LIVING BY The Word






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Publication: The Christian Century
Author: King, Michael A
Date published: May 18, 2010

Sunday, May 23

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

IT'S AN EVER NEW story-the building of a great tower, quickly followed by a descent into babble. We citizens of the 21st millennium seem to be standing amid the bricks from our own Babel towers. It all began when Christians aligned themselves with Emperor Constantine and commenced an effort to build Christendom, to reach to the heavens by seamlessly joining Christian faith and earthly nations. Then came Western thought, and humans seeking to derive from disembodied intellect the universal truths to which the West then expected others to bow.

Now, in 2010, I'd guess that if we agree on little else, many of us might concur that the post attached to Christendom or modernism rightly hints at cracks in their towers. Bricks are plummeting from the sky.

There is paradox here. The Internet girdles the globe. We tie into the global hive from the remotest jungle. With a click we access Democratic, Republican, Tea Party, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, fundamentalist, hate speech and more. Another tower rises. One cocksure pontificator turns a bit of insight into truth, only to be met by an opposing bit. Yet I believe there are small truths to ponder even as the bricks of so many crumbling truths fall around us.

There are possibilities in Acts 2, where Pentecostal tongues and winds are made new even as Babel also falls and rises and falls once more. Acts tells of everyone speaking in his or her own language and of everyone understanding each other. This is a shift from Babel, where everyone shares one language in an effort to reach the heavens. In the Acts story, humans divided by national and language differences are bound together when the Holy Spirit descends from the heavens.

Are there wisps of strategies amid our present-day babbling? I doubt that we need to universalize any of our rebuildings of Christendom, modernism, a globally triumphant Islam or any faith or antifaith. What we need now are ways to understand each other across the ever thinner slices of truth that we seem too often to cherish as the whole truth. We must be careful as we dream of understanding, because even this wish is one more position among the warring ones.

Yet it is better to dream of mutual understanding than to be one more voice of hate. In a chilling column in the Wall Street Journal (March 27-28), Peggy Noonan highlights what hate is sounding like. She notes how even as we're defending forms of life and advocating compassion or care for others, we regularly threaten to smash, disembowel and kill.

Noonan quotes a few of us from across the spectrum: "An American Hitler might be in the making who would purge the leftists." "Republicans are criminals and terrorists." "It's what happens before the revolution . . . people are frustrated over not being heard ... let the battle begin." "I hope you bleed out your ----- , get cancer and die." "I hope you're haunted the rest of your living days." "There are people across the country who wish you ill, and all of those thoughts projected on you will materialize into something that's not very good for you. Go to hell, you piece of ----- ."

What is shocking is that such communication is no longer shocking. Go to any Web site allowing feedback and addressing anything but pablum, and comments like those above are pretty much standard fare. Nor is the hate talk only in the media. I flinch when I remember the day a conversation with a friend over a controversial issue turned so heated that our relationship broke.

What I'm reaching for is a way that we might, across our various communities, begin to highlight resources for building up instead of destroying understanding. This is why I highlight Acts 2 as a resource for the babbling Christian community. We hate each other- many of us, much of the time. We won't soon put down our swords. But what if at least we asked what it might look like not to try to change each other's languages, not to change each other's certainty that God does or doesn't champion this or that cause, person or group, but at least to seek to understand each other's tongue?

What would it look like if in our worship, our sermonizing, our Christian education, our delegate conventions, our speaking truth to power, we invited the Holy Spirit among us to bring us the miracle of understanding? What would happen if amid our ongoing speaking in our native tongues and worldviews and truths, we could at least marvel at understanding what the other was saying, whether or not we could shout amen? What if I could at least grasp that had I been shaped by another's life, and that I might think as another does even though my life has shaped me to think that person is dead wrong?

What if instead of building Babel, that tower rising from our common language, our easy agreement with those of like mind, we built an altar and knelt before it as we waited? What if what we waited for was the coming of the wind and fire that would be able to help us glimpse that the others, so terribly and tragically mistaken, are still our brothers and sisters, because even in these days of sun turned to darkness and moon to blood, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved"?

Reflections on the lectionary

Sunday, May 30

Psalm 8; Rontons 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

NOT SURPRISINGLY, given that they are selected for Trinity Sunday, today's texts point to God-in-three. The good news is that the juxtapositions seem organic, a legitimate highlighting of multiple aspects of the divine.

Psalm 8 celebrates God the Creator and his creatures. "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens." How puny we are in comparison, yet the psalmist subverts our expectations and announces that we are- not humans-as-barely-morethan-dust- but "a little lower than God," or "a little lower than the angels" and "crowned . . . with glory and honor."

But what about sin? What about the fate, that of Icarus plummeting on melted wings, that we seem regularly to suffer if we take being almost angels too literally? I can imagine making it through life on Psalm 8- but only if I'd never left my twenties. I remember some achievements, of trying to fly as far as human wings can go. Yet I am also haunted, now that I'm in late midlife, by memories of visions that were too large for any mortal, of a confidence that was sometimes too strong for frail flesh.

So I turn gratefully to Jesus Christ, the second face of God, because I have learned, with Paul in Romans 5, of the human need for even those just lower than angels to be "justified by faith" so as to have "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul captures us with his readiness to boast even "in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope."

In his suffering Jesus offers the gift of incarnation, of that divine tent pitched among us. Often we get the meaning of the cross only when, after responding to Jesus' invitation to take up our crosses and pledging allegiance to him, we take on the suffering that follows. We may find that when we suffer for our faith, being faithful shifts from being something bloodless or vapid to something bloody and terrible- and very real.

John Howard Yoder insists that the only suffering we should see as connected with Christ's cross is the suffering caused by actively chosen faithfulness, not the suffering we endure because of "a difficult family situation . . .a frustration of . . . personal fulfillment, a crushing debt." Yoder is theologically correct. What Paul has in view is suffering that comes our way because of our faith. Paul seems to boast not of our depressions, our feelings wounded by life's usual stings, or our griefs over the losses of advancing age.

But the divisions between suffering as part of our commitment to Christ and everyday personal suffering seem less tidy. Many of us experience both types of suffering and find that each produces endurance, which yields character. Suffering of any kind, endured with integrity, humbles yet ennobles us, and teaches us how God might simultaneously manifest both glory and slavery (1 Phil. 2).

Suffering may also be a doorway into life in the Holy Spirit. As their father reached his last days, members of a family formed a delegation to talk with him about signing a Do Not Resusitate order. In a cracked whisper, the father responded to their explanation with, "It all happened so fast." His loved ones weren't sure what had happened so fast. Did he mean their explanation of the DNR? Finally they realized that he meant life- that life had happened so fast. Then they could almost see, right before their eyes, the baby bouncing into life, the shy child brushed with first love, the strong adult, their own Uves passing swiftly.

All of us know ordinary suffering. All of us must somehow negotiate the end of life of those we love and even of ourselves. Yet we know cross-suffering too, because there are choices to be made, here in our death-prolonging culture- some that are congruent with the cross, some less so.

I've been blessed to witness life and death, faithful choices bringing torment, wrong choices bringing costs it seems no human should have to bear. So often, exactly when only suffering seems to fill the windshield, the onrushing light turns out not to be catastrophe, but hope. The room fills with light. It may not be a light that would register on a camera, but it is there.

Do we begin to grasp what Jesus means when he says that he will have "many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now"? Post-Easter, post-Pentecost, post-Cornelius, post-Jerusalem Council- all give us clues Yet often we can't bear what the Spirit is revealing. Often it's through suffering that the way of Jesus becomes incarnate, when life takes us where we wouldn't choose to go. Then, when we breach the limits of our human resources, we encounter, as Romans 5:5 puts it, "God's love . . . poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Often it's through suffering that the way of Jesus becomes incarnate.

Author affiliation:

The author is Michael A. King, who becomes dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary in July. He is owner of Cascadia Publishing House.

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