Friday, April 18, 2014

"Closer Than All of Them the God Listened"

Fritz Kreisler

I have mentioned before (and will reference again on Easter Sunday) that I have been reading through the works of the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas.  He is considered by some to be one of the most influential poets of the last century.  I would not describe his work as brimming with sunshine.  His thinking reflects the darkness of an era of world war, Holocaust, genocide, nuclear proliferation, social upheaval, the failure of industry, the triumph of technology, unabashed faith in science, and everything else you might consider to be part and parcel of the 20th century western world.  You might expect an ordained poet to articulate exactly how God can be found in all of this, but this is precisely where Thomas struggles.  For him, God is most often the God of silence and absence. 

There is perhaps no better articulation of his thinking than a poem titled “In Church.”  In it, Thomas describes his search for God as he sits in the quiet of a church on a Sunday afternoon after everyone has gone home from the services earlier in the day.  In my experience, worship spaces take on a very different feel and personality Sunday afternoon through Saturday night.  They are not at all the same lively, dynamic place we experience them to be on Sunday mornings.  You can feel the quiet and taste the emptiness.  Listen to Thomas’ poem:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences.  Is this where God hides
From my searching?  I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil.  It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate.  Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour.  The bats resume
Their business.  The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases.  There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

Many people, it seems to me, experience God as being rather, well chatty – always talking, always teaching, always close at hand to lend aid, cheer, and sappy inspiration.  That God might be anything but never seems to enter their mind.  Yet this was Thomas’ experience.  Often is it mine.  And I suspect it may be yours as well. 

Earlier this week I was reading through the bible’s story of Abraham.  According to the text, the Lord spoke to him when he was eighty-four years old, promising that he and Sarah would have a son.  The Lord appeared to Abraham again when he was ninety-nine and reissued the promise.  Laying aside the question of procreation at such an old age, think about what the story suggests – that Abraham went fifteen years in between hearing from God.  That is a long silence.  That is a lengthy, and for some I suspect, an alarming absence.

Even though we fill this moment with the words of scripture and liturgy and preaching, more than any other time of the year this hour in this space feels like a time of profound silence.  You will not encounter a chit-chatty God here.  The Passion reading lays out a pervasive silence that no words can change.  Like the disciples at the foot of the Cross, we simply watch and wait.  Regardless of the words we recite and say, no words really are necessary.  No words we utter can mask the fact that God says nothing in the story we just heard.  I for one am fine with this.  In fact, God’s silence is what draws me to this day. 

R.S. Thomas found a way to be comfortable with it by coming to understand that silence and absence are not at all the same thing.  He articulated this through a poem titled “The Musician” which is especially poignant today.  The poem begins with Thomas attending a performance by the master violinist Fritz Kreisler and then moves to the Cross:

A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin,
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.

I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art’s neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.

So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.

God as listener.  God as focused observer.  God as mesmerized by the beautiful music one makes of one’s life.  God as attentive to the sorrowful sound of every plaintive cry.  God as one who does not say something snappy or syrupy or sentimental and cheap.  God as one who will not offer a technical explanation of atonement theory or some other theology so as to sweep up the moment as part of some grand scheme we need to embrace in an act of what some mistakenly call ‘faith’. 

“Closer than all of them the God listened.” 

Every performer knows the value of an audience.  As a preacher, I know the profound difference between reading my sermon aloud in preparation for a service and actually preaching it in a setting such as this one.  Even though you do not say a word as you listen, your listening makes all the difference.  It means that my words matter.  They are not merely reverberating off the walls.  Your listening gives shape and form to what I say and it holds the promise of an impact.  While I prefer compliments to criticism, it is your listening that I crave.  And even though you are silent I sense your participation in this moment.  You are silent, but you are not absent.

This, I think, is what R.S. Thomas came to understand and he came to understand it in the silence he experienced on this day at this moment.  He came to sense that God was most present in the depths of the deepest silence imaginable.  I suspect some people, perhaps many, are not comfortable with a God who listens, but says little or nothing.  I, for one, find it refreshing, moving, and greatly appealing.  There are times when words are not appropriate and there are times when words are not possible.  It can be moments of great joy or tremendous sorrow.  It can even be true of moments so ordinary that their enormous value often escapes us.  What these moments require is not narration, but attention; listening, not description.

Today God listens to the Son’s beautiful music that makes music still.  Today God is silent.  God will not speak tomorrow either.  But on the third day the God who listens will act.  From today’s silence something new and extraordinary will emerge.  For people of faith, the Listening God is enough.  The immediate divine word giving way to a constant verbal barrage does not seem authentic.  I like when God is silent because often the silence is what needs to be said.  Resurrection will happen.  New life will come.  Sowing with tears will give way to reaping with songs of joy.  Holding to this is what faith is all about.  Being comfortable in the absence of words in the space of the suffering moment is the surest sign that one’s faith is grounded in that which is solid, in that which is God. 

Will you give me the gift of sitting with me for a few moments in silence, allowing God to listen closely to the music the Son has played?


Monday, April 14, 2014


I walk into the hospital room not knowing what to expect.  She is in pain… incredible pain… excruciating pain.  Her husband stands by her side doing all he can, but nothing helps.  She is doubled over in pain.  Page the nurse.  It takes 10 minutes for the nurse to come to the room.  The nurse leaves to call the doctor.  More pain… agonizing pain.  Another ten minutes passes before the nurse returns.  She reports that no new pain medicine can be administered for another 20 minutes.  Can’t they see that she is in pain?  Don’t they care?  Surly in this day and age there is a pill or a shot or an IV drip that can make this all go away.  But there isn’t, at least that can be authorized immediately based on a limited diagnosis.  Her pain just gets worse.  Her husband grows more anxious, more tense, more frustrated, more angry, more powerless.  I pray.

The noted writer Evelyn Underhill says that pain plunges like a sword through all creation.  It may be physical, it may be emotional, it may be spiritual, or it may even be intellectual.  No matter how it manifests itself, pain becomes suffering and, in this world, suffering is everywhere and it is unavoidable.   It plunges like a sword through all creation.  Each of us here this morning is either suffering personally or is deeply concerned about the suffering of another.  David Rensberger says that suffering drinks up what you have, and then asks for more.  It is one of life’s constants.

More than any other human experience, suffering has the capacity to slay the illusion that we control the course of events in our lives.  Suffering challenges our idol of self-sufficiency, inviting us to recognize that we are not now – and never were – calling the shots.  It forces us to confess that we are not always in control and to admit that we are in fact vulnerable. 

Suffering offends not only our pretension to control what happens, but even more, our capacity to comprehend.  That life should be reasonable – more, that we should be able to grasp its rationality – is a demand deeply entrenched within our humanity.  Yet with suffering we brush up against a life-process that we did not create, would not choose, and cannot comprehend.  In that hospital room that night there was just no way to manage what was happening and no way make sense of it.

As we hear again the story of Jesus’ Passion we realize how even Jesus had little control over the events of his life and we run up against our limited ability to comprehend why such an atrocity takes place.  And his suffering is made more difficult for us to face because of the strong tradition in the Christian faith that holds he went through this ordeal on our account.  We are the ones who shout “Crucify him.”  It is for our sins that he died.  It is a tradition that inspires guilt and shame, which at times can be appropriate.  

Remorse is the right response to those things we have done that we ought not to have done and to those things we have not done that we ought to have done.  But when we understand this to be the only purpose to Jesus’ suffering, it then says something very damaging to us in our suffering.  It suggests that we are getting what we deserve.   Understanding our experience of suffering only in this way scars us spiritually and emotionally. 

Another tradition of our faith holds that suffering contains some hidden divine spark; an idea we sometimes advance when we say, “Well, God must have a reason for this” or “God must be trying to teach me something.”  This perspective, taken to an extreme, has encouraged some actually to seek out suffering, but there is absolutely nothing in the gospels to suggest that Jesus ever deliberately sought such experiences.  Indeed, he seems to do everything possible to alleviate them: healing the sick, forgiving troubled souls, reconciling the outcast, and comforting the sorrowful.

From today’s reading of the Passion we see nothing to suggest that Jesus deserved what he got, nor do we see that he had anything to learn from it.  What we see is the impetuous for a third tradition within our faith.  Jesus does not stand passively accepting abuse, rather he is noble and without fear, facing his enemy with courage and compassion.  Jesus does this because he is rooted in a goodness deeper than the suffering.  This third tradition in our faith holds that Jesus gives us a model for how to endure the suffering we experience. 

Based on his experience in pastoral ministry, Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey, has observed two primary ways people endure suffering.  There are those who are thankful and there are those who are victims.  The thankful people see life as a series of challenges to be faced.  For them, suffering is something to be dealt with, lived through, learned from, and redeemed.  The victims see life as a tale of repeated, undeserved woe.  They think of themselves as beset and besieged in a world of endless tests and trials.  They meet every ordeal in life with resistance, resentment, and downright outrage.

Morris describes in detail one particular discussion he had with a woman in the parish.  She had lost a son and then shortly thereafter fell and had to have a hip replaced.  The surgery gave way to chronic pain.  Her husband, who was used to being served, made no attempt to care for her, let alone amend the demands he placed on her.  For years the woman had been upbeat and positive, but all of this was just too much.  She now complained constantly.   

Meeting with her priest, she tearfully confessed that she felt terrible about the darkness she now brought to life.  The suffering she endued from pain and loss and disappointment was just too much for her to bear.  Morris found himself reminding the woman of Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and to bless those who curse us.  “Pain,” he said, “is now a deadly enemy of your soul, not just your body.  Every time it comes, why don’t you bless it instead of curse it?” 

This was quite a rigorous demand to place on the woman and Morris would have understood if she had thrown him out because of it.  But she gasped, sat up straight, dried her eyes, thought for a minute, and then said, matter-of-factly, “Very well then; that’s what I’ll do.”  And so she did.  She arose, cared for her husband, and the pains slowly receded.  More importantly, her spirits turned toward accepting her life as it was, with blessing rather than cursing.  In the midst of suffering, she had ceased to be its victim.  Her heart had opened again to a larger world.

How we face suffering determines whether pain, sorrow, difficulty, deprivation, or challenge become part of our soul’s shrinking or it’s stretching.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ suffered so that we might know how to suffer.  He showed us that there is a way to stay rooted in God’s kingdom when the ways of this worldly kingdom do everything possible to bring you down.

So in the hospital room I prayed; first, quietly on my own, and then aloud for the three of us.  The simple act of prayer reminded us that God’s goodness was with us, even in such a terrible moment.  No sooner than I said ‘amen’ the nurse appeared with new medication.  A few minutes later the pain subsided to a manageable level. 

I don’t know what it would be like to worship a god who did not know, who could not know, what it is like to suffer.  Why would you even pray to such a being?  How could such a god understand our need?  Today we remember again that Jesus suffered pain.  He suffered not as one without hope.  He suffered, but what He suffered only served to open His heart even wider to us in our need.  It only served to pioneer a way for us to follow when the blade of the sword that plunges through all creation touches our life.