Paying Attention to the Landscapes of our Life in Christ
Greenville College Chapel
September 6, 2010
Some of you this morning are adjusting to a new life lived at a distance from loved ones for the first time. I can still vividly remember that hot August day 35 years ago when my parents drove the 550 miles from Oklahoma City to deposit me, my typewriter, my filing cabinet, and my drums outside of Joy Hall. It would be at least three months before I would see them again and, in those days without cell phones, we were dependent primarily on the Postal Service in order to remain in regular contact. It was a bit different when our own daughters decided to go to Greenville since they only resided a few blocks away. Nevertheless, my wife wept copiously at the Covenant Communion service as we walked away from them during Freshman Orientation.
This summer, though, was a bit different as we loaded our younger daughter’s belongings, including her car, onto a large transport truck before she boarded a plane to take up a new kindergarten teaching job in Fairbanks, Alaska—some 3,500 miles away. A graduate of GC’s class of 2007, she decided after three years of teaching in Illinois that she was ready for a new adventure in life. And so, this young woman whom I walked to her first day of school in Toronto—wasn’t that only yesterday?—is now a proud resident of our northernmost state where she is learning to split wood, ride snow machines, and field dress a moose carcass. In fact, she took great joy in reporting to me her surprise a few days ago when she looked up and suddenly realized that the birches along the roadside were already resplendent in their golden-spangled glory. She knows that my favorite season is fall, so she had fun rubbing it in that in this, as in most other cases involving nature, Alaska supersedes the autumnal beauty of the lower forty-eight.
That conversation got me to thinking about how little most of us pay attention to what is going on around us these days. As I walk out of the classroom, I am always somewhat startled at the number of folks who are on their cell phones. I am something of a latecomer to the cell phone phenomenon myself, having grudgingly secured one for my last sabbatical when I was ensconced in a monastic setting in north central Minnesota. It took me the better part of a year to figure out that I didn’t have to punch in the full phone number whenever I called my wife. And, the people at ATT were somewhat befuddled when I asked them to turn off everything except the ability to make and receive telephone calls. I have no idea how to text and, as Chaplain Gaffner can attest, I didn’t even know that the phone could be turned on and off when I first got it—resulting in an embarrassing incident when we were at a chaplains’ conference together and I went running from the room as the ring tone exploded at full volume. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I appreciate modern technology and love the convenience of not having to look for a pay phone in order to make a telephone call like I used to when I was a student. But the sheer ubiquity of this technology has become so invasive that I find myself oftentimes making a Faustian bargain when I take my laptop computer home. With all of the world that it puts at my finger tips, I am concerned that I am not paying attention to my surroundings as much as I used to. Whether it is the changing of the leaves or the sound of my wife’s voice, it becomes easier to be walled off or to simply ignore the beauty of all that is around me.
Now, I think that there is a principle at work here that is central to those of us who make up the Christian community. And that is that each of us is called to learn to pay attention to the landscapes of that common life. But the fact of the matter is that we are oftentimes so absorbed by our attempts at multitasking that we miss out on the here and now—or, as my colleague, Dr. McPeak, oftentimes puts it, we fail to be “fully present” to one another or to God. In his case, this may result in my no longer seeing him as primarily Rick, my good friend and colleague, but reducing him to friend #138 on my Facebook page. (Read text: Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
As the people of Israel prepared to come into the Promised Land after their long decades of wandering in the wilderness, the Scriptures suggest that Moses, too, worried about whether they would remain attentive to God. After all, God had just spent the last forty years making sure that they were paying attention. The desert was a wonderful place for this lesson to be learned. As some of you know, when we are in the desert we must be clearly focused on the environment around us. Cinematographers have oftentimes played on this fact—whether in such films as “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The English Patient.” In both of these classic movies, the desert takes on an identity unto itself and reminds us of the harsh reality of what happens to those who find themselves captivated by anything other than surviving the sand and sun.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is pictured as delivering to the chosen people a series of messages which call them to not forget the lessons learned in the desert. None is more captivating than the instructions given in chapters 6 through 8 where nothing less than disciplined devotion to God is demanded. In the Jewish liturgy, the beginning of this passage is known as the Shema. This word, which begins the reading, is in the imperative and calls the people to listen up, to “hear.” And, alongside the levitical call to love one’s neighbor, Jesus affirms what we have here as the heart of the so-called “Great Commandment.” So, whether in the Jewish or the Christian tradition, this passage is central to our understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. We are called to pay attention, to listen and to hear.
Unfortunately, like the people of Israel, we tend to get sidetracked and pay little attention to God or to others—until some kind of crisis happens in our lives. When that happens, when all the props in our lives are knocked out from under us, then, and only then, do we find ourselves turning to God and asking for help. So, in the few minutes that we have remaining this morning, I’d like for us to key in on four verbal imperatives that jump off the page from this text and explore what they might mean in a 21st-century context as a means of grappling with living out our call to Christian community as faculty, staff, and students.
For the Hebrews, the heart was not seen primarily as the organ of emotion but the seat of identity and decision-making. So, when Moses says, “keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart,” he is not talking about some sentimental Valentine’s Day card. Instead, he is positing that the land where they are heading will be filled with peoples who have a very different worldview and a different set of orienting values. The challenge for them will be to remember the lessons they learned in the wilderness and to let those memories become their central orienting compass—particularly when challenged by a different set of presuppositions. In retrospect, it is clear that it was the loss of this memory and their adaptation to other cultural values (what religious scholars call “syncretism”) that particularly plagued the house of Israel.
As a community with its primary allegiance to the God of Israel, we, too, must find ways of keeping our hearts set on our collective memory. This is where regular attendance at worship, regular reading of Scripture, regular reception of the sacraments, and regular private and corporate prayer become all important. In an American culture which is largely committed to consumerist values built around entertainment, popular culture, and nationalism, keeping our hearts centered on the Christian narrative can be quite difficult. For instance, spending ten hours a week in front of an X-box while we spend one hour in worship and a few minutes in prayer or Bible study, will most probably yield a stronger commitment to the cult of entertainment than becoming a servant of Jesus Christ.
That is why the second command is one of recitation. This creating of an individual memory is understood here in a corporate, largely liturgical, context. It is no surprise that when Israel wished to enter into covenant with God it recited the narrative of God’s mighty acts in history. And this has been the task of the church throughout history—particularly in the context of worship. In worship, we come together not primarily to “feel good” or to participate in Christian forms of entertainment, but to retell the grand narrative of God’s gracious acts throughout all of salvation history—particularly as made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Unfortunately, the temptation in our age is to “water down” this narrative or as Regent College professor, Marva Dawn, puts it in the titles of her books: to attempt to reach out by dumbing down without remembering that worship is primarily “a royal waste of time.” In an age primarily concerned with efficiency accompanied by “lights, cameras, action,” we may be tempted to remove the holy silences and mystery from our worship and to recite, not the story of Zion, but the story of “same time next week.” The center of what we are called to demands that we continually tell and rehearse the Gospel story and that we not sell it for a mess of culturally-relevant, but severely malnourishing, mess of pottage.
Third, the people of Israel were commanded to “talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise,” (6:7). One of my favorite preachers, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, claims that we live in an age when words are cheap and numerous. Everywhere we go we hear words—particularly consumerist messages through the electronic media to which we remain tethered much of the time. The Rev. Taylor suggests that this inundation of information has literally made us “hard of hearing,” and created a culture that no longer knows how to listen.
In the midst of this cultural reality we serve the God who spoke creation into being and whose son is boldly proclaimed as “The Word.” The suggestion here in Deuteronomy is that we become, to some extent, that which we pronounce. To those who spend time pronouncing blessings, they hold the potential to be a blessing to others. But to those who spend their time cursing the darkness, they, too, are in danger of getting wrapped up in their negative language. This morning there are probably numerous friends and relatives who could benefit from your words of encouragement set loose upon this community and the world. What difference would it make if you made it a priority to begin to look for ways of speaking God’s goodness and blessing into the mess that we call life? What might happen if you would unplug from your IPOD as you walk across campus and greet others with a smile and a word of kindness?
This issue of language becomes especially crucial as we come to God in prayer. Learning to pray is not easy and requires our immersion in the scriptures and in the liturgy of the church. I have learned so much from others, particularly from the Psalmist and the saints of God who have labored over finding the right language for addressing God. I collect prayer books and never cease to be amazed at the schooling that language provides in helping me better understand who God is and what God desires of God’s people. As I labor through words of prayerful repentance and join the chorus of sinners, I am better prepared to join the throngs in thanksgiving at the end of my time of prayer. Oftentimes I will take that time and write a note or two to someone who is on my heart and mind—hoping that the note will become a means of encouragement to him or her.
This is certainly nothing original with me—I have had to learn the importance of it for not only reshaping my thinking but of trying to speak forth the gospel, a “good word,” to others. Like many of you, I was the recipient of older mentors who taught me the power of this practice. As I undertook graduate study at Princeton, my faculty advisor here, Dr. Mac, would oftentimes send me the most magnificent words of joy and prayerful praise on my behalf. And, there was an elderly couple in our congregation, Rev. A. R. Martin and his wife, Blanche, who would occasionally tuck a five-dollar bill in with their note of encouragement. But no one was a better model of this for me than was Dr. Robert E. “Ish” Smith, past president of the college. Ish literally has friends all around the world and was largely responsible for getting the sport of baseball into the Olympics. I am convinced that no small part of his influence on others comes from the way he holds them up as better than himself and continually writes words of encouragement that spread the love of Jesus around the globe. Continually living in a state of repentance and offering words of thankfulness to God and to others, morning and night, has the potential to form you into people more like the Master.
As we prepare to enter the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar, our Jewish friends give themselves over to a number of ancient practices. One of those practices is the hanging of mezuzot on the doorposts of their homes. Oftentimes it is these very verses that we are considering that are carefully inscribed on a slip of manuscript, placed in a protective case, and hung where they can be seen. Before the item is hung, one is commanded to say: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu likbo-a mezuzah. “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who sanctifies us with holy commandments and commands us to fix a mezuzah.” This act of both inscribing and hanging offers the supplicant a very concrete and kinesthetic way of entering into the binding/fixing/writing imperative of this verse. In this way, it is possible to reenact the redemption of the world in God as we literally reclaim territory in God’s name.
This final act reveals a rather audacious theology of which we were reminded by our convocation speaker, Dr. Witherington: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” What might happen if we were to see the world in the words of John Calvin as the “theatre of God’s glory.” Much of the current dispensationalist language would deny this fact and boldly proclaims that “Satan is alive and well on planet earth.” In this worldview, there is a demon behind every door that needs casting out and the earth is “going to hell in a handbasket.” The only possible redemption is some kind of rapture where the believers in Christ are somehow jerked away to a private nirvana while the rest of God’s creation is left to fry in torment. But we dare to sing, “This is my Father’s world!” and to proclaim that the God of all creation is in the process of redeeming the entirety of the cosmos. And if that is the case, there are no boundary restrictions, there are no limitations on the scope of God’s economy (Telford Work, Deuteronomy, 97). So, just as we begin by referring to the past as we remember, keep, and recite, we end by referring to the future as we bind, fix, and write the whole earth into God’s redemptive order. And the wonder of it all is that we are invited to participate in this redemptive work.
So, as you go out today I would encourage you to begin to look around, to notice your surroundings, and to embrace the whole world as God’s. Like Thomas Hardy’s character, Jude, do not be afraid to see the academic world as one that you, too, can begin to feel at home in. And in those moments when you are missing the ones you love—whether they are a few miles or thousands of miles away—remember that this is the place to which God has brought you and that He longs for you to simply wake up and pay attention to what He is already doing. May the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob go before you, and may His face shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.