Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In the Midst of Life We Are in Death

I love John Rutter’s musical version of the Requiem, a memorial  to departed loved ones. In the Agnus Dei movement, there is a line that comes from the Book of Common Prayer, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

I was reminded of how true this is from recently experienced events. My first grandchild was born between the deaths of two beloved relatives. On July 22, my uncle James Sauder, long-time missionary to Spanish speakers in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Reading, Pa., died too young after a battle with Parkinson’s. Three of the most formative years of my life were spent in Honduras with uncle James and his family close by to serve as a cultural bridge. Because the Clymer clan (James’ wife was a Clymer) is quite numerous and scattered across the USA and Honduras, there were few of my Clymer relatives that I got to know as well as a young adult.

Frida Claire Shank, born 8/2/16
Eleven days later, on August 2, my granddaughter Frida was born to my daughter Marisa and her husband Adam Shank. After months of anticipation, and especially the last week when she went beyond her due date, seeing the joy in her parents’ eyes after the birth was priceless. When I looked at her face for the first time, I was overcome with emotion: her innocence, her newness of life, the hope and expectation that lay ahead for both her and her parents. I sensed what Celtic theologian Pelagius said: “When we look into the face of a newborn child, we are looking into the face of God freshly born among us.”

Eight days later on August 10, my aunt Eva Clymer died. Since her husband and my father were next to each other in age in the Clymer tribe, our two families spent a lot of time with each other while I was growing up. Those times were some of the highlights of my boyhood—long weekends at the cabin in the woods with hiking and swimming, hunting on the family farm, picking tomatoes, playing Rook, and just hanging out. Aunt Eva nicknamed me the “woodchopper” because I spent many after-school hours chopping wood for the stove/heater in our home. I felt special because she always singled me out in order to tease me.

If this was not enough, on July 29, the very last day of my wife Esther’s employment before leaving for Switzerland, a long-term client, who didn’t want her to leave, literally died in her arms. It was very traumatic for my wife. However, during the same time frame, two close acquaintances had new babies to celebrate.

Three deaths and three births in the span of fewer than three weeks. Indeed, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The Rutter Requiem reminds us musically that we are mortal beings. While the women are singing in Latin: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest,” the men add in a lower register: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” The voices are accompanied with a persistent beating of the timpani; is it a heartbeat of life, or the death knell? It is both.

Rutter does the same musical juxtaposition with the verse from Job 14: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow.” My granddaughter came forth like a flower, while my uncle and aunt were cut down, their shadow fled.

Rutter doesn’t leave us hanging on to the sadness of death or fleeting nature of life. He reassures us at the end of the movement with words from Jesus in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

In the midst of life we are in death. The longer I live, the more aware of death I am. Our death gives us perspective on our life, something we too often ignore, especially at younger ages. At the same time, with the birth of my granddaughter, I am reminded of the gift and miracle of life. I will delight in the wonder and amazement of her development, curiosity and joir de vivre. I want to live as if I will die tomorrow—not in fear because we have the promise of John 11:12, but rather with gratitude for each breath I take.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Psalm 42: A Holy Longing; A Craving for God

“As the deer longs for streams of water so I long for you, O God,” declares verse one of Psalm 42. It has always been intriguing to me because of the many different translations of the verb “longs for” found in different versions of the Bible and in different languages. I read the Bible in Spanish, German and English, but I cannot read the original Hebrew. My good friend Jim Engle, retired professor of Old Testament and Hebrew scholar, tells me that the Hebrew word used here is only used three times in all the Hebrew scriptures; twice in this verse alone.

The following are the various renditions from the three languages I read, garnered from different versions of each on Biblegateway.com. Spanish: pants, bellows, longs for, searches for, is eager for, clamors, wishes for; German: cries, brays, lusts for, drools over; English: pants, longs for, and craves.

Spanish seems to have the most variety, with English, in spite of having the most available translations, the least. Of the 12 different renditions of the phrase that I found, four are specifically related to animal noises: pants, bellows, cries, and brays. This would be consistent with this verb’s use in the only other place: Joel 1:20 in the Hebrew Scriptures. In all of its uses, there is a relationship between an animal and the need to satisfy its thirst. It is obvious that neither animals nor humans can exist for long without water.

“Longs for” is the most consistent use in the numerous English versions I checked. Although German has a perfectly good verb to express the idea of “longs for,” it was not used in the five versions I checked. The verb that means “lusts for” was the most consistently used in German. Indeed, that expresses an extreme longing. I am wondering why no English version uses the verb “yearns,” which in my mind connotes a stronger urge than “longs for.”

Whatever word is used in this passage, it is a clear metaphor of a thirsty animal searching for water, and it is a strong one. There is little more important for bodily health than quenching one’s thirst, whether human or beast. Like quelling thirst for the body, our longing for God is fundamental. Deep within all of us is a yearning for a return to the God-image buried beneath many layers of socialization and cultural accommodation, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. This is a holy longing.

The Psalmist becomes disquieted, or restless (v. 5) because of his intense longing for God and the taunts of his enemies. “ My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” continues the Psalmist in verse 2. “Where shall I come and behold the face of God?”

Our culture tries desperately to mask this holy longing and to fill it with everything but God. Even sincere Christians get caught in the trap. We always compare ourselves with those who have more talent, better looks, more athletic ability, more whatever, and we end up loathing ourselves. The advertising industry tells we can fill this insatiable void with buying things. When getting these things doesn’t satisfy, we turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, or many other addictions to make us feel better. It is a never-ending cycle of acquisition, obsession, acquisition and obsession.

“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,” wrote Saint Augustine. This holds as true today as it did 16 hundred years ago—perhaps even more so, since not only do we have more distractions, but also because there is so much more denial of a need for God.

If we recognize that the lonely void that we feel in our being is a holy longing, a thirst for God, we will be less apt to fill this longing with things “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19).

Some ways to work at satisfying your holy longing from previous posts:

How do you yearn, long for, lust after God?  How do you quell your thirst for God, your holy longing?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

I came to the church meeting distraught by all the negative, hateful messages that had consumed me from following too many political commentaries on social media. Those of us gathered around tables chatted away while waiting for the meeting to begin. As I ranted and raved about the political mess in which our country is embroiled, a brother beside me looked me in the eyes and said: “Let the dead bury the dead.”

This really caught me up short. I immediately knew what he meant. The verse he quoted comes from Luke 9: 60, and follows with the exhortation: “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The political scene as it is playing out in US America has distracted me far too much. Hearing and reading the discussions of others, I can safely assume that we are all too distracted. Our business as Christians is to get on with Jesus’ Kingdom work, proclaiming the Good News. Jesus gave us the formula for this proclamation in his inauguration address in Luke 4: 18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

During the same weekend of the church meetings, I listened to a podcast of an interview of Xavier Le Pichon by Krista Tippett on her radio show “Onbeing”. Dr. Pichon is a world-renowned geophysicist and a devout Christian. After discovering that the continents are dynamic and moving instead of being static, Dr. Pichon was at the top of his career as a scientist. However, in his middle thirties, he became disenchanted by how his work consumed him, and how he was “not seeing people in difficulty and suffering,” To alleviate what he called his “spiritual crisis,” he went Calcutta, India, to work with Mother Teresa for six weeks. From this experience, he ended up working for a community of  L’Arche for three decades; a community that works with severely handicapped people.

Dr. Pichon went from being a world-renowned scientist to cleaning the diapers of people who for the most part have been pushed out of view to the margins of society. He left the comfort of his cushy job and fame to serve “the least of these.” He is a model of one who “let the dead bury the dead,” to carry out Jesus’ mission to “bring Good News to the poor.” He is proclaiming God’s Kingdom and making God’s Kingdom “come on earth as it is in heaven.”

It seems to me that we would be a lot less stressed during these anxious times if we would be about the work of God’s Kingdom, instead of trying to solve everything through allegiance to a false empire.

During the interview, Dr. Pichon stated that he spends one-two hours in prayer every day. This is what sustains him to continue to work with the challenges of the severely handicapped. This is also part of Kingdom work. If I spent as much time in prayer as I do on social media, I’m sure my anxiety about the political mess would abate significantly.

Let the dead bury the dead, and go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.