Monday, November 19, 2007

In All of His Splendor (I Kings 4-10)

We have arrived to the high point of Israel’s story. Through the kingdom of David the Lord has finally brought Israel to the fulfillment of all of his great promises:
Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life...And he had peace on all sides around him. And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon.
I simply cannot overstate the magnificence of these passages. Never since the creation of the world have the scriptures spoken of such glory poured out on man. This is no less than a glimpse of the restoration of all things. Indeed, what began in the garden is now blossoming into fullness.

Consider the wisdom of the son of David:
And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt...He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
Man was given dominion over the creatures of Earth, and the king here is the paragon of this mastery. As the animals came before Adam to hear its name, so the nations come before Israel to receive wisdom.

The great Temple itself is built to be a picture of Eden. Woven all through the architecture are motifs of lilies, gourds, palm trees, open flowers, and pomegranates. Oxen and lions – beasts both tame and wild – feature throughout. And at the center of it all are the cherubim. The heavenly beings once guarding the garden from man’s touch now feature as the centerpiece in the heart of Jerusalem.

There is no symbol for the Lord himself – no idol. The Lord, dwelling in clouds of thick darkness, has not shown them his form. But now the cloud that terrified the people on Sinai and travelled with them with intolerable fury in the wilderness comes and fills the Temple with glory. Solomon gasps in wonder and prays:
I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever...But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea...and listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.

Likewise, when a foreigner…comes from a far country for your name's sake… and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.
The unimaginable is happening – God himself, who walked with Adam in the cool of the day, is again dwelling on Earth with his people. Everything is rich, full, and bursting at the seams. The people sacrifice and feast for seven days, as indeed they should: it is like new creation.

The Lord’s presence is filling them with glory and drawing the nations to Israel for blessing to spill out. Solomon grants the Queen of Sheba a grand audience. When she is given all the wisdom she seeks, and when she sees the splendid worship at the house of the Lord, we are told that “there was no more breath in her.”
Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.
In Abraham all the nations are blessed. For one sublime moment, we see a vision of the Earth full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, like the waters covering the sea. If God can take an impotent old man, a barren woman, a sniveling mass of pathetic slaves, and a shepherd boy, and mold them into this golden city to enlighten the nations, how will he not also, along with them, restore and renew all things?

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Into Great Silence

Silence, and what is heard therein, has been a powerful theme for me recently. Last week, my wife and I watched Philip Groning’s sublime film Into Great Silence which draws the viewer into the daily lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. Then this weekend I participated in a 24-hour silent retreat with some men in my church.

The film itself was wonderful, and I can hardly do it justice here. This is a synopsis I found at Rotten Tomatoes that I think accurately describes the experience:
Into Great Silence fits neatly into the sub-category of films that need to be experienced rather than just watched. Over 162 minutes director Philip Groening films a group of monks who dwell in the Carthusian monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. The monks have taken a vow of silence, and live life at such a gentile pace that it took them 13 years to respond to Groening's request to make a film about them. The subjects of Groening's film fill their days with slow and highly repetitive routines, so the director shoots at a suitably slow pace, highlighting simple tasks such as praying, gardening, cooking, and doing laundry. Groening lived with the monks for four months and worked under strict conditions dictated to him by the order; no voiceover, music, or interviews were to be included in the film, and Groening was to be the sole crew member on the shoot. There are a couple of moments when Groening breaks with his modus operandi. He interviews an elderly blind monk, the Gregorian Chants practiced by the order occasionally feature, and the monks stage a snowball fight on one of their weekly breaks from the monastery. But the film is mostly comprised of a long, lonely trip into silence, and will doubtless leave its audience members in a contemplative and restful state of mind once the journey comes to a peaceful end.
My wife was particularly affected by it, saying “I haven't watched anything less assaulting to my senses in a long time.” The silence and focus of the film brought such awareness to everything around us. Later that night I heard my pants drop to the floor as I crawled into bed, and the sound was deafening. Then out of nowhere came a strange conviction about the haphazard way that I treat the clothes that I wear.

As I entered into the retreat at a farm an hour away from the suburban neighborhood I live in, this conviction stayed with me. I found myself keenly aware that I needed to treat the things I brought along with me – warm clothes, pen and ink, a journal, my Bible – with respect, reverence, and love. I’m a fairly messy person, and have never thought it anything more than temperament, but in the silence I felt called to love the gifts God has placed in my hands.

There’s this thing about silence – it isn’t. There are a thousand sounds I don’t normally hear for my own voice. There is the tumultuous chaos of my own mind that will not stop. Silence is a discipline, and I am certainly a novice.

There were moments that amazed me, walking around the farmland: looking out onto a beautiful field surrounded by trees alight with the fireworks of fall; stooping to examine a fallen leaf and its intricacies; knowing through my own study of biology a piece of how deep the wonder goes in just one cell of that leaf; gasping at the knowledge that this little leaf is one of the billions rustling all around me.

It makes me grateful for the many years of art lessons I took. Drawing is, after all, necessarily an act of appreciation of the other. You have to look at something – a leaf perhaps – and study it for hours, as you painstakingly sketch each detail, each crevice, each highlight and shadow. I never thought of it quite like that, but art is very naturally a spiritual discipline – a school of love.

Eating communal meals together was fascinating. It’s a sacramental thing I suppose – how love embodied in care for material things spills over into love for people. Each taste and sip was done with care, and attention. You couldn’t ask verbally for someone to pass the salt, but what inevitably happened was a heightened sense of the needs of those around you. Afterward we all talked of the constant acts of courtesy and consideration throughout our time together – things of which we would have quickly said “oh no, don’t worry about it” had we only permission to speak. Instead, we had to allow ourselves to receive grace.

The meditation this weekend was Jesus’ healing of the man born blind with dust and spittle. He came to judge the world – to make the blind see and to blind those who think they can see. Or perhaps to mute those who would speak, and in so doing give them ears to hear. I went wanting to hear from God, and not really knowing what that would mean. And I returned not having a word from him, but instead a conviction to continue listening.

And so I was resolved. I returned home determined to bring this newfound intentionality into my own daily life. That evening I was especially determined to help my wife have some space with the kids. But then I was hit with nausea and a splitting headache, and all these intentions went out the window. Today at work was simply more of the same routine. The hectic pace of life drowns out listening, and to a large extent love.

This wonder mixed with helplessness reminded me of this poem by Galway Kinnell that captures it all – silence, wonder, and the frustration of our inability to love as we should in the harsh realities of life.
To Christ Our Lord

The legs of the elk punctured the snow’s crust and wolves floated lightfooted on the land hunting Christmas elk living and frozen; inside snow melted in a basin, and a woman basted a bird spread over coals by its wings and head.

Snow had sealed the windows; candles lit the Christmas meal. The Christmas grace chilled the cooked bird, being long-winded and the room cold. During the words a boy thought, is it fitting to eat this creature killed on the wing?

He had killed it himself, climbing out alone on snowshoes in the Christmas dawn, the fallen snow swirling and the snowfall gone, heard its throat scream as the gunshot scattered, watched it drop, and fished from the snow the dead.

He had not wanted to shoot. The sound of wings beating into the hushed air had stirred his love, and his fingers froze in his gloves, and he wondered, famishing, could he fire? Then he fired.

Now the grace praised his wicked act. At its end the bird on the plate stared at his stricken appetite. There had been nothing to do but surrender, to kill and to eat; he ate as he had killed, with wonder.

At night on snowshoes on the drifting field he wondered again, for whom had love stirred? The stars glittered on the snow and nothing answered. Then the Swan spread her wings, cross of the cold north, the pattern and mirror of the acts of earth.
His grace is sufficient for us.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Son of David (I Kings 1-3)

We begin the book of Kings with the shift of power from King David to Bathsheba’s son Solomon. This is a precarious time for any kingdom, where the time is ripe for a new ruler to gain the throne. Civil war is a distinct possibility; the people hold their breath.

Thankfully, the body count turns out to be quite low. Adonijah, one of David’s sons, declares himself king, with the support of Joab the general and Abiathar the priest. But David isn’t dead. Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba the queen plead with him to publicly make Solomon his heir. David agrees. For his presumptuous ambition, Adonijah eventually pays with his life.

In yet another morally troublesome passage, David advises Solomon to kill Joab and Shimei – the former for murdering Abner, and the latter for cursing him. Joab’s case is troubling because David never did anything to him himself (presumably for political reasons) and because he had been loyal to David since then. The latter is troubling because David had seemingly forgiven him when he apologized. Joab is fair game now that he backed the wrong guy, but I prefer justice independent from politics. Shimei is executed for a subsequent crime rather than the one David forgave him for, but I prefer forgiveness to be full and genuine. I suppose they didn’t ask my opinion.

At any rate, Solomon does what he must to secure his kingdom, tying up some of his father’s loose ends in the process. After making a marriage alliance with Egypt, Solomon has a dream where the Lord promises to give him anything he asks. Solomon responds:
O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?
The Lord is pleased, and promises Solomon wisdom, with riches and honor thrown in for good measure. I can’t help but be intrigued by this request to “discern good and evil.” Was that not the tree forbidden to Adam and Eve? Why is the forbidden fruit now so freely and gladly given? Perhaps the Lord’s response holds a clue:
Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. … And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Obeying the Lord gives safe grounds for the pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil.

We are then treated to a case of Solomon using his wisdom to do justice for his people. It is the famous incident where two prostitutes claim to be the mother of a single child. The king orders the child sliced in two, and a half given to each. The true mother then screams for the baby to be given to her rival, and thus the king knows her for who she is. The people are amazed:
And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.
Solomon is doing well.

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