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Psalm 124

June 26, 2009 Leave a comment

Psalm 124

Stepping out into steady drip, drip, drip of an early morning rain, Victor walks toward home. The cool, crisp air greets him as soft water streaks down his face, reminding him that he is alive. Alive.

The greenness of the grass washes over his eyes, the sweet smell of spring flowers mixed with the earthy smells of mud and trees intoxicates him. He looks around and beholds a new world. A new creation.

Fallen trees and leaf-covered paths suggest a heavy rain had passed through this place. A deluge. But now the devastation of last night’s storm has given way to a gentle sun penetrating the soft, spring rain flowing into rivulets along the road.

Overcome with thanksgiving, he stops walking and lifts up his hands and to proclaim,

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.(Psalm 124:1-5)

This Psalm burned in Victor’s soul as he meditated upon the words day after day after day for the past 15 years. Plunged into prison for his faith, he was starved, beaten, mocked, and drugged. Despair engulfed him, darkness choked him, death drew near.

Day after day after day his confession of faith was tested. The enemy came like a flood, swallowing Victor’s faith and and hope and love. Yet the Lord was faithful even when Victor felt the last vestige of faith slipping from his soul.

He thought the world forgot and feared that God forgot. From the depths of Sheol, he cried out to the Lord. “Remember me!”

And He did. In the place of forsakenness, Victor encountered the faithful love of the Lord that lasts forever.

And strangely, in this place of pain and loneliness, he also met a company of friends. As the prison swallowed Victor alive, he remembered Jonah plunged in the bowels of the great fish. As he faced year after year of suffering and hardship, he remembered the Israelites breaking under the harsh whip of Pharaoh.

In heart of darkness, he met King David crouched and hiding in a cave; Jeremiah in a sinking dark well; and Paul being stoned and left for dead. As He descended down in the dark chasms of suffering, Victor came to realize he lived in a great company of saints. In the mystery of God’s encircling love, he rested in this family of the not forsaken.

One vague story haunted him in the dark watches of the night. Again and again his mind returned to the 3rd century story of St. Julian, an old man accused of following Christ. Tormented and crippled by gout, Julian was carried into the court for trial. This frail and broken man stood without waver in the face of judgment and destruction.

Victor dreamed. And as he dreamed, he encountered Julian.

“Get up!” The gruff voice of an old soldier wakens Julian from his momentary dozing. Stiffly and slowly his rises. His shoulder is dislocated and his swollen feet feel like clods of earth attached to his legs. Julian hobbles towards the guard with a secret smile.

Today he is going home. As he walks, his shackles fall away, and Julian is free. He is going home. He thinks of himself like a bird getting ready to fly. And he remembers an old psalm and silently sings:

Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped! (Psalm 124:6-7)

Dried blood cracks along deep cuts, and fresh streams wash down his back. Once again a secret smile. Julian remembers another washing.

Long ago in another age, he was plunged into waters of life. As Julian was immersed into the waters of life in death, he remembered and was remembered.

The Lord gathered this poor and forgotten boy into the family of God. The joy of this embrace gave him a song that never ceased. And like a bird from the heavens, he never stopped singing Psalms of thanksgiving to Lord who put him in family.

Today the song bubbles just beneath the surface. For in the great and merciful love of his Lord, Julian now enjoys the honor of another baptism. And in this great cleansing, he feels giddy like a young a boy with the fire of life.

Again and again, the dreams of Julian encouraged Victor and reminded Him of God’s unfailing love. Today as Victor leaves the prison and walks home, he envisions Julian walking home alongside him.

He soaks in the cool rain, the mud-soaked ground, and gentle mist floating over the fields. At the edge of the field stands on old stone house. Crossing the path, he walks toward two people working in the morning drizzle: the wife of his youth and his boy become a man.

A song flies upward from his mouth to the throne of God. As he sings, he tastes the sweet joy of St. Julian.

Tears of joy flood Julian’s face as he climbs the cold, stone steps one last time. The joy inside him overpowers the twisted and broken limbs and for a moment, he walks upright before the cheering crowd. Soon he will be home, but first another promised baptism. As Julian walks into the raging fire, his secret song explodes out from his lungs in a psalm of praise.

Julian’s and Victor’s voices join the chorus of David, Jeremiah, Daniel and all the people of God walking home to the Father:

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 124:8)

The Year Has Known Conversion

November 21, 2008 Leave a comment

As I gaze out upon my leaf-covered lawn, I am reminded, “the year has
known conversion.” Bobi Jones wrote those words as he stepped out into
a springtime bursting forth into new life, confessing, “energy is
everywhere.” As he celebrates that “winter has gone to its fathers,” I
watch winter return and begin overtaking the golden autumn afternoons
with freezing breath.

And once again, I think about the phrase, “the year has known
conversion.” Nothing remains. Oh that the glory of trees raining
colored leaves might last just a bit longer. But the gentle wonder
gives way to barrenness. And the season is left behind.

My world has known conversion this year. As most of you know, our
building caught fire last February. The Living Room that had hosted
weddings and movie nights, retreats and a weekly liturgy, caught fire
one Thursday morning. I got a call after lunch. We recovered boxes of
books for future cleaning. Then a few of us began meeting in the home
again as we left that season behind.

More recently, my job ended. One Thursday. And in true literary style,
I got a call after lunch. After months of dropping sales, our company
began cutting jobs. I packed up a few boxes for future sorting. Then I
came back home to work and left that season behind.

Even as I write these words, I realize that I am addressing many other
people who have known conversion this year. Some of you lost your jobs
in the midst of this struggling economy. Some of you have lost loved
ones to death. Some of you have known the death-like agony of
separation and divorce. And some of you have watched your savings
almost disappear as the stocks keep tumbling down.

Much like the barren trees, our lives sometime reflect a season of
stripping away. A time of loss and death. We know the uncertainty of
conversion that feels like the world has come to an end. Almost
weekly, I hear some preacher declaring the end of the world is at
hand. And in some ways they are most certainly right. The world has
ended for some people.

Listening to a survivor of the Rwandan genocide recently, I was
transfixed by the sudden and horrible devastation that can bring a
family, a nation, a world to an end. It reminds me of the insulation
lives that most Americans live. Tragedy happens to the other guy: the
person on the other side of the world. When it comes close, people cry
out, “Why me?”

In other ages and times, people have wondered, “Why not me?” Why did
it pass me by? Earlier this year, I read Barbara Tuchman’s revealing
account of the 14th century in the “The Distant Mirror.” The century
knew conversion. Darkness descended across Europe in ways that no 13th
century person could have anticipated.

The dramatic progress of the 12th and 13th century came crashing down
as famine, black plague, war, raiders, and other natural and man-made
disasters brought the Western world to the brink of destruction. And
in the midst of this devastation, some towns prospered. One town fell
victim to complete annihilation by the black plague and another town
didn’t experience a single case, leaving survivors to wonder, “Why did
I survive?”

As I think about the chaos of the 14th century and I consider the
chaos that ripples across the world in the 21st century, think of the
Spirit of God who hovers over the waters of the deep. Again and again
in Scripture, the Lord shows up in the midst of flooding, fire, wind,
and death.

The Bible doesn’t present a world free of problems and suffering and
pain. Rather, we are confronted with a disturbing portrait of man’s
inhumanity against man. We see evil expressed in violence, war, and
all manner of human suffering. We behold people who face the same pain
and anguish and barrenness that sometimes comes close to our lives and
into our homes.

And yet, we also see God in the midst. The ocean of chaos that
threatens all order cannot threaten God. He consistently enters into
the midst of his suffering people. In the gospels, we behold the Lord
of Glory entering in to our frailty, our suffering, our pain, our
death.

And what does he do in death?

He creates a new man, a new world. All things are made new. The chaos
doesn’t threaten him. When the world seemed be coming apart in the
14th century, His Spirit brought winds of change in the 15th and 16th
century that opened new possibilities for people throughout the world.

When it seems like our world is colliding to an end, His grace can
heal and renew and revision and recreate our lives, our families, our
world. Whether we suffer sickness or job loss or financial problems or
relational strains. He has not abandoned us in this season of winter.

This brings me back to Bobi’s line, “The year has known conversion.”
When Bobi uses the word conversion, he is drawing from a deeper well
than just change. He is called upon this conversion that our Savior
reveals in His resurrection. He brings life out of death. He writes,

“Winter has gone to its fathers.
It was sharp; alive. And look at them here:
Life has triumphed over life, and death death
On this everlasting meadow that is
A Cross for the year.
Spring came through the mouth of the morning
Its tongue clamouring hotly on the petals of sunrise
Like the boots of a soldier coming home.”

His poem stirs my heart, as I continue gazing at the barren trees in
my yard. Even as the coldness of winter sometimes to grip our world
and our homes and our lives, He is coming. The Soldier who harrowed
hell is coming. And even in the midst of our endings, He is a
beginning. Let us rejoice at the newness of His grace that surrounds
us even now, and look expectantly for the new shoots to spring forth
in the midst of the old.

Christian Action springs from a communion of love

October 8, 2007 1 comment

“Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth.” 1 John 3:18

Von Balthasar lays out a vision of Christian action based upon the revelation of Jesus and fully revealed in his self-emptying devotion on the cross. This action is rooted in a completely free communion of love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Christian action outside this revelation of love becomes pure ethics and is drained of the relational content of love’s revelation. Without this relation, action can become subject to necessity because it is not free in love. Think of Jesus action in the cross. It proceeds from the love of the Father and returns to the love of the Father. His action is an incarnation of Lover and Beloved. Just as the Son lives in this pure relation of lover and beloved with the Father, He reveals this love to a world at enmity with God.

His incarnation reveals God’s intention to relate to His people as Lover and Beloved. Von Balthasar references the Song of Solomon to emphasize that Lover and Beloved are complete within their mutual reciprocation of love. This love is not dependent upon producing children but is free of necessity and complete in itself.

The love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit is a complete love that needs nothing outside the relation to bring completion. Creation does not make God’s love more real. God’s love does not necessitate creating. The love between the Father, the Son and the Spirit is complete (completely fulfilling and fulfilled).

There is no unmet longing within God. While human happiness necessitates a longing beyond ourselves, the love of God is free of necessity. This is difficult for us to grasp because we do not live in this reality. As result, without something new outside the circle of reciprocal love, we might tend to think this love, this relation will growing tiresome, boring. That reveals our own incapacity for complete love that is free of necessity.

With this idea of a completely fulfilled love within the relation of the Godhead, Von Balthasar continues to lay out a picture of love that has no motive, no unfulfilled eros, no longing beyond the mutual reciprocity of love. For images of this among humans, Von Balthasar turns to Mary when she pours out the costly vial on Jesus’s feet. Her act is pure response to love, thus it appears as useless to outside eyes. (This useless outpouring of love makes me think of Chuang Tzu’s useless tree.)

Christian action springs from the freedom of a loving communion between Lover and Beloved. Enveloped in the ongoing communion of lover and beloved, the Christian moves from love and toward love. Only now can Von Balthasar begin to discuss dogmatic theology and offer his definition that “Dogmatic theology is the articulation of the conditions of possibility of Christian action in light of revelation.”

Thus all Christian action is a secondary reaction to the primary action of God as Lover and Beloved. Taken up into this communion by the Holy Spirit, the Christian simply responds and acts in this self-emptying love as most fully revealed in the cross. In the cross, God reconciles his enemies. When the enemy is not even on speaking terms, God acts to bring reconciliation.

In Christ, He enters into the gulf of sin and suffering that ripples across our world. Entering into the very gulf of death created by such violations of love, God both both judges and offers complete rectitude by taking the division, the suffering, the separation into Himself. The cross is both historical (occurring at a fixed point in space and time) and ahistorical (anticipating the revelation of love’s ultimate triumph when all creation is reconciled to God).

Thus the Christian acts (incompletely and partially) in love at a fixed point in time and space while still anticipating the triumph of love in that action (complete and absolute). Von Balthasar calls this action parousial. The act of love that anticipates the sudden revealing of complete love in all creation.

The Christian also acts in faith. While not ignoring the faults of others in the world around him, the Christian is to look with eyes of faith at Jesus’ action in the cross. By the grace of the Spirit, the Christian is taken up into the communion of suffering found within the cross. Only in the place of the cross, does the Christian begin to behold the knowledge of the love of God. Thus loving action cannot be separated from a loving communion that is rooted in self-emptying love.

Von Balthasar offers many points for consideration and reflection: a love without necessity, loving action that is both universal and particular/historical and ahistorical, action rooted in the communion of self-emptying love, and a knowledge rooted in loving communion as revealed in the cross.

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Responding to the Killings at Va Tech

April 20, 2007 Leave a comment

I posted this over at Floydville and thought I would put it here as well.

Yesterday I received an email from a co-worker who is also an alumnus of Virginia Tech. The email told the stories of one of the families who lost daughter in the on-campus killings earlier this week. Since I don’t usually watch the news, I had only read a few headlines about this painful event. Her email put a human face on this story. By humanizing this story, I could enter into the grieving at the loss of lives. Below are a few thoughts that came to mind as I reflected. I would hope that we would not simply observe the pain of those grieving families but may we also weep with those who weep.

There are pains so deep, so crushing, so horrible that our thoughts cannot contain them. We think if we can just explain them, define them, categorize them, or even spiritualize them, we will somehow gain power over them.

But we won’t.

Evil is real. The dark terror of evil cannot be contained by our minds, our media, or even our government policies. In a world of enlightened ideas and unlimited progress, the reality of evil continues to strike. And if we’re honest, we know that evil strikes through even our own hearts.

What do we do when a horrid evil is unleashed before our eyes? How do we respond? If we were still human, we would respond by grieving, moaning, and crying out in agony and despair. But we’ve forgotten how to mourn. We’re too sophisticated for lamentation.

Instead, we watch the news. We collect information, analyze it, dissect it, and reduce the horror of evil to some manageable bit of data that is stored with all the other bits of data that crowd our mechanized brains. God have mercy on us and teach us to weep with those who weep.

Facing the sudden tragic loss of lives, we are mystified. Questions cloud the heart and mind: Why? Why the suffering? Why the obscene evil? But there are some questions we simply cannot ask. The book of Job reveals the futility of asking, “Why must we suffer?”

Sure we can theorize and theologize and spiritualize, but all our wrangling brings us no closer to real answers that feed the human soul. Instead of asking “why suffering” and “why evil,” our souls long to ask another question, “Where are you God?”

Where is the absent God in our despairing heart of darkness?
Despised and rejected.
Stricken and afflicted.
Wounded and bruised.
Hanging on a cross.

He is bleeding and dying and entering into the deepest depths of human pain and suffering. Though we fall under the weight of suffering, we cannot fall lower than the “Man of Sorrows.”

He embraces us in our suffering. He enters into our mourning. He teaches us to pray rightly, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

For just a few moments, let go of the need to know; the need to answer why; the need make sense of tragedy. Let go and follow the pattern of Jesus who truly weeps with those who weep and suffers with those who suffer.

Jesus can teach us to mourn, to grieve, to ache at the pain within us and around us. He can restore our humanness. He can free us from the tyranny of information without love and restore us to loving bond with brokenhearted. He can teach us let go of our need for quick empty, solutions to evil and pain. He can teach us to cry and grieve and wait upon a comfort that can only come from the Spirit of God.

O LORD, God of my salvation,
I have cried out day and night before You.
Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to the grave.
I am counted with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man who has no strength,
Adrift among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And who are cut off from Your hand.
You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah (Psalm 88)

My eyes flow and do not cease,
Without interruption,
Till the LORD from heaven
Looks down and sees. (Lamentations 3:49-50)

Lamentations of Job

February 20, 2007 1 comment

The book of Job recounts the dramatic suffering of Job. Yesterday while reading a litany of Job’s troubles and pains, I ran across the following complaint:

“My breath is offensive to my wife…” (Job 19:17)

Yipes. I think I’m suffering from this same torment!

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Diversions to Death – Pascal

February 9, 2007 3 comments

Blaise PascalHere’s a thought worth consideration from Pascal

The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us on to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us, gradually and without ever adverting to it, to death.

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