“In the Shadow of Death; in the Brilliance of Life”

A one-eyed man is much more incomplete than a blind man,
for he knows what he’s lacking.”
Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is set in 15th-century Paris. Quasimodo is the hunchbacked and horribly deformed bell ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is beaten and pilloried by an angry mob for plotting the failed abduction of the beautiful street dancer Esmeralda. Esmeralda’s heart is as beautiful as her outward beauty. She takes pity on Quasimodo during his ordeal: she offers him a cup of water to comfort him. At that point, Quasimodo falls in love with her.

Monsignor Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral and benefactor of Quasimodo, also fell in love with Esmeralda. When he discovered that Esmeralda had fallen in love with Captain Phoebus, the twisted archdeacon stabs the captain to death. He, then, accuses Esmeralda of the crime. In the cathedral, Quasimodo shelters Esmeralda from her accusers. Later he releases her to a group he thought was kindly disposed to her. But it was not; he, the recently crowned King of the Fools, was easily fooled. Esmeralda is subsequently hanged for the crime. In his grief and despair Quasimodo throws the archdeacon from the cathedral tower. The epilogue: two skeletons are found in Esmeralda’s tomb: that of a hunchback embracing a woman.

goodreads.com_2019-04-23 10_27_07-Victor Hugo (Author of Les Misérables)

Victor Hugo photo courtesy of goodreads.com

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame to illustrate a harsh reality we face in this life. We humans are capable of great genius, of great works of art like the Notre Dame Cathedral. We are capable of great religious and moral feats like those of St. Francis, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King. But, we are also capable of profound ugliness. In the horizon of the beautiful Cathedral of Notre Dame people commit profound acts of ugliness. We are the one-eyed person who is worse off than the blind person, because we see our potential; yet, we fail. Like Esmeralda we are beautiful. Like the twisted Monsignor Frollo we are ugly with our hidden motivations, judgments, compulsions and contradictions between what we profess and what we do. Yet, our ugliness longs for beauty. Our ugliness calls out to the beauty of the Beautiful Savior. We see ugliness in the shadow of death, but we see beauty in the brilliance of life.

“He had no comeliness that we should desire him.” Those words come from the Book of Isaiah. We Christians identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant in his state of humiliation. The nadir of this humbled state is that there was no beauty about him. There was no beauty in his mangled and tortured body that hung on the cross. He was repulsive, one from people would rather hide their faces. His condemnation brought ugliness upon himself, his associates and his family. “Cursed is the person who hangs on a tree.”

In a theological sense, moreover, Jesus is most repulsive and ugly. “He who knew no sin became sin for us,” Paul says. Jesus took on our sin. He took on our failings. He took on our ugliness. Jesus, accordingly, suffered an ignominious death on the cross. His cross was not only his shame, or our shame by theological extension; it was also meant to shame the Jewish people. His death was not merely to be a deterrent to criminals; it was blatant bigotry against the whole Jewish people as Jesus was tagged “The King of Jews.” It was another imperial, Roman act of breaking the spirit of the Jewish people by suggesting they were inferior to the Romans. If their spirits were broken, then they were less likely to resist, to fight. Those who benefit from the exploitation of others must break their spirits. Racism and sexism, just to name two of many “isms,” have served as the underlying ideology to break the spirits of African Americans and women to keep them in their places for the economic benefit of others. The breaking of the spirits of others throughout human history is the ugliest aspect of life in the shadow of death.

Like all places that house the dead, the tomb of Jesus was also an ugly place. As humans, we are wont to whitewash tombs, beautify them to lessen the ugly, painful reality of death. For this reason cemeteries are well manicured. They occupy some of the most beautiful spaces in a given city. Yet, when you walk through a cemetery you walking through a living oxymoron. The ugliness of death defies the beauty of burial places. There is no dressing up the ugly reality of death. Death is our ugly reality that drives us to cling to someone more beautiful than we, like the ugly Quasimodo clung to the beautiful Esmeralda.

On this Easter Sunday, the ugliness experienced in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty cascading from the brilliance of life. The Marys went to the tomb of Jesus to care for his body, but they found the tomb empty. There was no body. There was no dead body to venerate. A light not of this world pierced the tomb and reanimated the lifeless Jesus. The light of the Holy Spirit both reanimated his body and glorified it, giving it the powers to fill the necessary dimensions of life to keep his promises that where two or more are together in his name he is there, or when bread and wine are blessed with his performative word we participate in the mystical body of Christ that houses saints both in this life and the life to come. In Christ, they have real communion.

The empty tomb dazzles with life. The two angels don dazzling apparel. The whole scene is suffused with light. The light is the source of the beauty that alters the ugly scene of the tomb where the dead body of Jesus laid. The empty tomb wreaks of the abundant life that Jesus came to give us through his victory over sin, death and devil. Our experience of ugliness in the shadow of death drives us to the beauty of the brilliance of life. His death is our death; yet, his life is our life. “In him is life and his life is the light of the world.”

On Monday, April 15, 2019, did the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral trouble you? Though you may not have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, you nevertheless know it. It is a part of the Paris skyline in movies. But, the Notre Dame Cathedral is more than an another building in the Paris skyline. It is the symbol of our faith. People of great faith built it and other great cathedrals around the world. People who loved Jesus and his mother created such beauty. The cathedral was to house the most beautiful things. The cathedral was in the center of the town. The cathedral bells marked the seasons, times and festivals. The cathedral was the symbol of interdependence and what great beauty humans together can accomplish. The beautiful cathedral was the product of faith in Christ Jesus.

The cathedral, moreover, was the place of worship and great learning. There was no contradiction between faith and reason at the cathedral. It was the place for quiet contemplation and profound spirituality. The cathedral brought together the First Space of beauty for the five senses. It brought together the Second Space of religious ideology and profound study for the head. It brought together the Third Space of contemplation and deep spirituality for the heart. Cathedrals were open 24-7 for personal prayer in a sacred place. The cathedral brought together the whole person: body, head and heart. This all begs the question: what institution is doing that today? What institution also places a moral imperative on us that we treat everyone in every generation with respect and love? What institution demands that we love our enemies and pray for those who spitefully abuse us? What institution continues to inculcate moral courage, though people fail to live up to the high standard? What institution demands that we respect all people at both ends of life? There is no institution like the church, cathedral, or Christians simply gathered around Word and Sacrament. To lose these will be to lose our soul in the West.

Truth be told, the cathedrals in Europe are empty. Soon, the churches in America will be empty. They have become museums. There is a fire that burned all of France long before the actual fire burned the Notre Dame Cathedral. It is the fire of anger that comes with prosperity and wealth. Never before have we in the West been more prosperous; yet, we are so angry. Prosperity and wealth have not made the West less angry, less anxious, less phobic about the challenges of the future. Because we have lost the center of our lives, we are angry and full of anxiety. There is no center in the West and the mercurial business of politics provides no lasting center. We no longer hear the bells.

Look what survived the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral: the Pietá and the altar cross. They were not burned. There must be a metaphor there. What does it tell us? The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. Churches, cathedrals and people come and go. The love, kindness and mercy of God are forever. If they are forever, why not, then, make them the center of your life now and already live an abundant life of peace, love and joy, which, according to our Resurrected

www.sunnyskys.com_2019-04-23 10_11_18-All 3 Irreplaceable Rose Windows Of Notre Dame Have Survived The Fire

Photo courtesy of sunnyskys.com

Lord, our Beautiful Savior, is a possibility now? To share in his resurrection is to take hold of this possibility of beauty in the brilliance of life and be raised up from the ugliness of the shadow of death. Such beauty is the transcendent food for which your soul yearns. No amount of money can satisfy this yearning, for it is a hunger from another world, another dimension of life. We are complex humans, accordingly. We live liminal lives between the shadow of death and the brilliance of life. Money and prosperity are not enough to negotiate this liminal space. The soul that follows a transcendent beauty into the light is not haunted by the ugliness of the shadow of death. It is already risen in Christ.

Spirit and Synchronicity

He's been there for me forever

“His death left a void in her heart…”

A member of my congregation wanted to share with our prayer group an experience that she found most comforting, but was hesitant for fear of what others might think. She is an elderly woman who lost her husband the year before. His death left a void in her heart, a void that even her adult children and grandchild could not fill.

Speaking haltingly, she told the prayer group that she had a dream about her husband. She looked at each of us as though seeking our affirmation before continuing, and opted to take the risk and share her experience:

“I saw my husband in the back of the church. He was smiling; his aura was brilliant. I was in the front of the church working in the pews like I usually do on Fridays, getting things ready for Sunday. He didn’t startle me, but rather, I felt a real calm. It gave me so much joy to be with him again in the church.”

That was all she shared about her dream.

She smiled nervously, awaiting a response from the people in the prayer group who had gathered that Vigil of Pentecost Eve to pray together.  She most certainly took a risk by stepping out of the box to share her experience with us.  This traditional, Lutheran woman deviated far from her comfort zone and, because of the nature of this mystical experience, she felt vulnerable.

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

In my experience as a pastor for 30 years, many people have confided in me this same type of experience and I have no doubt that they happen with frequency in traditional churches throughout America.  People are having spiritual experiences they cannot understand, and these experiences are deeply meaningful and spiritually impactful.

Not having the words or theological categories to articulate such experiences, some people feel like odd balls when they relate them to their communities of faith.

Bereft of the proper theological framing for the experience, many keep to themselves their brushes with reality, which are profoundly meaningful and even mystical.  They are inclined not to share such experiences with their pastors for fear that they may be judged as theologically unorthodox or doctrinally unsound.  Or, their experiences are so meaningful that they keep them from their pastors for fear that their well-intentioned, spiritual leaders might dogmatically explain away an experience that is deeply meaningful.

The experience becomes their special secret, confirming that God can do infinitely more than we could ever imagine.

This begs the question: how might a doctrinally-sound pastor respond to this woman’s story about her dream? The conversation could go like this:

“Your dream is interesting. Dreams are strange things, aren’t they?  Who can understand them?  Your husband is in heaven with Christ, assured of his victory over death through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is your assurance that your beloved is alive in Christ.  Don’t fixate on the dream.  Fixate instead on the objective word.  That is your assurance.”

Of course this is true. Indeed it is the word of God that informs the cultural and psychic context that makes that dream even possible for this woman.  The image of the church, oneness in Christ with her husband, and the joy of working in the church that has been the anchor of their lives were all prompted by the Word.  The dream is her subjective expression of what she knows objectively through the Word.

But could this conversation from a pastor rob her of her experience?

These subjective, mystical experiences happen more often than we pastors think, and here is the rub…

We pride ourselves in making everything nice and objective so that we can control it.

We are quite adept at handling the objective reality.  That’s our currency in traditional churches.  At the same time, however, our subjective experiences have no context in traditional churches. We concede this subjective sphere of our lives to late night dinners, demons, and two-bit pandering psychics because we are uncomfortable with the spiritual and mystical experiences that may arise from the subjective realm.

I shall never forget what happened during a retreat I conducted at a Southern California abbey for members of my church. I had just finished doing a Lectio Divina exercise with the retreatants.  Afterwards, I invited them to share what God conveyed to each of them in this spiritual exercise.  A young man commented on what he had experienced.  He said he saw the sun, bright and warm.  As he gazed on its brilliance, a dove emerged from the sun, descended and landed on him. The symbolism was obvious, informed by the John 1:4 text on which we had just meditated, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

It was a powerful experience for him and the other retreatants concurred.

However, later that evening, an avalanche of thoughts that discredited the experience hit the young man.  He got the impression that he was doing something illicit by entertaining such a vision.  It was as if he had betrayed his allegiance to the objective word of God.  His culture and tradition had failed him—not being broad enough to accommodate this type of spiritual experience. He felt vulnerable by stepping outside the box in the manner in which he did.

I consoled him by encouraging him to rethink his reaction. I helped him to understand that his experience was not a threat, but instead a place of inspiration. It was the place of art and creativity.  We would not have Bach’s cantatas without such a place of inspiration.  The visual art that inspires us and heightens our devotion to Christ comes from the heart, that very same place of subjectivity.

Why do we fear this kind of mystical experience?

Photo courtesy of atbowles.com

Photo courtesy of patbowles.com

We are adept at dealing with what we believe is the objectivity of our religion, namely Word and Sacraments; but we are less adept at dealing with the subjectivity of it, namely the spiritual center, which invites us to learn the language and the movements of the heart in addition to the head.

We fear the heart and don’t trust it; we believe that it is woefully corrupt according to Jeremiah.  Yet, the heart, the center of the subjective sphere, is where we, together with the Holy Spirit, wage battle against the concupiscence (proclivity to evil) that remains in the heart subsequent to Baptism. The daily dying to this proclivity through repentance initiates spiritual movements of the Spirit in the heart, which create beauty that informs worship and devotion to God.

We must be OK with dealing with the heart and its stirrings; we must be OK with the subjectivity of the heart, indeed the unique way that God communicates to us in peace, love and joy, the very contours of beauty.

When you engage in spiritual practices like contemplation that silent your inner self-dialogue and other people’s dialogues in your head, you make room for God to expand your experience of reality.  One of the benefits of contemplation is that you begin to pay attention to the life around you, which you are all too prone to ignore when you are only in your head.  By spending too much time in our heads and being beset by a multitude of thoughts, we miss out on life; we fail to see its deeper connections.

As your restless mental activity is gradually silenced through the practice of contemplation, you are empowered to see more.  The universe comes to life.  You can appreciate beauty in all its manifestations.

Synchronicity 

Synchronicity is the ability to meaningfully connect unrelated events, people and things. It breaks down barriers, it stirs things up—it wakes you out of your “dogmatic slumber.”

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) proffered the concept of synchronicity as a worldview to account for both the linear causality of the mechanistic world and the non-linear, non-causal world of meaning.  According to Jung, things can be causally connected; however, they can also be meaningfully connected.  Coupling Jung’s concepts with Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum psychics, synchronicity opens up the universe, making it come to life, making it a mysterious place that throws into doubt ironclad religious and scientific dogma.

Synchronicity gives you a glimpse into the world outside space and time, whose currency is meaning. It is in this resultant synchronicity that the causal world and non-causal world interlock and interpenetrate each other.

Synchronicity is best experienced and not talked about.  You know it when you see it.  Who hasn’t had the experience of thinking of someone and a moment later, that very person calls you on the phone.  Or, perhaps you had a dream that you forgot about in the morning that you remembered at the right time later on in the day.  At just the right moment, the dream gave you enlightenment about a situation that you were dealing with, yielding an “aha moment.” These experiences have a way of opening you up to other possibilities, breaking you out of the mechanistic linear world of cause and effect, from which vantage point we think that we might somehow control life.

Howard Thurman, the spiritual and theological mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, relates the story of his ardent desire to attend college as a boy.  In the early 20th century, his impoverished African-American family could not afford such a luxury, as indeed most Americans couldn’t in those days.  To cover their shame of being poor, his family tried to steer him in another direction.  But he could not be deterred.  He decided to apply to Morehouse College upon graduation from high school. When he boarded that bus from his home in Florida bound for Atlanta, he had no idea how he would pay for a college education.

When he arrived on campus, surprisingly Thurman discovered that his tuition, room, board and all fees were paid in full.  His poor circumstances, his desire to attend college and the provision of the money were not accidently connected; they synchronistically became deeply and meaningfully related in Thurman’s mind and heart.

Meaning can be a powerful nexus among people, things and events. There need not be an explanation in terms of cause and effect…

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Another Member’s Experience

I have a member of my congregation who lost her father when she was 5 years old, a vulnerable age.  She told me about an experience she recently had while watching a TV program about a woman who also had lost her father as a small child.  The woman spoke of the impact of not being raised with a father, how it skewed her perspective on men.  Strongly identifying with the woman’s story, my member was touched deeply; she couldn’t take her eyes off the TV.

All of a sudden, the TV turned off.  Even though it was a still and warm spring evening, a small gale of wind blew through her opened sliding door, and she felt it on her face.  Attached to her patio cover, there was a wind chime with a central clapper surrounded by five elongated chimes.  Rather than the usual way a wind chime rings, the capricious gale wind did not ring all five chimes randomly.  Instead, only one chime tone rang distinctively and repeatedly for several moments.

The cutting off of the TV, the small gale wind, and the repeated ringing of one chime tone were not causally related.  As she told the story to me, my member was able to give value and meaning to the experience by relating the circumstances to each other as a single orchestrated, synchronistic event.

She was able to recognize and appreciate the spiritual synchronicity present in her experience.

A disciplined practice in contemplation teaches you to appreciate both the causal world and the world of meaning by teaching you to live and rest in both by conditioning you to be fully open and available to both.  No dualism!

You learn to negotiate in the world of cause and effect and yet be open to the mystery of the world of meaning, which is foundational to beauty.

Your eyes get opened, and you see more connections in the schema where the spiritual world interpenetrates the material one.

In short, you achieve a spiritual synchronicity, and the vehicle that enables you to create meaning is the Holy Spirit.  You learn that what may seem like a set of random events instead becomes related meaningfully to you through the Holy Spirit.

On the first Pentecost after Easter, an outsider looking at the group of 120 disciples of Jesus in prayer would have felt the wind, seen the tongues of fire and the subsequent ecstasy, empowerment and boldness of that motley group of illiterate Galileans. However, without the Holy Spirit, the disinterested outsider would not have been able to meaningfully connect that random set of events as the profound transformation of Jesus’ disciples that would alter their tragedy-laden consciousness and empower them to change the course of human history.

The Holy Spirit meaningfully connects seemingly random events that are non-causally related, thereby luring us to be in conformity with Christ. Authentic spiritual experiences are made so by the Holy Spirit.

If a spiritual experience opens you up more to Christ and you become like him in a life informed by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then that experience was tailor-made for you.  Who am I to dogmatically argue away such an experience that is deeply meaningful to you?

One of the many fruits of contemplation is that you give up the desire to argue and fight, insisting that things must go your way.  You come to see that God has the whole universe with which to communicate to humanity.  And, in God’s time, God can be most convincing.

The Spirit gives you eyes to synchronistically see.  Be open and ready to receive.

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church