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04 March 2012

Reminiscere: Longing for Wholeness

One day something happened in Psychiatry Morning Rounds. Morning Rounds is where the staff of the Psychiatric Emergency Room gathers around the table to discuss all the patients, and especially those who have come in during the previous night. On this morning, one of the residents introduced the case of a new patient, rattling off the findings of his evaluation including all the laboratory results.

Until this point, I had been yawning and holding on to my coffee cup, desperately trying to shake off my sleep. Then the resident continued and said, “This woman has this bizarre delusion of a bleeding savior.” Now I was wide awake. I looked around to see whether anybody had caught the words, “a bizarre delusion of a bleeding savior”. Indeed, there were some stirrings. One staff member said nervously, “Well, it’s something in the Bible, you know.”

Nobody seemed to hear her. When it looked as though the resident was going to remain unchallenged, I became a bit hot under my collar, and felt as though as the resident theologian I had to speak. I said, “Excuse me, but in the church we are in the season of Lent. That’s when Christians think of their bleeding savior. It’s one central image Christians use to make sense of their lives. Some staff members looked grateful; the resident looked puzzled but said he appreciated the input.

Rounds went on, and soon the incident became just one of many during a long day. I, however, couldn’t get rid of the idea that the image of the bleeding savior had been called a bizarre delusion.

Well, and here we are … a bunch of Christians, attempting to make sense of our lives with the help of a bleeding savior. Of course, we know better than that inexperienced psychiatric resident, since we do this every year during Lent. We believe the image of a bleeding savior to be important, … and yet, come to think of it, perhaps that resident got it right when he said the image is “bizarre”. Perhaps we Christians would do well to look at the familiar image of a bleeding savior with the eyes of an inexperienced psychiatric resident. All too often the terror and horror experienced by those who heard the words of Scripture when they were first spoken has gotten lost for us; we are used to the words; they don’t hurt any more. 

Well, and hurt they should, especially these days. You and I live in a deeply broken world. We used to be a nation with an official illusion of wholeness. Until September 11, 2001 we thought of ourselves as whole  somehow, even though our city streets were littered by the bodies of the homeless and a fifth of our children went to bed hungry. Armed to our teeth we thought that we had it together, even though our real enemies were within: poverty, racism, injustice and oppression.

The illusion has died, and fear is all around. A couple of years ago, Newsday had a two page photo spread entitled, “Postcards from the Edge”, displaying our usual vacation pictures populated with jet fighters, attack helicopters and soldiers wearing automatic rifles and gas masks. A bizarre world, a deeply broken world indeed. Now that the illusion of wholeness is gone, how do we find wholeness? When the Israelites went onto their desert journey, in a way Moses walked them out of an illusion of wholeness. Egypt had been everything but wholeness, yet they had arranged themselves with it for a long time. Now walking into nowhere, they had trouble seeing where they were going; they were afraid. They growled and complained against Moses and his God; they wanted back what they had had. A German children song says the Israelites longed for their garlic and onions that they left behind in Egypt. Even though they had been enslaved by the Egyptians, they preferred the safety of slavery to the terrors of the journey.

They set out from Mount Hor along the Red Sea Road, a detour around the land of Edom. The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. They spoke out against God and Moses: "Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country? No decent food; no water—we can't stomach this stuff any longer." (Numbers 21:4-5)

Not wanting to leave what we know because the journey is too scary is nostalgia. Well, when the Israelites started having second thoughts, this is what happened: “God sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died.” And God commanded Moses to make a copper or bronze image of a serpent. People who looked upon this image of terror didn’t die, but lived. The theme of the serpent on the pole is picked up in this morning’s Gospel Lesson.

As you can imagine, commentators of Scripture have struggled with the bizarre image. One of the better explanations I have read comes from old rabbinic tradition. According to that tradition, God implanted into every human being a mysterious force named yetzer ha-ra (יצר הרע‎). This force is sometimes translated as “evil urge” but more precisely means a drive that combines features of ambition, greed and sexual desire.

There is a legend in the Talmud that tells the story of how the Jewish sages,  shortly after the Babylonian Captivity, were determined to put an end to this formidable threat. Encouraged by their recent success at eradicating the "urge" to worship idols, these sages now felt (understandably) that they were "on a roll." So they decided to seize the opportunity to capture and destroy the "yetzer ha-ra" beast itself. And, so goes the legend, they were successful. They caught the beast and bound it in chains, eagerly awaiting the moment when they would remove it from the world for all time. But soon strange reports started arriving: Nobody was showing up at work anymore. No one wanted to marry or raise families. The chickens were not laying eggs! The world was out of order.

The story ends as the sages are forced to let the yetzer ha-ra go free, so life can continue in an orderly fashion. They come to realize that they have misunderstood the nature of this “evil urge”. They learn that the urge for power, riches and sexuality is not “evil” in an absolute sense, but only when it is allowed to trespass beyond its legitimate sphere of influence. This sounds almost like modern theological ethics. Sexuality is a wonderful gift when invested in a loving relationship, but can be perverted into a force for hatred and abuse. And ambition can be an admirable quality when it is channeled towards spiritual creativity and service of humanity, but is a fiery scourge when it is twisted into covetousness and greed. Perhaps the serpent in the Garden of Eden is about this failure to set limits to the "yetzer ha-ra". This made the serpent a suitable instrument of divine punishment--but also of healing.

When the Israelites looked upon the serpent image, perhaps they were reminded of their holiness, i.e. their wholeness in the eyes of God. God, as a loving parent, wants nothing more than the happiness of his creatures. The serpent on the pole reminded the Israelites of this basic truth, that holiness will be achieved through living your humanity with responsibility, not by denying it or seeking to transcend it.

The conclusion from all this is that our role as human beings is not to eliminate the "serpent," the yetzer ha-ra, but to keep it under control and direct it to a productive course. Jews believe that this is best done by following the values and way of life set down in the Torah. Christians try to achieve it through their faith in Jesus.

Disillusioned, deprived of our national illusions of wholeness, what do we do to find wholeness? We are called to rely on bizarre images. On the image of a serpent that is every bit as frightening as the bites it is capable of. On the image of a bleeding savior carrying his cross, an image that early on made Christians the laughing stock of Rome. Scripture suggests that we find wholeness when we embrace our brokenness and let it be; we find it when we become responsible human beings; we find it once we know that our humanity is sufficient to God. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question about being born again. He says being born from the Spirit means the acknowledgment of a basic truth: that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world for its sin, but so those who believe might have life in him. This is, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

In terms of wholeness, we could say that wholeness is in the eye of the beholder. Jesus calls Nicodemus und us to see ourselves the way God does: as whole and complete beings who need not worry how to get it right with God. Ephesians says it like this: By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works …

Because wholeness is there if we know where to look for it, for all its horrors, the world is not ultimately a horror show. As Jesus told his disciples throughout his ministry, the world has the kingdom buried in it like a treasure buried in a field, like leaven working in dough, like a seed germinating in the earth, like whatever it was in the heart of the Prodigal Son that finally brought him home.

The question is, How can we get closer to that buried kingdom, how can we unbury it, how can we one day become it? How can we do this in a world as bizarre as ours? So often we are fragmented, in pieces, disjointed and all over the place; we see the world in pieces, full of doom and gloom one moment, and full of light the next.

I believe that we can see another way of being human in this world in Jesus and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, in ourselves as well. I believe we will be able to glimpse the kingdom as we learn to love the way God loves: with compassion, forgiveness, pardon and mercy, in giving away what is most dear to us, in not hanging on to what’s wrong, but on to what’s working.

The other day one of Malcolm X daughter’s came to visit the hospital; when the time came for asking questions, one man with a very angry face asked the daughter of Malcolm X, “Why aren’t you more angry, given everything you’ve been through?” And his question really was rhetorical one, as he seemed to be accusing her of not being angry enough. She answered, “I don’t know about you, Sir, but my parents taught me to let go of the things that get you down, and hold on to the things that lift you up.” This is how God loves, this is how we are to love: holding on to things that lift us up.

When the Book of Genesis says that we are made in the image of God, and when Saint Paul says the deepest undercurrent of all creation is moving toward what he calls mature humanhood, it seems clear what Scripture suggests: that all human beings carry inside a vision of wholeness. When the twin towers were blown to fragments before our eyes, who didn’t long for the absence of fragmentation. When those fragments flew through the morning air, who didn’t long for an end to all destruction! Wholeness is our true home, and it beckons to us.

Wholeness is our true home, and the bizarre image of a bleeding savior shows the way home. What wondrous love indeed!

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on. Amen.

Mark 8: 31-38

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