Archive for May, 2016

Luke 4:1-13

May 3, 2016


Jesus’ Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

This reading about Jesus’ temptations and how he responded to them makes it sound easy.  Are you facing a tough decision?  Just turn to the Bible and let it tell you what to do or what to say.   That sounds good, until we consider that certain Islamic clerics turn to Scripture, too, and it guides them to raise up suicide bombers.  Closer to home, Christian clergy turn to Scripture and it guides them to condemn homosexuality or ordaining women.  For centuries Christians turned to Scripture and it guided them to oppress Jews.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?

Let me frame that question with a story.  This happened to Rachel Naomi Remen, a pediatric oncologist at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.  A 12-year-old girl came to Dr. Remen with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes.  The girl, her mother, and her father, who was an Orthodox rabbi, had come all the way from New York for radiation treatment at the linear accelerator.

The treatment’s effectiveness depended on a series of treatments, timed a precise number of days apart.  According to the girl’s treatment schedule, the eighth treatment would fall on Yom Kippur.  The father came to Dr. Remen to explain that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.  His faith strictly forbids handling money on this day, riding in cars, or using electricity.  In short, his daughter could not come to her treatment on that day.

Told that the timing of the treatments was critical to his daughter’s recovery, the father replied angrily that God’s laws superseded any human law.  He reminded Dr. Remen of the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  She insisted, and the father said he would consult his own rabbi in New York, the man who headed his sect of Orthodox Judaism.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Dr. Remen found the girl in her waiting room.  Looking questioningly at the father, the doctor learned that the Great Teacher, himself, had telephoned the father immediately upon receiving his letter.  The Great Teacher told the father to order a taxi for the girl on Yom Kippur, and not only that, but he, the father, was to ride with her.  The father protested:  No, I cannot break the Law!  The Great Teacher was adamant.  The father needed to show his daughter that even a truly holy man could ride in a car on the holiest of days in order to preserve life.  The Great Teacher said something else.  He told the father how important it was that his daughter not feel separated from God by breaking the Law; because that feeling could undermine her healing.

This story makes clear: it is not a straightforward  matter to use Scripture for guidance.  How did Jesus succeed so well?  A partial answer to that question came to me recently when I read a book by Richard Rohr, called Falling Upward.  Rohr is a Roman Catholic monk in his early 70’s with at least 50 years of spiritual exploration and teaching behind him.

Rohr distinguishes two stages in human life: first, building a container, and second, providing it with contents.  We build the container through such things as learning to control our impulses, obeying parents and other authorities, respecting the laws of church and state.  At this first stage we need our religion to make absolute truth claims; we need certitude, order, constancy, control, safety, insurance policies.

If we are successful at building the “container” we will go into the second stage, the content stage, with a strong identity and a principled ethical sense — a solid foundation.  We could call the first stage law and the second stage freedom.  Both are necessary for spiritual growth.  The test of true spiritual maturity is this: can we transcend the container stage and at the same time include it?  Jesus understood this, for he said,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

I have sympathy for those who are still focused on building the container.  They need to take the Bible literally and live under its authority.  They want to be able to stand on God’s promises, as given in Scripture.  And they wonder:  if not everything written in Scripture is to be taken at face value, then what can we take?  What can we trust?  They are living under a false sense of all or nothing.  How do we get beyond that — learn to trust without clinging to the false security of literalism?

I think of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community.  He was one of the spiritual giants of the Christian church in the last century.  Stuart and I spent a week at Taizé in 2003 and I remember vividly how he said with the utmost certainty and authority, “God can only love.”  Where did he get that bedrock conviction?  Given all the contradictory pictures of God in the Bible, how did he boil it down to that one conclusion?

He must have started out, as any of us must, building a container — that is, letting the words of Scripture form him and inform him.  Then World War II came along with all the ambiguities that entails.  He found he had to shift — shift from experiencing the presence of God solely in the words of the Bible to experiencing the presence of God also behind the words.

Let me give you an illustration.  My brother has a ranch high in the Rocky Mountains where a pure spring bubbles up in the midst of a boggy meadow.  We had to search for a long time through thickets of willow bushes, through a maze of muddy trickles, through the hoof prints of cows and their droppings to find it.  Then there it was: the source, the clearest, sweetest tasting water you can imagine.  To follow Brother Roger, it’s as if we have to search through the words of the Bible, which have been colored  and distorted by human handling, to find the source — the Presence behind it all.

My original question was this.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?  To sum up what I’ve said, we never outgrow the need to read the Bible, but as we read we listen for the silence behind the words; for silence has been called God’s lap.  Think of a deep, interior silence as God’s lap.

Perhaps the Gospel account of Jesus’ temptations indulges in some shorthand.  It reads as if he snapped back his answers to Satan.  I think he waited in silence for who knows how long?  Then the verses that offered true guidance came to him.  But still, being spiritually mature, transcending and including the words of Scripture, he had to give up certainty and control.  He had to be willing to dwell in the mystery of God with all of the ambiguity that entails.  He had to embrace an unknown future.  The thing is, Jesus had been to the source, and this he learned and could count on: God can only love.


Luke 9:28 – 36

May 3, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, Luke 9:28 – 36


Three different accounts of Transfiguration.  Let’s look at the Transfiguration of Moses.  What is really going on?  Shall we take the veil as an historical fact, or did those who composed the account mean to speak in symbols?

Almost certainly the veil is a symbol, and not a factual account of actual events.  An account of actual events would mean little to us.  But God intends the Bible to be like a treasure map for spiritual prospectors.  So what is the pot of gold here, and why does the Bible speak in terms of a veil?

We call Moses’s experience a Transfiguration… but what exactly is a Transfiguration?  I figure it this way.  The Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber, wrote about two, contrasting forms of relationship: I-Thou and I-It.  In an I-Thou relationship, I see you as a whole, unified person.  I do not analyze you or evaluate you, I am just with you.  In fact, it’s as if you and I shared one “I”.  No thoughts or ideas of mine come between us.  You’ve had this experience.  Think of a time you were in a deep, intimate conversation.  If the other’s thoughts wandered, you felt it.  You knew the other had slipped out of the I-Thou relation and into the I-It relation.

The I-It relation sees the other as an object, and even sees itself as an object.  In the I-It relation I may analyze you and judge you.  Separateness and detachment characterize the I-It relation, like a good doctor with a patient.  In contrast, mutuality and reciprocity characterize an I-Thou relation, like intimate friends or lovers.  But note: there is nothing wrong with I-It.  We need I-It with its analytical powers to live in the world and conduct our lives.

When it comes to God, the I-Thou relationship shifts into a whole different register, as if we shifted from gazing at the moon to gazing at the sun.  Unlike the things of this world, God can never be investigated or examined… never be known as an object.  God can only be known as an absolute presence.  Think of the way a person who is totally blind knows when the sun comes out — a warm, embracing presence.

The Bible tells us repeatedly that Moses went up on the mountain to be with God.  It’s a way of saying that in order to be with God in an I-Thou way Moses had to rise above all the daily business that normally occupied his mind — all his duties, deliberations, decisions.  He had to set them aside and let God be his all-in-all.  To be in an I-Thou relation with God is not necessarily a Transfiguration, but when it reaches an essential degree of clarity or of openness, it is.

Think how it must have been for Moses when it was time to go back down, to tear himself away from the divine presence — away from knowing, as Julian of Norwich said, that “…[A]ll shall be well.  And all shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.”  He was moving from one world to another.  He had to put his thinking mind back in gear, his analytical mind that he used to solve the problems of the community.  He had to go from I-Thou to I-It.

The veil stands for that transition, for once again putting on his thinking, problem-solving mind.  To be face-to-face with God he had to set aside that mind and simply, like a sunbather, bask in God’s presence.  Also, when he came back among the people, he needed to share with them the spiritual insights that God had given him.  These were I-Thou moments, and his face still shone.  But after that it was back to business as the CEO, and for this he needed the veil — his rational mind.

Jesus’ Transfiguration story is similar.  He was joined in his Transfiguration by Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets — the foundation stones of Judaism.  Perhaps this detail is meant to suggest that, for his followers, Jesus would be the third foundation stone of faith.


Paul, too, had an I-Thou experience.  He was on the road to Damascus, very much in the grip of his I-It mind.  He was using it to eradicate the Jesus movement from within his religion.  As he neared Damascus, a blinding light knocked him to the ground.  Jesus spoke to him out of that light, and Paul realized that he was face-to-face with the divine.  It took him three days before he was able to return to his I-It mind, to put on the veil, to direct affairs again.  Only now he was directing affairs in exactly the opposite direction.  He became one of Jesus’ disciples.

With this in mind, perhaps you are as puzzled as I am.  In the passage from Paul’s letters that we heard just now, why did Paul twist the story of Moses’s Transfiguration?  Why use it to belittle Judaism?  There was nothing in the Exodus account about the veil serving to hide the light of Moses’s face from the people.  Nothing about the glory of the Transfiguration being set aside in Moses.  Nothing about the veil serving as a symbol for a hardened, unreceptive mind.

Here is how I make sense of that passage.  Paul was a brilliant man, well schooled in his religion and a passionate advocate for Judaism as he understood it.  He had lived his whole life in the I-It mode, and done so very effectively.  He had no idea there was any other mode.  Then he had an I-Thou experience on his way to Damascus.  The difference astounded him.  Judaism, as he knew it, had not prepared him for Transfiguration and he thought there was something lacking in Judaism.

I’m not sure he was wrong.  The Christian religion is open to the same charge.  Doesn’t the Church make religion chiefly a matter of obedience to its teachings?  Is not sin a principal, if not paramount interest of Christianity as commonly understood?  Aren’t we taught to pray to a God “out there” or “up above” and to make our prayers into I-It prayers — that is, prayers to meet our needs and solve our problems?  If that is what our religion does for us, it is no wonder that people, especially young people, are leaving the Church.

And yet Paul was wrong. Think of Jesus.  Like Paul, Jesus grew up and lived within the Jewish religion.  Its teachings formed his thinking and his doing.  Judaism enabled his Transfiguration.  Afterwards, he felt no need to fault his religion, but like Moses, he shared with his followers what he had learned in those intense I-Thou encounters he had with God.  Judaism served Jesus well, and it can serve people today well, too.

Paul was also right when he continued by saying, “And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another….”  That is, we too can be in I-Thou relations with God and with each other.   We, too, can be candidates for Transfiguration: that is the pot for gold.

Paul is also right that I-It and I-Thou are not like two sides of a door — either you are in one place or in the other.  In other words, I-Thou has degrees.  Most of us have had an I-Thou experience.  One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery gave me an example of I-Thou.  He said, it’s like sometimes you hang up from a phone call and you just sit there for a moment or two in a deep, deep peace.  He didn’t put it this way, but I would say that for a few moments and to some degree you are simply aware of dwelling in the divine presence.

Quoting Julian of Norwich again: after a prolonged and deep immersion in her own Transfiguration, she wrote, “For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole,  so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed.”  To be sure, Jesus experienced the Transfiguration to a supreme degree, but any of us can have at least a taste of the peace and joy of the I-Thou relation with God.  Communion is just such a taste.