Thursday, November 15, 2007

Owner of a Lonely Heart

Isaiah 65:17-25
65:17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

65:18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

65:20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.

65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

Psalm 98
98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

98:2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

98:3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

98:4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

98:5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

98:6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
3:6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

3:7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,

3:8 and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.

3:9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.

3:10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

3:11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.

3:12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

3:13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
21:5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said,

21:6 "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

21:7 They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"

21:8 And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

21:9 "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."

21:10 Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;

21:11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

21:12 "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

21:13 This will give you an opportunity to testify.

21:14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

21:15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

21:16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.

21:17 You will be hated by all because of my name.

21:18 But not a hair of your head will perish.

21:19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

"In the sojourning of this carnal life each man carries his own heart and every heart is closed to every other heart."--Augustine

The story my daughter read in her class involved a young girl who was determined to follow the motto, "What Would Jesus Do?" When the high school bully mocked her, she took it mutely. When he peeled her woolen scarf off her neck outside school, she offered no resistance. When he went further and took her coat, she stood shivering the cold, but did nothing. Finally, the story ended with her luring her tormentor onto the ice of a frozen pond. She was trying to emulate Jesus' admonition to Simon, to prove she had enough faith to walk on water, even though warning signs around the pond said the ice was too thin. Not too thin for her slight frame, as it turned out, but too thin for the weight of the bully, who fell through but was able to catch himself by his elbows. Immersed in the freezing water, he couldn't get himself free without help, and his gang of hangers-on ran way rather than risk themselves, which left only his victim, standing safely in the middle of the pond, pondering what she should do. "What Would Jesus Do?" had been her motto but, after all, as she said to herself in the story's final words, "I'm only human."

Not the kind of story you ordinarily associate with these scriptures; not the kind of story you ordinarily associate with a question of faith. But then again, faith is usually a matter of what's in it for us; seldom is it a matter of what's in it for others. Perhaps that's one problem with our thinking about faith, with thinking about what faith is. But that isn't the problem in this story. The problem in this story, is about who faith is for. And here's the question that story raises: is faith for you? Or for your place in a community?

Not a question we are accustomed to asking. We prefer to think of ourselves as free agents, independent contractors, responsible only to ourselves and only responsible not to impose ourselves too much upon others. In that context "WWJD?" becomes: "How can I best acquit myself so that I will think well of myself when I think back on this moment?" That's the trap the young girl sets for herself in that story. She doesn't think of what the bully is doing, only of what it means to her. She doesn't think of what Jesus would do, only of how she can avoid the response she so obviously wants to make. And when turning the other cheek becomes too much of an effort for her, when she can't postpone her desire for a reckoning any longer, she tosses humility aside and goes straight for temptation. What would Jesus do? Remind us that the way is narrow, and the way is hard; and that none of us walk it alone.

Nowhere in the story, as my daughter recounted it, was there any indication that this young girl was a member of a believing community. She had obviously absorbed some lessons from some group, but her role in that group was to go and do likewise, all on her own. And there her troubles began.

As I mentioned earlier, nowhere in this Gospel passage when he warns of the wars and rumors of wars, of the calamities and catastrophes that are to come, nowhere in that advice does Jesus say: "So be ready then to choose sides, and to take up a position against evil." What he counsels is not struggle but passivity. "This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." Which sounds fairly powerful, until you reflect that what will be given to you is words, is wisdom, something so powerful your opponent won't be able to contradict it. Of course, they may still torment you, torture you, put you in jail or even execute you; but you'll win the argument! And which one is the lesson of the Gospel: that you finally prevail, and evil is defeated? Or that your heart is open to every other heart, and that you finally know that you do not have to carry your heart alone?

The only true answer to the question "What Would Jesus Do?" is: get crucified. Jesus would be so faithful to God (as Jesus was fully human) and Jesus would be so powerless (as Jesus was fully God) as to only submit to the power of evil, never to raise power against it. Jesus would only do what Jesus had to do, to become the Crucified God. He would not be a demi-god, like Herakles, performing acts of power so important and noble even the gods had to honor him. He would not perform miracles to show God's power was supreme in Creation. Even John's gospel, beloved of conservative Christians and evangelicals, calls the miracles "signs," and constantly undercuts them by presenting them not as proof of Jesus' divinity, but as a diversion, a distraction, a false trail that will not lead to revelation. What Would Jesus Do? Call disciples, create a community, teach them by word and example his faithfulness, in hopes of sharing it with them, so they would remain faithful to God and to each other in the time of famine and plagues and earthquakes and great portents in heaven. Or even just bullies.

But you can't do that alone; just as you can't know God alone. I got into this discussion with a friend once, in seminary. A true-blue Protestant who had converted to Christianity through evangelicalism, she was quite convinced of the centrality of the relationship of God to the individual, without any mediator such as saints or the church. What I couldn't quite get her to understand was that it was the church, the body of believers, the clouds of witness, through time and across time, who had preserved the message and the gospels and the interpretations so they could be presented to her. What I tried to argue was that no one is born knowing God, that some community of believers has to bring God to us, each one of us. That isn't an exclusionary statement, simply an obvious one. If Kierkegaard was right and Christianity is conviction, a confession, then no one is born "Christian." And no one can know anything of Christianity, or of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus, unless one is told; unless there is a faith community. So the lesson is simple: without a community, what faith do you have?

Faith in yourself, ultimately. Faith that you have the will to discern, on your own, what Jesus would do; and faith that you then have the will to do just as Jesus would do. But that is an impossible burden. That is the burden of a lonely heart, of a heart you carry on your own and keep closed to every other human heart. That will lead you to stand on the thin ice and lure your tormenter there, and then stand tormented about what you really want to do: save him? or watch him suffer? That is what faith outside a community leads you to.

But is faith inside a community any easier? No. No, it is not easy at all. But it is faithfulness, to carry the burden of others as well as the burden of yourself. The goal of faith, as Christians define it, is not to know God in your own thoughts, but to know God in the experience of other people. So even the Desert Fathers did not retreat to the mountains, did not abandon all human contact and disappear from human society; so even monks and nuns live in community, carry out the tasks of faith by living together. Faith, in Christian terms, is about living for others; living for others whether or not your faith is known to those others.

But that is a dry and empty exercise, if you try to do it alone. That is a fruitless and thankless task, if you try to be faithful all on your own in a world that doesn't recognize anything about your faith and what it asks of you. Faith alone soon turns either into an excuse for retribution or a private scorecard used to measure yourself against others. Faith lived by the individual alone is "too much of nothing," and it soon decays into faithlessness, no matter how faithful you think you are. Because faith that is not lived with others and in others who share your faith, is faith lived for you. It is faith in yourself, and when the time of trial comes, you are not ready to receive the words you need. For God is not known in the solitary confines of the human heart: God is known in the faces and hands and eyes and ears and mouths of people: people of faith, and people of no faith. "Christ before me, Christ beside me...Christ to comfort and restore me....Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger" is not just a prayer for protection, it is also a confession of the true nature of faith and faithfulness.

So in Isaiah God speaks of making a new people, and in Thessalonians Paul warns, not against associating with non-believers, but associating with lazy believers. The struggle of the human heart is constant, and the only comfort in the struggle is knowing that the struggle goes on in God, in the community of faith, among believers. The comfort is knowing that the struggle to open your heart to all the closed hearts around you is one shared by those in faith with you, that when you share your faithfulness you don't do it alone, and your strength doesn't come from your will alone. Will is not faith, and it will not preserve you against the challenge to what you believe. Standing alone is weakness, not strength. What would Jesus do? Find a group who shared his beliefs, and open his heart to them; and from them, in them, with them, open his heart to the world; not as an act of will, but as an act of faith. And then you will see "the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD." Which is what you are looking for, after all; not your victory, but the victory of God.


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