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Resonance

Posted by Ron George on June 20, 2018

I felt a little softer than usual this morning, less hardhearted, some would say. So, I took up the Daily Office, thinking about my late sister, Sue Utley, the anniversary of whose death was yesterday; then, somehow, came thoughts of another looming date, June 22, 1982: The Anniversary.

I shared some resonating passages with a friend, who wrote back: “Amen! Such a wealth stored up ready to be released in you! I love it.” My friend, a dear friend, is such a believing Christian, so beautiful and so smart that – well, given these days of rainy weather, what else was there to do but release whatever it was that resonated.

“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29.)

Moses said it when someone complained to him that two of the 70 elders he’d appointed, Eldad and Medad, were “prophesying in the camp.”

The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert, b Nicolas Poussin (1639)

Prophecy, in my view, is simply truth-telling, and in the case of Jewish and Christian prophets, it’s from a particular standpoint, that of belief in supernatural God and adherence to “the law and the prophets (truth-tellers)” throughout Judeo-Christian history – and not just those found in the scriptures. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian prophet speaking truth to power; and, in typical fashion, he was silenced, a murdered martyr to the truth not only that American racism was wrong and must not be enshrined in the nation’s laws, but also that disparities of wealth and opportunity, regardless of race, was unjust. As such, it did not – and does not – conform to the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven.

I wonder what truth Eldad and Medad were speaking “in the camp.” Were they babbling away in some ecstatic language, or were they spreading the word that Moses was a conduit for Yahweh’s spirit, and that God had distributed it among 70 elders so Moses could get some rest? Where else were they supposed to prophesy, anyway? Only in the tent of meeting? What a waste of spiritual energy that would have been. It would be like preaching, teaching and living in love “at church” but only “at church.” Ridiculous, no?

Jesus of Nazareth didn’t minister only in the synagogue, though he certainly did minister in the synagogue, preaching and healing. For some reason, though, prophesying in the camp was extraordinary and, well, prophetic. It bore the truth that Yahweh was not God-in-the-tent but God in creation, that it was God’s spirit that coursed through all the world, not just in the mouths of prophets but in the camp – everywhere! And, it might be added, especially though not exclusively among God’s faithful people, those who embraced the law and the prophets, spirit-breathing symbols of God’s presence in time and space. (That’s about the only way it happens, I guess – symbolically – for how can mere time and space contain the Almighty, creator of all time and space?)

Yeah. It preaches. With all due and loving respect to my friend, I’d hardly call it a wealth of anything, though I’m still capable, apparently, of “doing theology,” and it always seems to come out preachy. And why not? That’s one of the few things I was ordained to do: Preach, teach, administer the sacraments and faithfully administer the Body of Christ, the Church, God’s people seeking to become the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Being a priest is the only profession I was ever passionate about. (Too passionate, perhaps, based on the outcome.) Everything else, as I’ve said before in these pages, was a day job, and that’s a damn shame, because I had much more to offer than I did.

“Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2.4b.)

Christian Apostle Paul of Tarsus: “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil … but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good …”

I wonder almost daily whether my heart is hard and impenitent or if I’m just tired of dealing with the implausibility of supernatural God while being shaped my entire life by Christian values and the belief that Jesus, though daunting, was – and perhaps is, continues to be – an eikon of what I’ve come to call The Greater Love than which there is no other. (See Alan Watts: “The Which than which there is no whicher,” otherwise known as Anselm of Canterbury’s proof of the existence of God.) The Greater Love is that which gives up life – by far the greatest gift in the entire seemingly endless though finite universe – for the sake of others, be they friends, family or those “who know not what they do.” Enemies. The crucifiers. Me, perhaps, due to my hard and impenitent heart.

No one, anymore, especially in our materialistic consumerist society, wants to hear about God’s wrath. Well, almost no one; except those who believe they are “saved” and who gape with alarm at those who aren’t. Like me, I guess. I don’t much care for the wrathful God, either, but my religious tradition certainly teaches about that side of the deity, reason enough to wonder whether such a deity exists – or to hope like hell that such a deity does not.

If God’s wrath there be, then I guess God’s wrath be on me. I prefer to believe, however, that, if God’s wrath there be, that it is of a loving sort and not the kind that thrashes and lashes and screams. Loving wrath? Nope. Not sure I can go with anything good being wrathful.

Wrath is not the same as anger but a cut or two (or more) above that. Wrath is anger in high dudgeon. It’s loud. It’s indignant. It condemns, and in God’s case it is righteous. (Whew! How the hell did I get there?) The only way out is repentance, right? But you have to get there by acknowledging that the angry God is absolutely right and that, in God’s loving way (does this not sound weird?) wrath is the level at which God gets our attention to how errant we have become. Make that “sinful.” Does God’s wrath make me afraid? Well, not really, because I have a hard time actually experiencing either God or divine wrath; but, somehow, I get the idea that the measure of God’s wrath is the obverse measure of God’s love.

A hymn by Thomas a Kempis comes to mind.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
how passing thought and fantasy,
that God, the Son of God, should take
our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast, and hungered sore;
for us temptations sharp He knew,
for us the tempter overthrew.

For us to wicked men betrayed,
scourged, mocked, in crown of thorns arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death
for us at length gave up His breath.

It always comes back to that, doesn’t it: Love. If God there be, then God be that (I John 4.7-21 comes to mind); and if not, Love is that remarkable emergent quality of human consciousness that enables us to touch and heal one another – and it’s the only thing that does. Love is the soul of humanity; and, if God there be, then it is the Love of God in Christ Jesus that heals the human soul – and saves it, perhaps, whether that be into or out of this world. (As a humanist, of course, I prefer to see salvation in terms of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Heaven is God’s domain, if God and Heaven there be. Jesus makes it very clear that this world is ours to heal in his name.)

As I said – preachy.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18.3-6)

Parent and angel-child: From William Blake’s Songs of Innocence

Jesus speaks a lot in similes. I used to preach that there was a difference between being childlike and childish, and that we’re prone to embody the latter while gushing sentimentally over the former without truly examining it as a spiritual practice; which, in fact and ironically, takes a significant degree of spiritual maturity. (My friend refers to it as “organized innocence,” after a favorite of hers, William Blake). Frankly, I haven’t a clue how to get there, though I am aware of my own tendency to lapse into childishness. Perhaps it is a trap for everyone – spiritual infantilism – but I can speak only for myself.

What smacks my gob, though, is that I have put stumbling blocks before my little ones – not just my own children but my parishioners and many other Christian friends – and Jesus’ teaching seems pretty clear about what comes next. Suffocation by drowning is among my great fears, and this bit of scripture plunges a dagger into my soul not only when I read it, which is seldom, but every time I recall it, which is almost daily.

Some would say – and once I might have said – that such a memorable image from scripture is God’s word to me, though for what purpose, in this case, I’m not sure. I do know that it keeps me in mind of the enormity of my past behavior as a priest, a father and a husband. I wonder, sometimes, whether this image is part of what drives me away from continuing to practice Christian faith, the idea that there’s truly no hope for me in this world, even though I have no real belief in “the next.” It kind of keeps me on pins and needles. Guilt and shame:The former keeps me from a repeat performance; the latter is something to shed, which is easier said than done in this case.

I’m advised to let it go, that I’ve become a better person and that we can’t change the past. We can redeem the past, though, and part of that is making amends, which doesn’t always go well. Repent? Turn away from that wickedness? For the most part, yes, that helps, but I can’t shake the image of the stumbling block I certainly was and that, having been such, it would be just as well if I were drowned in the depths. It’s not hard to imagine that as a kind of hell, here and now, and which might as well be forever in the absence of anything further.

“Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech you that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion us into one united people. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (I didn’t know until I composed this post that this prayer, which comes from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, was written by Thomas Jefferson, a Deist and third president of the United States.) 

I once led a Morning Prayer service at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Bryan, Texas, soon after the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. It wasn’t a special service. I had organized a group of lay readers to lead Morning Prayer on weekdays, and it just happened to be my turn – perhaps the day after the attacks. This prayer came near the end of the service, and I could scarcely finish it because I got choked up and felt like weeping. A choir friend was sitting next to me and reached over to lay his hand my shoulder. I stopped briefly, thankful for his loving touch – his blessing, God’s blessing, if God there be – and then went on to complete the service.

It’s prayers of this sort, so eloquent and concise, so theologically astute and, frankly, so inoffensive such that all manner of political beliefs can gather within them, that actually make me glad and proud to have embraced the Anglican tradition. I still feel an emotional surge when I read the words, “and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail.” I am so comforted by that sentiment. It seems to soften my hard heart and center me in the right place for pondering what the day of trouble might be for me, for all of us, in years to come, and what it might mean to trust in God, if God there be, in hope that my trust not fail and that all manner of things will be well.

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