Sunday, February 08, 2009

Actively Waiting for the Divine

The power of scripture—the reason that God is not dead and that the Bible is not just another ancient book among many, despite scholarly deconstruction and even considering the Bible’s use as a tool of oppression—is that certain words and images and ideas still come alive to us thousands of years later. The particulars are different for everyone. What means something to me will not necessarily have the same significance for you. And when we read passages that make no sense in our contemporary contexts, we know that the values and practices of the ancient writers do not and should not necessarily translate into values and practices for today. It might seem then that all meaning is relative, that there can be no substance greater than or beyond what is understood and assigned by the individual. But we gather together in community to share parts of ourselves and receive the stories of others—narratives both old and new—in order that we might know and celebrate the Divine that is so beautifully and colorfully manifested in all creation. In unexpected ways the words or actions of another can stir in us experiences of the Divine presence that are so deeply personal and at the time orient us to turn outward beyond the self.

I was already formulating a sermon on the Gospel lesson when I finally looked at the other lectionary texts for today. All stopped with the first words of the Isaiah passage. I knew what was coming: words that would cut through all my intellectual-scholarly-pastoral musings to awaken feelings at the core of my being—words that would still my body and mind in heightened awareness of the Spirit pulsing through me. The rest of the text flowed freely across my mesh of thoughts and emotions because I knew it well after months of rehearsing and performing a musical setting with the Luther College Nordic Choir. Music has a way of endowing words and images with meaning that comes to life again and again with each new playing, reading, or viewing. But the breathtaking sounds of the Nordic Choir only served to reinforce the true power of the Isaiah text for me. As I came to the last lines of the passage, I saw my Grandpa Betts, and I knew what it is to “mount up with wings like eagles.”

Isaiah takes me back to a very particular moment on a bright summer day in July 2007. To return there, I should explain the factors that combine to bring this instant into being and make it so deeply special. My grandpa loved sports. He fondly shared memories of playing them in his younger days and always thoroughly enjoyed watching athletic events, especially those involving his family. My younger brother Johnny shared this passion from the time he first had a ball in his hands and became very active with local sports teams. While Grandpa made sure that he never missed a home game, he had given up traveling for out-of-town events by the time Johnny’s teams hit the road. There would be only one exception. As a youngster with big aspirations, Johnny asked Grandpa, “Will you travel if I ever make it to state?” And a deal was struck.

This pact between grandfather and grandson would be tested in the summer of 2007. A very promising baseball season was in full swing when my grandpa had a heart attack. Though he survived, the damage significantly slowed down a man already physically limited by a previous heart attack, an incidence of cardiac arrest, and congestive heart failure. Simply standing up and moving around was a struggle. But as the baseball team headed out for the sub-state game, Grandpa renewed his promise to Johnny. That night he took the short trip to experience the team’s victory, and nothing could keep him from going the distance for the next game. And so my mom, dad, and I helped Grandpa into our car and headed to Principal Park, home of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, in Des Moines, Iowa.

It worked out that the baseball coach was able to procure tickets for one of the skyboxes. That way my grandpa could at least escape the sweltering heat of the July afternoon. Still he opted to be closer to the action, choosing to sit in the shaded outdoor seating in front of the box. And when I say sit, I mean just that. Getting there was a challenge and standing up again would not be an easy task. From his perch above the general seating, Grandpa took in what turned out to be a fiercely contested game between the opposing team, rated number one in the state, and the young Coon Rapids-Bayard squad, led by a lone senior who would later be named the best pitcher in the state for all classes. CR-B had made it to state multiple times in baseball and other sports but had never won its first game and advanced to the next round. As this game stretched into extra innings, excitement and anxiety rose. And in the bottom of the ninth inning (only seven being played in regulation in high school), the best hope of getting past the top-rated team was on the line; a tenth inning would mean that, by rule, the starting pitcher—CR-B’s ace—would have to give up the ball. With one runner on third base after a walk and two passed balls, Johnny came up to bat. It’s a Hollywood scenario, right? Big game, tense moment, and the outcome rests in the hands of the protagonist’s grandson. And in this story, the outcome is joyous for the featured team. My brother drove the ball between the center and right fielders, giving more than enough time for the star pitcher—what poetic justice!—to touch home plate and deliver CR-B its first-ever state victory.

At least half of the largest crowd ever assembled for a 1A state baseball game erupted in jubilation. After hugging and high fiving everyone around me, I turned around to look up at my grandpa. There, with the sun behind him enhancing the aura of radiance, stood Grandpa with arms raised and the proudest smile spread across his face. It is an image that will forever be etched in my memory. Yes, the moment depended upon the game, the big hit, and the victory, but the deep significance for me is that something was so special for my grandpa that he could do no other than be brought to his feet, no matter how worn and tired was his body. That fleeting instant is frozen in time as emblematic of my grandpa’s resilience and his profound pride in and love for his family.

Grandpa would recover relatively well for an 84-year-old man who had suffered from numerous heart-related issues. His mobility improved so that he was able to be independent and get around without major struggle. But then last April when doctors replaced Grandpa’s defibrillator/pacemaker—what should have been a routine procedure—they nicked a valve, and the resulting complications led to the rapid deterioration of his health. He survived the hospital, and he even made it out of the nursing home, but with just a fraction of his heart working and fluid on his lungs, Grandpa was always tired. He lamented being unable to do anything beyond the simplest activities. I would talk to Grandpa on the phone, and he’d say, “I just want to be able to get up and run around.” I joked with him, “Grandpa, when was the last time that you could run?” but we both knew that running really meant just getting around with ease. When his heart finally wore out this past November, my mom asked me for suggestions as to what Bible passages to have read at his funeral. I heard Nordic Choir singing out Isaiah’s words: “But those who wait for God shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I saw Grandpa standing at that state baseball game as if lifted up on the wings of eagles. And Isaiah spoke to me across the centuries, stirring within my heart recognition of God’s presence. Whatever death means for the person who has actually died, waiting for God meant for me to be comforted in memories that could run and not be weary. The words from Isaiah directed my attention away from a worn out body now laid to rest toward the enduring image of resilience, pride, and love that so much defines my grandpa for me.

I share this with you today because I can no longer read Isaiah 40:21-31 without seeing my grandpa. It is a reading that has nothing to do with God and everything to do with God, nothing to do with community—having no particular relevance for Cambridge Welcoming—and yet everything to do with community. And it is this paradox that for me characterizes the impulse of faith: that in valuing the dignity inherent within each individual we are called to look beyond ourselves and participate in the divine work of healing and sustaining creation. But only through my grandpa am I able to get there with Isaiah because in the passage for today, it actually is all about God. “Have you not heard? Have you not known?” God is fantastic! God is powerful! If God so chooses, God can uproot and dispense of earthly rulers. “Lift up your eyes and see.” Direct your attention upward from your lowly state toward God who reigns above the earth. If you wait for this everlasting, creative God, you are going to take flight. You will run and not get tired. No more weakness. No more fainting. God has the ability to empower anyone who recognizes God’s awesomeness.

But what happens when a person waits… and waits… and waits for God, but there is no healing, no restoration? Can God really be so great if there are so many people suffering? What do we make of a God who promises through Isaiah to renew the strength of those who will but simply rely upon God when their weary, hurting lives remain unchanged? And what about Jesus? In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is on the move, healing and exorcising demons everywhere he goes. But where is Christ today? What of those who are in need of his restorative touch 2,000 years later? We hear stories of present-day miracles, and in many instances there is little reason to doubt a person’s experience of the Divine. But is this divine power that is extolled in Isaiah and exemplified in Mark really for all who wait for God, or is it only experienced by a special few?

I would venture to say that these are questions that many people grapple with, and I’d assume that quite a number have found the answers in church to be unsatisfactory, walking out the doors and never coming back. If the God about whom Isaiah writes is not going to show up, the thinking must go, why should I? In my own reading of the Isaiah passage, God is actually not an actor at all. My brother’s baseball team wins their game. My grandpa, though feeble, is on his feet in triumph that represents far more than a sports win. And in light of his longing to be able to get up and run once again, in death I imagine my grandpa as free from the limitations of an exhausted body; forever in my memory he is standing tall and strong. Then in the context of selecting a biblical passage for a funeral, Isaiah’s words speak poignantly to a particular vision engraved in my heart and mind. But God does not need to be present. What begins in Isaiah as praise of God ends up having nothing to do with God at all, and yet the experience of reading the text is profoundly meaningful and quite spiritual for me.

The significance goes beyond even the connection that I feel with my grandpa. “Have you not heard? Have you not known?” does in fact stir in me a heightened awareness of something greater. As I read Isaiah’s description of the awesomeness of God, I begin to sense that the Divine cannot be confined. It is not a satisfying answer to me that horrible things happen in the world—even to those who “wait for God”—because God has foresight that humans just cannot comprehend. To envision God as a singular, anthropomorphic character—the old, white, bearded man in the sky pulling countless puppet strings that direct the dances of humanity—seems to me to limit the depth and breadth of the Divine. I am compelled to believe that when Isaiah says, “Because God is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing,” the infinite reach of God says more about what the Divine has invested in all that God calls by name than it does about God’s self. Here again we encounter the paradox: to direct attention away from “God who sits above the circle of the earth” and toward humans is to say nothing of God and yet everything of God as reflected in the lives of all creation.

I do not even have to stray outside the tradition to get to this place. We know that some early Christians—a significant enough to number to warrant strong reaction from dominant church leaders—considered divine salvation to reside not in the body of a crucified martyr but within each individual. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus answers the question of what it means to be saved by saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus is describing the Divine as light that has no bounds, light that shines deep within all persons, and to be saved is to most authentically express the Divine as it is uniquely reflected in one’s self. Even if we cast aside the Gospel of Thomas as heretical, “more mainstream” Christian thinkers understood humans to be elements of the Divine whole. Clement of Alexandria, as I discussed a few weeks ago, proclaims that humans are living, breathing statues that are the very image of God, fully capable of acting as God’s likeness in the world. And if we still must solidly locate ourselves within the authority of tradition, in the first chapter of our scriptures we have the idea that God created humans in God’s image and likeness. Indeed, God is not confined to God’s roost above the circle of the earth, but the Divine is ever moving, ever present in the lives of all people. To speak of God is to speak of all creation that is in God’s image and likeness.

Taking this conception back to Isaiah, we might better answer why there is not always rest for the weary and why those who wait for God are not necessarily lifted up on the wings of eagles. The Divine is present in and through human failings. We see every day that people systematically fail to take care of and nourish one another. We do not always act as God in the world. We can call upon a mighty and powerful God to enact justice and bring restoration, but to take seriously the notion that we are God’s image and likeness in the world is to take responsibility for carrying out the Divine work of healing and building up our neighbor. When we read Isaiah and ask, “Who is this God of infinite capacity for good that sits above earth and watches people tear one another apart?” we ultimately reflect back upon ourselves. Who are these people created in the image of the Divine who behave so unlike their own descriptions of God’s likeness?

If we can attribute suffering to God, we have a figure against which we can cast our anger. We can walk away in disgust. Or we have a space in which we can fit all that we cannot understand, trusting that everything really does have meaning and purpose. If we think about the Divine as manifested in the individual, we can have faith in ourselves, trusting the lone character whose thoughts and actions we can actually predict and comprehend. But these ways of conceiving and knowing God are insular; the relationships are entirely personal. And it is against this kind of solitary, self-centered spirituality that John Wesley wrote in 1739, “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness, but social holiness. Faith working by love is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” He went on to say (in androcentric language that I have edited), “This commandment have we from Christ, that one who loves God, loves the neighbor also; and that we manifest our love by doing good unto all people…” I would go a step further to say that acting in faith is not just manifesting our love of God but actually bringing into being the Divine in our midst. Faith working by love is the length and breadth and depth and height of not just a human, Christian perfection but of God. God is present when the Divine within us is made social. To read Isaiah and wonder at the magnificence of God is to know that same God as alive in humanity and to turn outward from the self to participate in God’s healing and restorative activity.

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is doing all the healing work. And at this time in the church calendar, we focus on Jesus as the primary actor in ministry. But as people living 2,000 years later, we are left to wonder what happens when the leader is gone. Is healing still available? Christians talk as if it is. We speak of Jesus’ ministry as if it continues into the present, but when faced with practical reality, we ask as we did with Isaiah, “What does it mean when there are those who still cannot walk without being faint?” John Wesley answers again, “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social.” Jesus is the dominant figure of the Gospels, but he gradually directs his audience outward from himself and toward the world. The stories reach their climax with central focus on Jesus and the cross, but this moment has nothing to do with Jesus and still everything to do with Jesus. Laying aside all the issues regarding how Jesus got there and what it means, the crucifixion scene requires those faithful to Jesus to reinterpret their own lives. What are we to do when God made flesh is gone? The Christian narrative is clear to me. After the resurrection, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, and followers are empowered to be as Christ in the world. The whole Gospel of Christ, centered on an individual, points away from singularity to entirety, teaching what it is not just to believe in the length and breadth and depth and height of God’s love but to be God’s love, to be the social Divine. And so when we ask where is Christ’s healing touch today, we are called to turn to one another, to continue the ministry of Jesus told by Mark and the other Gospel writers, and to care for and nourish and build up and sustain our neighbors.

The burden may seem too great. To be God in the world? To participate in Christ’s sustaining work? We have our own suffering, our own need of healing. But the message is not that we are or at all times can be the Christian perfection of which John Wesley speaks. We have our own pains for which we must take time. To be socially minded, we must take care of our own spirits, be for ourselves what we need to be. There are times when we must wait for God—for God lived out in the activities of another human—in order that our strength be renewed. And it is the heartbreak of the world—the reality of injustice—that a helping hand and rest from weariness will not always come. So we gather, and we pray, and we strategize, and we speak out, and we admonish and correct, support and encourage, deconstruct and re-imagine, and we call upon the Spirit that we might recognize the Divine within ourselves, acknowledge the image of God in others, and actively participate in the healing and sustaining of all creation.

Reading Isaiah conjures for me an enduring image of my grandpa, one etched in a moment that did not depend upon God. God did not cause my brother to hit the ball that won the baseball game that brought my grandpa to his feet. It was not waiting for God that brought a renewed instance of strength. But something bigger than my grandpa, greater than my brother, and beyond myself moved my grandpa in an unexpected way: deep and abiding love for another, pride in another. Love that goes beyond the surface, that identifies with and rejoices in and wholly respects and admires and celebrates another human being. Love that is communal, that is social. Love that lifts up, that causes one to mount up with wings like eagles. Love that must sometimes be those wings. Love that is God. And when I hear Isaiah’s words and I do not necessarily see God, I know God’s presence. I feel the Divine revealed in deep connection with another. I understand that faithfulness to God means not simply waiting for God but participating in God’s work in the world, being Christ for others. Have you not heard? Have you not known? We possess the Divine for which we wait.