Inhabiting a Word

Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that his word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made man small enough to fit inside one tiny word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

Advertisements

Brother Masseo’s Request

During the first days of the Fransiscan movement, St. Francis surrounded himself with disciples who were eager to learn from him and imitate his life of simplicity. One of these was a man named Brother Masseo. Brother Masseo became very convicted one day after hearing Francis preach on the virtue of humility- so convicted that he resolved to forsake all other pursuits and seek only after humility! Brother Masseo went back to his cell and for days on end he fasted and prayed late into the night, begging God to send him to Hell for his sins. All this was in an effort to cultivate humility. He continued like this until one day in his despair he wandered out into the woods where he was startled by a voice from heaven:

“Masseo, Masseo,” said the voice.

“My Lord!” cried Brother Masseo, knowing the voice was that of Christ.

“Masseo,” said Christ, “What will you give me in exchange for the humility you seek?”

“My very eyes!” Brother Masseo called back.

“But I do not want your eyes,” Christ replied, “Keep them, and have my grace as well.”

From that moment on, Brother Masseo was filled with true humility and unspeakable joy.

This little story from “The Little a Flowers of St. Francis”, one of the earliest collections of tales about him and his followers, is a deep parable that rewards contemplation. Brother Masseo ultimately learns that humility cannot be achieved through effort but that it is a gift of grace. He also learns that Christ has no use of our eyes. In other words, our high or low view of ourself and others is of no value to Him. Masseo was trying to obtain humility by lamenting about his wretched estate. Yet it is this very kind of self involved thinking that is the enemy of humility. In a recent blog post, “Science Mike” McHargue wrote, “humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less…” I couldn't put it any better myself.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born;

~

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

On all four-footed things.

~

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

~

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

This lovely poem by G.K. Chesterton reminds us that Jesus came to redeem the rejected and despised. It is a telling of Palm Sunday from the point of view of the donkey. Chesterton builds on the detail found in Luke’s gospel that the donkey chosen for Jesus to enter Jerusalem with had never been rode upon. Such a creature must feel rejected. The donkey is a creature considered to be unnatural and a half breed. One beaten and abused. Yet it is this creature that takes place in the triumphal entry. As disciples we are called to see even the most despised creatures as children of God and to be agents of redemption in their lives. Because the truth is all of us were among the rejected when Christ chose us.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The King and the Maiden

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents.

And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist-no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know for sure? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise – the king took on a totally new identity – He had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win hers.

This, perhaps the most beautiful of Søren Kierkegaard’s parables, is a profound illustration of the greatest Christian mystery: that God would give up all His holy splendor and don flesh and bone– that He would forsake His crown for a cross. The answer is “love.” As disciples, we are called to imitate this same love and humility. As the apostle Paul wrote in the second chapter of Phillippians: “Therefore in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Snoopy’s Theology Book…

“Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” Snoopy’ title in this classic Peanuts strip is pretty appropriate. Theology is simply the way we humans try to put the wordless wonder of God into words. Such an undertaking is like trying to contain the Atlantic Ocean in a paper cup. When we talk about God we should do so with the humility that we may not be 100% right and that those with whom we disagree with might not be 100% wrong. Certainty is the enemy of faith.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Rain Drop

The horrendous, tragic airplane crash with 350 souls aboard, made even more tragic by the presence of 167 grade school students who were on a service trip to help a town devastated by a tornado and of 7 sick infants with their mothers all on their way to a special hospital, never happened. Nor did the resulting suicide of a careless mechanic who was to blame. And that mechanic’s son did not grow up fatherless, and fall in with a corrupt crowd and turn to crime. Nor did the nearby community, shocked by the tragedy, gather up its moral strength and foster happier families, more full of love. And one of the local youth did not, upon seeing the devastation, change his course towards being a fine and successful safety designer for an airplane company, raising up his own family in joy by honest work. No, it never happened.

For when that mechanic was yet young and walking by a toy shop with a large model airplane window display and was about to turn his head and look, a lone rain drop made a momentous decision (as all raindrops do). It veered slightly and unexpectedly and glanced the boy’s cheek opposite the window display. He, surprised by the feeling, turned to look, put his hand to his cheek to wipe off the water, looked up at the clouds, and walked on past the display to his future.

This parable is copied from a book called “Seeing Differently” by Thomas Swanson. The parable is a profound reminder that tiny events can have big impacts and the ripples can reverberate for years to come. It is impossible to know all the ramifications of a single decision or all the myriad ways in which lives intersect. It is futile to relitigate the past. We simply don't know what good would be tossed out with the bad. For the disciple that means we must walk through life with humility. We must have faith that the ripples of our good actions are making a real difference and we must trust the maker of raindrops when things don't go our way.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

“I Control Your Fate”

image

This humorous Calvin and Hobbes strip simply illustrates a profound truth: we don’t have as much power as we think we do. We are at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control. A false sense of security and control are one of the greatest hindrances between modern people and faith in God. Humility before the awesomeness of creation and it’s creator gives us the proper perspective of our place in relation to things. As the Psalmist declares: “The earth is The Lord’s and everything in it. The world and all who live in it.” Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…