You are My Beloved, Be Still and Know…
(originally delivered at Perkins Chapel, Sept. 10, 2003)
When I was a theological student preparing for ordination in the Roman Catholic priesthood in the 1960’s and 70’s, one of my professors conveyed a point in class that continues to resonate with me today. This was in our class in Introduction to the New Testament, taught by an Austrian-born Jesuit priest who had spent years in China as a missionary, suffered torture and harassment, and was sent to the Philippines to join the Jesuits there after the Chinese government had closed its doors to Christian missionary activity. A diminutive man barely over five feet tall and into his seventies, he would stand on a platform in front of the classroom, and speak to us in a thundering voice with a thick European accent.
“The Bible,” he would say, “is a love letter, from God, to all of us.”
As a Biblical scholar and teacher, he was no less demanding in walking us through the rigors of Greek conjugation, and historical and form criticism, redaction criticism, and through the different hermeneutical strategies for understanding Biblical passages in their social and historical context. But while teaching us all these sophisticated tools for approaching the Bible, he succeeded in conveying to us a fundamental attitude in its reading, namely, that is not to be read in the way that one would dissect a biological specimen to analyze its contents in a dispassionate way. Rather, we take it, and read it as a beloved would read a letter from a lover.
The passages read today somehow highlight this message I heard from my Jesuit professor of long ago. I would like to invite each and everyone here today to just pause, and let these words resonate within ourselves, each in our own unique way.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” “Fear not, for I am with you.” (Is. 43: 1, 4)
The words that Jesus heard as he was baptized in the Jordan, inaugurating his ministry, are likewise addressed to each and everyone of us, in a unique way. “You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mk.1:11)
I have a well-grounded hunch, that each and everyone of us is where we are today, precisely because we have heard this voice in our lives in a particular way. The call to ministry is a call that is born out of love, and is a call to share that love with all that we have and all that we are. We are here at Perkins community in our respective ways, as students preparing for ministry, as faculty, as staff, as our concrete way of responding to that call of love.
Those of you who are here to prepare yourselves for ministry in the Christian community in different ways, taking up the call to undergo this rigorous and taxing, but sometimes exhilarating journey called the curriculum of studies, are hopefully able to find in one another as well as in the faculty and staff, true companions along the way. The word companion, by the way, is from the Latin, cum, with, and pan, bread—that is, one with whom one takes bread together. We are in the good company of persons who share a fundamental calling, coming out of a hearing of that message: You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Incidentally this weekend, the faculty will meet in our annual conference, to discuss and share with one another about our calling as theological educators, in continuation of the same theme from last year. It is indeed a moving experience to hear one’s colleagues openly share about this very intimate dimension of their lives, and a very heartwarming experience to find resonances with one another on these matters.
We do not need to be reminded of the fact that taking up the call is not always a smooth ride. We inevitably run into situations wherein we are put to the test, not just in Hebrew grammar or Greek conjugations, but with issues that may cast doubt on the whole enterprise we have embarked upon. Do I really have a calling? We may come to a crisis of faith, a crisis of vocation at some point, before, or after graduation from Perkins. We are also not immune from personal tragedies of different kinds. In these situations we may be asking ourselves—where is the love?
As we open our eyes and ears to what is happening in the world around us, the world wherein we are called to witness to that love that we have heard in our hearts and are seeking to embody in our own lives, we cannot help recognize that the words of the Psalm read earlier ring true for us today in our world as it did in the Psalmist’s own time.
The nations are in turmoil, the kingdoms totter…(Ps. 46: 6)
We live in a world marked by tremendous suffering that many of our fellow human beings are bearing. Tomorrow, as we recall, is September 11, and the pain of that tragic event that happened two years ago is still felt by the entire world today. (We will commemorate the event at our liturgy tomorrow, and with a special service in the evening.) Rather than abating and being healed by the passage of time, subsequent actions and reactions by human beings, not excluding ourselves, in response to that tragic event, appear to have deepened the wounds and heightened the divisions in our human family.
We are witness to the continuing violence we humans perpetrate on one another on various levels, in our families, in our schools, in the inner cities, not to mention the more than thirty or so different regions of the world where actual warfare is being waged right at this moment. Looking at another kind of violence, World Health Organization statistics inform us that approximately 35,000 children under the age of five die daily in our world, due to causes related to hunger and malnutrition. We are also made aware of the violence to the Earth and to God’s creation, as we feel the effects of a deteriorating ecological situation. Indeed, in all this, where is the love? Perhaps we may even come to a point where we are led to ask, is there really a God in all this?
Confronted with the woundedness of creation and of our fellow human beings, not excluding our own personal woundedness, our hearts may be led to cry in anguish, “where is the love?”
Perhaps there have been moments when we could identify with Jesus on the Cross, as he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In such moments, as we feel most vulnerable, as we feel inundated by the our own personal pain, or by the pain of the whole creation, groaning for justice, crying out for salvation, longing for God, this cry of Jesus becomes our very own. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In such moments, we can do nothing cry out in our powerlessness, one with the countless fellow creatures of ours who bear the cross of Jesus in their very bodies. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
If we find ourselves in such a dark night of the soul, the Psalmist invites us: let us not try to find some way of turning our attention away from the darkness and the pain, or to seek some kind of false consolation or diversion. We are invited not to succumb to the different weapons of mass distraction that our society provides for us, seeking momentary pleasures, burying ourselves in our work or even in our studies, taking up some mindless computer game that will ease away the pain or anxiety or turmoil we feel coming from within. Instead, we are invited to be still, and stay there in that darkness, and wait, and trust.
I am reminded of the story of someone who accidentally slipped walking by a steep cliff, and was about to fall into a ravine, but luckily was able to hang on to a branch that stuck out a rock near the top. Looking up to heaven, this person cries out, “O God, help me! Are you there? Help me!” A voice thunders from the heavens, saying, “I am your God. Have no fear. Trust in me. Let go.” The person hesitates for a moment, and looking up, cries out, “Is there anybody else out there?”
On a serious note, I am also reminded of a person dear to my heart, whose picture I always carry in my wallet. Her name is Simone Weil, a woman born of Jewish parentage, who joined those resisting tyranny as a nurse’s aide, and died at the age of 32 before the end of the Second World War. There are many things I could say about her, but here let allow me to justrecall two or three points.
She was a person extremely sensitive to the sufferings of her fellow humans, and sought a way of life that would help in the alleviation of this suffering.
She was a person who relentlessly asked the big questions about human existence. Her own life was a continuing religious search, and its motif was summed up in the title given to a collection of her letters and essays published after her death: Waiting on God. (The French, Attente de Dieu, invites the resonance not just of “waiting,” but also of “being attentive,” “paying attention,” “attending to.”
I was very inspired and thrilled the other day when, sitting in at a class in Interpretation of the New Testament of Professor Jaime Clark-Soles, I noted that one of her essays was on the required reading list. This is an essay entitled “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” This class became an occasion for me to read her essay once again after a lapse of more than twenty years. What does a person like Simone Weil have to say to us today, which also relates to a fundamental attitude in the Interpretation of the New Testament?
This essay conveys one central point: the development of the faculty of attention. Simone points out that studies “…are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention which will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they be carried out for this purpose, and this purpose alone.” (Waiting on God, p.66) In other words, it is this same attentiveness that we are invited to give to our studies, as we are to give to God in prayer, as well as to our neighbor in seeking to know how to love them.
As we go through our dark night of the soul, Simone Weil suggests: stay there in all attentiveness, and listen. If we are patient enough to stay there and truly listen in that silence, perhaps we may hear a gentle, reassuring voice, addressing us, in the middle of our darkness and pain. These are the same words that Jesus heard throughout his life, including those bleakest moments as he hung on the Cross.
“You are My Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
As we are able to hear this voice addressed to us personally, in a most intimate way to ourself, we are also able to hear it as being addressed to each and everyone of our fellow human beings, fellow creatures of the Divine Grace that brought us out of nothingness into being. You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
The Psalmist invites us to the same stance. “…though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…the nations are in turmoil, the kingdoms totter… yet…God’s voice is uttered, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of God. See what desolations have been wrought upon the earth. God makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Ps. 46)
I close with this image of Jacob, whom we all know is a person who wrestled with God. As we go through the ups and downs, the twists and turns of our daily tasks, seeking to be faithful to our calling, seeking guidance on the concrete ways we are called to minister to this wounded world, we may sometimes get hemmed in and feel trapped by the minutiae of issues put on our way, and find ourselves in the midst of a struggle. The figure of Jacob reminds us with Whom it is that we are struggling, with Whom it is that we are wrestling. In the midst of this struggle, the words of the Psalmist again address us at the deepest layers of our being.
“Be still, and know, that I am God.” And in that stillness, we might hear once more, in a more resounding way: “You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”