Of Super Powers and Spiritual Gifts

The earliest liturgy of my life occurred not on Sundays but on Saturday mornings.  My older brother, Robert, would rouse me from bed.  Wearing footy pajamas and shaking the sleep from our heads, we would trundle monk-like from our shared bedroom into the den.  With kids’ rocking chairs shaped like stuffed teddy bears as our pews and the boxy, pixilated color television serving as both pulpit and altar, we’d turn on the T.V. at 6:45 a.m. to nothing but staticky snow on the screen.  At 6:50 a.m., the snow was preempted by a ten-minute devotional program entitled “The Little Breadcast,” hosted by the local Church of Christ.  Enduring ten minutes of hellfire and brimstone was worth it, because as soon as the preacher on “The Little Breadcast” said “Amen” a burst of sound and color took over the screen.  Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Hall of Justice appeared.  Saturday morning cartoons had begun with the Super Friends, and both Robert and I were as mesmerized as two new converts to the faith.

I loved all the Super Friends, but my favorites were the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna.  I suspect I liked them because they were kids and they had super powers.  (I wanted super powers back then, too.)  But the powers allocated to Zan and Jayna were hardly equitable.  Jayna could take the form of any animal.  She could become a soaring eagle or a fearsome grizzly bear.  She could be big or small, sleek or powerful, depending upon the needs of the situation.  Jayna’s brother Zan, on the other hand, had only the power to become water in its liquid, solid, or gaseous form.  Once he became a puddle so as to make a super villain slip while trying to escape.  Once he became mist in order to disguise the movements of the Super Friends.  But that’s pretty weak compared to a grizzly bear.  The most demeaning example I recall is the episode when Zan transformed himself into a bucket of ice cubes.  A bucket of ice cubes? Why would a super hero need to do that?  When super powers were being parceled out, Jayna clearly got the better deal.

zan bucket of ice

Zan’s super powers left a lot to be desired.

In Corinth, the young Christians are bickering.  Unlike the Wonder Twins, they aren’t young in chronological age, but they are surely young in faith, barely babes, and their approach to the Christian life is juvenile to say the least.  In the fervor of their conversion to faith, God has bestowed upon the Corinthians spiritual gifts.  These are remarkable, according to St. Paul’s commentary today.  Some Christians in Corinth are performing miracles; others can heal injury and illness; yet others hear the voice of God and prophesy.  There are also other spiritual gifts, gifts less apparent and flashy, the spiritual gift version of being able to turn into a puddle of water, perhaps.  Regardless of the gift, like adolescent drivers behind the wheel for the first time, the Corinthians don’t yet have the experience or temperament to appreciate the powers at their command.  And so they, like children, begin to bicker over whose spiritual gift is the greatest.  They judge and weigh these gifts from God in the same manner they judge and weigh things in the other venues of their lives: What gives them the most attention, acclaim, status, and prestige.  It is to respond to this jockeying that St. Paul writes his letter.

When I was a little kid, I really did wish for a super power.  I used to daydream about whether I might wake up one day and be able to fly, or become invisible, or shoot heat rays from my eyes.  When I would play in the woods, I secretly hoped I might come across a power ring abandoned by a space alien or a magic bow and arrow.  (A good therapist would likely have a field day analyzing me, since I did, in fact, grow up to wear a costume and each week—Shazam!-like—incant the presence of God into bread and wine.)

As adults, we really do wish for, I think, either consciously or subconsciously, a spiritual gift, a power, something that makes palpable to us and to others evidence of our connection to God, and something that allows us to contribute in a meaningful way.  Like some of the Christians in Corinth, we look around us and see saints and heroes, people whose connection to God is apparent, who seem to have a clear purpose and the gifts to pursue it.  We want that.  We need that.  We want to be able to be the soaring eagle, or the fierce grizzly, or whatever God’s good but hurting world needs.  But for many of us, if we have a spiritual gift at all, by comparison we feel like we are, at best, a bucket of ice cubes or a puddle of water.

super-christian

We want a spiritual super power that makes evident our connection to God.

And the lectionary doesn’t help today, frankly.  Juxtaposing the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel with this passage from 1 Corinthians sets up Jesus turning water into wine as the gold standard of spiritual gifts.  That’s a surefire way to make the rest of us feel inferior.

Beginning today, and continuing on for the next two Sundays, St. Paul has something to say about all of this.  Paul says that spiritual gifts all come from, just the name suggests, the Spirit of God.  In fact, they are nothing but the Spirit of God, finding its way to the surface of our lives and into outward expression.  And, there is nothing that a person of faith does in the world that is not, rightly understood, such a potential outward expression.  Consider that: spiritual gifts are not like super powers, it turns out.  I don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  You don’t have to be faster than a speeding bullet.  We don’t have to prove that we are Samson or St. Peter.  We must simply do faithfully what we already do in the world.  We must simply live our lives as expressions of God’s Spirit.  The implications of this are seismic.  How might the doctor practice medicine differently, if she understood her healing craft to be the very Spirit of God finding expression in the world?  How might the businessman strike his deals, or the policeman enforce the law, or the teacher engage her students, or the preacher deliver his sermons, you name it—if we imagined all of these things as spiritual gifts, as expressions of God’s Spirit in the world?  Our lives would seem less mundane, because they would cease to be mundane.  Even our seemingly small interactions would take on weight.  We’d recognize that every encounter is a potential communication of the Spirit, a potential occasion of grace, and we’d take far less for granted.

Beyond today’s reading, Paul adds that our spiritual gifts are never exercised in isolation.  In that favorite cartoon of my childhood, the Wonder Twins could only exercise their power when they first came together.  The same is true of us.  It is when we engage one another in fellowship, and study, and faithful conversation that we first come to recognize the pursuits, skills, and gifts in our lives as spiritual, that we begin to see them all—no matter how grandiose or subtle and seemingly small—as the expressions by which God’s Spirit moves into and through the world.  Each of our contributions matters.  Each of our gifts is essential.

wonder twins

The Wonder Twins couldn’t exercise their powers in isolation.

St. Paul will end his soliloquy on spiritual gifts by asking, “How will we know when one’s life is an expression of God’s Spirit?”  Paul’s culmination is one of the best-known passages in all of scripture, but most of us likely have never considered it in this, its intended context.  Paul says a few verses beyond today’s reading that the barometer of the Spirit, the way we know whether the doctor, the teacher, the lawyer, the businessman, the prophet, or the priest is exercising life as spiritual gift is whether his actions are borne by love.  You see, it is here (and not as a wedding homily) that Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of…angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

You know the rest, about love’s patience, joy, and endurance.  At the end of the day—at the end of a life—this is the only criterion by which the exercise of our gifts is judged.  Did we speak and act in love?  If we can answer yes, then our lives have been expressions of God’s Spirit, a gift to us made a gift to the world.  It is a gift we have, everyone, been given and a gift we can surely give.

The Fourth Magi

My junior high school vice-principal, Harry Branch, was the world’s biggest Beatles fan. For the final day of my ninth-grade year, Mr. Branch planned a day-long lip sync concert of 1960s music.  Any student could perform, so long as the music was from the 1960s.  But the concert would end with a full set by the Beatles.  Mr. Branch hand-picked the Fab Four, and I was Paul.  He put us through a rigorous training regimen that included afternoon rehearsals in Chris McCurley’s backyard.  (Chris was John Lennon.)  We let our hair grow out as mop-tops.  We had to purchase black turtlenecks and slacks.  And I had to learn how to fake playing the bass guitar left-handed.  (That wasn’t too hard to do, since I couldn’t play it right-handed either.)

We lip synced “Help!,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” and more.  The day of the concert, the Paragould Police Department offered us a real-live escort to the front of the Paragould Junior High School (which tells you how low the crime rate was in Paragould; apparently the police had nothing better to do that day).  Screaming fans who’d been coached by Mr. Branch swarmed us as we ran to the auditorium stage.  We were the Fab Four.  It was great.

beatles

The Fab Four

But in real life, was it Fab Four?  Might there have been a fifth Beatle?  Ah, and thus we enter the perennial debate.  If there was a fifth Beatle, who was it?  There are numerous candidates.  Let’s focus on three.  First, there is Pete Best.  Best was, of course, the Beatles’ original drummer.  Best was part of the band during their sojourns to Hamburg, Germany in 1960 and 1961, when the band’s sound coalesced.  But after signing their first record deal with EMI in London, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.  The reasons differ.  Some reported that Pete Best was unable or unwilling to maintain the rhythm.  Others talked about his sudden mood swings and his desire to be in the spotlight to the detriment of the John, Paul, and George.  Some fans even took to calling the band “Pete Best & the Beatles.”[i]  Either way, Pete Best wanted to go and have his own way.  In a band called the Beatles, he wouldn’t keep the beat, either literally or metaphorically, and that’s no good for a drummer.

Another candidate for the fifth Beatle is Billy Preston.  Preston joined the band on keyboards for the “Get Back” sessions, including the Beatles’ final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Records building on January 30, 1969.  This was a period in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo were barely on speaking terms with one another, and virtually every week someone threatened to quit the band.  By all accounts, Billy Preston’s sudden presence leavened the others.  He brought peace and a sense of joy in their work.  But just as soon as he arrived, he was gone.  His impact was transient, and two years later the Beatles were no more.

A third candidate for the fifth Beatle is producer George Martin.  Martin produced the overwhelming majority of the Beatles’ songs.  He is often credited with honing their music into a coherent sound.  He helped the Beatles mature into artists.  George Martin was himself an accomplished musician, and he plays on numerous Beatles songs, most famously providing the harpsicord interlude on the song “In My Life.”  Perhaps most importantly, Martin was constant.  He was there almost from the beginning until after the end.  Long after the Beatles broke up, George Martin continued to shepherd their legacy with a sense of duty and a fair measure of grace.  No matter the histrionics or disfunction of the band (and there was plenty of both), George Martin was faithful.  After Martin died in 2016, Paul McCartney said, “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George.  From the day that he gave the Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”[ii]  I don’t know about you, but I’ll call whatever McCartney says gospel!

fifth beatle candidates

Pete Best, Billy Preston, and George Martin

Speaking of Gospel, in Matthew today the three Wise Men have traveled from the east guided by a star to pay homage to the baby Jesus.  But wait…something is wrong with that statement.  What is it?  Nowhere in Matthew’s account does it state that there are three Magi.  Have you ever noticed that?  There are three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but the number of Wise Men is left undefined.  What if there were another?  What if there were a fourth Magi?

What qualities would be required to be credited with such a role?  What does it look like to pay homage to Jesus, to leave all behind to follow him, to lay one’s gifts—one’s life—at his feet?  Maybe those fifth Beatle candidates can give us hint about the fourth Magi.

Is it the drummer who won’t keep the beat; who refuses to serve in the background as the foundation that carries the rest; who seeks to put himself always in the spotlight, whether for adulation or mere attention?  The work of the Gospel cannot crescendo into music that can move the world when the followers of Jesus will not follow.  When a guitar string breaks or a voice cracks, the Wise Man knows that keeping the steady beat is the most important gift of all.  It buoys all others and keeps the music moving when it would otherwise falter.  The same is true of discipleship in the world.

Is, then, the fourth Magi like Billy Preston, the one who brings peace and an injection of joy, who soothes and inspires, but who shows up late and leaves early and soon?  It may seem so in the short term, but often such a figure ends up wounding where at first it looks like healing, and distresses where at first he appears to encourage.  It can be intoxicating to join a cause, or an effort, or a faith and share one’s gifts.  But when enthusiasm just as quickly wanes and the disciple fades away, people feel abandoned.  The Gospel is left bereft and there is no one to share grace in a world that desperately needs it.  The gifts that one left at the feet of Jesus remain unused in the stable stall, to be swept away with yesterday’s hay.

What about the third option, the George Martin option?  George Martin’s gifts were abundant.  He may have been a better musician than any of the Fab Four.  He shared those gifts in whatever way was needed, at whatever time circumstances required.  He did not need to be center stage, and he patiently received the sometimes swirling turmoil around him and melded it into something enduring, moving, and beautiful.  He arrived early and stayed until well after all others had gone.  He was committed; he was tireless; he was faithful.  We might even say he was wise.

magi

I would love to have been the fifth Beatle.  (I’ve been singing Beatles songs in the shower since ninth grade, after all.)  But that’s not happening.  It can happen, though, that you or I become the fourth Magi.  It requires not virtuosity or unnatural enthusiasm, but only a willingness to seek out Jesus, to offer to God our gifts whatever they may be, to place the Gospel of love in the foreground and provide a steady and supporting beat for God’s work in this world.  Being the fourth Magi entails dedication to that work from now until the very end, knowing that it won’t always be easy or harmonious when we have personalities, and agendas, and the feelings of others with which to contend.  It means being faithful to the star wherever it may lead.  These things make us wise.  They count us among the Magi.  And they contribute to the music of grace that will change the world.

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[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vbBXFnLAXEo#t=684

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Beatle#cite_note-16

A Pause for Hope on Christmas

On December 16, 1944, the German Army threw 410,000 men into unsuspecting American lines in the Ardennes forest, achieving total surprise in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war in Germany’s favor.  By Christmas, the Germans had been reinforced with another forty thousand men, and the Battle of the Bulge was well on its way to becoming the second deadliest battle in American history.  December 1944 was the most desperate Christmas for the United States since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor exactly three years before.  Promise hung by a thread, especially for the young men freezing in the Ardennes forest, boys who wished for nothing more than hearth, home, a dose of hope.

Battle of the Bulge

Christmas 1944 was desperate for U.S. Troops

Back in the United States, the star-studded musical Meet Me in St. Louis had just been released in movie theatres.  The cast was filled with well-known Golden Age actors, but the central star was twenty-two year old Frances Gumm—better known to the world as Judy Garland—who’d first catapulted to fame a few years prior in The Wizard of Oz.  MGM and Judy Garland both intended for Meet Me in St. Louis to be the instrument that transformed Garland from teen idol (she’d starred in several films alongside Mickey Rooney at that point) into mature star.

MGM hired red-hot songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who’d already worked on Girl Crazy and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, to write the book and score for Meet Me in St. Louis.  The film’s central story involved sisters Esther and Tootie moving against their will from New York to Missouri over Christmas.  In a key scene, young Tootie worries that Santa Claus won’t be able to find her in her new home.  At the same time Esther, Judy Garland’s character, worries that the new-found love of her life will forget her when she moves away.  Martin and Blane built the book around the number Garland would sing in that scene.  They titled it “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The songwriters wanted both the scene and the song to be tragic, and the emotions they intended the song to evoke were irony and pain.  The song’s original opening lyric—no kidding—was, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last; next year we’ll be living in the past.”

Judy Garland was often underestimated.  She’d spent months prior to filming Meet Me in St. Louis visiting American troops serving in Europe.  She had seen first-hand the look in young men’s eyes, seeking hearth, home, and hope.  And she knew the recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would be shipped to soldiers at Christmas time—the very Christmas, it would soon turn out, when desperation was at its height in the Battle of the Bulge.  Judy Garland knew that young American soldiers didn’t need more irony and pain.  They needed a pause, a moment when the noise and fear could momentarily subside, and a note of promise would say to them, “This reality is temporary.  You are not alone.  Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”

And so, in an era in which starlets were practically owned by the movie studios and did what they were told, Judy Garland refused to sing the song that had been written just for her, and the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis came to a screeching halt.

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

Our contemporary images of the Nativity can fool us.  Even earlier today, when at 4 o’clock we watched our parish children perform the Nativity pageant in plush costume—including among the sheep a Christmas triceratops—we imagined the story with a “Precious Moments” gloss, with the shepherds scrubbed clean of desert grime, the animals doe-eyed and soft, and the warm light of the Eastern star blanketing the tableau with a gauzy glow.  I wouldn’t ever want to give up those images, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that they are all pretend.  Let’s rehearse the reality of the Nativity story.

Mary is pregnant at probably fourteen years of age.  Joseph initially believes Mary has been unfaithful to him.  He knows he is not the father.  A distant Caesar demands that the Holy Family travel one hundred miles across a treacherous desert filled with bandits just so the emperor can tax them.  They are pawns in Caesar’s chess game, and they have no choice but to move through danger in Mary’s pregnant state.  When they arrive in Bethlehem, a town whose very name ironically means “house of bread” or “house of plenty,” everything is scarce.  There isn’t even a room for Joseph to rent.  And so, to keep his nearly bursting wife from exposure to the elements, Joseph agrees to bed down in a livery stall with animals.  There is nothing doe-eyed about this scene.  It is dark; it is dirty; it is fearful.  I am a father, and I can imagine Joseph’s anxiety and desperation to keep Mary and their unborn child safe.  I can also imagine that Mary’s fear, as the one who carries the child, is exponentially greater.  Events are happening to them, and they need a pause, a moment when the noise and fear can momentarily subside, and a note of promise say to them, “This reality is temporary.  You are not alone.  Hope will prevail, and you will make it home.”

It is in that context, that moment of anxiety and fear, that Jesus is born, that the heavens open and the shepherds in the field are awestruck before the angel’s song, and that the very stars in the heavens indeed pause in wonder.  It is in that moment that the words spoken by Julian of Norwich thirteen hundred years later must be heard in the stable stall: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  That is the promise birthed into the world along with the Incarnate God, the promise that from this moment on God is with us and we are not alone, that goodness and grace will, ultimately, prevail.

holy family to bethlehem

There is so much yet to come.  Very soon, the Holy Family will be on the move again, this time fleeing murderous Herod and escaping as refugees to Egypt ever farther from home.  Years after that, Jesus will begin his ministry, and Mary will plead with him to come home, fearing for both his mental health and his safety.  And finally, Mary will stand at the foot of the cross, leaning on St. John for support, as her son suffers pain from which no parents can, ultimately, protect their children.  All of these things have yet to happen, and they will happen.  But on Christmas, there is a pause.  The Christ child is born, and the birth is the promise of Emmanuel, that God is with us, and that nothing past and nothing yet to come will be able ultimately to thwart God’s victory.  It is the promise that no matter what we face in this world, we face it alongside the God who is now incarnate in the world with us.  The birth of the Christ child reveals that, in the end, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

____________

We could do with such a pause, I think.  In our world, and, for many of us, in our individual lives, there is plenty of anxiety, and noise, and uncertainty, and fear.  We already know enough irony and pain.  What we need is a note of hearth, and home, and hope on tonight of all nights.  We need to know that we are not alone.

Twenty-two year old Judy Garland knew that the boys fighting in Europe, holding out desperately against the German Army at the Battle of the Bulge, needed these things.  She would not yield to cajoling or threat, and she forced MGM to rewrite her signature song.  She was right, and it worked.  A movie show tune that otherwise would have been forgotten in the dust bin of the silver screen instead became, due to her courage and insistence, a timeless paean to hope.  As author Ace Collins says, “When battle weary men in Europe and the Pacific heard it, they clung to the song as if their dreams were carried on each word and note.”[i]  When soldiers heard the song, they could pause and be reminded that, no matter what, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.  So…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on your troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on your troubles will be miles away

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

 

Merry Christmas!

__________________________________

[i] Collins, Ace.  Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 79.

Refiner’s Fire

Fire has been in the news a lot lately.  This year’s wildfires in California have been the worst on record.  The Camp Fire alone burned more than two hundred thirty-four square miles, killed seventy-seven people, and consumed the entire town of Paradise (now ironically named) displacing a population of twenty-six thousand.  One viral video of a couple fleeing Paradise, driving down a street with sheets of flame rising on either side of the car, looked like something from Dante’s Inferno.  Fire destroys utterly.  It leaves only ash in its wake.

Paradise, CA fire

Paradise, California, engulfed by the Camp Fire

That destruction is why fire has been used as a means of choice, both metaphorically and literally, for punishment throughout human history.  The model for hell utilized in scripture was Gehenna, the smoldering garbage dump in the Hinnon Valley outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem.  Gehenna, always within sight of the city, perpetually belched flame and gas.  As an image of eternal punishment it was, thus, a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.  As this-worldly punishment, there have been times when those in authority used fire as the sentence for religious offenses such as heresy.  Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer himself, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, was gruesomely burned at the stake by Queen Bloody Mary in 1556.

The awesome destructive power of fire and its association with punishment have led us to fear it.  The mere whiff of smoke, and we scramble to find its source and stamp it out.  We may be perplexed, therefore, when today the prophet Malachi tells us that God will send a messenger ahead of the nativity, someone who is to ready us for the coming of Christ, and that that one will be like “a refiner’s fire” whose very goal is to burn us.  How can that be good news of any kind?  How is that a herald we’d want to receive?  Oughtn’t we to stamp out that message as soon as we detect it, and go on with our lives lest we be surrounded by sheets of flame?

Thomas Cranmer

Last summer my family and I visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  In addition to the grand house, the estate includes, among other things, a working blacksmith’s shop.  I’d never seen a blacksmith at work before.  He told us that the temperature in his forge was more than one thousand degrees.  The heat from that fire could be felt fifteen feet away.  Its pulsating, potentially destructive power was obvious and ominous.  The blacksmith took a small, dull ingot of metal, and as he spoke to us he periodically thrust the ingot into the fire.  In the meantime, he would hammer the lump of metal in a manner that looked to my eyes like nothing other than mindless pounding.  But as we watched, that dull metal began to take on shape.  And twenty minutes after the blacksmith began, it had become a delicate leaf, with striations and veins and a luster that seemed to emerge from nowhere.  What had been an opaque and formless lump was a thing of light and beauty.  Though I watched it happen with my own eyes, it seemed almost miraculous.

In our world of offices and service industries and virtuality, we’ve lost skills such as those of the blacksmiths and metallurgists, and consequently we’ve lost an understanding of the refiner’s fire.  An ingot is thrust into a refiner’s fire until it reaches a molten state, and then the dross of impure metals is skimmed from the top while the precious ore remains, and in the case of steel, stronger than it was before.  The refiner’s fire is not a fire of destruction, in other words, but of purification, and strength, and wholeness.  It is the difference between the slag and the leaf, between darkness and light.

There is one other thing to remember about fire, which we see in the springtime after a fire has consumed an area of land.  Though it reduces to ash, fire also fertilizes and makes way for new green shoots to grow from the soil.

And in these ways the Advent messenger is like the refiner’s fire.  Just as we’ve lost the skills of the blacksmith, we’ve nearly lost the spiritual wisdom that tells us, forthrightly, what we must do if we are to encounter, and embody, and be redeemed by the birth of grace into our world.  Within ourselves, in the depth of our very souls, we must plunge into the foundry and meet the refiner’s fire, so that the dross in us can be skimmed away and the precious ore of our essence be made stronger and lustrous.  But what does that look like in a human life?

Biltmore blacksmith's leaf

The Biltmore blacksmith, refining slag into a rose

Before he was famous, the brain scientist David Eagleman, well known to this cathedral, wrote a little book entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.  The book consists of forty of Eagleman’s ideas of what the afterlife might be like, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying.  One account he titles “Mirrors,” and in it he says of us, “When you think you’ve died, you haven’t actually died.  Death is a two-stage process [and you’re not completely dead yet…In life] you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you were at seeing yourself…So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voicemail.  [But now, in this first stage of the afterlife,] all the people with whom you’ve ever come into contact are gathered.  The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified.  Mirrors are held up in front of you.  Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time.  And that is what finally kills you.”[i]

I suppose that’s both whimsical and terrifying: To look into the mirror honestly; to allow ourselves to see not our pretended motives, rationalizations and justifications for the things we have sometimes done or who we have sometimes been, but rather to see our true reflection from the perspective of the others with whom our lives have intersected, both intimately and casually.  That would burn.  It would sear.  It might destroy.  But it might not.  If we are people of faith, if we trust in the God who made us in love, then that mirror would not be the fire that consumes Paradise but rather the refiner’s fire.  An inward acknowledgement, deep in the foundry of the soul, of who we have been at our best but also at our very worst would allow us to see the dross for what it is and skim it away, preserving the silver, and gold, and steel which is our essence—the very image of God within us—which has always been beautiful and precious to God.  Such fire is not punishment.  It is not hell, and it is not forever.  It is, rather, the unavoidable path from the slag to the leaf, from dullness to luster, from darkness to light.

It is also what makes room deep within us for the incarnation of God, for the birth and growth of the Christ who is coming.  That is why the messenger comes now, so that the dross can be skimmed, the ash blown away, and new shoots of redemption take root within us when Christ comes.

This is hard work.  It is, indeed, easier to stamp out this message while the flame is only a flicker, to ignore it and carry on with our lives.  To heed the refiner’s message and encounter the refiner’s fire—to look upon the dross of our lives honestly—requires owning things about ourselves we’ve never owned before.  It requires taking responsibility.  It requires mending relationships when we can.  And it requires valuing that which is truly precious while letting go of that which dulls us to love and grace in the world.  We can plunge into this forge, but will we?  The work is hard, and it begins with it some pain, but it also brings with it, as Malachi says, the promise of Christ, “the covenant in whom we delight.”  It refines us so that we become the very manger in which Christ can be born.

[i] Eagleman, David.  Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 43-44.

What is hope?

The final scene of the 2016 Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One is one of the most celebrated in recent cinematic history.  The action takes place immediately prior to the beginning of 1977’s epic Star Wars.  The plans to the Death Star have been stolen from Imperial forces by daring rebels.  Darth Vader’s pursuing spaceship catches up with the fleeing rebels, and as doors are forced open Vader’s unmistakable and ominous breathing wafts through the darkness.  The rebel soldiers cower, and the next thing the viewer sees is Darth Vader’s blood red light saber, as Vader moves relentlessly toward and through the rebel soldiers, sowing mayhem and death as he goes.  Just as Darth Vader is about to reclaim the Death Star plans, the rebel escape ship ejects and flies away, out of Vader’s clutches for the moment, but frighteningly vulnerable and small in the enormity of space.

In the story arc of the Star Wars saga, that scene at the end of Rogue One is the nadir, the darkest moment, when all is but lost.  It is a cinematic moment similar to those chronicled in our Old and New Testament readings today.  In Daniel, the seer has chronicled a lengthy vision of competing nations vying for power and control, as regular people suffer as pawns in a child’s game played by grown-up men.  Regular people feel desperate, vulnerable, and impotent to control their own lives.  Their world is, indeed, an increasingly dark place.

Rogue One rebel ship

In Mark, Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem and sees the massive Jewish temple—larger than any building we’ve ever seen or ever will see—and knows in his imagination what is coming: That soon the Romans will crush the temple to rubble, that the world as the Jewish people have known it is ending never to return, and that the ending will bring fear, disruption, and pain.  Worst yet, in the midst of it all, some will arise with easy, tantalizing, and soothing words that palliate for a moment, but do nothing to make the world a better place.

These readings hit home for me, as perhaps they did for you.  A world in flux, and not for the better, seems reminiscent of our own experience, writ both small and large.  I’ve recently been at the bedside of people important to me and to us, who are suffering and dying.  Images of wildfires in California, of scorched land and scorched people, sear the consciousness as they sear the landscape.  Three deaths at Lamar High School in the past week touch everyone in this room with, at most, one or two degrees of separation.  They are shocking because they are so close, but they are also hauntingly familiar, since we read about similar deaths elsewhere now as virtually routine.

And none of that even touches upon our ongoing national and international saga, in which community and conversation continue to break down as we silo with like minds and assume the very worst of anyone who disagrees with us, and as we become ever more fearful that any unguarded comment we make may fracture our relationships with those we love and those with whom we’ve built our lives.  “There shall be a time of anguish,” Daniel says.  That seems about right.  “The stones on which you’ve relied will crumble” Matthew says.  That seems about right.

SONY DSC

Rewatching that final scene of Rogue One this past week, seeing that tableau with the tiny speck of the fleeing rebel spaceship against the foreboding darkness of deep space, underscored for me how tenuous the future is for every generation, including our own.  But as I looked at that tableau of the little spaceship in the darkness it also brought to mind the aphorism, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That saying is traced back both to England, when Thomas Fuller wrote it in 1650, and to Ireland, where it seems to have lived in folk culture perhaps forever.  It also turns out that, to some extent, the saying is more than a metaphor.  For half of each month—the two weeks immediately following a new moon—the moon can be seen after sunset but not before sunrise.  Just before dawn the moon is hidden, its light omitted from the night sky.  And so, half the time, just before the first glimpse of sunlight appears over the eastern horizon, it is literally darkest before the dawn.[i]

In the movie Rogue One, just as Darth Vader is about to overtake the last of the rebels and the small rebel escape ship ejects to tentative safety, a rebel soldier enters the little ship’s bridge and offers the Death Star plans to what appears at first to be an angelic woman dressed in white.  As she turns to receive them, we see that it is Princess Leia, with the youthful and radiant countenance we remember from 1977.  (That’s the wonder of digital technology today.)  The soldier says, “Your highness, the transmission we received.  What is it they’ve sent us?”  And the Princess replies with a single word, “Hope.”

Both Daniel and Mark foretell darkness today, but that isn’t all they foretell.  The saying “darkest before the dawn” includes the invocation of daybreak.  It assumes that the darkness will not last forever, that the emergence of light is not only expected, but assured.  It implies that final word from Rogue One, spoken from the lips of Princess Leia: “Hope.”

Princess Leia-Rogue One

What is hope?  Dictionaries will define it as “a desire for something to happen” or “wanting something to be the case.”  But those are secular definitions, synonymous with what we might call wishful thinking.  They certainly don’t fit the bill of what Princess Leia means with her movie-ending utterance.  For her, hope is the result of dogged planning, extreme risk, and grievous sacrifice by many.  Hope is born not of wishful thinking, but through preparation and participation in a future that is not yet.

Hope is not, in the end, a secular word.  It is the preeminent Christian word, the word that rightly defines us in the world.  At the end of today’s Mark reading Jesus says the suffering his people will endure is not the suffering of despair—what Viktor Frankl calls suffering without meaning—but the suffering of birth pangs, the suffering that is the prelude to new life.  At the heart of Daniel’s prophecy today is not anguish, but resurrection.  New birth and resurrection are sentiments of hope.

So what is hope?  Hope is, first, trust that God is up to something even when we cannot easily see it.  Hope is believing, even though things we cherish may crumble, as people we love may die, as old ways may burn away, that God is preparing for the birth of something new, both in our individual lives—in each of us—and for our world.  But that alone is not hope.  Hope is not merely the religious version of wishful thinking, the pithy gesture of “thoughts and prayers” so often heard today.  Hope also includes our trust and belief taking action, working doggedly in concert with God, taking risks and making sacrifices for goodness and grace in our individual lives and in the world.  Hope is not just something we have; it is something we enact, something we do.  Hope is preparation for and participation in a future that is not yet, because by our cooperation with God, especially in the moments when the stones crumble and the darkness seems most opaque, the not yet begins its birth, and the first glimmer of dawn emerges on the horizon.

Darkness is real, but it is darkest just before the dawn.  And the dawn begins to break when those who side with goodness and grace have hope and live hope.  Then, Daniel says, the very angels of God will arise and work with us in tandem.  The old may give way, but in its place God will resurrect; God will birth something new.  And we ourselves will shine, Daniel promises, “like the brightness of the sky…like stars forever and ever.”  That’s something worth hoping for.

[i] https://davidson.weizmann.ac.il/en/online/askexpert/sky-darkest-just-dawn

Hold the Door

There is a scene is episode five, season six of the celebrated HBO series “Game of Thrones” when the very future of humanity hangs in the balance.  Bran Stark and his friends are being pursued by the White Walkers, who represent cold, calculating evil, and the undead, who represent the swarming power of chaos.  Bran, who is paralyzed, is carried on a litter by his massive but simple manservant, Hodor.  Hodor drags Bran away from their enemies down a long, narrow passageway with a pinpoint of light at its far end.  As they reach the light and rush through the doorway, the swarm of undead catch up with them.  With brute strength and raw power, Hodor slams the door behind him and braces it with his massive back.  Bran’s litter is taken up by another, and he continues to flee.  As he looks back at Hodor, the powers of chaos attempt to break through the door, bit by bit.  They claw at Hodor’s arms, his back, his face.  But Hodor is unmovable.  His love for Bran is unsurpassable.  His strength is unassailable.  His will is supreme.  Because he holds the door, because he holds back chaos and evil, Bran is saved.

Hold the Door

In Mark’s Gospel today, the disciples James and John earn their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder.”  They bluster and brag and ask of Jesus in a manner that is, in reality, the staking of a claim that Jesus place them—James and John—at his right and left hand.  They wish to be Lancelot and Galahad to Jesus’ King Arthur, and that image is not too far off the mark of who they think Jesus is and will be.  Glory swims in their eyes, and they want to be in its very center.  James and John can imagine the importance, the accolades, the prominence their central role will bring.  In the new world, the Camelot of sorts, the new kingdom of David they expect Jesus to inaugurate, things will revolve around them.

Overhearing the brothers’ bluster, the other disciples get angry, but notably Jesus does not.  His reaction is, I suspect, more like sadness.  He can predict what’s coming, and he knows that there is great irony in what James and John ask.  Jesus asks them if they can drink from the cup he must drink.  They brazenly say “Yes, of course we can,” but they don’t understand.  They’ll surely eventually drink from Jesus’ cup, but it will not be the nectar they imagine.

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In Job today, the protagonist has suffered for thirty-eight long chapters, enduring friends who insist that Job’s trials must be the result of his own sin (which he knows is untrue) and wondering pleadingly how it can be that a man such as himself, who contributes to society, cares for his family, and tends to the poor finds himself on the receiving end of such pain.  Job has been the very center of his community, and, he believes, he deserves better.  Finally, Job has challenged God to make an appearance and justify Godself.  Today, God shows up.  And Job becomes the first person in history to say to himself, “Be careful what you ask for…”

God begins, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  And God’s soliloquy continues for four chapters.  God explains to Job that God causes rain to fall on parched places that have never entered Job’s concern or even consciousness, turning deserts to oases where human beings have never dwelled.  God explains to Job that God’s care, delight, and love are bestowed upon every creature of the earth, from the majestic lion to the ridiculous ostrich.  God explains that God is present at the birth of each lamb and each deer.

In a nutshell, God reveals to Job something more shattering than all the pains Job has experienced thus far, namely, that Job is not at the center of things, including the center of God’s own attention, at all.  It is not that God doesn’t love humanity—God surely does—but God loves humanity as part of God’s gracious whole, not over and above the rest of the good creation.

At the end of God’s long speech, beyond our reading today, God gives Job a vision of two terrifying creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan.  One is on land and the other is in the sea, but they both represent the stampeding, swarming, overwhelming power of evil and chaos that constantly threatens to overtake the world.  Job believes that God’s attention should have been on Job’s every and individual need, a nursemaid God who binds every scraped knee.  But the vision of Behemoth and Leviathan God offers Job corrects Job’s sight to see where God’s constant attention actually must lie.  Like Hodor bracing that door with his mighty back against the White Walkers, God, in every moment of the world’s long existence, labors mightily to keep Behemoth and Leviathan at bay.  God—with supreme will, unassailable strength, and unsurpassable love for us and for all the good world—holds the door closed against the evil and chaos that would otherwise overtake us.

Leviathan and Behemoth

William Blake’s Leviathan and Behemoth

As I have grown older and my own conception of God has evolved, God’s speech to Job has gone from being one of my least to most favorite passages of scripture.  Our removal from the center of things is a corrective to our human tendency toward arrogance and narcissism.  It refocuses our attention away from ourselves and toward the beauty and wonder of the created world.  And, the image of God binding Behemoth and Leviathan; the image of God, with outstretched arms and steely intention, holding back the chaos that would otherwise run roughshod over the world every moment of our existence; deepens my gratitude and even love for God.

But it also brings me soberly back to Jesus’ melancholy prediction in Mark today that James and John will indeed, eventually, drink from his cup.  The image of Jesus on the cross is, in the end, another version of God holding the door.  Jesus’ saving work on the cross is God’s ultimate act, God’s ultimate labor of love against chaos, evil, and death.  Jesus suffers on the cross to enact God’s redemption of the world.  And both James and John will (as today they ignorantly hope, not knowing what they ask) drink from Jesus’ cup.  They will be transformed to become agents of that redemption, too.  They will, in service to grace, also labor to hold back the chaos.  It will claw at them, and they will both eventually give their lives fending against it for grace’s sake.

This is the lesson today, from both Job and Mark’s Gospel: God gives humanity a role, a purpose, a sacred job to do, and that cup is not at all easy to drink.  Ours is not to cast ourselves as the center of attention, either the world’s attention or God’s.  Ours is to recognize both the goodness of God’s whole creation and its fragile contingency, with ruinous chaos constantly beating at the door.  God’s demonstrated promise is to hold that door, to bind Leviathan and Behemoth, to preserve this world with grace against being overcome by the forces that rail against it.  And our purpose; our co-operative role; our calling to, indeed, be the left and right hands of Jesus is to hold the smaller doors whenever evil and chaos claw their way through the gaps.  We are to drink the cup that Jesus drank and stand with courage and conviction against the forces that seek to mar God’s goodness and destroy God’s world.  As Job learns today and as James and John eventually learn, it is a humbling role, one that removes us from the center and places us in service.  It requires a reframing of who we are, relative to our own prior conceptions and relative to God.  It may require more of us than we thought we could give.

God holds the door and makes space for the lives of wonder, beauty, and goodness we enjoy.  And we are called to brace our backs with God, extending our own arms in love.