The Faceless God and the Face of God

Elijah & the LORD sacrifice a bull in 1 Kings 18 (

Today’s lectionary includes 1 Kings 18:20–21, (22–29), 30–39. In this passage, Elijah proposes a sort of contest between him and the worshippers of Baal. Each group sacrifices a bull, but instead of lighting the fire themselves, they will call upon their god to see whose will actually respond. The Baal worshippers call upon him for hours, but to no avail. Afterward, Elijah calls upon the LORD who rains down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. It’s exciting stuff!

As I read this this morning, I was struck by conversations that I’ve had with many atheists over the years. When asked what it would take for them to believe, they often reply: “God would have to show himself to me.” Being a Christian, I sometimes appeal to the wonders of the universe (from distant galaxies to the Grand Canyon to the miracle that is water), but usually to no avail. These folks are interested in a physical manifestation of God; they want a bearded man to appear out of nowhere. I don’t blame them. This whole thing might be a lot easier if God would just do that.

This story from 1 Kings both reinforces and works against that need of ours to see the divine.

On the one hand, here is one of the LORD’s prophets calling upon him to do something specific: “God, burn this stuff up to prove to these guys that you are for real.” The subsequent fireworks show that the LORD means business, Elijah is right, and these Baal worshippers need to get with the program.

On the other hand, there is no physical manifestation, no bearded man appearing out of nowhere. God remains formless; God remains faceless. The decalogue commands Jews to “make no graven image” of the LORD, but it should be noted that there is no image to engrave. Even when Moses sees God in Exodus 33, he does not see his face, but only his back.

How then do we relate to someone like this? How do we come to understand that which we cannot put a face to? There are two possible answers:

  1. We can attempt to transcend our attachment to things. We must recognize that God is not a thing to be understood. Consequently, let’s adjust our understanding and our verbiage so that we don’t think of him in this way.
  2. We give God a face.

In some ways, both answers are necessary. We really should adjust our picture of things to de-objectify God. The LORD is not a thing in the same way that my body is a thing. At the same time, the second answer, to give God a face, is about as Christian as it gets. Jesus is God embodied, incarnate, fleshed out.

Jesus is the face of the faceless God.


Hallowing Time

In his prologue to The Sabbath, A.J. Heschel writes: “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” Heschel aims to reclaim the sanctity of time from a world obsessed with what he calls “thinginess” or “thinghood,” an obsession with space and the things that occupy it to the detriment of time which, for Heschel, is at least of equal importance.

Heschel is right. The various objects that occupy our space really only acquire significance when they are attached to important moments: a loop of gold is of great significance because my wife placed it on my finger at our wedding; a pen becomes worthy of a museum exhibit because it was used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964; a 6-4-3 double play is significant not because it happened in a practice, but because it ended a World Series. This is no less true of religious events: a humble wafer or a simple candle are imbued with importance at the Eucharist or during the Paschal season. Apart from these moments, they are mere objects, or in the parlance of Heschel, things.

Recently, I’ve read not only The Sabbath, but also All Things Shining. In both, a premium is placed on time and recognition of time as something important, as worthy of our notice. For Heschel, time is not the enemy, but the sacred temple that God has constructed for humans. For Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, time as event or moment plays a role in the communal sort of mood that we should learn to recognize and give in to. 

In either case, there is a recognition that the soulless drudgery of the day-to-day is of little importance if not accompanied by a sort of hallowing of time: be it a blessing of the Sabbath or a recognition of the mood.

I’m struck by this. Question: What do a dead Jewish theologian and a pair of secular philosophers have in common? Answer: A call to pay attention to the passage of time, to mark the moment.

Each semester, my students read Jonathan Sarna’s A Time to Every Purpose, in which Prof. Sarna also marks out the importance of time, specifically for the modern, reformed Jew.

Is this conversation happening amongst Christians? Is my own tradition interested in this issue of hallowing time?

I’ve seen some discussions of sabbath from Christians, most of whom seem to think that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” — it’s not, by the way, as Sabbath observance is one of several Biblical commandments that early Christians decided to ignore. Moreover, these discussions seem to center on the notion of withdrawal from the world.

Heschel views the Sabbath not as withdrawal from the world, but engagement in it, engagement in the one thing that God actually blesses and consecrates in the midst of the creation story of Genesis 1: the seventh day. Likewise, Jesus sees the Sabbath not as a moment to withdraw from the world, but as a moment to continue engaging with it, doing what the Father has appointed him to do.

This is a bit meandering because, to be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what my point is. I do think that an epiphany is coming. Hopefully, I’ll be open enough to recognize the mood when it arrives…

Suffering, Endurance, Character, Hope

This year’s lectionary for Trinity Sunday includes Romans 5.1–5:

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (ESV)

This morning, I was discussing this particular passage with some friends, when I began to hit upon an interesting way to read this that had never really occurred to me before. I’m not saying it’s new, just new to me.

Beginning in v. 3 there is an interesting chain that Paul sets up:

suffering → endurance → character → hope

First, before moving any further, I need to challenge this translation, specifically the word “character” for the Greek dokimē. While “character” is an acceptable gloss, it doesn’t necessarily get across the meaning of the Greek term which is more akin to: “proven by testing or trial.” This isn’t simply character, but some kind of fortitude or strength that has been proven by the vigorous testing of the sufferings mentioned earlier in v. 3. So, here’s our new little chain:

suffering → endurance → proven/tried/tested → hope

How exactly does this work? How do we get from one suffering to hope along this chain? What are the steps in between? It may seem odd to us to think that in the midst of suffering, in the midst of difficulty, that is when we will begin to produce hope. Isn’t that when all of this should break down? Shouldn’t we lose hope in the midst of trial? To answer this, we need to move back and make sure that we understand where we are now.

In Romans 4, Paul develops Abraham as our human hero because he has faith in God and this faith is reckoned to him as righteousness. Faith justifies. Paul says that we have peace with God because of this justification brought by faith. Our faith allows us to have peace with God even in the midst of suffering. Without that faith, without that trust, we don’t have peace, but we live in desperation as the universe throws its punches.

This faith then is a really important thing. What we have faith in is the notion that God is in control, that he is active and alive in our world. He is not the deistic being who wound up the world, set it spinning, and then turned his back. No. He’s the Abrahamic Monotheos who enters into the world, intervening, working, creating, sustaining, re-creating. Be he Yahweh, Abba, or Allah: this God is here, real, and active.

Through Jesus, we have access to this hope: hope that God will reveal his glory and that we will partake of it (v. 2), heirs to the Kingdom, princes and princesses of the new world order that is actively overthrowing the current “bogus world system” (in the parlance of Jack Wisdom).

Are you one of these heirs? Are you a prince or princess? Here’s how you’ll know. You’ll rejoice in suffering and learn to endure. By enduring and rejoicing in the midst of your suffering, you’ll be proven, tested, and tried: you’ll know that this thing is genuine and your hope will be reinforced.

Suffering leads to hope because it is in suffering that we come to know who we truly are: heirs to the glory of God, heirs to the Kingdom. How do you know the Spirit dwells with you and in you? Because you have been proven acceptable by your endurance in the face of trial, by the steadfastness of your hope and of your faith even when things are bleak.

Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter”: Some Thoughts

John Updike (1932–2009) published the following poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in 1960.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

I love this poem. I thank Tom Berryman, the music director here at St. Mark’s, for turning me on to it. Here’s what I love about Updike’s poem —

  1. It gives the appropriate importance to the resurrection.
  2. It speaks our language.

When I say that it gives the appropriate importance to the resurrection, I mean that Updike sees this event as the central event in the Christian faith, with out, “the Church will fall.”

This has been my constant refrain against those who attempt to use science to assail Christianity. Most jump to Genesis 1 and 2 and attempt to refute the creation stories with evidence of a 14 billion year old universe. I heartily agree with them and say: “Yes, I too think the universe is that old. Let’s also talk about the 4.5 billion year old Earth!” If the story of Adam and Eve or either of the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible are shown to be ahistorical, the Church will not fail. These stories are interesting, but they aren’t the heart of the faith. The heart of Christianity is found in Christ and more specifically in his resurrection. Consider this: Jesus dies as the vast majority of his disciples have abandoned him. The resurrection is that event which brings them back together, galvanizes them, and reinvigorates them for the life of persecution that they will lead in the wake of the scandal.

For the Christian, the resurrection is the ballgame; it’s everything.

Second, I love that the poem speaks our language. It mixes in the language of quantum physics, biology, and medicine. Updike doesn’t ask us to shy away from the scientific implications of the resurrection; instead, he asks us to consider them part of the miracle. The resurrection is real, down to the amino acids involved and the existence of the angel in our dimension.

This is good stuff. Thank you, Mr. Updike. May you rest in peace!

Easter Morning (2013)

The Resurrection
The Resurrection

This morning, I played guitar for the United Parishes of Southborough’s sunrise service at Hopkinton State Park. The service was put together by a lay council representing six churches in Southborough: Catholic, Episcopal, Congregational, and non-denominational. I played a guitar and flute duet of Cat Stevens’s arrangement of “Morning Has Broken.” It was 28 degrees as we played, making it tough for a guitarist and flautist to get it done, but we did.

Julie Cedrone of Pilgrim Church in Southborough delivered the Easter meditation. The takeaway for me was the need to stop cataloging my various shortcomings, to stop saying with Mary Magdalene, “They have taken my Lord away,” and instead to live in the resurrected Christ, knowing that he hasn’t been taken away but that he is right here with me now and always.

Other than that, I have no thoughts to add on Easter aside from what I’ve already said in my previous post: “Fairy Tale World.”

Happy Easter! He is risen…

Fairy Tale World

"Crucifixion" (1946) - Graham Sutherland
“Crucifixion” (1946) – Graham Sutherland

Today is Good Friday and I was given the mic for this morning’s chapel service at St. Mark’s School. The reading was Denise Levertov’s poem, “On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX,” which is readily available if you just google it.

Below is the text of my speech, “Fairy Tale World.”

We live in a fairy tale world.

Let’s tell a story, then. How does every fairy tale start? [Ask audience to participate…hopefully, they say “once upon a time…”]

Right now we are experiencing our “once upon a time.” So, let me begin the story —

  • Once upon a time, 27 million people were enslaved.
  • Once upon a time, child sex trafficking was a billion dollar industry.
  • Once upon a time, the average age of entry into prostitution, males and females, was 12-years-old. Lest we think this is someone else’s problem, let me remind you that as many as a quarter of a million of those child prostitutes live in this country.
  • Once upon a time there were half a million murders annually. That’s nearly 1400 per day.
  • Once upon a time, a billion people were malnourished.
  • That means that, once upon a time, one in seven people on this planet is going hungry.

This is our “once upon a time…”

This may not sound like a fairy tale to you. No fairy tale is so depressing. No fairy tale has such hopeless odds. No fairy tale has such meaningless suffering. But you’re wrong.

Rapunzel is wrongfully incarcerated. Cinderella is enslaved. Hansel and Gretel are forced out by their stepmother so that they’ll stop draining the family’s famine-ravaged food supplies. The Big Bad Wolf is out to get Little Red Riding Hood.

Stories, like any other art, mirror reality, and this is how we start our stories because this is the reality that we experience.

  • Once upon a time poverty forced Fantine into prostitution.
  • Once upon a time, Harry Potter lived under the stairs.
  • Once upon a time, Katniss Everdeen suffered under a corrupt government.

These are our stories. In all of these cases, whether real or imaginary, there is a sad truth: We are the cause of the suffering. Our fairy tales aren’t about natural disasters, fate, or the whims of some angry deity. They start with real human suffering, perpetrated by real individuals. Real suffering perpetrated by us.

The ABC television series Once Upon a Time depicts this brilliantly. There is no Big Bad Wolf chasing after Little Red Riding Hood. No wolf hunting her. Instead, the wolf is inside. Little Red Riding Hood is the wolf. When conditions are just right, she morphs from innocent young woman into ruthless predator. She is the cause of her own suffering, leaving a wake of destruction in her path, killing even the man that she loves.

This is humanity. This is who we are. We are capable of the most amazing feats: landing on the moon, mapping the human genome, painting the Mona Lisa, writing Hamlet or “Single Ladies” (I have a soft spot for Beyoncé). But we are also capable of terrible things.

We are the victim and the aggressor at the same time, and we’ve become really good at fooling ourselves into believing that the wolf is inside others and not inside ourselves. We turn a blind eye toward the damage we cause. We’ve developed an enormous case of selective amnesia when it comes to the ways in which we’ve caused or enabled the suffering of others. We are the victim; we are the aggressor. That’s our reality.

In the midst of all of this human suffering, in the midst of this awful “once upon a time,” Denise Levertov asks: “Why single out the agony of one man, who suffered for six hours, 2,000 years ago?” Levertov is, of course, referring to Jesus on the cross. Today is Good Friday, the day when Christians commemorate Jesus’s crucifixion, the day when he was executed. No matter what you believe about that event, whatever happened on that day on a hill just outside of Jerusalem became the most important event in Western History. All of history, all of art, all of literature, point back to that moment.

Consider that for a moment. The execution of a peasant in the clutches of the iron fist of the mighty Roman Empire is the most important event in Western History. There are two reasons why it is so important.

First, this event represents a rupture in the fabric of society. A moment when authority was turned on its head, when social hierarchies were reversed, when the have’s became the have-not’s, when a poor peasant dies and people actually care. The crucifixion of Jesus signals a future where the rights of individuals will no longer be squashed by governments, but protected by them. Sure, that’s a gigantic work in progress, but Jesus’s moment signals the seachange.

Second, this event represents a rupture in the cosmos, a rupture in the universe as a whole. This is the “oneing” that Levertov speaks of in her poem. After asking that question (“Why single out this six hours of pain?”), Levertov answers —

…[T]he oneing
with the Godhead opened him utterly
to the pain of all minds, all bodies
— sands of the sea, of the desert —
from first beginning
to last day.

The “oneing” that she speaks of is the mystical union of the human with the divine. Somehow these two became one and that one is Jesus. This was not simply a human being suffering at the hands of other human beings. This was God in human form. And just as God is infinitely greater than humans, so is God capable of even greater suffering. In this case, Jesus’s human flesh was subjected to all of the suffering experienced by all of humanity for all time. 

Levertov describes it this way —

The great wonder is
that the human cells of His flesh and bone
didn’t explode
when utmost imagination rose
in that flood of knowledge…
…Every sorrow and desolation
He saw, and sorrowed in kinship.

Did you catch that? One human bears all of this suffering and anguish. How does he not simply melt? How does this man take on the suffering of all humans for all eternity and not explode during the experience?

She says that he sorrows “in kinship.” He’s part of the human family and he sorrows for us and he sorrows with us. He knows the plight of all of the slaves, all of the imprisoned, all of the hungry, all of the sick and dying, all of the murdered and raped, all of us and all at the same time. And he goes to it willingly.

This is the Gospel. The crucified king. The humiliated god who stands up to the worst of humanity by presenting us the best of humanity, the best of humanity which we attempt, so feebly, to encapsulate with a single word: LOVE.

By LOVE, I do not mean the urge you feel as you struggle, tossed by the winds of your raging hormones. I’m talking about something different. It’s a love that disrupts and challenges,
+++a love that gives power to the powerless,
++++++voice to the voiceless,
+++++++++peace to those at war,
+++a love that denies self,
+++a love that says, “not my will, but thy will,”
+++a love that tears down walls,
++++++removes masks,
+++++++++and rejoices in truth and honesty,
+++a love that says “the last shall be first,”
+++a love that says a servant shall be king,
+++a love that denies the typical path to success,
++++++to fame,
+++++++++to fortune,
++++++++++++but, instead, asks us to serve one another,
+++a love grounded in humility,
+++a love grounded in peace,
+++a love grounded in service. 

I’m talking about a love that asks us to break out of the cycle of suffering, the cycle of harm and be harmed, a love that compels us to help others do the same.

I’m talking about a love that doesn’t recognize greatness in only the few, but finds majesty in
+++every grain of sand,
++++++every star in the night sky,
+++++++++every freckle on the face of every child.

Because the last shall be first, Jesus came not to be served, but to serve.

Jesus came with a radical, new love. What a powerful idea: Defeat violence. Defeat oppression. Defeat injustice. With love. Gandhi does it. Martin Luther King, Jr., does it. The Muslim in North Africa who harbors Jews fleeing from the Holocaust does it. To the Christian, however, the difference between Gandhi, MLK, and those Muslims in North Africa, is that Jesus doesn’t simply defeat violence, oppression, and injustice, nor is love a tool to be used to defeat these. Jesus himself is Love and this Love defeats death itself. Jesus brings with him a radical Love which creates a new set of rules and ushers in a kingdom defined not by the principalities and powers of this world, but by the peace, forgiveness, and humility of a place called Heaven.

Heaven has come to Earth.

On Sunday, we’ll celebrate Easter, the day that Jesus raises from the dead; the day that he is resurrected. This is the day when the new world begins. This is the day when Heaven really starts to enter our Earth, and we are asked to be participants, helpers in this great work of bringing Heaven to Earth. Jesus asks us to be servants, and in the strange politics of his Kingdom, this means that we are also princes and princesses, heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is the great fairy tale. It starts with suffering and ends with Heaven. It begins with “once upon a time” and ends with “happily ever after.” We are supposed to work toward the solution, we are supposed to be part of the “happily ever after.”

So let’s start that story again:

  • Once upon a time, 27 million people were enslaved.
  • Once upon a time, child sex trafficking was a billion dollar industry.
  • Once upon a time, a billion people were hungry.

What will you do to finish the fairy tale? How will you manifest love in the face of such dire circumstances? How will you bring about the “happily ever after”?

Rilke’s “The Last Supper”

Today is Maundy Thursday on which we remember the Last Supper. Here’s Rainer Maria Rilke’s take on it:

“The Last Supper”
[On seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, Milan 1904.]

They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.

To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
they flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.