from 786 to 746 BC.  During Jeroboam’s time, Israel enjoys military might, territorial expansion, and economic prosperity.  Happy days are here again!  Life is good.

But it’s more than simply good.  Because of their affluence, many of the people, especially the elites, believe that God’s blessing rests on them.  And more than that—they deserve that blessing.  Seriously, how could they not, considering the way they so richly fund the national shrines?

Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, this wealth has been accumulated on the backs of the poor.  Fulfilling the prophetic role to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, in chapter 5, Amos brings the word to those who think their religiosity pleases God.  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (v. 21).

As we get to chapter 8, that theme is infused with some really colorful images.  (I think “colorful” is a good word to use!)

It begins right away with a pun, a play on words.  (You do realize that the noble tradition of the pun is enshrined in the words of the Bible?  It’s all over the place.)

In a vision, God asks Amos what he sees.  It turns out that it is a basket of summer fruit.  The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is קָֽיִץ (qayits).  God’s response is “the end has come upon my people Israel” (v. 2).  The word for “the end” is הַקֵּץ֙ (haqqets).  qayitsqets.  “Ripe fruit…the time is ripe.”  (I like that!)

The “colorful” language continues with wailing and dead bodies being cast out.

Amos puts those wealthy folks on notice.  They’re saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?  We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances” (v. 5).

I like how they’re itching for the end of the new moon festival and for the sabbath to be over.  They can’t do business at those times.  They want to get back to gouging their customers.

Once upon a time, people could enjoy Thanksgiving without having to get up extra early the next morning.  Unfortunately, stores began opening earlier and earlier on what has come to be known as “Black Friday.”  I guess some of the boys in the corporate offices figured letting a few extra dollars get away was too much to bear.

Please understand, I’m not saying these business practices are unscrupulous, unless you consider denying a good night’s sleep to be unscrupulous.

In the next few verses, the colorful images become overshadowed.  Darkness and sorrow are the prophet’s themes.  “Friends, you’ve had a good run with Jeroboam at the helm.  But party time is almost over.  This pleasure cruise is about to become a ship wreck.”

Then we come to the final part of the chapter, which is my main focus.  “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (v. 11).  So this isn’t a literal famine, like I was talking about earlier.  This is spiritual famine.  This is famine that inflicts hunger and thirst on the soul.

Just as with literal famine, people become disoriented and disconsolate.  “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (v. 12).  Another translation says, “People will stagger from sea to sea” (New Jerusalem Bible).

image from upload.wikimedia.org

I will send a famine on the land, a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.  This sounds like a deliberate plan on God’s part.  How could that be?  Why withhold the word?  It sounds like the people need that life-giving substance more than ever.  Doesn’t God love the people anymore?

I’ve sometimes heard of being inoculated against the word of God, against the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s inoculation in the sense of being given enough of it in weakened form to build up our immunity.

The idea is being deluged, inundated, stuffed to the gills (nice words while thinking about famine!).  It is being in an atmosphere in which the word is pervasive: on billboards, on bumper stickers, on clothing, on knick-knacks, on Facebook, and so on.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that stuff is bad.  Banu and I have some clothing and knick-knacks with scriptures on them.

Still, we have to guard against manipulating the word so that it loses its power.  It becomes a question more of trappings than transformations.

That’s one reason why God might, so to speak, withhold the word.  It’s important to avoid self-deception.

A more serious concern is what Amos addresses.  There is often an attempt to use the word of God as a shield or a weapon.  It begins with self-deception but escalates into keeping others down, politically and socially.  The word is shown to be empty; it becomes useless when justifying ourselves.  We can quote the letter of the law while violating its spirit.

These are what we might call external factors.  The word of God is used, or misused, as mechanisms for outward purposes.  The more serious and insidious concerns are what we might call internal factors.  Within ourselves, we resist the word.  We harden ourselves to it.

In a phone call with my mother, I referred to our recent “week from hell” as a nation.  Two high-profile killings of black men by police, followed by the murders of five officers, to me, constitutes a week from hell.  Sometimes current events oblige us to speak, and I feel like this is one of those times.

Regardless of your opinion of him, or of his speech in Dallas last Tuesday, President Obama did make some points that I think bear repeating.[1]

He said he was “reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you.  I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’

“That’s what we must pray for, each of us.  A new heart.  Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

His primary point was the racism that still endures in our country and the pain and violence of many sorts that flows in all directions from it.

Moving away from that speech and the president who uttered it, we still have (as just one example) the sin of racism and the way we participate in it.  To some extent, we all deal with that sin.  America didn’t invent racism; we’ve just done a good job of institutionalizing it.  Racism isn’t simply racial prejudice among individuals; it is a system.

If we don’t recognize it within ourselves, we become hardened.  We become hardened to the word of the Lord, the word that changes our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.

But as I say, that’s just one example.  Too often, we refuse to hear the word of the Lord.  We plug the ears of our heart, the ears of our spirit, and shout, “La la la la la!”

How do we refuse to hear the word of the Lord?  It happens in many ways.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as blowing stuff up or having a bonfire with Bibles as the kindling!  In a less forceful way, it doesn’t have to be something we deliberately set out to do.  We need not consciously say, “I will not listen to that.”

Much, if not most of the time, it just happens.  We just get caught up.  We fill our minds with everything except the word.  We fail to take heed of that wisdom; we pay attention to voices of trivia.  I fall into that myself.  Sometimes a jingle in a commercial or a song played in the background at a store gets stuck in my head.  I might dwell on it all day or all week.  (I especially hate it when it’s a song I don’t like!)

Sometimes we live our whole lives that way, sleepwalking through life.

There’s a quote by Thomas Merton that I have loved for many years.  He talks about moments when we wake up “and discover the full meaning of our own present reality.”[2]  Regarding such a moment, he says, “In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”

image from www.browngirlgumbo.com

We squander our lives when we refuse the word of life.  To return to the imagery of the prophet, we go hungry, we starve, we needlessly endure famine, while a feast is within reach.

So, avoid refusing the word of life.  Don’t settle for crumbs, while that succulent feast beckons!  Here’s a crazy thought: actually read the word.  Read the scriptures.  Don’t race through them; that’s hardly the best approach.  Let the word of the Lord soak into you.

Come with expectation.  Open your mind.  Let “the trifles that occupy our minds” be put on a starvation diet.  See what changes our Lord can make.  Move from famine to feast.

 

[1] time.com/4403543/president-obama-dallas-shooting-memorial-service-speech-transcript/

[2] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


city from above

One of my favorite actors is Al Pacino.  In recent years, his movies haven’t been so great, but he has a pretty impressive body of work, starting of course with The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2.  Pacino is one of those actors with a really distinctive voice.

I like it when he uses that voice to deliver speeches and/or rants.  In Scent of a Woman, he plays a Lieutenant Colonel who defends Chris O’Donnell at a disciplinary hearing at his school.  (“If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place!”)  In Any Given Sunday, he’s a football coach giving his inspirational pregame talk.  (“On this team we fight for that inch!”)

But one of my favorite Pacino speeches is the one he delivers in City HallIn this movie, he’s a New York City mayor with John Cusack as his deputy mayor.  A young black boy has been killed in the crossfire between a police officer and a member of the mob who received probation under suspicious circumstances.  Racial tensions involving the NYPD are about to boil over.  That’s the backdrop when Pacino shows up for the funeral at the little boy’s church.

He’s invited to the pulpit, and he immediately addresses the elephant in the room.  He admits he was warned not to attend.  Don’t stand behind that coffin.  “But I must stand here,” he says to the congregation, “because I have not given you what you should have.  Until we can walk abroad and recreate ourselves; until we can stroll along the streets like boulevards; congregate in parks free from fear, our families mingling, our children laughing, our hearts joined—until that day we have no city.”

Pacino talks about Pericles of Athens as the model of a mayor and about a mythic “palace that was a city.”  As he continues, the people are getting worked up, with shouts of “Amen!”

At the end of the sermon (and it probably qualifies as such), he declares, “We’ll rebuild on the soul of this little warrior.  We will pick up his standard and RAISE it high!  Carry it forward until THIS CITY—YOUR CITY—OUR CITY—HIS CITY—IS A PALACE AGAIN!  IS A PALACE AGAIN!  I am with you, little James.  I am you.”

image from www.zastavki.com

A city that is a palace.  Does it ever occur to us that a city can be a palace?  Does it ever occur to us that a city can be that majestic, it can be that glorious?  No doubt, there are cities that we love, and cities in which we’ve fallen in love.  Most of us can think of cities with awesome and beautiful landmarks.  (Maybe you’re thinking of one or two right now.)  But a palace?  Something that lofty?

We hear the familiar words of the song dedicated to America.  “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years / Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears!”  (I suppose we’re not there quite yet!)

Usually when we hear words like “heavenly vistas,” we think of the glory of God’s creation:  majestic views from mountaintops, meadows of flowers waving in the wind, gently falling snow.  But in the book of Revelation, among the many visions of St. John, we have the celestial city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven.  That’s the heavenly vista we’re given.

I guess that says something about humans as co-creators with God.  When we yield our works to God, something wondrous and life-affirming happens.

We humans build cities, even if they aren’t made of alabaster.  The image of the city of God is a little more impressive.  Some top-of-the-line architects and contractors have been told to go wild.  No corners have been cut putting this place together.  And look at the materials:  sapphire, emerald, onyx, topaz, amethyst.  The gates are made of pearl; the streets are made of gold.

Still, I don’t want to go on examining the physical properties of this heavenly city, or any other city.  I think I have a better question.  What is the definition of “city”?  What does it mean?  What does it signify for us?  Can we understand it as metaphor?

Chapter 21 begins with a new heaven and a new earth; the old order is gone.  The city from above is coming down to earth.  That’s important.  The city comes down to us; it’s not the work of our hands that goes up.  God is coming to dwell with the people.  God is taking up residence among us.  In Jesus the human being, God took up residence among us.  Nothing is ever the same again.

Clearly, with the way the city is built, with gemstones being used as we would concrete and asphalt, stone and mortar, there’s a picture of lavishly overwhelming, even wasteful, abundance.  It’s a picture of a palace that is a city.

And on that note of Al Pacino’s vision of a city in that great scene from the movie, hear what he says.  He speaks of walking abroad, strolling along, and congregating in parks without fear.  He speaks of families mingling, children laughing, and hearts being joined.  But what happens when those qualities go missing?  What’s the result when those wonderful things are absent?  “Until that day we have no city.”  Where fear reigns, no true city exists.

Love and living
Thomas Merton, one of the twentieth century’s spiritual giants, in Love and Living, offers his thoughts on what a city can truly mean.[1]

“A city is something you do with space.  The first cities of the North American continent were centers for celebration.  These were the early Mayan cities of Guatemala and…Mexico…  They did not have armies.  They did not have kings.  They did not conquer anyone…  The city was built by the people, not for a king, not for a clique of generals, but for themselves; it was their place of celebration.”

This wasn’t a land ruled by fear.  That didn’t come until the Aztecs appeared on the stage, with their human sacrifice and building of empire.

Merton continues, “Those early cities knew what to do with space.  And what they did with space made human life joyous, real, fully credible.  The Bible tells us that in the end it will be like that again, in a city of pure celebration.”[2]  What does that celebration look like?

Notice how chapter 21 ends.  There’s no need for a temple, no need for sun or moon.  The glory of God is its light.  Verse 25 says, “Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.”  There is no fear of enemies in this city.  The gates are always left wide open; there’s no need to bar the doors!

“People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (vv. 26-27).  The reign of terror is over.  No more criminal behavior.  No more of the thousand little ways in which we demean each other.  No more of the powers-that-be imposing their might.

About all of that nasty business, Merton says, “They with their gold have turned our lives into rubble.  But we with love will set our lives on fire and turn the rubble back into gold.  This time the gold will have real worth.  It will not be just crap that came out of the earth.  It will be the infinite value of human identity flaming up in a heart that is confident in loving.”[3]

It might seem like all of this is relegated to the future, that it doesn’t speak to us right now.  Many see the entire book of Revelation that way.  It’s all about the future, of things to come.  A more helpful way is to see it like the gospel itself.  The good news is that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17).  It’s already here, but not yet in its fullness.  It’s right here, in the grasp of our hands.  We can almost taste it.

And speaking of taste, chapter 22 says something about the river of the water of life.  On either side of it are “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month” (v. 2).  Now that’s some fertile soil—twelve harvests every year!  That’s what the tree of life provides.  In Genesis 3, the tree of life is declared off limits.  Adam and Eve, hit the road.  But no more of that; the tree is made available to all.

Its leaves provide healing.  The word in Greek is θεραπείαν (therapeian), where we get our word “therapy.”

When God takes up residence among us, nourishment and medicine—things that promote health—are provided without measure and in many different ways.  (By the way, God is the perfect urban planner.  This city has plenty of green space!)

Can we see the city from above filling our space, right here, right now?  Can it be something other than a vision of some nebulous time in the future?  Can we see it as a place of serving God and the Lamb, serving Christ and not Caesar?  Can we see it as abundance of food and healing for all nations, for all people?

The Bible says the citizens of that city “will see [God’s] face, [God’s] name will be on their foreheads” (v. 4).  If we already have a vision of that city, then God’s name is being written on our foreheads.  We are being marked as God’s own.  What does that mean for how we live in this place and in this time?

A palace that was a city, now becomes a palace like none other, governed by the Lamb upon the throne.  The Lamb, meek and mild, is now the ascended one, filling all things, filling the cosmos.

Those blessed ones, for whom the Lord God is their light, and for us who serve the Lamb, it is proclaimed, “They will reign forever and ever.”  That is the assurance for those who serve the Lamb.  That is the promise for those who live in the palace come down to earth, in which there is always room for one more.

[1] Thomas Merton, Love and Living, ed. Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 4, paragraph 1.

[2] Merton, 5.4.8

[3] Merton, 5.5.6


Lydian listening

I have a special affinity for St. Lydia. Her feast day is on August 3rd, which was the date of my baptism! We find the story of her conversion and baptism in the book of Acts chapter 16:

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us.

The story of Lydia is a key moment in the early church. Earlier in chapter 16, the apostle Paul is in Asia Minor, where he has a vision in the night of a Macedonian man who says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). So Paul makes his first journey to Europe. He and his friends go to Philippi, where they encounter Lydia and her friends.  After they part company with Lydia, Paul and his group meet a slave girl who we’re told can predict the future. There is a spirit of divination within her. The girl’s owners use her as a fortune teller, and the biggest fortune is the one they make off her! After a few days of her pointing out that Paul and his friends are “slaves of the Most High God,” the apostle gets irritated and casts the spirit out of her (v. 17).

Seeing that their source of income has been cast to the winds, her owners grab Paul and his friend Silas, stir up the crowd to beat them, and have them tossed into jail. To make a long story short, that night there’s an earthquake which knocks all the doors loose, but Paul and Silas refuse to escape. In the morning, the magistrates—the local Roman officials—find out that they have illegally ordered the arrest and beating of Roman citizens. Relatively few residents of the empire are citizens. And they do have certain rights. The magistrates want Paul and Silas to get out of town quickly and quietly.

But Paul says, “Are you serious? I’m not moving an inch until they come and apologize in front of everyone!” It’s only then that they agree to leave. But they still have one more stop to make. Before taking off, who do they insist on seeing? Lydia—and the young church that is now meeting in her home. So we come full circle back to this woman whose name has been preserved for us. (That’s a rarity with women in the Bible.)

So who is Lydia? The first thing we learn about her is that Paul meets her at “a place of prayer” on the sabbath (v. 13). That would sound right, since we’re told she’s “a worshiper of God” (v. 14). That’s a term used to describe the so-called “God-fearers.” They were Gentiles who admired the Jewish faith and followed it as best they could. We’re also told she is “a dealer in purple cloth.” That’s a lucrative trade, so she must have some money.

So what’s so remarkable about this godly woman of means? While we’re finding out who she is, we also find out what’s happening with her. She “was listening to us” and that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” There’s a theme of listening.

Why is listening so important? Why do we listen? Do we listen?

We listen to go deeper. We listen to go deeper into life, to not stay at the surface of life. What is the result of Lydia’s listening? It’s her conversion.

True conversion is an ongoing conversion. In her essay, “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today,” Judette Gallares says conversion “involves much more than a moment, it is a process which involves long periods of time…  It involves relationships that…are woven into [our] life story.”

She uses Lydia’s conversion story to describe how all of us are called to be both mystics (those with a direct, loving experience of God) and prophets (those who address our world with the word from God). We might think of it as the inner and outer life.

Lydia does a very good job of this with her hospitality. There’s more to that than serving tea and cookies! “Part of the practice of hospitality during that time was to offer a safe haven for one’s guests, especially when there was an immediate possibility of real danger to them.” In Acts 16:40, Lydia welcomes Paul and his friends after they’re released from prison. 

It takes a certain depth of spirit, a certain willingness to listen, to demonstrate the courage that Lydia finds. Gallares frames hospitality in these terms: “In today’s fragmented world, which [has] different levels and degrees of homelessness, our mystic spirit, our sense of ‘belonging to God’ must open us up to others and to the world, to offer ourselves, our communities and our planet earth as a hospitable place for humanity and the whole of God’s creation.”

We all experience homelessness to a degree, even if we’ve never been without physical shelter. As humans, we often feel alienated; we feel like aliens, even to ourselves. We feel like we’re in a foreign land. We’re like Moses: I’ve been a stranger in a strange land! (Ex 2:22).

As Christians, the waters of baptism carry us to our homeland. Gallares, like Lydia, is well aware of the risks involved. Being from the third world (the Philippines)—as well as being a woman—she understands the dangers of violence and terrorism. Still, she asks the question: “How can we listen with an open heart, willing to understand where the other is coming from? This is the true spirit of hospitality. It is not [removed] when there is danger or differences, but only at that moment proves itself to be genuine hospitality.”

How can we imitate that Lydian listening in the Church?

 

St. Lydia Purpuraria

It involves being both mystic and prophet. It involves finding that place within ourselves and within the community, the world around us. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

One time I had a quite curious dream. Or to be more precise, it was in that in-between land where you’re just about to go to sleep, but it feels like a dream. Anyway, I seemed to be aware of what I was talking about a moment ago: why we listen. I imagined that I was living on the surface of life, like floating on water, and that I needed to go deeper. I’m reminded of something Thomas Merton wrote in the 1950s. It’s in his book, The Sign of Jonas, which was a journal he kept during his first years after moving to the monastery in Kentucky.

Praying to God, he laments the noisiness he finds within himself. One might say that he recognizes his own living on the surface of life and his need to go deeper. “You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence,” he says, “but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires. My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction. And I do not possess my house in silence…

“I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!” (47)

Ruined as the house that all of us are, God lives there.

Hearing these words coming from a monk lets me know: I am not alone in my noise and refusal to listen. Many times in our culture, politics, religious discourse we see the refusal to listen—people talking at each other, but not with each other. As a consequence, people get hurt. It looks like people will continue to be hurt.

Using myself as an example, I can be so darn convinced that I’m right that I wind up doing some pretty terrible things. So, again I ask, why is listening so important? Why do we listen?

Listening is the posture of faith. Before speaking—before speaking even good words—we must listen. We must listen to hear the call to conversion—the call to baptism—the call to ongoing conversion. We must listen for the word of God.

As oblates of St. Benedict, Banu and I pay special attention to how he begins his Rule:

“Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for Jesus, the Christ.”

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.

We must listen like Lydia.


spiritual formation in a distant land

In recent years, more and more attention has been paid to spiritual formation, especially by laypeople. An abundance of books, speakers, seminars, and retreats have been directed toward it. Though it might be dismissed by some as trendy or a fad, spiritual formation has been practiced for centuries.

And just what, you may ask, is spiritual formation? Good question! The term “spiritual formation” might sound like some obscure, mysterious rite of passage. However, at some level, spiritual formation is simply a fact of life. Just as our bodies are formed as we grow up, so our spirits are given form.

In his book, Renovation of the Heart, Christian philosopher Dallas Willard says that spiritual formation is “the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite ‘form’ or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.” (19)

That’s the kind of formation that simply happens. But just as there’s a difference between the formation of a body that belongs to a coach potato and a body that belongs to one who understands exercise, there’s also a difference in the realm of the spirit. Willard describes a distinctively Christian spiritual formation as “the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.” (22) That’s not a bad definition.

But giving definitions of words usually isn’t the best way to make a point. Stories grab our attention more easily than do definitions. So here’s a story from my own experience.

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997 at Overbrook Presbyterian in Philadelphia. My pastor* gave me this charge at the end of the service: tell your story of being in a distant land. Using that image from the parable of the prodigal son, he was talking about several things.

At the time, I wore a bandana on my head; it covered a rather visible scar. It was a mute witness to my experience of brain cancer. I had been on a journey, almost a year and a half long at that point, which included seizure, diagnosis, surgery, radiation therapy, another seizure, another surgery, then seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Along the way, plenty of CAT and MRI scans, a port temporarily implanted in my chest for antibiotics, needles and more needles, and did I happen to mention…needles? To my pastor, that constituted “being in a distant land.”

He was also referring to the spiritual journey I had taken, at least, the parts of it that he knew. Coming from an Assemblies of God church in Tennessee to an American Baptist seminary in Philadelphia to the PC(USA) church across the street—and knowing that I had worshipped and worked with Christians of many different stripes besides that—that also constituted “being in a distant land.”

I must confess, though, I’ve often discounted my pastor’s charge to me. I’ve included parts of my story from time to time, but probably not in the deliberate way he intended.

Destination unknown

Still, as I’ve sometimes told people who are hesitant to speak about God and faith: it’s not a bad idea to start with what the Lord has done in your life.

It’s also true that many of the greatest works of all time have been life stories—biographies and autobiographies. A good example of the latter is Thomas Merton’s journal, The Sign of Jonas. It covers his first few years in the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery in Kentucky where he lived. That book picks up where The Seven Storey Mountain leaves off. In it, Merton reflects on this business of telling one’s own story.

“The man who began this journal is dead,” he says, “just as the man who finished The Seven Storey Mountain when this journal began was also dead, and what is more the man who was the central figure in The Seven Storey Mountain was dead over and over. And now that all these men are dead…I think I will have ended up by forgetting them… Consequently, The Seven Storey Mountain is the work of a man I never even heard of. And this journal is getting to be the production of somebody to whom I have never had the dishonor of an introduction.” (328)

I especially like that last line, when he refers to himself in his current work as someone to whom he’s “never had the dishonor of an introduction.” I think I know what he’s talking about. I look back at stuff I wrote in the past—more than that, I look back at who I was—and I wonder, “Who was that guy?” Talk about “being in a distant land.” That’s one place I never want to see again! (Still, from time to time, I revisit it.)

Thomas Merton says such things, because he knows that he must die, so that Christ can live in him. But there’s absolutely no hint of self-hatred here; that would mean hating God’s good creation. Rather, it’s humility that teaches him his own unworthiness to the same extent that he promotes himself. But to the extent that Christ shines through him, he has a message that will endure for generations. And that’s true for all of us.

He speaks of this pretty clearly in a prayer. “You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.” And speaking of his own body and spirit, he says, “I do not possess my house in silence…

“I am content that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!” (47) There aren’t many places in which my story parallels Merton’s, but this is one of them!

My house is indeed ruined, but still, God lives there.

For Christian spiritual formation to happen there does need to be that kind of honest self-evaluation. According to our friend Dallas Willard, the appeal of such a course in life “is totally obvious to any thoughtful person. But,” he says, “we are rarely thoughtful.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 325)

He quotes the poet A. E. Houseman in saying, “‘We think by fits and starts.’ Thus a part of the call of God to us has always been to think. Indeed the call of Jesus to ‘repent’ is nothing but a call to think about how we have been thinking.” The Greek word for repentance is metanoia—literally, a change of mind.

The point is, spiritual formation involves both mind and body. Where the mind leads, the body will follow.

The apostle Paul, in chapter 4 of his letter to the Ephesians, shows this mind-body connection. Verse 25 says “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Paul calls them to put away “falsehood.” In Greek, the term is pseudos; Paul says to put away “the lie.”

What is “the lie”?

In the New Testament, “the lie” encompasses all of life. It is a life in which we deceive and are deceived. It is a life which is not authentic. It is a refusal to be authentic. It is a refusal to be ourselves. It is a life in which we rely on advertisements and political slogans to tell us who we are. (That’s part of “the lie.”)

But before I get too far away from my underlying theme of story, let me bring our collective story into view. In one way or another, we all have been in distant lands.

How do we cooperate with the Spirit in the process of Christian spiritual formation? How can we use our minds differently? Certainly daily prayer and reflective reading of the scriptures can transform our thinking. How can we use our bodies differently? Other spiritual disciplines, like fasting, silence, and pursuing justice, can liberate us from false and damaging desires. We can be free to recognize “the lie,” and say no to it, over and over.

I want revisit my former pastor who got me started on this story of being in a distant land. In one of the church newsletters, he shared some thoughts from his own story—his visit, so to speak, to a distant land. I think it speaks well to our own story here.

He says, “Have I grown so accustomed to retreat that I fear victory, so familiar with the role of victim that I know not how to play any other?… Does my sense of inadequacy [so excuse] me from responsibility that I now can enjoy criticizing others without even having to try? How Lord, shall I dare to think of myself as powerful, and responsible?

“For anyone who has heard, however dimly, the claims of Easter, these are questions which must be answered. Jesus Christ becomes a crisis to all who are witnesses. He stands in the path of our retreat, requiring we say who he is.

“Take, then, the victory of Christ as your victory over all that makes you afraid. Have you feared the test result; dare now to take the test you so much feared. Have you feared the answer; dare now to ask the question whose answer you have so long feared…

“Take then the light of Christ as your light to show you the way. Have you hesitated to rise and to walk on to the next job, the new home, the new school, the new relationship because you could not see the way; dare now to walk on. Because you now dare to see death, you can begin to look forward to life.”

Intentional formation of our spirits leads us to dare life in a new way. We will travel to distant lands, where the road might be strange and dark. Still, the sure hope we have in Jesus is that our hand will be held, and our path will be lit, even if it’s only a couple of steps at a time! We don’t get the whole map, as much as we might think we want it.

This is the challenging task of spiritual formation—allowing ourselves to be the experiment in the laboratory of the Spirit. In this laboratory, the end result is one where each and every day, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

What was once a distant land, once a far country, slowly becomes more familiar. Thanks be to God.

[The photo is by Felix Rioux]

*Rev. David K. McMillan, whose permission I did not request to use his charge. But being the wonderful pastor he was, I hope he wouldn’t mind!


Mertonian rights

On this date in 1968, the world lost one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.  From his monastery in Kentucky, he was a prolific writer.  He commented, of course, on so-called “spiritual” topics, but he also had great insights into art, culture, social issues, and politics.  In his final years, he made major strides into interfaith dialogue, especially with Buddhism and Zen.  In fact, he was at a conference in Thailand pursuing those aims when, going back to his room, he was electrocuted by a faulty fan.

Merton had a keen understanding of something we seem to have regressed on:  torture.  The report on CIA torture that was finally released is testimony to that.  How sadly appropriate this comes as we observe Human Rights Day.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he speaks of torture as a struggle of the individual against a bankrupt process.  (Forgive the gender-exclusive language!)

“He who is tortured is reduced to a condition in which nature speaks instead of freedom, instead of conscience. Pain speaks, not the person. Torture is the instrument of those who fear personality, fear responsibility, and wish to convince themselves again and again that personality does not really exist. That freedom is weaker than natural necessity. That the person can be silenced by the demands of nature.

“In the calculated use of torture there is also a special evil. The person is pitted against the process in such a way that the process infallibly wins. From the inmost sanctuary of the individual person there is extracted, by means of torture, not the voice of the person, but the voice of the process. The tortured one does not merely echo the process, but he finally utters, from his own inmost self, the ‘confession of faith’ which bears witness to the reality of the process, and to the abdication of his own spiritual freedom.” (Kindle edition, 2.57.1-2)

We often think of torture as violating one’s rights, one’s human dignity—and it certainly is that.  But even more, it is an assault on the human spirit.  We Americans can begin to address that evil, in part, by bringing the responsible parties to justice—not by simply releasing a report.

[originally posted on 10 Dec 2014]


drone terror

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, based on journal entries up until 1965, Thomas Merton said this about terrorism: "The very essence of terrorism is that it is lawless and absolute power." Watch John Oliver's bit on our government's use of drones (especially toward the end), and see how prescient he was:

 

[originally posted on 29 Sep 2014]