Wisdom Overflowing

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Burning Bush (continued)

to go. There's nothing here. We need to go. But that fire, or whatever it is. We must be imagining it. It can't be. We'll turn around, walk away, and when we look back, it'll be gone.

But it isn't. It's still glowing, flaming, not consuming. We can see the little wrinkles in the leaves sparkling now. We can't just leave. We CAN'T. We stand next to the bush, watch the sparkles, and wait for—something. We don't know what.

Until we hear the voice. (posted 10/3/10)

The Reminding Shadow

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. ... It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. ... When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land. ... until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 1:10-11; 15:25, 33-34, 37)

At the beginning of Mark's gospel, in Jesus' first appearance, we see inside his experience: it is Jesus who sees the heavens torn apart, Jesus who perceives God's choice of him. At the end of the gospel, we again enter his experience. This time, for six excruciating hours the only voices he hears are mocking voices. He hangs from light into darkness, silent, until at the very end he cries out, as if he's been waiting for the voice that did not come. Jesus, the faithful chosen one, dies in utter separation from God. In his final words, there is no hint of comforting foreknowledge of later glory.

If we take Mark's scene as an insight on what discipleship demands in this life, the picture is frightful. To begin in the most wonderful and optimistic sense of chosenness, and to end in this dark painful abandonment: it is not a call you want to accept. Death from extended and humiliatingly public execution. Is that the reward for those you have chosen, the righteous ones?

There is much work that calls for an acceptance of this radical end of the mission, as Oscar Romero and contemporary Christians in Sudan, for instance, would understand. But what is the message for me, in my peaceful and protected life, struggling to develop my relationship with God and respond to God's call to mission?

Jesus of Nazareth in this gospel went from the heights to the depths. I do not think the call to the depths comes unless you have given yourself over to the full commitment that brings the heights of God's constant and powerful presence. The holy ones, like Jesus and Jeremiah and the desert fathers and mothers and Therese of Lisieux ("crumple me up and throw me in a corner until you want me again"), understand this.

I know that compared to them I live in a more neutral way, neither hot nor cold, like lukewarm Laodicea. I have experienced and respond to the easy side of God. I do not yet know, in truth, how wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked I am. Mark's vision stands as the reminding shadow in my self-generated glow of complacent spirituality. (posted 10/2/10)

Hidden Treasure

And you, O generation, behold the word of the Lord!
Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness?
When then do my people say, "We are free, we will come to you no more?"
Can a girl forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number. (Jeremiah 2:31-32)

In these verses, the prophet Jeremiah cries out of the pathos of God, in a suffering expression of rejection aimed at every generation of God's people. The double-stepped flow of the verses comes to a dead stop in the last phrase, which stands with no partner: "days without number" we have forgotten God. We hear God's eternal cry, God's eternal bewilderment: Am I not life to you? Am I not light? With these verses, God's love touches my spiritual core, and what is spirituality if not that?

What is our relationship with God to be? God should be our treasure, like the jewelry that adorns us, like the precious dress we wear on our most special day. We keep our treasures close to us and we also display them for all to see. We sacrifice to acquire them, perhaps selling all we have. We do not forget our treasures—yet, as every faith community and every faith-filled person knows, the treasure that is God can be forgotten. And a forgotten treasure becomes a treasure we might as well not have. "God is of no importance unless God is of supreme importance," says Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Yet I say to God in response, "Why are you so hidden? Perhaps we forget because you are not easy to find. Would that all people would prophesy, said Moses—but we cannot prophesy, we cannot even begin to know there is a treasure to seek, a treasure to proclaim, unless we receive a touch of your Spirit. I cry out to you, God, and ask, "Why do you not touch all our souls?"

(posted 10/1/10)

The Bible's Ground

I've never lived in Nebraska, but I lived for twelve years in Colorado and my husband and I often turned away from Colorado's mountains to drive through Nebraska's plains.

One summer evening, on a back road, we watched the sun setting as we cruised the open prairie. The golden orange glow on the grasses and the shadows that marked the gentle hills made a beautiful scene, but soon enough I knew that just looking at the scene through the window of a car wasn’t enough. I needed to touch that prairie, not just look at it. It wouldn’t be real to me unless I experienced it with my feet, unless I myself got a sense of its ground.

I’ve since learned the same lesson about many of the texts of the Bible. It's one thing to locate the dots marked Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana on your Bible’s map of “Palestine in New Testament Times.” It’s quite another thing to imagine yourself in sun and rain walking rough paths in the steep hills of Galilee, as Jesus must have done so often.

It’s one thing to look at your map of “The Exodus” and find the lines that mark the possible routes the ancient Israelites traveled in Sinai. It’s quite another thing to realize that one route is mostly flat, marshy, and sandy, and one of the others is mountainous, rocky, and treeless—and then imagine how you and your family would manage on either route.

Getting a sense of the ground of the Bible’s stories, in a literal physical sense, is one of the best ways I know to begin to connect with the human reality of the stories. If we don’t touch that reality in some way, we can never truly know what it means to make the Bible’s stories our own.

One way to get the physical sense of the Bible’s settings is, of course, to take a trip to the Holy Land. You’ll feel the particularities of the Bible’s ground in different places through your own feet and see them with your own eyes.

Those of us who haven’t had an opportunity for such direct experience can look at pictures. Photographs and videos of the lands of the Bible can easily be found in travel books, on the Internet, on TV, and on DVD. Use your imagination to get yourself into the place you see in the photo or on the screen. Think about how it would feel to be walking or living at that place, at different times of the day or in different seasons. Try to feel as if you’re really there.

However you can, get your own sense of the ground of the Bible’s stories. It’s an essential step to making your personal connection with God’s Word. (posted 7/29/10)

Word by Word

But to the wicked God says:

"What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?

For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you...

These things you have done and I have been silent. You thought that I was one just like yourself.

But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you." (Psalm 50:16-17)

There is something so personally demanding about the Mosaic covenant. Yes, God made it with a people, but it is the individuals within that people who keep or break the covenant. When God tells the Israelites they shall be a kingdom of priests if they keep the covenant (Ex 20:5-6), it is each person who may become, or not become, a priest.

Becoming part of a priestly nation means choosing the way of God in the small decisions of single words as well as in big, external actions. In Psalm 50, the light of God’s judgment on what it means to keep the covenant shines into the hearts of individual persons.

No matter how smoothly I can recite the commandments—or how articulately I describe the structure and contents of the Bible—if I use those same lips to malign my sister and my brothers (to take the closest relationships, in which tolerance is most difficult in practice), that judging light shines on me. It seems like such a small thing when I criticize, comment, and take offense. Does it matter if no one hears except my husband?

This psalm says I am mistaken in thinking no one hears and that the words are small things. God hears, and accuses me, witnessed by the universe itself. If I would be priestly—if I truly keep the covenant, if I truly live in response to God—even my single words should support rather than malign, and should express what God would say.
The Mosaic covenant demands a constant awareness even of my thoughts, of the instants before I speak, because these too exist not in the seeming secrecy of myself but in the challenging light of the presence of God. (posted 7/16/10)

The Vision of the Likeness of the Glory of the LORD

Not many people have recorded such a vision of God as we find in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. The prophet presents a likeness of God, not an image: something seems like, appears like, looks like, was like, has the appearance of a likeness. It is of sapphire, amber, fire, splendor, rainbow, glory—a likeness that yet is stunningly unlike anything we know.

When I turn to what biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders calls “the horizon of the ultimate” to find my orientation in this world, one of the views of that horizon must be this likeness expressing otherness that Ezekiel experienced. Only when I in my limited and second-hand way enter this vision can I get some hint of the originator of our fabulous, ancient, and dynamic universe and some grasp of the creative power to which the sun burning my skin from 93 million miles away alludes. It is too easy to bury myself in the concerns of human history on this planet, important as they are. Ezekiel’s description challenges me to remember the vastness of God’s otherness which forms the basis of creation itself.

At the same time, from the likeness expressing otherness a voice speaks to the mortal person. A voice speaks to us, to me. The same voice spoke in the words of Lev 19 to the community of Israel: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Holiness is otherness. When I live fully as a Christian on this tiny planet, my life is informed by and connected to the otherness of God.

It can be difficult to live in an “other” way. Sometimes I want to throw away all my Bibles and Bible books because I know family, friends, and acquaintances consider Bible study to be the territory of fundamentalists. I can’t talk with many people about the depths of these books because talking about God makes them uncomfortable. Only when I remember that God’s otherness supports and is the source of my faint version of otherness do I find the strength to stay on this path. This aspect of Ezekiel’s vision, then, sustains my response to God and, I hope, serves as the foundation and fuel for my ministry. (posted 7/3/10)

Wash One Another's Feet

For almost three years I spent one afternoon a week at a nursing home near my house. I ran the mid-week bingo game for the ten or twelve residents who were able and wanted to play. I called numbers, handed out prizes (nickels, and a dime for a full card), made jokes, picked up dropped cards, listened to complaints, broke up arguments, steered confused non-playing residents away from our tables in the dining room, managed the traffic jam of electric wheelchairs after the game, and pushed people in manual wheelchairs one by one back to their rooms.

I got to know almost every player pretty well and every week I spent some time sitting and talking with one or two of them. Muriel, who with her sister had visited 67 countries of the world, folded and refolded piles of adult diapers while she described the exposé she was writing about the nursing home staff. Teecy, in her 40s with advanced multiple sclerosis and sitting in a wheel chair embedded with crumbs and blotched with spilled food, struggled to get her lips to form the words that described her husband’s multiple unsuccessful alcohol rehabilitation treatments. Al, who never smiled and could hardly see, talked every week about the barbecued ribs the dining room never served as he sat in the line of people waiting in the corridor to be first to eat.

I never did anything much for anyone in the nursing home except run the game, push peoples’ chairs, and listen to them talk. Yet after a few months I noticed that every moment I was in the home, with every person I looked at or talked to, I got a feeling I did not get in other places with other people. The feeling was strong and uniform and diffuse, and it was everywhere there. I had no name for it until one day talking to my husband I told him, without thinking, “God is in that place,” and then I knew the feeling was love.

The next time I went to the home, I tried to understand where the love was located—In the residents? In the staff? In me?—and to what it was directed. As I looked for signs that I would recognize as love—smiles and shining eyes, for instance—I did not see them. What I did see were a lot of people, including me, wholly involved in serving other people who truly needed to be served in the most basic ways. The love did not come from or go to any one of us. Rather, it wrapped around us all as we offered and received service—whether we knew the love was there or not, whether we appreciated the service or not.

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he showed us how to know for ourselves the love of God. (posted 6/17/10)