Sunday, March 17, 2013

"We Gorge on But and If and How"

Half Light and Silence,
C. Robin Janning, 2007
The tree of knowledge was the tree 
of reason.
That's why the taste of it
drove us from Eden. That fruit
was meant to be dried and milled 
to a fine powder
for use a pinch at a time, 
a condiment.
God had probably planned 
to tell us later
about this new pleasure.
We stuffed our mouths
full of it,
gorged on but and if and how 
and again
but, knowing no better.
It's toxic in large quantities; fumes
swirled in our heads and around us
to form a dense cloud that hardened 
to steel,
a wall between us and God, 
Who was Paradise.
Not that God is unreasonable – 
but reason
in such excess was tyranny
and locked us into its own limits, 
a polished cell
reflecting our own faces. God lives
on the other side of that mirror,
but through the slit where the barrier doesn't
quite touch ground, manages still
to squeeze in – as filtered light,
splinters of fire, a strain of music heard

then lost, then heard again. 
   (Contraband, Denise Levertov, 1992)

We are smart people, reasonable, educated.

Masters of pro and con, of assembled evidence, of closing arguments.

Our reason has yielded unexpected treasures: Penicillin. Telephones. Atom bombs. Agent Orange. 

If we can think it, it must be right.

If we can make it, it must be worth making.

As Denise Levertov said, “we gorge on but and if and how,” confident we know enough to tame the darkness, master weather, turn back the tides of time that carry us toward eternity.

We believe what we see. And as telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, ultrasounds expand the bounds of the visible, we believe those things too. When it serves our purpose. When it fits our sovereign narrative.

Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Of all the beatitudes, this may be the most difficult for modern Western men and women, schooled on  materialism, objective realism, "the tyranny of reason."

See God? Really?

“Pure,” to us, is a relative term. Nothing is pure. Not food, not water, not gold, not air. We have tests to identify and measure contaminants, lists of acceptable levels. Whole industries are constructed around processes to approximate purity, but never quite get there.

“Purity,” if applied to humans, conjures up images of parochial school nuns, talks about chastity. Paintings of virgin saints.

“Pure in heart”?

“Heart” itself suggests something old-fashioned, something to do with not-to-be-trusted emotion, feeling, belief. The heart itself is a muscular organ, pumping blood. Nothing more. Soul? Will? Character? The Greek word “kardia” points to the inner self. But what is that self? Who sees it? Does it have any reality beyond genetic codes or external forces that determine who we’ll be, what we’ll believe?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” 

Puzzling over this beatitude, I came across thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and founding member of the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler, denounced genocide, and spoke out against the establishment church’s accommodation of the Nazi regime. In his Cost ofDiscipleship, he wrote:
“Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil--and by their own virtues too. The pure in heart have a child-like simplicity like Adam before the fall, innocent alike of good and evil: their hearts are not ruled by their conscience, but by the will of Jesus. . . The pure in heart . . . are not distracted by conflicting desires and intentions.” (112)
Our hearts – intentions, wills, however you want to translate that – are ruled by a muddy mix of motives and opinions. We insist on reason, claim we know best, but our vision is always skewed, our motives rarely “pure.”

As a teen encouraged to make a pro/con list regarding a major decision, I was troubled at how easily my reason could be managed. I could adjust the length of either list, find more reasons for, create reasons against. Sitting there staring at my half-hearted lists, I realized I could argue for anything, explain away anything.

What I wanted was something beyond my own brain. In prayer, I asked God to lead me and had my first glimpse of that light Levertov describes, that “strain of music heard, then lost, then heard again.”

Our divided hearts are on constant display. We want to be good people, live in comfort, go where we want the minute we want, eat whatever we think of any day of the year. Love our neighbors without spending time with them, or bothering to know their names. Breathe clean air without regulation, or thought of our own wasteful consumption. Know we’re right – on any issue – without thought, without work, without questions from those who dare to doubt us.

How often are we willing to say “I don’t know”? To admit “this question is beyond me”?

How often do we come, like children, and set our tangled messes at God’s feet, and ask his wisdom, help, and guidance?

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is of King Jehosophat of Judah. Threatened with attack from a vast, approaching army, he gathered his people to join him in prayer. As the enemy gathered, he affirmed God’s faithfulness in past times of crisis, explained the dire threat on its way, then concluded: “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20).

As he and his people waited, God spoke through someone standing in the assembly, just a face in the crowd:  
“This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you.” 
The next morning, Jehoshophat and his people went out singing praise, head worshipers leading the way. Standing far above the field of battle, they watched the approaching armies turn on each other, and waited in awe for an unearned victory.

I've shared that story many times, in situations where my ministry team felt inadequate, in times when others looked to me for wisdom and I had none to offer. I've come to believe purity of heart is single-minded determination to do things God's way, even when that ways seems strange, unlikely, even dangerous.

Love neighbors – even scary ones. Trust God's provision, even when the cupboard is bare and money seems in short supply. Expect needed abilities to emerge – in others, and in me. In those places of childlike trust, I've seen God tear down that wall of disbelief; I've seen the light of his goodness shining through. I've heard his music, a refrain of joy I've come to know and love.  

1Lent2 Diane Walker, 2012
We live in a troubled time, only dimly aware of the challenges confronting the church, the country, the globe. We eat food that doesn't nourish us. Spend vast amounts of money on weapons that can't keep us safe. Our clean water is disappearing. Our weather is changing, in ways we can't reverse.

We argue details, list our enemies, gather our reasons. We assume we know the answers, when in fact the questions are so complex, so interwoven, so beyond our skill and knowledge that those most informed are forced to admit: “We don’t know what to do.”

In this Lenten season, I find myself fasting, praying, turning to the only one who understands the scope of our difficulty, the depth of our folly. I ask for purity of heart, a desire for God’s way, not my own, not anyone’s own, as I listen, study, think.

And I invite others to join me, helpless before the vastness of our challenges: “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

This is the sixth in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes: