Some mornings I wake up afraid. Often I dream of trying to pack my stuff with no room in the car. My last dream with this theme was about making room for our pets. Most of the time I’ve thought these dreams were about being on the move or needing to move away from Illinois or my fear of moving home after graduate school and having no job. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe the dreams are pictures of fleeing war like the people in Gaza or the Ukraine. With all the threats from the middle east, and open borders, I fear it’s not if we’ll have a terror attack but when.
But this fear itself is an enemy. It blinds me to the glory that’s right before me. The big, magical machines that harvest the fields by us, the men patiently wheeling their combine to the grain cart and opening the auger, the men driving their semis to the grain mill or ethanol plant. The sun rising and setting over the horizon. The sparrows catching sunrise light in the barn.
When the fear comes, and chaos seems to be the rule, I’ve taken courage from CS Lewis’s Perelandra where Ransom travels to Venus, a water world with lush floating islands. There he meets Tinidril, the mother of her world, who does not give into the Unman’s urging to stay on the fixed land overnight, something God has forbidden. He realizes with a shudder that he has to fight the Unman who won’t quit trying to convince her to disobey God.
In this fight he plunges into the depths like Jonah. He surfaces and suddenly sees a cave creature as a terrifying, hideous monster. He quails. Then he says, “The knowledge that his thoughts could be thus managed from without did not awake terror but rage. Ransom found he had risen, that he was approaching the Un-man, that he was saying things, perhaps foolish things, in English. “Do you think I’m going to stand this? He yelled, “Get out of my brain. It isn’t yours, I tell you! Get out of it.” When he said this, the cave creature’s appearance changed. He merely looked “like an animated corridor train.”
I’ve had thoughts like Ransom–ugly, distorted misperceptions. Sometimes these thoughts feel like they are coming from outside and that are not good. Sometimes they are mine and feel like a blindness, perhaps like when I walk toward the morning sun and I look down at the road because I can’t see. I listen to my footsteps. I have said, “Get out of my brain. It isn’t yours, I tell you. Get out of it.” And darkness, brain fog and even fear have lifted. The bad thoughts were gone.
Since we’re the temple of the Holy Spirit I sometimes wonder if we are surrounded by the weird creatures Ezekiel and John write about. The four faced creatures and wheels within wheels, and God on a sapphire throne with an emerald rainbow. This was the terrible glory that descended to the temple when Solomon built it and lifted off when the children of Israel went into exile and it danced around the Chebar canal in Babylon. Sometimes I wonder if this is the kind of glory hovering around us and in us, but we don’t perceive it. Likely we’d collapse with terror.
When chaos seems to rule, we may well be surrounded by horses and chariots of fire and not know it. When Elisha warned the king of Israel to avoid certain places where the king of Syria was camped. The king of Syria wondered who was spying on him. Word came back it was Elisha.Then the Syrian king figured out where Elisha was. His army surrounded the town. Elisha told his servant, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha prayed for the servant’s eyes to be opened, “and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6, ESV).
What’s interesting about this story is that Elisha prayed for the Syrians to be blinded. He lead them to the middle of Samaria and the king of Israel asked whether he should strike them down. Elisha said no. Instead, they fed the Syrian soldiers and sent them on their way.
What if when we gather on Sundays we come into the presence of glories stranger than we can imagine. What if as we take the body and blood of Jesus into ourselves, we are bringing the glory that filled the temple into our bodies? What if we truly believed that the power that raised Christ from the dead lives in us?
What if the natural world is in itself the miracle, a glory we are welcome to see, if we open our eyes and truly see it. The other day we saw a flame shooting up in the distance. Since we drove to town we drew closer. The local natural gas terminal was clearing a pipe. We know the gas company is going to replace pipe laid in the 1950’s with a new one. I opened the window to get a picture and felt the heat pouring off and heard it sounds like roaring water. The other morning I watched the sunrise slide under the cloud cover and bathe the world in amber light.
In one of Kyriacos C Markides books he writes about a monk on Mount Athos whose prayers shoot into the air like a roaring flame. What if we knew our prayers are this powerful. After all when we intercede for people we are joining Christ in his intercession for others. Who’s to say flames of fire aren’t shooting out of us towards heaven.
In “The Feminine Way to Wisdom” David Brooks tells the stories of Etty Hillesum, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil. I related the most to Etty Hillesum, a non observant Jew, who “was an immature and self-absorbed young woman” living in Germany as Hitler rose to power. Her diary reveals how pitiless and judgemental she was, until she encountered God. Brooks writes, “But as Etty’s inner world was becoming more vibrant and attuned to God’s movements, her appreciation for the world’s beauty grew more intense. She would find herself stopping on the street, or in her apartment, overwhelmed by the beauty of a flower, the softness of a blouse, the scent of a bar of soap. The dominant tone of her diaries was no longer self-absorption and self-contempt, but something closer to reverence and gratitude: ‘Life is great and good and fascinating and eternal, and if you dwell so much on yourself and founder and fluff about, you miss the mighty eternal current that is life.’” She refused to hate the Nazis.
She was so full of God’s presence, through prayer, through really seeing the world around her, she offered encouragement to the other prisoners. Brooks writes, “The other prisoners described her as bright, cheerful, and incandescent, full of a good humour that was laced with an undercurrent of sadness.”
Brooks says, “She resolutely refused to hate the Nazis—refused to let Nazi barbarism evoke the same kind of barbarism in her own heart.” What a challenge for us. I would imagine I’m not the only one whose blood pressure rises, who rants about one group or another, that I perceive behaves unjustly. It’s a challenge these days because we are being manipulated to hate people who see the world differently than we do. It’s so easy to give into frustration at the chaos. But Jesus has said, “Have no fear little flock, the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom. And he has said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
Brooks reports, “Even amid the stench of death and genocide, her spirit could soar: ‘The misery here is quite terrible, and yet, late at night, when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then, time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.’”
I want to be like Etty Hillesum, be this kind of encouragement, this kind of healing presence to others, in quite ordinary ways, a woman drawing her strength from ordinary prayer and the natural world and practice of God’s presence. Like her I don’t want to hate today’s equivalent of Nazis or anyone who might irritate me in a more mundane way. Being riled up makes me feel alive, makes me feel and it makes something to talk about. If we didn’t have drama what would we say to each other?
At the end of his life Saint Paul described a world much like ours in his letter to Timothy. He tells him to avoid people who “have an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (I Timothy 6:4 – 5).
Among other things, Paul tells Timothy to “take hold of eternal to which you were called.” For us, that eternal life has already begun. As citizens of the kingdom, people who might just be surrounded by those crazy four headed creatures with rolling wheels and whirring wings, we need to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (I Timothy 6: 11, ESV).
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