In the Midst of Despair

click to play. scroll down when ready

Be Still

Emmanuel

- God is with us -

Amen

In the Midst of Despair

Br. Lucas Hall


 

Eight years ago my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now, in a religious habit, sagely dismissing my crisis.

No, I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, my old answers to the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.

Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. I waited for some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angel song. Cold, dark, silent nothing.

But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. Destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. It was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered – and I was made new.


I was shattered – and I was made new.

 

 

 


In the Gospel, Jesus issues a half-warning, half-lament, to the city of Jerusalem. “Had you only listened!” But they didn’t, and so Jesus tells of impending destruction, enemies at the gates, leaving no stone untoppled. This idea of violence and destruction as a result of sin often doesn’t sit well in modern ears. It can be especially galling to see such religious violence play out across the pages of Scripture and championed as a good and righteous thing. It is only more awful when such religious violence leaves the pages of holy texts and unfolds in our world. We like a creative God, but a God who destroys, or commands destruction, is far less attractive.

Following in the example of Jesus, however, we can take such old stories and give them new life. We can learn to appreciate them not just as the unfolding drama of a particular people of the Levant, but more: we can see them as our own story, as giving common language to the universal human experiences of inner tumult, inner upheaval, even inner violence in relation to God. Many stories of the ancient Jewish people have a theme of righteous destruction, with violence purging the land of idols and the altars of false gods. Perhaps surprisingly, this theme has become a great comfort for me – not out of bloodlust or an inflated sense of my own righteousness, but actually, the opposite. If I cast my gaze inward, with this destruction in mind, I find I have new language to approach my experiences of pain, sadness, anger, and disgust. I can begin to process these experiences, wondering where the pain is coming from, with a question: which idol is being overthrown here?

I am full of them. And so many of those idols seem to be not obviously evil or hideous things at all, but rather, good and beautiful things that, for all their goodness and beauty, are still not God, and so cannot give life. Good thoughts and feelings, good relationships, good work, good social, political, or religious causes, good values and principles…all of these can be quite good! Because of their goodness, we’re perhaps even more susceptible to make idols of them. But idols cannot save us, and when we build up our inner altars and temples to them, we place our hopes of eternity in things that cannot match that hope, and as a result we experience great pain, and there will be strife and destruction in the city of our hearts.

“Had you only listened!” There is remarkable resonance between this moment and the earlier episode when Jesus stands outside the walls of Jerusalem and laments at how long he has desired to lovingly gather up that city in his arms, upon his breast, near to his heart, but now they are forsaken. These laments of Jesus are poignant, because we might expect that he has thus abandoned the city, abandoned all of us in our inner Jerusalems, washed his hands of us, so that we might be destroyed.


He has known the thousand deaths we are
called to die. He still knows.

 

 

 


But no. Destruction comes, yet we are not abandoned. Jesus, in the great crescendo of everything the Incarnation was, is, and ever could be, enters into that destruction with us. He goes first! Like the high priest, who dons the breastplate with each of the twelve tribes’ names written on it to enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement, Jesus does indeed gather us up into his bosom. And in the destruction of our idols, our falsehoods, all that would consume us utterly, he is there, making atonement, ever interceding for us. He has known destruction. He has known desolation. He has known the thousand deaths we are called to die. He still knows. And on the cross, Jesus shows forth this knowledge, offering his whole being, even to the gates of death, as the Way of life.


To Consider:

What idols reign in your heart? How can you topple them?

When have you ever had the experience of destruction and loss becoming an opportunity for growth and conversion?

What “gates of death” in your life right now might be the way of life?

To Try:

Take time to reflect on the “idols” that are ruling in your life. What needs to be overthrown? Offer that intention to God in prayer. You might make a plan for how to topple that idol. Consider writing it on a piece of paper and either ripping it, burning it, or in some other concrete way setting yourself free from it.

The one, true, and living God – Br. Lucas Hall

The Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist

Today, we observe the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. There are two biographical bits of information that I think are important to understanding Luke’s theology.

First, Luke was likely a Gentile convert to belief in the Israelite God. He rejected his surrounding culture of Greek paganism, but probably had not fully adopted Israelite religion as a convert Jew. Instead, Luke was probably a God-fearer, a class of participants in Israelite religion that was not bound by the law of Moses, but was bound by the much simpler law given to Noah after the flood for all humanity. God-fearers were, then, on the margins: not quite Gentile, not quite Jew. In other words, Luke knew what it meant to be an outsider.

The second fact about Luke is that he was a physician. In this line of work, he would have treated patients from a wide variety of cultures, social standings, ethnic backgrounds, economic circumstances, and religions. Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies. The frailty of human bodies is a universal experience, something Luke would have been intimately familiar with. In other words, Luke knew that, when it comes to universal human experiences, there are no outsiders.

These two facts, Luke’s status as a social and religious outsider, and his work with universal human sufferings, seem to have worked together to craft a particular theological outlook. In his account of the Gospel, Luke focuses very much on outsiders, those ranking low in the social hierarchy. Maybe the best example of this is Mary, a young woman in a patriarchal society who acts as a direct, even priestly, mediator between God and humanity and a virgin who gives birth. This is not simply Luke expressing social concerns; he paints a picture of Mary bearing Christ in the world, and, in doing so, from her position of social weakness, encountering God more fundamentally than those in positions of high social status, and wielding great power and authority in doing so. Read More

The Throne of God – Br. Lucas Hall

1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34; Psalm 106:19-22; Mark 8:1-10

I have never wanted to create a god. I would never think to construct something out of metal or stone or wood, only to begin to worship it upon completion. This is why the stories of the Israelites turning to the worship of golden calves have, for a long time, been confusing to me. It seems to make idolatry into something that’s an obvious, explicit turning away from God, a deliberate decision to say, “No, I choose to worship this unliving thing, made with my own hands, that I know is not God.” This is not any idolatry with which I am familiar.

I have been happy to discover, then, that perhaps this is not what the Israelites were up to. One theory explaining the repeated trope of the golden calf is not that God’s people intended to fashion for themselves new gods. Yahweh and El—both names ascribed to the God of Israel—were often symbolized with bulls. Further, in the Ancient Near East, it was common to depict images of gods enthroned, not by showing them sitting in a stately chair, but instead standing atop an animal associated with the god in question. If one wished to create a new throne for the God of Israel, it would have been natural to fashion a golden calf.1 Read More