Last words of love and longing

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?  And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?  (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 9)

I happened to read both of these verses last night.  Yes, there’s an immediate superficial similarity in the pained poetry of lost love and the Psalm of abandonment.  But I think this goes deeper.

John of the Cross uses poetry, heavily influenced by and even sampled from The Song of Songs, to describe the soul’s longing for its (her, in John’s imagery) true love, which is God.  And in his own commentary on this stanza of his poem, he uses the language of death, which intersects with Psalm 22 at the cross.

Commenting on Stanza 9, John writes,

Her [the soul’s] complaint is not that he [God] wounded her – for the more a loving soul is wounded the more its love is repaid – but that in sorely wounding her heart, he did not heal her by slaying her completely. The wounds of love are so sweet and delightful that if they do not cause death they cannot satisfy. Yet they are so delightful that she would want them to wound her sorely until they slay her completely. Consequently she says: “Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” This is equivalent to saying: Why, since you wounded this heart until it has become sorely wounded, do you not heal it by wholly slaying it with love? Since you cause the sore wound in the sickness of love, may you cause health in the death of love. As a result the heart, wounded with the sorrow of your absence, will be healed with the delight and glory of your sweet presence.

John_of_the_Cross_crucifixion_sketch
John of the Cross’s own sketch of Christ on the Cross.

If this is an accurate observation of the soul devoted to God, then the one perfectly devoted soul, Christ’s,  offers more than a cry of generic human pain or humiliation from the cross.  It is a cry for completion or perfection – that Christ’s painful zeal for God’s will can give way to the death of love that renews the delight and glory of Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit, no longer hindered or obscured by the earthbound body that Jesus accepted to save us.

In this sense, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? moves closer to It is finished (John 19:30) and Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).  It is the cry of the lover for the beloved that is finally answered with the delight and glory of the beloved’s sweet presence. 

So it is that Jesus, after crying out the Psalm, endures but a few more moments of useless ministrations from the crowd (this is similar to Stanzas 2 and 6 of the Canticle, which express the futility of intercessors and messengers when unity with God is the soul’s desire), and is slain completely by the wounds of divine love.

We believe that Jesus shares fully in our humanity, and so his cry does capture the universality of suffering and estrangement from God.  But as St. Paul points out, there is crying that ends there in futility, and a different kind of grief that can wail in hope – what John of the Cross lyricises as the longing of the lover for the beloved – of our soul for the God who awaits our arrival.

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“Stop thief! … and then…”

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  (Ephesians 4:28, appointed Epistle for August 12, 2018)

It’s going to sound weird, but this is one of my favorite Bible verses.

I know, I know, it sounds like some goody-two-shoes legalism, a bit of behavior modification trivia in the midst of the Bible’s great universal message.

But it supplies much more if we take a look.

I.  Sure, it does start with “law.”  Bad behavior must be confronted and corrected for any kind of human progress to ensue, as Carey Nieuwhof points out in his worthwhile new book.

Call it KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Occam’s Razor or whatever.  The basic beginning is to stop the unholy behavior, as this Native American comedy troupe points out (Language and Content caution),

II.  But keeping the rules isn’t the completeness or perfection (telos) toward which Christ calls us.

The passage says rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands – to take the skills that made their predatory behavior effective and put them to a better use.

It’s not enough to suppress the bad (that would be goody-two-shoes).  We must embrace what is good.  As Paul wrote,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  (Philippians 4:8-9)

Paul says that praiseworthy practices are, in a broad sense, prayerful, because when we undertake them the God of peace will be with you.  

On the spiritual plane, I think this helps make sense of Jesus’ strange words in Matthew 12:43-45,

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.

It isn’t sufficient to boot out the evil.  That leaves a vacant space that needs filling.  If not filled with good, it is vulnerable to a greater evil taking up residence.  (It is worth noting that Jesus said this in the course of disputes with religious authorities who rejected him and tried to reassert legalism as the way of salvation.  The devil is shrewd enough to lure our good deeds into dead works that assume our own and/or our group’s merits take the place of Christ’s work on the cross).

III.  Which leads to the depth of the verse about thieves: it is a call to receive the life of Christ as our own.

Sure, stop stealing.  Yes, do honest work.  But that stops with our own frail flesh if we end there.  Go beyond, it says: so as to have something to share with the needy.

It is to live sacrificially, to bear in our bodies the marks of Jesus, not as physical stigmata but as spiritual transformation into life lived not just “for Christ,” but by him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, rendering glory to the Father in heaven,

driftwood cross
Crucifix I made from driftwood as found in Yaquina Headlands, Oregon

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:4-9)

Since Paul wrote this verse about thieves to the church in big, busy Ephesus, and placed it in a batch of instructions for church members, we can assume that known thieves were starting to hear the Gospel and worship there.

The verse is hopeful testimony that Christ can welcome and transform any person, and that a… uh… diversity of characters in the congregation means that something right is going on.

We might fault some “conservative” churches for being content to teach socially acceptable behavior and preach legalism.

We might fault some “progressive” churches for extolling the value of diversity while neglecting the transformative power of the cross.

The “thief” verse from Ephesians challenges us – all of us – to keep going, to remain unsatisfied by anything but new life in Christ himself.

But/And

My morning readings were heavy with resurrection (In Hebrew, the word for glory is a word for heaviness, so I might say that the lessons were glorious with resurrection).

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection was most specific about resurrection, voicing a radical disjunctive from normal expectations and an even more radical conjunctive to a transformed future.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

What used to be was what used to be, but Jesus isn’t bound by it.  And he’s going ahead of us, expecting to meet us and make known his new reality.

There were also allusions to resurrection in the Psalms I offered this morning.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.  For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit.  You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.  (16:9-11)

I am dying, not actively but in the general sense that all of us are mortal.  But there is hope because of God’s promises and those promises include life, joy and pleasure beyond anything I can experience or imagine.

In contemplating these scriptures and others, I found a bit of peace and joy (always fleeting in my life, whether by nature or nurture I can’t say).  I noticed that God is active with us, even in the death-like inactivity of sleep,

I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night.  (Psalm 16:7)

But at my vindication I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.  (17:16)

God is working to guide, enlighten, comfort and transform us when we are “dead” to his efforts.  We sleep, are distracted or even flat out rebellious, but God is faithfully caring for us.  And making us new, ready to meet him face to face, as the angel said in the message to the women at Jesus’ empty tomb.

I am mired in personal problems at present, symptoms and debris from decades of choices made and avoided, whether from nature or nurture I don’t know and, increasingly, don’t care.  But the morning lessons warmed my heart and eased my mind.  And I carry on today in the knowledge that the one who rose from the tomb is out ahead of me, sending messages that lead me toward him, not only in a distant future but in the here and now.

There are little resurrections to be had, from bits of what I’ve been to bits of what I’m becoming – to what he’s creating and recreating even when I’m not aware.

 

Splendid

The 30-day cycle brought ’round Psalm 145 this morning.

I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works. (v. 5)

Ogormanbaptism1I would like to ponder God’s splendor through His beautiful works, like today’s sunrise over Sioux Falls, the mild days this part of the Midwest is enjoying, the Missouri River flowing past where I work or a family with which I celebrated a baptism yesterday.

But my morning reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminds me that the most splendid, majestic and marvelous work of God is something I would not choose to look at and which is painful to ponder.

And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. (27:31)

This is the ugly, splendid work on which the whole beautiful, dying creation hopes.

Do they know it’s muzak time at all?

“YOU don’t like Christmas music?”

A non-believing coworker asked me that in a storage area when I snarked about the ALREADY playing loop of “Christmas” music.

I gave two explanations.  1) I’m a church fuddyduddy and I prefer the season of Advent, building spiritual and theological expectation toward the celebration of the Savior’s first and second comings.  I like to save the Christmas hymns for the Holy Night and following, in imitation of the whole creation welcoming the Christ.

2) Most of the stuff on the muzak isn’t “Christmas” music in any terms meaningful to a disciple of Jesus.  Most of it is lovesick (OK, sex deprived) glop more in line with a binge watch of Friends than the proclamation of the world’s Savior.

I’m not alone in my sentiments.  The Christian satire site Babylon Bee fights the muzak, too. 

One of the galling pieces that seems to show up hourly while I’m TRYING to work and maintain a Christ-like disposition is this one:

Now, how can I fault this one?  It’s all about giving to those in need, right?

Kinda.  But it strikes me as racially and culturally biased – as well as empty of Christ, who can unify every nation, tribe, people and language.

Consider this lyric:

There’s a world outside your window/and it’s a world of dreaded fear/where the only water flowing/is the bitter sting of tears/And the Christmas bells that ring there/are the clanging chimes of doom…

They’re singing about Africa, and the array of White celebrities wants us to donate money to our enthrallment with White celebrities so that White Celebrities can pass it on the the Black faces we don’t see and won’t have to think about again until the next round of retail store muzak.

Worse than that is the assumption of utter hopelessness and emptiness among the Africans.  Seriously, Christmas to them is a clanging chime of doom?

While not denying the material struggles and, in some cases, man made disasters in Africa, I have to say they can teach us something about Christmas.  So many of them worship the Lord Jesus in all circumstances, not hinging their understanding of the Gospel on health and wealth (although we are managing to export that corruption of the Gospel quite well).

Clanging chime of doom?  On the contrary, in my own Anglican branch of global Christianity,

Areas that have seen strong growth include: Nigeria, Singapore, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, and parts of South America. The first Anglican diocese in the DRC came into being in 1972, with 30 clergy, 25 parishes, and 30 churches. As of 2015, Anglicanism in the DRC had nine dioceses, 545 clergy, 424 parishes, and a membership of about 237,000. Nigeria, Singapore, and South America are discussed elsewhere in this article. What is important to recognise is the scale and speed of the growth in recent decades.

Meanwhile, in the materially blessed churches on our side of the window,

In some parts of the global North, such as the US, Canada, and Wales, there has been serious decline. 

The sum message of the retail Christmas muzak season, to which our churches all to often play chaplain, seems to be, The meaning of life is to have a reliable sex partner and to show yourself righteous by sending a few bucks to the helpless and hapless primitives somewhere else.

I mean, do we know it’s Christmas time at all?

OR Advent, for what it’s worth.  Because Africans and others who have a lively, growing Christianity will hear and take more seriously words like those in the Gospel many will hear on December 3rd, the First Sunday of Advent,

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

What dys?

A couple of writers I admire clued me in to the joys of dystopian literature,

…a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ The term dystopia is defined as a society characterized by poverty, squalor or oppression and the theme is most commonly used in science fiction and speculative fiction genres.

They’ve also turned me on to the ability of some writers to use a dystopian setting to identify and even celebrate the light, whether secular or spiritual, that animates human beings to shine against the darkness.

Two recommended books that I found profitable:

 

station eleven

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel.  In this one, an out of control super flu wipes out loads of people all over the world.  The author makes the horror palpable not with the gross outs of the big screen, but with vivid everyday terrors – phone signals fading out, familiar places empty, an arrived airliner sitting inert at the end of a runway.

In the midst of it we meet an ersatz theater troupe wandering the upper Midwest.  Through them we encounter not only the frights of a dystopian world but the dignity of humanity enduring and seeking expression.

 

when the english fallWHEN THE ENGLISH FALL by David Williams.  When a – A what? A manifestation of divine wrath?  A solar flare? An all too human secret weapon unleashed? –  wipes out most power equipment and electricity, dystopian chaos sets in for “The English,” that is, those who are not the Amish protagonists of this novel.

But the chaos spreads out from the frantic urban jungles, and the agrarian Amish are not immune.

This novel searches the struggle of people with profoundly gentle faith and values to exist in a world gone mad (and getting madder by the moment.)

Neither novel gives easy answers to the struggles of its characters.  Fearful vulnerability and glimmering hope remain in contention at the end of both works.

But neither book is dreary on the one hand or happy-clappy on the other.  Neither is preachy with assertions or answers, and both are full of surprises, both terrifying twists and soul stirring responses.

What made both most powerful to me was their plausibility.  Much dystopian fiction verges into sci-fi, and so is frightening but much like a roller coaster ride.  You know it’s been designed to scare you and you simply get off at the end.  The Mad Max movies come to mind.  Other works are ideological tracts verging into paranoia – despite its creative flourishes I’d have to lump The Handmaid’s Tale in that category.

But Station Eleven and When the English Fall are a cut above.  They portray social destruction that could come to pass, at least here and there if not worldwide.  They leave questions open for the reader to search, not assigning tendentious blame to this or that group for the world’s ills, while searching for the good in struggling humanity.

The “dys” is real, but it faces push back, however small and fragile that might seem.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  (Isaiah 42:1-4)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1:5)

More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)