QUEST FOR THE DIVINE PATH

Quest for the Divine Path
By Joan Burgess Wells (this was the fourth meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help.  My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip.  He who watches over you will not slumber.  Psalm 121, sung by Canto Deo, is quite probably a Psalm of David; it is a dialogue of confession and assurance.  Walter Bruegemann in A Way Other Than Our Own views Psalm 121 as the song of a traveler.  Indeed, it may speak of a literal caravan on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or a dialogue within a single heart.  It is a divine path.   It stresses the importance of receiving our traveling mercies from the God who made heaven and earth.  Though the path may be treacherous, effectual aid comes from the Keeper.  Your foot will not slip, He will watch over your life, He will watch over your coming and going, now and forevermore.  This is the God of omnipotence.  The Psalmist is telling us that it is not possible to have confidence in God until we have an understanding of God as the all-powerful one.

Yet, as we read through the Psalms of David, we are inescapably captured by other language that David uses in his prayers to God.  The terms steadfast love, tender mercies, loving kindness, and gentleness occur over and over in the Psalms of David.  Love, mercy, kindness, and gentleness allow us to bear the truth of God as we walk the path of the Divine.  We are all reclamation projects and we find in David the King, someone who understood the transformational quality of gentleness.  While the tragic choices of David are recorded for all of history, yet he was called “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel” by Samuel the prophet.  His writings have provided for the people of God throughout the ages examples of deep, intimate communication with God, but he was a great warrior and military strategist. His accomplishments are without parallel.  He set up an effective central government out of a tribal nation and organized a worship system centered in Jerusalem.  His throne was established as perhaps the central institution of Old Testament prophecy, for one day the offspring of David would rule eternally as the King of Kings.  But let us hear the tender words of David, spoken to God toward the end of David’s life and recorded in II Samuel 22:16:  “Your gentleness has made me great”.   

Our Lenten path must be both the path of the God of Power, and the God of all Mercy.  It is not the world’s path.  It is a path “Other Than Our Own” and it is our faith that calls us to this path.  Matthew Arnold, a Victorian poet, wrote against the backdrop of a culture that was as troubled as our own.   Victorian England was a dark picture of contradictions with its sharply divided social classes, its curious, rigid morality, its workhouses, child labor, food contamination, and early deaths of children.       

The poet, mourning the loss of faith in his culture, writes these lines in his 1851 poem, Dover Beach:

The world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams,

so various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude,

nor peace, nor help for pain.

And we are here as on a darkling plain,

swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

where ignorant armies clash by night.

The darkling plain is the poet’s central statement on the human condition, but there is another path.  The Lenten season invites us, in the words of author, Walter Wangarin, from a path of mourning to a path of dancing.  He speaks of the Primal Relationship renewed. Everything is reversed.  When the Primal Relationship broke, so did all the others.  Death caused death, but now life reveals life.  The renewal began in Jesus. It was initiated long ago on the cross.  Always, always it is God who begins things and we who benefit.  In nature, then, the great God smiles.  In ourselves, the spirit breathes.  And in others, Jesus dwells and loves and comes to us.  He who outfaced death, humble and low, dying all of the dyings, he who triumphed over hell itself; He it is who holds me now, for He caught me when the branches broke, and He never let me go. In Him, then, we have peace.  “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither be afraid.  In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world. 

Now we begin again.  Our relationships may be knit with the love of God rather than the love of self.  Now comes the ability to forgive as we have been forgiven.  For now we are the image of Jesus unto others and the Word of God is the source of all our words.  Our relationships can now honor the earth with wisdom and care.  It is the Divine Path.

THE FOURTH LOVE

THE FOURTH LOVE
1 John 4: 7-12
Dr. Keith P. Wells . (this was the third meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)

In the first epistle of John, chapter 4 and verses 7 to 12 we read:

Dear Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear Friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

The word ‘love’ in the English language has a wide range of use.  We can love a good book or good movie.  We can love a good steak or a good wine.  We can love a sports team like the Broncos or the Rockies and love them especially if they win.  One can love a person or a painting or a poem.  Indeed, the list of objects to which we attach the word love in English seems virtually endless.

The New Testament authors, who wrote in Greek, also use the word love, but, unlike English, Greek employs four substantive words to communicate the emphases and nuances of love.  C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, gives a detailed exposition of these four words, and the extraordinary nature of the fourth love, agape love, which is how the Apostle John describes God in this text when he writes, “God is love”.

To assist us not only in understanding the uniqueness and extraordinary nature of God’s love, I would invite us to reflect briefly on the meaning of these four loves and, in particular, focus our attention on the fourth love, agape love. 

We begin with storge love.  The Greek word storge might be best translated familial affection.  Strong’s lexicon defines storge as, “cherishing one’s kindred, especially parents or children; the mutual love of parents and children and wives and husbands . . . “  Interestingly, it is only storge in its negative sense, astorgos that appears in the New Testament.  The Apostle Paul speaks of the unrighteous and disobedient generation as “without familial love, devoid of affection, hardhearted, and unfeeling”.  The Bible makes it clear that the family is God’s primary design for nurture, nourishment, security, safety, and love.  This is the expression of storge love. 

The second Greek word for love is eros.  Eros may be defined as romantic love or physical love.  Eros contains within it the concepts of drive, attraction, desire, passion, sensuality, and appetite.  Eros is found frequently in classical Greek literature but the word does not appear in the New Testament.  However, the Apostle Paul’s counsel on marriage in I Corinthians 7, clearly has eros in mind. Eros is part of the human constitution as created by God, particularly between husband and wife, and, therefore, it is good.  However, eros can be distorted, misused, and exploited.  Drunkenness, gluttony, hedonism, and addiction are all examples of distorted eros.  In the words of the Gyorgy Orban motet, “The flesh is tempted by sensuality; Gluttony clings to our senses, it overgrows, it encroaches, it stretches.  However appealing the flesh is, it is still worth less than the heart of Jesus.”  God calls us to the discipline, moderation, and restraint of eros so that we can celebrate God’s good gift of eros to us in constructive and healthy ways.

The third Greek word for love is philos.  Perhaps the best translation of philos is devoted friendship.  Philos is used of a trusted confidant, a dear and personal friend, a soul mate.  Think of the phrase, ‘band of brothers’ or ‘band of sisters’ to describe a group bonded together by philos love. 

Philadelphia, or brotherly love, for which the city was named, occurs several times in the epistles of Paul, Peter, and James.  All encourage Christian believers to live in harmony with a brotherly and sisterly affection.  Philos is characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and a kinship of shared experience.

Each of these three Greek words, storge, eros, and philos has its appropriate expression in the Christian life.  But what sets Christianity apart is the fourth love, a love which has its source in the nature, character, and acts of God.  The fourth love is agape love.  This is the highest form of love.    

Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional.  Agape love is also volitional.  It is a choice to love in this way, the choice of the highest good for God and God’s creation.  Agape extends beyond emotions or feelings or sentiments.  Agape love is active love regardless of the outcomes or consequences to the one who loves in this way. 

Theologian Anders Nygren, in his book Agape and Eros, states, “Agape love is unmotivated in the sense that it is not contingent on any value or worth in the object of love.  It is spontaneous and heedless, for it does not determine beforehand whether love will be effective or appropriate in any particular case.”

If you peruse the choral texts which the Canto Deo chamber choir sings in this service, you will notice the preponderance of references to agape love.  Jesus gave a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.  Agape.  Ubi caritas et amor. Deus ibi est.  Where charity and love are, God is there.  Agape.  No human has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.  Agape.  Where there is hatred, let me bring your love.  Agape.  To love with all my soul.  Agape.  By the love of Christ we have been brought together.  Agape.

But perhaps nowhere is agape love so clearly described as in the text of John 3:16 which concludes this service.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Agape.

May God grant us the grace to live a live characterized by agape love, the love that God has for us and for the world.  Amen.        

QUEST FOR THE DIVINE PRESENCE

QUEST FOR THE DIVINE PRESENCE: A LENTEN MEDITATION
By Joan Burgess Wells (this was the second meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)

In the Lenten season we are reminded that our mission on earth is to offer to others God’s gifts of wholeness, healing, and the abundant life. We are called to walk the way of Christ and to reflect the willingness to empty ourselves in order to be filled with His riches.

The Peace Prayer, sung by Canto Deo tonight, is generally attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It has inspired the hearts of people across the years through its deep well of spiritual wisdom. It works transformation in our inner being by communicating the heart of the gospel.

As I read the Prayer of Peace, I find it thought provoking to contemplate the internal landscape of one who could craft such a prayer, one who could offer, verse by verse, the call to set aside the self for the good of others, to speak truth, to forgive, to encourage, and to console.

Historians tell us that St Francis was born into wealth, but he withdrew from the world and from the madness of the 12th century Crusades, dedicating himself to poverty and seeking the presence of God. Perhaps we might begin to capture the heart and soul of St. Francis if we were to, one by one, reflect deeply on each segment of the prayer as part of our Lenten experience. Which of our daily conversations, thought processes, and behaviors might we be compelled to examine within ourselves?

The remarkable surrender of St Francis is authentic rather than obligatory. This depth of surrender brings to mind the imagery of John of the Cross. “He walks on a path with only the light that burns inside his heart”.

The renewal, the inner re-configuring, and the self-emptying that are inherent within the Peace Prayer are difficult endeavors. There may be several reasons for this internal struggle. First, as humans we may have a deeply wounded or fragmented sense of self. Our tendency might be to armor, protect, and serve ourselves. Ironically, that which would bring inner healing may be threatening, or appear to diminish rather than strengthen the self.

The formation of the “self becoming” has been described by some developmental psychologists as a process that occurs in concert with the development of faith. Its foundation is a basic trust that is born from receiving adequate love in our earliest stages of life. We might envision a triangle with the point at the top, with trust and love at the foundation and the sense of oneself as available for what one writer calls “loving self-donation” at the pinnacle. The surrounding areas within the triangle include the sense of being in relationship in a real and meaningful world and both the capacity to be alone and the capacity to tolerate dependency. The development of the self, and of faith, includes the formation of internal representations of God that are based on the quality of our early care and early life experiences. A basis of love and trust allow the developing individual to image God as strong and gentle, rather than strong and punitive.

A second challenge for us in progressing on the path defined by St Francis is the distraction of the world, including that of affluence. Richard Foster laments that “God aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to Him. He grieves that we have forgotten Him. He weeps over the obsessions we have with muchness and manyness. William Wordsworth expresses this same lament as he writes, “The world is too much with us. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. We have given our hearts away”. God longs for our presence and he seeks us. Second Chronicles 16:9 provides a piercing statement about God’s faithful seeking of those who will align their heart with His: For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth in order to show himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is true to him. He is the waiting Father who longs to be present with us on our earthly journey.

John Bunyan, 17th century author of Pilgrim’s Progress allegorically portrays the spiritual journey of the main character, Christian, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Bearing a heavy sack, which was his burden of sin, Christian encountered numerous distractions, including the Slough of Despond, the Town of Carnal Knowledge, and of course, the place called Vanity Fair.
Ultimately, through the guidance of Evangelist, Christian ascended to the place where the cross stood. The burden fell from his back, rolled into the sepulcher, and was seen no more. Christian was then “glad and lightsome” and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by His death.”

Lent is a Season of Longing and Peace. Just as God longs for our presence, we long for the restoration, renewal, and peace that are found in our quest for His presence. The core of our being longs for the quiet depths where God waits for us with eternal longing.

THE CRUCIFORMED LIFE

THE CRUCIFORMED LIFE 
Matthew 16: 21-26
Dr. Keith P. Wells (this was the first meditation for the Lenten Service of Motets and Meditations March 16 and 18, 2018)

In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 16 and verses 21-26 we find these words:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or, what can you give in exchange for your soul?”

In these powerful words from the lips of our Lord Jesus we learn what it means to be a true disciple of our Lord and live the ‘cruciformed’ life, the life shaped and molded by the cross. As our Lord sets his face to Jerusalem, knowing what fate awaits him there, he declares his mission is to suffer, to be killed, and to be raised to life. Peter strenuously objects and goes so far as to rebuke our Lord! “Get behind me, Satan!”, thunders Jesus. As the words of the Gyorgy Orban anthem proclaim, “The Demon sneaks expertly tempting the honorable heart: . . . However amiably the Demon acts, it is still worth less than the heart of Jesus.”

From this poignant exchange where the apostle Peter, under the influence of the Evil One, would divert Jesus from his mission, we learn of what true discipleship consists. Jesus turns to the rest of the disciples and portrays the essence of the cruciformed life with these key actions: (1) Deny yourself; (2) Take up your cross; (3) Follow him. Let us reflect briefly on each of these dimensions of the cruciformed life.

First, what does it mean to “deny yourself”? Put simply, it means to refuse to put one’s self-interest and personal ambition ahead of God’s redemptive purposes and revealed will. To deny oneself is to submit humbly my will to God’s will as Jesus did when he prayed in the garden and as he taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. To deny oneself is to seek first the character and qualities of Christlikeness regardless of the cost to ourselves.

Second, what does it mean to “take up your cross”? In the first century, crucifixion was one of the most feared forms of execution. It was used by the Romans as a strong deterrent against insurrection and rebellion. To the first century Jew, the cross was a horrid symbol of pain, shame, and death so it must have been a shocking statement to the disciples when Jesus uses the cross and the crucifixion as an image of discipleship. Although the image is often understood by modern society as bearing up under some personal hardship or difficulty, as used here by Jesus it is a radical call to die to one’s own will and embrace God’s will without any hesitation or reservation.

Third, we are to “Follow Him”. Following Jesus is synonymous with discipleship, and a disciple is a learner. It is a developmental pattern of life where we are more and more transformed and conformed to the image of Christ. Following Jesus is a journey toward Christian maturity where we are reconciled and restored in relationship to God, to ourselves, to our families, to our church, to our communities, and to the world. As we follow Jesus and learn of Him, we start to look more and more like him; and we look less like the world. In the words of the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, “We become like that at which we perpetually gaze.”

Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. This is the call to the cruciformed life and Jesus tells us the result: we will find life, abundant life, the life for which he went to the cross and was gloriously resurrected. And we will gain our soul, in this world, and for all eternity.

The cruciformed life is wonderfully illustrated in the prayer of Saint Patrick which the Canto Deo chamber choir will later sing. I would call your attention to the words in the bulletin which I would invite you to recite with me now:
This is the cruciformed life. May God grant us grace to live it every day.