"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Walking with God

As an “extreme intuitive introvert,”[1] my “inner eyes” are often more focused than my outer ones. I could walk by a whole herd of purple elephants without noticing that they are lumbering along beside me. Passing down an unfamiliar road, it takes a deliberate and concentrated effort for me to observe enough about the houses and trees around me to find my way back home. But when I walk on the ice and snow, I am the picture of intense, outwardly-focused attention. I creep slowly forward, stopping often to survey the perilous ground in front of me. My eyes never leave the wet and dry patterns of snow on concrete, and my brow is furrowed in careful concentration. An observer might think that I was walking through a mine field, rather than a snow-covered parking lot.

The epitome of God’s command for us in the famous passage from Micah 6 is “to walk humbly with your God.” The adverb “humbly,” however, is merely a guess for a Hebrew word that appears only rarely in the Bible. It could also mean “carefully,” “prudently,” “in a well-measured way.” I couldn’t help but think of the alternative translation as I picked my carefully “measured” way through the snow the other day: “walk prudently with your God.” Suddenly, I pictured a life of hesitant, uncertain steps—a life in which fear of falling absorbed all of my attention. “That is certainly not what God wants for me,” I thought, although that is often the way I live. There is a difference between an attentive life and a stressed one. There is a difference between a creature living in communion with her Creator, remembering that she depends on that Creator with every step that she takes, and a creature who stands still for fear of falling.

Then I saw the dogs. There was my crazy beagle, slipping and straining on his leash, pulling me down the street thoughtlessly and carelessly, utterly enslaved to one random scent or another. But there was also the neighbor’s golden retriever. He didn’t wear a leash, yet he constantly turned back to look at his master after each short exploration. His walk was attentive, prudent, and well-measured. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the snow, either.

[1] As described by Marcus Borg in Putting Away Childish Things, 307.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Power of Words

In the news this week, we have heard much pontification over the power of words. Did the angry, fear-filled words of politicians reach into the deranged mind of the Arizona shooter to incite violence? Do the words of TV hosts and bloggers create, as Matt Bai writes in a New York Times editorial, “a culture of hyperbole ... [that has lost its] hold on the power of words.” I was reminded of Psalm 12 (especially striking here in the King James Version):

They speak vanity every one with his neighbor:
with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.
The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips,
and the tongue that speaketh proud things:
who have said, With our tongue will we prevail;
our lips are our own: who is lord over us?
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
now will I arise, saith the LORD;
I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.
The words of the LORD are pure words:
as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times...

I have never seen precious metals being refined, but I can picture the tiny, fragile flakes of silver that are held captive within their rocky frame, inseparable at first from the heavy dross that encases them. Only intense heat and mighty flame can transform the ore, melting it, changing its form completely, and allowing it to float freely to the surface. Just as the Word of the Lord, the Word that creates and gives life, passes through the crucible of the Cross, what then in me or in my words must be shattered and burned before it can be true?

Like the lips of the evil ones in the psalm, our lips are often so swollen with pride that our words, burdened with false authority, must burst loudly from the prison of our mouths. Or thin lips as cold and miserly as steel squeeze the warmth from our words, as they slide out like gray sleet. Or lips lost in the pleasant sensation of their own movement let airy, thoughtless words do flippant somersaults from ear to ear.

Instead, our testimony needs to float upwards through lives that have been tried in earth’s furnace, lives that have been burned and bruised in the fight against oppression and want. Theological and political discourse, without lives broken and refined in the service of justice and mercy, only grasp at a power that they can never truly own.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sunsets and Stars

On this cold, gray, cloudy New Year’s Day, I was driving west at sunset, when I saw a little wisp of orange sky linger over some low-lying hills. Rather bored by the drive and pensive about the New Year, I acknowledged the few seconds of light with a slight nod to hope and beauty. “How nice,” I said to myself, and then fell back into my own distant thoughts. Soon, however, after rushing by a few more hills and fields, I had to gasp in amazement. How had the little wisp of orange suddenly spread over the entire horizon, lighting up clouds and sky as far as the eye could see? With a constantly changing quality of light, this was a sunset that went on and on for miles, deepening from orange to red, glistening like mother-of-pearl, causing drivers to pull over to the side of the road to gape in awe. The bare arms of branches seemed to reach up into the iridescent sky, attempting to hold down the cover of light with their crooked, black fingers, as if to prevent it from ever slipping away. I, too, wondered how long the shadows of earth could stand to be covered in this splendid light, as time itself seemed to stop in the presence of such beauty.
Bathed in gold more glorious than the most precious metals and covered in reds deeper than the finest rubies, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were looking into the face of God. I thought about Moses, begging to see the fiery, radiant splendor of God’s Glory, that wondrous light that both attracts and repels at the same time, that dangerous power that cloaks God’s incomprehensibility and goes before the Lord, dreadfully and majestically, out into the world. I didn’t think about Isaiah’s poetry, but I should have: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” So speaks God, through the Prophet Isaiah, to the desolate, broken city of Jerusalem. It is a city whose walls have been destroyed, whose Temple has been laid waste, whose leaders have been exiled, yet Isaiah calls to the city to see itself as it will look when the light of new life shines upon it. In Isaiah’s poetry, I can picture my Western Kentucky sunset transplanted to Jerusalem, with golden light shining over the brown Judean hills and waves of pink clouds embracing the ancient stones. Even a broken and battered world could shine with God’s healing presence when covered in such a light.
I can imagine God’s epiphany, the shining forth of God’s presence into the world, bathing my own battered soul in light like that sunset over Jerusalem, promising new life, abundance, honor, and glory. That, however, is not quite the  kind of divine epiphany that we hear about in Matthew. God’s glory, in our Christian story, appears not over the great city of Jerusalem, but over the tiny village of Bethlehem. In our story, the light that God shines down on the earth does not fill the horizon with jewel-toned fire. It is instead found in the cold beam of a distant star, lost in a sea of darkness and shining down on a newborn baby in a stable. Like Elijah, who searches for God in the mighty wind and in the terrible fire but finds God in whispering silence, the wise men follow a God who flickers in the silent blackness of the desert at night. Instead of being surrounded by the Glory of God’s Face, the wise men, like Moses, must make due with following God’s back. 
         Sunsets, after all, are gifts for the close of day. They reside in memory, carrying us over until the next sunrise. The incarnate God is not a sunset. The incarnate God resides with us in the world's darkness, not merely in our memory of the light. The Light of Christ, however glorious in itself, spreads through this world like the flames of our Christmas Eve candles during “Silent Night” and brings us to Resurrection as quietly as the Paschal fire that leads us into the darkened Church on Easter Eve. Indeed, as night fell over the Western Kentucky Parkway, and the glorious light faded into velvet blackness, I would have traded all the heart-warming gold for a tiny little star to lead me on my way through the cold, dark night.