Monday, October 22, 2018

Out of the Whirlwind, the Wild God Speaks

So . . . it turns out God is not Alexa. Or Siri. Or Google. Still, less Santa Claus of you Fairy Godmother. Job discovered, as did James and John, that God is a much deeper mystery than they were prepared for. And wilder.

Job wanted answers. A lot had gone wrong in his life. He wanted to know what God was up to in the midst of it all. But, God did not answer Job’s questions the way he wanted. Instead he responds with questions of his own. And the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.

When the LORD answers Job out of the whirlwind, it is not some wispy dust devil, but the raw, wild power of a tornado. I expect the hairs on the back of Job’s neck stiffened and his skin pimpled with the feel of the uncanny wildness of God’s presence. The “fear of the LORD” was no puzzling abstraction. It is no warm, fuzzy, domesticated God who answers Job’s lament, but the wild God of the wild creatures of this wild creation. And, notoriously, he doesn’t so much answer Job’s lament as put that lament in its proper, larger context. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Or “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?”Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” In effect God’s response to Job suggests that Job is like an eight-year old child throwing a temper tantrum demanding that a scientist explain quantum physics. Even if she wanted to, the child could not understand. The world, including the suffering it contains, is a wild place. It is bigger and wilder and more mysterious than Job can fathom.

In creating the wild world in which we live, God makes space for us and for all creation to be free. Maybe it is not possible for God to create beings in the image of God who are not free because God is free. That means God also makes space for us to make a mess of it, to make a mess of one another, to make a mess of ourselves. And free beings created in the image of God need to be placed in the context of a creation that is also in some sense free. That means God allows creation to do it thing without interfering to make sure things turn out the way we would like. It is a big, wild world. Wild as we sometimes are, the world is bigger and wilder. And Job learns that God is wilder, still.

This does not address Job’s curiosity (or ours) about the way things go – why do bad things happen to good people? or, just as troubling, why do good things seem to happen to bad people? Why does God have to make so much space for freedom? Why does God tolerate so much suffering and injustice? Why has God created such a world? If God is at the heart of it all this wildness – the Creator and Sustainer – God is not off the hook for all the suffering all that wild freedom entails.

Which is, of course, the point of the gospel. On the cross, God himself is on the hook. Out of the whirlwind and onto the cross, God speaks a Word into this wild world. God enters into the wildness of the world God has created. Wild as it is, God is wilder. The Lion of Judah, as C. S. Lewis reminds us in the character of Aslan, is not a tame lion. Good, but not safe. But, when that wild Lion appears in human history it as the Lamb of God given for the ransom of many. This is the deeper, unsettling mystery of God’s wildness. God’s wildness is revealed most fully in the apparent weakness of gentleness, humble servant-hood, and self-sacrificial love.

That’s the bit John and James seemed not to get. They asked Jesus to grant them places of honor on his right and left hands. As God did with Job, Jesus responded with questions of his own. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Are you able to embrace the apparent weakness of gentleness, humble servant-hood, and self-sacrificial love that is my way? It is in its way, a wild path.

The wild Lamb enters into our wildness to be slaughtered. On the cross, God in Christ freely takes on the wild pain and suffering of the world. The world’s passion becomes Christ’s passion. God transforms that passion into the promise of resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed – the suffering of the world will not be lost, but gathered up and transformed in resurrection. By his wounds, we will be healed. And so will be the rest of creation which eagerly awaits being set free from its bondage to futility and decay. 

We live in a world of great suffering and great injustice. As Job knew, it can be a hard place to live. It can be a hard place to believe in God – especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. The God we know is the God of the whirlwind and the cross. French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his wild presence and the promise of its transformation. However wild the world might be, however wild our own hearts and lives might be, Jesus is wilder still.

God does not always give us what we want. Or answer all our questions. But, a God wild enough to create and sustain such a world as ours and wild enough to pour his love out on the hard wood of the cross is able to evoke our wonder, love, and praise. And out of the wild heart of God, Jesus calls us to follow in the wild way of self-sacrificial love.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The medicine of immortality

“[The Bread of Communion] is the medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying but which causes that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.”
– Ignatius of Antioch (35-108), 'Letter to the Ephesians 20'

Not a placebo. More like penicillin to treat the selfishness and unlove that infects our sin-sick souls unto death. Or, given the radical and malignant nature of our spiritual condition, maybe it is sometimes like chemo-therapy. Not to be taken lightly, but in hope of remission and new life and new love. In any event, united to Jesus Christ through faith and the Sacraments, there is hope of a cure for what ails us.

It also important to note that the Eucharist is an entry into Mystery and thus greater than any single metaphor. It is also the tangible 'kiss' of God that awakens us to new life, new love, and new hope. It is the potion that transforms us from beings warped by sin to beings of spiritual grace and beauty. It is the needle and thread that sews us back together despite the sin that rips and tears us apart. And much, much more.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

If Necessary Use Words Are Necessary

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the much-loved, but often sentimentalized and misrepresented saint. An example of that misrepresentation is the phrase, "Preach the gospel everywhere; if necessary use words," which is often ascribed to Francis. It's a popular phrase. The problem is, there is no evidence Francis said it.

Of course, the wisdom of that particular saying does not depend upon its source. And I do not think it is without wisdom. Many of us have been on the receiving end of words spoken in the name of the gospel by someone whose life or attitude did not "preach" the gospel. Our lives must bear witness to the good news of Jesus before our words about that good news can make any sense. Francis did encourage Christians “to shine as an example to others.” But to suggest that the gospel can be preached without using words is deceptive. We ought to be able to tell the Story that makes the story of our lives make sense. That requires words as well as actions. Francis did in fact write, “Being the servant of all, I am bound to serve all and to administer the fragrant words of my Lord.” (Letter to the Faithful, Second Version, from Francis and Clare, The Complete Works, p. 67 )

If we use this saying attributed to St. Francis as an excuse to never speak words of the gospel to others, it is rather like saying, “Be politically active, if necessary use words.” Or, as one wag has it, "Feed the hungry; if necessary use food." And if we attribute only this saying to Francis, we will misrepresent the fact that he, himself, actually used words – and used them boldly – to preach the gospel.

Here is a story from the life of Francis of Assisi:

The people of Gubbio, a town north of Assisi, were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life,

Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp… and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God… stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
(as told by Jim Forest in The Ladder of the Beatitudes, p. 116-117)

May we, like Francis, live in the way of Jesus such that we shine as an example to others. But, may we also, like Francis, administer the fragrant words of our Lord. Francis knew that words are necessary.

Celebrant           Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People                I will, with God's help.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Centered on Jesus VI: The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism

In the 20th century, there was a great religious leader who also became a great political leader. After some time in exile, he returned to lead his people as they threw off their oppressors and the foreign forces that threatened their cultural integrity. When he died, the whole nation was frantic with grief. The leader's name? It could be Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political founder of modern India. But, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political father of the current Iranian theocracy, also fits the profile. He remains in very high esteem, not only in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world.

Can we say that both these men had equally valid and appealing grasps on the nature of the divine and what it means to be human? Or that either's guess was as good as the other's when it came to pointing to the ineffable, the sacred or the holy? Or their vision of morality and the good life? Will we not inevitably credit one more than the other? On what basis? Their respective effects on American foreign policy? The degree to which their words and actions comport with certain intellectual currents in the West? Our individual tastes?

The Mahatma or the Ayatollah. If we prefer one over the other, it will be based on something. Nobody actually in practice accords all religions and all religious teaching equal respect. Everyone uses some standard by which to measure their merits – our cultural/political/class/national prejudices and convictions etc. There is a presumed superiority in whatever standard is used and however conscious or unconscious its application. Consciously or unconsciously, something will be the measure. Christians will prefer the one whose teaching and public behavior most reflected the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The earliest Christian creed was "Jesus is Lord," i.e., Jesus is the measure of all things. It had to be declared. It had to be lived. It had to be, if it came to it, died for. Because it was true. If Jesus was just one among many spirit persons, even though a personal favorite, he could not – cannot – be Lord. And there would be little point in paying his life and death any more attention than that of Spartacus, Socrates or Julius Caesar. Nor would there be any conflict between worshiping Jesus and worshiping Caesar (or any nation or flag). To claim Jesus as Lord means that everything else – personal preferences, familial traditions, political ideologies, national loyalties, other religious teachings – everything is measured in light of what we know of God and life in light of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is no more presumptuous for Christians to say that we measure Gandhi and Khomeini and every other teacher or idea against the example of Jesus Christ because he is the definitive revelation of the divine-human drama than it is to use something else as the measure.

This does not mean that there is no truth or wisdom to be learned elsewhere. One can hold emphatically that Jesus is uniquely Lord and still believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through the hearts and scriptures of those who do not know him as Lord. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying. Nor, for the purposes of this essay, does it mean that affirming Jesus as Lord necessarily means that those who do not are automatically destined for perdition. Nor does it mean that one cannot affirm Jesus as Lord and also embrace and defend the benefits of living respectfully in a pluralistic society. But, we lose something essential when we abandon the scandal of particularity that is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. With reverence. With gentleness. With humility. With forbearance. But, hold to it we must.

I am concerned that in our reaction to simplistic, heavy-handed fundamentalism, we not slip into a simplistic pluralism that has more to do with the intellectual agnosticism of modernity than with Christian witness to the mystery of God. As Stephen Prothero has pointed out, such pluralism is not only disingenuous and misleading. It is disrespectful of the otherness of the other. It is also dangerous.

Se also: